In a provocative piece at The New Republic, Marc Tracy traces the rise and decline of the blog, a form that has essentially conquered the distribution of information online, but whose ubiquity has made individual personalities less important:
When he started a blog, it was on his own—other than a small handful of strange, Web-only creatures, in 2001, what magazine wanted a blog? By 2005, the answer to that question had changed, allowing Sullivan to ensconce his blog in larger institutions—Time, The Atlantic, and The Daily Beast, in chronological order. This was the golden age of the personal blog: The Internet had empowered a few strong writers to create their own brand (if you were idiosyncratic—say, if you were gay, English, Catholic, and heretically conservative—then all the better) and a few strong big brands to create their own small brands (Media Decoder was launched in 2009, and finds its roots in TV Decoder, a blog that was started when the Times poached writer Brian Stelter, who like Sullivan, Klein, et. al had built a following on the Internet as a personal brand). Meanwhile, readers interested in reading the best that had been thought and said on the Internet had no choice except to follow along—the best they could do was to use RSS to focus on the feeds they tended to find interesting.
But today, Google Reader is dying, Media Decoder is dead, and Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish is alive in new form. This year, Sullivan decided that he was a big enough brand, commanding enough attention and traffic, to strike out on his own. At the beginning of the last decade, the institutions didn’t need him. Today, he feels his best chance for survival is by becoming one of the institutions, complete with a staff and a variety of content. What wasn’t going to work was continuing to have, merely, a blog.
What Tracy really means, he clarifies, is that “What we are losing is the personal blog and the themed blog. Less and less do readers have the patience for a certain writer or even certain subject matter.” Obviously, it’s true that the first-mover advantage for blogging is gone, and that fewer people are coming on line as individual bloggers. When I started working at ThinkProgress two years ago, it was already evident that this was a way that fewer and fewer people were getting full-time writing jobs. And what was even clearer was that publications like The Atlantic and the Daily Beast that were hiring lots of individual bloggers were doing so as a way to populate channels. The key technology now is less the publishing platforms that let people write short posts and publish them in a continuous stream, and more the ability to cross-post, so a piece can live both on an author’s individual page, or in the feed on a relavent subject or for a relevant section.
Or as Michael S. Rosenwald, who wrote a blog for the Washington Post called Rosenwald, Md., put it: “We’ve been rethinking blogs here at the Post. Many of us bloggers are moving over to personality pages. In one place, you’ll be able to find all my stories for various sections of the paper (Page One, Metro, Outlook, Sunday Business) as well blog posts about life in Maryland and the rest of the region. Click here for the link to my personality page, which you can bookmark for easy access.”
And I think this is a situation that signals less the decline of blogs than their evolution. Readers can continue to follow the feeds of individual writers they prefer, or whole sections that they find interesting, depending on whether they’re interested in a particular perspective or a larger news feed. If blogging started out as a way to accomodate the way writers wanted to publish their work, it’s now come to serve a different end in giving readers flexibility in how they curate what they want to read, and publications the ability to accomodate them. That’s not death, precisely. It’s more like metamorphosis.