The End of Blogging Utopia
Blogs are great, but is it just a vast honeycomb of echo-chambers, where we talk to and listen to only those nearby?
Author and funny guy David Weinberger comments on Ethan Zuckerman’s remarks (both interesting fellas, and well worth reading; David in particular an antidote to the relentless and humorless self-promotion of many A-list bloggers) about how blogging grows in the developing world, the bloggers there start to write for their local audience, muting the ‘Global Voices’ effect that was Ethan’s dream.
I’ve watched this happen in Indonesia in the last year, as blogging takes off and hits critical mass, in terms of writers, readers and commenters. Quickly the issues become more local, the discussion more localized, the topics less interesting to outsiders. This is probably being mirrored all over the world.
The truth is that Global Voices — where people write from different corners of the world, and are read all over it — is always going to be just a small minority. The distortion in the first five years of the Blogging Revolution was that this small minority was the blogosphere. These were the early adopters who helped introduce blogging to each culture by looking, and talking, outwards. As critical mass was reached, the later bloggers had no need, or interest, to ‘talk outwards’: instead they addressed a larger subset of the audience they knew and wanted to reach — the people around them.
It’s not that bloggers changed their audience as blogs went mainstream on their home turf. It’s that the bloggers who came later just saw the medium differently — as another tool to participate locally. And because they are in larger numbers than the early adopters, and because they wrote about stuff relevant to their peers, they became the new norm.
There are exceptions, of course. Some bloggers have an audience that spans borders because they write about issues that aren’t geographically constrained: Richard MacManus has built a thriving business writing about Silicon Valley from New Zealand; my old chum Ong writes as much about Malaysia as he does Indonesia (and if you think those two places sound like more or less the same topic you’d need to spend some time in one to know how far apart they are.) Even this blog has tried to address a perhaps overly large topic (technology and the individual) with limited success.
That’s because the general trend of blogging is towards the specific — writing about things that the writer cares enough about to write, and the readers enough of interest to stick around to help make the blog a success. But I don’t see this as a bad thing. The impetus in newspapers is the same — those newspapers that survive are going to be those who understand and reflect their readership, which means giving as much attention to their specific concerns — however banal — as to international events.
The point here is that we read blogs who write about things we care about. The truth is that we tend to lean towards the familiar, and attach ourselves to those who can best tell us what just happened to something or someone we know (Paris Hilton, our local football team) and point us to things we care about (the bus service, relationships, dogs.) This may often mean geographically localised, but actually it’s really about being culturally localised: We read stuff that speaks to us. If we’re interested in dogs, but more specifically the Dandie Dinmont Terrier, we’ll read anyone who writes about that breed, whether they’re down the street or in Vientiane. As in all things, we tend to blogs that write about what we care about.
I think this is not a bad thing. Blogs are compelling because they’re personal: They’re a window into people’s souls, because for some reason the lingua franca of blogs has become not pretension but authenticity. So we learn huge amounts about people and about ourselves from reading blogs (and blog comments, the afterglow of blogging). Of course it would be great if we included into our daily blog-reading diet stuff from places we’d not been, cultures and issues we’d not been familiar with before, but that’s a tall order. Only a few of us are wired that way.
We should thank Ethan and his Global Voices team for helping spread the word of blogs. But I suspect from here on the revolution is going to take on a life of its own. It may not be as heady and utopian as the early days, but it means the medium is putting down roots. Which means it’s here to stay.