Open up an old blog and it was a list of posts in “reverse-chronological order” (meaning newest-at-top), written by a single author or a set of them, with a collection of topics connecting the whole enterprise together. Meanwhile, in the right rail, there was a list of other blogs read by this one. Things were generally chummy: A post might begin half of some other writer’s post, leading off with “As my friend Matt wrote…”
Very, very few people do that anymore. Now, tell someone you’re visiting a news website — which is what blogs were, categorically, less than a decade ago — and they’ll likely think of some institutional homepage with big rectangles, each with a headline, image, and dek.
Which isn’t to say that blogging is dead, exactly. In the tidy story that gets told about Web Writing, Blogging is Obi-Wan, and Venture Capital (or maybe Brands) are Darth Vader, and right before Vader takes a final swing at this scruffy, exhausted man wearing a bathrobe, Obi-Wan Who Is an Allegory for Blogging promises:
“You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”
And then he dies but he’s everywhere forever now so actually he won.
That was supposed to happen to blogging. For a couple years now, it was clear we were going to lose the reverse-chron, single-URL game. We had already lost it, really: Sullivan was marginal long before his farewell post. But in return, we got Twitter and Facebook and whatever your other favorite social-media tool is. They adopted the chatty tone of blogs, and they unified the hundreds of streams of content in reverse-chronological order into just one big one. They made blogging easier, because a writer didn’t have to attract and maintain a consistent audience in the same way anymore. And along with the chattiness and ease of blogging, they were supposed to bring its attendant emancipations to the masses, too. You needed no institution’s permission to hit the ‘Tweet’ button.
And here’s the thing: They totally did. Never mind the Arab Spring: It’s impossible to pretend, in 2015, in a culture that understands what #BlackLivesMatter means, that corporate-owned social media have not shaped social movements and as a consequence changed U.S. mass politics. Assumptions built into blogging, assumptions once worth marveling at, have become part of the firmament of the U.S. cultural sphere.
It’s a nice story: The startups of the mid-Aughts figured out how to take the best parts of blogging and bring them together in one place, while cutting the parts that had made them so hard. It’s a story, too, that Medium fits nicely within: In the early 2000s, its CEO Ev Williams’ first company, Blogger, let people start blogs without actually buying a URL and running a web server; in the late 2000s, his second company, Twitter, centralized publishing further and made it even easier.