A Case for Collaborative Blogs
It has become obvious that the way we communicate with one another on the internet is broken.
Noah Smith makes the case that the internet wants to be fragmented, that Twitter as a grand social experiment has failed, the verdict being that we do not actually want a single town square for society now that we know the implications.
For those of us that grew up believing in the unifying power of the internet this may feel a bit worrysome. Some seem to read the rejection of a singular town square as a rejection of global community, a belief we are better off in our small clusters. Is renewed provincialism (the Fediverse, blogs, etc.) admission of defeat? Does this mean we cannot hope to form a meaningful global community, and if so what does that mean for the planet-scale challenges that await us?
But all is not lost, Twitter-style social media was not working, that does not mean there are not other ways to arrange things that will work better. Instead of hand-wringing about which billionaire's walled garden will replace Twitter, it is time to figure out what will help us move closer to the future we want.
The Fediverse has seen explosive growth these past couple of months, and while still young, there are promising signs it may remain much more resistant to a lot of the worst features of Twitter.
Additionally, people like Monique Judge at The Verge argue we should bring back personal blogging, taking more control of our ability to communicate with one another by owning our own platforms.
To me these proposals are promising because of something that was true about Twitter long before Elon Musk got his hands on it, Twitter was engineered to drive engagement. The more addictive Twitter is the more attention it can offer advertisers. That has been Twitter's only way to survive, don't blame the scorpion for what it is. (But maybe stop hanging out with the scorpion?)
Of course, on platforms not designed to increase engagement, how does our writing get seen? Thinking about this isn't (necessarily) egoistic obsession about clicks & page views, it is a question about how we actually build the online communities we desire.
“How do I find people that care about the things I care about?”
We'd like to learn from them and share our ideas too. To laugh and play with them, and not give up the awe-inspiring feeling of connection many of us had the first time we played a game or exchanged an email with a pen-pal on the other side of the country or planet.
Though it doesn't seem too likely that webrings are coming back in a big way any time soon, there are things in that spirit happening that feel fun again. Bring Back Blogging is a campaign to encourage people to post at least 3x a month to build the habit, with the encouragement/reward of being posted in a directory to get a wider audience. I'm convinced that initiatives like this will be essential to rebuilding what we gave away.
It Isn't Easy
One of the problems often raised with the idea of “owning your own platform” is that it can be somewhat exclusionary. To many it is synonymous with “host your own site” and that is not a thing most of the public feels prepared to do, no matter how easy tools like static site generators & Netlify might make it. While there's still a ton of value in lowering that barrier, other paths will be needed.
Even if you broaden the approach, and encourage people who prefer not to self-host to use platforms like Wordpress or Ghost that are open source and allow you to export your data at any time, going through the process of setting these up can seem daunting, especially to a first time author that perhaps finally feels that they have one good post to share.
So imagine our first time author, someone who feels so compelled to try to contribute to the public sphere. Against the odds they jump through whatever hurdles exist for them and put something out there.
“If you write it, they will come” is not how things work in this world. The author needs to learn how to promote their posts, perhaps trudging back to places like Twitter and Reddit and questioning everything in the process.
If we're interested in growing the information ecosystem, and moving forwards instead of backwards, there need to be easier paths to join. “Microblogging” helped with that not only because it provided a platform, but because it offered a fairly straightforward means of finding your people. It'll be important to find ways to preserve those benefits.
One thing that seems like it'd help with some of this is to start more collaborative blogs. Boing Boing is probably the most famous example from a pre-social media internet, a zine where different authors focused on areas of interest that was formative for many. Another common example is the team blog for a software project or organization where there's a natural topic of interest, though some include fun diversions that provide interesting insight into the personalities on the team. However they're structured, these multi-author blogs offer an interesting middle ground between microblogging and having your own site.
I believe they can help tackle several of these problems:
- Finding a suitable collaborative blog might be an easier lift for a new author with an idea.
- Where you may not feel you have enough content to maintain readers, it may feel less daunting if you are tackling it with a few friends or colleagues.
- Similar to the idea of the aforementioned “Bring Back Blogging” there is a benefit in having some peer pressure to help you keep up a new habit. Joining a collaborative blog can help to provide that.
I don't think there is a single formula for collaborative blogs:
- Perhaps you decide you'll be the primary author, but ask friends and colleagues that don't regularly write if they ever want to contribute in the areas of interest to you & your audience.
- Maybe you have a couple of friends or colleagues and decide to start a blog for your project or team where you all chime in with unique perspectives.
- Or it could be a specific interest that you'd like to write about, and encourage your audience to contribute content too.
And for content curation/moderation? It's up to you.
- You can make it clear that you are the sole arbiter of what goes on the blog, it should be understood there's no obligation to host anything that doesn't fit your vision. It is your blog, but you are happy to entertain interesting guest posts.
- You could decide that your goal is to highlight particular voices that aren't often heard, and accept individual posts from people unlikely to start their own blog & who may only feel that they have “one good post” in them. (Perhaps there's a bit of subterfuge here, as I think many will find that first experience enjoyable and either want to write more or decide it is time to start a blog of their own!)
- Or perhaps those of you that started it together would prefer a governance model of some kind. Perhaps all authors need to contribute to hosting costs if you aren't using a free provider.
Somewhat like writing open source software, if you found the project you should feel empowered to name yourself BDFL and do what you want.
I would encourage you to to consider three things though:
- Draft some kind of short statement of purpose to make it clear to readers and authors alike what makes the site a cohesive whole. It probably doesn't make sense to have three unrelated individuals posting their daily ruminations on one blog.
- Make it clear in writing that whoever owns the site, author's own their own posts. If they wish to remove a post or repost it on their own blog in the future, that is their right.
- Consider publishing all posts under a free culture license, as that'll bring some clarity to the situation and serve a similar role to the one an OSS license does for software.
I'm interested in experimenting with this idea which is why I decided to start this blog. I'm working on drafting a mission statement and inviting some coauthors. I want this place to explore ideas related to community & interconnectedness, and possibly a few other topics too. If you're reading this and interested I'd be happy to hear from you.
I also think there needs to be more experimentation with form. More room for amateurs and dabblers. I hope someone more creative than me will come up with more ideas for ways to encourage more people to read & write blogs, as I truly think the more we communicate with one another in meaningful ways, the better the world can be.