Open skies

I appreciated a little post by Mark Boulton the other day in which he noted that there is somewhat less blogging these days than there used to be. He writes:

Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen more and more great industry-focussed magazines that publish online and off, but the flip side to this is I’m noticing more people writing for these magazines and less so on their own blogs.

As Mark observes in his post, Shorter Long Form, these magazines provide very useful public forums for the publication and discussion of considered, well written, professionally produced articles. But by doing so they facilitate a creeping standardisation of the substance and tone of online content. Writers are less likely to invest time in their own blogs, attracted by the ready made audience offered by the established magazines, and concerned that no-one will find their material if posted on their own site.

It's a parallel process to the ongoing thinning out of our high streets: ever fewer retailers are able to survive as all manner of goods are consolidated within the one-stop warehouses offered by a few global brands.

While I appreciate the professionalism and convenience of online magazines, something valuable is lost with the gravitation of quality content to a few outlets. A personal blog offers a certain freedom from the homogenising characteristics of the public square, where the tone and content of each individual voice has to be shaped to meet with the crowd's expectations. There's still room for personality, but the tendency is to iron out rough edges and difference, so as to ensure a message's marketability.

I like the frankly anarchic possibilities afforded by a personal blog. Here, there's freedom to write about anything, anytime. Layout, typeface and imagery is entirely up to you. Posts can be long or short, serious or throw-away, and open to comments or not. You're free to share half thoughts, which can be developed in subsequent posts. There's no need to worry whether many people are reading. I think of my own blog as a kind of online journal that flits from subject to subject, capturing whatever I'm thinking about at the time. My traffic analytics reveal some interest in some of the subjects I write about, but, as I expected when I started blogging again early last year, virtually none in some of the more esoteric subjects I've briefly considered. But I always have the sense that the skies are open, so to speak.

Mark Boulton's post reminded me of a fine article written last month by Anil Dash, The web we lost, which discusses the many ways the emergence of the large social networking sites have changed the character of the web. Social networks have made it much easier for non-technical people to establish an online presence, but the identities afforded are flat and generic, hedged by the parameters of a Facebook profile or a 140 character input field. As he says:

In the early days of the social web, there was a broad expectation that regular people might own their own identities by having their own websites, instead of being dependent on a few big sites to host their online identity. In this vision, you would own your own domain name and have complete control over its contents, rather than having a handle tacked on to the end of a huge company's site. This was a sensible reaction to the realization that big sites rise and fall in popularity, but that regular people need an identity that persists longer than those sites do.

The practice of blogging is hardly dying. I visit many excellent blogs every week, both within and without the web design community. But, increasingly, good posts appear only on magazines, and discussions take place only on Twitter and Facebook. Like the supermarket chains the big players of the online world know how to make things easy for us, at the cost of a certain flattening of our world, and hollowing out of our identities.