Study Hacks Blog

On Blogs in the Social Media Age

December 7th, 2018 · 54 comments

Twitter Defector

Earlier this week, Glenn Reynolds, known online as Instapundit, published an op-ed in USA Today about why he recently quit Twitter. He didn’t hold back, writing:

“[I]f you set out to design a platform that would poison America’s discourse and its politics, you’d be hard pressed to come up with something more destructive than Twitter.”

What really caught my attention, however, is when Reynolds begins discussing the advantages of the blogosphere as compared to walled garden social media platforms.

He notes that blogs represent a loosely coupled system, where the friction of posting and linking slows down the discourse enough to preserve context and prevent the runaway reactions that are possible in tightly coupled systems like Twitter, where a tweet can be retweeted, then retweeted again and again, forming an exponential explosion of pure reactive id.

As a longtime blogger myself, Reynolds’s op-ed got me thinking about other differences between social media and the blogosphere…

Attention Markets

One of these differences that has consistently caught my attention is the way in which social media reconstructed the market for online attention.

Blogs implement a capitalist attention market. If you want attention for your blog you have to earn it through a combination of quality, in the sense that you’re producing something valuable for your readers, and trust, in the sense that you’ve produced enough good stuff over time to establish a good reputation with the fellow bloggers whose links will help grow your audience.

Succeeding in this market, like succeeding with a business venture, can be ruthlessly difficult. There’s lots of competition for the attention you’re trying to attract, and even skilled writers often find that something about their voice, or the timing of their topic, fails to catch on.

Social media, by contrast, implements a collectivist attention market, where the benefits of receiving attention are redistributed more uniformly to all users.

A key dynamic driving the popularity of platforms like Facebook and Instagram, for example, is the following notion: if you like me, I’ll like you. As I noted in Deep Work, if you took the contents of the standard Facebook or Instagram feed and published it on a blog, it wouldn’t attract any readers, or comments, or links. But put this content on a Facebook wall and there’s an implicit social contract in place to motivate the people you know to click a like button, or leave a nice comment in the anticipation that you’ll do the same.

Twitter is a little more complicated. A key dynamic on this platform is deconstructing “content” into small chunks that exist largely independently of the type of slowly accreting, decentralized trust hierarchies that throttle information flow in the blogosphere.

These tweets are easy to write and publish, and they can be acknowledged just as easily with a quick tap of a retweet or heart icon. By drastically lowering the bar for what “content creation” requires, and allowing content to spread in a homogenous, fluid interaction graph, many more people can experience the positive feeling of having someone pay attention to something they said.

Quality vs. Satisfaction

It’s not self-evident that one type of online media is better than the other. One advantage of a collectivist market, for example, is that it feels nice to receive attention, so spreading this experience to more people seems like a worthwhile endeavor.

Collectivist markets also potentially bring more voices into the online conversation, as the obstacles to finding an audience in the blogosphere are severe enough that some people who otherwise have something interesting to say might not bother trying to say it.

Capitalist attention markets, on the other hand, offer one decidedly important advantage: better content. To state the obvious, there are plenty of bad blogs. But in the blogosphere it’s easy to filter these from the more serious contributors that, through the traits of quality and trust cited above, distinguish themselves as worthwhile.

As any serious blog consumer can attest, a carefully curated blog feed, covering niches that matter to your life, can provide substantially more value than the collectivist ping-ponging of likes and memes that make up so much of social media interaction.

In other words, Glenn Reynolds was on to something when he stepped away from Twitter and began to reminisce about what once made blogging seem so exciting.

#####

As longtime readers know, I’m a big fan of Mouse Books, which prints classic books in a smartphone-sized format — allowing you to pull a deeper source of distraction out of your pocket during moments of boredom. (I actually feature Mouse Books in Digital Minimalism.)

Anyway, they just launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund their “second season” (series of books).   Definitely check it out…

54 thoughts on “On Blogs in the Social Media Age

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about this of late, especially since it’s the time of year to get nostalgic about blogging BSM (Before Social Media) and blogging ASM (After Social Media). I felt like blogging BSM — especially when trackbacks were a Thing — was much more influenced by conversations amongst bloggers versus conversations with readers. Many of my colleagues and friends now were those other bloggers, and I would be waiting for a comment or reply from them because I was writing to them. But now, we tend to write for readers and followers and their “engagement”, which often seems to be more about praise and status markers than robust conversations.

    To be clear, I’m as much a participant in the new game of blogging as anyone. It’s been inspiring and humbling to see how you’ve opted out of a lot of it.

  2. Akinjopo Samuel says:

    I completely agree with you Cal. Social media has been addictively programmed to use you and hitherto render you less creative. There are so much distraction on just a page on facebook unlike you find in blogsphere. Personally, blogsphere is in fact an art of ‘journalling’ which truly allows you to sincerely connect with your ideals and values and maintain focus.

  3. Islam El-Rougy says:

    ” To state the obvious, there are plenty of bad blogs. But in the blogosphere it’s easy to filter these from the more serious contributors that, through the traits of quality and trust cited above, distinguish themselves as worthwhile.”

    This can also be done in social media but with one caveat, it’s not that easy. I , for example, did that by unfollowing every person and unliking every page. I know only manually check the content of people and pages that I know provide valuable content.

    1. Islam El-Rougy says:

      I *now* only …
      Sorry for that typo.

      1. I tried that very same thing last year and blogged about here: https://jasonjournals.com/2017/10/07/the-end-of-newsfeed-distraction/

        I may do it again.

        1. Islam El-Rougy says:

          I have done that about two and half years ago and never looked back. This strategy strikes the balance between keeping my facebook account, which I really need because our instructors use a facebook group instead of Piazza, and avoiding its distractions.

          1. Jemma says:

            News Feed Obliterator is a godsend. Most/all of my social and volunteering groups primarily use Facebook to organise events, so I have an account on there. I turn on notifications for any groups I see as relevant so I’m informed when they have an event. But it’s great to not have a News Feed. Even though it’s easy to uninstall the extension, I’ve never been the least bit tempted to do so, nor do I often feel the urge to look up a specific friend and see their new posts. There is just no strong desire to see FB content, yet I’d estimate I viewed 100x-300x more FB posts total when I used to have a newsfeed and scroll it a couple of times a day, than I voluntarily seek out now. What a waste of time that was.

  4. Mr RIP says:

    Interesting perspective, I think I came to similar conclusions but you worded it in a clear way.

    I agree on the quality side of capitalist vs collectivist metaphor, but not on the quantity. The collectivist social media model brings much more quantity (which contrasts with the fact that the quantity flag should be hanging on capitalist house), that it’s essentially noise now. To be able to make your voice be heard you need some skills, “quality” in a different sense.

    The social media looks like a continuous riot, a continuous revolution, the after-France-revolutions years. The time of terror before the regime comes. Or, well, Orwell’s 1984 (no pun intended), an extremization of the collectivist system.

  5. gaurav mehta says:

    I am a long time fan of Cal and his work and have read most of his work. I have a concern that of late Cal somehow takes a more problem centric/us vs them approach with social media and twitter and less solution centric. I hope Cal offers some solutions this time in his new book Digital Minimalism. I hope unlike deep work, DM is more solution centric. I also have a concern that this post may not be published as only positive comments seem to get published. Again Cal’s insights are deep and I appreciate his intellectual prowess but we want more solutions or tips than dissecting problem after problem in this distracting digital world.

    1. Nitin says:

      I disagree, Gaurav. Cal’s analysis and insights on the ravages of social media are invaluable. The more insight you gain into how they are so effective at keeping us hooked, the better off you are at handling their ever pervading influence. You don’t need any more tips or hand holding.

      I for one have definitely benefited from Cal’s innumerable takes on this topic. Thanks to Cal, I now know that every time I’m watching a YouTube video that I deliberately searched for, and as I watch my video, when YouTube lines up a bunch of other recommended videos on the side with autoplay turned on, that I’m being hijacked into a rabbit hole of rabid and mindless video binge. I then refuse to walk into that pit 🙂 The same goes for other social media.

      1. Gaurav says:

        We definitely need solutions. It is beyond our control now and this is just the start, we have not even seen much of AI. I wish it was as simple as controlling our urges on YouTube push videos which you may have control over but majority of us don’t. Thousands of tech guys are working to divert our attention, as it stands now I accept it is getting out of control, at least for most of us..will power is not the answer but specific strategies may be the what we are looking up to Cal to help us with.

      2. Nichola says:

        Yes and this is something I went through as well and literary I downloaded an app block to block and Hide the youtube app in my phone and now whenever I need to listen to a song or so which I rarely do while outside (because I do not bring my Headphones along with me) I will switch to google podcasts and play some soothing piano track instead of attention sucking EDM videos which will at the end leave me mentally wasted.
        And it’s recently that I read “Deep Work” which truly impacted my to do ‘RYTHMIC DEEP WORK’ as in the book.
        And I’m proud to say I’m a Medical Student as well as a Blogger.
        Find my blog at https://nickded.com
        You may find it interesting

    2. EA says:

      How can you say that Deep Work isn’t solution centric????

    3. Lluviata says:

      What an interesting comment!

      I agree with you that Cal’s approach appears to be problem-focused, but I think it’s because the solution he suggests most (not solely, but most often for most people) is to just abandon any social media that isn’t providing sufficient value in a person’s life. I could understand not liking that solution, and preferring instead that he suggest solutions to interact differently with social media so that it does provide more value to you.

      If I were in the position of needing to use social media, I’d start by considering what my goals are for using it, how using it influences my life and attention, and which of my interactions with it are significantly helping me in pursuing my goals. Maybe with those three considerations, you could continue to use social media for your aims while minimizing the addictive quality of it.

  6. Anna says:

    Excellent, Cal, and one of the reasons I follow your blog.
    OT but hey: thanks for using “on to something” correctly (instead of the incorrect but all-too-often-seen “onto something.”

  7. dp says:

    “As any serious blog consumer can attest, a carefully curated blog feed, covering niches that matter to your life, can provide substantially more value than the collectivist ping-ponging of likes and memes that make up so much of social media interaction.”

    Agreed. And the best way to aggregate those quality feeds is with an RSS reader. It’s unfortunate that so many quality blogs don’t provide that option anymore.

  8. Jason Fertig says:

    Hi Cal, I agree with your distinction between blogs and tweets, but I offer a term correction. I wouldn’t use collectivist vs. capitalist. What you are describing is the classic low-cost (Twitter) vs. differentiation (Blogs) strategy model.

  9. Duncan Smith says:

    Facebook and Twitter aren’t really in the same category as blogs. For non-celebrities, Facebook is for people you have some connection to in real life. On Twitter, people interact more with strangers, but “microblogging” is very different from blogging, especially with the way Twitter has evolved into an outrage machine.

    I would compare old-style blogging to something like Medium. Medium delivers eyeballs to your writing, since people are already browsing the site. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to build an audience. In the non-writing world, consider YouTube. It takes a lot of effort to create a popular channel, even with the platform serving up viewers. It’s highly capitalist, in the sense that the top channels get most of the views and new subscriptions (the rich get richer).

  10. Biut Thapa says:

    The Capitalist v/s Collectivist anecdote does make sense.

  11. tim Schroeder says:

    Cal, at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, i wish that you included links for posting your wisdom to Facebook. It would be terrific to be able to see if we could convert unbelievers to your system of thought.
    Personally, i have had a FB account for many years, but have never used it for anything (even long before i ever heard of Cal Newport) except posting articles, since it is such a waste of time.
    Thanks for your insights,
    tim

  12. Michael says:

    Dear Cal, I’ve enjoyed almost everything I’ve read in your blog and books — and yet despite the sound message of this piece it seems to me like an uncharacteristicically sloppy and either ignorant or misinformed usage of the words “capitalist” and “collectivist”.

    Maybe we can come up with more accurate terms which don’t imply such questionable political/ideological motivations…

  13. Another great article Cal. Thank you for your work and insight. I love blogging and write about it sometimes. I also use social media off and on I guess. I’d like an old-school blogging renaissance to happen. It will be interesting to see what changes for big social media in the future. Keep up the good, deep, work!

  14. Just read Glenn Reynolds’ op-ed on USA Today (thx for the link). I like his ending. Instead of Tweeting, he is reading kindle books. Fiction novels, no less. I love it! Besides blogging/writing, I love reading books, especially on my kindle. But I confess: I share some good quotes I read on Twitter. My experience of Twitter has been nice, but I’m a small-time user. A nobody! It has not been the dumpster fire I’ve heard so much about. Your mileage may vary?

    1. Jemma says:

      Kindles/ereaders are one piece of technology that’s great! I live between two countries and languages, and I can borrow ebooks from the library in the other country and save hundreds of dollars on books and shipping while also maintaining my foreign language skills. I’ve deleted the browser from my phone and only have the Kindle app (in case I forget my ereader device, though I do have a Paperwhite I take almost everywhere) and podcasts as “recreational” apps.

  15. Duncan says:

    This is so good. This solves a problem I’ve had with free speech and ultimately means that free speech isn’t the problem, it’s the platform!

    I’m curious where people think youtube lies with this thinking?

  16. McGehee says:

    To state the obvious, there are plenty of bad blogs.

    True, but we provide the contrast that makes the good blogs look better.

  17. Andrew says:

    The ironic thing about Facebook is that Facebook technically provides a blog-like writing medium: Facebook Notes. But who uses it? Hardly anyone. Also, it’s buried somewhat and not readily accessible.

    I think Facebook Notes is unpopular because people are uncomfortable with the conflicting interaction schemes at play between the standard Facebook use and the blog-style Facebook use. Result? Collectivist use prevails, and blogs remain in a blog-designed territory (the blog, as they should).

  18. Annie says:

    Blogging used to be more interesting until the shorter version came in. I never took a liking to it somehow. I still like to read carefully written blog posts. I choose to read/watch exactly what I want. Auto suggestion of feed is a sin.

  19. Aron Garðarsson says:

    “As longtime readers know, I’m a big fan of Mouse Books, which prints classic books in a smartphone-sized format — allowing you to pull a deeper source of distraction out of your pocket during moments of boredom.”

    Shouldn’t we rather embrace the boredom, as you’ve always stated Cal? Or did the ad revenue trump the teachings?

    1. Islam El-Rougy says:

      Ad revenue from a startup that uses crowdfunding?
      They are offering book summaries, and reading is a perfect activity to teach you how to embrace boredom.

  20. Ben says:

    The photo of the typewriter is an influential, yet unexplored, feature of this post. I anticipated some news of “Typecast” blogs or some cross-over influence from the “Typewriter Revolution”. Nonetheless, am glad to see a typewriter here.

  21. Deepti says:

    Doesn’t this depend heavily on reader behavior? If the majority of readers choose blogs to follow based on articles popping up in their social feeds, then refusing to repost there would make it hard to get traction.

    Does this argument depend on readers googling the right keywords to find your blog? Or already following other blogs?

    I think the heavy adoption of social media as a channel for finding articles would affect everybody, whether they have a great blog or not.

    Isn’t this the same effect that brought traditional news media to its knees? How would a puny blog fare any better by ignoring it?

  22. TheKuboKing says:

    I used to have a social media account long ago. Recently I started my own blog. The reason is because I want to practice writing and articulating my thoughts and ideas in a more meaningful way. Social medias like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are not really the medium for that.

  23. Daniel says:

    It seems like my previous comment was either not approved or there was some error in submission, so I’ll keep this short:

    The use of “capitalist” and “collectivist” here doesn’t work. If anything, social media are fundamentally capitalist attention markets: the very reason there is such an intense competition for your attention is because your attention is monetized. Blogs emerged organically, without profit motives. They were just people making and sharing, irrespective of the market, though they eventually connected to it.

    We need to excise our attention from the market entirely, not just to do “deep work” and be a productive member of the economy, but to engage in “deep living.”

  24. Temeika says:

    This is interesting. I am in the process of learning about Newport and his ideology along with reading, ” Deep Work” (audio) and “How to Become a Straight A Student.” I deactivated my Facebook sometime ago because I felt like the conversation lacked depth. No one wanted to have dialogue unless they were on the wall. When I posted something silly, I received likes from heaven. However, my crafted post about issues in society seemed to go unnoticed. For this reason, I felt as if the conversation was futile and a waste of time. Needless to say, after reading Newport, I deleted the account along with others. The only site I embrace is Reddit. I enjoy the ability to read and engage in intriguing conversation. Even Franklin incorporated a bit of diversion into his schedule.

    1. I agree with you on posting real conversations on Facebook. I abandoned Facebook because it seemed like when I would post something important and wanted to get a dialogue started, those are the posts that had no action and got no response. But if I posted a cutesy picture, that would get noticed immediately and “liked.” It seems to me that most social media is what is dumbing down the world so that most people who use social media, no longer really know how to be “social” anymore and be a productive part of society.

  25. As a long term blogger I agree with you in many ways. But since the rise of social media the challenge for many bloggers has been discovery. It’s harder to get noticed now and SEO issues seem to work against bloggers who tackle a range of related issues thoughtfully rather than just blogging hard at a set of keywords. Part of what made blog discovery easier in the past was actually a collectivist aspect, since bloggers shared the work of other bloggers more freely, via blogrolls, generous linking-strategies, and RSS. That said, I hope more writers who have been posting threads, long instagram posts, and so on come back to blogging. And, I hope we can create ecosystems that make discovery of great blog writing easier.

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