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The Blog in 2011: More Pictures, More Words

Clive Thompson’s latest column for Wired picks up on something I’ve noticed:

“I save the little stuff for Twitter and blog only when I have something big to say,” as blogger Anil Dash put it. It turns out readers prefer this: One survey found that the most popular blog posts today are the longest ones, 1,600 words on average.

Setting aside the question of how many of those 1,600 words are actually read, one thing for sure is these are not your slightly older brother’s warblog blogs.

Brief history of blogs:

Not Blogs
pre-2002: Geek notes, diaries, frequently updated zines. Things that looked like blogs but went by other names

Linkblogs
1999 – (2011?): Perhaps even earlier than 1999. Linkblogs were either quick links or a blockquote and a link. Nothing labor intensive about sharing cool stuff but some people have better taste than others. Are they dying? Maybe? Twitter seems to have taken over for directions on how get lost online

Warblogs
2001 – 2004: You know how everyone has something to say about Wikileaks? Imagine that times twenty and that was the post-9/11 blogosphere. Here’s all you need to know about this frenzied media landscape.

Post-Diaries
2003-2005: Pre-Facebook, although concurrent with Friendster and Myspace. Years before we had any kind of meaningful public vs private discussion as the sense was, with so much out there on the web, who is going to pay any attention to me? The post-diarists used their blogspot pages as nascent social networks, a way to reach multiple close friends. You probably knew all your best friends’ IP addresses because Sitemeter never clocked more than ten visits a day.

Movable C.V.s
2004 – 2008: Blogs went niche. If you called your blog “Vegan Buddhist Goddess Blog” then CNN and NPR would call for comment if they were doing a story on vegan cooking. You’d be invited to speak on panels, maybe get a book deal. In any case, a blog was a way to establish yourself as a leader in your field.

Mainstream Media Blogs
2007 – current: Apart from the New York Times and The Atlantic, many of these blogs are unremarkable. And readership reflects this. Whenever I go to a newspaper website I’m always surprised at how many in-house blogs exist, but few seem to attract more than a hundred or so RSS subscribers.

First Draft Essays
2008 – current: Now blogging is the habit of those who love the sound of their own fingers banging away on a keyboard.

(Update 1/1/11: I didn’t mean for this to be a definitive list, btw. In any case this is not to ignore that the longest trend in blogging is the kind of shoe leather reporting that is harder to come by in mainstream press. )

Early in the second half of this decade of blogs, Twitter and Tumblr arrived to shake things up.

Twitter launched prior to the iPhone. Many of us set our preferences to receive tweets as text message in 2006. How unpleasant would that be today? I follow over 300 people and if they were all sending me text messages with bit.ly links to see Julian Assange dressed in a santa costume, I’d want to throw my phone against the wall. Today most mobile phones are smart, and web browsing is taken for granted. The shift in content on twitter — from epigrams to links — reflects the change in our gadgetry.

Remember the early criticism of Twiter: “No one cares what you had for breakfast!” Who is tweeting about breakfast anymore? They are linking to an Instagram photo of breakfast or an article explaining how few people eat breakfast and why this is so horrible for the world.

I’m still not a huge fan of links on Twitter. Most of the time I’m checking it on my phone when I don’t have time to read something more than 140 characters. So I favorite-star the tweet and go back to read it later. But then when I go to check that “awesome must read link” it turns out to be…oh, right, Julian Assange in a santa costume. Thanks! But that’s just me. The rest of the web likes using Twitter as a mass-aggregated link stream or it wouldn’t be operating that way.

Meanwhile, Tumblr made blogging beautiful. It makes it so easy to upload or clip and save whatever you come across in your web travels. For the most part, I use it as a visual bookmarking tool. Most Tumblrs are mood boards, a selection of things that resonate in someway to the blogger.

The visual nature of Tumblr is influencing the trend in image-heavy blog posts. But more than that, 2010 is the year the iPad launched.

In March of this year I wrote, “I created The Tomorrow Museum almost exactly two years ago. The name was a pun on the then emerging buzzword: ‘curation.’ I wanted to play with the idea of the blog/internet as physical space and display art as if on the walls of a gallery….. Never would I have guessed that two years later the interplay of text and image would still stand out as unique. Six months down the line — the Internet landscape post-iPad — I expect this won’t be the case.”

I really regret the way I phrased this then as certainly blogging images and text isn’t exactly a eureka moment of mine — This Recording and BLDGBLOG were doing it a few years before me. Nevertheless the post-iPad blogging trend is toward these Tumblr/text blog hybrids. A long text post without an accompanying image now looks stark and unwelcoming.

Images offer punctuation-like interruptions in the text, but they also elongate the body. A post looks far more substantial the more scrolling you have to do. This is really a protip for bloggers: throw in two images and 400 words becomes an “article.”

Going back to the study Clive Thompson cites, images or not, longread blogging is happening. Or are these bloggers — uh, not this again — journalists? As Rex Sorgatz points out, “New Gawker is Old Spin.” That’s the other blog hybrid happening.

That Bruce Sterling Wikileaks piece — is it a blog post? An essay? Would this count toward the average word count in that study?

Whatever it is, Sterling’s take did what a so many long blog posts didn’t: it offered something new to the conversation. Not a sentence was wasted. Right or wrong when you have something to say it sparks a interesting conversation (Here’s a good response, and another.)

The moment Sterling’s article went up, I was bored to tears with weeks worth of so many links offering “balanced” “thoughtful” takes on Wikileaks. These takes were so thoroughly thoughtful and balanced their authors said absolutely nothing at all.

The word you are going to see over and over in 2011 is redundancy. We all hate it and we all fall for it — reblogs, retweets, things you’ve seen a million times before. It’s more than filter failure, it’s having your time wasted.

A number of bloggers might take care to be concise with words and value the time of your readers. The second worst thing you can do on the internet is waste someone’s time.

This reminds me of what Hannah Arendt wrote of Walter Benjamin, that he was a “critic and essayist who regarded even the essay form as too vulgarly extensive and would have preferred the aphorism if he had not been paid by the line.”

Bloggers aren’t getting paid (ha!) by the line and readers aren’t getting paid to read in full. Kerbing one’s hypergraphia is advised.

Some 1,600 word blog posts are better off pared down to epigrammatic tweets.

Joanne McNeil blogs about technology and culture at The Tomorrow Museum, where this post was originally published. She is also founder of Bookfuturists, an organization encouraging experiments in storytelling and publishing. Follow her on Twitter here.

Images: Tomorrow Museum logo; Jill Magid, I Can Burn Your Face.

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