A small piece of that is dying next week, when Gawker.com (of which I was the founding editor) goes dark and the network of sites it belongs to becomes part of Univision. It’s a bittersweet moment; I’m sad to see it go, but the news also reminds me of the early promise of blogging and what we all hoped and feared would happen back then. We hoped blogs would democratize media and allow people to make real connections via the Web. We feared that power would accrue to a handful of sites or writers; that this small group of people would talk among themselves and exclude others; that eventually, inevitably, what we considered an art (sort of) would be degraded by commerce.
Yes, basically all the bad things came true. There were celebrity bloggers — people who cared about and/or accrued fame. There was an echo-chamber effect, in which like-minded people repeated the same viewpoints over and over and linked to the same sources; this became the basis for early aggregation posts by traditional media properties. Crass fiscal considerations entered the picture when it became clear that you could make real money online.
But that’s not all that happened. The spirit of engagement that drove those early blogging days — the expectation that readers could, and should, be able to talk to writers online and at least have some hope of an answer — stuck around, too, and informed early social-media networks. There are still celebrities on the Web, but they’re famous for turning their expertise and enthusiasm into brands and publications that readers embrace, such as Design*Sponge’s Grace Bonney. (And, okay, some of them are just famous for being famous, like their Hollywood counterparts.)
Those early days of blogging, in other words, gave us everything we hate about the Web today. But they also gave us everything we love about it.
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Sixteen years ago, most blogs consisted of text on a Web page, and only that. If you were inclined to post a photo of a cute kitten vomiting a rainbow while sitting on a sprinkled donut, you needed to know how to code HTML a bit. So you had to write in order to express yourself, and you could interact with other people doing the same thing online.
This was a revelation for me. I signed up for Blogger.com, a software service founded by Evan Williams and Meg Hourihan in 1999, and began writing about everything from personal interests — foreign policy, technology, genetics, a particular Gypsy punk cabaret band — to what I ate for lunch. (I have no shame about embodying cliche.) But the real appeal was that I could meet like-minded people.
If you wanted to have a conversation with another blogger, you linked to the post you wanted to respond to on your own blog and responded there. If they wanted to reply, they would link back and respond on their blog. This went on and on, sometimes to the point where it was hard to follow the thread of conversations sprawled across multiple sites. And you had to have a blog to take part.
The obvious solution was to add comments. Williams described them in March 2001 as a potential feature for a new version of Blogger. Once comments became de rigueur, it was possible to participate in the blogosphere without, strictly speaking, being a blogger. And then, slowly, blogging went mainstream. Or mainstream-ish, in the sense that no one had to explain what a Weblog was every time the word was spoken or written.
That process of mainstreaming might have started even before comments, with a New Yorker story by Rebecca Mead, titled “You’ve Got Blog,” about a budding Internet romance between two popular bloggers: Hourihan, who blogged at Megnut.com, and Jason Kottke, a Web designer blogging at Kottke.org. The article was published in November 2000, and the blogosphere, to use an Internet-ism, lost its damn mind.
There were bloggers being covered in an actual print publication, and now they were famous. Or close enough. There was some glee, some envy and, predictably, some backlash.
In a 2002 book called “We’ve Got Blog: How Weblogs Are Changing Our Culture,” a series of essays on the phenomenon, a blogger named Joe Clark offered a skeptical deconstructionof Mead’s story. He expressed concerns voiced by many others about specific trends, including the dominance of “A-list bloggers” such as Kottke and Megnut and the constant, incestuous interlinking. He voiced frustration that the starts seemed to be arbitrarily successful: “It bugged me that the A-list kids were not really any smarter, or any better at Web design, or had anything particularly better to say than so many of the plebes. . . . Elizabeth Taylor was at least beautiful and could act, when not knocking back the sauce and buying diamonds by the barrel.”
Which was all true, more or less.
Money, meanwhile, would come into the blogosphere almost by accident. In 2002, when Nick Denton and I launched Gawker, Denton placed a banner for the New York-based real estate firm Corcoran at the top of the site. At the time, there were no ads on blogs, no ad networks to service blogs and, as far as I know, no brands asking to advertise. Corcoran hadn’t asked, either; the ad was just there to signal that the space was available. But it worked. Soon, the first paying inquiry for that spot came in, and Gawker was officially in business.
A decade and a half later, the developments that were most dreaded in the early days have resulted in more and better ways for individuals to interact and express themselves online. Now that video and images are easy to create and publish, you don’t even have to be a halfway decent writer to become an Internet celebrity. YouTube has spawned actual professional musicians — such as Justin Bieber — who are as well-known as their predecessors. There are mini-Martha Stewarts such as Brit Morin and my friend Jolie Kerr, who has become the Internet’s expert on cleaning and organizing for people who loathe both. There’s an entire genre of fiction, “alt-lit,” that has cropped up around Web personalities who eventually turned into published authors such as Tao Lin and Noah Cicero.
Incestuous interlinking, or aggregation, evolved and expanded. Email newsletters are back, now that media consumption takes place on mobile, and many of them are dedicated to rounding up links and adding a bit of commentary. (We rebranded it “curation.”)
And there’s still an expectation that readers can engage directly with authors. Much of that conversation takes place on social media now. You don’t have to start a blog to express your unvarnished opinions in writing and publish them on the Internet without any technical knowledge. That bloggy back and forth is today such a core piece of our cultural fabric that it may have spawned the first presidential nominee whose messaging is primarily driven by microblogging (via Twitter) to a mass audience. It’s hard to suggest that this is an example of discourse democratization, given that the candidate in question is a wealthy real estate developer who employs a team of media professionals, but it seems plausible that the next social-media-driven candidacy might be the opposite.
So even if early blogging is mostly gone, its best and worst elements are still with us.
And what about the early bloggers? Well, Meg and Jason got married, spent some time in France and had two kids. They live in Vermont. Joe Clark is doing the same thing he’s been doing for years: working as a Web accessibility consultant, writing and being cranky.
Gawker generated tens of millions of dollars in revenue and employed hundreds of people before being bankrupted this year by a Silicon Valley billionaire via a lawsuit brought by professional wrestler Hulk Hogan. I don’t think anyone would have seen that one coming in 2002.
And Ev Williams, Hourihan’s partner, went on to found Twitter, which is often described as microblogging. He’s currently the founder and chief executive of Medium, the publishing platform. It allows individuals and institutions to self-publish. But, he insists, it’s not a blog.