Indie Microblogging by Manton Reece

Pulled away from blogs

“You were the captain of a ship, sailing aimlessly through the wilds of the Web. Occasionally you would drop anchor and stop to peruse all the great content that netizens were putting out into the world.” — The Web Is Fucked

If you wanted to publish anything on the web in the early 2000s, you created a blog. Blogs had personality. People commented on each others blog, helping build loose communities. They met in person at events like the SXSW Interactive conference.

Slowly, the rise of larger platforms pulled attention away from blogs. More and more former bloggers posted their content on social networks first.

Anil Dash was interviewed by Matt Mullenweg on the Distributed podcast, talking about blogging less often because there were other venues to post to like Twitter:

the biggest thing chipping away at it is having other venues and other platforms

When I talked to Tantek Çelik for the interview in Part 3, he acknowledged this period as Twitter was taking off where even he stopped blogging:

Just even personally, the last blog post I wrote on my old blog was in August of 2008. I did not have anything on my own site in 2009. 2009 was a really weird transitional period, because I both saw that happening and I saw it happening to myself.

By 2010, you could see this pattern across the web. Many of the pioneers of blogging had either completely stopped posting, or cut back their posts to longer essays a few times a year.

What happened? Social networks were simply easier to post to, and the feeling of engagement in getting likes or replies was more compelling than publishing into the void of the blogosphere, wondering if anyone was listening.

At the same time, blog comments were getting harder to manage. There was more comment spam. Bloggers started pointing their readers to social networks if they wanted to reply to a post, effectively offloading user registration and moderation to other centralized platforms.

It wasn’t a stretch to embrace social networks because bloggers were already actively using some centralized platforms, like Flickr. If a blog was already leaning on Flickr for photo storage, it was a small step to go to other platforms for short text posts.

Before Twitter was large enough and stable enough to dominate centralized microblogging, several competing social networks were launched with a focus on microblogging.

Twitter now has over 300 million monthly active users. Centralized platforms have become a winner-take-all game because you can’t move your followers. Leaving Twitter or Facebook means starting over.

Earlier it wasn’t clear Twitter would dominate. In 2007, Twitter was still small enough that you and all your friends could try a new service without feeling like you were leaving everything behind. Twitter was often flaky, with the “fail whale” as a reminder that maybe a better, more stable network existed elsewhere.

There was Pownce with private posts and more sharing options. Ello and as reactions to Twitter’s developer-hostile API. LiveJournal, MySpace, Jaiku, and Diaspora.

Every one of these competitors had their own unique take on microblogging. How long should a post be? Should the friends model by asymmetrical, so anyone can follow anyone, or require approval of friend requests?

In 2009, Facebook overtook MySpace in unique visitors in the US. No other social network would reach the same scale until Instagram.

Google Reader had become the most popular platform for subscribing to RSS feeds. It was free and easy to use, but aspects of its centralized nature such as comments and favorites were stuck in a silo, difficult to migrate away from.

Paid services that are as popular as Google Reader aren’t usually discontinued as Google Reader was, but Google Reader wasn’t a paid service. It’s because Google Reader was free and ad-supported — but just a small part of Google’s business — that they were able to drop it.

When Google Reader shut down, there was no migration plan to other RSS readers. Marco Arment, early Tumblr developer and creator of the podcast app Overcast, blogged in 2013 that developers needed to move quickly to fill the void left by Google, standardizing on a Reader-compatible API that could work with most apps without major API changes:

We need to start simple. We don’t have much time. And if we don’t do it this way, the likely alternative is that a few major clients will make their own custom sync solutions that won’t work with any other company’s clients, which won’t bring them nearly as much value as it will remove from their users.

A common API didn’t happen. Instead, we do have a few popular feed reader platforms like Feedbin and Feedly that tried to fill the void. Apps like NetNewsWire and Reeder have been updated to support multiple APIs.

This modern feed sync ecosystem might be healthier than one dominated by a single player, but it created friction and doubt in what people should move to. It was easier to just use Twitter and convince yourself you weren’t missing anything from RSS feeds.

Blogs survived in the background because they were still a better fit for people who wanted to own their content, carving out a little space for themselves on the web. The death of Google Reader was a reminder to indie-minded bloggers that ad-based platforms had advertisers as customers, not users.

Next: Leaving Twitter →