With the retirement of blogging pioneer Andrew Sullivan from the field, many people are questioning whether blogging as we know it is finished. Vox founder Ezra Klein, himself a blogging legend, says there are still plenty of interesting bloggers out there, and he kindly includes me on his list:
“There’s Daring Fireball, Slate Star Codex, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Freddie DeBoer, Noahpinion, Marginal Revolution, Elizabeth Stoker Breunig, Paul Krugman, Digby’s Hullabaloo, Jared Bernstein, Brad DeLong, The Incidental Economist, and Kevin Drum, to name a few. There are plenty of great voices out there.”
I’m honored. But as one of Klein’s new generation, I thought I’d take a moment to offer my thoughts on the future of blogging — on what really is dying, and on what is on the rise.
In a nutshell, what is dying is the idea of the blog as a news source. In the old days, as a reader, you would have a favorite blogger, who would write many frequent posts throughout the day. That would be your main news source, your portal to current events. Often the post would have a slight bit of commentary or reaction. Basically, you got to hear the world narrated through the voice of someone you liked. For me, those narrators were University of California, Berkeley, economist Brad DeLong and Matt Yglesias, now at Vox. For many, it was Sullivan.
Twitter has basically killed that. With a Twitter feed you can integrate a bunch of different narrators into a single, flowing newsreel. It turns out that most of the micro-commentary that used to accompany a blog post can be squeezed into one or two tweets.
But the thing about micro-blogging is that, well, it’s micro. If you look at the blogs that Klein lists as the future (and there are many, many more), you will see that they all do posts that are about the length of a news article. That’s something Twitter complements, but can’t replicate.
But that doesn’t mean that blog posts are now just news articles freed from the tyranny of professional editors. With blogs, you can do something that news can’t easily do — you can carry on a conversation.
Reading modern blogs, you see that back-and-forth dialogues are now a huge part of what bloggers do. These conversations can have many installments. For example, I recently had a little debate with DeLong about whether the late 20th century was a good time for the American middle class. That debate went on to have several installments, and another blogger, Kenneth Thomas of the blog Angry Bear, jumped in.
Sometimes, discussions can turn into huge roundtables, such as in 2013, when economist Stephen Williamson (then of Washington University) published a theory claiming that quantitative easing causes deflation. That sparked an enormous and highly entertaining discussion among a number of economists, writers and bloggers. It would be basically impossible to have that kind of discussion in op-ed pages.
In the field of economics, in fact, these discussions provide some of the debate that used to happen through comments submitted to academic journals. Mathematicians have gone even further — discussions on math blogs such as Terence Tao’s often involve real, cutting-edge technical insights that have the potential to influence new research.
What this means is that more and more, bloggers will be specialists. In economics, which has taken to blogging more than most academic fields, those specialists can be economists, or they can be journalists with an intense interest in the subject — such as Yglesias, Matt O’Brien of the Washington Post, Jordan Weissmann of Slate or Izabella Kaminska of the Financial Times.
The trend toward longer blog posts and more specialization doesn’t mean that bloggers will talk only about their fields of expertise. I’ve written posts about clinical depression, about the racial politics of the movie “Django Unchained,” and about stereotypes of Japanese culture, and all of those posts generated a large amount of traffic. A more dramatic example is Scott Alexander, a psychiatrist who almost never writes about psychiatry. Just like with the old blogging, the new blogging relies heavily on the writer’s voice.
Of course, as others have noted, the lines between blogs and the mainstream media have been blurring for some time. Major news sites run blogs, like the New York Times’ “The Upshot,” the Financial Times’ “FT Alphaville,” and the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog,” that are some of the best around. Meanwhile, the shift of news online means that links and quotations — two hallmarks of blogging — are becoming more common in op-eds. When I talk to other op-ed writers, we all refer to our articles as “posts,” and many editors do, too.
So blogging is far from dead. Blogging 2.0 will be more focused on longer posts, high-level discussions and specialized expertise, while retaining the focus on distinctive voice and freewheeling subject matter that made Blogging 1.0 so fun. It’s a great time to have a blog.
Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University and a freelance writer for finance and business publications.