The Long View

Whenever you are lost, remember to turn around

When I was in graduate school in Minnesota, blogs I read were quite taken by Graphs, Maps, Trees by Franco Moretti. The basic premise, as I recall, was that the days of “close reading” of texts were done and what remained was to quantitatively compile data for “distant reading” of the complex currents of literary history to learn more than what we had by the concentration on specific details. This movement from micro to macro level emphasis wasn’t something that really ever interested me much; it seemed inhuman to consider the herd to be more significant than individual animals.

Coincidentally (or not) trackers acting to compile the reading and traffic patterns of the web (and blogs) were emerging with a vengeance. It’s hard for me to reconstruct the specifics from my memory, but I remember Blogdex from Cameron Marlow at MIT (2003-2006) which indexed about 9,000 blogs in the beginning, and Technorati that listed blogs indexed by incoming and outgoing links to expose a new generation of online writing. These people were individuals, though in most tellings of the tale they ultimately became datapoints for the brave new world of web traffic metrics.

After the first ten years, blogs were mostly gone and replaced by “social media” services that lowered the bar for entry, and lessened the commitment involved for writing online. And it also became a big money enterprise, where advertisers were quickly carving up the pie of data into ever more tightly focused niche markets. What killed blogs, I think, was the rise in another data herd progeny, spam. Sites were hammered with AI generated link spam to alter search engine rankings, and email spam drove people crazy. It was a matter of percentages. If you transmit a million spam messages, it only takes a tiny percentage of stupid or inattentive people to accidentally fall prey to the scam. Then, you’re rich (or president).

In the end, many blogs were forced to shut down the latest innovations (like trackbacks, which notified people when they were referenced by another online writer) and worst of all, end commenting altogether to avoid the hostility and commercial intrusions into their thoughts. Many creative talents, in my mind, were driven away and those who were left were primarily driven by financial gain.

Taking the long view and privileging  distant reading has reaped great rewards at the expense of any sense of individuality. Watching a sort of return to the narrow focused, less connected individual blogging that used to be the norm among a cadre of early adopters has been curious. It’s easy to drift away from this, it’s a lot of work and presents little reward. For me it was always more than a “cult of personality” where one or two voices would dominate the conversations.

There were so many tiny conversations, and it makes me sad to think of what potentialities were missed in pursuit of the long view.