What was blogging?

Yesterday I got into a fight on Twitter with the official WordPress account. My complaint was that they had imposed a new, inscrutable editor on us — not just a different interface, but a different paradigm for composing our posts — when it would cost them nothing to let us choose the old editor (which can be found with some effort; I am writing this post in “classic” mode right now). I was feeling some profound emotions about this situation, far out of proportion to the objective gravity of my complaints. I could after all just learn the new system, or I could content myself with workarounds, or I could change hosting services. Yet the very fact that I needed to take such extraordinary actions just to maintain the status quo made it feel like blogging was being stolen out from under me.

Blogging has been dead for a long time, of course. Social media killed it, first by shunting all the discussion of blog posts over to the social media platform rather than the blog’s own comments, then by discouraging any links outside their own site in the first place. Social media also killed it more indirectly by taking over the mental territory once covered by blogposts in my mind. Now when I want to do a personal diary-style post, Facebook feels like the place for it, and when I want to do off-the-cuff responses to the news of the day, Twitter is the appropriate venue. These shifts could have clarified the role of the blogpost proper as something other than a self-indulgent reflection or the lazy link-with-brief-comment that most “political blogging” effectively was (man, did we ever wear out that “blockquote” tag back in the day…). It could have let me focus in on what was really valuable about blogging for me — namely, the ability to think out loud about ideas in a serious yet low-stakes and “unofficial” way.

Sometimes I have hit that mark in the undead blogging era. I continually refer back to Some Schmittian Reflections on the Election, for instance, which I wouldn’t hesistate to call my best blogpost of the last decade. But increasingly even that territory has been ceded to more “official” endeavors — sending pitches to established publications, for instance, or simply saving my ideas (and writing stamina) for academic publications. Both of those paths seem to open out onto real future opportunities in a way that plugging away at the blog no longer does. Hence I blog less and less, as I find fewer and fewer moments where I want to write something that is probably unpublishable elsewhere and yet still feels like it’s worth the effort.

Why can’t I just move on? Why this attachment to an outdated publication model, such that a website redesign can quite sincerely ruin my afternoon? It’s because blogging isn’t just another tool to me. It was my way out. It allowed me to build up a social network and a reputation that I never could have achieved otherwise. I realize that a big part of this was the dumb luck of getting into blogging just slightly before it hit the bigtime, but it also reflects a lot of hard work and energy on my part — not just writing, but recruiting other writers (and then writing even more to make sure the audience would be there whenever they decided to post), coming up with events and traditions (like Friday Afternoon Confessional) that made the blog feel like a real community, organizing book events and structured discussions (like the University Without Condition discussion of Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence”), etc., etc., etc.

For the better part of the 2000s, blogging was my life, and it has turned out to be the condition of possibility and condition of impossibility for the life that followed. People sometimes wonder how I am able to write so much, and the answer is basically that I have written a substantial amount every single day since I was in junior high. First it was comic books, then in high school I switched to journaling, and then in college I switched to writing for a personal website and subsequently blogs. It was the blog, though, that really shifted me into high gear because I knew each time that I was writing for a critical audience, who could respond to me immediately if they so chose. It was intimidating but also intimate — falsely so, in many ways, as I often found that unsympathetic readers found their way to my stuff without making themselves known, including influential people who based their conception of me on the tone of what amounted to a pub conversation among friends.

I wound up burning bridges, probably too many, by putting myself out there so aggressively when still had so much growing up to do. I only learned about the job at Shimer College because of my blogging, but I have also probably missed out on a lot of opportunities due to the reputation for brashness that my blogging won me. Sometimes I have even suspected that the very fact that I built up a reputation as a thinker and writer on my own, outside of “proper channels,” has hurt my academic career, even aside from the content of what I was writing. But there are a lot of people who went through “proper channels” and have nothing to show for it. In a world with no guarantees — which my exposure to contingent faculty through blogging showed me I was entering into — the only “strategy” is to do what you really want, while you have the chance to do so. I haven’t exactly been “rewarded” for that strategy, but I have kept on living to fight another day — most often neither despite or because of it, but through sheer good fortune.

Was blogging a good idea? It’s one of those things that you can’t answer, because making that big a change would be tantamount to living another life, maybe even being another person. And that’s why I will stubbornly cling to this blog and the stupid “classic” editor, so that when I have a thought that’s too big for a Twitter thread but too outside the mainstream for an op-ed pitch, it will be there, just as it always has been for literally my entire adult life.

8 thoughts on “What was blogging?

  1. #yy1000ty as they used to say on Google Reader

    On top of everything you say I’ve used WordPress.com for years for teaching and the block editor is SO MUCH harder to introduce to undergrads.

    But also: do you know where the “what was X?” formula comes from? “What was the hipster” is the standard reference for me but I assume it has a longer genealogy than that…

  2. Thank you, Adam, for all your blogging, and for these words. I can relate to much of what you’ve written here. Social media has, for the most part, killed blogging, for the reasons you name. (That said, I still spend more time reading things, including blogs, via a feedreader than I do scrolling through Twitter feeds, although I suspect that I’m becoming something of an endangered species on that score.) And I wonder if at least part (perhaps a large part?) of the fact that you are finding that there are ‘fewer and fewer moments where [you] want to write something that is probably unpublishable elsewhere and yet still feels like it’s worth the effort’ is because there are simply so many more outlets to publish short/medium-length pieces today than there were when we started blogging in the early 2000s. There’s also, I think, the matter of stage of career (for want of a better word), and what kinds of writing the various institutions we are enslaved to value, and reward. Any thoughts on that?

  3. I think I first saw a “what was” style journal article title in the mid 00s – “What Was Postcolonialism?” by Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge. Maybe it’s a lit theory trope?

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