There are a lot of reasons. Some are simple and some are rather complex. But let's look at the simplest reason and to my mind, one of the most important. You don't own your own words. When you live on Facebook's property, you don't own your own words. They can be deleted by someone other than you. They can be banned by someone other than you. You can hardly even know what you said a year ago by searching for it. I don't mean to suggest that Facebook alone is capable of this, but it is the 900 pound gorilla. The same things are true of Twitter and the comments sections of hundreds of new media outlets.
When it comes to participating in the debates that a free and open society require, these social media spaces do not facilitate. That is not why they exist. That is not their business model. They were not created to sustain collaborative thought, but to let everybody connect in social ways. They are not town halls so much as they are gas station bathrooms on the information superhighway. They serve everybody without much discrimination, but their facilities often stink. Sometimes you wonder who came in here to write what you see on the walls, and you cringe. No matter how many bots or attendants you apply to a roadside rest stop, it will never become a town hall. That's something you design from the ground up. Social media needs a redesign.
However, there was a moment of glory in the past in which the level of discourse broadly available to the internet public was better than it is now. That was the age of the blogosphere. As MySpace was dying and Google experimented with something called Orcut, which became very popular in Brazil, the American scene was beginning to get a taste of blogs and bloggers. It was a feast of alternative information written by individuals or edited contributions of blog leagues that set the American political world on fire. It was a place for writers, and it still is.
As a veteran of early internet sites like The Well and Cafe Utne among others, I have been fortunate to have met some of the most exciting and informative writers anywhere. My history goes back to bitnet, Fido and Compuserv. Since there has been an online, I have been there. And so I have witnessed the temptations presented to bloggers to become more mainstream as previously paper only media publications moved online. Who would not, having become influential on their own, want to become even more influential as a syndicated columnist? And so many of the best bloggers moved on out of self-publication to sponsored work. I cannot say whether or not that affected the quality of their writing or if they have been edited into corners. But it did violate one of the key aspects of the blogosphere itself, which was full individual control.
A blogger has many responsibilities aside from writing, one of which is to police their comment sections. One needs to decide whether or not to accept paid advertising. One has to decide which other blogs to link to using the novel idea of the trackback process. One has to periodically update the design, and of course one has to pay for their blog to be hosted. I've been paying 15 dollars a month for over 15 years. In 2007, there was a such thing as the Black Blogger of the Year Award dedicated to the late blogger Aaron Hawkins. I won that year owing to my extensive coverage of candidate Barack Obama and the insightful conversations I was able to host at my blog. These days I have about 900 friends on Facebook. Those days I had 1500 hits a day. The greatest responsibility to my mind was to foster the proper environment for conversations that would live on the blog. To welcome the right kind of interlocutors and to push trolls away, to steer debate towards productive an insightful conversation, to entertain tangents that are useful and yet keep the related ideas corralled. It was work. Creative, rewarding work. It required skin in the game, not some disingenuous promise to promote free speech contingent on the arbitrary goodwill of advertisers and marketing networks.
Today I engage with many of the same writers I've known for 20 years online at Facebook. Many of us are getting tired and have enjoined a litany of complaint. Fake news, censorship, filter bubbles, defriending and the ever present trolling and flame wars are on our frustrated minds. But I think the most egregious problem in social media is its abbreviation.
I don't speak Emoji. And unlike the editors of The New York Post, I can't very often come up with a catchy headline to tweet out. I may be verbose even for an essayist, but the things I find of interest require more than two or three sentences to say. I think that is true of all of human affairs. People should not be forced into abbreviated descriptions of their ideas and their selves by the constraints of social media. I want to be responsible for the claims I make, so having them disappear after I post them serves no good purpose. Abbreviation of time is unacceptable. It's not as if the world doesn't have enough disk space in the cloud to handle all of our words, or even all of our digital video. So why should I have less than everything I want to say be referenceable in an opus of compositions over the years? Why should I not have every objection or agreement from everyone who wants to react to my compositions as well? I get that with my blog. I do not get that with Reddit or WhatsApp. The complexity of human affairs requires more space and time than social media adequately facilitates. It's no wonder that people are so frustrated.
When Google killed Google Reader, the use of RSS syndication of blogs and other online periodical publications fell to a variety of inferior tools. But now an outfit called Feedly handles it well. I still follow a selection of excellent writers in what remains of the blogosphere. Medium.com has also become a popular place for writers in all sorts of subjects. But the domination of social media over the average person's internet reading is beginning to grate on everyone's nerves. I hope to remind people that there are still cultured and informative places of respite from the oligopoly of the mainstream social media, and it is worthy and capable of supporting us all.
I call on developers to revisit the innovations of the blogosphere and to move forward in their further development. I give props to Typepad and the other blog ecosystems for the steady platforms they have provided for years of reliable operation. I encourage writers new and old to get into blogging and recreate and renew what we know the medium of blogging can do to inform and delight. I call on devotees of the well crafted word and visual arts to put your best work forward. I call on editors in the mainstream to spend time outside of the world of compromise for wealthy producers and nurture and support organic writers in this decentralized medium.
We must own our own words. We must resist censorship. We must facilitate real informative debate. We must not be policed by bots and algorithms.
We have done better. We can do better again. Bring blogs back.