Thursday, February 21, 2013

What the F@!k Is A Blog, Anyway?

Blog might be the weirdest word that I've ever been associated with. In high school I was kind of a goth, for heavily eyelined minute ( although my love of The Cure never waned ) and during childbirth I had an episiotomy-- those are odd words, too, that sound like they could be the flagship for an alien culture, or the name of some bacteria on the bottom of your foot. Blog, which verbs, is a word that sounds like it should come from the mouth of a culturally mainstreaming teenager, but is instead said round the world by women in their 20s and up every day. 

When I started blogging in 2008 it was after leaping ship MySpace, which was becoming trashier and trashier by the second, until I felt like the amount of time I was fending off sexual advances from 'poets' was not worth the amount of time I was talking to people I actually wanted to speak with. I had heard the word blog enough times to have an idea what the strange noun-verb meant but hadn't ever taken a look around. I realized immediately this is where I wanted to be. It was a storyteller/voyeur dream, blog after blog of real life tales- tales of triumph over disease, of marriage, divorce, death, children, pregnancy, abortion, abuse, family history, and then in the Blog world version of the Big Bang Theory: suddenly there was an entire world of amazing decorating, designing, art and craft blogs, where for free you could browse endless inspirational images of rooms with beautiful furniture and rugs, baby clothes, baby toys, garden landscapes, adorable crafts for children, and most wonderfully, glimpses inside of people's houses: the knick knacks, paintings, photos, paint colors, comforters and kitchen utensils of other people. The crush of the two together was insanely satisfying, and best of all- the comments.

Comments were the currency of blogging. Comments were like morphine hits, instant relief and addiction for writers or really for anyone who wanted to be able to reach out, tell a story, and get jokes, support, stories told back, or just a 'hells yeah' in return. The comment sections of many of the blogs I visited were as entertaining- sometimes more- than the original posts themselves, full of witty back and forth bantering or sober sharing of hard times. You'd comment on a blog a few times and suddenly that blogger and yourself were kind of sort of friends, they'd come to your place, hang out, comment, and some of their commenters would find and like you too, until the circles we all paced in the online community began to fold over one another, and a blogger you knew could know ten, fifteen other bloggers you also knew. It was hilarious, engaging, fascinating, illuminating, supportive, simple and for many people, the entire point of blogging. 

As money entered the scene in a visible way, the inevitable shift began. The concern most often voiced was that blogs would become ' one big ad ' but the real problem was not the ads themselves but the way the ads, and the money attached, changed what people felt comfortable saying. If your blog featured- alongside your cute kids and hilarious stories of parenting and marriage- occasional stories about your abusive ex-husband and the toll his abuse took on you before he killed himself, then how is your advertiser of baby blocks going to feel about that? If your blog was almost half heavy and intense stories of hard times and how to work through them, how can you keep the money flowing when there are five hundred other blogs who don't curse and who talk about flower planting and baby yogurt and date night? The counting began: how many visitors, pageviews, unique visitors? When the focus is on attracting the most views posssible, there is a shift from engaging your community to attracting new community. 

Many bloggers began to aggressively push their blog to make money, and throngs of original bloggers dropped out. People who could afford to, or understood how to, or had connections to began to upgrade their blogs. Most successful blogs began to have one or more of these attributes:

- beautiful home and/or wardrobe
- nice camera and photo editing program
- beautifully designed blog with various pages instead of one blog page
- a focus on crafting and/or interior design
- connections to the nuts and bolts of the online world- being a writer or editor or knowing writers and editors for online magazines
- a spouse who made good money

One by one my blogger feed filled with announcements of ' goodbye ', as the people who were blogging just to tell stories and connect dropped out, crushed by the weight of the bigger bloggers who were attracting not only the visitors but the comments. As the comments began to wane, so did these blogger's desire to continue. Medium and big bloggers still had active and involved comment sections but the number of blogs simply telling stories had been dramatically reduced. 

This was the still point. For a moment in time, the blogworld was whole. There were still many story blogs, enough to satisfy an avid reader like myself, and just as many beautiful, glossy magazine type blogs with gorgeous Photoshopped images. The ads were there but on the edges and at that point, were earning many bloggers a nice side income. At this time Flux Capacitor, as simple as it gets- a 'tell stories' blog- was still thriving in the comment sections and I couldn't wait, every day, to come read what you all had to say. 

The tipping point began when blogging and social media and the advertising world mind melded, and blogs became so commercialized that the content was often, startlingly, reduced to ads disguised as blog posts, fluff in place of life, and 'interests'  focused on that could fit with the point of view of interested companies who would pay to have a blogger incorporate their product into that bloggers platform.  I can't remember the last time I found a blog brand new to me that was chock full of post after post with interesting, meaty stories. 

Let's dissect some of the language of professional blogging:

sponsored posts = Take something you are actually interested in and find a way to make money off of it on your blog. 

engagement = 'Talk' to your blog audience so that they keep coming back. 

unique visitors = Viewers of your blog who had not been before, as far as the bean counters can tell.

cross post = Find a way to post about something that you can then link up and/or post on other sites, for more traffic.

utilize social media = Tweet, hashtag, Facebook, promote others who promote you.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this. So what went wrong with blogging?

What blogging was was a community of shared lives and support. What blogging now is ( a generalization, because it is generally- not always- true )  is a community of small business all trying to promote themselves and each other to make money. So if you are a craft blog, this is fantastic- this is right up your authentic ass, ( not a professional blogging term, in case you wonder ) and you can tweak, change, upgrade and tweet the hell out of your blog without losing any of the charm that it initially held. Same for photographers, painters, visual media of any kind really, as well as interior designers and makers- those who make children's toys, furniture, products. 

But for writers, for storytellers, for poets and those who blogged to ' only, connect ' this was the death knell. Blogs who were all about the story of life simply could not keep what was most valuable about them while utilizing the skills and techniques above. If you are worrying about how many unique visitors you have, you are naturally going to be looking at what blog posts or keywords brought them to you, and attempt to replicate that. If your story on the time your cat got stuck in the toilet is the big hit of your blog, where do you go with that? And that is it- that's the thing there, in the toilet- what the general public looks for and finds and wants to see on your blog is not usually what you are interested in writing. This is exactly why, historically and somewhat famously, writers have not been business people- why they have agents, publishers, etc. Because for writers, to engage heavily, daily, in the act of trying to sell what you have created changes the act of creation. Writers work from subconscious and conscious memories, stories heard, events witnessed, fantasies, work read. When the conscious  mind is engaged in regular awareness of what a 'hot keyword' is and how your last sponsored post on Barringer's Men Deodorant might feel about the story you want to tell about your husband's natural deodorant, you change the machine that produces the product. 

We can promote our work- but to create it with the sell in mind- in the famous words of  Sweet Brown:   Ain't nobody got time for that! 

And now blogging evolves again- those blogs that were making regular revenue off ads can no longer do so. Companies want more than just clicks, they want return visitors, they want engagement, they want to make money- and ads on blogs aren't cutting it anymore. You'll notice more and more blogs will be reducing if not completely doing away with ads as they try to find a successful way to monetize.  As blogging boomed, the field became crowded even as the quality diminished, and supply and demand shifted. Companies that would pay $500 for a sponsored post now want to pay $300, and the slide is not looking to let up. 

Many bloggers who went all the way to the right, tipping over in order to make money, are now panicking and finding that they don't want to be simply a vessel for sponsors. They want to have a voice, a point of view- why should the reader be engaged, they are asking- what about me

My answer is the same as it's always been: quality. My blog list has shrunk considerably over the last two years as many places I used to visit and read are now boring posts of sponsored shtick and links to other places. If you follow the money, you end up broke. If you follow your passions, you'll either end up with money or self-satisfaction, or- the end of the rainbow- both. 

What is a blog? For me, it's a place online I go that either tells a great story or sells something. Maybe one day, I'll have a novel out, and I can do both.

Anonymous said...

So so beautifully said. My blog is just over a year or so old but I realized everything you stated pretty early on. The drive to write more "popular" posts to get more comments, was tempting... but I decided to be who I've always been instead: my unfiltered self. Take it or leave it.

A decision I am still happy about.

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