Has Blogging Peaked?

Question: How has blogging changed since you started ten years ago?

Anil Dash: I think blogging has changed tremendously over the past decade. One, we didn’t really think of it consciously as something that would be quite so pervasive, quite so influential. So early on when I started reading blogs I felt like everybody in the community—a few dozen of us—read every other blog everyday.

That’s really hard to do when the other 100 million or so show up; you think, “Gosh, this is a little bit more than what we can read.” But there was a very, very strong sense of community, and what came from that was the same feeling I have being in this village here in New York, and where I live; saying, “I know who my neighbors are. Maybe I don’t know this person well, but their face is familiar to me”. The same way, their voice is familiar and so your norms for a community that size are really very thoughtful, very, very considerate.

Blogging today may has gotten a reputation as being a free for all [where] people can say anything, do anything. There are a lot of really unkind comments, because as newer sites came along, or newer bloggers came along, they hadn’t quite learned the lessons that you get after 5 years, 10 years of blogging—which are, you really want to make sure you have a human connection between the readers of your site, between you as a blogger and your readers. If you do these things, you can preserve the best elements of it. So, I think we’ve lost a little bit of the personal connection; certainly the biggest blogs have been the ones that define people’s perception to medium, and those are essentially just more broadcast or large-scale publishers like TV, radio and newspapers, where it is hard for them to keep a relationship with their readers.

Question: What is your take on the authenticity issues presented by blogs and new media?

Anil Dash: I think there’s a lot of a conversation where journalists say, “What do we do about the authenticity problem, how do we confront it?” I think the fact that I’m in the journalism world is described as a problem is very telling. The reality is humans are very well wired to evaluate the credibility of the source of their information all the time. We do it night and day. There was this pretense for a long time, when journalism was primarily a mass market endeavor, that you had to defend your credibility at all times and that nobody would know what your bias was if you sufficiently hid it. The thing is, we’ve always known. We’ve always been able to see through that, and so I think step one was acknowledging how much people wanted a real human voice—they will be their own judge as to whether there was a bias there, and what the background was. Then, the question of credibility comes up all the time.

What about if something CNN reads on the air from Twitter isn’t true, then it gets corrected, and that’s okay. As it turns out, a lot of what gets reported gets corrected later. I wish that they got it right the first take every time both in blogs or on TV or in newspapers or whatever, but the reality is we don’t know what something means right away. So the immediate reporting of a fact is only one step to figuring what the truth is, and the analysis that comes later is necessary to do that. If some of those initial facts are fuzzy or incorrect or even lies or deliberate act of deception—that actually happens all the time. I can think of a million political examples where what somebody is saying is actually the opposite of what they’re doing.

Question: Do you think the popularity of blogging has peaked?

Anil Dash: I think a lot of people are asking, “Is blogging over? Has it runs its course? Is this new thing cooler—Facebook or twitter?” You will know blogging has really truly succeeded when it becomes invisible. I think about this a lot with phone calls. I get introduced still at events as, “Oh, he’s a blogger.” and it feels a little bit like being introduced as an e-mailer or a phone caller. These are things we do everyday. You don’t think about them as a conscious act. Its just part of what you do to communicate to the world. We’re still a few years away from everybody realizing that every time they take a phone, a phone camera picture and they post it up somewhere they are acting as a blogger. Everytime you jot down a couple of notes online and show them with your friends or write “Check out this link,” that is blogging. It doesn’t have to go by that name to be that important act of documenting what you think matters to you. That fundamental act of connecting and sharing and building a relationship with someone around the things you share with them, that’s empowering in a way.

When I used to work in television or the music industry, I never could have made the show on my own. I never could have made an album on my own. I never could have made a film on my own. But a blog I can do entirely by myself. I can, I have to create a document of what I’ve done. That impulse will never go away. There will always be somebody that has something to say. This is what I want to do all by myself—get my word out there. The fact that people think that’s possible—I talked to young people, I said, “What can you do with the book?” and they were like “Oh, you can read it. You can put a cover on it. You put it on a shelf.” And I said, “What can you do with the web?” and they said “I can make it. I can create it.” That is the fundamental difference that blogging brought about. As long as that’s true and people feel like this is a place where they can create and express themselves blogging, it is fine whether the name is there or not.

Question: What do you make of claims that today’s blogosphere and social media tools do more to drive people apart than to bring them together?

Anil Dash: People ask a lot about, is the web bringing us together or taking us apart? I think culture has changed the point where shared experiences much less common. As we talk today, it’s very close to the 40th anniversary of landing on the moon, and that was one of the definitive universal experiences around the world. Everybody had that experience whether it was on TV, radio or newspaper. There was a moment we all shared. Those are fewer and fewer.

We place pride in saying it’s more human or personal to call our moms than to chat with them on instant messenger. I don’t know why we feel that way, they’re just different. We go the other extremes as well—a handwritten letter is the most personal. Well, that doesn’t feel personal as a phone call to me, but it is supposed to be valuable because it is permanent. Well, what if she permanently archives her instant messenger conversation? These things are artifacts of our moment in history. We are trained to teach that something new is inhumane and impersonal, technical and sterile, and that everything old is warm and analog and expressive; I don’t feel that way. I have emails that I cherish and I value, and I wish that we create technologies that honor that. I don’t want to throw away all my SMS when I get a new phone. I want to save those somewhere.

If done right, these technologies are designed to help us communicate with people we otherwise wouldn’t be able to, people we didn’t know we had something in common with. They can help us discover a commonality. They have been architectured to create shared experiences very well, so we’re losing a lot of our cultural touchstones—something that everybody knows, a song that everybody knows, the words to a video everybody has seen—but they had done a good job of making all of us say, “Oh I saw is this funny YouTube video” and I pass it along, and that is shared experience as much as millions of people sitting around watching the finale of MASH decades ago, or watching a Superbowl. Done right, these technologies are going to bring us together.

The web is a tool for connections; it is what it is designed to be. I think the fact that a lot of people don’t feel that way has been because the first attempts, and a lot of social networks or social software on the web, have been created by people that are bad in building relationships both personally and as architects of communities. But we can fix that. The first decade of the web was pretty bad at that but we’re getting better at making real connections online, and I think when it reaches its potential the web will bind us together in ways that television never could, that will make a phone or a hand written letter seem as rudimentary as they are.

 Recirded on: July 17 2009

Anil Dash explains how the blogosphere has grown from a small, tight knit community to a pervasive engine of modern communication, and evaluates whether or not it’s a good thing for our culture.

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    Politics & Current Affairs

    Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

    "I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

    Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

    Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

    The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

    Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

    In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

    It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

    Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

    Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

    The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

    It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

    In their findings the authors state:

    "The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
    upholding First Amendment ideals.

    Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

    With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

    Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

    As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

    • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
    • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
    • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
    • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
    • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
    • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
    • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

    Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

    It's interesting to note the authors found that:

    "Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

    You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

    Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

    • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
    • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
    • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
    • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
    • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
    • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

    Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

    Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

    • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
    • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
    • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
    • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
    • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
    • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

    Civic discourse in the divisive age

    Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

    There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

    "In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
    dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
    the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
    These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
    putting our democracy in peril.

    Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
    immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
    become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
    Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
    The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
    re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
    building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

    We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

    This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.