Why Blogging Died
And why Substack makes more sense (for me)
Late in 2019 I decided to try my hand at a newsletter rather than regular updates at my blog. I made it a few months before I stopped and went back to blogging traditionally. But I never deleted my Substack account or the old newsletters, and I think part of the reason why is that I suspected I would end up back before too long. Why did I think this? Because for a couple years I’ve been trying to suppress a growing feeling that blogging—the traditional formula of Wordpress + URL + generalist content throughout the year—is done. The problem isn’t that regular writing is suddenly not a good idea; the problem is that regular blogging no longer serves the writer and the reader the way it used to.
To make this point, some brief personal history is in order.
I’ve been blogging in some capacity basically since the Bush/Kerry election. But most of the blogs I started were scrapped soon afterwards. It’s only been for the past 7 years that I’ve held onto a single blogging space. That space began as a Wordpress-hosted blog, then moved to Patheos. Patheos was an…interesting experience, but the company’s decision to punish AdBlock users by floating NSFW ads at them (as opposed to the generic ads that people who turned off their blocker would see) was the final straw for me.
I stopped blogging at Patheos and picked up again at Wordpress until Jake Meador was kind enough to invite me to be one of the first bloggers hosted at Mere Orthodoxy. I did this for a while and it was a great experience, but toward the end I desired once again the freedom of a custom space. So it was BACK to Wordpress, where soon after I launched “Letter and Liturgy” with ambitions of broadening the site to include contributions from other writers. A few have contributed wonderful pieces, but overall the site has been a continuation of my personal blogging.
I’ve enjoyed Letter and Liturgy moreso than any other blogging venture. But over the past year the long-term viability and even desirability of my writing routine has declined. My blog traffic is almost entirely dependent on social media shares or links from outside bloggers (Tim Challies and TGC are the only two links that really count on this score). Despite the fact that I’ve been writing consistently for 7 years, my digital “audience” (the people who regularly read/comment, as opposed to those who read via someone else’s link) has plateaued. I do not think this is a reflection of a decline in content or a particular lack of savvy; the more I talk to other bloggers and the more I keep tabs on how people like me are writing and reading, the more I think this trend is representative for all but the most elite bloggers.
Why? Here are my answers:
The Internet is too big.
Social media tech has accelerated faster than most could have ever foreseen. The entire digital content economy is now dependent on it. Put simply, there is no opportunity to grow a new digital writing presence without regular participation in social media, and the odds of “growing” are directly proportional to how much time you spend and how willing you are to play the algorithm game.
Most people do not visit the same URLs by habit or bookmark each day. They log into their email and their social media, and where they go and what they read on the Web is mediated entirely by what they encounter on those two platforms. The Internet is too big to do anything else. There are too many interesting people, too many new articles or podcasts, for a normal person to simply “encounter” something new. Social media is the gatekeeping mechanism that we use to make the internet consumable.
You can blog without using social media, of course. But the way the landscape has changed in the past 10 years means that everything that goes into maintaining a personal, dedicated website—including costs of hosting, domains, design, etc.—is mostly just carry-on luggage. The ticket to ride is your Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter account. Maintaining a personal blog means more work for less direct payoff. The traditional Wordpress blog is a relic of the more contained Internet of a decade and a half ago. A singular “voice” is going nowhere.
The Internet is too loud.
Personal blogs were the original social media. As blogs multiplied, a natural hierarchy developed. The writers who rose to the top were either the most consistent ones (e.g., Challies), or the loudest ones. Everything that was true of the epistemological dynamics of blogging is true in a much more weaponized form on Twitter, not least because Twitter’s engineers have designed the site to reward users who attract engagement with more visibility.
When the history of this era of the Internet is written, people will describe Twitter as one of the most influential conditioners of public discourse. Twitter is not uniquely loud or noxious, but it is uniquely suited to creating young writers and thinkers who are. Twitter has done more to instill poor intellectual habits into the next generation of journalists and writers than any other technology I can think of.
But what does this have to do with blogs? Well, the loudness of the internet and social media in particular tends to create two extreme incentives. On one end is the incentive to contribute to the noise, to rise above the cacophony with hotter takes, generalized accusations, more simplistic narratives, and an intellectual posture of war-readiness. On the other end is the incentive to unplug: to delete the account, purge the feed, and induce silence. Both of these opposite-end trends are accelerating right now, and both are really, really bad for traditional bloggers who depend on the noise of the internet to exist but also on the willingness of readers to leave the noise for a while.
So Where Does That Put Me?
I’ve loved maintaining a regular blog these 7 years. The experience has been wonderful. It’s easy to understate how rewarding writing and hearing from those who read that writing is, but for me it has been life-giving. There’s something about blogging that no other technology will ever be able to replicate. I especially wish every writer could have felt what it was like to be writing back in the 2000s, when tight knit reader communities were still possible and it felt like the blog was a hub of something more permanent than a few clicks and shares.
Alas, that time is gone beyond recall. Traditional blogging technology cannot create the space that it once could because that space is itself much more difficult to make out of the existing Internet. For me, the last few years of blogging have been more about the rewards of thinking out loud. And the question is: what kind of format and technology equips a writer to think out loud best? Once upon a time the answer was a blog. But, at least for me, I think that answer has changed.
So for the foreseeable future, I’m going to be moving my writing onto this Substack page. Letter and Liturgy will stay up for now, and I may even update it from time to time. But I think the transition to a dedicated longform writing space, connecting to readers who sign up rather than the internet impenetrable internet, is the best move for me.
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