On Tuesday, February 18, at 7pm, Naomi Fry, Ben Ratliff, and I will talk about criticism and social media, under the guidance of Eric Banks of the New York Institute of the Humanities, at the McNally-Jackson bookstore’s new South Street Seaport location, at 4 Fulton St., New York. I’ll probably end up referencing this 2015 Harper’s essay of mine about the problem. Please come!
I just got sent a copy of Overthrow as a finished book.
Plus, here’s the schedule for bookstore events in August and September. Please come, if you’re in Brooklyn, Manhattan, San Francisco, or Los Angeles! And please consider supporting these bookstores by buying your copy from one of them. Thanks!
- Tuesday, August 27, 7:30pm: Books Are Magic, 225 Smith St., Brooklyn. With readings by Christine Smallwood, Jana Prikryl, Daniel Smith, and Leon Neyfakh. Free admission. Telephone: (718) 246-2665.
- Thursday, September 5, 7:30pm: The Strand, 828 Broadway (at 12th St.), Manhattan. In conversation with Kate Bolick. Admission with the purchase of a signed copy of Overthrow or a Strand gift card. Telephone: (212) 473-1452.
- Sunday, September 8, 4pm: McNally-Jackson, South Street Seaport, 4 Fulton Street (a new location for the store!), Manhattan. In conversation with Astra Taylor. Free admission.
- Wednesday, September 18, 6pm: Book Passage, 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco. In conversation with Anna Wiener. Free admission. Telephone: (415) 835-1020.
- Saturday, September 21: Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, California. In conversation with Elaine Blair. Free admission. Telephone: (310) 659-3110.
Why did blogs die? If, that is, it can even still be remembered that once they were alive. I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on this since back when they’d only been dead a year or two.
I remember thinking that they had definitively died when Andrew Sullivan gave up on the monetized version of his longtime blog The Daily Dish. If anyone were going to make a financial go of blogging, it would have been him. That he couldn’t seemed final.
But I suspect that the process of dying began much earlier. It seems almost too obvious to finger social media as blogging’s killer, but sometimes the obvious happens to be the case. Back when blogging still seemed comparatively healthy, I remember resenting terribly the little “Share This” buttons that all my colleagues in blogging began to place at the end of each post. There was one little button for Facebook, then another for Twitter, then another for Stumble Upon, then one for Reddit, et cetera until every post in the blogosphere seemed to be staggering under a Lilliputian colony of parasitic buttons, like an immune-compromised deer studded with ticks. The blackmail was straightforward: If you didn’t add the little buttons to your posts, then fewer people would share your posts, and fewer people come to your blog. If you did add them, however, you were giving free advertising to the big social media sites, which some day, everyone knew, were going to ingest into themselves, macrophagically, the impulse for self-expression that had once gone into blogging, where at least it seemed to have some independence.
The poisoned bait of social-media traffic weakened the herd of bloggers, but it didn’t quite constitute a cull. The cull came as a reflected blow. Since the dawn of blogging, even Luddite bloggers like me had had little hit counters, where we could track how many visitors came to our site. One week—I’m sorry I can’t remember when; all I know is that it was more than a decade ago, and less than two decades ago—I watched my hit counter as the daily population of visitors to this blog drained away, steadily. Google had adjusted its algorithm, I soon discovered. Previously, when you had searched Google for, say, “gay cannibalism” or “does television impair academic performance,” the results had been ranked according to how many times your website was linked to by other websites concerned with the same topic, and this ranking had been more or less independent of time. On social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, however, the newest information was always at the top, and people seemed to prefer seeing newer content first, even if older content was more pertinent to their interest, or more rich in information and context. Under the pressure of competition, Google rejiggered its ranking, and overnight, it, too, began to discount heavily for time. A blogger who only posted a few times a month was doomed. Over the course of one fateful week, my visitors dropped away, day by day, as Google’s rankings of the pages on my blog were quietly recalculated. The crowd never returned. The same shrinking was no doubt inflicted across the blogosphere. One’s only recourse was to post more content, faster! But the sweat-shopping of oneself can only be carried so far, and the psychological costs of trying to always have the latest, hottest take probably aren’t worth bearing.
It was nonetheless still possible, even after this cull, for a blogger to soldier on, less read but still not yet completely unread. In a way there was even liberation in knowing that one had lost most of one’s audience. One could at last delete the little “Share This” buttons (which I had eventually given in to) without a sense of loss. Henceforth one was writing only for the diehards, for those who were committed, like oneself, to keeping themselves carefully impervious to the latest attention-manipulating software. The few, the proud, the Web 1.0.
Then came the coup de grâce: they offered to pay bloggers.
In a recent essay on economics and virtue for the TLS, Antara Haldar explains the paradox:
People often act in ways that conventional economic theory finds hard to predict. Examples range from people, paradoxically, donating less blood when they start being paid to do so, to parents leaving their children at a daycare centre longer after fines are imposed, to firefighters starting to take more leave when financial penalties are introduced. This is referred to as “crowding out” – when an interaction becomes transactional it ceases to engage people’s finer feelings.
Even blogging, unedited and unexamined as it is, or anyway as it’s supposed to be, takes time and energy, even for those of us who are logorrhific and heedless. It’ll probably take me a few hours to
fritter awa artfully compose this elegant essaylet right here. If I understand the purpose of my blogging labor as giving an important Truth to the people, or expressing an inner Feeling, in a way that’s somehow beyond price, then it may seem to me that it’s worthwhile to contribute this labor despite knowing that I could have instead spent my time finishing a Kawabata novel, or abating the deterioration of my middle-aged body at the gym, or surfing online for the optimal squeaky toy for my cognitively-declining geriatric dog, who needs focus now more than ever. However, once I’ve written such a post, if I know that the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, or the Paris Review might be willing to pay for it, how can I not try to sell it to them? Even if I claim that in the domain of blog posts I don’t care about money, surely I care about readers, and an established media company can put my post in front of many more readers. Once the legacy media companies added blog portfolios, I found myself with a new habit: whenever I wrote a post (unless it was on its face completely bonkers, like this one), I hesitated before hitting the “Publish” button, and at the last minute sent an email to an editor, who nine times out of ten agreed to buy what I had been thinking of as a throwaway, anyway. I had to be willing to eighty-six a couple of my dollar-and-a-half vocabulary words and prune a supererogatory paragraph here and there. But that was for the best, too. It was all for the best: free money, free editing, more readers. The trouble was, then I knew. I knew the dollar figure that the market put on the time and energy behind my blogging. Maybe I was still donating a Truth, or expressing a Feeling, and maybe the value of those contributions were still beyond price. But part of my blog post had been priced, and it seems impossible for a homo economicus to refrain from equating a price of a thing with the price of the whole thing. “When an interaction becomes transactional it ceases to engage people’s finer feelings.”
I still haven’t quite weaned myself, as you see. I kept this blog for years, and habit is almost as powerful as economic (mis)understanding.
I wonder what would happen if a newspaper were to leak the price, in pennies and dollars, of individuals’ social media feeds. To know how much effort to put into winning and keeping participants, companies like Facebook and Twitter must make such valuations. The prices probably aren’t too difficult to calculate. They’re also probably not very high…
Listen, whippersnappers. I was online back when one searched with Archie instead of Google. I remember when a text-based menu system called gopher was hailed as a startling breakthrough, which it was, since at the time they hadn’t invented the worldwide web yet.
Sadly, I never had a gopher. I did have an early webpage, however. It launched no later than March 1995, to judge by mentions of it that I find in old emails. I wrote it myself. All of it. That is, I wrote not only the words but the html. In those days the internet was very do-it-yourself. Because the site was hosted by Columbia, where I was in grad school, the URL was http://www.columbia.edu/~wcc6. It was a fairly nerdy thing; I don’t remember that any of my fellow grad students in English and American literature had one.
The earliest record that I have of what it looked like is dated 1999, four years after its birth, when I downloaded a copy before Columbia shut it down (I was, finally, graduating). By then it was looking a bit plain, compared to other websites on the internet, and I had begun to get emails from strangers asking why I didn’t update it more often. It was a point of pride with me, however, that a reader who browsed my website in Lynx, which only downloaded text, wouldn’t miss much. (Lynx was handy for bandwidth-poor people like me who connected via dial-up modem.) In other words, my public online self in 1999 probably wasn’t markedly different from my public online self in 1995. Here it is:
That was my dog. Yes, there were poems. No, I will not be re-posting the poems today. This isn’t quite what the website looked like, of course, because in those days the font of a website was chosen by its reader not its writer. My webpage would have appeared to you in whatever font you had told your browser you preferred.
After Columbia kicked me out of the nest, I vanished from the internet until March 2003, when I learned that as a Harvard alum, I qualified for a free blog, courtesy of the Berkman Center (now known as the Berkman Klein Center). The idea seemed to be that blogs were going to bring the Habermasian public sphere to the internet, and a nonprofit could reputably be in the business of inducing them to proliferate. The software platform was something called Manila. There were colors! There were templates! My URL was http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/calebcrain/, which gave a number of people the wrong idea that I was a law professor. Here’s a screenshot from December 2003, preserved thanks to the Wayback Machine.
My blog wasn’t named “Steamboats Are Ruining Everything” at first. That title was in place at least by October 2004, however, and in April 2006, I hooked it up to the URL http://steamthing.com, a portmanteau of the first and last syllables.
As you can see below, I switched to a red palette by April 2006, I think because I read somewhere that although people are soothed by tones of blue and green, they are more likely to find a brash color like red memorable. (Even back then we on the internet were trying to manipulate you.) Note the long, name-droppy blogroll in the right-hand column. Before Facebook (born February 2004) and Twitter (born March 2006), such links were how one found cool things to read on the internet (things you didn’t know you wanted to read, as opposed to things you knew you wanted to read, which you could search for).
The snapshot above is saved on my hard drive because I was then about to move to a blogging platform called Type Pad, and fearful of disaster, I made one of my rare backups. My probably erroneous memory is that Type Pad had struck some kind of deal with the Berkman Center to take bloggers off their hands; at that point no one any longer thought bloggers needed foundations or anyone else to encourage them.
In this era, on many blogs, one found at the end of a post little pellets of html frass, which offered to automate a connection, should the reader be generous enough to want to make one, to sites such as Reddit, Stumble Upon, and dozens of others. Let us clutter your website, these services proposed, and in exchange we will send you “traffic.” I briefly experimented and found that I hated the clutter, as well as the sense of having compromised myself, and thenceforward abstained. (I never tried ads or a tip jar.)
The Type Pad platform allowed for something called banners at the top of the page. Armed with a scanner, an old book of engravings of steamboat disasters, and a copy of Photoshop that I had purloined from Lingua Franca back in 2000, here’s what I came up with:
As you can see, by July 2009 I had backed off from all red. That color was now reserved for unclicked links. I developed a whole psychology of link colors, to mess with readers. Unclicked links were red, as if they were forbidden and butch, in order to dare you to approach. When you hovered your mouse over the link, however, it subsided to pink—friendly and nonthreatening and maybe even a wee bit submissive. If you fell for this, you would find, upon returning to the page, that the link had turned orange, as if you had created some kind of hazard. More manipulation on my part. I have kept these psychoerotic link colors to the present day. My background color in 2009 was a sort of sepia because the overall idea being conveyed was that I was a 19th-century guy; cf. the long list of 19th-century archival resources in the right-hand sidebar and the general look of intense textiness.
Here’s a slight improvement of the banner, captured in April 2010.
After a while, the pseudo-Victorian look began to seem a little somber to me. To lighten it up, I had the idea of making the title appear as if it were being uttered by one of the drowning steamboat passengers. As preserved by Archive.is, here’s a screenshot of February 2013:
In some ways I think this was the most echt Steamboats look, though I now regret having allowed the intrusion of a whole box of Twitter in the right-hand sidebar—a false compromise with a power that was then beginning to exterminate blogs right and left. Note that my lists of friends and 19th-century sources had by now been demoted. They were still on the page, but you had to scroll fairly far down to see them.
By 2013, I wasn’t really a 19th-century guy any more, except at heart, and my first novel was scheduled to come out in August. I needed a whole new look, fresh and modern. Type Pad, meanwhile, had become a little creaky in the joints, so I made a ridiculously kludgy switch to Word Press. I looked around and discovered that nobody but me still had a blogroll (and that most of my friends had shuttered their blogs), so the blogroll and the list of 19th-century resources were moved to subsidiary pages. The focus, I decided, would be on a single, readably narrow column of text, with recessive decoration on one side and a few unobtrusive utilities on the other. The advice about keeping the column of text narrow came from a website written by Kibo, ages ago. (Oh, you don’t know who Kibo is? How recently did you say you were born?) The idea of reducing distractions on the page to a minimum came from Mandy Brown’s blog, A Working Library. Here’s the end result of this redesign, as it appeared in August 2013, on the eve of the publication of Necessary Errors:
Elegant, no? Alas, it was hacked, in 2016, by people who seemed to be interested in porn and Indonesian song lyrics. While rebuilding and “hardening” the site, I took the opportunity to make it “responsive,” which is the word for a site that changes shape depending on whether you’re looking at it on a desktop computer or a mobile phone. (If you’re reading this on a laptop, you can see how this site now “responds” if you drag the lower righthand corner of your web browser to the left, to make it smaller; sometimes I do this myself just for the pleasure of watching the sidebars pop away into the ether, one by one.) I think the overall site lost a bit of its panache in the process, but utility is all and I like that the page is still relatively simple.
I seem to have left out of this post a history of comments, and also an explanation of why blogging is dead, but maybe those go without saying.
I’ve got an essay in the July 2015 issue of Harper’s, titled “Counter Culture: Fighting for Literature in an Age of Algorithms.” It seemed appropriate to offer as a preview a photo of the essay taken on my Ipod Touch.