Shouting on the street
I reread John Berger’s Ways of Seeing for the first time in ten years. It’s, somehow, even better than I remembered. This time around, I was struck by this graf:
Publicity is never a celebration of a pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell. The image then makes him envious or himself as he might be. Yet what makes this self-which-he-might-be enviable? The envy of others. Publicity is about social relations, not objects. Its promise is not of pleasure but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others.
He’s writing about advertising but I like his use of the word ‘publicity’ here. This is about branding. This is about being public — performing, acting. This is about Instagram influencers and lifestyle bloggers.
Could blogging make a comeback? There’s been chatter around blogs since we’ve started rumbles of such a renaissance since we’ve all self-quarantined. Kyle Chayka asked about it on Twitter, and then started a blog with some friends. Kottke wrote about blogs. Robin Sloan posted a short celebration of the form.
I grew up in a transition generation, old enough to remember life before the internet but young enough to feel like I live online. We got high speed internet when I was in high school, and I discovered blogs shortly after that. I set up my own in 2004 and blogged through high school about everything from my newfound interest in graphic design to music I was listening to and food I was eating. Nothing was off limits. I love(d) blogs. For me, blogs were my introduction to the wider world, the place I discovered designers and writers, new foods and old books, foreign films and ambient music.
Twitter came out my first year of college and I tweeted through college, into my first job, when I moved across the country and back again. I kept blogging but the energy was on Twitter (and later Instagram). Maybe social media blunted any of blogging’s momentum or maybe it was the death of Google Reader. I think it was that RSS never took off, moving beyond nerds and tech folks. Social media got rid of the complicated parts and made publishing easy.
But blogs never went anywhere, they just changed. I’ve been blogging — with varying degrees of frequency — for almost twenty years. Some of the blogs I read when I was fifteen I still follow. Some of them feel quaint, relics of another time, but not all of them. Blogs, for many people, don’t look anything like the blogs of the mid-aughts. Lifestyle blogs — those sites that flog sponsored content, travel guides, and health tips — reach millions of people and have made many very rich. Where the first wave of blogging was made irrelevant by social media, the new wave is fueled by social media.
Here’s Jia Tolentino, from her great essay collection Trick Mirror:
In real life, you can walk around living life and be visible to other people. But you can’t just walk around and be visible on the internet — for anyone to see you, you have to act. You have to communicate in order to maintain an internet presence. And, because the internet’s central platforms are built around personal profiles, it can seem — first at the mechanical level, and later on as encoded instinct — like the main purpose of communication is to make yourself look good.
And here’s Robin Sloan again, from a recent newsletter: “On the internet, if you stop speaking: you disappear. And, by corollary: on the internet, you only notice the people who are speaking nonstop.”
On social media, you’re on the front porch with a bullhorn, yelling to everyone passing by. Blogging, though, is inviting them inside to sit down and have a drink. Over the last few years, I’ve slowly pulled back from social media, opting to write here and in my newsletter (Are newsletters the new blogs? Honestly, it’s probably the closest we’re gonna get.) When I do pop on Twitter now, I can’t keep up, I feel the anxiety rising. (I have nothing against social media btw, I owe a big part of my career to it.) The older I get, the less interested I am in shouting, less interested in acting. I just want a corner of the internet that’s my own, you’re welcome to stop by whenever you want.
This is not a post about how I will blog more (though I’d wish I did I just don’t have the time). This is just a post about why I like blogs, why I want more of them, and why I keep writing one. But of course the posts on this blog from the last five years that have gotten the most views are the ones I’ve tweeted about.