Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 7 October 2012

The state of blogging

A number of Lib Dem blog posts (and some from a former Lib Dem) in the last couple of weeks have been discussing the state of blogging in general and Lib Dem blogging in particular. They seem to have been sparked initially by Stephen Tall's remarks during his Blog of the Year Award speech at conference where he highlighted how there are now fewer Lib Dem blogs registered on the aggregator than in previous years.

There have been questions about whether those awards themselves need to be revamped and also general debate about the quality of what is being written nowadays and the format in which it is happening.

I engaged with this discussion on Twitter and am probably a bit late to the party as regards blogging about it but here is my two penn'orth.

Next month will be the fourth anniversary of this blog's existence and it is fair to say that things have changed a lot with online writing in that time.

The biggest change in my view has been the consolidation of blogging into a number of widely read and powerful (in the online sense) group blogs. This was already happening to an extent when I started but it has happened much more recently. For example I cannot think of any Conservative activist blogs that are written by a single person and read widely. Instead, pretty much all the Conservative online writing (excluding MSM) that is worth reading is published by Conservative Home. Now I'm not necessarily saying this is a terrible thing. Con Home is a very good site and they do seem to reflect a wide range of views (they even published a piece from me recently!). But of necessity they have a particular format and length restrictions etc. that mean those views are now presented in a similar way to each other. This diversity that was prevalent in blogging's early days is now largely filtered through the Con Home conduit.

A similar dynamic can be observed in the Labour/left wing blogosphere. LabourList, Left Foot Forward, Political Scrapbook and Liberal Conspiracy are the main blogs in this arena and between them they have hoovered up most of the best left wing writers. Some of them (such as my old friend Emma Burnell) continue to write some posts on their own blogs but the gravitational pull of these larger group blogs has taken its toll.

Lib Dems, perhaps reflecting their somewhat stubborn individualistic tendencies have been less prone to this form of online corralling. There is still a reasonably vibrant Lib Dem blogging scene albeit again some of the best writers have been co-opted as day-editors of Lib Dem Voice. But I think that structure works quite well as 6/7 days each of those people can and do crack on with putting out content on their own sites. Even Mark Pack and Stephen Tall (the main editors of Lib Dem Voice) have their own individual blogs they keep updated whereas this tends not to happen with the major Conservative and Labour blogs.

From a non-party perspective there are also a number of independent group blogs such as Dale & Co, The Huffington Post UK and The Periscope Post which are having varying degrees of success and influence. And of course sitting atop all of this is the Guido Fawkes blog which quite incredibly has managed to become the equivalent of a major tabloid newspaper within the blogosphere with almost as much political influence as something like The Sun. This may or may not be a good thing depending on your point of view!

There have been a number of excellent writers who have stopped altogether over the four years I have been blogging. People like Alix Mortimer, Charlotte Gore and Stuart Sharpe spring instantly to mind but there are plenty of others. But that is bound to happen over any length of time and there are plenty of new bloggers who have started in the meantime.

There are also a number of writers who started online and who have moved into writing for newspapers or magazines (in some cases exclusively, in other cases still maintaining an independent online presence). I say good luck to them. Getting paid and getting a wide readership are the two most difficult things in blogging so those that have managed to achieve it have nothing but my admiration.

Another important factor in recent years has been the rise of social media. Facebook and Twitter for example are used extensively by politicians and activists to engage in discussions with other activists and also non-politicos. Twitter in particular seems well suited to this as it allows an asymmetric number of followers vs those whom you follow so it well suits politicians and others who may only want to directly follow a small number of people but for whom there are thousands who would like to read what they say. Julian Huppert made this exact point in a fringe meeting I attended at conference.

Twitter is often misunderstood by those who have not used it. It is not just a forum for telling people "what you had for breakfast" (although many of its users will have done this at one point or another!). If used well it can be an excellent way of breaking stories; they can spread like wildfire within minutes. It can also be used to engage in debates with activists from all parties and none. The way the reply mechanism works means that you can debate with several people at once although eventually the 140 character limit means you run out of room for all of their names but some of the best discussions about politics I have ever had occurred on Twitter. Also, often things I discuss on there spark off an idea that results in a blog-post. I see the two fora as complementary to each other rather than that "Twitter is killing blogging" as I have sometimes seen commented.

It's probably invidious to try and discern if blogging is objectively worse or better than it was four years ago. It's certainly different and very likely will continue to change.

For my part, I have written for a number of the group blogs listed above but I have always seen that as an adjunct to my own independent blogging on here. I did temporarily cease blogging in 2010 for a few months but couldn't stay away for long! Also in the last year for personal reasons I have not blogged as frequently as in previous years but in some ways I feel that has given my posts more room to breathe. I have tended to find that if I don't blog for a few days then a post just sort of bubbles up inside me and then comes out in a frenzy of typing in 10 or 20 (or in the case of this post about 50) minutes.

I've no idea where the medium of blogging is going to go in the next few years. Probably more consolidation and perhaps more of its brightest stars poached by the mainstream media. But I think one thing is clear. Independent online writing in all its forms will continue to have a major effect on politics for many years to come.

We should all be thankful for the deeper engagement with the public that this allows.


Eoghan O'Neill said...

Nice one Mark.

Dale & Co is a failure for me. I used to read Iain Dale's old-school blog fairly religously, but barely check the new site. Huffington Post also represents a missed opportunity for me.

Perhaps I just don't like change, but what brings me back here again and again (along with LDV, Guido and Liberal Conspiracy and the occasional check of ConHome it's the only place I go outside the mainstream broadsheet sites) is that it "feels" like a true blog. You've still got a one-man operation, with purely personal views, on a simple Blogger layout. That makes it quite comforting. The fact that pretty much everything you say is right may be a factor too :-)

Mark Thompson said...

Thanks for your kind words Eoghan.

I would be interested in hearing you expand on how you consider D&C to be a failure. I think there are some writers on there who are excellent (e.g. Jerry Hayes, Peter Watt) and it has probably brought them to a wider audience although the frequency of posts seems to have tailed off more recently (and I include myself in that). But what specifically is your issue with it?

Eoghan O'Neill said...

I had a good think about that. It feels petty - it IS petty - but I think it's layout.

Offline, my "natural" newspaper home, on the rare occasions that I still buy one, is the Independent. Online, I get almost all my news from the Guardian, with the Telegraph a distant second and the Indie languishing further behind. Before the revamp I never used to go there at all. It was the difference between being able to see the content you wanted to view, instantly, and having to take a few seconds.

Trivial as it sounds, it's the same experience at D&C. The "recent posts" section always seems to indicate that the site hasn't been updated for over a week, even when I know that's not the case. But there's no logical structure to the way posts are grouped or laid out, and with so much choice out there, it just drives me elsewhere. Feels trivial and I'd love to say my blog reading habits are determined by ideology, quality of content and so on but it's the truth with me.

Another minor bugbear of mine: blogs where you can't read the whole post on the home page but are faced with a "continue reading" button.