19 settembre 2011

The future | Blogging 101 | Geoff Manaugh

by Geoff Manaugh*

This five-part series about our contemporary era of architecture and design blogging concludes here with a look forward at blogging’s future: where blogging might go next, what divisive fates it should attempt to avoid, and even whether or not blogging has a future at all. It is, in some ways, an odd time to be looking ahead; after all, to discuss the future of blogging implies that there is a future for blogging. But the traditional blog – which I’ll define as a regularly updated website whose content is posted in reverse chronological order, organized around a more or less thematically consistent cluster of topics, and written by a limited number of authors, often just one – seems to be on the verge of disappearing. Blogging, we might say, is in the process of going extinct. This overtly pessimistic prediction, however, need not come to pass, as we’ll see below.

First, it is worth looking at two apparently unstoppable trends that, in the past few years, have fundamentally transformed how blogs are written, who writes them, what audiences now expect from them, and what role blogs play in the larger media landscape. One of these trends is the proliferation of micro-blogging services and apps – things like Twitter, Tumblr, Posterous, and even Instagram. Ironically, all of these encourage – in fact, explicitly reward – short-form content. For instance, Twitter’s 140-character limit gives writers barely enough space in which to describe a link they’re about to share with their readers, let alone enough space in which to offer their own original analyses or interpretations.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with this – I myself am an enthusiastic user of Twitter – it has had an undeniable side effect. Twitter has made it so easy to share links, without doing any critical work and without offering any elaboration or commentary, that many writers have been robbing themselves, in a sense, of potential blog posts. Instead, many writers now opt for the easy and immediate gratification of an off-the-cuff share on Twitter, where sharing new links and content can be achieved with no need to maintain an individual website. In other words, a writer’s Twitter feed can often be in direct competition with his or her own blog. To a lesser extent, the same thing can be said about new photo-sharing services such as Twitpic or Instagram. After all, why write an entire blog post explaining where you are, how you got there, why what you are about to photograph has any significance or meaning, or even what your purpose was in going to see that location in the first place – when you can simply upload a quick, wittily captioned photo and wait for your friends to click “like”? Indeed, why do any work at all?

It should be obvious that this aggressively negative attitude overlooks the social utility and intellectual value of these microblogging services; but the larger point remains valid. It is now so easy not to blog that many writers who, as recently as two years ago, might have started their own blog with which to build an audience, are now simply sending things out into the world via Twitter, a service notoriously difficult to archive (and a decision that might ultimately prevent that writer from achieving the recognition or success that they believe they are pursuing).

In all of these cases, the path of least resistance seems to win. Another, more fatal change in the nature of blogging today is its absorption by what I will loosely describe as “corporate media”. While I would actually argue that blogs run by magazines, newspapers, educational institutions, and private corporations aren’t really “blogs” in any true sense of the word, that’s something of a moot point. Today, it seems that literally anything written on the Internet is considered a “blog”; indeed, the difference between blogs, websites, and other online publications has been entirely and unfortunately eroded.

As blogs are now written less and less by individual critics or amateur enthusiasts, and more and more by paid teams of semi-professional writers working in the service of often much larger companies or publications – The New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, USA Network, The Atlantic, Forbes – we are seeing blogs treated as little more than the PR wings of large media conglomerates. In the long run, this will devalue blogs’ cultural role, it will neutralize their very real critical power, and it will make a mockery of the claim that blogging can give a voice to the otherwise unempowered.

The amateur, unaffiliated status of blogs should be thoroughly and unironically celebrated; in a sense, that is their whole purpose and value. Blogging – that is, taking notes in public about things of interest to you and your particular readers – will always be useful as long as there is an Internet. Further, blogging needs the impulsively produced, charismatically disorganized content for which is has become deservedly famous (and, in many circles, for which it has been sarcastically dismissed). Blogging does not need the big budgets and official connections of corporate media; it needs excitable people with interests, sharing things with the rest of the world. In any case, having said all that, blogging does also have a more straightforward future – a tactical usefulness that will never go away.

In a recent interview I recorded with architects Mason White and Lola Sheppard of Lateral Office, based in Toronto, they both referred to their blog InfraNet Lab, which they co-author with Neeraj Bhatia and Maya Przybylski. InfraNet Lab, they explained, functions as an open catalogue of possible future projects: possible sites, problems, materials, and even clients for which no immediate next step is yet clear. The blog serves, at its most basic, to quietly organize the designers’ thoughts, helping take steps toward an interpretation or solution, no matter how speculative it might be. The blog is incremental and strategically incomplete. The blog, on the one hand, and the design practice, on the other, thus use and rely on each other’s particular skills; each achieves what it is uniquely suited for.

It should not surprise anyone that blogs can be used this way. In fact, we could say that blogging’s future is what it has always been, but without the hype or the overblown expectations – without the irrational exuberance that once claimed blogging would put universities out of business, replace whole networks of editors and their fields of expertise, and eliminate entire industries. Those delirious over-statements of blogging’s power have done a disservice to blogging’s genuine usefulness, and they have inadvertently contributed to the corporate takeover of blogging, described above. What blogging needs to avoid today, if it is to have any truly interesting future role in tomorrow’s media landscape, is becoming nothing more than a misleading extension of corporate public relations; at the same time, blogging can’t lose its impulsive, research-based, perpetually incomplete edge, the sense that a blog’s author is out on a wild process of discovery along with us.

Further, what blogging does not need, if it is to survive in a useful form, are vacuous and divisive exhortations to “be meaner,” as at least one critic has written – to be at each other’s throats at all times and in all contexts – as if aggression and rhetorical offensiveness are the only things that make online discourse worth reading. Not poetry, not new ideas and diagonal perspectives on human spatiality, not the awesome ingenuity of architectural thought. Blogging should rise above these childish, playground taunts and focus on more ambitious goals. In the end, no matter how we look at it, the future of blogging is by no means guaranteed. Many people would prefer to see blogs domesticated and turned into camouflaged publicity for paying clients; others would like to see blogs replaced with the same insider arguments found in academic publications (from which so many bloggers and their readers were trying to escape in the first place).

The future of architecture and design blogging should:

1) make pop culture more interesting by introducing fringe ideas to wider audiences, acting as a bridge between the periphery and the center;
2) synthesize ideas from apparently unrelated fields; 
3) and thus unite writers, designers, architects, clients, the reading public, and other practitioners across geographic and professional backgrounds around shared themes of inquiry and concern.

In the process, blogging’s future should pursue a larger political goal of changing what conversations take place in the context of architecture and design, who is able to participate in those discussions, and, finally, how widely – and in what form – the results of these exchanges can be disseminated. These are ambitious, even utopian, goals, but they are also part of what it will take to ensure that blogging will, indeed, have a future.


* Publication authorized by Abitare
Geoff Manaugh, Blogging 101 - The future,
 Abitare n. 514, July-august 2011, pp. 164-167

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