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Blogging, social media, and ambient humanity

posted by Tim Carmody   Mar 23, 2018

Dan Cohen is a history professor and administrator at Northeastern University; he was also the executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, and has been a general public smartypants in the field of digital humanities.

Dan recently wrote a blog post titled “Back to the Blog,” which muses on a microtrend I’ve seen as well. Friends and writers, not thousands or probably even hundreds, but solid dozens, returning to old-fashioned weblogging as a way to get their thoughts in order, take ownership of their intellectual property, get away from the Twitter hubbub, stick it to Facebook, or any one of a dozen other reasons to write a blog.

Now, a lot of the professional infrastructure of blogging that once was is broken. The ad networks that supported people don’t exist or don’t work the same way. The distribution, via RSS and then Google Reader, was monopolized and then fractured. Some of the blogging networks take as much of a walled-garden approach to their sites as Facebook does.

But, if you just want to blog (which is different from making a living as a blogger), it’s probably easier to start and host your own blog than it ever was. What’s holding people back, Cohen writes, isn’t really technical:

It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity—the feeling that “others are here”—that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.

The metaphor suggests that blogging either needs its own mechanisms of ambient humanity — which it’s had, in the form of links, trackbacks, conversations, even (gulp) comments, all of which replicated at least a fraction of the buzz that social media has — or it needs a kind of escape velocity to break that gravitational pull. Gravity or speed. Or a hybrid of both.