Saturday, November 5, 2022 at 12:37 AM
Twitter and the rebirth of the long form weblog
Long form writing contained in blogs served as static web pages seems to be making a comeback. In addition to consumer sites like Substack, which are making it easy for people to build both a following and an income from their writing, the latest trend among techies is a simple text-oriented blog written on their computer in text, converted to HTML locally and posted to a static server. No backend blog software needed. It's a fantastic trend, of which I am a happy participant.
This week, Twitter started going through serious corporate drama, culminating in today's layoffs. I hate to be mean, but I'm all for it. Twitter - among other social media platforms - helped killed rational thought on the web. Not just the popularity of individual blogs, but the expectations of both the writer and reader of the web in general. When Twitter launched, it was described as a “micro-blog”, because that’s what it was. But quick posts about random subjects soon morphed into its own thing: A tweet.
We all know what a tweet is: A short polemic statement, usually emotional, biased or opinionated, but expressed as self-evident without any justification, explanation or thorough analysis. It became the norm for the web as we know it. Blogs became a thing of the past - almost a cliche. They were something to be embarrassed about. "I used to have a blog" was spoken in the same hushed tone of admission along with having a MySpace page. The blogs that did remain were written by die-hards, or more often by commercial content farms whose main focus was driving clicks or spreading disinformation under the guise of a "blog".
I was an avid blogger at the time Twitter started, with thousands of daily readers. I had every reason to continue. And yet after I and others started tweeting regularly, my blogging slowed and then stopped. The reason is pretty simple: When you blog regularly, there’s a certain itch to express an idea or an opinion that builds up and you want to scratch it by writing a post. But before you wrote, you’d ruminate on the idea, and as you wrote you expanded and clarified it, like I am now. The end result was usually a decently sized essay with both a thought and the rationale behind it.
But tweeting could scratch that itch instantly - no need to save up enough of an idea to write a full blog post of a few paragraphs, you could just write, “Wow, foo sucks. Totally prefer bar instead.” And the feeling was satisfied. I remember thinking back then that I'd save up some ideas that I had tweeted about and write a longer post later. But later never seemed to come. And then, when it did, I'd be so used to culling my opinion down to the essential idea for a pithy tweet, fully expressing a thought became harder. Besides, the more open-ended a tweet was, the more opinionated, the more it would get reactions. In fact, expressing fully formed ideas wasn’t worth as much.
Twitter infected the entire blogging world like this. It was a vicious cycle, you’d blog less, and others who used to blog their ideas or leave comments wrote less as well, and that great feedback loop stalled as everything moved to tweets. Intelligent analysis was replaced by emotional exclamations and hard opinion. There’s no room for nuance in a tweet.
This was pretty obvious, even back then - I blogged about it at the time - but by the time it became clear how bad tweets were for intelligent discourse, the damage had already been done. But worse, Twitter embraced their role in the chaos - taking years to increase the size of tweets even a little, and doing nothing to encourage longer, more well thought out ideas. The fact that even in 2022, I regularly see "tweet storms" of connected tweets rather than a simple single page post shows how little they want their users to think about anything. Controversy and chaos is good for their platform, and they have encouraged it throughout their existence, regardless of the effect on society as a whole.
I never really tweeted all that much, but stopped for good in January 2016 in protest against the company for ignoring their own community guidelines and allowing a demagogue to use the platform to spread lies and disinformation. I didn't delete my account, but I did write a script to go through and delete all my old tweets. Later, I learned about the vast Russian disinformation campaign which created thousands of fake AI bots which engaged users in order sow discord among the Western democracies. And again, Twitter did nothing.
So to say I have little sympathy for the company and their employees now that they have Musk in charge, doesn't really express my feelings about it. But it's not schadenfreude or even glee - it's just a feeling that maybe justice is being served. Though really, I doubt Twitter will collapse because of the new management, and all those laid off employees are just going to flood the job market making my own job search all that much harder. So really, it's just more pain all around. The world would truly be a better place if Twitter never existed, or if it ever had the right employees who could have admitted the negative effect it was having on public discourse and dialogue, and did the right thing from the beginning. But they didn't. And we're all paying the price for it.
What I hope though is that today marks a crest of a wave for the age of tweets, and that the trend towards a more thought-out web, filled with complete thoughts and fully expressed ideas will again become the norm.