Earlier this week, Glenn Reynolds, known online as Instapundit, published an op-ed in USA Today about why he recently quit Twitter. He didn’t hold back, writing:
“[I]f you set out to design a platform that would poison America’s discourse and its politics, you’d be hard pressed to come up with something more destructive than Twitter.”
What really caught my attention, however, is when Reynolds begins discussing the advantages of the blogosphere as compared to walled garden social media platforms.
He notes that blogs represent a loosely coupled system, where the friction of posting and linking slows down the discourse enough to preserve context and prevent the runaway reactions that are possible in tightly coupled systems like Twitter, where a tweet can be retweeted, then retweeted again and again, forming an exponential explosion of pure reactive id.
As a longtime blogger myself, Reynolds’s op-ed got me thinking about other differences between social media and the blogosphere…
One of these differences that has consistently caught my attention is the way in which social media reconstructed the market for online attention.
Blogs implement a capitalist attention market. If you want attention for your blog you have to earn it through a combination of quality, in the sense that you’re producing something valuable for your readers, and trust, in the sense that you’ve produced enough good stuff over time to establish a good reputation with the fellow bloggers whose links will help grow your audience.
Succeeding in this market, like succeeding with a business venture, can be ruthlessly difficult. There’s lots of competition for the attention you’re trying to attract, and even skilled writers often find that something about their voice, or the timing of their topic, fails to catch on.
Social media, by contrast, implements a collectivist attention market, where the benefits of receiving attention are redistributed more uniformly to all users.
A key dynamic driving the popularity of platforms like Facebook and Instagram, for example, is the following notion: if you like me, I’ll like you. As I noted in Deep Work, if you took the contents of the standard Facebook or Instagram feed and published it on a blog, it wouldn’t attract any readers, or comments, or links. But put this content on a Facebook wall and there’s an implicit social contract in place to motivate the people you know to click a like button, or leave a nice comment in the anticipation that you’ll do the same.
Twitter is a little more complicated. A key dynamic on this platform is deconstructing “content” into small chunks that exist largely independently of the type of slowly accreting, decentralized trust hierarchies that throttle information flow in the blogosphere.
These tweets are easy to write and publish, and they can be acknowledged just as easily with a quick tap of a retweet or heart icon. By drastically lowering the bar for what “content creation” requires, and allowing content to spread in a homogenous, fluid interaction graph, many more people can experience the positive feeling of having someone pay attention to something they said.
Quality vs. Satisfaction
It’s not self-evident that one type of online media is better than the other. One advantage of a collectivist market, for example, is that it feels nice to receive attention, so spreading this experience to more people seems like a worthwhile endeavor.
Collectivist markets also potentially bring more voices into the online conversation, as the obstacles to finding an audience in the blogosphere are severe enough that some people who otherwise have something interesting to say might not bother trying to say it.
Capitalist attention markets, on the other hand, offer one decidedly important advantage: better content. To state the obvious, there are plenty of bad blogs. But in the blogosphere it’s easy to filter these from the more serious contributors that, through the traits of quality and trust cited above, distinguish themselves as worthwhile.
As any serious blog consumer can attest, a carefully curated blog feed, covering niches that matter to your life, can provide substantially more value than the collectivist ping-ponging of likes and memes that make up so much of social media interaction.
In other words, Glenn Reynolds was on to something when he stepped away from Twitter and began to reminisce about what once made blogging seem so exciting.
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