The End Of An Age, Or The End Of The Beginning?

Ubiquitous and high-speed connectivity and the emergence of a new breed of ‘genius’ mobile devices have led to a web in which information is perceived as and designed to be experienced in motion.

Jeremiah Owyang wants to declare the end of the golden age of tech blogging, or, even more portentously, he says

The tech blogosphere, as we know it, is over.

This could be interpreted in a number of ways, but at face value — and leaving aside for the moment the specifics of his argument — I agree. The ‘blogosphere’ — that mid ‘00s concept of a community of bloggers writing for each others and cross-linking through trackbacks and threaded comments — that communitarian vision has been superseded by other ideas of what is, or should be, happening, online.

However, I don’t want to adopt the metaphor that is used by people that fear the future, and long for a halcyon past. I won’t go along with the ‘golden age’ rhetoric, which is generally employed by those arguing a fall from a better past into a less virtuous present. (The concept comes from ancient Greek mythology, with its Golden, Silver, Bronze, Iron ages, and then the present, debased age.)

I prefer Winston Churchill’s trope:

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

Winston Churchill by Yousef Karsh

Churchill was, of course, referring to a turning point in the struggle with Germany during World War II, while we are discussing the transition from a more primitive and less social phase in the web revolution, into something more complex and, ultimately, more rewarding.

The points that Jeremiah makes to support his argument are very tactical, not looking at the strategic changes going on technologically or societally. His ‘trends’ aren’t really trends, but narrow extrapolations from recent events masquerading as business advice. They are these, in brief:

Trend 1: Corporate acquisitions stymie innovation
Trend 2: Tech blogs are experiencing major talent turnover
Trend 3: The audience needs have changed, they want: faster, smaller, and social
Trend 4: As space matures, business models solidify — giving room for new disruptors

These observations are interesting as far as they go, but aside from the ‘faster, small, and social’ I don’t think these are major, in any sense.

I’d like to offer a few trends that may be implied by Jeremiah’s lists or by the comments of various bloggers that he cites, but aren’t really characterized very well in his post.

It’s obvious that Jeremiah is caught up in the issues confronting three groups of web denizens posting their contributions posting on technology platforms based on a now well-established model of web publishing, which we call blogging. This is unexamined in his piece, but the model of a website made up of chronologically ordered posts with comments in a thread on each piece, and a variety of navigation or advertising widgets in the margin may be getting tired, and may not gibe with other modern advances in online media dynamics. At any rate, Owyang’s concerns seem to be directed toward three constituencies:

  1. Independent authors or analysts, who may find it harder to operate in a changed media world, or to make a living from blogging, if indeed very many did so.
  2. Blog network companies — like Techcrunch, Mashable, and The Next Web — that are confronted with the invasion of major media companies, consolidation, and turnover.
  3. And last, the ‘audience’ — by which Owyang means everyone else. I will put to the side that social media was supposed to be about the end of the audience — Jay Rosen’s famous ‘the people formerly known as the audience’ — and simply state that Owyang and the others groups he appears to be concerned about have largely internalized a media-centric worldview, while mouthing mostly empty platitudes about the power of social media.

He doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the problems of major media companies, which continue to be deadly serious, nor does he refer to the notable advances that media companies like The Atlantic have accomplished. Nor does he spend much time talking about the technology companies — like Tumblr, Twitter, and Flipboard — that are involved in the tectonic changes going on today; changes that make the ebb and flow of small-potato business models surrounding tech blogging look like the scrambling of ants underneath the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Yes, we are veering into a new era of web media; and it’s about goddamned time.

Here’s a few of the most powerful trends, in summary:

  1. The rise of the web of flow, and the fall of the web of pages — Ubiquitous and highspeed connectivity and the emergence of a new breed of ‘genius’ mobile devices have led to a web in which information is perceived as and designed to be experienced in motion. The user experience has shifted from wandering around, searching for information, moving via URLs from page to page. Increasingly, information flows to us through the agency of solutions like Twitter, Tumblr, and Flipboard, mediated by social and algorithmic ‘engines of meaning’, as Bruce Sterling styled it. We are no longer experiencing the web as exploring a library, but more like a drinking from a fire hose.
  2. The social revolution and social tools — While a lot of the discussion about the rise of blogging talked about social media, the technology involved wasn’t particularly social. However, the emergence of network-based social tools — notably Facebook, Twitter, and thousands of other niche offerings — have led to a dramatic and unprecedented change in information transmission: increasingly, people are getting their news and insight via social networks, channeled through other, known individuals. The simplest proof of this state change is that Twitter is now the emergency broadcast system, the canary in the coal mine, the first place that the most important information appears. These tools form the bloodstream and the nervous system for the connected world we now inhabit. And the blogs and other media tools that were principally about publishing pages in the previous era, are now primarily oriented toward pushing links and summaries into the social nervous system.
  3. Social learning, innovation, and curation — As the population online grows, piling into world-spanning social networks, there are a number of systemic changes. As Stalin is supposed to have said, quantity has a quality of its own. As the online population and social density online goes up, there are phase transitions involved, and I believe that somewhere in the past year or two, we passed through a threshold. As Mark Pagel argues, our level of social connection has grown to the point where new ideas can travel much more quickly and economically: this includes all ideas, not just those involved in tech blogging, but tech blogging too. The best ideas — and their originators — will rise to the top more quickly, and as a result, Pagel maintains that we have a lessened need for innovators, and at the same time we are learning more quickly than before. I believe that this is the complementary trend allied to the increased perceived need for good curators: the value of discernment — which ideas are more useful — has gone up, while the value of creating new ideas has gone down. And, of course, you can substitute ‘write yet another post about iPhone apps or the Zygna IPO’ wherever I wrote ‘idea’ or ‘innovation’.

Obviously, Owyang and those leaving comments on his post weren’t necessarily treating these trends. The post was ostensibly about the changes in the world of tech blogging, after all. But I don’t see how you can meaningfully explore that niche without the larger context.

Brian Solis sees the larger context as necessary as well:

I recently wrote about my thoughts on the state and future of blogs, which is of course far grander than the world of tech blogging. And as you can see, blogging is alive and clicking.
Yes, micromedia, video, and social transactions/actions are breaking through our digital levees and causing our social streams to flood. And, yes, Flipboard, Zite, and the like (get it?), are forcing our consumption patterns into rapid-fire actions and reactions. You have a choice. You are either a content creator, curator or consumer. You can be all of course. But, think about this beyond the mental equivalent of 140 characters. What do you stand for and what do you want to become known for? The answer is different for each of us. But, content, context, and continuity are all I need to learn, make decisions and in turn inspire others.

I don’t buy the consumer angle — after all, every person is curating for at least one person, themselves — so I consider it a cardinality distinction: curating for one is not appreciably different than curating for two or ten. All curators — of whatever degree of discernment — started by curating for themselves. But Solis clearly gets the big picture, and I agree totally that what is bubbling up today will make the web a place where we continue to come to learn, make decisions, and connect with — and perhaps inspire? — others to do the same.

Originally published at on 21 December 2011.

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