Who Killed The Blogosphere?

Popzazzle | Tuesday, 4 May 2021 |

"But if it doesn't read like the contents of a call centre Team Leader's motivational speech, it's most unlikely to be widely visible. I mean, come on, that's not a blogging site."


WordPress.com Twenty Ten theme
A classic fixed-width design theme from WordPress.com, named 'Twenty Ten'. This was one of the most popular themes of all time, but is now 'retired' and unavailable to new WP.com users.

Have you noticed? Blogging platforms died. Oh yes they did. No one wants to open them anymore, and the biggest, most successful blogging platform in the world surreptitiously reinvented itself as a website-builder. In an age where it's vastly easier to find an entertaining or incisive “blog post” on Twitter than it is on the one-time king of bloggery WordPress.com, surely it's time to ask: what happened? Who's to blame for our collective unfriending of the blogosphere?

In part, this article was inspired by a recent trip down memory lane, in which I rifled through a clutch of my old WordPress.com blogs - all of them for long set to private. Some of them have old, fixed-width design themes from the days before everyone went mobile and everything suddenly had to tailor itself to the precise screen width of the visitor. And the early followers of these blogs were clearly a very different kind of person from the typical new follower my public WP blogs get today.

Digging back into this olde-worlde of nostalgia really brought home the tragedy that has befallen WordPress.com. It's no longer primarily marketed as a blogging platform. It's now officially a website-builder, and can't you just tell? To be brutal, it's become the very spam-haven that it originally insisted it abhorred.

My nostalgia trip rekindled memories of what it was like when your new followers were people called Chan, or Gayle, and not people called “Make Money Online”. I remembered when your new followers had actual content to show you. Content they'd written purely and solely because they cared, and which meant the world to them. Today, if your newest follower hasn't tried to flog you three things before you've read the first line of their first post, you'll just get a “Coming Soon” wall. And mercifully so, if I might be truthful. WordPress.com is now a different world. The bloggers moved out, the chancers moved in. Or so it seems.

WHEN DID IT ALL GO WRONG?


So where did the bloggers go? And when did the exodus begin? Why did it begin?

I thought I knew the answer. I thought that all WordPress.com users were once motivated almost exclusively by the craft of writing, and that this motivation was progressively better served by other platforms starting somewhere around the early to mid 2010s. To prove myself right I decided to do a short survey. In fact, all the survey did was prove me wrong.

I ran the survey in two parts. In each of these parts I took a sample of blogs from very old WordPress.com Freshly Pressed presentations, and then traced what happened to each of the blogs in the sample. For Part One, I took a sample from fifteen years ago - spring 2006. And for Part Two, I took a sample from ten years ago - spring 2011.

Freshly Pressed
Freshly Pressed, when it resided on the WordPress.com homepage. The glory days for many a blogger.

Freshly Pressed was a compilation of featured blog posts, which used to be located on the main WordPress.com homepage. Due to its extremely high-traffic location, it generated an absolute stampede of attention for everyone featured. The blogger would be overwhelmed with blog comments as the rest of the blogosphere sniffed a chance to have their wisdom noted in an obviously busy place. Page view stats would go through the roof. If anyone needed an impetus to keep blogging for life, surely that was it.

So at a glance, it appeared that the people featured on Freshly Pressed would be the most likely bloggers to continue blogging. That was my theory. Let's find out if they did...

SURVEY PART 1 - 2006


Here's the status of the featured blogs on the WordPress.com homepage circa spring 2006. Each entry begins with the WordPress.com blogname...

  • lorelle: no posts since 2018.
  • scobleizer: still blogging, on a custom domain.
  • churumuri: no posts since August 2020.
  • pommekelly: blog still accessible, but emptied of all content.
  • macnewbie: no posts since March 2008.
  • samideas: no posts since August 2011.
  • siciliacarlosblog: closed within days of being featured, in April 2006.
  • qwertymaniac: suspended in mid 2007 - seemingly for using the platform for paid promotion.
  • footballvideos: suspended days after being featured, in April 2006.
  • jonathantu: blog set to private since at least 2013, but posts appear to have stopped in April 2007.
  • nosysnoop: suspended in mid 2011.

I didn't expect so many blogs to go down so early, but the biggest surprise was the number of suspensions. Three blogs out of eleven, which is 28%. And not just 28% of random blogs, but 28% of blogs carefully chosen by the WordPress team.

I could only get a clue as to the reason for suspension in one case. There was evidence that the blogger had been taking money from third parties to post commercial pitches - at least one of which could be seen on a Web Archive capture of the homepage before suspension. Using a WP.com blog for any commercial purpose was against the Terms of Service prior to 2012, so I'm assuming it was the reason for suspension.

And this introduces an element I hadn't previously considered to be a factor in the early days... Maybe, even back in the mid 2000s, a hefty sector of WordPress bloggers had a primary goal of making money, and either quit the platform because they couldn't, or were thrown off the platform because they tried. Noticeably, one of the other blogs in the sample was closed by the blogger within days of being featured. Did they just get overwhelmed by the surge of attention? Or did they want to turn that attention into cash and become frustrated because they couldn't?

Original Planet Botch blog
Planet Botch - now on Blogger - was originally on WordPress.com. It wore a number of themes whilst open - including this one, Redoable Lite.

Actually, the commercial dead end is something I should have considered, because that was the exact reason I closed my original Planet Botch blog on WordPress, and moved it to Blogger in 2011.

But I did keep my other main blog on WordPress - a transport photo daily which did very well before Google changed its Image Search mechanism in 2013. From January that year, Image Search dropped its practice of serving the source page behind the image viewer, so publishers no longer notched up an automatic page view when a web-surfer clicked on a Google Images thumbnail. Stats immediately bombed, and that essentially killed the project. I'm sure this horrendous search engine update destroyed many other photo blogs too.

SURVEY PART 2 - 2011


So far then, this has not been about bloggers being enticed away from WordPress by Medium, Patreon or Tumblr. It appears to be down to other factors. But let's now look at the second part of the survey. Here's the status of the featured blogs on the WordPress.com homepage circa spring 2011...

  • theurbanhippie: no posts since June 2019.
  • mamasemptynest: still blogging.
  • deafgeoff: since 2015 has used the blog as a website, with a profile landing page set to home, and a list of links to his social media. No posts since February 2017.
  • jonathanfleming: no posts since January 2018.
  • lorenasepiphany: ceased posting in April 2011. Blog deleted by 2013.
  • 2eat2drink: only one post since November 2016 (in June 2018).
  • nhwn: last posted in January 2021.
  • craftnectar: last posted in July 2020.
  • jennaseverythingblog: last posted on WordPress.com in October 2011. Then moved to self-hosted, but hasn't posted on the self-hosted blog since September 2020.
  • succincity: no posts since May 2011.
  • unveiled.blogs.cnn.com: now redirects to an empty page.

Although only two of the bloggers have posted this year, as a group they've statistically continued for longer than the Class of 2006. This may be because the WordPress team were able to make better choices of blogs to feature in 2011 than they were less than six months after starting up, in 2006.

Perhaps also significant in the timing of the abandonments is that in 2012, WordPress.com implemented a drastic policy shift regarding the potential to monetise. This revision came when the platform launched WordAds - a native, user-partnered advertising programme. Although WordAds solved the platform's old problem of the commercial dead end, it created the new problem of slowly throwing the focus off creative blogging and onto revenue-focused blogging. This would inevitably have an impact on the community spirit, but not immediately. That transition would take time.

The second sample didn't really match my expectations any more than the first. I thought I'd see the majority quitting somewhere between 2012 and 2016, which was when alternatives like Patreon and Medium were filtering into public consciousness, and WordPress.com was starting to become more “steamroller” in its approach. But the departures either come soon or immediately after the Freshly Pressed feature, or post 2017, which was when Twitter threads gathered momentum as a blogging alternative.

WAS SOCIAL MEDIA THE CULPRIT?


So did Twitter threads kill the blogosphere? Social media as a whole was doubtless a factor. But I'm also inclined to believe - as a long-time WordPress user - that the slow influx of marketers, coupled with WP.com's relentless insistence on forcing in unpopular software, broke the spirit of seasoned WordPress publishers. Especially if they know a bit about the tech side of blogging. Let me show you something...

SEO-KING GONE BAD


Back in the day, WordPress.com straddled a proud reputation as King of Search Engine Optimisation. No other blogging platform could compete when it came to optimised pages. But get a load of this...

Tape Tardis PageSpeed

That's how a recent post of mine from the WordPress.com blog Tape Tardis performs on Google's PageSpeed Insights - even when I've made every tweak within my power to maximise the score. And for comparison, here's how a recent post from this Google blog performs...

Popzazzle PageSpeed

There it is. The commercial blogging platform that once ruled the world of page performance, exposed as way inferior to a Blogspot blog - once almost the laughing stock. And page performance now IS SEO. With everything else like for like, Google prioritises the fastest pages. So a free WordPress.com blog can in no way claim to be the best SEO option in 2021.

I find it terribly sad that WordPress.com - the place that provided my first (genuinely magical) experience of blogging, has not only ditched its allegiance to bloggers to focus on an overcrowded website-builder market, but also vastly deteriorated as a user experience, and let go its unconditional pledge of premium SEO. And that's before we even think about its venture into the “get rich quick” market.

But I wouldn't singularly blame WordPress for the death of the blogosphere. There have been other factors at play, and we can't ignore the fact that no other platform has managed to capture the common appeal that the WordPress-centred blogosphere once had.

Potential audience reach on social media has obviously had an impact, as has the draw of money-spinning alternatives like Patreon. But there have been some more general issues, like the growth of the “don't @ me” era, and the rise of content marketing.

DON'T @ ME!


One really important change in blog culture over the past ten years has been the widespread abandonment of comment facilities. Blogging platforms such as WordPress and Blogger have traditionally offered the user a choice on whether to enable or disable commenting. And for long, most bloggers did enable and encourage comments. True, Seth Godin almost single-handedly pioneered the “don't @ me” approach by disallowing comments from the earliest days of the blogosphere. But the very fact that in 2006 he felt the need to explain why no one could comment on his posts, shows how much pressure fell on bloggers to allow comments at that time.

In the 2010s, more publishers began to realise that commenting can be close to a no-win appendage for the actual blogger, and there were far more reasons for this than Godin would cite. It wasn't just the time-consumption. It was the loss of SEO focus. The high quantity of badly-written and/or thoughtless content... On many professional sites, the course of the 2010s saw commenting either abandoned altogether, or locked off behind an extra click to avoid literal damage to the main page.

As more bloggers followed suit and locked off their comments, the blogosphere saw a reduction in its primary ladder-climbing tool. If you can't add your voice to high profile blogs, you don't get noticed, and you don't grow. And high profile blogs were often among the first to change their commenting policies.

Medium.com struck back with a platform into which commenting was hardwired. Whether Medium should be classed as a blogging platform is debatable. For me it's too tunnel-visioned in its style and subject focus to be anything like a match for the WordPress community of old. I'd cite it as more of a relation to Hubpages, which has a coercive approach to user generated content. On Medium, you can, within reason, write what you like. But if it doesn't read like the contents of a call centre Team Leader's motivational speech, it's most unlikely to be widely visible. I mean, come on, that's not a blogging site.

But Medium is nevertheless a place where many bloggers have gone to escape the metamorphosis of WordPress into a small business tool. And it's kept the practice of commenting fully operational by force.

CONTENT MARKETING


And now we have content marketing. As the 2010s progressed, smaller enterprise steadily discovered that the way to place free adverts on search engines, was to blog. Never gave a stuff about blogging before, but suddenly: “Whoa! This produces free customers! LET'S BLOG!” And OMG do they now blog!

The saturation of content marketing in the visible environs of the search results has squeezed out the potential for many traditional bloggers to be found on Google, Bing and their derivatives. So where does a blogger go to be noticed these days? That's just it. It's become incredibly difficult. In the 2000s, you could plonk a 500-worder onto WordPress and be on the first page of Google before the end of the week. No further action required. Just a few forum link shares from your followers, and the platform would do the rest. It's a very, very different world today...

COMPETITION


If you read modern articles about search engine optimisation, you'll quickly become aware of the effort that publishers now have to put into their work in order to secure those front page search listings. The email outreach process alone has its own strategy meeting. The article research takes two weeks. They have to hire a graphics specialist to bait the necessary volume of social media shares and backlinks from other sites. This is what blogging has become. A campaign.

Bloggers who were massive names ten plus years ago have been swept into an abyss as these office-based “blogging” teams calculatedly fire their word and media missiles at Googlebot, bidding for top positions in popular searches, which they will then turn into sales.

For ordinary bloggers, this is beyond competition. The widespread entry of business into blogging has provided, in my view, the greatest demotivation of all for small enthusiast bloggers. Closure of the door to major search visibility across most significant publishing genres has been the final nail in the coffin for the blogosphere as we knew it.

STORIFICATION


The last core change to blogging I'm going to mention here, has been the imperative for storification. If you've ever been approached by commercial enterprise for copywriting, you might have noticed them referring to what us bloggers of old would call a post, or an article, as a “story”.

That's right, blogging has been heavily influenced by the news industry, and there's now a belief that in order to succeed, even posts about digging the garden or making a cake have to be storified. So rather than How to Make Your Garden Look Good, the buyers of blog copywriting are now looking for How My Garden Changed My Neighbours' Lives and Earned Me £20,000. Or Why These Six Garden Layouts Will Make Your Postman Feel Alive. No, better make that ten garden layouts - WITH PICTURES.

We're not far away from having to write an actual book within a single post. Some people already do.

And the consequence? The expectations are just too high for an amateur blogger. They can't compete, so they quit. And it's a tragedy, because we're now stuck in this generic world, which is completely in the grip of capitalism, and in which some of the most refreshing, funny, brilliant posts have no chance at all of gaining search visibility. Every visible blog looks the same. And it has to look the same, because if it isn't built the way Google wants it to be built, it absolutely, categorically, will not be realistically searchable.

TO SUM UP...


The blogosphere of old was never wall to wall with brilliance. It always majored on tedium, and it always had its share of money-first drones. But at least you could find the quirks. The unique one-offs who genuinely had something different to say. Steadily, almost all of their routes out of the shadows have been either swamped by bot-like cash-chasers, or cut off altogether.

And if I had to select one entity as the blogosphere's executioner? That's pretty easy. Money. But it would be hypocritical of me to pretend I wasn't part of the problem.
Bob Leggitt
Post author Bob Leggitt is a print-published writer and digital image creator, multi-instrumentalist, twice Guitarist of the Year finalist, web page designer and software developer.
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