Back in the early 2000s, one of my fonder blog-related memories was being part of an adobo blog-a-thon, back when I was getting my feet wet in blogging. The idea was that different bloggers would write something, anything, about adobo — a short essay, a recipe, even fiction or poetry if it moved them — with the different links to each other’s blogs. It was fun, even exciting, and I felt linked to this community somehow, imagining other writers I barely knew (and now I know some of them pretty well) at their keyboards, crafting their pieces and pressing the Send button simultaneously, our humble digital testaments to this culinary and ethnic connection.
Eight years later, in 2011, I can’t imagine myself being part of something like that anymore. It’s not because I’ve become indifferent to such communal endeavors; it’s mostly because I just don’t have much time. But it’s also because there’s been a shift, on my part, in the substance and mechanics of content creation and how people engage with this. In short, I think my “writing,” in all senses of the word, changed because these writing forums themselves changed as well.
Sometimes I miss the old days when blogging was more self-obsessed, more structured like a diary, consisting of longer personal entries about the mundane, of people simply writing their thoughts out loud. I could write, for instance, about my (then) baby daughter’s pooping habits and not feel embarrassed about oversharing.
But then things got serious at some point — or rather, I felt self-conscious about the stuff I was posting. (No doubt every blogger goes through this period of panic early in their writing and decides to raze everything, their fingers hovering over the “Delete this blog” option.) I felt this pressure to clean it up, get serious, and to post, from then on, more carefully deliberated pieces. film, eyeballs, brain became the main offshoot of this, once I realized I actually enjoyed watching movies and writing about them.
Slowly, too, I decided to shed my pseudonymity — those days of going to an academic conference and being asked “Are you The Wily Filipino?” were long gone anyway — and started writing as myself. I had books and ideas to peddle, after all, and my online identity was part of that.
That pressure also meant that I ended up posting less entries in general out of a desire to raise the quality of the content. I started getting enamored of the idea that I was preparing and crafting a blog entry rather than just dashing it off. “Less content, higher quality” didn’t sound too bad a guiding principle.
There were, in any case, easier outlets for all the personal / diary / mundane content; those were Facebook and Twitter. It became easier to treat Twitter as a kind of micro-blog, sending press releases out into the world.
But the drawbacks, as anyone struggling with even a small Twitter feed can attest to, is that the format is capable of generating an awful lot of noise, both from the producer’s and the consumer’s side. Yes, I want to let my few regular readers know that I had a new blog entry out. But I also want to let friends know I was at a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight, or that I was tucking into a mac and cheese dish with crumbled potato chips on top at Homeroom. And those blog readers and friends were, in the majority of cases, not the same people.
The ease of disseminating something on Facebook or Twitter made me become a lazy curator of content as well. In the old blogging days I would at least force myself to write comments or a description of whatever it was I linked — in short, to engage with the text. Now a “Check this out,” posted to my Facebook wall, or a quick retweet with no comment would suffice.
I now look back at my old blog entries — where in the early days I actually spent time thinking about the YouTube video I was about to post — with some regret for what I’d lost later on. Would the retweet really have been more meaningful with some of my own words to place it in context? But of course: surely a few minutes of writing would’ve added some personal flavor and made the post, in some little way, my own. Even if it were some stupid video that made me happy for a moment.
Thinking about how my readers engaged with my content — even if it was just a link posted to my Facebook wall — was a slightly different story, however. I get a lot of satisfaction (and who doesn’t, really?) from a nice long thread of comments, whether they’re well-argued and thought-out reactions, or even just a chorus of “me-toos.”
The problem, I thought, was that this discussion was mostly happening on Facebook. Many times there’d be comments that I’d wish were posted on the blog, i.e., the real site of the content, where more people could participate and read the thread.
That, I thought, was the main problem with Facebook; ultimately, it was all romping about in a walled garden, with the outside world unable to peek in. Sometimes I’d even backchannel the Facebook friend and ask her/him to post the comment on my blog, because I was worried the blog was being… well, neglected, somehow.
It took me a while to realize this, but of course the blog wasn’t being ignored. The readers — and so what if they were “just” Facebook friends of mine? — were reacting and responding in the most comfortable way they knew how.
It’s not like you’re building a playground, sending out invitations and hoping everyone comes over to play and check out your monkey bars. The lesson I learned here: you take the site and the content to the reader, and they should be free to discuss and converse wherever they want. They’re still talking about your content, after all, and I shouldn’t insist, even to myself, that my blog was the “real” site where the content lived and breathed.
Right now I’m waiting to see how Google+ pans out. I can already see how it solves some of the drawbacks mentioned above: you can send out the more crafted content to people who might want it, and all the goofy stuff to friends (who still may not want it), all from one place.
Barbara Jane Reyes asks in one of her latest entries why writers follow / “friend” other writers:
do you “friend” writers and artists you don’t know personally, because you want to know what they’re up to, or because you want them to know what you’re up to?
Regarding Twitter, my answer was certainly the former — and if they were an exceptionally witty tweeter like Colson Whitehead, even better. I had no expectation that any of these writers would follow me back, and they don’t. (I’ve never sent a friend request to anyone on Facebook with whom I didn’t have a passing acquaintance — and honestly, I don’t think I’ve initiated an actual friend request in over a year — so Barb’s question doesn’t quite apply to me.)
G+, it seems, straddles those boundaries precisely because there’s a little more opportunity for engagement. Thoughtful comments on another person’s post can certainly increase your chances for some sort of visibility.
But its shortcomings are clear, too. G+ seems manageable right now because I’m not following a few dozen people like I am on Twitter, but that will change, at some point. For instance, I set up a “lit” list at some point, but just looking through the Twitter feed, much less reading the actual essays, started feeling like a chore.
That means too that my post is potentially lost in all the chaos, drowned by Farmville and Foursquare updates and daily horoscopes, visible only to the obsessives who check their feeds every hour. (That’s the good thing about RSS readers; interfaces may have been clunky, but at least you could quickly spot when a new entry had been posted. Does anyone still use those, though?) I have similar worries about G+, once their developer API is out in the world.
You might say G+ breaks down at least one of the walls surrounding that garden — provided, of course, people actually come over. Probably 80% of the people who have me in their G+ circles are Facebook friends who signed up, looked around a bit, and never logged in again. Some publicly broadcasted their confusion (usually as their first post on G+), wondered where the wall was, and returned to Facebook.
Still, I’m waiting to see what this new social online forum might mean — enough so that I’m actually cross-posting the entire contents of this entry on G+ at some point when I’m in front of a desktop (because posting / resharing via mobile sucks).
[Update: This blog entry is also “crossposted” to Google Plus.]
[Mega-Update: Barbara Jane Reyes has a long response here. Comments to follow.]