It is increasingly hard for small content producers to share their own blog posts online as news aggregators and social networks move towards different algorithms that penalize them. In this brief article, I’ll summarize the problem, make an argument that the current solutions are bad, and finally question if this path is actually leading to the web we really want.
The blogosphere on the web is like algae on the sea. It is quite hard to see it from the surface but it provides a lot of the oxigen we need and serve as natural habitat, nutrient, and nursery for enormous and diverse ecosystems. So is the blogosphere. Lots of the people you know about started as bloggers. Many of the cool startups and tech used everywhere begun as just a developer and their blog. It is in small, owned, platforms like personal blogs that long form text and projects take shape over time. There is imense value in it and the web would be a wasteland if blogs were gone. There would be still stuff on the web, but the oxigen, that life force of an internet made by people and for people, would not be there.
The blogosphere has been under active attack by corporations for years. The Web is the only mass media channel where everyone has a voice. That voice might be a low whisper but you’re still allowed to speak. The same can’t be said for other media such as printed media or TV channels. The blogosphere is a repository of memory, culture, dreams, and much more. But since it is not under control of FAANG and similar corps, and not making them money, it is crippled by design due to flaws in how many online products behave.
The hardest thing today is not starting a blog; you can do it with a couple clicks. It is not even writing the posts; we can write from anywhere, from phones, laptops, speech to text. The hardest thing these days is actually sharing your post and getting noticed. Let me disentangle this mess into discreet problems, each of which is not a deal breaker but when summed together becomes a huge barrier and a source of frustration and loneliness.
The original way of sharing posts and being noticed. People who valued your content would subscribe to your blog feed in their reader application. Feeds and readers are still around and are still awesome but these days less and less people are even aware that such technology exists. Many years ago, everyone and their dog ditched their readers in favour of Google Reader. This Google app ended up being the reader for the majority of the blog viewership and when Google killed this product, many readers didn’t actually looked for an alternative. Not because they don’t value the content they were receiving but (my guess) is that at that time people were still in the honeymoon phase with social networks and newsletter and though that that would be enough to get their content fix.
- Problem #1: very few subscribers. People often subscribe after repeated visits, not usually a way to get your content out for first-time readers.
The darling of the upsellers, the dripping newsletter! So, Google Reader was dead and everyone flocked towards email. Whole pipelines were created so that your posts would be transformed into emails send directly to your users. Most of those newsletters were trying to upsell something but people subscribed anyway, just to be annoyed later and unsubscribing.
- Problem #2: this is the same problem as problem #1 actually. It is hard to convince people to give you their email and this is no way to reach new readers.
Large Social Networks
Most Social Networks are in it for the money. They want to keep you inside their platform, they don’t want readers to leave their platforms towards some blog. The more the reader stay inside the social network, the more they can metrify and mine their profiles for data to sell. This is why in most new app based social networks you can’t actually post links. You’ve been crippled to a single link in your profile in some cases and no way to share your own blog posts.
In larger platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the algorithms work against small content producers. There is no guarantee that people following you will actually receive your content. Don’t be fooled, those algorithms are there not for your benefit, they are there for the network benefit. This is why all youTubers are asking you to Click the bell for notifications and so on. Because even though you’re following them and they are sharing content, the owners of that platform get to chose what you see.
- Problem #3: Large social networks with algorithmic timelines prioritize whatever is valuable for the platform owners regardless of what you or your followers want to see/share.
Federated and Decentralized Networks
Platforms such as Mastodon, SSB, DAT, IPFS, are all awesome but discovering content in them is a problem yet to be solved. Your reach in those platforms tend to be limited to your social graph. They provide a tremendous value and I often get better engagement (as in feedback and actual conversations about the content I posted) in those platforms than the larger social networks mentioned above.
- Problem #4: Smaller Federated/Decentralized platform reach is limited.
This post was actually triggered by a recent change on lobste.rs that frustrated me a lot. That website has been a source of joy for me for many years. A year ago when I decided to get back into blogging it was one of the few places that I felt welcome to share my own content. Their recent changes prevent posts from domains that a single person is posting after the fourth post. So, if you’re a small time blogger without a captive audience just trying to put content out and share, you’d be blocked after your fourth post on that website. For example, I’m not allowed to post this blog post there. The only way for this post to end up on lobste.rs now is if some reader post it for me. Since I have an average of 200 readers per day, the chances of that happening are not good, and yet, this is a relevant story about what is happening on that site. I just can’t post it.
In HN content moves so fast that unless you’re very popular, or writing something in the exact time and topic for virality to peak, your content will not reach the front page. I had a famous post there once, I was at the right time and place to write it, I posted it so fast after Whatsapp released their web client and I run some tests that the internet was going crazy about it. My voice was greatly amplified on that day. That is not what happens to most bloggers, and not what happens to me, on most days.
There are other smaller and quite friendly news aggregators there such as tilde.news, laarc, etc. That kind of site is my favorite type of portal. I discover so many blogs and new stuff through them. Reading such sites is part of my daily routine and an essential aspect of what I love about the web. It is sad to see small bloggers penalized.
- Problem #5: News Aggregators either move too fast for you to be noticed, or, in an effort to curb span are penalizing small bloggers.
The combination of these problems leads to gatekeeping
What actually happens is that popular content producers with a large captive audience get amplified. It leads to an echo chamber. If you’re the influencer blogger type, it is quite easy to get subscribers to your feed and newsletter, it is also easy to be boosted to the point that algorithmic timelines think it is a good idea to show you around, it also lead to more people sharing your content which makes it acceptable in news aggregators.
The effect of these small problems is an invisible gatekeeper that prevents your content from reaching people until you’re popular enough. It is not related to the quality of your content at all. It is about popularity. Like everything SV builds and worship, it is about metrics. Personally, I want an internet made by people and for people, and not an internet governed by metrics and for profit.
Some people start blogging just to quit later due to the lack of interaction and loneliness. It is not because they don’t enjoy writing, they might switch to a journal, it is because they feel no one is readying when they share. A blogger that throws content into the void regardless if they get readers or not just for the fun of writing is survival bias. We’re like this because we’re the ones who are still doing this. The others quit because they couldn’t get their content noticed.
Isn’t the solution the IndieWeb?
Yes and no. The IndieWeb movement has a fantastic toolset to help your blog out. Among those tools, a very powerful is WebMentions which can be seen as an evolution of pingbacks. They allow us to create a web of mentions from one blog to another so that we’re all able to talk to each other without leaving our own blogs. It is quite neat.
It doesn’t solve the problem of not being able to effectively share your content on social networks and news aggregators though.
I don’t want a Web that is an echo chamber where our content vanishes behind opaque algorithms and popularity contents. So if you enjoy content from bloggers, if there are a couple authors that you’re always reading or watching as their content pops up in your favorite social network or news aggregator, then do those authors a favor and subscribe to their feed. Thats the only guaranteed way to get their content in the future. Also, if you’re not shy, say hi to them. Blogging is sometimes lonely, your voice might give people an energy boost to produce more, and who knows what we might achieve if we encourage people to blog more.