Marco Arment writes about how blogs “aren’t dying, but are in significant decline,” likely because everyone who used to read (and write) blogs is now constantly snacking on social media and apps. He paints a depressing picture1, and then tries to tack on some constructive advice at the end:
“If we want it to get better, we need to start pushing back against the trend, modernizing blogs, and building what we want to come next.”
Besides being too vague to be useful2 this advice completely misrepresents “the trend” and the problem it presents. It suggests that if we organize some petitions and online awareness campaigns, maybe do some creative coding, we bloggers can get things back on track — i.e., persuade individuals to use the web in healthy, creative ways and revitalize the web from the ground up. In other words, it presents “the trend” as just the pattern of our individual habits, nothing more.
But the “trend” we are talking about here is that people are being trained to use their attention spans as little as possible. This is not an “internet habits” problem, nor even a technology problem; it is a political problem. It has to do mainly with the kinds of services and companies we collectively allow to exist, the things we reward and penalize legally and economically.3
If a school, for example, makes policies that reward teachers for handing out cotton candy and that penalize students for bringing their own food, maybe you could try to help by persuading the students to suck it up and live healthy lifestyles anyway. But you’d be better off throwing out those stupid policies and starting over, weighting the environment to assist good behaviour.
We may individually resolve to stop wasting our time on social media, or to continue creative pursuits — sure. I’m not trying to minimize our individual agency here; I’m trying to say that a broad solution depends more on our collective political will. And that begins with a drive towards popular recognition that 1) we have an entire economy weighted towards producing systems and material that appeal to people’s laziest instincts in order to optimize profits; 2) creative pursuits and self-development are penalized in America (the internet’s driving economy), rather than rewarded; and 3) this is bad for our society.
As dour as his diagnosis sounds, Marco actually betrays what seems to me to be unmerited optimism throughout. Consider his choice of metaphor:
“Social networks have powerful benefits and are here to stay. But like any trend, we’ve swung too far in that direction for our own good, as both producers and consumers. I hope the pendulum starts to swing back soon, because it hasn’t yet. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, if it ever does.”
Alas, we have no evidence that a swinging pendulum is what we’re observing here. The trend in attention spans we see across internet-saturated cultures has never “swung” in any direction but one. ↩
E.g.: “pushing back” meaning what, exactly? And what is meant by “modernizing” blogs, if not the very shortening, trivializing and click-baiting that we’re lamenting in the first place? When we set out to “build what we want to come next,” what kind of thing might we be discussing here? ↩
For example (this is a very narrow case), I’m not sure that a company like Facebook, which sells detailed personal information to advertisers, should be legally allowed to exist. But I would be willing to consider other possibilities, such as a 90% tax on revenue derived from targeted advertising. ↩