Friday 9 December 2016

The Three Ages of Politics Blogging

I've been doing this for 10 years, and a lot has happened to political blogging since starting out with a garish template and a dozen readers funnelled from the beloved UK Left Network. As well as the ceaseless churn of current affairs, the cultures of online commentary have mutated and, in many ways, come back to where the initial blogging started out from. I'm not one for cyclical views of history because, well, they're bollocks, but the shape of politics blogging in Britain more or less conforms to it.

I'm going to make a stab at three rough periodisations. As with most things social, hard and fast lines demarcating one set of relationships from another just don't exist. Matters of classification are analytical procedures only, but they do help bring out features and dynamics that dominated a given period. Without further ado ...

Age One: The Beginning, 2002-2009
As I've said before, the first blog I remember visiting was Harry's Place back in the dim and distant and thinking "hmmm, this sort of thing is never going to catch on". A true finger-on-the-pulse moment, that. Over the next seven years, politics blogs took off to the point that by the time this began trading under the 'A Very Public Sociologist' monicker, it was a late comer to an established scene. And for those who love themselves some nostalgia, the initial phase of blogging was a bit golden-agey. Social media was largely absent and so the networks now dependent on your Twitters and Facebooks were facilitated by blogs linking to one another through their blogrolls, inline hyperlinks, commenting on each others' efforts in the jolly old comment box, the sharing of memes and bigging each other up through monthly carnivals.

I don't want to post a utopian picture, because this was no News from Nowhere. Early blogging, then styled the blogosphere (shudder), was just as fractious as social media is now, albeit more concentrated and pulling in fewer people. Earnest sages worry that social media creates echo chambers of the like-minded, but there was never a heterotopia of the well informed flitting from blog-to-blog for a diet of varied comment. Lefties might have occasionally journeyed to Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale's Diary (as was), but I doubt many Tories paid a return visit to the likes of Lenin's Tomb, Socialist Unity, and The F Word. And no one paid any attention to what LibDem bloggers had to say. Then there were the blog wars. Bloggers would engage in lengthy and seemingly pointless feuds calling each other out for their "lies" and, on occasion, spats did end up in court. On the left, fractiousness usually lined up on sectarian lines and mirrored real disputes in real organisations. One of the classic moments was the so-called 'War of Kylie's Arse' (Splinty's overview here), in which real life lefties fell out over lechy observations made by George Galloway concerning the posterior of popular pop peddler, Kylie Minogue.

Yet this was an exciting, dynamic time for blogging. New kids on the block rocked up, rocked around for a few months, and rocked off again. Established politicos and hacks puzzled over what to make of this explosion in grassroots comment, and all the main parties set up their own 'homes' to aggregate comment and/or pool resources to ensure comment poured out two, three, many times a day. The model was simple: more posts meant more clicks. But as competition tends toward monopoly, so a few touched mainstream success and became super-blogs with large audiences in their own right. And the mainstream media were about to muscle in in a big way, closing off our age of heroes.

Age Two: Maturation, 2010-2015
By the time 2010 swung around, it was clear something qualitatively different was underway. It wasn't that bigger blogs got bigger, though some did, it was an effective merging of the groundswell of comment from outside traditional journalism with online ventures from established media. The Graun's Comment is Free had been going since before this blog began its journey, and gradually folks featured there started drifting into the print edition. Other papers and magazines hired folks who got their start in blogging, and from there some made the crossover into mainstream punditry. Blogs were still firing up by newbies, but by this time any chance of trading in Wordpress or Blogger for a paid gig was gone. Unless you were already connected with the media or were a recognised spox for a political tendency in one of the main parties, the road was closed. It's also worth noting that among the cluster of folks who did "make it", Oxbridge creds were disproportionately represented.

As blogging talent were harvested, papers and magazines shifted their business models and assumed the architecture commonplace among the blogs. Below the line commenting came as standard across practically all newspapers (except for the far left's seldom-read news sheets), as well as hyperlinking to their own articles stuck in the archive. As the sale of advertising space gave papers incentive to grow audiences for the all-important click-throughs, their efforts at colonising social media assumed a seriousness as the new decade got underway. At this stage Twitter was where their efforts were concentrated, because the audiences their were small and relatively incestuous, picking up bloggers with substantial followings made sense. But very quickly, the press - especially the right - got wise to how trolling people could boost audiences from people who'd never otherwise touch their goods. In marketing bigotry, the likes of The Mail could generate hundreds of thousands of extra page views thanks to outraged lefties. It also put them on a trajectory to being ever more outrageous to generate fury, and then the numbers.

All this meant that as blogging became utterly mainstream, it more or less disappeared. A few hardy independent souls carried on, but it was now a game for the committed/obsessed. Without the reach built up through brands and social media followings, they carried on in their niches which, in turn, made it difficult for newcomers to get a toehold and build audiences. The whole thing presented as a relatively rigid field of forces. The mainstream were at the top, the long-term indies stuck in the middle, and the churn from below barely troubled the layers above. Yet, while it looked like stasis had set in new movements were underway that brought us to the third age of blogging.

Age Three: The Challengers, 2015-present
Outsiders drove the first wave of blogging, and in the third wave the outsiders were at it again. Getting its start on YouTube and making a name for doing Channel 4 News's Unreported World at millennials, Vice came from nowhere and cornered a market no one knew was there. Murdoch quickly purchased it, but it kept the winning formula. Also catering for this demographic was BuzzFeed. As Vice broke through, BuzzFeed began making itself felt. Its success was initially driven by clickbait lists ripe for sharing between bored office workers, but quickly built a reputation for quality, if irreverent political journalism married to sassy, knowing presentation and a deep understanding of how the dynamics of social media work. And they cleaned up.

Vice and Buzzfeed erupted within the mainstream and are now as much of a mainstay of online news and comment as The Graun and Mail. But the fringes weren't quiet either. Breitbart, which was founded in 2007, was yet another boring Fox News knock-off for the interwebs and built itself over the water for doing Zinoviev Letter jobs on liberal institutions, such as the ACORN sting and the NAACP. They opened a London outlet under the auspices of the terminally dim Jame Delingpole, and later Farage sidekick Raheem Kassam. I'm not going to do more than note in passing the existence of Milo Yiannopoulos. Their material was much like the American parent's. Conspiracy nonsense, particularly around climate change. They catered for the angry white boy brigade crying over the existence of people other than them playing video games, and having opinions about them. And, lest we forget, pure unvarnished (racist) bullshit. In truth, few over here paid them any attention. But they did show it was possible to make a go of a social media-driven site based around hyper-partisanship.

This is where The Canary comes in. I'm not going to say too much as we'll visit it in the future. But its basic model is the same as Breitbart's. Semi-conspiracy theorising and painting of the world in simplistic black and white terms, instead of being their antipode it's their twin, albeit from a leftist perspective. It's a safe space that never challenges the reader's preconceptions, and is utterly uninterested in understanding how the world works. That isn't to say it doesn't produce the odd interesting piece, but their model steers away from serious thinking and does the causes it wishes to champion a disservice. The Canary was and is entirely outside of established media, and is unique in that it's grown its own stable of writers.

So much for the tectonics shifting around the big players. What about independent blogging? There's been something of a shift here, too. Social media has redefined blogging to the degree that while it was once driven by the need to capture audiences for blogs, increasingly blogging is an adjunct to social media. If you're a freelancer, for instance, articles not only put food on your table, they drive your social media profile which, in turn, drives up the price you can ask for your hot takes. As your social media profile is you, everything else is an appendage. And we shouldn't be surprised to find this is the case with independent blogging. Whenever I feature a new blog round up, a chunk of them ignore the standard blogging platforms for outlets that lend themselves to one-off or sporadic contributions, like Medium. Large numbers of established journos have them, as do politicians, and anyone for whom 140 characters is too short and the reach of a Facebook post is not enough. And this scene, if it can be called that, is thriving.

We're only at the beginning of the third phase, so it's nigh on impossible to see beyond it. People setting up blogs and writing about politics isn't going to stop, unless Theresa May's penchant for authoritarianism kiboshes the whole thing. But some of the big media organisations are in trouble. The Indy has shed its physical form and moved online entirely, but it remains very difficult to make money from digital product for all kinds of reasons. As papers dip beneath the threshold of financial viability, some are going to disappear and take their platforms with them. And that will open new spaces for rival outfits and bloggers and, who knows, perhaps yet another phase.


Duncan said...

There were LibDem bloggers?!

2002-09 does seem like a kind of golden age of blogging and it's strange to think that a whole, sizeable online eco-system has largely vanished. One thing you don't mention is the impact of Facebook on independent blogging. It provided a more accessible and straightforward platform for people wanting to regularly vent their opinions (political or otherwise), something that previously encouraged people to establish blogs, including myself.

Phil said...

Yes, I completely agree. I probably missed it out of this account as I've been very slow to wake up to Facebook, despite having had my account since 2006/7. But as I know from now having a Facebook page, you get more clickthroughs from there proportionately than the Twitter ...