Sometimes I think maybe I’m becoming too strict as I age. Maybe this is all a natural evolution of a technology. But I can’t close my eyes to what’s happening: A loss of intellectual power and diversity, and on the great potentials it could have for our troubled time. In the past, the web was powerful and serious enough to land me in jail. Today it feels like little more than entertainment. So much that even Iran doesn’t take some — Instagram, for instance — serious enough to block.
I miss when people took time to be exposed to different opinions, and bothered to read more than a paragraph or 140 characters. I miss the days when I could write something on my own blog, publish on my own domain, without taking an equal time to promote it on numerous social networks; when nobody cared about likes and reshares.
That’s the web I remember before jail. That’s the web we have to save.
Derakhshan characterizes the web’s shift from the blog-and-computer-based culture of the early aughts to the app-and-phone-based culture of today as a lamentable turn from “a books-internet toward a television-internet”. While I’m certainly sympathetic to his nostalgia, I’m not sure that there’s really anything to “do” about it. It’s not as if sheer willpower is going to reverse economic and technological trends. In fact, I would suggest that as the web’s population density continues to increase, the demographic center of gravity increasingly settles among a younger audience. The denominator gets more and more common. People who enjoy regularly reading, let alone writing, a couple thousand words about politics, art, culture and niche hobbies have always been a minority, even in the pre-Internet days. The fact that they found themselves in the cultural spotlight for a short time was an aberration. I don’t think it’s case of people having abandoned their blogs in favor of posting one-liners on Twitter and photos on Instagram; I think the people who are now using those apps are mostly people who wouldn’t have been interested in blogs a decade ago.
A common theme that runs through so many of these elegies for the supposedly-deceased blog is the internalized assumption that “nobody” is reading them anymore. All this means, of course, is that the cognoscenti no longer find them fashionable, which is hardly the kiss of death, unless you happen to be the kind of superficial person who craves the meaningless recognition of cultural tastemakers with the attention spans of attention-deficient toddlers, in which case you’re probably already on Twitter anyway, but I digress. The point is, there are plenty of good blogs out there linking to each other. Don’t waste time fretting about whether they’ll ever be considered culturally significant again; just seek them out and participate.
Cristina Juesas said it well in her commentary on Derakhshan’s piece — if you write for the love of writing, you won’t care how many readers you have, but if your writing is any good, you’ll attract them nonetheless. I can vouch for that — having written online for over a decade, without making the slightest effort to promote myself, I’ve had a couple dozen or so devoted readers who stumbled upon me through happenstance and ended up sticking around to check in regularly. With no comment section to perform in, they have no other motivation to be here. They apparently choose to seek me out because they want to hear what I have to say. I could be wrong, of course, but I don’t think that sort of reward can increase exponentially along with readership. A handful of readers makes you feel humbly gratified. A million of them would probably just make you arrogant and self-absorbed. But either way, the personal essay has been around since Montaigne, and it will still be around when all of today’s apps are hopelessly outdated.