The Viral Editor, a human-based mechanism of relevance, structured the blogosphere of the 2000s. Blogs followed the old rules of literature and journalism. Essentially the last texts of the Gutenberg era, many blog posts ran a few hundred words, requiring creative effort and logical organization on the part of the writer. They were also distributed by humans. Users themselves shared the links to blog posts they liked. Other users could see an important blog post only if they followed the blog or if their friends delivered it to them. Reading a post was always and everywhere a human decision, made with no algorithmic involvement. Comments and hyperlinks rendered certain blog posts popular and therefore of significance.
If the number of journalists in the history of the news media can be estimated roughly at 1 million, the blogosphere era saw tens of millions of people enter the fray. Unlike journalists, bloggers typically were not institutionally affiliated and were not burdened by editorial policies or restrained by media owners and advertisers. By 2014, Tumblr was hosting 172 million blogs, and WordPress another 75 million. But the ecosystem had already changed. If the 2000s were the decade of the blogosphere, the 2010s were the decade of social media. The blogosphere continued to exist, but bloggers started using social-media platforms for distributing their blog content. In 2010, according to a survey by Technorati, 78 percent of bloggers used Twitter and 87 percent used Facebook.
The blogosphere was run by humans; social media are run by algorithms. The transition from human to algorithmic mechanisms of relevance unfolded in an instant. And it coincided with an explosion in authorship: while the number of bloggers reached a few hundred million, the number of social-media users has now hit 4.7 billion—more than half of humankind.
The shift from the blogosphere to social media transformed the way people exchange information online. The transition was not only from Blogger and LiveJournal to Facebook and Twitter but also from the written word to digital speech.
At the most fundamental level, blogs are written text. A blog post is a personal diary entry, and writing one takes time. As the Soviet paleoanthropologist Boris Porshnev once noted, thought and speech require the inhibition of natural reflexes. The need to formulate thoughts and sentences mediates our gut reactions. This makes humans slowpokes compared with animals, but it also facilitates deliberation and cooperation, conferring evolutionary benefits. Writing is the highest form of this reaction delay: a literate culture may delay its response to events for days, months, or years, but the deliberation and cooperation that literacy engenders allowed humans as a species to thrive and transform the planet.
Social media have reversed this process. Seeking to extract more of their users’ time and engagement, social-media platforms have made digital reactions almost as instantaneous as physiological reflexes. The Internet completed the transfer of our reactions into virtual space, reducing the transaction costs for sharing them with others.
I take this as confirmation that it isn’t just my rose-colored imagination — the web really was more interesting before social media, before human decision-making was replaced by algorithms.