I just subscribed to 60 blogs via RSS and maybe you should, too

Over the past years, I have been outsourcing increasing parts of my news/content discovery to the social web, following the famous mantra “If it is important, it will find me”. Today I am changing course.

I decided that I want to decrease the reliance on my social graph for what I read. Both Facebook and Twitter have entered a difficult period when it comes to the sharing and distribution of news. For Facebook, its enormous power, influence and tendency to create algorithmic echo chambers is turning into a burden, with hard-to-predict consequences. Twitter on the other hand suffers from all kinds of strategic and systemic problems, nicely summarized in this post. Some kind of radical change will be necessary for Twitter to survive and thrive. Continue Reading

The web needs an open and universal follow button

When I started meshedsociety.com about two month ago, I stumbled upon a little issue: I wanted to tell my friends and online contacts about the site, and my intention was to make it as easy as possible for them to follow – you know, like you would do on Twitter, Medium, Facebook (with a “like”) or YouTube.

Well, unfortunately for those who host their own sites, this kind of fancy and convenient system with built-in traffic generator does not exist. Instead one has to rely on a mix of different isolated subscription solutions, all of which have some serious flaws.

RSS is perfect for those who use an RSS reader, but outside of tech circles, who does? And even within the industry the number of people rejecting the format is growing. Asking users to follow on Twitter or to “like” on Facebook works to some extent. But at Facebook the chance to have content actually showing up in users’ newsfeeds is small considering the tough competition and Facebook’s algorithm-based selection. Twitter is not ideal either if you want to make sure that your work is being seen. Furthermore, most Twitter users are too lazy or busy to click on links that appear in their timeline. Continue Reading

Medium, centralized publishing and the future of the blog

Medium

Medium, the publishing platform created by the Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, is winning. Large amounts of often quite amazing content pieces are published on the site every day. An impressive roster of thought leaders and entrepreneurs use Medium to spread ideas. Just look at the Top 100 list from January. The White House utilizes the service. And all this is made possible by a company that does not limit innovation to its product, but extends it to its own organizational structure. Every Thursday I publish a list with links to recommended articles. I never use Medium as a destination to find content but rely solely on RSS feeds of blogs and recommendations by others on services such as Twitter, Facebook, Quibb, This or Prismatic. Still each week my link collection contains at least a couple of articles hosted on Medium. Last Thursday that was the case for four posts. While this is not a scientific method, the tendency is clear: A lot of stuff that we all read and share comes from Medium.

This is great for Medium and in many ways even for users. There are reasons for why this platform is winning. Some of the success factors are analyzed here. However, the rise of Medium comes at a cost: The centralizing of content and the weakening of the distributed publishing structure that has made the web such a great place.

I am concerned about that there is so little public questioning of the long-term consequences that Medium’s gravitational force on writers, journalists and bloggers could have.

Let’s take it to the extreme: Nobody could be interested in a scenario in which all non-paid-for content is appearing first and foremost on Medium. A centralized approach like this means that one entity is in full control over who gets to publish what and how it is being monetized. Also, a centralized approach introduces a single point of failure. If Medium’s servers crash, all the content would be unavailable.

This is exactly what happened when Facebook went offline for an hour last month. The social network is in general a good example for the downsides of centralization: Nobody seems to really like it, but the network effects are so strong that hardly anybody manages to escape it.

So no reasonable web user and especially no one belonging to the famous 10 % of the Internet – those who create content and engage with content – can have any interest in a scenario in which Medium ends up being the only place where everybody who does not write/create for major newspaper and media brands publishes their musings. But to avoid such an outcome, people who blog and create content today need to work.

While Medium thrives, the yearly “is blogging dead?” meme goes into another round. And while even this time the answer has to be a clear “no”, which anyone who actually reads blogs will realize, there is a risk that blogging in the sense of a democratic, decentralized publishing system, might die out for real. Not because of a lack of interest in the creation of digital content, but because everybody will have moved to a few centralized platforms. Even this has been a discussion almost as old as blogging itself. But with Medium, this free, high-quality, elegant, usable publishing platform that comes with an effective built-in distribution mechanism, there is now a centralized publishing system with an allure never seen before.

Medium spoils creators, writers and readers. It makes us all a bit lazy. Traditional blogs are work. They need to be set-up and taken care of. They sometimes do not look that nice. The editing tools might feel clunky and in the way. Reaching an audience can be a struggle, at least in the beginning. Medium does not guarantee immediate reach either, but the follow feature and internal virality machine come across as superior to blogs’ own “follow feature”: RSS (to be fair, Medium supports RSS feeds as well).

But if we do not want blogging to die, we must not give in to the urge of going the seemingly easy way. We also must stop being lazy. If Felix Salmon states that “with the death of RSS, blogs are quaint artifacts at this point, and I can’t remember the last time I discovered a really good new one”, then he is lazy. That he has not discovered a really good new blog lately is only because he has not actually tried to discover one. Unlike Marc Andreessen.

If too many people walk around with Salmon’s attitude towards blogs, blogs will die eventually. Then everybody will feel just fine with moving the creation of digital content to Medium, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter (in the form of tweet storms) or other centralized and closed/semi closed publishing solutions. Because, you know, “blogs are dead”. Nobody wants to be the last to leave a sinking ship. With less people actively blogging the number of RSS consumers (= the core readership of other blogs) will decrease. The communities of open blogging systems will get smaller and less active, the evolution and development of distributed blogging systems would halt.

The solution to the issue I am describing is obviously quite simple: Let’s not give up on our blogs, no matter how often some influencers, journalists, entrepreneurs or former bloggers perpetuate the myth.

Blogs are dead if we stop writing and reading blogs. Let’s not forget that while we get comfortable on Medium.