Reading both Andrew’s comments on the Atlantic’s site re-design and Ta-Nehisi Coates, I am reminded again of the importance of creating something personal with new media, that blogging is not journalism exactly, and that bloggers themselves are more rightly the “brand” in question than the publications they write for (though, in all honesty, there is and should be a mix – Coates and the Atlantic are in some sense a dual-brand, neither one the same without the other. Same goes for all the Atlantic bloggers.) As Andrew notes,
[A] blog is inherently a live process and conversation and anyone who actually understands blogging’s intimate relationship to its readership – and the critical importance of conversation to the endeavor – would never have dreamed of turning it into a series of headlines. That’s what worries me deeply. Not the inevitable transitional glitches but the philosophy behind it.
I think this cuts to the heart of the matter, and cuts directly to why so many people – myself included – really dislike the re-design at the Atlantic. It’s not the aesthetic that I find so bothersome – and indeed, I don’t notice much of a change at all at Andrew’s digs – but the transformation of the other blogs into essentially archives, subsumed into the larger “channels” and thus stripped, to some degree, of their personalities. Since the draw of these ‘voices’ has always been one of the Atlantic online’s strongest features, I find this disappointing to say the least – but like Andrew notes, it is the philosophy behind it that is most troubling. This passage from Coates is worth reading also:
For my part, you have to understand that, to a large extent, whatever beautiful things have happened here, over the past two years, were, essentially, a fortunate mistake. What you’ve gotten is me hopping online and rather carelessly deciding to be myself, to talk to you, as much as possible, in the same way I talk to the people I know. And then basically curating the comments, banning people, deleting, and coaxing until there was a comments section that I, personally, loved reading.
It wasn’t market-tested. When I first got here, we didn’t even really have a web editor, and none of us expected this to grow into what became. We didn’t discuss whether it would be a good idea to have a post about Barry Sanders, next to a post about the Real Housewives of Atlanta, next to a series about the Civil War. We didn’t discuss commenting policy. We just kinda liked each other (me and my editors here) and decided to try something.
In short, none of this was intentional. It was all intuitive. And it’s fucked up, but it’s only as I’m writing this that I’m actually getting that that really is the point, and a big part of the draw. I kind of knew that, but it’s only in the absence of a coherent thing that I’m really seeing that.
This unintentional process is important. There is something spontaneous and personal about blogging that is a serious if intangible change from traditional journalism. It is also, I think, the most important thing about a successful blogger – this ability for readers to connect and empathize with them. Similarly the community created around a blogger or a project is vitally important. Jaybird has likened our own humble digs to a bar where we can all sit around and talk politics and culture and whatever over beers. I have adopted this analogy in how I think about The League. Indeed, I have come to think of The League as more than just a site, more than just a cadre of writers, but as a community unto itself, with all our commenters as part of the larger project. The place would not be the same without the many commenters who liven up the threads – from Jaybird to Bob Cheeks to Michael Drew to North to greginak and so on and so forth – the list is too long to name you all.
One of my great struggles writing elsewhere has been the lack of this relationship. (New technical limitations have limited my own ability to respond to comments here in a timely fashion, but I do read each and every one.) Indeed, though I am paid to write at True/Slant, I find myself devoting more time and energy to my writing here – and not just because it is a project that I helped start and continue to help shape, but because of this ongoing conversation we have gotten ourselves into – I can only frequent so many bars, I suppose, and this is my bar of choice. (I know there is some crossover between commenters here and at True/Slant, but to be honest the comment system there is somewhat inhospitable. And I dislike, perhaps, being just one of several hundred writers, whereas here I feel like I am part of a team, or at least a band of misfits…) There is something organic about it that I enjoy. I can anticipate who will be sitting where and drinking what, and who will storm out angry and who will chuckle at the antics and so forth. And part of this is the site design, how we have worked to make the comments an integral part of this site, how we have kept the site fairly clean and ad-free, and so forth. Perhaps it is also human nature to seek out communities (and bars) which we feel comfortable in.
However, one of our original intentions with this site was to create a place where sustained, internal dialogue between writers, commenters, and guest-writers could be nurtured and grow into something rather unlike anything else on the interwebs. I think, to some degree, in our push to increase traffic, to link to (and be linked by in return) Really Important Bloggers, we have let that part of our mission fall to the wayside. I know others here have expressed a similar sense that this is the case. Whether this has been an inevitable side-effect to creating a successful site, or to simply running out of things to talk to each other about is hard to say. For my own part, I know that I focused a great deal on increasing traffic, on making the site as good as possible – and I admit to feeling a bit of a rush when I’d pick up a link from the Dish or get a good response from Larison or other bloggers who I had read and admired.
Either way, I wonder how the readers and commenters feel about this (not that the two groups, I hope, are mutually exclusive). After just over a year, it’s incredible to see how far this blog has come. We have gained and lost bloggers. We are still (I hope, and believe) producing good, interesting, and relatively unique content. We are still ad-free and entirely self-funded or funded by the generosity of the best damn commenters on the internet. But have we lost some of that original vision? Some of that original intent? I would be interested to hear from both writers here and commenters on how, if at all, we could right the ship, reorient to bring back some of the conversational aspects of the original mission. Make the site even better and more lasting. We ditched the “series” function, but perhaps went too far in ditching the concept of series altogether.
In other words, this is a space to talk about blogging, this blog in particular, how it is doing things right and how it is doing things wrong, and so forth. Thanks.