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What Andrew Sullivan's exit says about the future of blogging

Andrew Sullivan is leaving the blogosphere.
Andrew Sullivan is leaving the blogosphere.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

Andrew Sullivan is leaving blogging.

Crap.

Sullivan — alongside Josh Marshall — basically invented the political blogosphere. So his (temporary?) retirement is giving rise to many a "Blogging Is Dead" column. But blogging isn't dead. I know, because I read a lot of blogs these days, and they're fantastic.

There's Daring FireballSlate Star CodexTa-Nehisi CoatesFreddie DeBoerNoahpinionMarginal RevolutionElizabeth Stoker BreunigPaul KrugmanDigby's HullabalooJared BernsteinBrad DeLongThe Incidental Economist, and Kevin Drum, to name a few. There are plenty of great voices out there.

The blogosphere lives. But Sullivan's decision to hang up his keyboard is nevertheless a marker. Sullivan was the closest we had to someone trying to run a blog with real scale. He was trying to make his blog — and its sizable audience — into a business. But blogging, for better or worse, is proving resistant to scale. And I think there are two reasons why.

The first is that, at this moment in the media, scale means social traffic. Links from other bloggers — the original currency of the blogosphere, and the one that drove its collaborative, conversational nature — just don't deliver the numbers that Facebook does. But blogging is a conversation, and conversations don't go viral. People share things their friends will understand, not things that you need to have read six other posts to understand.

Blogging encourages interjections into conversations, and it thrives off of familiarity. Social media encourages content that can travel all on its own. Alyssa Rosenberg put it well at the Washington Post. "I no longer write with the expectation that you all are going to read every post and pick up on every twist and turn in my thinking. Instead, each piece feels like it has to stand alone, with a thesis, supporting paragraphs and a clear conclusion."

The other reason is that the bigger the site gets, and the bigger the business gets, the harder it is to retain the original voice.

Dave Winer, a blogging pioneer, once defined a blog as "the unedited voice of a person." I think there's a lot of truth to that. But the more readers you have, the more need there is for editing. If I said something dumb in my Blogspot days — which I did, constantly — it hurt me. If I say something dumb today — which I do, but hopefully less constantly — it hurts my writers, and my editors, and my company. My voice needs editing. The cost of being unedited is too high.

Lately, the media is filling with nostalgia for old-school blogging — and promises to revive it. In August, Vox Media's editorial director, Lockhart Steele, dusted off his personal blog for a quick manifesto. It feels only right to blockquote it:

I am bringing back this blog. My goal is to write one item a day, every weekday, more or less, starting today. Some of the posts will be about Vox Media, in the spirit of increasing the transparency into the editorial side of the company in my role as Editorial Director. But this is not primarily a promotional undertaking, because that would suck. I’ll also blog about restaurants, travel, the South Street Seaport, the great city of Charleston, the great state of Maine, ephemera, nonsense, whatever. My hope is to relearn the practice of daily blogging, which used to be the most effortless thing in the world for me but now feels terrifying.

Gawker Media has promised that 2015 will be the year they bring back blogging, too. "As a company, we are getting back to blogging," Nick Denton swore. "It's the only truly new media in the age of the web. It is ours."

As an editor, I miss blogging, too. Early in Vox's life, we made a halfhearted effort at launching some. There was my Blag. Matt's Live Journal. Dylan's Xanga. As the names suggest, the experiment was drenched in nostalgia. But they weren't really blogs and, for a variety of reasons, they didn't really succeed. And I don't really think the other efforts to bring blogs back to large organizations will succeed either. I don't think blogs — at least in the 2005-era sense of the word, the conversational blogs Sullivan was the protector of — work in these large organizations.

And I think this is a problem, or at least a manifestation of a problem. The incentives of the social web make it a threat to the conversational web. The need to create content that "travels" is at war with the fact that great work often needs to be rooted in a particular place and context — a place and context that the reader and the author already share.

I think we're getting better at serving a huge audience even as we're getting worse at serving a loyal one. At Vox, we have some cool ideas that we're going to roll out in the coming months to try to chip away at this problem, but I don't think we're anywhere near a solution.

And for all of us who still love blogs, Sullivan's absence will hurt. I hope this is just his Black Album. I hope he's back soon.