Regarding The Personal Web

When I first started blogging back in 2000 (we just called it writing in those days), there weren’t very many blogs yet, so it was easier to get visitors and decent traffic by posting quality content on a regular basis. This was back before the time of MySpace and Facebook, before social networks, Gawker, Vayniacs, Flickr, Last.fm, and that kind of thing. There were just websites and the people who created them. Not so different from what we have today, but different tools, fewer people, and a lot more uncharted territory. The playing field was wide open, and everything felt new.

To be honest, I really don’t look back on those times a some kind of golden era, because although what we thought of as the web was much more simple, behind the scenes, everything was a lot more tedious and complicated. Things are beautiful and simple and amazing today. Anybody, even a novice, can get themselves heard in ways we couldn’t have ever imagined back then.

The web is a lot more grown up today than it was when I first got started writing here about 9 years ago. We have more mature publishing tools. We have CSS. Web standards are important, and everybody knows it. We have cool social networks. We have, comparatively speaking, very stable network connectivity and server reliability. These things are all conducive, I think, to a more stable web.

So over the years we’ve built this thing people call the personal web. A big collection of individual websites, blogs, blogrolls, linked lists, online presences.

But the social networks are changing things. In the same way that Apple’s iPhone was a game-changer and a destabilizer, some of today’s newer websites and social-networks, especially really great sites like Twitter, are destabilizing and tweaking the way we think about the so-called personal web. Some people would even say that sites like Twitter are killing the personal web.

Twitter

I’ve been using Twitter since 2006 when it first launched. It feels like a million years ago, and thinking back, I can’t even remember how I first heard about it. Of course, it’s since exploded, and I’ll go so far as to say it’s mainstream now (NPR coverage, two times, is always an indication).

In case you don’t know what Twitter is, here’s what the website says about it:

Twitter is a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

Twitter serves a completely different purpose than this website. For me, Twitter has become a sieve, a filter, and a repository for information that entertains but that doesn’t quite warrant an full-on article or post, and I think this phenomenon has swept across the web, cleaning things up a bit, and putting many sites on a diet. Twitter really shines in soliciting a response to short thoughts, quick exchanges, and simple ideas. It’s great at kicking off a dialog. What’s left behind is space for better writing, more fully developed thoughts, and in-depth discussion. I think Tom Browning really hit the nail on the head earlier today when he said that Twitter creates a more level playing field.

I see Twitter as supplementary to this website, to my “online presence.” It couldn’t replace the kind of writing I like to do here, but it’s certainly a great way to compliment it. If you’re using Twitter and would like to follow me, you can do that here.

Things Are Changing

My friend Jeffrey Zeldman eloquently expressed the effect Twitter has had on his own website:

There are blog posts here, but I post Tweets far more frequently than I write posts. (For obvious reasons: when you’re stuck in an airport, it’s easier to send a 140-character post via mobile phone and Twitter than it is to write an essay from that same airport. Or really from anywhere. Writing is hard, like design.) I have more readers here than followers at Twitter, but that could change. Are they the same readers? Increasingly, to the best of my knowledge, there are people who follow me on Twitter but do not read zeldman.com (and vice-versa). This is good (I’m getting new readers) and arguably maybe not so good (my site, no longer the core of my brand, is becoming just another piece of it).

When I read that post in early 2008, I thought he might have been jumping the gun a bit. But in recent weeks, I’ve noticed that once prolific writers are slowing down, or worse, transforming their sites into “hubs” that merely collect the random bits of information they’re sharing elsewhere, aggregating their Twitter posts, Flickr stream, Facebook updates, and Delicious bookmarks into a one-page, tedious, single-serving website sporting oversized fonts and giant outbound links.

In a way, this kind of thing isn’t all bad. Maybe the people who weren’t really into publishing their own sites now have a better way to communicate with their audience. But do these changes mean that the personal web dying?

Andy Budd seems to be struggling with the issue:

Rather than publishing fully formed ideas on your own website, you could post snippets of an idea with much more ease and to a more targeted audience. So I started to find that my desire to express myself was sated by a stream of nano thought published to Twitter rather than a few bigger ideas published to my blog. The format my be different, but the psychological result was the same.

Dave Shea recently wrote:

I’ve come to realize that my content-creating has become a lot more distributed, which means the long-form post format of this site has been seeing less and less love in recent years. Much has been written about Twitter killing the urge to write longer blog posts, and I won’t dispute that as a cause […] So for the past month I’ve been working on a way of piecing together content I produce on other sites and funnel relevant bits into a stream that I could present on this site.

While Twitter seems to make some people want to write and blog less often or at a slower pace, I’ve found that I’ve been inspired to write and publish much more often. I think it’s because of the inherent constraints of Twitter, the 140-character limit, that I’m driven to write more frequently here. Certain topics, ideas, and conversations fit perfectly within that kind of space while others beg for the bigger space, the larger expanse of an article.

Maybe this is because I’m lucky enough to already have an audience reading this site (and I do mean that, I feel incredibly lucky every day that you visit this site —thank you.) Maybe it’s because I have an English degree and I think writing is enjoyable and important.

Or maybe I’m just old fashioned. Although I use a feed reader, for example, it’s just a starting point to let me know what’s new. I still use a web browser to actually visit websites and read the articles, just like I always have. There’s something personal that I like about that kind of experience. Like maybe the authors have invited me into their living room. I get a glimpse into their life and get to see things framed the way they want, enjoy the experience they’ve crafted. Presentation can play a big role in the way we experience content.

You’ve Got To Be Everywhere to Be Somewhere

I don’t think the personal web is dying, but I do think it’s changing. I think people who weren’t serious about building their own brands, about writing, and about creating that singular space that a website with unique content offers will focus on third party sites and social networks, where great tools and big audiences make it far easier and possibly even more fun to build an online presence.

I also think that in order to have the kind of success we enjoyed five to ten years ago — just by showing up and dropping solid content — the personalities behind today’s personal sites need to be bigger than they needed to be in the past.

I’ll go one step further: I don’t think it’s possible to have a successful presence or brand today without being a part of the social networks, without contributing more than just one kind of content, without using multiple channels. I think Twitter is awesome, and all of these channels are a great way to get involved in some excellent communities, in a way a single blog just can’t. Hey, check the sidebar or my contact page and you’ll see, I’m using them all too.

But I have no plans to stop writing and publishing here. Actually, I still feel like I’m just getting started.

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