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New Kids on the Blog

by Prasad Krishna last modified Apr 01, 2011 04:10 PM
Across the world, the blogosphere is shrinking. But that might not be a bad thing. Look closer, self-indulgence has found newer platforms, and only the fittest and the smartest blogs have survived. This article was published by the Indian Express on February 6, 2011. Indian Express reporter spoke with Nishant Shah.

Meet aneesha, a personable 20-something in a red jacket, with a coffee “without cream” cupped in her hands. Seven years ago, this Delhi-based professional was an avid user of LiveJournal. Most of her friends are from the online world; she met their blogs before she knew them personally. “My family’s perception of me and what I am are very different,” she says, “I hide myself in the layers of the internet.” Aneesha found herself and her friends through blogs; today, however, she has no time or inclination for the blogging world. “We used to write about the sunshine, a cute dog, a nice day. Who has the time for that any more?”

“I quit”. “We are moving out”. “This blog is Dead”.

An aerial view of the blogosphere resembles an abandoned city, with silence blowing through boarded-up windows. Recent Pew Internet Project surveys of teens and adults in the US reveal a decline in blogging among teens and young adults and a modest rise among adults 30 and older. According to the 2010 report, “In 2006, 28 per cent of teens in the 12-17 age group, and adults between 18 and 29 were bloggers, but by 2009, the numbers had dropped to 14 per cent of teens and 15 per cent of adults. During the same period, the percentage of online adults over 30 who were bloggers rose from 7 per cent to 11 per cent.” These numbers reflect American reality, but the blogosphere has not been similarly mapped and analysed in India, says Nishant Shah, director, research, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore. When contacted, WordPress, a blog tool and publishing platform, said that they don’t publish country-specific statistics either.

While blogging in itself seems to have peaked and plateaued, blog-like activities have moved to other online spaces. Blogs were at the social media forefront around five years ago. According to Technorati, an internet search engine for blogs, the blogosphere in 2004 was eight times as large as it was in June 2003. Since then, Blogger and WordPress have been stagnating, says Nielsen, a media-research firm. A 2010 article in The Economist pointed out, that according to Blogads, which sells ads, “media buyers’ inquiries increased tenfold between 2004 and 2008, but have grown by only 17 per cent since then.”

But the numbers only tell a part of the story. The immensity of the blogging world means that it will always remain terra incognita. Its vastness allows poorly-written, lazily-reasoned dribbles to exist, but it also provides an unparalleled democratic platform (if you have access to the internet). The blogosphere, which had become an endless echo chamber, has evolved into a more interesting space, with startling diversity. Teenagers have found new fads, and moved out; instead, adults are setting up their couches here. Over the last four-five years, the fittest and smartest blogs have survived, whereas those with a readership of one have sunk to Google’s ocean floor. Few bloggers actually bother to delete their accounts, most starve away because of the author’s neglect and the audiences’ disinterest. The ones that have thrived have created communities of kindred souls, with an eye for beauty or a knack for the kooky. The Indian blogosphere is rich ground for posts on cinema, economics, sports, design and politics. Blogs can be conclaves of critics against the mainstream, they can be crucial support systems for the grieving. But how did we get here?

Peter Merholz, a lover of words and etymologies, and founding partner of consultancy Adaptive Path, created the word “blog” in 1999.

Playing with syllables, he decided to change “weblog” into “blog” for short. This San Francisco-based designer writes in his blog, “I like that it’s roughly onomatopoeic of vomiting. These sites (mine included!) tend to be a kind of information upchucking.”

For something that started as verbal upchucking, blogging has evolved over the decade. Anupam Mukerji, aka the Fake IPL Player, whose blog was the sensational sideshow that overshadowed the second edition of the Indian Premier League in 2009, says, “Self-indulgence is out. People want to be entertained and nobody really cares what you had for breakfast.”

In the early part of this decade, blogging was about self-expression, within a small community (like LiveJournal), says Aneesha. Kiran Jonnalagadda, a Bangalore-based social technologist, and founder of HasGeek, which organises technical discussions, recalls, “Your blog was not secret, but was private by virtue of not many people being online. It was a safe assumption for young people that their parents and siblings would never read their blog. The medium of the blog was the most advanced technology of the day. It was crude by modern standards, but fantastic compared to anything earlier.” Aneesha and Jonnalagadda abandoned LiveJournal after their initial euphoria. Today, it is said, only the Russians use it, since it was bought over by a Russian company in 2007.

Blogging has come of age in India where we now see the growth of the “modern blogger”, says Jonnalagadda, one of the early Indian bloggers. “It’s important to distinguish between these two — the blogger as someone who indulged in self-expression in the early 2000s, who’s now moved to Facebook and other tools, versus the modern blogger who uses the same technology but is actually a small media publisher serving a niche segment.”

Facebook and Twitter are dummy-friendly and easily satisfy the exhibitionist, the voyeur, the curious or the intellectual. In 2010, there were 152 million blogs on the internet; it doesn’t seem much in comparison to 600 million Facebook users. On Facebook, it takes just a few seconds to upload a picture. A “thumbs up” is all it takes to “like” a photo or a comment. A personal update becomes part of the newsflash on friends’ homepages. Facebook’s “Notes” can satisfy the desire to write long, random and personal outpourings. “Tagging” friends in these notes assures one of a readership. Sharing so little with so many has never been this effortless. Blogs, defined as a format of writing, where pieces are arranged in a reverse chronological order, are no longer the preferred tool for the personal.

Technorati reports that the significant growth of mobile blogging is a key trend in 2010. Though the smartphone may still be relatively new in India, bloggers have reported that mobile blogging has lead to shorter posts and to a growing preference for Facebook and Twitter. Kiruba Shankar, CEO of Business Blogging Pvt Ltd, a social media consultancy in Chennai, and a once-prolific blogger, says, “Five years back, I was averaging two posts a day. In 2010, which was my worst year in blogging, I did one post every two months! It’s not that I stopped writing. I just moved my updates to Twitter and Facebook.” Shankar has even written an entire book in 140-character capsules on the merits of collaborative work: Crowdsourcing Tweet. He explains, “I love reading smaller books. I love tweeting my thoughts. I wanted to eat the elephant in smaller bites and so I jotted down points in tweets.”

On the Web, none of these social mediums work in isolation, each is connected with the other. Facebook and Twitter have also become ways to promote blogs, with people often posting their links and thereby increasing their readership and the scope of the conversation.

With blogs moving beyond the personal, the rise of the modern blogger writing for a niche audience is of particular interest. Mumbai-based Chandrahas Choudhury, author of The Middle Stage, a blog of essays on Indian and world literature, says, “Blogs have matured over the years in India. People who are serious have kept it. Lots of the press indulge in the criticism that blogs are not edited. But I’ve seen many great blogs. It’s a very good way of learning how to write good prose.” The Middle Stage provides an important space for literary criticism at a time when newspapers are squeezing out literary columns. Blogs give “maximum freedom”, says Choudhury, as one can increase the content through links; they also allow one to quote freely from other texts, which newspapers do not allow.

Shankar emphasises that search engines give more importance to any site with fresh content, and that blogs have high “archival value”, compared with “Facebook or Twitter where old updates seem to fall off the face of the earth”. The Google requisite for new content has made the group blog a better option than the personal as it makes it easier to generate content regularly. Successful group blogs are making an impact.

Little Design Book, “an online journal of design, visual culture and material culture”, is run by Ruchita Madhok, Aditya Palsule, Avinash Rajagopal and Shreyas Krishnan. The editors, who are based in London, New York, and Bangalore respectively, work collaboratively and communicate through Skype. Through smart and pithy posts, they describe designs that are too good to be true and those which are too awful to seem probable. On this team blog, art and design interact in meaningful ways, producing discussions and insights. Speaking from New York on the behalf of his team, Rajagopal feels that design blogs have taken off recently in India. “The Web is a great place to discuss design because it is an inherently democratic medium. Anyone can have their say.”

Others, who have made use of the democratic and immediate nature of the internet, include Pavitra Mohan, who runs the successful blog Masala Chai, a “creative collective that features south Asian art and design”. These blogs about Indian art and design are few but they are playing an important role in the promotion and criticism of the arts. Mohan says, “There’s high art and low art. They are both provided a uniform platform on the Web.” Started three years ago, the blog recently became a physical reality, with Masala Chai opening its first outlet in Chennai.

Rajagopal feels, however, that there’s still scope for editorialising content. “Many blogs post images of design objects, and say a few obligatory words. This has its necessary place in the blogging world. But we also need many strident, opinionated voices.”

Strident voices with trenchant opinions ring in collective blogs like Kafila, run by no single CEO but by 22 members. Speaking only for himself and not on behalf of Kafila, Shivam Vij, writer and member, says, “Blogging is ‘self-publishing’. To read blogs (and today, together with social media) is to get an uncut view of what a society thinks, without the frame of the organised media. This allows people to use blogging and social media to influence opinion, and thus cause change, good or bad.”

While blogs can be viewed as enjoyable entertainment or a platform for serious discussion and debate, blogs can also change lives. It can make famous the anonymous man stooped over a keyboard, with a prank in his head and spunk in his prose. Anupam Mukerji, the Fake IPL Player whose anonymous blog fooled thousands of cricket fans and administrators, and who revealed his identity in August last year, says, “I am still the same guy, but people respond to me differently. The blog changed my life.”

Blogging was also the “perfect tonic” for actor Lisa Ray, who started writing The Yellow Diaries once she’d been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the white blood cells, in June 2009. Her blog posts, written with heart and without fuss, chronicled her battle with the disease, from being a “cancer intern” to a “cancer survivor”. In what ways did the blog help her? “In every way,” she says. “It helped me process what I was going through. It helped me be honest with myself and face my fears head on. It also helped me connect with others by sharing a very human experience. It helped dilute my fear.” Her blog also helped others, obvious in the hundreds of comments left by readers. Talking about readers’ responses, she says, “I do remember thinking that we suffer from the ‘pathology of perfection’ in contemporary society and the only antidote is to celebrate our ‘humanness’ in all forms. To embrace the hurt and pain as much as the joys and success.”

Blogging was also a tonic for Indian Homemaker or Seema Rao, blogger and mother of Tejaswee Rao, a 19-year-old journalism student who passed away last year. Seema has been a frequent blogger for the last three years and now maintains her daughter’s blog In My Arrogant Opinion. She feels her daughter lives on through her presence on the Web. Sitting in a Gurgaon living room, surrounded by photos of her daughter, Rao says, “The family wanted a memorial gathering. But I know people will talk about her illness, they’ll say you should have gone to another hospital. I feel the blogosphere is more mature. A memorial would have been traumatic. I get support from bloggers, from people who don’t even know my name. On Tejaswee’s birthday, a mother in Hyderabad sent me a cake, with TJ written on it. I don’t know how I would have coped without the blogs.”

The original article was published in the Indian Express

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