How blogs, newsletters & Tumblr can fight back against social media

The following post is my argument for a new type of social networking built around cultural content. While blogs, Tumblr and email newsletters cannot compete with social media for popular attention, we can build an alternative, more thoughtful, world with these tools.

Tumblr was founded early 2007, around the same time Twitter was spun off into its own company. At the time, both were labelled “microblogging” - a clumsy term that tried to bridge the existing blogging world with the still nascent trend of social networking. Of the two products, only Tumblr continued to be described as a form of blogging. Indeed, its name came from the term “tumblelog,” which was coined around 2005 to describe a short-form blog.

However, it became clear after 2007 that Twitter was not blogging. Instead Twitter helped define an entirely new thing - social media - along with Facebook and later Instagram and Snapchat.

Tumblr always had more in common with Wordpress, the world’s leading blog platform, than it did with Twitter. That is, most Tumblr sites were made up of “discrete, often informal” posts “typically displayed in reverse chronological order” (from Wikipedia’s definition of “blog”). But what differentiated Tumblr from Wordpress and others was the prevalence of non-textual content among its users: images, videos, GIFs, audio and other forms of multimedia were more popular than text posts. Tumblr also nailed the social side of blogging, far more than Wordpress did.

So when Automattic, the owners of Wordpress, announced last month that it had acquired the distressed assets of Tumblr from Verizon, most Web fans rejoiced. While Tumblr’s heyday is long gone, the Automattic acquisition got people wondering: will this help blogs compete again with social media? After all, Wordpress bloggers could sure use some of Tumblr’s magic social dust.

A more pertinent question may be: is it too late for blogs, since email newsletters have seemingly replaced them?

Blogs vs email newsletters

I don't belong to this era. I'm an old-school blogger and I have never been very good at social media. The reason I got into blogging in the first place, at the beginning of this century, was to write thoughtful articles about web technology. So when the "blogosphere" grew rapidly and thrived in the opening decade of the 2000s, I was in my element. 

Blogging always suited my personal style of thinking and exploration: I like to ponder things, look at a topic from multiple angles, read other peoples thoughts on the topic (via their blogs and the RSS feeds that notified me of new posts), use the writing process to think the topic through and come to conclusions of my own, and finally read the comments and response posts from other bloggers. This all takes time, but that’s the point: you consider a topic carefully and write something thoughtful, yet opinionated, about it.

By contrast, the fast-moving, meme-fueled, top-of-your-head style required of Twitter or Facebook is not my forte. Social media is a space that rewards black & white opinions and groupthink, rather than nuanced ideas and original thinking. So when social media began to take over the Web in the second decade of this century, I knew I was in trouble.

The rise of email newsletters over the past couple of years has provided some hope again for longer-form, more thoughtful content. Indeed, email newsletters are in some ways the blogs of 2019. Only instead of posts being delivered via RSS to an RSS Reader, they're delivered to the inboxes of subscribers. In the case of Substack, the platform I use for my newsletter Cybercultural, posts are also available online. (While technically Substack does provide an RSS feed, for each post it only includes the headline and link. So you can't read the article in an RSS Reader.) 

Practically speaking, there are two delivery mechanisms for email newsletters: email and social media. But both have issues. Email delivery may provide a direct relationship with your readers, but their inboxes are already full and getting fuller by the day (including with other newsletters!). Email subscribers also have little control over the organisation of their newsletters. Whereas with RSS Readers, they can categorise their feeds into folders, filter the feeds (e.g. Feedly provides this functionality today), and the Reader is a dedicated app for blog-style content.

As for social media as a delivery mechanism, you're reliant on the opaque algorithms of the tech companies plus your own social media prowess (or lack of, in my case).

In other ways too, email newsletters are a poor approximation of what blogging used to be. A big part of the appeal of blogging was the comments and trackbacks (which is when you link to another blog, and that shows up in or near the comments section of the blog). While Substack and other platforms provide commenting functionality, the reality is you're most likely to get feedback via social media instead - if you're lucky. 

I also worry about the lack of control over archiving one's email newsletter content. Substack has an "archive" page, which provides a list of all your articles, but there's no way to provide structure to it - such as adding tags or categories (both common in the blogging era). There's also no content export feature in Substack; again, something that Wordpress and other blogging platforms provide. So your content feels trapped in a way, which is yet another backward step from blogging.

Finally, as a content creator it's a heck of a lot harder to get paid for your work in the email newsletter era. Some people bemoaned the advertising on blogs during their heyday, but the fact is that model provided free content to everyone and a good living to many bloggers. Much has been made of the email newsletter success stories in this era - Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, et al - but the vast majority of newsletters struggle mightily to get the 1,000 paying fans we all seek.

Of course the bigger macro problem is that online advertising is no longer viable for most professional blogs, due to Facebook and Google’s oligopoly over this market. While subscriptions is a potential solution to this problem in media, so far it’s proven to follow a Power Law dynamic in terms of who can actually run a business this way. The NYT can, the LA Times not so much. Stratechery can, Cybercultural not so much (so far at least).

I should add, I think Substack is an excellent product. IMHO it's the slickest and most feature-packed email newsletter platform. So none of this is a criticism of them; rather, my point is that blogging still has some clear advantages over email newsletters.

The future of blogging (including Tumblr)

This brings us back to Tumblr and blogs in general. The main problem with blogging in 2019 is that it can’t capture enough mainstream attention, because it’s all been gobbled up by social media. Email newsletters have made some headway into that, by claiming bits of people’s email inboxes.

But here’s where Tumblr might provide the key. Despite its recent traffic decline, Tumblr still has hundreds of millions of users - way more than Wordpress.com. So can Automattic take advantage of that and help its bloggers get some attention again?

Some people think it won’t be enough. In a Wall St Journal article last month, Christopher Mims compared blogging and Tumblr to vinyl records:

“WordPress.com is committed to supporting an activity—blogging—that can seem quaint in an era where if something isn’t shared on social media, it didn’t happen.

It’s entirely possible, as we saw with vinyl, wooden toys and email, that blogging—and, by extension, Tumblr—could make a comeback, or at least hang on as a valuable place for more thoughtful creation and engagement.”

While I agree that blogs will never again be as popular as social media, I think the vinyl comparison is unfair.

With all due respect to hipsters and music snobs, vinyl is a dead technology. It can’t be improved. But the blogging technologies of Wordpress and Tumblr, combined with the more recent innovations of newsletter platforms like Substack, are very much alive.

In my view, there’s potential to build a significant new form of networking with blogs, Tumblr and email newsletters, this time built around cultural content.

The current wave of email newsletters proves there is demand for thoughtful media content, while Tumblr shows that this content can include more multimedia than we typically see in email newsletters. Naturally, multimedia is best viewed on the Web - not in inboxes. So I’m hoping Automattic can find a way to direct readers back to the Web, with the help of its latest acquisition.

Multimedia is important because we’re living in a golden age for digital cultural content. As I’ve chronicled in Cybercultural throughout this year, we now have access to a vibrant world of streaming music and tv/movies, podcasting and audiobooks, online gaming innovations, VR and AR in the GLAM sector, and other high quality cultural content. All of it ripe for discussion on blogs and newsletters.

But let’s not forget the past. As I noted above, there’s much from old-school blogging that deserves to be brought back: comments and trackbacks, archives, RSS Readers (or any type of Reader app that brings the content back to the Web and thus gives more control to the reader), filtering tools, transparency (compared to the opaque algorithms of social media), and more.

I think Wordpress, Tumblr and email newsletter platforms like Substack all have a part to play in this more thoughtful, cultural content friendly world that I’ve described above.

We can do better than the Black Mirror world that social media companies have given us. We have the tools already - blogging and email newsletters - so let’s use them to (re)build the future.