How This Blog Has Contributed, In Its Tiny Way, To The Internet Being Less Magical
Last year, Evgeny Morozov lamented in the New York Times that we no longer surf the web. Reminiscing over the golden age of internet browsing, he invoked the romantic image of the flâneur, that 19th-century creature of Paris who would walk and walk and see what he saw. That’s what we used to do on the internet, and we don’t do it anymore.
Nearly a year later, I’m still thinking about that article. Because I remember that I, too, used to just find things on the internet, I really did. I used to keep these big long lists of weird and wonderful links, and I miss that.
I don’t remember when it happened, but one day I stopped finding things on my own and started being shown them on Facebook and Twitter. Often, those things were cats.
Morozov blames the social networks for the death of cyberflânerie, and I agree that they’ve played a big part in it. But lately I’ve been looking at it from another angle. Sociologists like to think about how the physical features of a city shape the experiences and behaviors of its inhabitants; what if the “architecture” of the web, the way information is organized and presented, helps determine how we engage with its contents? I’m thinking, in particular, of the architecture of the blog.
Before blogs, there were “personal homepages.” Yeah, we look back at them and laugh. There really is plenty to laugh about: flashing GIFs, elaborate “Under Construction” signs, psychedelic tiled backgrounds posing varying levels of challenge to anyone seeking to actually read the superimposed text. Ah, Geocities. But forget all that, and think back to how these pages were organized.
In their most basic form, there’d be a main page that acted as a table of contents. If the “webmaster” wanted to get fancy, that table might live in a frame on the side of the screen, which would let you go deep into the site without getting lost. There were limitations to this format, to be sure. Drawing attention to new content meant moving things around, highlighting things with GIFs that blinked “NEW!” But the advantage to this structure was that everything on offer was laid bare for the first-time visitor. There was so much to click on, so much to discover.
Then came the blog.
We were all so excited about the blog! It was fast and easy and you barely had to know HTML to use it. It looked so polished with its tidy columns, and you couldn’t miss the fresh content because it would be right up top. I got on Movable Type right away, and immediately began compiling my blogroll. I was 19 years old.
Like most early bloggers, I didn’t question the conventions of the form. Of course you needed a blogroll. Of course posts should be presented in reverse-chronological order. Of course content was archived by month.
After more than ten years of blogging, I’ve come to see that these conventions don’t make any sense for me, or for the majority of blogs. Most personal blogs–and this is particularly true of food blogs–aren’t dealing in time-sensitive or timely material, so there’s no good reason to privilege over all else the date on which a post was written. Certainly, a regular visitor to the site might appreciate being able to see what’s been added since his last visit, but most visitors aren’t regular visitors. The blog format ensures that the first-time visitor sees not your best work, or even all your work, but only your most recent work.
I don’t have a fleshed-out solution to this problem. But I am proposing that we stop treating our blogs as stacks of paper and start thinking of them as bookshelves. Every time I add a post to this blog, the stack gets higher, and the barrier to unearthing older content rises with it. In contrast, a bookshelf makes sure that all titles are visible and equally likely to be thumbed through. As in a bookstore, there ought to be ways of indicating new arrivals and staff picks, but we don’t bundle the classics into a closet just because we got a new shipment that day.
I want to see the navigation really serve the content. I look forward to discovering again.