Tim Challies and the Evolution of the Blogosphere

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Tim Challies kicked off 2019 with an interesting article on three types of blogs:

  • the personal blog (what he calls the blog blog)
  • the group blog (a site identified primarily by its theme, but with multiple contributors)
  • the ministry blog (an “undefined and constantly growing list of writers whose articles are published on the site of a ministry”).

To illustrate, Tim’s blog would be an example of a personal blog, Mere Orthodoxy would be an example of a group blog, and Desiring God would be an example of a ministry blog.

What do we make of the trend away from personal blogs and the rise of ministry sites?

Tim laments the change, because he believes many people will miss out on regular writing, which will keep them from reaching their full potential. He also worries that the dominance of ministry sites keeps good writers from covering controversial topics that a site would rather stay away from. The decline of personal blogs leads to a loss of quality and a loss of freedom

Tim’s overview of trends in blogging elicited some good feedback in articles from Kristen Wetherell and Samuel James. I recommend you read their responses.

From my perspective, I agree with Tim that we’ve lost something personal due to the demise of the “blog blog.” In the early days of blogging, everything about the experience was personal.

  • Consider the interactions in the comments, and by comments I mean comment streams that followed every post, which implied that the commenter had read the post. (A stark difference from Facebook comment threads today where half the people it seems only react viscerally to the title or picture.)
  • Consider also the outsized influence of the “blog roll.” Before social media appeared, the blog roll was a valuable piece of online real estate, because those links were the way people could find likeminded or similar websites.
  • Likewise, personal blogs were often more eclectic than they are today. In order to stand out in today’s blogosphere, most personal blogs zero in on one or two issues in order to give voice to an underserved niche online. When I started blogging, however, there was no need for narrowness. In a week’s time, my posts could range from past experiences in Romania, to theological quotes, embedded videos from classic TV sitcoms (a hobby of mine), to interviews with scholars, or lengthy book reviews or essays. The personal blog was just that—personal, and the older blogs had personality and well-roundedness that showed up in the topics covered.

The trend away from personal blogs happened for several reasons.

First, many writers discovered that daily blogging is much harder than they anticipated. Writing is tough.

Second, as niche blogs began to grow (focused on particular topics), many writers found that they’d exhausted everything they had to say on a given topic after a few months of writing. The daily grind got harder.

Third, many people who wanted to start a personal blog found they didn’t have the capacity or willpower to write regularly and discovered that the ministry site could be a good outlet for less frequent content, and the payoff (a larger audience right away) was more rewarding. The tradeoff between feeling the pressure to write several posts a week or offer a monthly contribution to a well-trafficked website was easy.

The biggest change, however, that affected the personal blog was the migration of one’s  eclecticism and personality from blogs to social media. The blog roll became obsolete once people began finding blogs through social media sites and platforms. Twitter and Facebook and Instagram became the places where online writers could show their interests and personality, and these accounts were much easier to start and maintain. Eventually, many of the conversations once reserved for blog posts and comment streams moved to Twitter threads and Facebook posts.

The question Tim raises is this: Are we better off after the decline of personal blogs and the rise of ministry sites? Samuel James believes the reader gets better quality work because of the editorial process and filter of a ministry site. Tim thinks we’ve lost something special with the demise of the personal blog and worries that our conversations are too controlled by ministry special interests. It’s possible that both Challies and James are right.

On a related note, I once maintained a personal blog every day, but then I moved my blog into a “neighborhood” (TGC), and now I only blog a couple times a week and usually post a Trevin’s Seven link list on Fridays. The longer I write in this manner, and the more I write in other places (LifeWay Voices, Religion News Service, and so on), the more I feel like a “regular columnist” instead of a “blogger.” I send columns to various sites that invite my contribution, but the TGC blog neighborhood is where my “regular column” lives, as an editorial contribution, in a manner similar to columnists such as Ross Douthat at The New York Times (who occasionally contributes to National Review or other outlets).

What’s the difference between a column and a blog? It may be a matter of semantics, but “a column” feels more polished and professional and narrowly tailored to the ministry site’s overarching vision, while the blog is more personal, expansive, and expressive of whatever the blogger has on his or her mind. Both can be helpful, but as Tim points out, they’re not the same, and we have yet to determine what these tradeoffs mean for evangelicalism.

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