Thursday, April 12, 2018

What Happens to a Community Disrupted? (The Rise and Fall of Blogging)

I started this blog almost exactly eight years ago (April 19, 2010). I was a graduate student who was a few months pregnant with my first child, and I was terrified because everywhere I looked there were articles and people telling me that there was no way to balance a professional career and the demands of motherhood without sacrificing the quality of one or both beyond repair. I blogged anonymously. It was truly just a diary at first, but then I made this post about my feminist hopes to mother a feminist. It was written as a response to blue milk, one of my favorite "mommy bloggers" at the time. She had posted (more than two years before I responded) a list of ten questions about feminist motherhood.

That post ended up getting me clicked into an amazing group of women who were all blogging about the things I was thinking about. We started connecting, blogged on each other's pages, left comments on each other's posts, and generally became a community. Then we kept going with our lives, and eventually that community (or at least the tiny corner of it I was inhabiting) drifted apart, sometimes gently prodded by the natural current of the ocean of  daily motherhood, sometimes violently disrupted by the stormy period of tragedies like divorce and child loss.

"Old-Fashioned Sense of Community"

I literally teared up remembering this long-ago community while I was reading Emily Matchar's book Homeward Bound: Why Women are Embracing the New Domesticity the other day. Matchar penned this book in 2013, which is right around the time that I was at peak "mommy blogger." I was attending blogging conferences, knew my Klout score, tweeted with all the right hashtags, felt connected to the big discussions in this particular niche.

Matchar writes about finding "lifestyle blogs" and feeling connected to a world full of decorators and cooks who opened up a door to domesticity that challenged its anti-feminist reputation and gave young Millennial women like me the chance to embrace the domesticity that was naturally becoming a part of our lives as young homemakers, wives, and mothers without feeling like sellouts who were turning our backs on our mother's hard work to gain equal rights. Blogs, Matchar explains, were a key part of this transformation:
Homemaker 2.0 blogs have become online versions of the knitting circles and quilting bees of preindustrial America, which were themselves created to stave off the loneliness and isolation of pioneer life. Online, women swap skills, tips, and recipes; give advice; offer emotional support. Women whom Technorati defines as 'mom bloggers' are significantly more likely than other bloggers to post comments, to link to other blogs, and to say they enjoy interacting with readers and other bloggers. In our supposedly isolated Bowling Alone culture, blogs have created a frankly old-fashioned sense of community. 
In 2013, I have to tell you, that felt completely right. It felt like we had found a way to build a community without the bounds of geography. We were able to connect with other mothers who were going through exactly what we were going through, and we were able to feel valuable and meaningful as part of this group.

I don't know that I can say the same thing in 2018. It's not just that my daughter got older (though that definitely does take a toll on the "mommy blogging"). After all, my son is the same age my daughter was at this blogging peak. I also don't think the community is gone. Mothers need that connection and space to lean on one another as much as they ever have, and there are still plenty of spaces online that fill that void, but I know that I have never been able to recreate the blogging magic that I felt five years ago.

What Happened?

Google Reader was discontinued in June of 2013. Did Google just have its finger on the pulse of the reality and jump just ahead of the crash, or did it steer the ship into the iceberg? I don't know the answer to that.

At the time, Google was hoping to make Google+ a thing that could truly compete with Facebook, and (as we can all see with our perfectly honed hindsight) that didn't happen. Instead, Facebook's "groups" feature is now the place that seems to get most of the activity that I used to see in blog comments.

Whatever the case, I know that I personally never found a way to keep up with blogs the way I did with Google Reader, and I made a concerted effort to find a comparable replacement. I imagine there were plenty of people who just didn't find it worth the effort. This Atlantic piece sings the praises of Google Reader and explains that since its demise, content creators have started to focus more on creating a single piece that generates "likes" rather than creating a bundled sense of identity in a blog that acts as a cohesive whole.

That also rings true to me. I remember a time when I made silly, short posts that were just bursts of thoughts. We posted "Wordless Wednesday" posts that were just pictures from our day. I wasn't worried about making every piece stand on its own because, for my readers (who were my friends, not my "customers" or "leads"), they didn't stand on their own.

Sure, a single piece could end up getting shared widely in unexpected ways, and that was sometimes fun (or, just as often, terrifying. I remember the shudder that went down my spine every time Reddit showed up in my traffic referrals), but I didn't think about individual posts the way that I do now.

Kids These Days and Their Newfangled FaceGramSnaps

Maybe I'm just old. Maybe the technology of my yesteryear just has a nostalgic feel for me, and it's no different than my parents keeping reel-to-reel movies in the basement for decades.

But I'm 32. And this was five years ago. So if I am just "old," then the pace of these changes has ramped up considerably from previous generations. And I don't seem to be alone in trying to figure out this technology change/midlife crisis/growing pains/what is happening mess. Take a look at this post from the New York Times about the previously "secret" Facebook group for women over 40 that took on a life of its own and is now the center of the creator's book and website.

Where Does a Community Go?

I don't know the answers to these questions. I'm not even really sure what questions I am asking, but I know that the change in the platform has not changed the need in the people who create the communities in the first place. We come together because we have a genuine need to find people who understand and to make us feel connected and heard. The messy tangle of giant corporations selling our data to advertisers, our own entrepreneurial desires to make a living through our writing and creations, and the inevitable mess that a group devolves into once it hits a certain number of participants will continue to complicate this attempt to find and keep a community.

What do you think? Are you still mourning Google Reader? Have you found a community to call your own? Do you fondly remember the blogs of yesteryear? Will you answer these questions somewhere I will never see them?

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