The story Jan Dawson tells in The De-Democratization of Online Publishing is familiar to me. Like him, I was thrilled to be part of the birth of personal publishing in the mid-1990s. By 2001 my RSS feedreader was delivering a healthy mix of professional and amateur sources. Through the lens of my RSS reader, stories in the New York Times were no more or less important than blog posts from my peers in the tech blogosophere, And because RSS was such a simple format, there was no technical barrier to entry. It was a golden era of media democratization not seen before or since.
As Dawson rightly points out, new formats from Google (Accelerated Mobile Pages) and Facebook (Instant Articles) are “de-democratizing” online publishing by upping the ante. These new formats require skills and tooling not readily available to amateurs. That means, he says, that “we’re effectively turning back the clock to a pre-web world in which the only publishers that mattered were large publishers and it was all but impossible to be read if you didn’t work for one of them.”
Let’s unpack that. When I worked for a commercial publisher in 2003, my charter was to bring its audience to the web and establish blogging as a new way to engage with that audience. But my situation was atypical. Most of the bloggers I read weren’t, like me, working for employers in the business of manufacturing audiences. They were narrating their work and conserving keystrokes. Were they impossible to read? On the contrary, if you shared enough interests in common it was impossible not to read them.
When publishers created audiences and connected advertisers to them, you were unlikely to be read widely. Those odds don’t change when Google and Facebook become the publishers; only the gatekeepers do. But when publishing is personal and social, that doesn’t matter.
One of the bloggers I met long ago, Lucas Gonze, is a programmer and a musician who curates and performs 19th-century parlour music. He reminded me that before the advent of recording and mass distribution, music wasn’t performed by a small class of professionals for large audiences. People gathered around the piano in the parlour to play and sing.
Personal online publishing once felt like that. I don’t know if it will again, but the barrier isn’t technical. The tools invented then still exist and they work just fine. The only question is whether we’ll rekindle our enthusiasm for reading and writing for our peers.