In the early days of the twenty-first century, when the term “social media” was but a whisper in the digital wind, blogrolls played an instrumental role in the development of online communities.
A blogroll – a curated list of links to other blogs that a blogger would include on their blog – enabled bloggers to create a web of interconnected relationships, fostering discussion and exchanging ideas. Today, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find a useful blogroll on any worthwhile blog, a fact that I believe has contributed to a decline of discussion, of conversation, that was a mainstay of early blogging and developing a sustainable community online.
The Blogroll and Social Connections
Blogrolls helped form the foundation of early online communities. Through them, bloggers could connect to other bloggers and their content to engage in meaningful conversations and debates, ultimately broadening their horizons. Blogrolls were not just lists of links; they were the original social networks that laid the groundwork for an attractive social media landscape to develop.
Blogging platforms like Blogger, Movable Type, TypePad and WordPress helped encourage people to build the blogosphere and connect blogs together with pings, trackbacks, RSS feeds and a blogroll feature from the very beginning that you could enable on every blog. Today’s platform leader WordPress had functionality built in to create and curate a blogroll but removed it from the core software over a decade ago.
As the Internet and the world wide web evolved, so did social media. Social platforms like LiveJournal started in 1999, with others such as MySpace emerging in the early years of the new century. From around the mid-noughties, Facebook and Twitter began to dominate the consumer online world, simplifying the process of connecting with others. LinkedIn and XING did the same for online business networking.
But across the online world, the focus began shifting from in-depth commenting, replying and actual discussions on blogs to quick, easily digestible snackable content that took place on social networking sites.
This transition marked the beginning of the end for blogrolls in the mainstream as they were largely replaced by “follow” and “like” buttons.
Before that transition, blogrolls were a common sight. Here’s a screenshot from my TypePad blog in August 2004 – the blogroll is in the left-hand sidebar. The blog is no longer online in the format you see (it’s a text-only archive now) but you can see this view via the Wayback Machine.
Over the following decade, social media continued to evolve and become more of a vehicle for commercial and political interests with data manipulation and monetisation in mind. The sense of genuine community and authentic connections that blogrolls fostered began to fade. Attention spans shortened, and the desire for instant gratification grew.
The intimacy and thoughtfulness of the blogroll era were replaced by a culture of impulsivity where every link has a tracking code, and where hot takes and clickbait headlines reigned supreme. And let’s also mention anti-social behaviours and aggression that have led to many blogs and other websites disabling commenting entirely as discourse became overwhelmingly uncivil.
In short, the rise of social networking platforms and changes in people’s online behaviours have contributed to the decline of civil discourse. Blogrolls, with their curated links implying recommendations, encouraged reflection and respectful dialogue, as bloggers took the time to read, comment, and engage with one another’s work.
Now, though, communication is often governed by character count, making it difficult to foster and develop actual meaningful conversations.
In the current digital landscape, anonymity and the lack of accountability often lead to aggressive and polarising language and behaviour. The demise of blogrolls and the shift towards instant, shallow connections have given way to echo chambers and filter bubbles, further exacerbating the polarisation of opinions.
In the face of these challenges, there is a growing desire by many people to return to the thoughtful, respectful discussions that characterized the blogroll era. I believe there is hope that the lessons learned from the past can guide us in rebuilding a digital landscape that encourages civil discourse.
Recent initiatives such as the emergence of conversational-newsletter platform Substack – and perhaps new entrants such as Post.News – has the potential to enable people to create long-form content and build genuine interactions between authors and readers. And include curated lists of other recommended places.
Just like blogrolls in the (g)olden days :)
And while Twitter is still in the throws of chaos and turmoil with mounting questions over its relevance and trustworthiness, and even its very survival, let’s not count it down and out just yet. News came a few days ago that Twitter is enabling posts of up to 10,000 characters, which would be somewhere between 1,400 and 2,500 words. That’s unquestionably long form (and a knock on the head to its original value proposition of brevity in 140, then 280, then 4,000 characters) that may enable Twitter to evolve into better relevance for some – all else being equal, not least paying a monthly fee for the privilege with Twitter Blue.
As Stephen Waddington recently noted, blogrolls such as the one shown below in a screenshot of Richard Millington’s blog in June 2008 are a throwback to a gentler time when social media was social. Thanks to Michelle Goodall for bringing Rich’s blogroll to my attention!
The Blogroll can Help Civil Discourse Arise Again
The history of blogrolls and their role in the development of social media is a tale of a seemingly lost art – the art of civil discourse. By understanding the lessons from the past, we can strive to create more inclusive, respectful online communities that value genuine connections and thought-provoking conversations.
As we navigate the ever-changing digital landscape, let’s not forget the importance of the humble blogroll and its ability to bring people together, fostering a sense of community and shared understanding.
Ultimately, the responsibility falls upon each of us as creators, writers and users of the Internet to cultivate a more thoughtful and inclusive digital environment. We can do this by seeking out people and platforms that encourage genuine discussions, engaging in respectful conversations, and sharing content that contributes to meaningful discourse.
I’m making a new start by introducing a blogroll for the first time since 2009. It begins as a short list of ten people whose content I enjoy, some of whom I’ve been reading for years. You’ll see the blogroll in the right-hand sidebar on the home page. Do make some visits!Neville Hobson, 16 April 2023
By taking a step like this, we can each rediscover the essence of the blogroll era and work towards a brighter future for online interactions. If you run a WordPress blog, adding a blogroll is straightforward now with the ability to add a blogroll as a navigation menu. There are also WordPress plugins if you prefer that option.
As we continue to learn from the past and adapt to the present, we have the opportunity to redefine how we connect and communicate in this digital age, to pause and to take our time. We can rekindle the spirit of civil discourse that once flourished in the world of blogrolls.
The generative AI images at the top are by Adobe Firefly beta in response to the text prompt: “Portrait of a person in a coffee shop, with sunlight, holding a laptop computer”, with filters set to ‘art’ and ‘digital art’. Usually, you would pick one of the four generated images. But I felt the four together were so complementary, I grabbed all four as presented. Collectively, they convey a good sense of civil online discourse and community.