posted by Matt Ward on Dec 30, 2009.
In this article, we look at the concept of the blog, specifically within the context of the design community. Moreover, we look at notions of content and structure, and why Smashing Magazine’s own name works as an anchor within the still-emerging blogsphere.
The design community is abuzz lately, murmuring of revolt, an uprising against the sea of content that is pouring through our favourite social media outlets and flooding our RSS readers, almost the the point of saturation – or perhaps even beyond. Some are merely whispers of discontent. Other bold calls to repentance and change are almost prophetic in their zeal. Every day, this buzzing gains a little more steam, becomes a little louder.
Ignore it at your peril.
And what, you may ask, is the source of this unsettling clamour? I’m sure that you must have heard it already, somewhere out there. On the surface, it is a resistance to the “list” post. You know the type. These are posts which gather a number of examples of a certain design technique, resource or any other common denominator. They are everywhere. I’ve written and posted a few of them myself, for which I make no apology.
The issue, as it presents itself, is that these list posts are, apparently, nothing more than recycled content. An author grabs a bunch of other people’s stuff, mashes it all together as a collection of screenshots and links, hopefully with at least a little bit of introductory text. They then create some sort of catchy title, post links to a number of different sites and sit back and watch the traffic pour in.
In some ways, it does seem just a bit too easy. In other ways, the content may seem trite or hollow. However, while lists are taking the brunt of the assault, I have also seen some tutorials and freebies attacked on the same general premise. Consider the articles Learn About Design, Not Making Things Pretty, which discusses the general failure of these posts to actually teach anything, or Smashing Magazine Killed The Community (Or Maybe It Was Me), which calls for greater thought and discussion and an end to a stream of copycats.
While both of these articles tend to attack lists posts to some degree, I think what they really illustrate is that, for many people, the issue is not so much the list post itself, but lifeless content, for which the poor and generalized list post is quickly becoming symbolic. The murmurer of which we speak, then, is more than just a general discontent with people publishing lists, it’s the beginnings of a complete revolt against the zombie content that has been slowly eating our creative brains.
Still, the fundamental truth remains. Readers in our community are getting tired of wasting their precious time on hollow content. It doesn’t matter if it’s a list post, a tutorial, a freebie or any other kind of post that you could imagine. If it doesn’t benefit them in some way (by teaching, equipping, motivating or challenging, for instance), readers are most likely to leave strongly dissatisfied.
But what does all of this have to do with the title of this article? Well, let’s bring it all back around. In all the buzzing and murmuring that we’ve outlined so far, in all the calls for change, one of the greatest targets of scrutiny always seems to be that most famous of design websites: Smashing Magazine. This particular site is actually known for publishing lists. They are even referenced as being where the site itself really got it’s start (again, see Smashing Magazine Killed The Community (Or Maybe It Was Me)).
Naturally, then, when attacks on list posts start to rise, so too will the related discussion surrounding Smashing Magazine. And that leads me to the second and more important point of this article, which is an issue of language and expectations.
Let me ask a simple question: is Smashing Magazine a blog? The simple answer should be evident just looking at the name. It calls itself a magazine, and in many ways it acts like a magazine. It publishes articles from a wide range of different authors, with a high standard for writing and content. Much of what it publishes is actually list-based articles, which is something that you will also see frequently in printed magazines – 10 Exercises for Rock Hard Abs, 25 Ways to Look Great Fast, The 7 Things that Will Blow His… well you get the idea.
Lists are in no way exclusive to the design community. They are a tried and true technique for developing, organizing and publishing content in bit sized morsels. A site like Smashing Magazine is simply adopting the technique into a digital medium. As such, lists and other magazine-like articles actually make sense.
That’s why it’s called Smashing Magazine (at least, in part).
On the other hand, though, there are some parts of the site do make it look like a blog. It has a very blog-like layout, with a sidebar and categories and archives and banner ads. It displays its content in reverse-chronological order and has an RSS feed (and displays its subscriber count). It has tags and a list of popular posts. In so many ways it just feels like a blog.
So, I ask another question: what is a blog today? Is the word, so recently coined, already plummeting into meaninglessness, on account of suddenly meaning too many things at once? Just consider the dramatic differences between Abduzeedo and Andy Rutledge’s Design View. Both are excellent, but wouldn’t we call both of these blogs? If so, then where does the definition lie?
Is it a matter of content? Recently I wrote an article for SpyreStudios, outlining what I perceived to be the six main types of articles circulating through the design community. That hardly seems like a strong foundation for a definition. Nor would it probably translate well outside of the community.
Perhaps the definition lies in the adopted structure – articles posted in reverse chronological order, complete with categories, archives and comments? Probably not, given that there is really no singular structural element which is completely sacred, or without which a site would necessarily cease to be called a blog. Moreover, there are questions of transparency, dialogue and community that are bantered around when discussing the emerging role of blogs, suggesting that there is at least some form of cultural expectation surrounding blogs.
We want a blog to be something, but what is that something?
I don’t think we’ve figured it out. I’m not sure we ever will. In some ways, I believe that the blog could very well become the epitome of postmodern media. It resists definition in a way that other media simply have not been able to do. And, as it resists definition, so too does it undermine expectation. You cannot know what to expect from a blog on account of it simply being a blog.
There are, of course, other factors upon which expectations may be drawn, such as subject matter, history and readership. There are also established conventions, which we see repeated across many such sites. However, as we enter a new decade, I think we will start to see more and more variations on the concept of the blog. These sites (and perhaps not even sites) will continue to evolve and change through purposeful innovation and wild experimentation.
But where does that leave us? Nowhere concrete, to be sure, but I say again – that’s why it’s called Smashing Magazine. The famous design site may still strike us as being a blog. It does not, however, rely on the concept of the blog to define its form. Rather, it uses its own name to define itself as a magazine, produces content like a magazine (and thus justifies its production of quality list posts), adopting its bloginess only at a secondary level, as a means to publish and deliver its content. I think this is part of the reason that it has been so successful. It found its identity and allowed that identity to control (to some degree) the direction of its content.
How many other design blogs can say the same thing? Maybe some of the most successful, but probably not the majority.
It’s something I am struggling with myself. What is the Echo Enduring Blog? Where is it going? Should it even retain the title of “blog” (a question raised by the ubiquitous nature of the term itself)? These are all important questions that I am going to have to come to terms with, and which I believe many other bloggers will have to come to terms with over the coming months and years.
Smashing Magazine? Not so much, I think.
I feel that I must apologize for the arc of this article. I kind of start in one place and end in another, without really bringing things all the way back around again. It is a bit more a stream of consciousness type post (or, what some people might call a rant). Please forgive me. Now, what about you, dear reader? What are your thoughts, opinions and/or counter-rants. I’d love to hear them.Post A Comment
Also from Echo Enduring Media: