The Text Renaissance and the Eighth Death of Blogging

The always-interesting Venkatesh Rao has a fascinating and (for him) relatively brief take on the present moment as a “text renaissance” for the web and online publishing. It's a good thought-provoking post about the implications of several new tools and platforms rooted in old methods and ideas for publishing written content:

  • Roam — a hypertext idea-organizing and publishing platform Vannevar Bush would love, since it seems to fulfill the vision of a “Memex,” as Sarah Constantin beautifully explains.
  • Substack — a freemium subscription-based content blogging and email newsletter alternative to WordPress+Mailchimp+Membership system “Frankenblogs.”
  • Threaded Twitter — a “user-pioneered hack-turned-supported feature that has wonderfully revitalized the platform.”
  • Gatsby, Jekyll and static websites.

Gatsby gets a lot of praise from Rao, especially in connection with WordPress. He sees Gatsby as the first “real, serious alternative” to WordPress, so he expects it will disrupt the entire ecosystem. As part of that disruption, Rao predicts the “8th death of blogging,” in the sense that blogging — like a cat — will have at least nine lives. It keeps dying and coming back.

I'm not sure why Jekyll and other static site generators were mentioned alongside Gatsby. Since Jekyll produces static HTML and Gatsby outputs a single-page, dynamic React app, they are fundamentally different. I don't see static site generators as game changers the way Gatsby probably will be. Static has always have been around; WordPress can be used as a static site generator. But Gatsby offers a way to decouple your front-end from your back-end and still dynamically push and pull content and other data from it.

I've mostly seen Gatsby as a boon for performance because you're not constantly re-rendering pages and throwing lots of queries at the database. But beyond that, Gatsby seems like yet another turn of the crank in the endless cycle of shiny new things that keep developers interested in their work. Accessibility, usability, and sustainability remain uninteresting and unimportant because you can't usually throw them at clients as the latest sexy thing to invest in.

But maybe there is another upside. Rao is thinking about Gatsby in a way I hadn't considered — as a way to present writing in new ways:

I see several promising young writers already moving away from the blog as the main vehicle for online written expression, and building bespoke sites with weirder, more experimental structures, using Gatsby and its kin as the foundation.

Rao didn't provide examples for that, but it made me think of some of the things The Correspondent is trying on their own membership-oriented CMS, as well as some what-ifs, like what if you could make WordPress more like Roam? One of the interesting things about the idea of a renaissance — a rebirth — is that it means going back to forgotten sources in “the early history of digital text, rediscovering old, abandoned ideas, and reimagining the bleeding edge in terms of the unexplored adjacent possible of the 80s and 90s.” Maybe it's also a way to get off the platform and applications cycle — “commodify the back end, transform and retransform the front end,” as Alex Danco puts it — and actually make some qualitative progress with tools for written expression.