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The Bones of the Blogosphere

What’s the right way for a blog—or a newsletter—to die?
February 18, 2022
The Bones of the Blogosphere

Blogs nowadays are a little bit like cathode-ray tube televisions—obsolete, still out there in large numbers, and exhibiting a lifespan longer than many would have thought. When I say “blogs,” I don’t just mean spaces where writers regularly hold forth in a conversational tone. I mean true blogs: those old-fashioned publications, usually written solo and hosted on or Tumblr or early versions of WordPress, complete with a “blogroll” that often stretches back many years, a friendly, chaotic comments section, and retro widgets like pageview counters and ancient social media icons.

Although the vast majority of blogs stopped publishing or disappeared long ago, among the survivors are some of quite high quality. The depth of their archives, and the hundreds of thousands of words contained therein, are a testament to how seriously their writers take their hobby. And it is mostly a hobby. If writers on these legacy platforms found ways to make their work pay, it was no thanks to the platforms themselves.

Among the old-school but still-active blogs I’ve followed in recent years are several that showcase the form at its quirky apex. There’s The Art of the Buffet OR All You Can Eat is Not a Challenge, whose author has been reviewing buffets all over the United States in exhilarating detail since 2005. (COVID has greatly slowed its output, but it doesn’t appear to be dead yet.)

Then there’s Retro Renovation, a massive compendium of decorating tips, shopping excursions, and commentary focusing on midcentury American home decor. Unlike the buffet blog, Retro Renovation’s author does not use a pen name. “I’m Pam Kueber, home enthusiast, journalist, and midcentury material culture buff,” she writes. “I started this site in 2008 after 5 years of research to remodel my 1951 kitchen. We’ve been sharing research, resources—and fascination—ever since. Welcome!”

I’m also partial to What’s Good at Trader Joe’s?, where two families loyally take turns reviewing the latest products from the grocery chain. The archives stretch back to 2010, such that what was once a review of a new release becomes a time capsule of the company’s products over the years. Now that’s a blog: a couple of families who like eating stuff from Trader Joe’s, and wind up producing one of the best pieces of history on the company’s offerings that anybody will ever make.

Some of these blogs have ways of making money, but usually just a little. They are largely amateur efforts in the etymologically true sense of the word: they are labors of love.

Blogging well requires a tremendous amount of work, including work along the lines of what the socialists call “emotional labor.” That’s evidenced by the phenomenon of the dead blog: one that simply stops updating one day and becomes essentially abandoned.

When a magazine closes down, it goes out a bit like a restaurant or a store. There will often be a final publishing day, maybe a heartfelt note to the readers about the difficult media landscape, a last hurrah. Many websites of shuttered magazines remain online for years, frozen indefinitely; they look just as they did on their final day. Others see their archives moved over to another site, or simply vanish into cyberspace.

For dead blogs, however, the pattern is usually different. Sometimes they end following a building sense of boredom or despair; other times they just end suddenly, with no acknowledgement or last words. Sometimes, a blog’s death is something a reader must divine, rather than a fact explicitly stated by the writer. Quite often, a blogger will intend to get back to blogging, and may even occasionally take a stab at it—“long time no write,” they say guiltily, promising to “post more regularly now”—so it can be debated whether such a blog is really dead. Often, a years-old unfulfilled promise to write more becomes a blog’s unwitting valediction.

Sometimes, the blog is effectively abandoned, or only rarely updated, while the project itself lives on somewhere else. For example, Dave Aldrich, who runs a retail-history blog called Pleasant Family Shopping, posts often at the blog’s Facebook page, but has only written one entry at the blog itself in the last five years.

Another long-running retail-history blog that appears really dead is Labelscar, which began in 2006 and abruptly stopped publishing in 2013. Then there’s Rurality, a fascinating six-year record of rural and homestead life in Alabama, that also abruptly ends, with a post noting that Facebook is taking up more of the author’s time these days. Dating from 2011, that post speaks to a shift in the digital media world: the move from these quirky, longform, long-term personal projects to the more ephemeral and fast-paced world of social media.

Other times, the end is more tragic. For example, the author of Fringe Wine wrote a final post in 2013, then a final final post in 2014 describing in detail his severe depression and fear of sliding into alcoholism. And like that, the blog ends. But it’s all still there. He wrote, for example, a very interesting post in 2011 about white cabernet franc, produced by squeezing the red grape for juice and then immediately discarding the skins, resulting in a true-blue white wine from a red grape. The blogger died a few weeks after that final post—a fact I learned from another wine blog, which had its own “final” post in 2019.

Sometimes the impending death of a blog is announced, only for it to publish a little longer before abruptly going dark. To stick with wine blogs: In one of the last posts at Swirl Sip Snark, the Virginia-based author expressed frustration with the state of the wine industry and then, in the blog’s second-to-last post, in early 2013, suggested that the blog would shift its focus away from visits to new, often mediocre wineries. The industry’s explosion in the state, she wrote, had led a lot of inexperienced winemakers to set up shop. There’s also an interesting bit about how a loophole in the tax code allows “wedderies,” or wedding venues set on wineries, to evade commercial venue taxes by technically being classified as agricultural operations—even though the winery portion basically only exists for the purpose of tax classification.

After all that, there’s an upbeat post a couple of weeks later about a nice rosé. And then the blog ends.

Quite often, a reader can only venture a guess as to why a blog has ended. You can imagine in some cases that the author has undergone something that disrupts their ability to tend to their hobby—a family tragedy, a layoff—or even, as in the case of the Fringe Wine blog, that they have died. Presumably, the disruptions that bring blogging to an end are also often happy ones: marriage; children; a better, more engaging job; a new interest or passion.

But this leaves a higher-level question: Is there a proper way for a publication to die? It is unrealistic to expect a project like a blog to simply go on forever, given how personal many of them are and how much labor goes into them. Most bloggers, like most actual magazines, never telegraphed any limit or lifespan to these publications, and by all appearances intended to keep them going forever. Yet in some ways, the tools and platforms that allow any individual to build their own blog—their own mini-magazine of me—actually hide just how much work it is.

That juxtaposition, and that phenomenon of publishing technology hiding effort, is elevated even more with the current generation of blog-like tools, like Substack (full disclosure and shameless plug, I have one, and I intend to publish there forever). Substack and a handful of similar platforms bill themselves as “newsletter” platforms, but they can be used for anything from a literal newsletter to a blog to an actual magazine, like The Bulwark.

Substack is still relatively new, and it’s still the most current iteration of the online, self-publishing platform. But it’s old enough, having launched in 2017, that it’s no doubt already host to abandoned publications. What does the “dead Substack” look like—keeping in mind that many Substacks are locked and accessible only for paying subscribers?

But while almost all of them are doomed to eventual death—or perhaps we should call it completion, when there’s nothing left to write—these spunky publications are cultural resources. Many of them contain immense amounts of information and research that would be more or less impossible to gather again. Many will one day serve as vital sources for piecing together the commercial and cultural history of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. If their host websites remain online for the long term, or if they are backed up, they may be unearthed by tomorrow’s historians and archeologists, digging not through dirt and rock but through the digital layers buried and left alone in the vastness of the internet. Perhaps that’s as fitting a final resting place as any.

Addison Del Mastro

Addison Del Mastro writes on urbanism and cultural history. Find him on Substack (The Deleted Scenes) and Twitter (@ad_mastro).