Larvatus Prodeo and the state of the blogosphere

Larvatus Prodeo, which can reasonably claim to have been just about the most popular and most compelling independent blogging community in the Australian blogosphere, has post its last. LP was a trailblazer in the Australian context in its early life; in its later life, much less so, but it always offered a dependably warm and learned whirlpool of debate and opinion. Founded initially as a personal blog by Mark Bahnisch back in 2005, LP swelled in numbers over the years to include contributions from many interesting and different voices, both “above the line” (including my own recent minor contributions) and indeed “below the line”. Long, often wide-ranging comment threads were peppered with interactions both fierce and friendly, and predictable skirmishes between right and left were – whilst not civil in the strict sense of the word – more civil than could be expected in the blogosphere generally. A certain camaraderie between adversaries was encouraged because the tone of debate was just that crucial bit higher than your average.

LP emerged in an era when newspapers and mainstream media (MSM) organisations were only just starting to engage with the challenges and opportunities offered by the Internet, and will exit stage left in 2012 with those same organisations having progressed and professionalised their online offerings. Anybody who involved themselves in any way with blogs since 2000 will know that that independent blogs stole a march on the MSM in the early noughties; the tide has now turned. Comment threads on articles and opinion columns have emerged as an MSM standard, supported by often ruthless paid moderators and a growing legion of willing participants. Sites like The Drum and initiatives like the Guardian’s popular if light touch Comment is Free have semi-successfully reached out to new, mainstream news-consuming audiences to an extent that independent blogs have failed to match.

So is the independent political blogosphere as we used to conceive of it dead, or dying? Certainly not everywhere; in the United States, political blogs seem to be enjoying a continuing stretch of success and influence. In the Australian context however, it does seem to be heading down that path, at least in the prevailing political, technological and economic climate. The perfect storm of rage and frustration that built up throughout the broader left in response to the continuing political success of the Howard Government has dissipated, as the fortunes of Federal Labor have waxed and waned, and then waned (and waned) some more. State governments across the country have by and large failed to engage people’s interest, and failed to inspire punters of any political stripe. Political parties by and large have failed to effectively engage with the potential that blogs offer for interaction with voters and likeminded activists.

Economically speaking – running and administering a timely and responsive blog with quality content is a considerable challenge. Just about all bloggers (shock, horror!) have busy lives: partners, friends, families, jobs, study commitments and plain old recreation time tend to impinge on one’s 24×7 content production and news processing time. The “street cred” that independent blogs initially enjoyed has slowly but steadily been overrun, overpowered by the mainstream media’s wilful use of their comparatively massive financial resources. Operating and maintaining a thriving political blog-driven community really does require not just the part-time contributions of many, but the full-time attention of at least a dedicated few.

As an IT consultant, I also find the technological aspect to the equation quite a fascinating topic. Is it possible to conduct deep and meaningful discussions on blogs? Of course it is, but in general, the presentation layer doesn’t always make it easy. As comment threads get longer and longer, on most commonly used blogging platforms, it becomes more and more difficult (and less attractive as a contributor) to maintain a serious, multi-way conversation. It’s not very nice in user experience terms to have to scroll through pages and pages of comments or down an interminably long page of comments to find the ones that interest you. Responses to comments get lost in the mix, particularly when people’s lives get in the way of the conversation, and the discussion changes course (or ebbs away) in the meantime. I do feel as though there could be some rich rewards to be found in hacking away at a WordPress or Drupal base to produce a community political blogging platform that transcends many of the limitations of the bog-standard blog platforms doing the rounds. Some of the underlying concepts that have make Facebook and Twitter such fun applications to use for millions could be brought to bear to encourage interactions between contributors to the site and produce a richer level of conversation. The barrier between posters and commenters could and should be made considerably looser. The forums in which debate occurs could be extended to offer more than the one-dimensional post-comment-comment-comment model. The community could extend beyond a site and more thoroughly into the “real”, social world.

The future for online political debate remains bright, but innovation, collaboration and luck are all going to be required in order to unlock the potential that is out there.

9 thoughts on “Larvatus Prodeo and the state of the blogosphere

  1. The very popular Mamamia site appears to use a blogging platform (and I’ve seen it elsewhere) which allows commenters to comment on other comments, creating mini-threads within a long series of comments.

  2. Suz yep, that looks reasonably neat, although I think after a few replies it can lead to indent madness. It also somewhat meddles with the flow of the thread. I am not sure precisely how it can be improved, but there must be a more effective way to present it. Perhaps a way that is rather unbloglike? Collapsible conversations may also help.

    It would be good to allow commenters to jump easily between their various conversations – though this would imply commenter registration.

  3. Su, threaded comments are technically easy, and LP could have had those at any time, but we decided at one point a while ago that most of us actually preferred linear comments, because seeing the whole discussion was for most of us a feature rather than a bug.

    It’s one of those strong preference things where you’re never going to find a solution that satisfies everybody, methinks.

  4. Perhaps the ideal would be to allow users to individually choose how comments were presented – although of course this would not be something that came “out of the box”

  5. Overall, I prefer single page unthreaded comments for LP type group discussion for the reasons tigtog outlined, but it does have a few issues:

    1) the extra stress it puts on the browser’s rendering engine – though this is perhaps largely a non-issue now. I’m still using the same laptop I was using in 2007…back then, long LP comments (300+) used to cause all sorts of locking up and strife, but pretty much all the major browsers appear to have improved their act in that regard…

    2) your browser’s default scrolling speed needs to be up to scratch to deal with long threads…my laptop is fine, new-gen Samsung phones and tablets are exceptionally good…iPhones were hopelessly slow last time I looked, can’t speak for iPads…but definitely room for coding your own scrolling routines rather than relying on browser defaults (see facebook for examples).

    3) load time. This is the big one for me…especially if I’m on a bus and my reception is a bit crappy, a 300+ comment thread can take a minute or more to load in full and before its ready events fire etc. Lots of room here for coding more efficient data buffering back to the user. Again, facebook does this pretty well…scroll down further to load older posts etc. Problem with LP is that comments are always oldest to newest (preferred, better for discussion), so it can’t quite work the same way. Nevertheless, it could still be improved a lot through more nifty jquery/ajax. It’s bad practice to combine such heavy data loading (eg: last LP thread is 1.5MB so far) into the initial document load-display cycle.

    Generally, I think Guy’s right…and as the tablet browsers begin to dominate in the next year or two, group blog useability really is going to have to keep up with major news companies who’ve already heavily invested in being ready for this, and group blogs will risk looking more and more clumsy and outdated if they don’t. Not so important on a personal blog of course, but very much so on an LP, imo. Look and feel isn’t everything by a long shot…but I’d still prefer blogs be seen on the innovative leader side of the fence, instead of the lagging follower…

  6. I wanted to have paged comments, 50 to a page, on LP at one time, but I didn’t carry the argument. That’s still not ideal, but it’s better than the single page for long discussions.

    As for the jquery/ajax niftiness, I’m a bit leery of too much bling there. It’s very easy to overdo.

  7. As a functional minimalist at heart, tigtog, I’m in furious agreement re bling.

    I’m not particularly interested in jquery’s plethora of animated components on offer.

    More the efficient transfer of information – markup and css sent once, data to follow as plain xml, stripped back as bare as is practical…that kind of thing.

  8. Long, often wide-ranging comment threads were peppered with interactions both fierce and friendly, and predictable skirmishes between right and left were – whilst not civil in the strict sense of the word – more civil than could be expected

    I was always bemused by the one or two commenters who would always claim LP was a hivemind of homogenised leftists always on song. I’d think, dude, have you actually read this thing?

  9. Yep, anyone who has had the pleasure of wading through comment threads on Tim Blair’s original blog (or ever attempted to challenge the prevailing winged monkey group brain) knows the true meaning of “echo chamber”. Massive contrast to LP.

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