My intention isn't to allow this post to be a backslap-athon in the tradition I'd previously grown accustomed. Instead, I'd like to say a few things about how much blogging changed because after 18 short months away, it's pretty obvious that it was different when I started writing again and that has only deepened since. The past, even the recent past, is a foreign country.
The 'function' of blogging and blogging culture itself is a many-legged beast transformed. Whereas blogs were once an alternative to and upstart challenger against traditional media commentary, it has effortlessly segwayed into the commentariat. It's as home in established outlets as your Toynbees and Heffers. The press has essentially colonised and co-opted cadres of writers who came up through the blogs. The top tier bloggers - you know who you are - lead existences virtually indistinguishable from 'professionals' who got into the papers the old way. Media-branded blogs like Comment is Free, Telegraph Blogs, The Staggers, and The Spectator have effectively hoovered up last decade's explosion in creative political writing and have successfully used them to forge successful online brands. Time and again, their house bloggers tend to provide the most interesting (and infuriating) comment, which is why I and tens of thousands of others read them.
This professionalisation, for want of a better word, is best exemplified by Iain Dale's passage from blogging to mainstream punditry to publishing (and back again). Whether you love him, loathe him, or don't have a clue who he is, when Iain Dale's Diary was up and running between 2005 and 2010 Iain did play an important role in getting bloggers and blogging into the mainstream, if only as a by-product of his own self-promotion. But his blog commanded an audience that crossed party loyalties, and that was pretty big. Getting featured if you were a newbie, getting a slot in the 'Daley Dozen' picks of best writing from around the blogs, and/or securing a respectable position in the annual Total Politics poll was a very useful way of getting noticed. Also, to Iain's credit, I found him to be as even handed as you can expect a solid Tory to be. Compare, for instance, his regular picks with the overly partisan boilerplate Guido stamps his/their approval on every day. There are now few (if any) blogs that now fill the cross-partisan market Iain's used to. Certainly where the most-read sites are concerned anyway. It is now very rare a piece written on a left blog would receive wide circulation among conservatives, and vice versa. Blogging has always been partisan, but the division of lefties only reading lefties, and rightwingers only reading rightwingers is more pronounced than it once was.
The entry of blogging into the echo chamber was probably always going to happen. Some of it may be left at the feet of the papers and magazine who've muscled in on blogging. After all, they have their political allegiances. But the bigger part has been played by social media, particularly Twitter. When I started tweeting in 2009 it was to promote this here blog and have a bit of banter. Question Time and PMQs running commentary were definitely not things I had in mind. But over the last few years, the relationship between micro-blogging and blogging have found the terms reversed. I can't help thinking that for large numbers blogging is an adjunct of tweeting. That is blog audience, while nice, is subordinated to the insatiable drive to accumulate more Twitter followers.
It has restructured how blogging works too. Leave a comment? Why not tweet the blogger instead? Twitter killed the comments box star. Twitter's immediacy has made redundant certain little traditions too. When was the last time you tagged someone in a post? Who posts memes any more? They're not really needed now. It's a shame because "the old ways", like themed blog carnivals (like the Carnival of Socialism) were excellent for hawking your wares round other blogs, introducing new writers and ensuring marginalised/ignored voices were given a wider airing.
The rise of Twitter has definitely lowered the barrier of entry for anyone who wants to give political commentary a go. Whereas blogs offered a new opportunity for anyone willing to spend the time it takes to craft a post a 'way in', contributions limited to 140 characters or less have pulled that even lower. But in one of those ironies of history dialecticians revel in, the democratisation of comment has made it more difficult to make it as someone with a following. Twitter is a leveller - you, the woman in Yeovil, that nutty ex-Trot from Stoke and thousands of others all share the same "unique" selling point. Hence becoming a "somebody" with a respectable audience depends on more than composing natty sentences. It means playing the game. The interlocking networks of prominent bloggers and media commentariat have become the gatekeepers to large audiences. If you can land a berth or get some informal patronage, you're in. Being in London is also a massive advantage. Theoretically you can still start off brand new and build up a following from scratch, but unless you get in/break in to the established networks in some way, more often than not your writing and your content will find the void its main audience. And, unfortunately, these networks can only crystallise further. There's only so many paid jobs editing a prominent blog, or getting a blog on one of the outlets. The Laurie Pennys, Harry Coles and Owen Joneses are positions taken up by Laurie Penny, Harry Cole and Owen Jones. Even unpaid gigs on bigger blogs tend to be facilitated by networks that have grown up as blogging's evolved. Does my stuff appear elsewhere because it's sharply written and sharply observed? As much as I'd like to think so, connections, ties and friendships have at least as much to do with it.
Blogging is supposed to be the Wild West of political comment. And here I've gone and portrayed it as a crystallising network. Perhaps in due course a cage might become the apt metaphor of choice. Then again, this is probably unduly pessimistic. Every month there's always a roll call of new blogs to highlight. There's no shortage of people wanting to take the chance of saying something that connects with wider layers of people, even if they're only a relatively niche audience. For example, I don't know whether I should laugh or cry that posts about the SWP and posts about the Socialist Party get the numbers flowing - but there's an appetite for it. Thing is the promise of a small audience is enough for many people to start and keep going - at least for a bit.
I think 'big' bloggers and their media bedfellows could do more to promote new writing. The network, the establishment, the cage, whatever you want to call it, the way blogging has become structured cannot be unpicked. If Dan Hodges was to resign from The Telegraph to spend more time with his bitterness, dozens of Dan Hodges still in the Labour Party would gladly take his place. But it can use its position to ensure the mainstream blogging "marketplace" it spreads over never becomes stale by pushing new voices and 'independent' comment from the fringes. In other words, your superstar bloggers have a choice. They can stymie the health of blogging if they only promote themselves and the voices of their mates, or they can remember the times they too had legs up. Unfortunately, I fear we're seeing an acceleration of a digital divide between the 'establishment' and the 'independents', and the narrow pluralism of the former will ultimately be indistinguishable from the concerns and peccadilloes of the Westminster Bubble. If it isn't already.