I began writing a blog for The Lighthouse in 2006, and after a brief break when the lights went out on Mitchell Street, I picked up again on Urban Realm in 2010. Since then I've contributed this blog to accompany the pieces I write in the print edition of the magazine.  Much has changed in cyberspace over the past 14 years.

 

Wordpress and Blogspot are still going, but they're old news.  Tecnorati has gone.  Lots of fellow travellers who began their blogs in the mid-2000’s have gone too.  Social media has taken over the world, and it’s a full time job. Creating “content” and sending it out into the world on a blog, Facebook, Twitter, and on Instagram, Tumblr, Flickr, and on Pinterest, Medium and Lyst…  Phew.  We’re secretly glad that Google+ has fallen by the wayside. 

Yet those sites are only the gatekeepers. Two more fundamental issues are how much of our lives we put on the internet, and how that content is paid for.

During the last couple of months, we were able to travel around the country a bit more, in between lockdowns. I took a trip to the Devil’s Pulpit in Finnich Glen a few weeks ago, to see what all the fuss was about. I kept seeing shots of the moss-curtained sandstone gorge and peaty water, and dozens of comments asking “where is this?” and “how do I get here?” On a typical weekend, the country roads around Croftamie were choked with cars, abandoned on verges and anywhere else their owners could find.

Bell Ingram recently designed a visitor centre which is intended to cash in on the interest generated by the TV series Outlander. Over the past few weeks Finnich Glen has attracted huge crowds; arguably they were spurred on by the power of television and social media. Finnich Glen is interesting, but currently it’s no tourist attraction. The paths through the woods are muddy, the broken flight of stone steps was slippery after the rain, and I had to use a climbing rope that someone had tied to a tree stump to pull myself back up the flight of steps.

The Devil’s Pulpit has become a victim of its own success, in this case aided by the access details which Facebook provides for scenic locations. You can find them on the countless oxymoronic pages with names like “Secret Scotland”, “Unseen Scotland”, “Hidden Scotland” and “Undiscovered Scotland”. Their authors don’t care that the places are no longer any of these things once they’ve been broadcast over the net.

There’s a reason why fishermen keep good pools to themselves, hillwalkers keep quiet about secret bothies, and aficionados of dereliction don’t broadcast the locations of photogenic ruins. Finnich Glen is a classic example of “over-sharing”, and as I drove away from the lay-by, a crew of Council line painters was busy lining double yellows on all its approach roads, as if to underline that fact.

A few weeks later, I drove to the area where my Dad grew up. In springtime, century-old rhododendrons in the American Gardens make a vivid show, and in October trees carpet the grass with birch, plane and chestnut leaves. The picnic benches are covered in moss and many of the paths are rarely-used nowadays. There was no-one else around; perhaps because the American Gardens aren’t mentioned by name on the net. They may not be “secret”, but I hope no-one “discovers” them and blurts their location all over Facebook.

 

The second aspect of Web 2.0 is financial. In the past, some bloggers and website owners used banners, affiliate links to Amazon or Google ads to pay for the cost of web hosting and registering a URL. Making money from a blog that way is more difficult now.  So much so in fact, that you'll either have to treat it as a self-financed labour of love, or use it to supplement the living that you make elsewhere. Sooner or later you’ll realise that you're working for and simultaneously against the most powerful corporations the world has ever seen – Apple, Alphabet (Google) and Amazon.  

So it is that some design websites have edged into the territory of lifestyle blogs, run by so-called influencers who have close links to commerce.  They work hand-in-hand with PR's and marketing folk, running sponsored posts which are the equivalent of advertorials in a print magazine.  Some of the content consists of rehashed press releases, and other features are simply a way to make money from a design-led readership, from which you receive a small commission each time someone clicks through to buy a watch, scarf or pot of marmalade.

 

Lifestyle blogs appear to be a sweet way to earn cash.  With weekends away in boutique hotels, cook schools with TV chefs and supercar driving days indulged in under the auspices of reviews, they've essentially become a marketing channel. Yet with that, the bloggers have lost their neutrality and any sense of critical voice or distance from the subject matter.  Measured criticism is the keystone of integrity, but when you see “Sponsored Post” on the header of a blog entry, do you read it regardless or move on swiftly?

It's true that a freedom from commercial constraint allows you to be candid, so you can tell the whole truth when something seems utterly dire – and as a corollary you can rave about the excellence of something in a genuine way. It's not so different to the floor coverings and furniture companies which cultivate interior designers by taking them on expenses-paid trips to a design fair or factory on the Continent, including a stay in a nice hotel and slap-up dinner into the bargain.  Building good relationships … or bribes and inducements?  Not everyone in the design industry is bound by the ARB Code; perhaps that should change.

 

Meanwhile, still trying to make living from your blog?  You'd better become a one-person brand.  With that comes the pressure to sell your spin-off book, cultivate your fan-base, plug your literary cronies, troll for viral hits, and drum up support for your walking tour. Others use Patreon, where followers or “patrons” pay directly for access to your latest blog posts and newsletters.  But you'd better have a regular stream of "content" to post daily, and that's quite a commitment. 

So this is Web 2.0.  Where it sometimes seems that authorial voice matters less than global megacorp making money. It’s just a new aspect of the age-old battle between Art and Commerce, but what’s next?  I suspect it’s going to be Web 3.0, or even what Bruce Sterling has referred to as Post-Internet, but how that will affect writing about architecture and design is anyone’s guess.

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