Writer Phil Lee remembers the good old days of blogging – when cameras were cameras (not phones), PhotoShop was a rarity, and we still read posts, not captions.
As someone who belongs on the older edge of the millennial generation, my first experience with online stalking was via blogs. I have warm memories of cycling through long messy lists of bookmarks with LiveJournal, Xanga or Blogspot domain names.
For those who don’t know the difference, blogs were an unfiltered peek into someone’s life where individual personalities shone through, and those with better writing abilities got a strong following. Pictures were honest, and everyone was less careful about crafting an image.
In comparison, Instagram influencers today appear one dimensional. Those that do well on IG have similar filters, poses, and photo subjects. The crowd has voted and the formula for success has already been figured out. It’s become a wasteland of jerk-off content, envy triggers, and advertorials. Brands have joined forces with narcissists, co-opted photography as an art form, and plied us leering viewers with consumerist messages that tick off all seven deadly sins.
There are exceptions – the Erin Fosters and Chrissy Teigens of the world – who have found their way around the medium of social media to display wit and depth whilst also being good to look at. Still, they are the exception.
In comparison, bloggers of the past are the good carbs to the bad carbs of Instagram influencers today. To read blogs regularly was to follow a deeper human interest story – following a blogger and commenting on a post was a complex activity which demanded a higher level attention. Scrolling through Instagram, on the other hand, is reflexive and thoughtless. Point in case: you do it on the toilet.
I miss the humour and intelligence of Xiaxue’s writing. Back in the mid-2000s, her many politically-incorrect posts would spread through circles of friends via long email threads. This was how I came across her blog; when a post about dick sizes was forwarded to me. I was struck by how this vulgarity-spewing ah lian lookalike could also be so perceptive and articulate, flaunting both her over-dyed hair and her high PSLE score all at once. It makes me sad that she no longer writes. While she still has a much larger following than most influencers in Singapore, I have seen her discuss the challenge of keeping followers on Instagram. And I suspect the concentration of her influence is not like what it was during the earlier blogging days.
While not like Xiaxue, I also fondly remember Stephanie Er’s page (now a shoppable assemblage of OOTD pics called Arch, and also at @pooburr) and Arissa Cheo’s (also now an e-commerce site, and at @xarissaxcheox). They wrote less than Xiaxue, but had such an exuberant creative energy, which when coupled with great taste and looks, resulted in wildly popular blogs.
The blogging platform gave these particular personalities a broader canvas to express themselves. I remember the videos Stephanie Er used to put out on her blog, each post painstakingly composed with dreamy text and pictures, like a personal digital zine. And the surreal dark purple unicorn-themed pages of Arissa Cheo. The random symbols, sparkly elements, and collage-style images were always “on brand”, and also happened to require fairly advanced web technical skills, which helped to define an aesthetic not seen anywhere else.
But blogs back then were not all treasure troves of great writing and creativity. The medium was simply less gameable and lent itself better to more exaggerated – and therefore interesting – personalities. For example, I remember the rage-hate of reading blogs of arrogant rich girls with beautiful pictures and terrible writing.
There was this one girl that I followed closely – by that I mean I checked her blog at least twice a day for updates – who wrote a post that attempted to categorize types of Singaporeans at her American university. The post inevitably evolved into ugly stereotyping, which, once published, gave rise to the worst of what the internet can offer: a back-and-forth, tit-for-tat, absolutely asinine war between herself and anonymous “flamers” in the comments section. It was painful enough to read that I deleted her blog from my bookmarks list. A dramatic move, back in the day.
And the story goes – no kidding – that an hour later this rich blogger girl appeared at the doorstep of my dorm room. Yes, I asked and the world delivered. She happened to be visiting her boyfriend’s brother who was a schoolmate of mine. They had dropped by with some friends to say hi.
In person, she was shy, polite, and unassuming. She sat in the corner taking pictures of objects on the table with her digital camera. She was good-looking and probably smart too, but unfortunately, her talents were not optimised for the blogging age. She just happened to come across as a horrible person once she put pen to page, which I felt wasn’t fair.
Personalities like hers are the prime beneficiaries of the Internet Age 2.0, where shorter attention spans, the advent of the smartphone, and the rise of photography apps allowed her to take back control of the image. And as expected, she gained a strong following on Instagram that was devoid of any vitriol of the past.
With the IG influencers of today, I only see conformity, commercial intent, and a blatant selling of sex. They have nothing to say. Their accounts could be equally creative or artistic but lack the sense of rebellion and complexity that I loved about following the personalities from the blogging age. While I respect the work and skill it takes to pose, art direct, and edit a countless stream of images, I would not be able to distinguish one influencer account from the other.
But yes, I still follow, I still look. Is this not the daily dilemma of our generation? And perhaps, therein lies the success of influencers today. Scrolling through social media today is like being on a constant sugar high, consuming a stream of homogenously-edited posts of beautiful people. That ultimately becomes very draining. I therefore find myself deleting Instagram on my phone every other week, but can’t help re-downloading whenever I get bored or when friends ask for pictures of someone we know.
Influencers? They’re just white carbs. Zero nutritional value, guilt-inducing, yielding a very short-lived satisfaction and yet… you can’t quite say no.
Bring back the bloggers, I say.
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