Best New Blogs of 2011

Editors Kevin Nguyen and Nick Martens talk with fellow bloggers about their favorite new sites.

the_verge

Tim Carmody

The best new blog of 2011 is This Is My Next/The Verge, which for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to treat as one thing. Because really, This Is My Next was good enough in its caterpillar form to win a spot here even if it hadn’t gone full chrysalis and re-emerged as The Verge.

That’s because at the core of it are the people who work there. Most media watchers and gadget obsessives know the story: Joshua Topolsky gathered together a crack group of exiles fleeing the decay of AOL and hooked up with budding sports blogging empire SBNation (now Vox Media) to create a splashy new tech site. That’s what you see now at The Verge — a blog that looks like a cross between a 2011 magazine and the 2015 web and does everything from big community forums to investigative features, but is still singularly focused on the consumer technology industry.

This Is My Next was the placeholder, a spot to keep the group writing while they figured out their next move. It wasn’t big or splashy, it didn’t look like a magazine, and it didn’t have the Vox magic behind it. But it was just as fun and inspiring to read.

And eventually I figured this out: I think The Verge’s team does the best liveblog coverage of tech events in the industry, and maybe out of anybody in any field. But it isn’t (just) because they’ve got a super-awesome CMS to put liveblogs together and keep them auto-updated and all the housework stuff you have to do. It’s because they pick the events they liveblog very carefully and send a bunch of smart people who know and communicate with each other really well.

Pick something you love; find people who love it like you do; write the shit out of it. That’s been the recipe for successful blogging from the beginning, whether big or small.

Tim Carmody is a media and technology journalist who writes for Wired magazine and the Epicenter blog at Wired.com. His home blog is Snarkmarket, and he is devoted to Twitter (@tcarmody). He subscribes to 608 feeds in Google Reeder, and usually uses Reeder as his RSS client.


Michelle Legro

I’d say 2011 has been the year of the matured Tumblr. Although it’s nice to see that there are major literary sites that use the platform (see The New Inquiry or the temporary (?) home of the LA Review of Books), I hate to say that truly longform work doesn’t have a natural fit here. Tumblr likes it quick, smart, and cutting. Oh, and pictures. It loves pictures.

That’s why my pick for the best new blog of 2011 is The 3rd of May, edited by Tyler Green of ArtInfo, which promises artwork each day that’s guided by something that happened in the news: a headline, a book review, an event, or a reaction. It’s named after Goya’s The Third of May 1808, which depicted Spanish rebels facing a firing squad of Napoleon’s soldiers. Every day, Green posts a link to something recent, and pairs it with a piece of art that’s sometimes reactionary, sometimes complimentary, sometimes literal, sometimes silly.

The series started on November 30th, 2010 with a Dorothea Lang image of a breadline in Depression-era San Francisco paired with a ProPublica story about expiring unemployment benefits. Some of my favorite in the past year include Cory Archangel’s “Super Mario Clouds” for a New Yorker profile of a Nintendo designer, Maurizio Cattelan’s “La Nona Ora” (The Ninth Hour) with a meteorite-pummeled Pope for a Newsweek article about the fast-tracked beatification of saints at the Vatican, and John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark to commemorate the all-important Shark Week on the Discovery Channel

In a nod to Goya, each post has as its title the date: the 30th of January, the 15th of August, the 24th of June. Because everything’s monumental, every day.

Michelle Legro is an editor at Lapham’s Quarterly and follows 1,045 people on Twitter, which seems like too much.


quickish

Nick Martens

Navigating sports coverage online is kind of a nightmare. There’s so goddamn much of it, and the signal-to-noise ratio is terrible. Big sites like ESPN, SBNation, and Deadspin all post awesome stuff, but you have to wade through a sea of crap to find it. Tons of better outlets toil in obscurity.

Following sports people on Twitter raises similar problems. During a crazy game or huge news story, a genuine feeling of community builds as everyone reacts to the same thing at the same time. But during fallow periods, your stream clogs with cruft from people you don’t know.

Dan Shanoff’s Quickish is the answer.

The site’s clean design reflects the clarity of its content. Shanoff curates (in a true sense of the word) the most important news and the most enlightening reactions in the world of sports.

The “Quick” part of the name works on multiple levels. Borrowing from Twitter’s vernacular, Quickish breaks its posts down into small, easily digestible chunks and uses hashtags so you can catch up on any story quickly. The site also updates quickly in the wake of any major happening. Quickish posted the news of last Thursday’s ridiculous Chris Paul story almost instantly, then compiled a list of reactions mere moments later. The site provides all the immediacy of following events on Twitter, without actually having to follow anyone. Plus, during the day, the site links to great pieces of sports writing, so you can add depth to the high-level overview you get from Quickish itself.

I realized the simple brilliance of Quickish during last Spring’s NCAA basketball tournament. Like a lot of casual sports fans, my interest in college hoops only awakens during March Madness. During the tournament’s opening days, 64 teams square off over two days. So much happens so fast that it’s impossible for a newcomer to know what to pay attention to.

Quickish cut through the fog. The site updated manically with results of outlandish upsets, reactions from stunned observers, and video clips of the wildest plays. It made me feel truly engaged in the action, and I began looking forward to updates from Quickish more than the games themselves.

I started following the site when it launched, but since that tournament, I’ve been hopelessly, joyfully addicted.

Nick Martens is an editor of The Bygone Bureau, and he also plays iPhone games. He’s down to 74 feeds in Google Reader and 41 follows on Twitter, about which he feels smug.


stellar

Andrew Simone

I was utterly incapable of producing a single decent blog from 2011. It’s Nice That? Nope, started in 2007. Bobulate? Ancient, born in 2001. That’s when it struck me: I have 23 folders in my reader but I only occasionally read from three of them. Unless The Sickness strikes me, I can’t be bothered to fiddle with the rest for want of time. Besides, I don’t trust blogs for the good stuff, I trust people. But, of course, declaring the best new person of 2011 doesn’t make any sense, so I am forced to become something of a cheat. My pick is actually a web app, Stellar.io, which hitches to a few popular web platforms and aggregates other’s favorites from Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and Vimeo. You can follow people to see their favorites, see what you’ve faved, or see what others have faved of yours. And, since it essentially documents the passive delight of favoriting, you get a slice of the internet’s true remainder: the good stuff your trusted sources aren’t talking about — and who doesn’t want that?

It’s not as if blogs are outmoded, it’s that content and consumption are bigger than any one platform. Stellar has essentially cracked open some of those platforms and allowed me to experience some of my old blogging pals in new ways, widening rather than cementing the circle.

Also, as an apology for the cheat, the closest blog thing I can point you to is Stellar Interesting, the aggregation of the most favorited items on Stellar.

Andrew Simone is a gadabout from Kansas City, Missouri who blogs at clusterflock and writes gaming articles for The Idler when his editor, Gavin, prods him enough. He subscribes to 196 subscription in Google Reader, but ignores most of them. His Stellar profile can be found here.


Aaron Rutkoff

I don’t know if the internet has been good or bad for books — who does? — but I’m certain that it has been a mediocre force for finding reliably helpful book reviews. There are several hundred strangers tweeting their love for The Art of Fielding right now, and an army of unknowns flinging stars around on Amazon. But who can you trust?

I trust Jo Walton, a science-fiction novelist and contributor to her publisher Tor‘s rather remarkable book blog.

Unlike the standard publisher-run website with sample chapters and author blogs, Tor puts out a good deal of very good standalone short fiction (e.g. this sharp Ken MacLeod future-assassin story) and lets its resident bloggers loose on the entire nerd-cultural landscape beyond just Tor products. And, importantly, not just new stuff.

That’s where Ms. Walton comes in. Here’s what she’s doing that is so wonderful: atemporal book reviews. And that’s exactly what the internet of book reviews needs most, I think.

With new books, at least fashionable literary ones or those with a certain quotient of very engaged readers, we can get robust online discussions and assessments in addition to coverage in the not-so-numerous book-review publications. There’s also a wealth of online information about out-of-date books that have passed into quasi-canonical status, even stuff that was formerly fringey (for example: the high-quality internet of Philip K. Dick).

But I’ve been reading sci-fi with various degrees of discernment for almost two decades (I’m 31), and even so there is a lot my book blind spot. Such as the 1980s, at least beyond the top-line cyberpunk authors. Just try Googling some not-very-celebrated genre novel from, say, the early 1990s (maybe this one?) and figuring out if you want to read it from the search results.

Walton just turned 47 but it seems like she has been reading promiscuously (and then re-reading) inside the genres for at least twice that long. Her magnum opus as a reviewer this year was her Revisiting the Hugos series, in which she reconsidered the annual Hugo Award slate going back to 1953. The fiction prizes are voted by convention-going sci-fi superfans, and Walton does not hesitate to point out blundersome selections. But the project excels because she also tells you what, in retrospect, were better books from that year, overlooked in their day (and now ours as well, usually). It took Walton nearly a full year to finish the project.

And her biases are fascinatingly authentic and open. In one of her most charming tics, Walton is always cautious of readers who might start on a prolific author’s lesser work — a fantastic quality when talking about a subset of pulpy novelists who can easily amass two dozen titles. Walton loves space station fiction with aliens and detests heists. Her negative reviews are usually reserved for the over-celebrated legends, like this reflection on Heinlein’s worst. And that’s as it should be: who needs help finding more information about forgotten books that deserve to remain that way?

Aaron Rutkoff is an editor for the Wall Street Journal’s Greater New York section and runs the Metropolis blog. He subscribes to 172 feeds in what was once Google Reader but prefers Twitter (@aaronrutkoff) by a wide margin.


grantland

Kevin Nguyen

Grantland might be the highest-profile blog launch ever (I don’t know of any others getting Times Magazine treatment). The brainchild of ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, Grantland is ostensibly about sports, but it succeeds in just about every area it covers because it simply has some of the best writers anywhere. Molly Lambert, formerly of This Recording, tackles all things pop culture (her smart Boardwalk Empire re-caps tally sex scenes, deaths, and uses of ragtime music); there’s a monthly-ish column from Tom Bissell, one of the most respected videogame critics; and of course, the sports writing is phenomenal — look at, or Chuck Klosterman’s recent deconstruction of Tim Tebow or anything by Katie Baker.

Grantland shows not just a whole lot of business savvy (is Subway a life-time sponsor?), but also an understanding of what makes publishing on the web fun. It brings a bit of sports culture to pop culture, like when Klosterman applies the VORP baseball statistic to evaluate the worth of Strokes’ guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. or when Andy Greenwald plays fantasy football with network TV cancellations.

Grantland’s success is certainly no underdog story like The Awl (of which a handful of Grantland staffers got their start), but it bucks a lot of trends from big media-backed web publications. Grantland publishes only original articles, let’s those pieces run long, and doesn’t smother them with advertising. Beyond the site itself, Grantland makes me optimistic about the future of web web.

Kevin Nguyen is an editor at The Bygone Bureau. He abandoned Google Reader this year and relies solely on Instapaper and Twitter (@knguyen).


Chris Lavergne

In 1996 Forbes magazine was one of the first major media companies to launch its own website. (Newsweek magazine did not launch one until 1998; Time not until 1999.) This past January Forbes took another bold step with their online presence when they unveiled a completely revamped version of Forbes.com.

The new site marked a radical departure on every front. The backend was moved from a proprietary in-house CMS to the open source WordPress — quite a remarkable feat for a major media company. With great care and attention to user-experience, the front-end was redesigned. Most importantly, they implemented a new publishing workflow and business model based on the True/Slant platform, a startup news website acquired by Forbes in 2010. This adaptation of the T/S model has transformed Forbes.com from a static online magazine to a dynamic, almost Tumblr-like publishing platform for Forbes staff writers and 800 new freelancers. Lewis Dvorkin, the chief product officer at Forbes, has called this new tech setup and editorial structure with staff and independent writers contributing from all around the world “The New Newsroom.” Editorially speaking, the result is a diverse Wunderkammer of sorts with whimsical to serious coverage of everything from tax policy to the porn industry to online privacy to pageview harvesting slideshows. Not bad for a company founded in 1917. 

Runner up: the new Gawker

Chris Lavergne is the founder and publisher of Thought Catalog.


Gavin Craig

It’s a great time for videogame writing. Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken has been the talk of the year, and Tom Bissell (author of the excellent Extra Lives) is writing about Mass Effect and Gears of War in The New Yorker. Even The New York Times is running videogame reviews. Game culture is going mainstream, and even better, if you’re paying attention, is that mainstream or underground, game culture skews smart.

And the smartest new videogame blog I came across this year is Play the Past, where a group of academics — that is, professors and grad students — write about “the intersection of cultural heritage (very broadly defined) and games/meaningful play (equally broadly defined).” It’s not purely a videogame site (they love Alternate Reality Games or ARGs — Mark Sample looks at how history museums are using them), and it can be a bit heavy on classroom issues for non-academics, but where else will you read how Plato’s Republic is one big game, how Dead Island’s “zombie code” might be as dangerous as the zombies walking around in the game, or an anthropology of how players mourn when characters are deleted in MMORPGs?

In fact, if there’s one tragedy in the world of game writing, it’s that there may be more smart contributors than can be supported. One of my other favorite new blogs this year — The Game Manifesto — has already gone quiet, but posts on Uncharted and Portal 2 are still worth checking out.

Gavin Craig co-edits The Idler where he writes about video games, comic books, and food. He subscribes to 62 feeds in Google Reader, up to half of which are currently inactive, but he couldn’t stand to miss if they started up again.


All photos taken at Arabica Lounge in Seattle.