“It looks different this time,” writes TheAtlantic.com editor J.J. Gould in his note introducing Notes, the blogging platform The Atlantic debuted in late August, bringing back to the The Atlantic a medium that “never ceased to be awesome.”
It’s a throwback in an era that seems hungry for recreating a sense of the past, but by wrapping it up in new forms, like #tbt memories of polaroid childhoods reproduced in Instagram and Twitter feeds or oral storytelling offered up through an ever expanding array of podcasts.
With Notes, The Atlantic too, updates the form. Gone is the comments section; it has been replaced by an editor who sorts through reader emails, giving space to reader comments in posts, rather than as corollary underneath the main event. There is a threads function, which links related posts together, allowing them to exist at once in a thread and in a continuous reverse time stream.
Despite the updates, Notes, Gould tells FishbowlDC, is “modeled, first and foremost, on old school blogs.” It strives for familiarity, for intimacy between The Atlantic and its readers, for the community that blogs of the aughts were known for creating.
But just as bloggy Atlantic became more formal, more reliant on the narrative structure of magazine and news articles in response to the changing needs time, the web and social media demanded, the traditionally formal can drift into the domain of the casual blog. In the vein of the recent pattern of formal announcements transmitted through more informal means, Atlantic EIC James Bennet and president and COO Bob Cohn chose Notes to post a staff memo detailing major changes to The Atlantic and National Journal announced yesterday.
Perennial change is as true for Notes as it is for anything that exists in the digital space.
Gould talks to FishbowlDC about why The Atlantic decided to bring blogging back, what went into its creation and what he hopes Notes will become.
FishbowlDC: How did the idea for Notes come about?
J.J. Gould: I suppose it’s something that we’ve thought about in one way or another since the end of the blogging era. It’s a mode we’ve always loved, and the evolution of the Internet kind of took us in its stealth, took us and the whole web away from blogging. But we always loved what it represented, whether that’s the direct engagement with readers, the more informal style of writing, the direct engagement with one another, the sense of play that it represents.
We decided last fall that there might be a way that we could bring it back in a way that wasn’t sentimental or even purely just for its own sake, but that might fit with and really augment the work of the site and the magazine as a whole. The more we thought about, it the cooler the idea seemed.
FBDC: You tested the design of the site a few times with different user groups. What were some of the components you added or changed based on the response?
Gould: We learned a lot about how to think about our thread functionality, which is a way we can tie different notes together on a single story or running theme. That was one of the more innovative product development/product integrations that we’ve brought to the development of Notes. Developing this threading capability was really interesting and fun because we hadn’t really seen that out in the wild so much. It was less clear how that would function for users and the testing group really helped us with that in particular.
FBDC: One of the things Notes does is turn part of the conceptual and article writing process inside out, making it public. How do bloggers feel about that so far?
Gould: I think there’s very little about that that’s uncomfortable for anyone. When you’re writing a story, there are maybe little pieces of it you wish you can fit into the story that didn’t really make sense at the time that you can discuss with Atlantic readers on Notes later. Maybe something has occurred to you later or you’ve learned something later that relates to the story, and having the ability to engage with readers about that is something people really love to be able to do.
And at the front end too, sometimes it’s valuable not only to signal you have something coming, but actually to solicit input ahead of time, which is something we want to try to do with the Notes section.
FBDC: [Senior editor] Chris Bodenner is not a fan of comments sections and how they have the potential to turn into a breeding ground for trolls. What has been the response from readers to the fact that Notes does not have a comments section?
Gould: I describe Chris’ skepticism about comments as being fairly measured and healthy to begin with, not particularly fiery opinion. We made the decision that in this section, which is all about a more direct relationship with our readers, it made more sense here to focus on emailing as the primary means of feedback, and that’s been great. More than anything, it’s opened up a new line of connection between us and our readers.
FBDC: How you feel in the larger sense about how Notes is going? What have you learned at this point?
Gould: We basically consider ourselves to be doing a lot of beta on the whole thing. And we’ll probably be in that mode for a while, so it’s highly experimental.
One thing that’s interesting is that we just kind of let it rip in our first week and discovered a lot of really interesting things there, some of which ended up being generative for stuff we can do outside of the Notes section–different kind of things we can do for the great wide web as much as for the kind of cool reader that would be drawn to the Notes section.
We consider ourselves to be early in the process of figuring out [what] the right balance of stuff looks like, what our idioms are like, what works, all of those things. We’re just really starting to learn, by having built it and started playing with it.
FBDC: What would you like your readers to think of Notes as, now or in the future?
Gould: It’s a place for us to connect with those readers directly. It’s something that we can do for our readers that we hope they will like and find rewarding, but it’s also really a value to us because it puts us in contact in a new way, in a direct way, in very intimate ways with highly engaged, really smart readers who are invested in our work and who are writing to us about it.
Notes is not just a place where readers can read more from The Atlantic, or read more informal thoughts from The Atlantic, or read more fragmentary thoughts from The Atlantic, but it’s a place where we can read our readers, and even reverse the relationship in some way. When I’m reading Notes, I’m an Atlantic reader and I’m the editor. And a lot of time who I’m reading are readers. And they’re fascinating people, and they help us think about the world better.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.