Last week, a piece of internet history died. If you live outside of the French-speaking world, you likely won’t have noticed. You may not have noticed even if you live in the French-speaking world, but, if you’re between the ages of thirty and forty, the news may well have hit with a prickle of nostalgia. The story of Skyblog—a blogging platform that was hugely popular among Francophone teenagers in the early to mid-2000s, and became arguably one of the first major social networks—is that of an early European tech success that was, eventually, driven into obsolescence by powerhouse American rivals. It also speaks to a more universal truth: the cyclical nature of our online habits, and the ephemerality of individual platforms.
Skyblog was born out of an old-school radio station. In the eighties, Pierre Bellanger, a media entrepreneur with roots in pirate radio, founded Skyrock; the station focused on music—alt-rock, trance, rap—but from the beginning, it also had a spiky, topical sensibility. Following the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, according to Le Monde, Skyrock used a Geiger counter to take radiation readings in Paris; Bellanger once told Le Monde that “instead of having people on air who affirm that ‘racism is a shame,’ we broadcast the song ‘Aïcha,’ by Khaled,” because “it says more.” Skyrock aimed “to talk, above all, to young people,” Olivier Clairouin, a tech journalist at Le Monde, told me. It centered around rap, “a genre that, at the time, was invisible on other radio stations and in other media.”
In 2002, Skyrock launched Skyblog with a similar desire, to facilitate a conversation among young people. (Users created individual, customizable pages on given topics and themes, with posts appearing in reverse-chronological order; it was somewhat similar to Tumblr.) The launch was also a business strategy: at the time, many media companies had a website that mirrored their offline output but lacked an economic model for it, Guillaume Sire, a writer and lecturer at the University of Toulouse, explained on Radio France recently; Skyrock, by contrast, created something new and separate that was attractive to advertisers. Skyblog wasn’t the first or only blogging platform—Bellanger took inspiration from existing American blogs—but it would become one of the biggest of its time. The founders pitched the platform as a conduit for unprecedented free expression. Its slogan was “Ici T Libre,” an abbreviated rendering of the French for “Here, you are free.” Bellanger has said that “a free radio station begat a free social network.” (Bellanger said that he wasn’t available to talk with me, but did send an eight-page PDF featuring his answers to frequently asked questions about the platform.)
In the mid-2000s, Skyblog was at the heart of a “blogosphère” in France that, by some metrics, was the second biggest in the world after that of the US. The blogging phenomenon spawned TV and radio shows and a dedicated magazine called Netizen, which sought to “understand the revolution we’re living through”; major media companies, including Le Monde and the TV network TF1, themselves dabbled in the blogging space, as did politicians and political commentators. Skyblog itself was not a journalistic platform; the young people who used it wrote about their fandoms, their feelings, and other preoccupations. But it was certainly a venue for political speech: in 2006, around a thousand blogs sprang up on the platform amid mass protests of a government proposal to weaken labor rights for young workers. (The proposal was scrapped.) And government officials used Skyblog to sound out young people’s views.
According to Bellanger, by 2007, Skyblog was one of the biggest websites in the world. Things went downhill from there. The following year, Facebook entered the French market and rapidly gained in popularity at Skyblog’s expense; as the age of desktop computers gave way to the age of smartphones, Skyblog proved ill-suited to adapt. (Bellanger has said that the US tech giants had structural advantages over Skyblog, but has also conceded the attractiveness of their products.) Skyblog nonetheless limped along—until this summer, when Bellanger announced its imminent closure, citing technological obstacles to its continued operation as well as legal concerns linked to the platform’s compliance with the European Union’s strict data-privacy laws.
Bellanger told Radio France that Skyblog’s management faced a choice: they could either overhaul the platform entirely, thus erasing its historic culture, or preserve it as a “sociological treasure.” In the end, they opted for the latter course. France’s national library and an institute that archives audiovisual media are now in the process of preserving much of Skyblog. “I worried I was burning down the Library of Alexandria,” Bellanger said. “I didn’t want that.”
Now that Skyblog has closed, former users and French journalists (far from mutually exclusive categories) have been assessing its legacy. In some ways, its past pitfalls—and the various moral panics to which it was subjected over the years—sound familiar from our current age of social media. In 2005, French police asked the platform to close down a number of blogs that had been accused of inciting violence during a wave of riots—a clear echo, Clairouin notes, of President Emmanuel Macron’s rhetoric criticizing the role of social media in stoking a wave of unrest earlier this summer. But blogging, while still with us, has seen better days as a form of mass communication. “Today, we have influencers,” Clairouin told me. “It’s different.”
Indeed, at least some of the nostalgia around the closure of Skyblog has testified to a sense that the platform was more authentic and less curated than today’s big social media platforms—a place where young people could find a voice and experiment with it. On the day the platform shut down, Clairouin and colleagues at Le Monde ran a live chat to discuss readers’ reactions to the news. One response, from a journalist, credited Skyblog with helping to teach him how to write. Others, Clairouin told me, have seemed nostalgic for a “more intimate,” less centralized internet, before the era of Big Tech platform dominance. “We see today a desire…to again find spaces that are smaller, more constrained, less open,” he said.
In a sense, this is a paradox; Skyblog explicitly marketed itself as a tool that people could use to, for the first time, speak to anyone, anywhere. In practice, though, many adopters used it to keep up with their friends. In any case, its founders have recognized that, these days, people want less openness and more privacy online. Skyrock may have shuttered Skyblog, but it still maintains Skred, an encrypted-messaging app that the company launched in 2017 and that now claims to have seventeen million users worldwide. Last year, The Verge listed Skred as one of the seven best secure-messaging apps, alongside more familiar names like WhatsApp and Signal.
Even compared with these rivals, Skred has centered its appeal on privacy: you don’t need an email address or phone number to use it, and it doesn’t search your phone for contacts; one of the few ways of starting a chat is to have your interlocutor physically scan a QR code. “In the twentieth century, freedom of expression meant talking to everyone,” Bellanger wrote recently. “In the twenty-first, it means choosing who to listen to.”
Other notable stories:
- For The Intercept, Elise Swain visited Guantánamo Bay and found that censorship at the notorious facility has “never been worse.” Swain “soon learned that just about anything with photojournalistic value was off limits,” she writes. “As Guantánamo has aged, a shift has occurred in what the military wants journalists to cover. Under the current rules, members of the media are brought here to focus on the military commission proceedings at ‘Camp Justice,’ where a very large, very cold, and very classified courtroom has been constructed to deal with the few remaining detainees who were ever charged with decades-old crimes against the United States. Press access to anything outside the court is described as a ‘courtesy’ and subject to arbitrary restrictions.”
- CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports that a number of leading newsrooms are in a “cold war” with OpenAI, having quietly blocked ChatGPT, the company’s generative AI tool, from training itself on content from their websites. In other news about AI and the news business, Gannett paused an effort to have AI write local-sports recaps after one such article, at the Columbus Dispatch, was ridiculed, per Axios, for “its robotic style, lack of player names, and use of awkward phrases like ‘close encounter of the athletic kind.’” And Digiday’s Sara Guaglione reported, from the recent Online News Association conference, on how investigative newsrooms are using ChatGPT to help with reporting.
- Digiday’s Guaglione also reports that, “with the summer season winding down, some media companies are beginning to push employees to work from the office more regularly”; the New York Times and Hearst, for example, recently mandated that staffers come in at least three days a week. Such changes have led to tensions with newsroom unions, whose stance on in-person work “hasn’t changed,” Guaglione writes: “They argue that return to office arrangements are mandatory subjects of bargaining, or topics that must be negotiated between unions and management as a legal requirement.”
- For the New Republic, Hannah Seo makes the case that we should stop saying “climate anxiety” and instead say “climate dread,” a phrase that better “legitimizes the real and tangible threat coming toward us and communicates that fear to others.” The “importance of this distinction is not just etymological,” Seo argues. “The emotion of dread affects us differently from anxiety. Understanding how can provide insight into our reactions to climate change, and why it can be so hard to spur people to climate action.”
- And in the UK, Guy Goma—a computer technician who, after turning up at the BBC for a job interview in 2006, was mistaken for an on-air pundit named Guy Kewney and interviewed for a segment that subsequently went viral—has said that he plans to sue the broadcaster for a share of the royalties the clip generated. Goma told the Accidental Celebrities podcast that he is also thinking of writing a book, titled Wrong Guy.