2003-10-01 08:22

Blogs: A Brief Reader’s Guide

A friend recently asked me what I could tell her about these newfangled websites called “weblogs” that she’s been encountering more and more in the last year or so. I have therefore been spending some time trying to figure out how exactly to explain blogs are — principally by visiting dozens of different blogs, and reading them as regularly as I can. Not all of my readers have that sort of time (and it could be argued that I don’t either, since it seems I always have more important things to do than whatever I happen to be doing at any given moment), so I thought it might prove useful as well as entertaining to provide for my faithful (if numerically limited) audience a very brief overview, based on my own adventures in what is coming to be known as the Blogosphere, of what blogs are.

In January 2001, an article appeared in About This Particular Macintosh. I followed all the links and, like the article’s author, found myself in a peculiar corner of the Web that had, up to then, eluded my notice. I spent several days checking in regularly at most of these newly discovered sites. Some were hard to follow because of what they were talking about, but some were hard to follow simply because I hadn’t been listening in long enough.

What I was doing, essentially, was eavesdropping on conversations and extended monologues already in progress. The more I listened, the more interesting some of these conversations became, while others remained elusive and, to my sensibilities, dull. But this was the point: these were websites which served no other purpose than to promote and encourage conversations. Months went by, and I discovered more and more interesting sites. Each interesting site offered links to other sites and, true to the social nature of humans, many of these sites in turn resembled the previous sites and struck me as interesting, and so on.

And now to the task of describing and defining the weblog. To begin with, others have already done a lot of the heavy lifting for me; indeed, there’s as much metablogging out there as there is blogging. I direct your attention in particular to Rebecca Blood’s concise history of blogging, in which she also offers a succinct definition of blogs in their various forms. See also Deep Thinking about Weblogs by Andrew Grumet, and What Makes a Weblog a Weblog? by Dave Winer. This post will cover a lot of the same ground, so apologies in advance for any repetition.

A weblog, or blog for short, is a frequently updated webpage containing original content and links to other places on the Web. This definition is a confluence of the two original weblog formats: a page of links with commentary, and an online journal or notebook. The second style of blog seems, at least from my perspective, to have become the more common by far in the last few years. This is largely due to the advent of publishing tools like Blogger, LiveJournal, and more recently Movable Type (with its newly unveiled Blogger-like offspring TypePad), all of which automate the process of publishing one’s content on the Web without needing too much technical know-how. Also, through their default templates and interfaces, they encourage users to see their blogs primarily as content-oriented rather than link-oriented.

(Another thing to keep in mind about blogs is that they are amateur efforts: no one’s getting paid to write them and no one’s getting paid to edit them, proofread them, or check anyone’s facts; blogs are essentially self-publishing tools. But this is another issue altogether.)

One of the essential formal signatures of every weblog is that newest content appears at the top of the main column, pushing older content downward, in reverse-chronological order. This is important (if sometimes difficult to read) because it shows that the site is being updated frequently. You can see instantly from visit to visit whether there is anything new; the implicit contract between reader and blogger is that there will be.

But what this also means is that we must define a blog not through an analysis of its content, but through an evaluation of its form. Blogs can, after all, be about anything, or nothing, and may be composed by anyone (either individuals or collectives), but there’s always something about all of them that makes them blogs. (In this way, they are much more like books than newspapers.)

And if I may digress for a moment, this is also why the Internet itself can be a challenging idea at first. When I first started exploring the Internet in earnest about six years ago, I tended to see it as a breathtakingly vast collection of pages, of content. Because I was unaware of the underlying technology that makes the network itself possible, I paid no attention to the infrastructure, though it was often hidden in plain sight. The Internet functions on the basis of many millions of nodes or hubs, and the ad hoc and often redundant links between them. After all, I create the content of this site in New Mexico, but the computer that stores and serves the content sits under the stairs of a house in south-central Minnesota. And of course, you read these words while sitting in a room somewhere else entirely. And when we send emails to each other, the computers that relay the messages may be at many, and multiple, locations around the planet.

Yet despite all this, we still have a crisply efficient mental image of how all the information is moving: linear — from me to you, from you to me. And this is why the whole thing works: the convoluted and overwhelmingly complex infrastructure is invisible to the average end user, and most users are only aware of the connection between themselves and everything else. The Internet isn’t about what it contains, but how it connects everything to everything else.

And just so, blogs are not defined by their content but by their form, which is easily recognizable the more blogs you look at. So what is the basic blog form? Well, you’re looking at one right now, largely prefabricated by the good people at Movable Type. Note the reverse-chronological entries with the sidebar column of links. Again, here are the descendents of the two basic blog forms: an online journal or notebook, and a collection of hand-picked links to other sites on the Internet.

The general layout can vary, of course — and often does, quite a bit. So to get a better idea of the basic form and how it has been applied to many different contexts, let me take you on a little tour. I have collected a very, very small sampling of blogs that represent some of the uses the form has been put to. Since a sizable minority are powered by Movable Type, they will bear a strong resemblence to this blog. Others, especially ones hand-tooled by expert designers and veteran bloggers, will look like no other blog. But they all share certain essential features that declare them to be no other sort of web page but blogs.

1/ Individual Blogs:

  • The first blog I followed with any regularity was Caterina Fake. Many of the things she finds interesting interest me, too. Through her posts and links, I discovered many other blogs that have since become part of my own personal A-List, as well as first learning from her of the existence of Nanowrimo back in 2001, then beginning its third year.
  • The eponymous (and pseudonymous) Languagehat waxes on all things linguistic, with a subtle emphasis on usage. His bullshit-detection meter is finely tuned and he tilts at only the most deserving windmills, always with wit, verve, and humor. And he talks about hats occasionally, too.
  • Ron Silliman’s blog concerns poetics, and the trends and fads that run through the poetic communities. He comments on books he’s been reading, critiques others’ reviews, and contemplates the directions in which modern poetry seems to be going.
  • Surfin’ Safari and Daring Fireball both take some aspect of the world of the Macintosh as their subject. Whereas Jon Gruber of Daring Fireball writes longer essays exploring developments in the Mac Operating System, or some underlying philosophy of the Mac GUI as exemplified (or violated) in a software program or other, the focus of Dave Hyatt’s Surfin’ Safari is exclusively the new Apple browser Safari, for which he is a lead developer. At his blog, you can read about news and updates regarding this incredible success story.
  • A classic example of the link-driven blog is Garret Vreeland’s Dangerous Meta.
  • And a few other blogs that deserve mention (and which are all frequent stops on my routine pass through the blogosphere) are: Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s Making Light, the pseudonymous Naimi Chana at Baraita, Dale Keiger of Scribble, Scribble, Scribble…, and of course the afore-mentioned Rebecca’s Pocket.
  • I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Call to Action and Dean for America, the first real examples of a politician taking advantage of the blog phenomenon.

2/ Group Blogs:

  • The folks at Radio Free Blogistan spend their days blogging about blogging. To quote Pete Buck, A Must.
  • Some other group blogs are Misbehaving, the Volokh Conspiracy, and A Fistful of Euros.
  • And don’t miss Language Log: gosh, it’s like being in a whole roomful of Languagehats!
  • Lastly, there’s Metafilter. If you are new to blogs in general, and this sort of blog specifically, you might find it a bit bewildering at first. Lurk for a while, and you’ll begin to see that it is truly the perfect example of “weblog as conversation.”

Now, I cannot emphasize enough that the list above is the tiniest subsection. And among my bookmarks in my primary browser, I have about 170 blogs bookmarked. And 170 is nothing — at last count, there are possibly as many as a million blogs scattered across the globe. Like any population of humans, we can never get to know all of them, but we can try, and be entertained, and moved, and learn a great deal of things along the way. All the while distracting ourselves from much more important tasks.

In a true social network, every point is a starting point. Every hub connects you, by way of its spokes, to other hubs, and the wheels keep turning. We ourselves are the wheels: hub and spoke.

So my advice is: listen for a while, find some conversations that appeal to you, and join in; we all want you to. Comment if there’s an opportunity, or start your own blog. But remember: be kind. What’s the point otherwise?


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