this weekFit to Print

December 5, 2004

Weblogs Revisited

The phenomenon of public digital journals

By internet standards, I’m an old-timer. I began using the internet in the early 1990s, which must be about a century ago in computer years. That was before the invention of the World Wide Web, back when “commercial internet provider” was an oxymoron. When I saw my first Web browser, I didn’t get it. I thought, “What’s the point of this? I already have an email client, a news reader, and an FTP program.” After a year or two, though, the buzz increased so much that I decided I should check out that Web thing again. This time, I found a lot more sites and a lot more useful information. I liked the idea of the Web so much I decided to learn a bit of HTML and put together a personal home page. The first version of my page was pretty basic—just a few facts about myself, my work, and my hobbies—but over the years it grew until it became a virtual autobiography. Eventually I felt it was too much work to maintain, and I got rid of about 90% of it. But at its peak, I updated it every few days with news about what I was reading, where I would be traveling soon, and all sorts of other tidbits. Friends and family found it a convenient way to keep up with my busy life.

In a way, that home page was a primitive forerunner of what would today be called a blog (short for “weblog”). When I first wrote about blogs on Interesting Thing of the Day in mid-2003, I thought they were already sort of old news. Then 2004 was called “Year of the Blog,” with blogs figuring prominently in political races and increasingly influencing public opinion. But as recently as late 2005, when I mentioned the word “blog” to a friend in passing, she said, “Does that have something to do with computers?” My friend is no dummy, but her world doesn’t revolve around technology the way it does for many of us. And she’s not alone. Even as the internet extends its tentacles into segments of society traditionally on the fringes of technological sophistication, there’s still considerable confusion as to what the term “blog” actually means.

Lost in a Blog
Notwithstanding the fact that lexicographers have come up with definitions for blog, if you asked a few dozen bloggers what makes a blog a blog, you would probably get a few dozen answers. Speaking very generally, most blogs are basically Web pages containing a series of dated, titled text entries, displayed in reverse chronological order. The first weblogs, circa 1998 or so, were literally Web logs, which is to say, records of noteworthy Web sites the author had visited recently, along with a commentary on each one. Assuming you trusted the taste and opinions of the blogger, these early sites were a good way of finding useful pages from among the thousands of new Web sites being published every day.

But as weblogs caught on, and as the tools for creating them became easier to use, their character began to shift significantly. Although blogs come in many different forms, what you see most commonly is something resembling an online diary or journal: an entry every day or two, consisting of a few sentences or a few paragraphs about whatever is on the author’s mind at the time. Some blogs are written by famous authors, actors, or other celebrities, giving readers a voyeuristic glimpse into their thinking and activities. Others focus on a particular topic, such as computer programming, gadgets, political rhetoric, or relationships. But while the details vary, blogs almost always stick to the basic format of brief, dated entries in a long list, most recent entries first—making it easy to see just the latest additions with little or no scrolling.

To Blog or Not To Blog
You might think that as someone who used to keep every detail of his life on a Web page, I’d be very fond of the idea of blogs. But until relatively recently I deliberately stayed away from blogs. I had two main complaints about the blogs I’d seen. First, I couldn’t understand why I should care about some random person’s thoughts. How do I know that the person writing a blog is an authority on a given topic, or even a good writer? Without some a priori way to filter blogs, I couldn’t get any sense that reading them would be worth my time. I needed a weblog (in the original sense) about blogs to help me separate the wheat from the chaff (and sure enough, such meta-blogs are now quite popular). My other complaint was the lack of editorial quality. I’m all for free speech, and I appreciate the ease with which blogs allow people to express themselves. But I’m used to reading (and writing) books and magazine articles in which the content is checked for things like spelling, grammar, punctuation, accuracy, and relevance. With blogs the path is straight from the author to the reader, and for all the virtues of such a system, I found it painful to read blogs that just weren’t well-written.

Imagine my dismay, then, when people started referring to Interesting Thing of the Day as my “blog.” I bristled at the very idea; it was almost insulting. For one thing, the format’s all wrong—I don’t write just a few sentences at a time, I write articles long enough to be encyclopedia entries. I don’t list them all on a single page. And the content is not journal-like; for the most part, the articles are expository rather than editorial in nature, and there’s usually no particular reason for a given topic being published on one day rather than another. And everything posted on the site undergoes at least some editing by a person other than the author. All that to say: whatever this site was, it didn’t fit into my personal notion of a blog, and I didn’t want other people thinking of it that way either.

Peer Pressure Strikes Again
But I eventually warmed to the idea of blogs, for several reasons. First, I saw some blogs with truly excellent writing; this helped to restore my confidence in the medium. At the same time, it reminded me that anything that encourages practice and discipline in writing is probably a good thing. Second, blogs usually focus almost exclusively on text, rather than flashy layouts, graphics, and animations. This suits my own sensibilities extremely well; I’m tired of Web sites that hide their limited content behind marketing-heavy gimmicks. And even though this site was not originally designed to fit into the blog format, it was easy enough to rearrange the existing data into a new template, meaning I can offer the site’s content in blog format for those who prefer to read it that way, and in the classic one-article-per-page format for those who don’t. (You can switch between Standard and Blog editions using the links in the upper-right corner of the page.)

In mid-2004, having finally admitted to myself that my personal home page was a sorry-looking relic of the ’90s, I redesigned it as a blog. Unlike many bloggers, I don’t update my personal site daily with every trivial thought that goes through my mind, nor do I position the entries as an authoritative voice about anything other than myself. But I’ve still found this format tremendously useful, because it gives me a convenient forum in which to tell stories, talk about my life and work, and share other information with the public that would be out of place in the media where my professional writing appears. It doesn’t entirely fit the blog mold, but then, the entire brief history of blogs has been one of evolution. —Joe Kissell

More Information about Weblogs Revisited…

For a fantastic introduction to the history of blogging, see weblogs: a history and perspective by Rebecca Blood. Dave Winer, one of the biggest names in weblogs, has an alternative history of blogs.

Among the people suggesting that 2004 was that “year of the blog” are blogger Sean Gallagher. Wikinews ran a story about “blog” being the number-one word of 2004.

Feel free to browse my own personal blog for a different sort of writing than what you’ll see on Interesting Thing of the Day.

One of my favorite blogs is but she’s a girl, written by a fellow Mac geek with very similar tastes. I also enjoy reading Engadget, a gadgets blog, among a dozen or so others.

If you’d like to get a sense of the hundreds of thousands of blogs out there, consult a blog directory, such as:

Interested in making your own blog? You can do it manually, of course (as I did for Interesting Thing of the Day), or use a blog hosting service (such as Blogger). If you run your own Web site, you can install blog software such as Movable Type or WordPress, which my personal site uses.