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Understanding blogs
Jon Lebkowsky, 20 Aug 07
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The Web appeared in the early 1990s, making the Internet an environment for media, initially following a page metaphor with text, graphics, and (eventually) advertising. From 1998 to 2000, much was invested with little return; that's a large other story for another, probably book-length, day. Suffice to say, the lack of return on investment was not sustainable, so in 2000 the investments stopped, the "Internet bubble" collapsed, and web innovators, regardless how great their ideas, had little if any capital to work with.

The money went away but the creative momentum didn't stop. Innovators still wanted to build cool stuff for the web. Given the lack of cash, it was best to focus on light technologies that could be sustained without big budgets, as well as Open Source projects that were licensed to fit those usually unfunded collaborations.

It was in this environment that the blog came into its own, in fact became a big part of the evolution of Web 2.0. Realizing the power of blogs, wikis, syndication, and social networks, we started talking about social software, especially at O'Reilly's annual Emerging Technology Conference,
which was an important source of the thinking that went into Tim O'Reilly's seminal paper, "What is Web 2.0?"

Blogs and wikis were technologies you could develop without much investment, and barriers to entry were low for bloggers, so adoption was high. The blog also took off because it was evolving from a publication format to a platform for the kind of networked public conversation that fits the Internet so well.

So we've had blogs arguably since 1997, and after a decade of blog evolution we're beginning to see backlash from mainstream media as well as culture critics.

One interesting piece by Nelly Kambouri and Pavolos Hatzopoulos, called "The banality of blogging, or how does the web affect the public-private dichotomy," was recently published at re-public and sent to the nettime email list. The authors, in exploring gender and public-private dichotomy in the blogosphere, make this generalization:

Most bloggers (even if they write under pseudonyms) would repeat the same old boring 'information' about their private life, whether this is imagined or not. They use similar narrative styles, they will employ the same codes and – most of all- the same repetitive and unimaginative language: nothing to open up, very few gender crossings.

Disregarding the merits or shortcomings of their "dichotomy" analysis, I'm more interested in the authors' generalization about what "most bloggers" are wont to do. This is another manifestation of a pattern – it's increasingly common to find generalizations about what "most" bloggers are up to. However, considering evidence (via DavidSifry of Technorati) that 120,000 new blogs appear every day (more than a blog per second), I have to be skeptical that anyone can support any generalization about "most bloggers." There are so many blogs, and the blogosphere is growing so fast, I don't think anybody has a clear idea what bloggers are doing in general, beyond inference. Nor do we know much about how people are reading blogs, though I suspect reading patterns are fractal.

Any such generalizations assume a consistency that probably doesn't exist. I think there's a mistaken tendency to confuse blogs with personal journals, which is one, and only one, type of content that often appears in blog format.

I suggest that it's the format, and not the content, that we should focus on in creating a practical definition of the blog. A blog is not a blog because it's an amateur effort – many professional writers have blogs. It's not a blog because it's personal – many blogs are not personal at all.

In fact, there's no one kind of blog content, but blogs have formal consistency. Blogs are always a series of content items postsed and published, usually in reverse chronological order, often with permanent links (permalinks) to the individual post from the home page, usually with a syndication option via RSS or Atom, often with a marginal blogroll. Blogs are built on some form of light content management system, either standalone or as part of a hosted service. Beyond that, a blog can be about anything. The posted items could be news, chapters of a fictional narrative, jokes, bits of gossip, scholarly abstracts, etc.

Individual blogs may have few readers, and that's probably by design. The mass media assumption is that you want to have as many readers as possible for your published content, but in the Web 2.0/blogosphere/social software world, we have different assumptions. Your blog may be successful with a readership of two or two dozen, as long as they're the right audience for your message. Blogs can be more powerful in aggregate, where we have tools to assess what people are writing and thinking about. We can learn a lot, for instance, by analyzing the popularity of particular tags, or by analyzing via keywords what most bloggers are talking about.

Proponents of professional mainstream media argue the need for authoritative sources; they say that blogs don't fulfill that need because they're created by amateurs. I've discussed this at length with PR professionals and journalists, and I totally get their point. Journalism has a set of standards, practices, and ethics that supposedly ensure the authority of professional news sources. However if you've ever been close to a news story, you know that this is questionable. I've been close to many, and I've never seen a published account by a professional journalist that didn't include factual errors, and too often complete misperceptions. I would never argue against the very real value of and need for professional, tranined journalists, but I would never forget that they are human and inherently prone to error. I would argue that we should forget the myth of the authoritative source and consider the real power in having many voices, many perceptions, many records that are non-authoritative but that contribute to a clearer sense of the news. Our assessment of authority for the "truth" of any account will inevitably derive from the reputations of sources, and a professional journalist may be the more credible source, and the key provider of information and perspective. However bloggers, especially those who are experts in relevant fields, can make a signficant contribution to public perception and understanding of the world du jour.

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Posted by: cinoachieni on 31 Aug 07

from my reading of what some call left blogistan (digby's hullaballoo, tomdispatch, chris floyd's empire burlesque are good entry points), as well as my own personal experience at going to public events and then reading/seeing/hearing media accounts of them, i would argue that corporate media journalists are not only subject to random error, as are we all, but rather are SYSTEMATICALLY BIASED

in other words, they are soldiers in the class struggle, under orders from their bosses in the military-industrial complex (the "masters of war" of dylan's song) and part of their job is to hypnotize the public into thinking there is no class war

just my opinion, of course - i could be wrong, but i'm not

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. on 5 Sep 07



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