Meg Hourihan recently wrote an article entitled, What We're Doing When We Blog (O'Reilly, Jun 13, 2002). This appears as yet another attempt to try and explain what authors who maintain Web logs (or blogs) have in common. What's the common thread, the common theme amongst these people? She makes a common mistake that many authors writing about the Internet make -- tunnel vision for the topic. In this instance, the topic is trying to explain blogging and what, if anything, makes it unique. I think she misses the mark by ignoring the rich, existing history of the Internet and instead focusing on the minutiae of one area.
We teach history in school for one main purpose -- to put into context what is happening now. The American Revolutionary War makes little sense if you didn't understand the burden the British were placing upon the Colonies without equal representation in the government they were funding. Similarly, talking about one component of the Internet -- in this case, blogs -- without understanding the context of what came before makes for a less complete understanding. It also makes it easier to overstate the case for what makes them unique (or, not so unique, as we'll see below).
Everything Unique is Something Old Repositioned
Hourihan makes an important point, and one that is often lost in the ramblings of essayists attempting to make sense of this part of the online world. Namely that the format of Web logs is their defining feature on the Web. But on the Internet, they are no more unique than a collie at a dog show. While the format of a blog -- short, conversation pieces, often annotated by topic-specific links -- is unique and worth noting, the content and purpose of a blog is no different than a Web page, a Usenet discussion group, a mailing list, or anything else adapted to a specific purpose. For instance, we can substitute any of these forms in the below quote and they work just as well:
"[Usenet posts] are short, informal, sometimes controversial, and sometimes deeply personal, no matter what topic they approach. They can be characterized by their conversational tone and unlike a more formal essay or speech, a [Usenet post] is often an opening to a discussion, rather than a full-fledged argument already arrived at. "
And the fact is, it's entirely true. Having followed dozens of Usenet discussion groups over the past decade, I can attest to the many gems I've found over the years that perfectly fit this description. It's amazing how narrowly we can view the Internet from one very specific, tiny corner of the universe and not be aware of the larger context. A blog, in this sense, can be viewed simply as an online conversation adopted for a Web site.
Which begs the question, do blogs add something better or more unique to this online conversation? So far, I haven't been convinced that they do. It requires a constant monitoring of a dozen favorite blogs (or more) versus visiting a single community site, online mailing list, or Usenet discussion group. Group blogs (such as Slashdot or Metafilter) help address this problem, but then they themselves are really nothing more than glorified discussion forums with an adapted index page. (In fact, in about an hour I adopted discussion forum software to be blogging software, since the two are so close in form and function.)
Now, I often get the eye-roll when I begin talking about Usenet groups, because of the amount of spam and trolling and flame wars that Usenet is generally known for these days. Generally by people who themselves only briefly glance at a few groups of possible interest, find nothing interesting in their snapshot view, and then walk away from it saying, "What a bunch of hookum." This is very similar to someone's Web log that looks to be of interest, reading a day's worth of entries blathering on about everything but the supposed topic of the blog, and drawing the same conclusions. Perfunctory, superficial, done all the time, and completely incorrect. And while these types of adjectives -- spam, trolling, and flame wars -- don't characterize most blogs, isn't it perhaps just a matter of time before they do? Already we have gotten stories about warbloggers and mainstream bloggers getting into a rift. So we're not so far afield as one might be led to believe.
But one of the reasons I get the eye-roll and the quizzical look is because of the amount of simple ignorance that is prevalent about Usenet, its rich history, and its widespread continued use on the Internet. As integral to the Internet and much older than the Web, Usenet shares much the same format as blogs do -- short, conversational posts about specific topics of interest to select individuals. Sometimes they link to other threads or conversations (sometimes in other groups, sometimes in the same group), sometimes they link to other places on the Internet. The fact that the Web has adopted this method of communication, of distributed conversation, is not as interesting as the lack of appreciation for their similarities and parallels amongst both populations (the bloggers and the Usenet regulars). Add mailing lists to the mix, or Web forums, and you see that rich communities number in the hundreds of thousands already exist online that often save the same purpose as blogs.
The difference? They're old, taken-for-granted, and virtually ignored by the media.
Hourihan also makes the argument that the basic "unit of measurement" (which seems like a foreign concept to me when talking about creativity) on the Web has changed:
"And as the Web has matured, we've developed our own native format for writing online, a format that moves beyond the page paradigm: The weblog, with its smaller, more concise, unit of measurement; and the post, which utilizes the medium to its best advantage by proffering frequent updates and richly hyperlinked text. "
But this is no more native to the Web than a magazine article is more "native" to paper writing than a novel is. There is nothing inherent in the medium of digital creation that calls out for shorter, more informal written units of creativity. If that's people's natural predisposition, perhaps it is a task-driven requirement -- if you want to post a dozen entries a day online to your journal, they can't all be Moby Dick in length. The format of the overall type of online medium -- in this case, a blog -- drives the specific format of entries (or units, using Hourihan's terms).
This brings to mind the artist, Stephen Keene who is basically a human assembly-line: real art, real fast. Blogs are a lot like that too -- stream of consciousness thoughts, pounded out as quickly as one has them. These thoughts and observations are often spurred or instigated by an article or link found online, and often published in one's blog just like an assembly line. Quirky? It's in. Joe Blog linked to it? It's in. It got posted on MeFi or Scripting News? Let's comment on it. Instead of the medium becoming slave to the content, bloggers are often slaves to their medium. Blogs require constant feeding, nurturing, and attention, far more than ordinary Web pages.
Defining the Medium a Decade Into It?
But my argument isn't that any of this isn't good or doesn't have a place online. Certainly it does. But do blogs suddenly define the medium of Web publishing? No, they do not. There are, and will remain to be, millions upon millions of Web sites which never incorporate blogging into what they do, nor have the need.
With an unlimited online canvas, it's sad that some creators are limiting themselves to taking 3x3 Polaroids. Blogs define no format other than their own, and blogs are no more the "native format" of the Web than haiku is the native format for all poetry, online or off.
Online conversations have been taking place long before blogs came along. Mailing lists and Usenet discussion groups have existed for ages. Web-based discussion forums have also been online forever. What are these communities lacking that a "distributed conversation" in blogging enables? I don't see it. What I do see is the need for visiting a dozen sites each day, instead of one community forum where these like-minded people would have congregated in the past. If more work for your readership is the goal, blogging has succeeded.
Dr. John M. Grohol is an online mental health expert and long-time Internet expert in the study of online human behavior and the interface between psychology and computers. Currently a systems and network architect, he has overseen development of both large and small site infrastructures and development. Single and living in the North Shore area of Boston, Dr. Grohol has recently had published the latest edition of his reference book, The Insider's Guide to Mental Health Resources Online (Guilford, 2002).
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 29 Jun 2007
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