Psychology of Blogs (Weblogs):
Weblogs (or blogs) and their brethren, online journals, have infiltrated every crevice of our online society today. You can't shake a URL these days without stumbling upon someone's attempt at self-disclosure or masturbatory linking. Weblogs have been around since the very first Web site was popularized, even before Yahoo, making them nearly as old as the Web itself. Yet it is only in recent years that they've gained greater attention and notoriety, as though a new phenomenon. If they were new, at least they might be interesting.
A Quick Rundown
The first weblog was published out of need – people needed a way of exchanging links with one another, since the concept of search engines for the Web had yet to be invented (or at least widely-used). It let people know what new sites were coming onto the Web and what they were about. Very little commentary accompanied each link or write-up, but descriptive text was written to help a Web user understand what might be found on the new site.
Nowadays, some popular blogs -- such as the technology site Slashdot.org or the meta-log, Metafilter.com – act almost as a communal “Am I Hot or Am I Not?” Get mentioned on one of these sites and your site will be heavily trafficked and widely discussed (and often dissected), at least for the day. As smaller weblogs pick up the same links and redistribute them on their own sites (often reaching a different unique readership), the site will continue to enjoy their 15 minutes of online fame.
As quickly as the fame comes, though, it goes, and within a week or two, the traffic dies off and the site slips back into its quiet oblivion.
So if great sites like Metafilter already exist and act in a way as to draw attention to unique or interesting links, what’s the purposes of the thousands of small, individually-run sites? One word: personality.
Personality Drives Traffic
Just as American society (and to a lesser extent, the rest of the world) honors and celebrates its celebrities, it also rewards unique personalities. The online world doesn’t have any equivalent of no-name actors or actresses making a name for themselves through the talent of their dramatic work. Well, actually, it does, and they are the weblogs and online journals. These are the online world’s answer to the insatiable need of the public to be entertained, to get away from the antiseptic universe that search engines and the Yahoo’s of the Internet have given us. To get back to people talking about other people’s efforts, or their own lives.
Most weblogs are drivel, banal shit written by angst-ridden teenagers and adults sharing feelings, thoughts, and mind-numbing details about their daily lives that provide little insight into anything or anyone. But the gems can be found amongst the long-since abandoned or forgotten sites. These gems are personality- driven. That is, the person or persons writing for them are genuinely interesting. They are storytellers. They understand the need for a beginning, a middle, and an ending. They draw together like-minded links into themes for the day, for the week, for a lifetime. The authors of such weblogs and online journals have an inner drive for their work. They don’t look for adoration or attention from other folks online. It comes to them naturally by the power of their work, by the originality of their stories, or by the genuine nature of their words.
Popular Versus Quality
The most popular weblogs are those spearheaded by strong personalities, by dynamic individuals who have something to say. Not just about some random link, but about an ongoing theme in their lives that is displayed in a dozen different and unique ways every week, or even every day. These individuals (or groups of individuals) have opinions and you are going to hear them. In a social setting, face-to-face, they may be nothing like their online persona. Some are shy, ingratiating. Others are just as anarchic as their online writing is. But they gain a following for taking a stand, for sharing their innermost thoughts, not because they always take a popular stand or point of view, but because they take a point of view at all. They take one, over and over, day in and day out. The more controversial a person is, the more noteworthy (and often famous) they become. Look at Howard Stern, Dr. Laura, or Jerry Springer in the offline world.
The best weblogs and online journals, however, are not always the most popular. The most popular fall into the same trap as nearly anything driven by popularity – the need to outdo oneself, to remain on top. That pressure affects the writing, and it affects the mission of the person’s site (or in offline terms, the quality of their show). For proof of this, just look into the archives of any old popular weblog or online journal and see how the writing has changed. The subjects that were once original and thought-provoking often become stale, dry, and overwrought. The authors turn to commenting on the mundane, or take up meaningless causes, or rattle on about any old thing in their lives. They become more melodramatic in their writing, and start talking back to their foes. Instead of originality, they become self-referencing, circular, and ultimately, boring.
The best online journals and weblogs keep moving, growing, and changing directions, mirroring the author’s own life. They are constantly there, being added to, but if a day or two goes by without an entry, the reader doesn’t feel disappointed. The reader knows and understands that a person can’t perform every single day of their lives. That, in fact, such breaks remind us of our offline lives and responsibilities, and how they’re not always that interesting or need to be shared. In fact, this is what often separates a good journal from a horrible one. Knowing a person at Chex at 8pm on a Saturday has about as much insight and entertainment value as watching a leaf grow. Some things just don’t need to be shared with the world.
Why People Tune In and Tune Out
Ultimately, all blogs die. Whether it be the first blog which died when Yahoo and the search engines came on the scene, or a person’s own intimate portrait of their lives, nearly everything once good becomes worn and replaced by something or someone else. People tune in to a weblog or journal to be entertained and informed. To find new information or to find something interesting to act as a diversion to their day. To pursue intellectual queries, or less high- minded queries in every topic under the sun. When a particular weblog no longer fulfills that mission – whether through intentional neglect, a lack of quality links or commentary, or its readership moving on to the “Next New Thing” – people will start to tune out.
Online journals also lose peoples’ interest when the person’s life itself is no longer very interesting or of any interest to the readership. Even the best books and stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. A lot of authors don’t realize this and continue the story long after the interesting part of it is over. The climax has passed, the readers move on, but the author still toils because nobody told her the story has ended. After all, when it’s a person’s life, and it’s still continuing, how can it have ended? That’s the paradox that most journalers don’t resolve very well. Most just end their journal before the readers abandon them.
And that is as it should be. Nothing should continue indefinitely if it has long lost the creativity and imagination that fueled it to begin with.
- Psychology of Weblogs Index
- Psychology of Weblogs: Everything Old is New Again
- Psychology of Weblogs: 1998
- Psychology of Weblogs: 2002
- Deconstructing Kaycee
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).