Psychology of Blogs (Weblogs):
Back in 1998, I wrote an essay entitled, Psychology of Weblogs, an attempt to describe a growing phenomenon of people creating Weblogs (or blogs) and personal journals online.
Now, four years later, blogs have exploded in numbers where they are seriously competing with ordinary personal homepages for people's attention. So popular have they become, over the next few months we will see the publication of no less than a half-dozen mainstream book titles about the blogging phenomenon and "how-to's."
Why the explosion? Has blogging lost its relevance? This essay seeks to examine the growth of blogging and what it means.
I believe that blogging has grown to reflect the increase in the online population and the number of server-based, easy-to-use tools that allow anyone to publish a Weblog without installing any new software on their computer. A similar phenomenon occurred when GeoCities opened its doors in 1994. By 1997, GeoCities had become a thriving site that allowed ordinary people with no unique computer skills or software to setup their own personal Web site in a matter of minutes. People were so excited and empowered by the ease-of-use and simplicity of GeoCities, millions of users signed up and the company launched a successful IP in 1998. A year later, the Internet powerhouse Yahoo! eventually bought the company, which, at the time, hosted over 3.5 million individual users' sites.
Obviously, blogging hasn't gotten to this extreme yet, but it's coming close. LiveJournal, just one of a few hosting services that provides the tools and the space for a person to get online immediately with a blog, reports over 150,000 users active in their journals in the past week, with a total of over a half million users. And that's just one tool. While there are hundreds of thousands of blogs online today, they are still a small subset of the greater online population of Web sites. Just like people's personal Web sites, it's virtually impossible to characterize blogs in any generalizable manner. There are very personal, private blogs that are for only the author, while there are others that act as much as popularity contests as though we were all back in high school (which is not surprising, given that many still are). Some are updated multiple times a day, while others are updated weekly or monthly. Some blogs are active, while others have been neglected and forgotten.
In fact, blogs reflect and represent the diversity of Internet users worldwide, just as Web sites do. At this point in blogging's development, there is little to differentiate it in terms of reasons for doing it or how it's done from Web sites and Web development in general. Any generalization would be as useless as trying to characterize why a person would want to put up a personal Web site in the first place.
So What's the Big Deal?
The reality is that blogging has left the world of "interesting feature used by a few" to become a widespread tool used by many for many different purposes. The uniqueness which was once a characterization of bloggers is gone. Some bloggers write incredibly compelling entries on a daily basis. Other bloggers write incredibly idiotic and brain-dead entries on a yearly basis. Where's the common thread? Blogging's popularity has killed whatever common thread between bloggers that once existed. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since that thread was a tenuous, somewhat shallow thread to begin with: "Hey, we're both writing stuff on our Web sites every day, and pointing to interesting stuff online and commenting on it! And sometimes our opinions agree... Whoo-hoo!!" But it is now completely gone.
Some bloggers believe that blogs create a better sense of community, yet tens of thousands of resilient online communities existed before the blogging world came about. I see this phenomenon often online -- subject experts about one small area in the online world, who are often completely ignorant about other, similar subjects. Online communities have been around since the 1980s, and very strong ones have always been available (e.g., the Well is a good example off the Internet, while newsgroups are a good Internet example). Blogs do little to inherently forward community, since the vast majority are a one-to-many relationship. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, popular group blogs such as MetaFilter and Slashdot being two such examples.
There are bloggers and commentators who have written about how some blogs make the Web interesting again, because of their witty commentary or ability to find obscure, interesting links on a particular subject. The fact is, though, that there has always been interesting commentary online. Instead of it taking the form of a brief opinion spurred on by the discovery of a "new" link (new to them, anyways) or news story, it was instead in the form of essays found on Web sites offering a more indepth look at a particular subject or current event. Does brief commentary versus 1,200 word essays offer something inherently more interesting or unique? Well, unique, yes, and quite fitting for the attention deficit disordered nature of the Internet.
But a new, shorter essay or commentary format is not fun to read if the writer isn't consistent or doesn't say something interesting (again, in a consistently engaging manner). And that's the problem with blogs, and with the Web in general. Most people are not great writers, and their ability to engage the reader is seriously lacking in most people's personal blogs. Lack of consistency is another big problem, in both writing style and quality, as well as in quantity (e.g., regular updates on a regular basis). Blogs simply don't work when the author isn't committed to maintaining them regularly in a qualitative way.
Bringing News and Tidbits to the Masses
Bloggers believe that they have found a way to disseminate information and news to a readership in a manner that makes it more interesting and, often, entertaining. Some do that, and others do it very, very well. But most regurgitate other bloggers' links or one- or two-day old news stories that anybody who follows current events already knows. The quality blogs online are now the exception, rather than the rule. And these blogs have increasingly become more difficult to find and pick out amongst the hundreds of new blogs that start fresh each day.
This development was inevitable. When thousands of people start replicating a form that was once unique or interesting (e.g., think "FrontPage Web site"), the form itself will eventually suffer. We shouldn't lament the passing of the form, but rather embrace the diversity that bloggers and their blogging have the potential to offer.
What has to happen, however, is an understanding that blogging is not the same phenomenon it once was, or has some special quality to it that makes it, and the people who engage in it, somehow unique or special.
- 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).