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What blogging was

At a recent Fellows Hour at the Berkman Center the topic was something like “Whatever happened to blogging?,” with the aim of thinking about how Berkman can take better advantage of blogging as a platform for public discussion. (Fellow Hours are private. No, this is not ironic.) They asked me to begin with some reflections on what blogging once was, because I am old. Rather than repeating what I said, here are some thoughts heavily influenced by the discussion.

And an important preface: What follows is much more of a memoir than a history. I understand that I’m reporting on how blogging looked to someone in a highly privileged position. For example, the blogosphere (remember when that was word?) as I knew it didn’t count LiveJournal as a blogging service, I think because it wasn’t “writerly” enough, and because of demographic differences that themselves reflect several other biases.

 


I apparently began blogging in 1999, which makes me early to the form. But, I didn’t take to it, and it was only on Nov. 15, 2001 that I began in earnest (blogging every day for twelve years counts as earnest, right?), which puts me on the late edge of the first wave, I believe. Blogging at that point was generating some interest among the technorati, but was still far from mainstream notice. Or, to give another measure, for the first year or so, I was a top 100 blogger. (The key to success: If you can’t compete on quality, redefine your market down.)

Blogging mattered to us more deeply than you might today imagine. I’d point to three overall reasons, although I find it not just hard but even painful to try to analyze that period.

1. Presence. I remember strolling through the vendor exhibits at an Internet conference in the mid 1990s. It seemed to be a solid wall of companies large and small each with the same pitch: “Step into our booth and we’ll show you how to make a home page in just 3 minutes.” Everyone was going to have a home page. I wish that had worked out. But even those of us who did have one generally found them a pain in the neck to update; FTPing was even less fun then than it is now.

When blogs came along, they became the way we could have a Web presence that enabled us to react, respond, and provoke. A home page was a painting, a statue. My blog was me. My blog was the Web equivalent of my body. Being-on-the-Web was turning out to be even more important and more fun than we’d thought it would be.

2. Community. Some of us had been arguing from the beginning of the Web that the Web was more a social space than a publishing, informational or commercial space — “more” in the sense of what was driving adoption and what was making the Web the dominant shaping force of our culture. At the turn of the millennium there was no MySpace (2003) and no Facebook (2004). But there was a blogging. If blogging enabled us to create a Web presence for ourselves, blogging was also self-consciously about connecting those presences into a community. (Note that such generalizations betray that I am speaking blindly from personal experience.)

That’s why blogrolls were important. Your blogroll was a list of links to the bloggers you read and engaged with. It was a way of sending people away from your site into the care of someone else who would offer up her own blogroll. Blogrolls were an early social network.

At least among my set of bloggers, we tried to engage with one another and to do so in ways that would build community. We’d “retweet” and comment on other people’s posts, trying to add value to the discussion. Of course not everyone played by those rules, but some of us had hope.

And it worked. I made friendships through blogging that maintain to this day, sometimes without ever having been in the same physical space.

(It says something about the strength of our community that it was only in 2005 that I wrote a post titled No, I’m not keeping up with your blog. Until that point, keeping up was sort of possible.)

3. Disruption. We were aware that the practice of blogging upset many assumptions about who gets to speak, how we speak, and who is an authority. Although blogging is now taken for granted at best and can seem quaint at worst, we thought we were participating in a revolution. And we were somewhat right. The invisibility of the effects of blogging — what we take for granted — is a sign of the revolution’s success. The changes are real but not as widespread or deep as we’d hoped.

Of course, blogging was just one of mechanisms for delivering the promise of the Net that had us so excited in the first place. The revolution is incomplete. It is yet deeper than we usually acknowledge.


To recapture some of the fervor, it might be helpful to consider what blogging was understood in contrast to. Here are some of the distinctions discussed at the time.

Experts vs. Bloggers. Experts earned the right to be heard. Bloggers signed up for a free account somewhere. Bloggers therefore add more noise than signal to the discussion. (Except: Much expertise has migrated to blogs, blogs have uncovered many experts, and the networking of bloggy knowledge makes a real difference.)

Professionals vs. Amateurs. Amateurs could not produce material as good as professionals because professionals have gone through some controlled process to gain that status. See “Experts vs. Bloggers.”

Newsletters vs. Posts. Newsletters and ‘zines (remember when that was a word?) lowered the barrier to individuals posting their ideas in a way that built a form of Web presence. Blogs intersected uncomfortably with many online newsletters (including mine). Because it was assumed that a successful blog needed new posts every day or so, content for blogs tended to be shorter and more tentative than content in newsletters.

Paid vs. Free. Many professionals simply couldn’t understand how or why bloggers would work for free. It was a brand new ecosystem. (I remember during an interview on the local Boston PBS channel having to insist repeatedly that, no, I really really wasn’t making any money blogging.)

Good vs. Fast. If you’re writing a couple of posts a day, you don’t have time to do a lot of revising. On the other hand, this made blogging more conversational and more human (where “human” = fallible, imperfect, in need of a spelpchecker).

One-way vs. Engaged. Writers rarely got to see the reaction of their readers, and even more rarely were able to engage with readers. But blogs were designed to mix it up with readers and other bloggers: permalinks were invented for this very purpose, as were comment sections, RSS feeds, etc.

Owned vs. Shared. I don’t mean this to refer to copyright, although that often was an important distinction between old media and blogs. Rather, in seeing how your words got taken up by other bloggers, you got to see just how little ownership writers have ever had over their ideas. If seeing your work get appropriated by your readers made you uncomfortable, you either didn’t blog or you stopped up your ears and covered your eyes so you could simulate the experience of a mainstream columnist.

Reputation vs. Presence. Old-style writing could make your reputation. Blogging gave you an actual presence. It was you on the Web.

Writing vs. Conversation. Some bloggers posted without engaging, but the prototypical blogger treated a post as one statement in a continuing conversation. That often made the tone more conversational and lowered the demand that one present the final word on some topic.

Journalists vs. Bloggers. This was a big topic of discussion. Journalists worried that they were going to be replaced by incompetent amateurs. I was at an early full-day discussion at the Berkman Center between Big Time Journalists and Big Time Bloggers at which one of the bloggers was convinced that foreign correspondents would be replaced by bloggers crowd-sourcing the news (except this was before Jeff Howe [twitter: crowdsourcing] had coined the term “crowd-sourcing”). It was very unclear what the relationship between journalism and blogging would be. At this meeting, the journalists felt threatened and the bloggers suffered a bad case of Premature Triumphalism.

Objectivity vs.Transparency Journalists were also quite concerned about the fact that bloggers wrote in their own voice and made their personal points of view known. Many journalists — probably most of them — still believe that letting readers know about their own political stances, etc., would damage their credibility. I still disagree.

I was among the 30 bloggers given press credentials at the 2005 Democratic National Convention — which was seen as a milestone in the course of blogging’s short history — and attended the press conference for bloggers put on by the DNC. Among the people they brought forward (including not-yet-Senator Obama) was Walter Mears, a veteran and Pulitzer-winning journalist, who had just started a political blog for the Associated Press. I asked who he was going to vote for, but he demurred because then how could we trust his writing? I replied something like, “Then how will we trust your blog?” Transparency is the new objectivity, or so I’ve been told.

It is still the case that for the prototypical blog, it’d be weird not to know where the blogger stands on the issues she’s writing about. On the other hand, in this era of paid content, I personally think it’s especially incumbent on bloggers to be highly explicit not only about where they are starting from, but who (if anyone) is paying the bills. (Here’s my disclosure statement.)

 


For me, it was Clay Shirky’s Power Law post that rang the tocsin. His analysis showed that the blogosphere wasn’t a smooth ball where everyone had an equal voice. Rather, it was dominated by a handful of sites that pulled enormous numbers, followed by a loooooooooong tail of sites with a few followers. The old pernicious topology had reasserted itself. We should have known that it would, and it took a while for the miserable fact to sink in.

Yet there was hope in that long tail. As Chris Anderson pointed out in a book and article, the area under the long tail is bigger than the area under the short head. For vendors, that means there’s lots of money in the long tail. For bloggers that means there are lots of readers and conversationalists under the long tail. More important, the long tail of blogs was never homogenous; the small clusters that formed around particular interests can have tremendous value that the short head can never deliver.

So, were we fools living in a dream world during the early days of blogging? I’d be happy to say yes and be done with it. But it’s not that simple. The expectations around engagement, transparency, and immediacy for mainstream writing have changed in part because of blogs. We have changed where we turn for analysis, if not for news. We expect the Web to be easy to post to. We expect conversation. We are more comfortable with informal, personal writing. We get more pissed off when people write in corporate or safely political voices. We want everyone to be human and to be willing to talk with us in public.

So, from my point of view, it’s not simply that the blogosphere got so big that it burst. First, the overall media landscape does look more like the old landscape than the early blogosphere did, but at the more local level – where local refers to interests – the shape and values of the old blogosphere are often maintained. Second, the characteristics and values of the blogosphere have spread beyond bloggers, shaping our expectations of the online world and even some of the offline world.

Blogs live.

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More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."