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Learning Lab






Megnut What We're Doing When We Blog

by Meg Hourihan
06/13/2002

Every day it seems another article about weblogs appears in the press. At first, most of these stories seemed content to cover the personal nature of blogging. But more and more I'm seeing articles that attempt to examine the journalistic and punditry aspects of weblogs prominent in many of the so-called "warblogs," or sites that began in response to the events of September 11th.

The articles' authors are rarely webloggers themselves, which places them in the unenviable position of describing and defining weblogs based on observation, not experience. Given the vast number of blogs, it can be very difficult to understand the breadth and scope of blogging when an editor wants 750 words in 48 hours.

I've noticed this has resulted in a variety of ideas about and definitions of the weblogs -- from statements that blogs are personal journals filled with the (often dull or trivial) minutiae of daily life to a belief that blogs are right-wing responses to the liberal media establishment. Witness the recent article, "Online Uprising" by Catherine Seipp in the American Journalism Review:

"In general, 'blog' used to mean a personal online diary, typically concerned with boyfriend problems or techie news. But after September 11, a slew of new or refocused media junkie/political sites reshaped the entire Internet media landscape. Blog now refers to a Web journal that comments on the news -- often by criticizing the media and usually in rudely clever tones -- with links to stories that back up the commentary with evidence."

In her article, Catherine forgoes the more traditional weblogs-are-links-plus-commentary definition to carve out a new meaning for the word, limited to the type of blogs she reads. But Catherine's analysis misses some of the very subtleties that distinguish weblogs from other writing. Rather than rant that Catherine just "doesn't get it," it seems to me that her article, and others that are similar, are perfect opportunities for the blogging community to talk about our own evolution.

Our Commonality

If we look beneath the content of weblogs, we can observe the common ground all bloggers share -- the format. The weblog format provides a framework for our universal blog experiences, enabling the social interactions we associate with blogging. Without it, there is no differentiation between the myriad content produced for the Web.

Whether you're a warblogger who works by day as a professional journalist or you're a teenage high school student worried about your final exams, you do the same thing: you use your blog to link to your friends and rivals and comment on what they're doing. Blog 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 blog post is often an opening to a discussion, rather than a full-fledged argument already arrived at.

As bloggers, we update our sites frequently on the content that matters to us. Depending on the blogger, the content varies. But because it's a weblog, formatted reverse-chronologically and time-stamped, a reader can expect it will be updated regularly. By placing our email addresses on our sites, or including features to allow readers to comment directly on a specific post, we allow our readers to join the conversation. Emails are often rapidly incorporated back into the site's content, creating a nearly real-time communication channel between the blog's primary author (its creator) and its secondary authors (the readers who email and comment).

And we're united by tools, whether we use Blogger, LiveJournal, Radio UserLand, Movable Type, or a custom job that's a labor of love. Webloggers often use tools to facilitate the publication of their sites. These tools spit out our varied content in the same format -- archives, permalinks, time stamps, and date headers.

A Native Format

When the Web began, the page was the de facto unit of measurement, and content was formatted accordingly. Online we don't need to produce content of a certain length to meet physical page-size requirements. 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.

While a page usually contains one topic, or a portion of a single-topic item spans several pages (an opinion piece, an essay or column, a technical document, or press release), the weblog post is a self-contained topical unit. It can be as short as one sentence, or run for several paragraphs. And it's the amalgamation of multiple posts -- on varying topics -- on a single page that distinguishes the weblog from its online ancestor, the home page.

Freed from the constraints of the printed page (or any concept of "page"), an author can now blog a short thought that previously would have gone unwritten. The weblog's post unit liberates the writer from word count.

The Posts Collection

What distinguishes a collection of posts from a traditional home page or Web page? Primarily it's the reverse-chronological order in which posts appear. When a reader visits a weblog, she is always confronted with the newest information at the top of the page.

Having the freshest information at the top of the page does a few things: as readers, it gives a sense of immediacy with no effort on our part. We don't have to scan the page, looking for what's new or what's been changed. If content has been added since our last visit, it's easy to see as soon as the page loads.

Additionally, the newest information at the top (coupled with its time stamps and sense of immediacy) sets the expectation of updates, an expectation reinforced by our return visits to see if there's something new. Weblogs demonstrate that time is important by the very nature in which they present their information. As weblog readers, we respond with frequent visits, and we are rewarded with fresh content.

The Anatomy of a Post

A weblog post can be identified by the following distinguishing characteristics: a date header, a time stamp, and a permalink. Oftentimes the author's name appears beneath each post as well, especially if multiple authors are contributing to one blog. If commenting is enabled (giving the reader a form to respond to a specific post) a link to comment will also appear.

The Links
Links, and the accompanying commentary, have often been hailed as the distinguishing characteristic of a weblog. The linking that happens through blogging creates the connections that bind us. Commentary alone is the province of journals, diaries, and editorial pieces.

The Time Stamp
By its very presence, the time stamp connotes the sense of timely content; the implicit value of time to the weblog itself is apparent because the time is overtly stated on each post. Without the time stamp, the reader is unable to discern the author's update pattern, or experience a moment of shared experience.

But if I visit your site at 4:02 p.m. and see you just updated at 3:55 p.m., it's as if our packets crossed in the ether. You, the author, and I, the reader, were "there" at the same time -- and this can create a powerful connection between us.

Moments of shared experience can be powerful connectors. They happen in the offline world when two strangers on the subway chuckle at the same funny billboard, and make eye contact as they do so. In the online world, they happen when I'm thinking about buying an iBook and I read on your blog that you've just bought one, at the same time.

The Permalink
The permalink (the link to the permanent location of the post in the blog's archive) plays a critical role in how authors participate in distributed conversations across weblogs. The permalink allows for precise references, creating a way for authors to link to the specific piece of information to which they're responding.

If your blog has ten current entries, four of which are about cats and only one of which is about the release of Mozilla 1.0, the permalink provides the means by which fellow Mozilla bloggers can reference the correct post, and in doing so, create a loosely-distributed Mozilla conversation. Without the permalink, the conversation is drowned out in a sea of irrelevant cat chatter.

Related Reading

Web Design in a Nutshell
By Jennifer Robbins

A Communication Evolution

When we talk about weblogs, we're talking about a way of organizing information, independent of its topic. What we write about does not define us as bloggers; it's how we write about it (frequently, ad nauseam, peppered with links).

Weblogs simply provide the framework, as haiku imposes order on words. The structure of the documents we're creating enable us to build our social networks on top of it -- the distributed conversations, the blog-rolling lists, and the friendships that begin online and are solidified over a "bloggers dinner" in the real world.

As bloggers, we're in the middle of, and enjoying, an evolution of communication. The traits of weblogs mentioned above will likely change and advance as our tools improve and our technology matures. What's important is that we've embraced a medium free of the physical limitations of pages, intrusions of editors, and delays of tedious publishing systems. As with free speech itself, what we say isn't as important as the system that enables us to say it.

Meg Hourihan is an independent Web consultant and freelance writer. She is a co-author of the book, We Blog: Publishing Online with Weblogs.

Read more Megnut columns.


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