Histories and definitions of blogging

[ I gave a guest lecture in Devan Rosen’s CMC class earlier this week, and that got me thinking about the history, present, and future of blogging. This installment is the history part (though it doesn’t contain much history!). ]

The most widely read piece of meta-blogging is Rebecca Blood’s Weblogs: a History and Perspective. Blood wisely titles hers a history, rather than the history, likely realizing that the latter claim inscribes resistance in its arrogance. Nonetheless, her short essay has become, de facto, the story we tell ourselves about where blogging came from and why. Sure, there are squabbles over who had the first true blog, and the like, but her narrative has been internalized and naturalized among the blogging community that it seems almost unassailable. It provides yet another example of the fact that the history goes to the namers. Nietzsche would be proud.

The argument is a bit circular. Everyone agrees that weblogs existed before they were called weblogs. If we find the first examples of the label being used, this should allow us to track these first identified weblogs back to a core of progenitors. And from these earliest amoeba of weblogs we can then work forward to chart out the natural evolution of the species. It seems, though, that this hits only some of the ways in which we might define weblogs (for example, it doesn’t refer to macro-level interactions, motivations, effects, and behaviors), and seems to favor the term over the function or impact. Indeed, her presentation focuses first on naming as a definition of weblogs, and then on technology — namely the blogging services that provided support for those interested in starting weblogs.

The naming approach is not wrong, but it also isn’t the only way to go. We can hope to understand weblogs and their development from a number of other perspectives. We can look to the technology: both software tools designed to facilitate blog publishing and the wider technological environment in which weblogs have evolved. We can look at effects at a number of levels: how has blogging affected our everyday lives (the lifeworld level), the social environment (the structural-functional level), and from a very high vantage, what it means to be an individual in society (perhaps, the structuration level). “Effects” may very well be the wrong word to use here, since we are really talking about a highly reciprocal relationship, but it will do for now.

Whether weblogs are those things that people call “weblogs,” has recently become especially difficult. There has been notable resistance among those who keep Livejournals to the term “blog” and “blogger,” and a similar resistance is easy to find in the discussion on Slashdot; whenever a blogging topic comes up there is often a back-and-forth discussion on whether or not Slashdot is a blog. At its most sophisticated, such approaches aim to define weblogs from the perspective of blog genre. In many ways it seems natural to try to, at least in some provisional form, define blogs in such a way that it represents the most common general usage.

Closely aligned with this approach is one that takes these common understandings of what are examples of weblogs and collecting a fuzzy set of formal characteristics that should help to determine what counts as a blog and what does not. It is common, then, in most attempts to define a weblog to find some of the most common characteristics: that it is a frequently updated web page, with dated entries, presented in reverse-chronological order. Sometimes, such definitions suggest that the web page is authored by an individual rather than a group. Others follow Blood’s suggestion of two types of bloggers “linkers” and “thinkers”; those who abstract other web pages and those who generate original content for their weblogs. I suspect that many people who now keep weblogs engage in both of these activities.

The narrow version of the technological perspective is a kind of second-order version of the naming approach, and another popularly accepted history of blogging. It suggests that web pages hosted by “blogging” services like Blogger, Xanga, Typepad, Diaryland, and (more controversially, perhaps) Livejournal, as well as web pages produced or supported by weblogging tools like , Radio UserLand, Word Press, and (again, far more contested) Drupal. A more provisional approach suggests that if a page “pings” a ping server like blo.gs. Of course, you then run into the problem of whether blogging software can be used to produce sites that are not weblogs. You also have to wonder whether blogging software is a subset of Content Management Systems generally, or if it is a different animal.

While combinations of these two approaches (along with two other approaches we will encounter below) make up the majority of blog histories and definitions, they confirm that history is told by the successful namers. If the criteria for blogging requires self-identification, or the use of self-identified blogging tools, I have only been blogging for about three years. If we use other criteria (and this often means escaping the blog label: “personal web publishing” has been used as an alternative, though I prefer “collaborative web publishing”) , I can claim to have been engaging in blogging since 1997 or 1998. During those years, I was updating my own website regularly — usually once a week. By 1999, I had written a tool in Perl that allowed students in my class to share a blogging space. My intent was to undo some of the problems I saw with existing threaded forum software, but those web pages, with click-out comments and reverse-chronological entries, is indistinguishable from today’s blogs. I suspect my experience in this is not unique. There were many people “blogging” before they ever encountered the word or others doing something similar. The naming histories tend to leave these folks out.

What might account for my own experience better is a broad technological explanation. Leaving aside the personal part of web publishing, the concept of what publishing on the web could offer was changing at just about the time blogging took hold. The ontogeny of web publishing in many ways recapitulated the phylogeny of communication media at large. The earliest commercial websites tended to view the web as another way of delivering documents and pamphlets. Initially, these were in plain text, but when image-capable browsers became widespread, these pages began looking more and more like brochures. In extreme cases, graphic designers would put a GIF image of existing literature on a web page, and be done with it.

Over much of the 1990s, there came an evolution of what was expected on the Web. The static website, a copy of pamphlets and brochures, was no longer enough. Part of what came was more interactive content, or broadly speaking, the “dynamic” web. If you were to take a look at contemporaneous book shelves, you would have found books on “Dynamic HTML” the use of CGI to access databases, and the rise of Flash. Corporations increasingly included “news” items published quarterly, then weekly, then daily. After a number of tentative experiments, newspapers began to publish on their regular news cycle, and eventually, the larger papers published first in their online version. The updates on some sites, like CNN began to be made “as it happened.” To consider weblogs outside of this progression of the edge of web publishing generally would be a mistake. The home page evolved just as other sites evolved.

One of the things that makes weblogs particularly interesting is that there is no off-line equivalent. Many point to centuries-old pamphleteering or the photocopied manifesto as forerunners, and they probably are, but this is the first time we have really seen the equivalent of the daily (or more often) newspaper at a personal level; the real Daily Me. So, by placing the evolution of weblogs in this larger technological frame, we in no way diminish their importance. As we move on to the present state of weblogs, we will note that the transparent and public nature of hitherto private discourse may be a difference that makes a difference.

Another way to tell the story of blogging, and a popular one, is to talk about the effect of blogging. L’affaire de Trent Lott, for example, or the impact of war bloggers. This is a hook that journalists particularly like. A year ago, when I told people I was interested in blogs, the very few who didn’t say “huh?” assumed I was interested in why people kept diaries. Now, the public perception of blogging is very closely tied to politics, since the role of weblogs in, for example, the Dean campaign and the democratic convention were very well covered. Both of these speak to function. Some of roles that Lasswell initially attributed to the news media have been taken on by the blogging world. A history based on this kind of public functional effect is likely to play itself out episodically. Events that drive blogging or are driven by it, like the 9/11 attacks and the events that followed, then become the posts upon which a history of blogging is built.

I suspect the real functional history of blogging is yet to come, just as a functional history of cellular telephones is yet to come. Because the real impact of blogging, if it continues to grow (which I suspect it will, at least over the next year or two), will be felt in a more fundamental way: in the way individuals interact with one another and with their information environment–assuming the two are actually separate. This history is already being written in work that looks at the possibility of weblog-based conversation, deliberation, and collaboration, and even more so in work that examines the role of collaborative web publishing in the process of personal knowledge management.

Even further on the horizon is a structurational history of blogging that builds on the functional questions. I think we already see this in some of the questions about power laws in the organization of weblogs. Weblogs may yet prove to be the perspective and framework best suited for investigating a range of sociological ideas about social structure that runs from Simmel to Castel; the informational node of the network society. Just as those two scholars, among others, have traced the changing nature of psyche and identity in rural, urban, and networked environments, weblogs are redefining what it means to be a social being. Do blogging and related approaches lead to the further fracturing of individuals into multiple personalities engaged in disparate groups? I suspect that some forms of public blogging actually lead to a retribalization of identity: my students read my weblog, as does my boss, my mother and extended family, my friends. Under such conditions, I have limited means for shaping and maintaining multiple identities.

In the meantime, at least one definition of the weblog is any website that is particularly heavily linked within the blogosphere. The blogosphere is most often defined, in turn, as the universal collection of interlinked weblogs. This definition is undoubtedly circular, but that does not make it any less useful or accurate. It is easy to think of tools that adhere to all of the other criteria for “bloginess” — they appear in terms of their formal organization to be weblogs, they have some effect that seems to contribute to the “blog revolution,” they even consider themselves to be a weblog. Yet the sin qua non may remain the degree to which a weblog is linked to the rest of the blogging world, the degree to which it exchanges information with the wider system.

None of this provides us with “the” history of blogging. I do think it is important, however, that we resist the compelling notion that Blood’s history is the only way to think about the source and trajectory of blogging. Not that it is a bad way, of course! But I think that we can benefit from the understanding that there are a number of histories of blogging that are going to be written, and should be written. To provide a more textured view of this, we next look at the blogging of today, and try to extract the salient features; the things that make weblogs worth all the meta-blogging and introspection they seem to engender.

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  1. […] Halavais, A. (2004, November 14). Histories and definitions of blogging. Retrieved March 12, 2009, from http://alex.halavais.net/histories-and-definitions-of-blogging/ […]

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