|It's the links, stupid
Apr 20th 2006
From The Economist print edition
Blogging is just another word for having conversations
“IF YOU want to have a fun debate, ask bloggers what a blog is,” says Jeremy Zawodny at Yahoo! Only a few years ago, that debate would have been short. So few people blogged that most of them knew one another and could probably agree on a definition. Today a new blog is created every second of every day, according to Technorati, a search engine for blogs, and the “blogosphere” is doubling in size every five months (see chart 1). From teenagers to corporate executives, the new bloggers all have reasons of their own for engaging in this new pursuit.
What, then, is a blog? A “personal online journal” is the definition that most newspapers, including The Economist, offer when they need to be brief. That analogy is not wrong, but nor is it entirely right (conventional journals usually come in chronological order, whereas blogs are displayed in reverse chronological order, with the most recent entry on top). More importantly, this definition misses the main point about blogs. Traditionally, journals were private or even secret affairs, and were never linked to other journals. Peeking into the diary of one's big sister typically led to a skirmish. Blogs, by contrast, are social by nature, whether they are open to the public as a whole or only to a small select group.
The word “blog” appears to date back to 1997, when one of the few practitioners at the time, Jorn Barger, called his site a “weblog”. In 1999, another user, Peter Merholz, playfully broke the word into “we blog”, and somehow the new term—blog—stuck as both a verb and a noun. Technically, it means a web page to which its owner regularly adds new entries, or “posts”, which tend to be (but need not be) short and often contain hyperlinks to other blogs or websites. Besides text and hypertext, posts can also contain pictures (“photoblogs”) and video (“vlogs”). Each post is stored on its own distinct archive page, the so-called “permalink”, where it can always be found. On average, Technorati tracks some 50,000 new posts an hour.
Among the other technical features of blogs, two highlight the quintessentially social nature of blogging. The first is a “blogroll”, along the side of the blog page, which is a list of links to other blogs that the author recommends (not to be confused with the hyperlinks inside the posts). In practice, the blogroll is an attempt by the author to place his blog in a specific genre or group, and a reciprocal effort by a posse of bloggers to raise each other's visibility on the internet (because the number of incoming links pushes a blog higher in search-engine results). The other feature is “trackback”, which notifies (“pings”) a blog about each new incoming link from the outside—a sort of gossip-meter, in short.
Blogging is also about style. Dave Winer, a software engineer who pioneered several blogging technologies, and who keeps what by his own estimate is the longest-running blog of all (dating back to 1997), has argued that the essence of blogginess is “the unedited voice of a single person”, preferably an amateur. Blogs, in other words, usually have a raw, unpolished authenticity and individuality. This definition would exclude quite a few of the blogs that firms, public-relations people or newspapers set up nowadays. If an editor vets, softens or otherwise messes about with the writing, Mr Winer would argue, it is no longer a blog.
This explains the initial appeal of blogging as an outlet for pure self-expression. As Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, a well-known blog on American politics, put it when asked why he blogs: “It beats yelling at the television.” But venting an opinion is usually only the start. “At first, I saw it as about publishing; now I see it more as a revolutionary way to communicate,” says Mena Trott. The company she runs with her husband Ben, Six Apart, illustrates this with its three main products. Their flagship, Movable Type, with its obvious publishing connotations, is a popular software service for heavy-duty or celebrity bloggers, including Mr Reynolds. So is TypePad, a similar service with web-hosting thrown in. Blogs powered by these two products have an average of 600 readers, says Ms Trott, although a few are read by more people than are some newspapers.
But Six Apart's third product, LiveJournal, is a very different kind of blogging tool. Some 60% of LiveJournal users are under 21 and female, says Ms Trott. Many of the posts are about who snogged whom last night and what happened next, why I'm sad, how adults don't get it, and so forth. Other posts ask things like, “Anybody want to catch King Kong at 8:00?” and have the replies in the comment pane below within minutes. That is because many adolescents consider e-mail passé, and instead are using either instant messaging (IM) or blogging for their communications, says Ms Trott. Like blogging, e-mail was supposed to be “asynchronous”, meaning that the people taking part do not have to be online simultaneously. But today's adolescents have never known e-mail without spam and see no point in long trails of “reply” and “cc” messages piling up in their in-boxes. As for synchronous communication, why adults would send e-mails back and forth instead of “IM-ing” is beyond them.
For these LiveJournal blogs, the average number of readers is seven, says Ms Trott. Such small audiences are common in participatory media. Indeed, they may conform to the biological norm, whereas mass-media audiences may have been an aberration. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at the University of Liverpool, has studied primates and discovered a surprisingly stable ratio between the relative size of the neocortex (thought to be responsible for the evolution of intelligence) and the size of groups formed by particular species. For humans, Mr Dunbar calculated, the upper limit is about 150. Many clans, tribes, fan clubs, start-ups and other groupings remain well below this limit, as do most blog networks.
The LiveJournal groups of readers are typical of the new-media era in another way. The bloggers (ie, creators) are one another's audience, so that distinctions between the two disappear. Creators and audiences congregate ad hoc in meandering conversations, a common space of shared imagination and interests. MySpace.com, a social-networking and blogging service that last year was bought by News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate, reflects this quality in its name.
Conversations have a life of their own. They tend to move in unexpected directions and fluctuate unpredictably in volume. It is these unplanned conversational surges that tend to bring the blogosphere to the attention of the older and wider (non-blogging) public and the mainstream media. Germany, for instance, has been a relatively late adopter of blogging—only 1% of blogs are in German, according to Technorati, compared with 41% in Japanese, 28% in English and 14% in Chinese.
But in January this year “the conversation” arrived in Germany with a vengeance. Jung von Matt, a German advertising firm, had come up with a campaign in the (old) media called “Du bist Deutschland” (“you are Germany”). The advertisements were intended “to fight grumpiness” about the country's sluggish economy, said Jean-Remy von Matt, the firm's Belgian boss.
But German bloggers found the idea kitschy, and subsequently dug up an obscure photograph from a Nazi convention in 1935 that showed Hitler's face next to the awkwardly similar slogan “Denn Du bist Deutschland” (“because you are Germany”). In the ensuing online conversation, Mr von Matt's campaign was ignominiously deflated. Outraged, he sent an internal e-mail to his colleagues in which he called blogs “the toilet walls of the internet” and wanted to know: “What on earth gives every computer-owner the right to express his opinion, unasked for?” When bloggers got hold of this e-mail, they answered his question with such clarity that Mr von Matt quickly and publicly apologised and retreated.
Inadvertently, Mr von Matt had put his finger on something big: that, at least in democratic societies, everybody does have the right to hold opinions, and that the urge to connect and converse with others is so basic that it might as well be added to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “It's about democratisation, where people can participate by writing back,” says Sabeer Bhatia, who in March launched a company called BlogEverywhere.com that lets people attach blogs to any web page with a single click. “Just as everybody has an e-mail account today, everybody will have a blog in five years,” says Mr Bhatia, who helped to make e-mail ubiquitous by starting Hotmail, a web-based e-mail service now owned by Microsoft. This means, Mr Bhatia adds, that “journalism won't be a sermon any more, it will be a conversation.”
Next article in the survey: Compose Yourself: Journalism too is becoming more interactive, and maybe better...