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Saturday, June 18, 2011

What is a blog?

In just a few days I'll be on a local TV show called ComputerWise TV with Michelle Hryvnak Davies. Together, we'll be discussing NEPA Blogs.

My strategy for this interview is simple: I plan on keeping my mouth shut unless absolutely necessary. In part this is because this is Michelle's show - it's through her efforts that we're going to be there at all, and I don't want to take anything away from her. I will respond to questions asked of me; otherwise I will let Michelle take the lead and allow her to throw to me whenever she feels the need. But in part it's also because I could probably respond to any question with a thirty-minute soliloquy, with footnotes and references and historical information stretching back to the journal-writers of the eighteenth century - and the show is only twenty-five minutes long. So I think it's in everyone's best interests if I keep my babble to a minimum.

Case in point: One of the questions we're sure to be asked is "What is a blog?"

Now, in the context of this program, one might be inclined to say "What the hell kinda question is that? Isn't this a show about computers an' stuff for people who know computers? Geez, don't all y'all already KNOW what a blog is?" But that would probably be the wrong approach to take.

The proper sort of TV answer would probably be something like:
"Well, that's a very good question. Originally the term was a contraction of 'web log' and referred to personal journals kept and shared online. But over the years the term has come to include online journals kept by companies and businesses, some of which are indistinguishable from what would otherwise be called 'websites.' For the most part, when we talk about blogs, we're talking about the personal journals, things maintained by individuals, or, in some cases, small groups of people. They don't have to be 'personal' in nature, though - some of the most popular blogs out there are about politics, sports, or other topics that interest the bloggers and their readers."
OK, you see what I did there? Already I've gone off the rails. And I could easily keep going. It's a simple question without a simple answer.

Blogs started...well, I don't know exactly. I suppose I could look up what Wikipedia has to say, and assume that that information is accurate. Let's say they started a long time ago, back in the mid-1990's, when the Internet was a wild and primitive place. Blogging was not for the faint of heart back then; most of the blogging platforms we take for granted these days had not been conceived of yet, and if you were a blogger you were probably also doing more than a little coding to make your blog function. Some of those first bloggers are still blogging; others have quit blogging entirely, and have renounced their blogging past.

Way back around the turn of the century - 2003, to be exact - Jill Walker wrote up a definition of the term "blog" for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory.  The full, final definition, as well as a previous definition which was proposed and then revised, appears here. It begins like this:
A weblog, or *blog, is a frequently updated website consisting of dated entries arranged in reverse chronological order so the most recent post appears first (see temporal ordering). Typically, weblogs are published by individuals and their style is personal and informal. Weblogs first appeared in the mid-1990s, becoming popular as simple and free publishing tools became available towards the turn of the century. Since anybody with a net connection can publish their own weblog, there is great variety in the quality, content, and ambition of weblogs, and a weblog may have anywhere from a handful to tens of thousands of daily readers.

At the beginning of this year The Regator Blog ("A blog about blogs and other stuff") published a list of their choices for the Top 50 Blogs of 2010. I was somewhat surprised that I had only heard of a handful of them, but I was more surprised when I started to look into the sites that they listed. This led me to post this comment:

Maybe I'm a little old-fashioned, having been reading blogs since 2001 or so and blogging myself since 2004, but it seems like many of these are more like corporate websites than anything I would think of as a "blog." It may be a bit snobbish to look upon a blog as an individual, personal edeavor (sic), but to me, as a rule, if it has a staff it really isn't a blog. Still, it will be good to go through the 47 sites on this list that aren't regular reads for me and see what I'm missing!

To which I received this thoughtful reply from the blogger - or, at least, one of the Regator bloggers:

Hi D.B., Thanks for your comments. I hope you find some good reading on this list. The definition of a blog is a nebulous thing these days, and though we see blogs differently (I definitely don't think having a staff disqualifies a site from being a blog), your comment did make me think that perhaps a list of the top single-author blogs might be interesting for many. I may work on that down the line. Thanks for reading.

(In fact, Regator had just published a post about the evolving state of weblogs two weeks earlier:


I remember when Anderson Cooper started a blog. This was so cool, and technically the first "celebrity" blog I had ever read. (I can't recall if he was still with ABC then, or if he had already made the move to CNN.) His first post was a metapost of sorts, talking about what it felt like to just be getting into blogging and setting the scene for where he was blogging from - I think he was actually on the set of his news show at the time, writing between segments. But it quickly became obvious that his "blog" was for the most part an extension of and advertisement for his current news program.

Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize-winning economist. He is a professor at Princeton (or, more specifically, professor of Economics and International Affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University) and a columnist for the New York Times. He maintains a blog called The Conscience of a Liberal where he sometimes expands on ideas he has brought up in his New York Times column, or responds to responses to his statements made by other economists or pundits, or even occasionally posts class notes for his students; but he is just as likely to throw up political commentary salted with Monty Python or South Park references, or pictures of the meal he's eating while traveling abroad,  or even just his favorite videos by The Arcade Fire, because, dammit, it's his blog, and he can do whatever he damned well pleases with it.

On the other hand, there are personal blogs out there which contain zero personal content. Tumblr is a great platform for this. While some blogs using the Tumblr platform are indistinguishable from any of the blogs I've already mentioned, others are unique outgrowths of Tumblr's "microblogging" structure: they are frenetic agglomerations of pictures, quotes, and videoclips, all reposted from someone or somewhere else. Items are posted and quickly forgotten, to be buried under the crushing weight of new posts like (but completely unlike) Twitter status updates getting buried by new tweets. If a Tumblr blogger posts dozens of pictures each day of anime characters engaged sexually with each other - well, I guess, in a sense, that does tell you something about the blogger.

Some things just seem to not fit any reasonable definition of a blog. Is The Big Picture a blog? It's certainly an interesting and worthwhile site maintained by the Boston Globe, featuring amazing photographs. But is it really eligible to be counted among TIME magazine's "Best Blogs of 2011"? Somehow that feels like having an Apache helicopter declared the winner of the Boston Marathon. (It does, however, define itself as "a photo blog created by a select group of picture editors of The Boston Globe," so I guess that's good enough for me.) And, as with the Regator list, I had not actually heard of most of the other blogs on TIME's list, causing me to wonder which among them are actually blogs and which are, well, websites run by powerful corporations or media groups.

So. What is a blog? "Well, that's a very good question. I'll try to be brief with my answer..."


Other answers to this question:

2 comments:

dr.antony said...

Blogs are where people blabber about everything and anything.

Anonymous said...

Blogging is a very good marketing tool. Most companies use blogs to connect with their readers and some of my favorites are those blog wherein they express themselves and shows off the owners talents, arts, travel experience etc. Some use blogs to teach people how to blog like this blog from Andrew Wise, which can be a very good place to start if you want to start out blogging.