What are blogs for? A trip to the beginning. The halcyon days of dot-com idealism and sheer shit-talking.
Here are my notes on the book We’ve Got Blog: How Weblogs Are Changing Our Culture—a worn-out name, but a pretty decent compilation of blog posts from the early days of the phenomenon, mostly 1999-2002.
The articles in this collection are early reflections on the weblog phenomenon. Mature reflections do not exist: the weblog community coalesced only three years ago. Not even the pioneers—some of whom contributed to this anthology—know where weblogs are going, or what place they will eventually fill on the World Wide Web.
— p. xii, Rebecca Blood
The word ‘weblog’ was coined in 1997 - but I think 1999 was officially the first big year for blogging, with both LiveJournal and Blogger appearing. Somehow, wanting to reach back to that era now that 20 years has passed - to attempt to uncover what went so wrong between then and now - I checked out this book from the library on an impulse. It seems to capture the spirit of that age in such a remarkable way - like that jar of deer meat I recently found in my brother-in-law’s basement labelled: '97. (“Oh, it’s still good,” he said.)
And considering Rebecca’s point above: 20 years later, do ‘mature’ reflections now exist? Is it all over and we’re far beyond reflecting? Has the blog just been a tulpa for some ancient essence that we’ll never capture?
Time to reflect.
For the first fifty pages of this, I felt nothing but self-loathing. Blogging suddenly seemed like the most disgusting thing to do - to aimlessly, carelessly write endlessly about my tastes and interests. While I quite like Rebecca Blood’s analysis in the early chapters, this quote chilled me:
As [the blogger] enunciates his opinions daily, this new awareness of his inner life may develop into a trust in his own perspective. His own reactions - to a poem, to other people, and, yes, to the media - will carry more weight with him. Accustomed to expressing his thoughts on his website, he will be able to more fully articulate his opinions to himself and others. He will become impatient with waiting to see what others think before he decides, and will begin to act in accordance with his inner voice instead. Ideally, he will become less reflexive and more reflective, and find his own opinions and ideas worthy of serious consideration.
— p. 14, Rebecca Blood, “Weblogs: A History and Perspective”
Perhaps Rebecca could really use the confidence boost - and that seems entirely wholesome - but I personally do not need to take myself more seriously. I can definitely appreciate improving my articulation - yes definitely, definitely - but becoming more ‘impatient’ and more opinionated - yet somehow more ‘reflective’? More weighty? I don’t want this to happen… (I think I’d like to remain aware that I’m a perfectly worthless dipshit.)
Any idea that these days of blogging were somehow more idyllic, pleasant or enviable quickly goes out the window in this book. The shit-talking is near-epic! Names are named—denounced and disgraced as ruining the form—mostly deriding “A-list” bloggers, but also decrying “the unbearable incestuousness of blogging.” Seems like the confirmation I’ve needed that mastering hypertext is going to be a formidable challenge for us - one that they were only just beginning to embark on and, therefore, were well over their heads in.
However, so far I’ve found a surprising amount to glom on to. These early bloggers definitely had a whiff of what was to come (partly because many had recently left the experience of Usenet) and I think I’m coming away hugely crystallized. Unexpected!!
So, How Useful Are Blogs?
The juiciest quote, for me, so far is this one:
‘Accept that the Web ultimately overwhelms all attempts to order it, as for now it seems we must, and you accept that the delicate thread of a personal point of view is often as not your most reliable guide through the chaos. The brittle logic of the hierarchical index has its indispensable uses, of course, as has the crude brute strength of the search engine. But when their limits are reached (and they always are), only the discriminating force of sensibility will do - and the more richly expressed the sensibility, the better.’
— “Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Man” by Julian Dibbell (2000)
This might be a little self-affirming, because it seems to vindicate the web directory (e.g. my l’il href.cool) but what it really seems to be describing is the blog as our premiere discovery mechanism. This must have been a common view at the time, considering this earlier quote:
[…] the weblog movement will begin to realize its true power, a more widely distributed version of what the Open Directory and other collaborative web directories have promised but only minimally delivered.
— p. 40, Brad L. Graham, “Why I Weblog”
In hindsight, this feels like hyperbole - the finished product of a blog seems (to me) less navigable than a directory, although both are usually stale by then. But I think this has played out, to some degree, especially if I think of how useful a good music blog can be when attempting to discover new music. (Though I think a good music podcast or YouTube review can be equally good.)
Hmm. A medium really is only as good as the artist makes of it. It’s not that hypertext is tapping into us. We’re pushing it wherever we want, right?
We are being pummeled by a deluge of data and unless we create time and spaces in which to reflect, we will be left with only our reactions. I strongly believe in the power of weblogs to transform both writers and readers from “audience” to “public” and from “consumer” to “creator.”
— p. 16, Rebecca Blood, “Weblogs: A History and Perspective”
I want to draw a comparison here between this quote and (apologies) Fortnite Battle Royale. Putting aside everything else about Fortnite, it tacked on an interesting innovation: the ability to build structures (in a Minecraft-inspired fashion) with a traditional (third-person) shooter.
Most people seemed to scoff at this blend—as if it were some kind of mere monstrosity of buzzwords. No, this ability to build boxes around yourself or staircases to scale mountains added a much-needed defensive strategy to shooter games, aside from stuff like holing-up or strafing. What’s more: the building strategy can also be seen as ‘shooting’ defenses—you are adding to the environment—it is a constructive, perhaps aggressive, kind of defense.
That’s what seems to resonate with bloggers: not the publication of a first-person journal but the chain of interaction it often ignites.
— p. 170, JD Lasica, “Blogging as a Form of Journalism”
This chain of interaction can manifest as a scorching backdraft. And that is not usually what you are trying to ignite. We like to think that we are kicking off a fantastic, fulfilling discussion that moves the world forward—but the chain is well outside of our control.
(My initial thoughts to ‘controlling’ such a thing is… defensive in the Fortnite sense. Many hypertext writers now build layers around their writing. Nadia Eghbal has direct interaction through Twitter, indirect interaction through polished essays and a newsletter—but also, concealed interaction through an unadvertised notes page that is not easily syndicated or followed. Similarly, representing the public-self modelers—h0p3 has a home page entry point that is carefully curated and groomed, but which is several layers up from a complete chaos of link dumps, raw drafts and random introspections—all of which you can only sort through by learning his curious conventions. You are on his turf. These layers run a spectrum of accessibility—there is always a learning curve before you hit the bottom. You start with a doorway before entering a maze.)
I do think what this has left me with so far is two very clear impressions:
- I still think blogging is a great way to shed light on undiscovered wonderful things. (Other touted aspects - such as ‘giving me a voice’ or ‘replacing old media’ - don’t particularly juice me up personally. Maybe I’m being too hasty here, though. It’s a luxury to publish freely with no editorial staff to shut me down.)
- Curating blog posts into a finalized book is pretty cool. This reinforces my conclusion on my Hypertexting study: that a permanent ‘body’ of text can be extracted from the ephemera of assorted links and notes that go into blogging. I think it will be useful to, at some point, roll up a bunch of old posts (perhaps delete them) once I’ve compiled a nice piece of writing that sums it all up. (Perhaps this is just a stupid realization about ‘finishing’ something - gah, sorry!)
So, while certain writers in this book seemed to look at the blog as a fully-realized literature format - and perhaps it can be that to some - for me, I see it as a conduit between writings and creations - a place where some of my own words fester and pile up, as a kind of byproduct.
Lastly, there’s no question that we are far from a mature view of hypertext. I feel that much of the last two decades has been spent just trying to emotionally process what our open exposure on the Internet means. These bloggers lived during an early expansion when the population was much smaller. The extreme growth (along with stuff like constant mobile connections and the Snowden discoveries) has transformed the Internet into a very public, chaotic place.
Developing a blog/wiki/etc demands writing, editing, publishing and even relationship chops. I’m not even touching the journalism, entrepreneurial and community-building aspects that this book focuses on at times. Trying to do this in a disciplined way is difficult in the changing landscape - partly because so much of our discussion necessarily revolves around examining that landscape.
Appendix: Raw Notes
p. 5. “[so-and-so] grouped a bunch of webloggers into high school cliques and called me a jock” the shit-talking begins, this is comfortable, nothing has changed.
p. 5. “Dave decided I must be ‘brain-damaged’ because I used frames.” first thought: this is worthy of publication? second thought: oh, wait, these are raw blog posts republished. third thought:
Tracked down the Dave Winer post myself, to ensure ‘brain-damaged’ was the actual wording. (It was.) Quote just below it:
Dad says I shouldn’t criticize other people on my site. He’s right, in theory. But in practice, what I don’t like is just as much a part of my personality as what I do like.
— Kate Adams
(Personal aside: I once criticized the cover of a Philip K. Dick book publicly on the Internet. The only response my post receive was from the illustrator that had designed the cover. She basically said: “Thanks, that hurt.” You might think she had no business replying to my post and should have just taken the criticism. But she didn’t like my criticism - which is “just as much a part of her personality” as anything else, I suppose.)
p. 9. Good Rebecca Blood quote: “These weblogs provide a valuable filtering function for their readers. The Web has been, in effect, pre-surfed for them.”
p. 11. There seems to be a recurring theme that Blogger made blogging “too easy” by just having a single textbox to post in. Didn’t realize it was that much of a progenitor to Twitter.
p. 12. Filters as their own thing: “I really wish there were another term to describe the filter-style weblog, one that would easily distinguish it from the blog.”
(No indication of the tools available to the ‘filter’ blog are given - except that it has access to other filter blogs. Also, there are about five different blog types alluded to - none of them matter now.)
p. 18. The author seems to say that communities, in order to survive, must stay small - and credits The WELL with the best approach. I don’t know The WELL - but it’s still here today. Wonder if it is considered intact…
p. 20. The term ‘webpools’ is used here several times. There are many, many outdated terms and awkward language choices in these essays. These are really cool to me because the language was in such flux - and it reminds me of how repulsive the word ‘blog’ was at first. (I invent crappy words, too - guilty.)
p. 27. Having a good ‘link checker’ is mentioned. Interesting that this technology is nowhere to be seen now. (Href.cool has a simple, dumb one I made - but it’s proven essential.)
p. 31. Some discussion about crediting sources. The discussion is basically “this is a virtuous thing to do” vs. “it clutters up the blog”. This misses the point (imho) - the point is to aid discovering related blogs.
p. 32. This is so funny: “But what about a weblog for the homemaker?”
p. 32. “Wouldn’t it be great if all the neurosurgeons in the world had one place to go for up-to-date information about the numerous changes in their field?” No. Hard no.
p. 35. The need for one’s own domain name. I used to think this wasn’t very important. Starting to come around.
p. 37. “fram” - friend spam. This was nostalgic - ahh right, basically, e-mail forwards were the Facebook of that era. Again, recurring theme of: people need to become better, more disciplined independent writers and publishers. That is what the Web asks of us.
p. 43. omgz, a spoof of “we didn’t start the fire” in the middle of the book. “Wetlog, BrainLog, NeoFlux, and Stuffed Dog…” this is amaaazing.
p. 49. beebo.org?? wtf, this is the second time this has come up. “a blog best-seller list”? The captures on Internet Archive do not explain this well enough for me.
p. 51. It’s becoming clear that Blogger was the poster child of its time. Strangely, people don’t really trace the lineage of Twitter or Tumblr back to it - nor does it come up in the Friendster, Myspace, Facebook dynasty. It’s just kind of this useful website that appeared and is still here. Strangely, Google has managed to keep it low-key, ad-less, customizable - seems like a completely ignored utility. There even seems to be a “New Blogger” dashboard for mobile. I wonder what keeps this thing going?
p. 52. Fears about blogging becoming “too easy” - leading to “blogorrhea”. Yeah, that panned out.
p. 54. The Bicycle story. This seems like some kind of a precious take on memes. Or, alternatively, a satire on a template blog post. The self-loathing returns.
p. 59. Damn, this is serious shit-talking!! (Like on the level of Bernhard’s The Woodcutters.) I need to talk about this in more detail later.
p. 68. Blogs as “exteriorized psychology”. Sure. But no. Hard no.
p. 70. Where did Jorn Barger go? Seems like perception that he was antisemitic turned against him? Nah, it’s got to just be burn out or something. Everyone should retreat from the pulpit at some point. (Actually, not sure why I’m asking where he is - most of these blogs are vacated. I think people didn’t want out of blogging what it ended up giving them. There was definitely something of a gold rush.)
p. 76. This Julian Dibbell has some good stuff. “Does it even count as irony that Barger’s rigorously unfiltered perspective is perhaps as good a filter as can be found for the welter of the Web?” This is a good question! And it really confuses the topic of what makes a good algorithm or a good editor. The discussion kind of stops at: it’s a sensibility.
p. 78. Blogger was a one-man business in 2001 after initially having a team. It really squeaked by. This is cool. It actually survived.
p. 82. “I do think there was a blog concept. Then there were a couple blog concepts. And now we’re getting closer to a blog concept again.” Lol. I think we’re back to a couple blog concepts again.
p. 87. Comment about 2001’s “p2p hype” drowning out interest in blogs. It’s interesting that blockchain took that space for awhile. And it’s interesting that some p2p+blog projects have a niche community now. It’s also interesting that those were seen as competing at the time - I can see how people would think that, but those were clearly two different crowds.
p. 89-98. No real interest in this chapter (on the Kaycee Nicole Hoax) - although veracity of information continues to be a big topic. Was a topic in the radio and newspaper eras, too.
p. 103. “[Blogs are] nothing new, they’re not changing the world with their content, they’re not going to make anyone huge amounts of money, but they are a form of self-expression and community which others enjoy reading.” (Finally, some tempered enthusiasm that’s grounded in reality. No one in this book even considers that blogs might have been a fad - which is a reasonable appraisal given that blogs have almost vanished within the past ten years.)
p. 112-115. An actual essay on link-hunting! It’s rather thin, but it’s a good start. Most of the sources listed in this article are gone now. (Except mailing lists - though they aren’t nearly as prevalent.)
p. 124. “linkslut” (Sick, this is me.)
p. 131. “… most popular weblogs function to serve up the piddle and crap the authors either don’t have time for, don’t believe worth taking any further, or perhaps are testing the waters for.” (So: people know they are writing for free and withhold their best work. Really makes me grateful for insanely high-quality essayists out there like Nadia or Toby.)
p. 138. Kottke is a serious target in this book. He is quoted here, talking about his laptop bag. The writer then basically says, “See, this is the epitome of decadent navel-gazing.”
p. 141. This Blogma 2001 stuff hasn’t aged well. The satire is just thinly veiled bile. Which is not a problem. It’s just that the target of this piece (“A-list” bloggers) is not interesting. Maybe it’s too easy. (Like a satire on modern influencers - who cares.)
p. 144. In a section on blogging tips, called “Anonymous Is Okay.” ‘If you are being anonymous give some hints about you from time to time. “I am a fat boy!”’
p. 152. This has really gone downhill in the last few chapters. I’m now in an essay on how to get noticed. “Also, when sending email, try to be funny” - oh boy. And yet, this is exactly what you expect in a book titled We’ve Got Blog from 2002. (This essay does highlight that self-promotion was very awkward even then.)
p. 155. “Once in a while remind yourself that you are not only as good as your last update.” (Based.)
p. 164. Referring to a time in the late 90s: “Then reality set in and those individual voices became lost in the ether as a million businesses lumbered onto the cyberspace stage, newspapers clumsily grasped at viable online business models, and a handful of giant corporations made the Web safe for snoozing.” (Had to do a double-take on this one! Were they talking about 2011?)
p. 166. Reference to Paul Andrews’ “Who Are Your Gatekeepers?” Sounds worth reading.
p. 166. “Where the weblog changes the nature of ‘news’ is in the migration of information from the personal to the public.” (Premonitions of Snowden. Regardless of whether you think he was successful, in this respect he certainly was.)
p. 167. The rest of the essays in this book are by amateurs, so they look at editors at entirely superfluous. This section is written by journalists, so they seem to see it just as a tradeoff. Yeah, for sure. (As a reader, it certainly seems valuable to evaluate online writing on a spectrum of heavily-edited and fact-checked vs. off-the-cuff - depending on what you are getting out of it.)
p. 170. “One of the most interesting things about blogs is how often they’ve made me change my mind about issues. There’s something about the medium that lets people share opinions in a less judgemental way than when you interact with people in the real world.” (Eh? This seems spurious. The medium is still just the written word. I think what you’re trying to articulate is that you never quite know what you’re going to end up reading online - so it’s possible to be exposed to arguments you haven’t encountered. Hence all the talk about people being accidentally radicalized politically.)
p. 170. “That’s what seems to resonate with bloggers: not the publication of a first-person journal but the chain of interaction it often ignites.” (Yes. Hard yes. This explains the migration to social media. Quicker, faster, immedate sparks of interaction.) (It also occured to me at this point that ‘likes’ and such are analagous to ‘hit counters’ from this age.)
p. 171. The editorial process produces writing that is “limp, lifeless, sterile, and homogenized”; blogs produce words that are “impressionistic, telegraphic, raw, honest, individualistic, highly opinionated and passionate, often striking an emotional chord.” (I really don’t like that this paints a picture that writing just got better all of the sudden because of blogs.)
p. 192-193. During an essay which completely demolishes the war blogs of the time, Tim Cavanaugh quotes a full page-and-a-half of shameless gladhanding. ("…the consistently correct Moira Breen." “Mark Steyn—this guy is so good!” “…Natalija Radic really hit them where it hurts.”) (It goes on and on. This seems similar to current questions of ‘virtual signaling’. Which I don’t have a problem with generally. Really: what should a personal signal? I think the problem here is that the concept of a war blogger is gross. So perhaps it is the incompatibility we see between a person and their signal.)
p. 195. “For all the bitching they log about the mainstream media, none of the bloggers are actually cruising the streets of Peshawar or Aden or Mogadishu. Thus, they’re wholly dependent upon that very same mainstream media.” (Well, the mainstream will always exist in some way - as a baseline of culture, as a central point of reference, like Magnetic North. Therefore, we’re dependent on it. And we move ourselves around it by defining our various loves and hatreds of it. And, in this case, I think it should still be safely used as a resource. Also, ‘it’ is actually a massive, pluralistic, infinite, incongruous organism.)
p. 228. ICQ as “I seek you.” Durrrr. I never caught this! Wowwww.
Many shooters allow you to project or throw force field areas. So this concept has been around, to some degree. I don’t know the lineage—I’m not a gamer. ↩︎
A few days after writing this, Nadia posted “Reimagining the PhD”, which casts her last five years as a kind of self-styled doctorate - which will now concluded with her publication of a book on her field of study. ‘Rolling up’ a blog into a formalized work is parallel. ↩︎