The Horseless Carriage…

04/28/2005

This is a slightly rewritten and polished up version of a talk I gave to a Six Apart event (cf. On being on the panel at Blogs in Action) at London’s Polish Club a few weeks ago. It’s kind of a personal history of and exposition around weblogs and webloggery. This version has had some of the more colourful language removed. Warning – it’s quite long and it’s a bit of a mystery to me how I managed to get through it all in ten minutes.

Today I’m going to talk about the horseless carriage. Well. Kind of.

In the middle ages, people walked to places. If they didn’t walk, then they rode horses. Some attached carts to their horses. Some time later, those carts got suspension. That’s when they started to get really popular because people’s arses didn’t hurt so much. In the late eighteenth century – joy – the steam-based self-propelled vehicle was devised. By the way, many of the most notable advances in steam vehicles occurred in England – with the Lunar Society in Birmingham. These devices were known as ‘horseless carriages’. You may be familiar with their descendents. You may have used one of them to get to this event today.

That then, was the history of the horseless carriage – and I’ll come back to that. But now I want to look at a parallel history – that of the weblog. Many histories of webloggia have been written to date. The best is by Rebecca Blood and it’s called Weblogs: A History and Perspective. Reading it, you can get a real sense about all the technologies and analogues and developments that led up to a person pointing at something for the first time and going, “that thing there is a weblog”…

To summarise – some people say the very first site on the web, Tim Berners-Lee’s homepage, was the first weblog. On it he linked to new sites, services and pages as they started to appear. That experience rings nostalgic bells for me. I can remember a community of webloggers that did the same for each new person who joined us in writing rubbish on the internet. Those were the days.

The word itself, though, was a much much later development – and came in two stages. First Jorn Barger coined the term ‘weblog’ to describe his site Robot Wisdom. Subsequently, Peter Merholz shortened the term to the more commonly used ‘blog’. So he’s the person you should be looking to blame for that one…

So we had a name, but not necessarily any sense of what these sites were for? There was enormous debate about their essential character. These first practitioners saw the ‘point’ of a weblog as linking. The core of the enterprise for these people was finding cool sites and referencing them. Although perhaps that’s overstating it a bit, since even then people had a sense of the personal as well. Dave Winer famously said of weblogs that each had a human guide that you got to know. He talked about camaraderie and politics. I think he was right. I’ll get back to that too.

Alongside the people who viewed weblogs as linklogs, another group of sites that viewed themselves as ‘online journals’ were emerging from the more arty side of the internet. I was involved in this arty community and remember seeing sites like Ember.org and flaunt.net explore what it was to self-represent and write online. Glassdog.net was one of the many hubs of this period of artistry and creativity. The whole space was excitingly expressive, but not particularly social. Alongside all this, the LiveJournallers made their moves. All in all these were very similarly structured takes on a completely different direction.

After September 11th, yet another group of people manifested on the internet and chose weblogs as their means of expression. These people talked in terms of punditry and they thought of themselves as following in the footsteps (to praise or bury) of Glenn Reynolds. These people wanted to express opinions, debate and comment on what was going on in the world around them. These ‘warbloggers’ at times have started various snowballing news stories – particularly in the States.

And we’re still not done – linkers, journal-keepers and pundits have most recently been joined by the commercial people. America’s Gawker Media publishes weblogs around a whole range of subjects from politics to sex. Group weblogs like BoingBoing have gone pro as well – and they are, let me tell you, making a decent amount of money out it. Yay Google Ads!

All of this means that when people talk about weblogs they tend to talk about it in terms of other things they knew about beforehand that seem to be good analogies. Which one of these is right?

  • A weblog is a thing that links to sites elsewhere on the web
  • A weblog is a kind of online journal
  • A weblog is a kind of diary
  • A weblog is about personal publishing
  • A weblog is amateur journalism

Well, I’ll leave you with that question for a minute and talk a bit about my experiences online. When I started my site in 1999 it was already a year or two since Jorn Barger had coined the term. I was one of the very first batch of people to start using Blogger in the first months after it opened its doors to the public. When I started there were probably only a few hundred webloggers in the world. I think I started the day after Anil Dash. Each new weblogger who came online was a cause for celebration. We used to link to everyone. We’d redesign every week. Happy times.

Over the years I’ve watched as things that now seem obvious got invented. I’ve seen the concept of the permalink appear – and change everything completely. I’ve watched Movable Type appear, get huge and take over the world – and I’ve watched dozens of people try and create less capable knock-offs. I’ve seen the idea of a single-page archve manifest itself and then take a billion years to get into Blogger. I’ve seen the appearance (and I fear death) of Trackback. And the slow process to get comments on everyone’s sites. All the simple structures we operate with now – all the things we take for granted as being obvious – each was invented. And I’m lucky enough to remember each one turning up.

Alongside all of this, my own use of my site has changed. I started off writing about things I found on the internet. Then I started talking about things I did with my friends and what I thought about work. I explored the freedoms of being anonymous in public. Then my friends found out. Then I had this terrible pseudo abortive relationship and started writing secret stuff in the code of the site and being all melodramatic in public. Then I got excited about some specific subjects. Then it felt like everyone was impinging on my life and that everyone knew I had a weblog. Then I felt like I had no privacy. Then I stopped writing so much about my personal life and concentrated on writing on the things I cared about. Then the things I started writing about started to coincide with the things I was working on. Then I started getting into conversations with people who shared my professional capacity, and it having an impact on my working life. And that’s where you find me today – writin a mixture of personal stuff and ludicrously complicated stuff about social software.

And with all that experience, here’s what I’m here to say. Here are my observations about weblogs and weblogging:

  • The amount of weblogs that get a lot of traffic each day is pretty tiny in comparison with the number of weblogs in the world. And when I say ‘a lot of traffic’ I mean people who get (say) a thousand page impressions a day.
  • The average weblogger – the mainstream weblogger (and there are millions of the little buggers) ‘publish’ to a tiny audience. Many of these sites are password protected or completely private.
  • Weblogs are fast and rapid to write and as such they lend themselves to a slightly informal voice. People will tend to write kind of like they speak.
  • Most sites are one-per-person – this is the most natural state of affairs.
  • People cannot naturally stay on one subject – if you start writing a weblog about something in particular then in the end you’ll almost inevitably fail. The only things you can write about honestly and consistently for a long period of time are the things you’re doing and the things that you care about at any given period of time. These things will be perpetually in a state of flux, even if patterns will emerge…
  • The only exceptions to those rules being that if you’re doing something for money or if there’s a group of you doing it. That stuff’ll keep you on track and no mistake.
  • Running and writing a weblog is a social activity – it’s communicative – and you respond to what other people write when you write. It’s no fun at all if you’re writing into a vaccuum.
  • The average weblogger will often start off thinking that they can be anonymous and write about what they want. But they can’t and they figure that out soon enough when they get fired or when their boyfriend leaves them or their friends start looking at them funny or refusing to shake their hands when they’re at work.
  • That webloggery tends to successfully transmit itself down social and interest networks. People who enjoy writing weblogs tend to do so because they got into weblogging through a friend. When they come online they know that they’re already never going to be alone. They’ll have someone to read what they write.

Fundamentally, I think I can bring all of this down to one core statement – that for the vast majority of weblogs in the world the core over-arching principle is that of personhood. The weblog becomes an extension of yourself. A suit you wear, if you will. It’s like you’re controlling a whole prosthetic version of yourself. The tone of voice will be personal. The individual weblog like the individual person will benefit from feeling like they’re a part of a community. A weblogger’s community will work best when it has connections to (and overlaps with) that weblogger’s real-life community. Most importantly, an individual weblog/weblogger will care about what they care about and nothing more.

This means that whatever you’re planning to use weblogs for, then you’ll fid them most naturally useful if you keep the individual at the heart of the enterprise. That means if you’re interested in knowledge management, or in community generation or in using them for publishing or whatever, then you should keep that idea of an individual voice at the centre of your thinking. Even Fleshbot has a sense of an individual behind it – an editorial tone that feels personable. Not that I’ve been. And I’m sure none of you have either. And nor should you.

And if you’re thinking about the future of weblogs then you should think in terms of how to support the individual in their conversations and engagements and social networks. Maybe that means developing Livejournal explicit-relationships functionality. Or maybe it means bits of Flickr. Or maybe it means better conversation-tracking.

But it’s all got to be about the individual. And my preferred way of expressing that is that a weblog is a representation of a person. I think that’s behind all of the definitions that people came up with before. I think that’s the core principle that stands behind the idea that a weblog is a journal, or that they’re collections of links that I’ve seen on the web or that they’re space for an individual to undertake a new form of journalism, etc. etc.

And my contention – to bring us right back to the beginning – is that all of those statements (“A weblog is a kind of diary”) are kind of like saying that “A car is a horseless carriage”. For years we had to descrive cars by reference only to things that had come before, but we don’t need to do that any more. Enough time has passed that we can describe a car without talking about its origins or its analogues – without talking about things that are kind of like it. Now we can start to conceive of a car without thinking of horses and suspension and traps and carriages.

And I think we can now start to do the same thing with weblogs – we can push past describing them as being like empty books that people write in and keep private, we can say that they’re not just records of sites that we’ve visited, we can stop trying to compare what we’re doing with the actions of professional journalists writing for newspapers. I think we’ve got past that now. I think we can call a blog a blog.