|Mind / Matter|
By David Ness
Friday, February 15, 2002
Blogs: Logs on the Web
Blogs are the result of a combination of the technology of the Internet and the ancient art of Diary/Autobiography. They are a second stage in the evolutionary process that started with the advent of the Home Page.
Home pages began to become commonplace a few years ago. Most early home pages were wildly diffuse in look and feel, but generally had some personal information coupled with linkages to topics of interest to the owner.
Over time, some common styles began to emerge, and perhaps the most important of these was a natural parallel to the diary. Lots of people began to keep a daily, weekly or monthly diary of thoughts, activities---loosely collected into a `log' (Captain's Log: Stardate ...).
Wikis: Information Collections
While Blogs were evolving on one front, Ward Cunningham invented the Wiki. The Wiki is quite a different concept, sort of a Sketchboard with Automatic Indexing. The basic idea is that Web pages are created that can be edited by anyone. Each page, as it is created, is given a title. This title has a slightly unconventional form (it happens to be odd capitalization) that allows it to be recognized in context, and leads to automatic cross-reference indexing.
Using this technology, an information `plex' is created, interlinking thousands of pages of random ideas on a wide range of topics. Of course, many of these pages relate to computers and/or programming in some way---quite a natural given most of the audience---but many other pages deal with topics far from computers. The base of the Wiki can be seen at: http://c2.com/cgi/wiki
Unlike most Blogs, Wikis do not generally have any time sense, although usual informal rules suggest that new information tends to be added at the bottom of the pages.
Kinds of Blogs
There are several different characteristics that can be used to categorize and discuss Blogs. Let's look at some of them.
Many Blogs are time-sequenced like a diary. Indeed a current month calendar is a common feature in the margin of the first page of a large number of Blogs. The calendar is not there just for show. In general it allows access back to the Blogs for earlier days in the month. In this kind of Blog the overall organization is time-oriented, and topics tend to flow across a number of days.
Other Blogs focus on the topic rather than on the time. These tend to be somewhat closer to Wikis in character and style. Commentary on topics will be added and modified over time, but the topics are really closer to short essays on subjects of interest.
Of course Blogs range across a huge range of topics. A great number of them deal with topics that you would expect to find: current politics, international affairs, computer subjects. Many are rather clearly some form of vanity press, the all important subject being: ME. Most Blogs emphasize words, but some make heavy use of Images. I have not seen many that rely on live (WebCam-like) images, but there is no real reason that they couldn't.
Writer / Commentator / Community
Another difference is whether a Blog is viewed as having:
- An Author;
- An Author with Commenters; or
- A Community
All types obtain. Most Blogs, in my current experience, have Authors, and any commentary by the reader is generally sent back to the Author via conventional EMail. However, a growing number of Blogs actually collect and display the commentary (Langreiter or Antville) as a part of the text.
And there are a growing number of experiments with `Communities' of Bloggers. So far these have not had any particularly significant impact, but it will be interesting to see how they evolve over time.
Some Blogs cross-index topics. In this way they sort of merge the technology of the conventional Blog with that of the Wiki. One of the most interesting of these is Vanilla, a Rebol-based support environment created by Christian Langreiter (http://www.langreiter.com). Vanilla builds conventional time-based Blog pages, but any items that are specially marked (in this case by being surrounded by asterisks) are automatically cross-indexed to snips, sort of a conceptual index cards that allow items to cross-reference to one another.
Characteristics of Blogs
Blogs tend to do some things and to not do some others. Let's review a few of them.
Blogs and Links
Blogs link to one another. The most basic principle of the Blog Universe seems to be If you link to me, I'll link to you. This is the way that apparently some think the readership of the Blogs can be broadened. Many Blogs have long `Daily List' of other Blogs that the currently author (presumably) looks at and reads each day.
And some Blogs really only exist as pre-scanning tools for other Blogs. The basic notion appears to be that if a Blog can act as `gatekeeper' to other Blogs, then that Blog will get all of the traffic that passes through the whole complex.
Blogs and Bulletin Boards
Blogs seem, at least in the domains where I have experience, to have largely supplanted Bulletin Boards as a form of communication.
Blogs and Chat Rooms
Blogs seem to deal with a problem rather completely different than that of Chat Rooms. In general the Blog is a Store and Forward interaction while the Chat Room is an immediate interaction. However, several of the Blogs now support `logging in' (in order to gain the privilege of writing comments, for example), and these are beginning to report `who is logged in right now' as a side-effect of having this information available. It will be interesting to see if these facilities gradually evolve into some form of live Chat facility.
Comparing Three Types
Perhaps it's worth spending a moment comparing and contrasting three of the most basic forms of Blog: The Diary, The Theme and The Wiki.
What are they?
Diary Blogs have a basic structure that is a time sequence. They tend to be as random in subject matter as most days are. If the author of the Diary is careful, there may be lots of links back to previous aspects of some theme, but often this goes by the wayside due to the exigencies of time.
Theme Blogs are organized, and sometimes even hierarchical. Information about particular subjects is collected and organized---for better or for worse---by the editor.
Wiki Blogs share many of the characteristics of Theme Blogs, but in addition they are supported by an automated hyper-link organization that can help link `themes' that run across and thru different subject areas.
Blogs, as they occur in practice, often have some of the characteristics of each of these types of properties. Langreiter's Blog is basically a Diary, but because it is supported by Vanilla's linking mechanism, it also has many of the properties of a Wiki. Examples of various combinations abound.
The kind of Blog dictates its basic organization. Diary Blogs are calendar oriented, and often make it easy for you to find something if you can remember something about the date on which an item might have occurred. Wikis cluster around particular subjects, and there have been some experiments (mostly unsuccessful as far as I have seen up to now) that superimpose outline-style hierarchical organization on top of a Wiki clustering.
Finding new material
Finding new material in a Blog is a nice example of a problem where the structure of the Blog itself can make matters more or less difficult. For example, in a Diary Blog, new material is trivially easy to spot. New stuff appears at the top of the Blog, and you only have to read down it until you encounter an item that you have already read. By convention, once items are `published' they are not much modified, except to correct egregious error. As we will see in a moment comments may be added, but they are generally kept off in a sidebar-like role, so that they do not interfere with the basic flow of the document.
In the Wiki world, you can find new material if a Recent Changes page is maintained by the host environment. Certainly one is maintained for the general Public Repository Wiki. This points nicely to all of the Wiki pages that have been modified recently.
However, as any regular Wiki reader is likely to testify, this list can easily get to be so long that it becomes unreadable---practically speaking. One can only `eyeball' it quickly, as often the list is several pages.
For Theme Blogs, something like the Recent Changes page is often maintained and presented. For example, Antville shows the last several `stories' that have been modified on the front page of a standard Blog.
In short, there is no `right' way to handle the problem of keeping interested readers informed of when there are items that interest them. But, since that is true of life in general anyway it should come as no surprise. If there were any `right' way, then we only have newspapers and not newsmagazines or books, or some such, and history indicates that, up to this time at least, none of the forms so dominate the others that the disappear.
The last point to be discussed here has to do with the nature of interaction that is expected and supported by the Blog. This can range from `none' (usually indicated by the Author supplying an EMail address, but no other special facilities) all the way up to a fully functional comment management system that allows individual readers (often then called `subscribers') to add material to the corpus of the Blog. We might regard the typical Wiki as an extreme example of this kind of approach.
David Ness' summary of work can be found at http://mywebpages.comcast.net/dness
David Weinberger has estimated (on NPR) that there are between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Blogs. The source of this number isn't clear, and strikes me offhand as a staggering overestimate, but time will tell.
Any reasonable estimates, based on shared facts, would be welcome.