Mind / Matter
things that count
DN Logo

Click here to send an email. DN

What's in a Blog

Weblogs (Blogs) have been growing in popularity, at least up until recently. Five years ago there were only a few. Now there are estimates that the number of blogs is in the range of the hundreds of thousands. Whether they are continuing to grow in popularity or have passed a high-water mark remains to be seen. The fact that they are an interesting phenomenon of this time, however, isn't in doubt.

What are Blogs? 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. This note is a re-draft of a note which has appeared in another physical form on this website.
Home Pages 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.
Styles 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 ...).
Evolution It would be interesting to be able to follow the growth in the number of Blogs (and `Blog Viewings') with respect to the growth of the rest of the Web. However, as far as I know, no such data is available, so we are left to guess about such measurements. I have seen estimates of up to half a million blogs. Widely read blogs also get many thousands of page viewings each month. However, it seems safe to suggest that the distribution is very uneven, with lots of blogs being read less than a dozen times per month.

In the early days of blogging, the number of blogs and reads necessarily increased with time as there were new blogs, but (very) few to `retire'. We've now passed that stage, and both `link-rot' and `blog-decay' are becoming a frequently ovserved phenemon. As a result it is no longer clear whether things are growing or more approaching a steady state.

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.
Information Plex 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: this location/
No Time Sense 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. And, for the most part, though this is more or less just a `social convention', Wikis are managed by a community of users and in most Wiki plexes editing is a widely shared non-hierarchical activity.
Kinds of Blogs In order to better understand the nature of blogging, it is useful to be able to structure our understanding into several different kinds of interest. There are several different characteristics that can be used to categorize and discuss Blogs. Let's look at some of them.
Time Sequenced: 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.
Topic Oriented: 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.
Content: 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.
Self-Indexing: 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 (here). 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.
Diary: 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: 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: 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.
Summary 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.
Organization: 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 Wikis: 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.
Problems: 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.
In Theme Blogs: 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.
Summary 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.
Interacting: 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.
Conclusion Blogs are here. Whether they are here to stay or not remains to be seen. Of course, if you listen to The Bloggers they will prattle on incessantly about Blogs being the wave of the future. However, their future is far from obvious. While the number of blogs continues to grow, their influence seems modest at best, and it is even quite concievable that interest in them is waning. It seems likely to me that blogs will remain influential in some very narrow areas, but the idea that this is a new and better way is unlikely to stand the test of time.

© Copyright 2003 David Ness.
Last update: 2003-02-12 15:06:51 EST