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On Blogging

The Dark Secret

Just so you know, blogs are probably not the future of journalism. I don’t know if anybody actually said that, where Hector Reed heard it, but if somebody did say it then he or she is probably wrong.

Here’s the dark secret of blogging: most of us are arrogant enough to think people ought to be told what we think and that people will actually care what we think. This is quite obvious, when you think about it—why else would we spend so much of our time blogging? Most of us certainly aren’t getting monetary compensation. We must do it because we want people to read about what we think.

Here’s the dark secret of humanity: most of us are arrogant enough to think people ought to be told what we think and that people will actually care what we think. I think that must be why we created sophisticated languages that allow us to communicate complex and abstract ideas. Chimpanzees are happy enough warning each other about the large snake that’s about to eat them, but early humans wanted to brag about what great Mastadon hunters they were, or to give each other fashion advice, so they invented language. The problem in the past was that most humans didn’t have access to mass media, so their ability to communicate ideas was limited to the people within shouting distance, or the people whose addresses and telephone numbers they knew. Luckily, the Internet changed that. Today we can publish our thoughts for a potential audience of millions.


One big barrier to getting a web site is cost. It costs a lot of money to register a domain name and rent a web server from a hosting company. (It would cost even more to purchase and run your own web server, of course.) Luckily, there are plenty of businesses willing to provide free web hosting in return for placing advertisements on their clients’ web sites. When people in the mid- to late 1990s decided pictures of their babies and cats were important enough to share with the rest of the world, they got a Geocities web site.

Another big barrier is the technology. The web is extremely easy to use, but people still can’t figure it out. HTML and CSS, the common languages of the web, are simple and easy to learn, but many people with web sites consider learning them too great a burden. This laziness led to the invention of WYSIWYG HTML editors, which in the mid- to late 1990s were mostly junk. The vast majority of personal web sites consisted of horribly mangled HTML which produced ugly and illegible pages. The growing dominance of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser hasn’t helped. Most web users use Internet Explorer, and many of them don’t care if their web site doesn’t work in other web browsers. Some of them don’t know that browsers other than Internet Explorer exist at all.

Luckily, the tools for helping nontechnical people get over the technical barrier to the web have improved in recent years, to the point that current blogging tools—Blogger, Movable Type, WordPress—are capable of generating basically functional and standards-compliant web sites that aren’t ugly. The legibility and aesthetic quality of personal web sites has improved dramatically since the days of Geocities web sites.

A final barrier is informing people that your web site exists. Putting your thoughts on a web site is fine, but how do you let people know your thoughts are available for their perusal? There are more than 40 million web sites on the Internet—the web has democratized mass communication so much that it’s easy for your own little web site to get lost in the crowd. This is certainly the largest barrier to running a successful and popular web site. Luckily, there are solutions. One is pinging. Pinging, in this context, means sending a small packet of information about your recently updated blog to a web server which adds your name to a public list of recently updated blogs. People who want to know what they should be reading look at the list, see your blog on it, and go to your web site. Whenever you update your blog, hundreds or even thousands of people may be notified. There are now dozens of pinging services for blogs. Peiratikos uses a metaservice called Ping-O-Matic, which notifies 14 pinging services every time we update.

The web hasn’t created a mass-communication democracy yet, but it’s getting there. Anybody with access to the Internet can create a Blogger account and start sharing his or her thoughts with everybody else (at least, everybody else who also has access to the Internet). A lot of people can’t convince anybody to pay attention to their thoughts, and a lot of people don’t have any thoughts worth paying attention to. (Unfortunately, too few in the latter group are also in the former group.) But it’s getting easier all the time to cultivate an audience of hundreds or even thousands for your own little personal web site.

In Conclusion

Hector Reeder, in his Reeder’s Digest 4 column, seems to find bloggers’ vehement reactions to dismissive critiques both amusing and inexplicable. I think it’s pretty straightforward, actually. When Heidi MacDonald said:

I have been reading a lot of blogs lately. And I have to say a lot of them are really dopey. (No names.) Give 1,000 monkeys 1,000 typewriters and eventually they????????ll write an issue of Night Nurse or create a blog. And, except for a very few sites, I realized they can pretty much be safely ignored. When you give everyone a voice, no one can hear everything. (Comics Buyer’s Guide #1591, p. 10)

she contradicted one of the basic philosophical points of the web. It’s supposed to be democratic, not elitist. Yes, we all know that there are a lot of dopey blogs that aren’t particularly worth reading. But the point Hector seems to miss is that criticisms of Heidi’s article were motivated not by a belief that “all writing is of equal interest to read,” but by a belief in creating equal opportunity for people to communicate with the rest of the world. (Whether this is actually a worthy political issue is another question entirely, of course, as is whether blogs are a good way of pursuing the issue.)

Hector is also amused by bloggers’ supposed insularity. Again, though, this is pretty straightforward. One of the dominant paradigms in blogging is one in which conversational social interaction is emphasized. This involves not only the comments systems commonly found on blogs, but also interblog discussions. Blogs are linked together into a loose conversation-based network using standard HTML hyperlinks as well as technologies designed to support conversational blogging, like TrackBack and Pingback. (Why bloggers choose to use blogs instead of other conversational technologies—chat rooms, message boards, telephones—is another question entirely.)

By the way, those interested in the origins of the term “blogosphere” may find the “Blogosphere” in Wikipedia enlightening.


  1. Shane says:

    Very well said.

    — 2 August 2004 at 6:37 pm (Permalink)

  2. Johnny B says:

    Yes. Excellent work, my man. (sound of clapping)

    — 2 August 2004 at 8:06 pm (Permalink)

  3. Dave Intermittent says:

    The conversational thing is interesting. I started out writing for an imaginary audience; shooting my mouth off to some imagined readers. When it turned out I actually had readers, it did sort of change how I approached things; not least in that it turned from a public writing excercise into a semi-social activity. This may or may not be a change that blogs encourage generally or a change unique to this little community, which has tended towards the inclusive and even-handed.

    — 2 August 2004 at 9:18 pm (Permalink)

  4. Jim Henley says:

    Leaving aside the merits of any case “Hector Reeder” did or didn’t walk right up to the edge of trying to assert before backing off every single time, did he SAY anything that MacDonald and Grant didn’t say before him? I didn’t notice.

    — 4 August 2004 at 2:38 am (Permalink)

  5. |+ Broken Kode +| » On blogging: Redux says:

    […] d to pirate software sellers, but anyway), he had an interesting post on his website about blogging. Some points he raises are interesting, but I must say that as a general st […]

    — 5 August 2004 at 8:58 pm (Permalink)

  6. |+ Broken Kode +| says:

    On blogging: Redux
    Our friend Peiratikos (sounds poli greek to me, for those in the dark that means the one who pirates stuff, usually reserved to pirate software sellers, but anyway), he had an interesting post on his website about blogging. Some points he raises are i…

    — 5 August 2004 at 8:58 pm (Permalink)

  7. Steven says:

    OK, this comment is a bit late. First of all, I ought to have noted in the first section of this post that bloggers are driven not only by a desire to have their thoughts paid attention to by others, but also often by a desire to engage others in conversation (which I did note in the final section).

    As for whether Mr. Reeder said anything new—certainly not that I noticed. But then, most of the recent critics of blogging (Heidi MacDonald, Steven Grant, Larry Young, anybody else I’ve forgotten) have said mostly the same things. (Interesting to note that Larry Young already had a blog when he made his critique, and Heidi MacDonald started one soon after. Coincidence? I doubt it. Has Steven Grant started his blog yet?)

    — 7 August 2004 at 12:26 am (Permalink)