Over the past year weblogs have become a popular topic of conversation both in private discussion and at conferences and other events. Understandably, a lot of people who are talking about blogs have little or no experience with weblogs. For a variety of reasons, these weblog neophytes often are the ones who start or lead high-profile discussions about blogging, especially within organizations and at conferences.
While it’s good that weblog neophytes are considering and talking about blogs at all, they often fall prey to, and perpetuate, a fair amount of misinformation especially stereotypes. Here are some clarifications on how to understand and discuss weblogs, in order to avoid those pitfalls…
WHAT’S A BLOG?
Most discussions about blogging which are led by (or include a large proportion of) blogging neophytes start with this question. It’s not a bad place to start. However, it’s often here that the conversation goes awry.
Too often, blogs are primarily described or defined as personal online diaries. While it’s true that many blogs are personal ramblings about daily life, that is only one aspect of the blogosphere and a fairly trivial one at that.
Better definition: Weblogs are a kind of web site. They represent an easy and versatile way to publish all kinds of content news and journalism, education, analysis, humor, personal observation and opinion, and more. They are published by groups, organizations, and individuals. They are intended for all kinds of audiences and purposes. They may be very rigorous and formal, or extremely informal and haphazard. They may exist on the web or within an intranet or other private online enclave. Quality, credibility, and tone vary widely.
As a group, blogs are united mainly by:
- Format. The main page of a weblog features items (postings or articles) in reverse chronological order. The most recent item appears at the top, and previous items get pushed further down the main page as new items are added. A weblog posting can include virtually any kind of content. (I’ve identified these basic blog posting formats.)
- Linkability. Each blog item is assigned a unique, persistent web address (URL) which allows people to link easily and directly to any item at any time. In terms of connecting your blog to the public conversation, this is a huge benefit over systems that rely on dynamic URLs and framed content which are difficult or impossible to link to directly.
- Production tools. Weblogs usually are produced with blogging tools, which are a very basic kind of content management system (CMS) that delivers content to the web or an intranet. Blog audiences typically find and view this content with a web browser. Blogging tools include software which tech-savvy bloggers install on their computers or servers (such as Movable Type or WordPress). Some bloggers or organizations even write their own custom blogging software. Nontechnical bloggers generally use hosted (web-based) services such as BlogHarbor, Typepad, or Blogger to build and publish their weblogs. A few bloggers (such as Rebecca Blood) actually code (HTML) everything on their weblog by hand. The advent of versatile, easy-to-use blogging tools and services is what spawned the blog explosion of recent years.
- Features. Most weblogs offer some or all of the following features:
- Comments, whether open or moderated. These are posting-specific (appearing on the same page as the posting), not a general comments page for the entire blog or site.
- Feeds which allow audiences to subscribe to instant updates of fresh content.
- Trackbacks, a system of notifications (pings) that allows a blogger to see who has seen the original post and has written another entry concerning it.
- Categories, a list of general topics covered by the blog. Any posting can be assigned to one, several, or no categories.
- Site search, usually by keyword (very basic but powerful).
- Permanent archives which can be browsed by category, date, and/or author. These are provided because blogging tools store postings in a database, and assign metadata (descriptive information) to each posting.
All of those features are optional. It is possible to have a blog without comments, categories, trackbacks, feeds, etc. These features therefore do not define blogs. However, most blogs offer at least some of these features so when you see them, chances are good that it’s a blog.
…Other than that, the field is wide open and extremely diverse.
WHAT ISN’T A BLOG?
Blogs exist along the spectrum of communication and publishing. Therefore, there is no clear line where blogging ends and other forms of web publishing begin. There’s a lot of overlap.
If you’re not sure whether a particular site is a blog, your safest bet is to ask the site’s creator. If they call it a blog, and if you think it’s probably a blog, then it’s probably fine to describe that site as a blog.
That said, the following types of online publishing generally are not considered weblogs by the people who publish them, even though they may share some characteristics with blogs:
- News venues, such as newspaper web sites or online newsletters.
- Online press rooms, even if they’re using blog-like tools to deliver and store press releases.
- Discussion forums, whether they involve e-mail or are purely web-based.
- Traditional web sites, even if they feature news or announcements on the home page.
- Resource lists. A list of links or files does not a weblog make.
WEBLOG MYTHS AND STEREOTYPES TO AVOID
Here are the most common types of misinformation about weblogs that I often see casually absorbed and repeated by many blogging neophytes:
- Weblogs are personal diaries, usually amateurish. Well, that’s like saying most of the universe is hydrogen and dust. Yeah, BUT: There are galaxies and black holes and planets and nebulae, too. Which would you rather focus on?
It’s true that the vast majority of weblogs are more or less “hobby” projects. In fact, most weblogs are experiments that get abandoned by their creators due to a lack of time or interest. However, there’s a large and growing number of weblog projects that are serious, consistent, high-quality publishing efforts by individuals, groups, or organizations. This is generally the most important and intriguing aspect of the blogosphere. That’s the context to focus on, unless you’re talking to people specifically about online diaries or journaling.
- Blogs aren’t edited or fact-checked. While this is true of many blogs, an increasing number of blogs feature rigorous editorial processes, including fact-checking and extensive citations. Don’t paint all blogs with a broad brush.
- Blog audiences are generally small. This is usually said to imply that blogs are inherently inconsequential, at least in contrast with mainstream media. However, millions of people all over the world read blogs. While the vast majority of blogs have small audiences, many blogs have very dedicated audiences. The blogosphere (indeed, most types of online media) are mainly about niches, not masses. Audience quality and relationships between publishers and audiences are becoming far more important than sheer numbers.
- Bloggers are unaccountable to anyone. No. In fact, bloggers are publicly held accountable by their readers, other bloggers, and just about anyone. Even if a blog does not allow public comments, people can link to and comment on weblog items in myriad ways: articles, discussion forum postings, other blog items, etc. Because of this, the best bloggers strive to be highly accountable and responsive often more so than many mainstream media organizations. So even though anyone can say anything online, bloggers who are deceptive, malicious, or misinformed are nearly always “outed” in a very public fashion.
- There are too many blogs to follow. There is indeed an overwhelming diversity in the blogosphere which can be difficult for neophytes to navigate. Where do you start? There are several strategies, including finding one blog you like and following links from that blog to others, exploring lists of recommended blogs, and searching for blog coverage of certain topics via services like Technorati and Feedster, Bloglines, and Blogdigger. It’s generally easier to pick a few blogs and get to know them over time, rather than start by trying to read hundreds of blogs at once.
- UPDATE May 18: Bloggers mainly talk about politics, OR: Political blogs are the only ones that matter. OK, I don’t actually hear this stated in so many words, but it’s the impression you’d probably get from reading mainstream media coverage about blogs, and from attending conference sessions on weblogs. Yes, many of the most widely read blogs cover politics but there’s a whole universe of topics, and there’s at least one blog (and probably several) for every single topic you can imagine. Focusing too heavily on political blogs creates a very skewed and limited picture of the blogosphere. Find some new examples and speakers, please!
…Spending some time exploring the diversity of the blogosphere, and talking to bloggers either in person, by phone, in public blog comments, or via private e-mail or chat is the best way to get some accurate perspective on the blogosphere. If you’re trying to learn about blogs, and especially if you’re planning a blogging event (such as a panel discussion), I strongly recommend that you take time for this preparation.
Also, screen your speakers. Avoid assigning as a speaker or moderator someone who rarely or never reads weblogs. Aim for a mix of bloggers and regular blog readers. If you allow a lot of audience participation (which you should), the “blog newbie” perspective will undoubtedly be well represented in the discussion.
And finally, focus on the content not the technology. While tools have made the blog explosion possible, the content is the real driving force. Most people who create and read blogs see tools as merely a means to an end. That end is having a voice in the public conversation. Avoid techno-talk unless your audience is mainly geeks.
I hope this helps.
UPDATE May 17: Here’s a classic example of how NOT to discuss blogs. Pretty boring, superficial, and clueless. Blech.