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Our Blogs, Ourselves. Posted on 01/25/2002.

So, last weekend I attended an extended salon hosted by Jerry Michalski, and spoke on a wee panel (with Meg, Dan, and David) on "The Weblog Phenomenon." I'm becoming re-fascinated by weblogs because of their phenomenal aspects--their number keeps growing at an astounding rate. It's clearly more than a passing fad. Well, as a formalist and armchair sociologist/anthropologist, I have to wonder, "What the hell is going on here?"

I still believe that the power of weblogs is their ability to immediately put form to thought--that I can get an idea in my head, however poorly baked it might be, and in seconds share it with the world. And immediately get feedback, refinement, stories, etc., spurred by my little idea. Never before was this possible.

Another discussion that's been bloghopping began with David claiming that weblogs are important because we are 'writing ourselves into existence,' and that this process of self-discovery is key. This line of thought was continued across blogs thusly:
Tom Matrullo responds, making references to the locus amoenus, and notions of play.
To which David responds, to which Tom responds.

A separate thread popped up in Jeneane's take on how the act of blogging has transformed herself.

Yet another thread was Halley's response, a far more activist slant on the telling of truth, stories, and taking control of our voices back from the corporations.

Now, I've attempted to codify these threads because they expose one of the things I'm currently loving about blogs... free-ranging discussions hopping from page to page, with little structure apart from the hyperlink... Such discussions can be hard to 'follow,' but I think attempting to 'follow' them misses part of the point. Many folks familiar with BBSes get frustrated that people attempt to carry on conversations across blogs--"Don't you realize this would be much easier to follow on a nice threaded discussion list?" But this doesn't get at the point--which is that the anarchic nature of web hyperlinking is part of the reason we can have these kinds of discussions... There's a free-for-all quality that lets the thoughts roam in all manner of directions, spiralling tendrils across the hypersphere... Standard discussion forums would only constrain this.

Remember: quite possibly the single most important reason the web is so beautiful is because it is so simple and pretty much unstructured. Little links adding up.

One more thing I want to add, though, is that I think all those threads I've posted above only get at half of the issue, and the half, frankly, that I'm less interested in. Weblog writers tend to find themselves and their reasons for publishing endlessly fascinating. Blame it on our rampant egotism. But the Weblog Phenomenon is not merely one of writing--it's also one of reading. All of the reasons for the phenomenon cited above focus on people learning about themselves, transforming themselves, etc. But such omphaloskepsis would not lead to a phenomenon, I think.

There's something more than simply self-expression happening here. Maybe it's what Halley was getting at--maybe it's that other people want to read 'truth,' honesty, the unfiltered thoughts of others.

Or maybe it really is simply about self-expression, and the Web has just made the barrier to entry for reading others' self-expression really really low...

Hrm. I'm rambling here. I'll stop now.

14 comments so far. Add a comment.

Previous entry: "Make Way For Progress!"
Next entry: "One sign of the weblog phenomenon."


...but i'll continue rambling here.

see, after having worked at Epinions, i find myself very wary of the opinions of writers on why they do what they do. on that site, an extremely small percentage of folks wrote reviews. the vast majority just read. and the writers never really understood this well, and always bristled at moves that favored the readers over them.

And so, when weblog writers yammer on and on (like, um, I'm doing now) about Why They Blog, part of me couldn't care less. in order for this to be a Phenomenon, it needs to be a two-way street... so what are all the readers getting out of it?
Posted by peterme @ 01/25/2002 10:54 AM PST [link to this comment]

Following the various entries linked above, it occurs to me that if David and Tom keep at it, they just might eventually figure out everything that Rebecca articulated over a year ago.

Also, regarding your "spiralling tendrils", self-indulgent incoherence has historically been considered an impediment to intellectual progress. I see no reason why this should change now.
Posted by jjg @ 01/25/2002 11:15 AM PST [link to this comment]

Wow! Meta-meta-blogging (blogging about people blogging about blogging).

Peter, I really like your thoughts on this. I think you're right: the reading is more important than writing. After all, in most cases you write so people will read it, otherwise why put it in a public forum?

I think what's really cool about blogs is the power they give people to share -- it's knowledge management at its most informal and chaotic. It's about a virtual community -- a community of communities if you will.

Blogging also has a aspect of reputation management as David Walker said on his site:

"Weblogs' users don't vote within the site; they vote by choosing the site as a reliable source of guidance. In effect, they say to the site's author: "you make the choices I'd make if I had time". The Webloggers become the makers and breakers of reputations within their (usually narrow) areas of interest. And the mass of Weblogs becomes another reputation management system."


BTW, if you keep using words like "omphaloskepsis", please be so kind as to link us to a glossary. :-) I'm off to blog about this...
Posted by Lyle @ 01/25/2002 11:58 AM PST [link to this comment]


to mine ears, your 'self-indulgent incoherence' point doesn't make any sense (unless you were referring to the whole of my original post, which doesn't do the best job of specifying its argument).

my 'spiralling tendrils' point is just how the web makes it easy to link thoughts, add to them, synthesize, pull apart, etc., across these pages. it's an exercise similar to what you might see in 'normal' book-research... in fact, the interview with Brian Arthur that I pointed to demonstrates this... He took economics, complexity theory, physics, Taoism, etc. etc., pulled elements that were relevant, and recombined them to form new exciting ideas that fundamentally shifted economic understanding.

I guess Vannevar Bush foresaw this all 56 years ago...
Posted by peterme @ 01/25/2002 06:37 PM PST [link to this comment]

It strikes me that blogging, and by extension much of what is published on the Web, is sort of publishing minus the filter of a publishing house or a gatekeeping editor... it's very free and good in one sense, and not so good in another. There's a lot of self-indulgent, unmediated crap out there, a lot of opportunity to publish unrefined opinion unpolluted by actual research or fact. Blogs in particular tend to lend themselves to glancing observation rather than deep intellectual examination, due to the entry-based format. On the other hand, there's also a lot of great, funny, informative, provocative writing that wouldn't see the light of day otherwise.
Posted by Anne @ 01/26/2002 09:51 AM PST [link to this comment]

Well, I think it's important to acknowledge the conversational nature of blogs. And, well, most conversations have little lasting meaning. But, in my experience, conversations are where I do my best thinking. Bandying ideas with one or a few other people, refining, testing, probing, etc. Weblogs are kind of slower, slightly more meditative, messy conversations.
Posted by peterme @ 01/26/2002 04:09 PM PST [link to this comment]

It's interesting that you emphasize reading over writing and the conversational nature of blogs. In a conversation, though, there is no 'reader' or 'author'. A big part of Blogs is the basic decay of this dualism and it strikes at the very heart of the current establishment.
Posted by synthesis @ 01/27/2002 01:31 AM PST [link to this comment]

The thing I like about weblogs is the conceptual model of them: FTP-less web publishing. Obviously, people _could_ have done this stuff at any time in the history of the web, but it didn't really take off until the work of editing code, connecting to the FTP server, uploading, and double-checking was taken out of the process.

The one I can't quite figure out is Radio Userland, which has an absolutely fanatical following. It's sort of a blog tool, but more than that, but not really. Anyone here use it?
Posted by Andrew @ 01/27/2002 02:36 AM PST [link to this comment]

Peter, my point is just that conversations strewn out across multiple sites are no good for structured exploration of a subject, and in my experience (indeed, in the entire history of Western thought) such structured exploration is a prerequisite for drawing meaningful conclusions.

Andrew, weblogs are about form, not method. See the essay I linked in comment #2 above for details. Some of the most popular weblogs out there (including this one, until recently) are maintained by hand. Weblogs do not derive their power from the tools used to create them, regardless of what the tools vendors say.
Posted by jjg @ 01/27/2002 10:53 AM PST [link to this comment]

Jesse says: "Some of the most popular weblogs out there (including this one, until recently) are maintained by hand. Weblogs do not derive their power from the tools used to create them, regardless of what the tools vendors say."

A lot of the most popular weblogs are done by computer professionals, people with the skills and knowledge to do it by hand. Individual weblogs may not derive their power from the tools, but the fact that there are tools out there that make blogging easier are part of what give blogs power. You don't have to know HTML, CSS or the rest of the alphabet soup to do a blog. A wider variety of people have blogs, and so a larger and more diverse subsection of people is heard.

One of these days there may be blogging software you can order from Amazon on CD, or via electronic fulfillment, complete with thorough instructions and a selection of templates.

Oh God. I just had visions of Usenet when AOL really took off. I suspect the blog world is in the beginnings of its own permanent September.
Posted by Jen @ 01/27/2002 08:31 PM PST [link to this comment]

Jen, I totally agree. I was just pointing out that the form existed before the tools did, and what readers find valuable about the form has little to do with the tools.
Posted by jjg @ 01/27/2002 10:13 PM PST [link to this comment]

I see the point Jesse is trying to make, and I agree. When I visit a favourite weblog, it's because of the content on it, whether that's links, commentary, or a mix of both. What tool was used to create and maintain it doesn't matter to me, or most people at all. Of course, the lack of a feature in a particular tool may annoy people (e.g., Blogger and its Pro cousin still don't support reader comments or RSS), but that's still a minor annoyance, and would never make me stop reading a blog.

[cliché warning] Content is King, bay-bee! ;)
Posted by MadMan @ 01/28/2002 07:03 AM PST [link to this comment]

A thought arising from this stimulating discussion is here.
Posted by Tom Matrullo @ 01/28/2002 07:04 AM PST [link to this comment]

As an infrequent reader of blogs like this one and Christine's, I've often thought how can one tie up all this "daily update" content into a structured article - or as Jesse says structured explorations of subjects.

I mean, it's great to get ponderings and links on IA stuff every day. I read them when I get some down time or during lunch [like now - it's 1pm in London!] But given a stumbling point at work where I could really use a particular link I got from a blog, I rarely find it. I can't remember where it was, the title - it's all lost in the mass of info I take in every day.

So, this leads me to my point - is anyone (apart from Jakob) doing anything to take these unstructured musings and make them into valuable knowledge?

Going even further than that - an ideal situation perhaps would be I would be able to generate tacit to tacit consultations with the blog author based on a number of posts. Er, I'm rambling now...

Cheers, d
Posted by David @ 01/30/2002 05:46 AM PST [link to this comment]

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