It is becoming obvious that no one really understands Weblogs.
Lots of people know what they are; the number of these reverse-chronological collections of entries has grown exponentially since 1999, when the first automated blogging tools were released.
These tools brought online publishing, once the province of the technophile, to the common web-surfer, and in 2003 they are functioning as desktop printing presses for an estimated 1.5 million people.
Weblogs have enraptured masses of people and are routinely described in outrageously overblown terms. They have been discussed quite seriously as the future of academia, journalism, and even democracy. But many over-enthusiastic commentators seem blinded to historical precedent or blinkered by their insistence on describing the new form in terms of familiar institutions.
Enthusiasm abounds. Bloggers enjoy describing themselves as pioneers, though their ideas of innovation are sometimes suspect. “We are writing ourselves into existence,” some ecstatically proclaim, as if Pepys and Boswell and the historic legions of their fellow journal-writers had never existed. These bloggers, who tend to use their weblogs as public, interactive diaries, are as enthralled by their discovery of online community as were those who stumbled upon the early computer Bulletin Board Systems in the 1980s and Usenet in the 1990s. The communities that weblogs create and the act of writing every day to a real audience have transformed lives, but such experiences are not unique to weblogs, nor even to the Internet.
Some can conceive of weblogs only in terms of their own experience. “Weblogs are a new form of journalism,” cries one such group, composed primarily of professional and aspiring journalists. To be fair, their argument seems to be aimed at peers who might otherwise dismiss their new activity as a frivolous, amateur pursuit. News organisations now frequently maintain their own weblogs – a practice pioneered by the Guardian – and a few independent weblogs contain original reporting, but these are comparatively rare. Weblogs can be used in journalism, but they are not, in themselves, works of journalism.
A weblog is something fundamentally new. Something no one can quite put their finger on, not yet. And those who try to define the phenomenon in terms of current institutions are completely missing the point.
Consider the average weblog. Maintained by an unpaid enthusiast, this site will be updated perhaps a dozen times a day with links to interesting news stories and entries on other weblogs, accompanied by a few lines – or paragraphs – of commentary. A blogger interested in current events may include links to several accounts of one event, noting differences in tone or detail, another may post the occasional recipe or pictures from a recent trip. A blogger may have a thousand readers, but more likely a few hundred or a couple of dozen, some of whom will offer comments of their own, right on the site. The weblog is at once a scrapbook, news filter, chapbook, newsletter, and community.
This is not passive news consumption. Neither is it broadcasting. The average blogger has time to surf the web, but no resources to report stories. Some bloggers will follow a news story to the end, some may lose interest after a few days. Commentary will range from the fully-formed to the random blurt and can freely mix the public and the personal.
All this represents something new: participatory media. And it matters. Not because of its resemblance to familiar institutions, but because of its differences from them.
Weblogs are just too varied, too idiosyncratic, to fit into an existing box.
Industry analysts might call this disruptive technology because weblogs have changed personal publishing so profoundly that the old rules no longer apply.
We are at the beginning of a new age of online publishing – and I predict that this generation of online pamphleteers is just the first wave.