I tried to come up with a better headline, but I didn’t try too hard. So, I was thinking about blogging on my bike ride in to work this morning. I try not to indulge too much in the big meta-blogging virtual circle-jerk, but for some reason the question of what makes blogging unique was gestating in my mind.
Most of the mainstream journalism and much of the bloggers-commenting-on-blogging gets focused on content — that is, what bloggers actually blog about. You hear about “war-bloggers” or you hear blogs explained as “links and commentary.” While that’s important and what initially attracts people to reading or writing blogs, I think the focus is misplaced. It’s misplaced because it misses the medium of the blog.
If we consider blogs to be something new, we consider them to be a new medium; a new way to organize and convey information. If it were just a matter of content, we’d actually have a hard time telling blog from not-blog, like a plain personal home page or the press release page for some corporation. Often the element of time is identified as what sets blogs apart — they are updated frequently. But there’s nothing about a personal home page painstakingly updated daily or even hourly in hand-coded html that’s essentially different from a blog in this dimension.
The comparison that most clearly uncovers the essence of the blog is actually the on-line newspaper. Such a newspaper is updated almost constantly with fresh content, much of it original and some of aggregated. But that’s just a surface similarity — it’s what lies deeper that is interesting.
Underneath an on-line newspaper is some kind of backend — some type of custom database application that allows writers and editors to easily compose and post copy at any time. That backend organizes the content chronologically and categorically as necessary, and makes it accessible on-line in some coherent fashion. Isn’t that exactly what blogging software does?
Does that mean I’m throwing my hat into the blogging vs. journalism ring? No. Like I said before, it has nothing to do with content. What’s key here is that with both an on-line newspaper and a weblog there is a mechanism that makes it easy to update, edit and add new content.
And when you put it that way, blogging doesn’t seem so exciting, or different. But there’s an important distinction — one that has been pretty well identified by nearly every commentator: blogs let anybody do it. A blog lets you be your own little New York Times, Chicago Tribune or Associated Press. They make it easy by giving you a version of the same tools that previously only such big on-line news sources (or good database programmers) had.
So, I agree with the argument that blogging represents a democratizing force, but not for the usual reasons. Most of such talk seems to be about the ability of regular folks to comment on what they see in the already extent mass media — it enables a “talk-back” function. But that’s really subsidiary, and just one application for blogs.
What’s really important is that a blog makes having a dynamic and growing website easy. Until blogging, website building tended to be more about tech skill — the ability to manipulate code and use complex tools — than content per se. Only the bigger, well-funded ‘net companies could afford to provide a backend system (and the geeks to support it) that relieved writers from the burden of having to code their content for the web. Such was the heyday of web ‘zines like Salon and Feed, for instance.
Now, the webzine is not dead, but a lot of its fire has been sucked away by blogs. Why else would Salon be creating its own blogging service? Blogs make it much less necessary for the writer, especially the amateur/non-professional writer, to rely on a middleman publisher to get her work out there. Sort of like paper ‘zines, but with much easier and wider distribution. Sure, this lack of editors has its own problems, but that doesn’t diminish the value and excitement of blogs.
This doesn’t mean that I think blogs are the golden tool of democracy, or will single-handedly turn the table on the media giants. The power of money and monopoly is still very difficult to counter. But they do represent opportunity. Opportunity for a more diverse, heterogenous and democratic mediasphere. Note that it’s more democratic, not utterly democratic. The tip to a vastly democratic Internet requires wideranging structural change to the companies and organizations that control the ‘net, and they show no signs of giving up, even if they cede just enough power to little players like us.
I make no claim to be revealing some eternal truth here that nobody else has ever expressed. For all I know I’m regurgitating some other blogger’s insights that I may never have even read. Are an infinite number of bloggers like an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters?
But this is what I’m thinking, and you’re welcome to comment.