|Nico Macdonald | Spy|
The Future of Weblogging
This article is still in draft and will published in spiked-IT during the week of 22 September 2003. Emailed comments to me are of course welcome.
Nico Macdonald puts Weblogging in the context of the history of online publishing, explaining its novelty and value, and indicating where it needs to innovate. He concludes with a proposal encouraging publishers to properly embrace the Weblogging model.
“I am sure you have heard of the Baghdad blogger” Jenni Murray told Woman’s Hour listeners this week[i], in an introduction to an item on Weblogging. Earlier this summer the stolid US journal Business Week celebrated ‘The Wild World of “Open-Source Media”’[ii], also name-checking Salam Pax (the aforementioned’s nom de plume) for good measure. Weblogging has clearly come of age.
And what a wonderful thing we have created. That anyone with an Internet-connected computer and only a modicum of technical skill can publish to the world with ease and speed is truly a step forward in the sharing of information and ideas.
The first browser created by Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee in 1990 was able to both browse and edit Web pages. With only one Web publisher Berners-Lee had to have an editing tool. Fast forward to the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing (NCSA) a few years later and wunderkind Marc Andreesen and colleagues created the Mosaic browser, able to display graphics inline in a page. This was the browser that was alerted millions of people to the potential of the Internet, but it was just that a browser for displaying pages. Not until 1996, after Andreesen had decamped to Mountain View, California, to co-found Netscape Communications did the editing functionality so central to Berners-Lee’s vision return, in an enhanced version of Navigator known as Communicator.
But Communicator was a dud. Meanwhile Web publishing and editing followed many other models. Companies such as Ceneca, Macromedia and SoftQuad developed desktop applications that operated independently of browsers and posted to Web servers. At the high-end Texas-based Vignette was spun out of online tech publisher Cnet to commercialise ‘content management systems’, and its software now manages The Times and the Guardian Unlimited Web sites, along with thousands of others. At the low-end, dotcom startups such as Geocities[iii] (latterly acquired by Yahoo!), Tripod[iv] (acquired by Lycos), and The Globe (no longer operating) offered ‘home page-hosting’ and page building tools, and prompted a rash of sky-high initial public offerings.
In 1995 a West Coast-based software developer, Dave Winer, started publishing his DaveNet column[v] on HotWired, the online sibling of Wired magazine. Loosely entitled ‘Amusing Rants from Dave Winer’s Desktop’ it ranged from insightful observation on, and ideas, for the software and Internet industries, to personal and political musings, often interspersed with notes on his song of the moment. William H. Gates III even put in an occasional guest editorial appearance. DaveNet was published on the Web, but more importantly it was also sent to a subscriber mailing list, and Winer would copy in any of his high-profile high-tech buddies he thought might be interested in that particular rant including BillG.
Winer was one of a number of people involved in pushing for a new, and more of-the-medium, model for online publishing. As a software vendor and pre-Weblogger he had a particular interest in the development of appropriate standards. In 1997 he started a more Weblog-like publication entitled Scripting News, and adapted the Frontier software that his company had been developing since the early 90s to support structured authoring of stories (or ‘posts’, as they have come to be known) and publishing to XML[vi]. The Scripting News format he developed was the first syndication format on the Web, and Winer well anticipated the future when he noted that “one of the promises of XML is that it will make it possible to have different kinds of browsers, custom-built to present specialized content flows”[vii].
In the ensuing years Winer and others pushed for an industry standard for syndicating news stories (of which Weblogs would be one type), and an alphabet soup of formats, from XML-RPC to SOAP, was cooked up until RSS (Rich Site Summary[viii]) was left. Establishing RSS was anything but easy, particularly during the ‘browser wars’ when the focus was on the presentation rather than distribution side of Internet technologies. Many of Winer’s DaveNet missives either chided or cheered software giants for their attitude towards syndication, XML and RSS.
Fast forward to 2003 and Weblogging (which Winer now defines a Weblog as “a hierarchy of text, images, media objects and data, arranged chronologically, that can be viewed in an HTML browser”[ix]) and RSS syndication are hard to avoid. RSS 2.0 is has been transferred from Winer’s UserLand Software to the illustrious portals of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society[x], though we should note that it is not the only syndication format there are already plans to supersede it. Meanwhile industry heavyweights such as the BBC, the New York Times, and the Guardian are syndicating stories using RSS[xi], and software designed for reading RSS-syndicated Weblogs is proliferating.
Much has been written on spiked about the intellectual limits of current Weblogging but it is important to recognise what is positive about this development, much of which is missed by mainstream commentators.
Weblogging tools are easy to configure and use, making a mockery of many high- and low-end systems that preceded them. Most Weblogging services and applications make it simple for the reader to switch to writer, as is the case with email clients. Like email, the Weblogging model separates content from access and presentation. Typical Web publications can only be read on a PC-based Web browser, and present un-malleable ‘pictures of content’. Because email has a standard structure it can be read on a plethora of devices from a standard email client to a PDA, mobile phone, or Internet-enabled television, and its presentation can also be controlled by the reader. This freedom is partly what makes email so appealing to people. Similarly a Weblog can be read or posted to using a dedicated application, on a mobile phone (referred to pedantically as ‘moblogging’), or by email, as well on a standard PC-based Web browser.
Here we should note that both mailing lists and newsgroups, which have been popular for decades, and to an extent Web-based discussion boards, have some of the characteristics of Weblogs. These include ease of access and post, and a syndication model. However they lack most of the other valuable characteristics of Weblogs.
Weblogging and RSS have created an online debating space in a way that has never been achieved with these other models. There are a number of reasons for this. The key reasons are that Weblogs are published on the writer’s own space, can be easily found by anyone, and have a fixed Web address. Web-based discussion tools typically require writers (and sometimes readers) to login, and the more groups one joins the more passwords one needs to remember. Email lists and newsgroups are less findable, difficult if not impossible to reference, and joining, suspending and leaving the email lists can be tricky.
The Weblogging model supports post anything from a short comment on a referenced artifact to an extensive article or paper, including images and other rich media. And the comments are ‘owned’ by the writer. Rather than being buried in an email or newsgroup archive, or in a Web-based discussion forum, they can be in the writer’s space, as well as being part of the Weblog space. It is also possible to see the other posts that link to a particular post, using a feature, common to Weblogging tools that is generally referred to as ‘track back’. Weblogging tools also tend to allow comments on a post to be added on the same page. By contrast it is typically difficult to identify that a response has been received to a post on a Web-based discussion forum. As a result, substantive writing, commentary upon it, and related writing form a seamless space, facilitating research and discussion. The value of this visibility and navigability should not be underestimated.
Another underestimated aspect of Weblogging is the ability to connect people seeking information with those who have that information. It is a quixotic task to try to present all knowledge online, but it is practical for people to indicate what kinds of knowledge they have. Weblogs facilitate this as a consequence of people writing on subjects about which they have knowledge, and readers may then contact them with specific questions. (Whether or not they choose to respond is another matter.) Conversely people who want an answers to specific questions can flag this up in a Weblog post, and hope for responses in comments made to that post or by other means.
Although there is much to celebrate in the development of Weblogging the discussion of it is often uncritical and un-ambitious. If Weblogging is the answer, as so many claim it is, ‘What was the question?’ As with the discussion of electronic voting there is an assumption that there have been barriers put in the way of a democratic activity and the Internet in general, and Weblogging in particular, have in some way developed to circumvent this. But this isn’t the mid-nineteenth century, when the radical Chartists in Britain took advantage of developments in printing and the postal service to publishing a newspaper, and the government really did try to suppress it. This is not to say that all technological developments must answer a known question. Rather that we shouldn’t invent questions where they didn’t exist.
What dynamics there are behind Weblogging are not as new as the phenomenon itself. As we have seen models of easy self-publishing and structured discussion have been developing over the last three decades. The ‘home page-hosting’ model was at the cutting edge of popular publishing in the late 90s. And today Weblogging is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. This is partly because other products have re-defined themselves, opportunistically or otherwise, as Weglogging tools, and erased their less glamorous history. This phenomenon is common in the IT industry. At some point over the last decade every service that could credibly re-brand itself became a portal, a peer-to-peer (P2P) network, an application service provider (ASP), or a creator of social software. As veteran IT commentator Jack Schofield ruefully noted on the latter re-branding “People who have been using The Well, Cix and similar computer-based conferencing systems since the 1980s will no doubt protest but, sad to say, there have only been a few thousand of us”[xii]. The other reason that Weblogging is on the tip of everyone’s tongues is that it was discovered by the journalistic establishment, unlike the home page-building services, which were largely used by enthusiastic amateurs. When seasoned journalists Michael Gove and David Rowan can write a piece celebrating Weblogging in The Times[xiii] you know a phenomenon has really made it (though Rowan, to his credit, is more switched on to IT than most of his peers).
Irrespective of its provenance, it is certainly a wonderful thing that many more people are able and have chosen to be self-publishers. However we need to redress the balance by encouraging more people to be journalists. Journalism involves actually interviewing people, doing thorough background research on a subject, presenting a rounded and dispassionate overview, and reasoning through substantive arguments. These activities are not characteristic of Weblogging.
As it is difficult to gain perspective when close to events in space and time journalism is often referred to as the first draft of history, the implication being that more study, reflection and debate is needed before the second is written. Not only do we need more journalism, but we need more people involved in formulating these second drafts, and creating something akin to knowledge. These second drafts may take the form of books, or online resources, which may be more collaboratively created. In the area of news journalism San Jose Mercury News tech journalist and widely-read Weblogger Dan Gillmor is writing his second draft by combining both approaches. For his forthcoming book Making the News (subtitled What Happens to Journalism and Society When Every Reader Can Be a Writer)[xv] he has invited reader to contribute by telling him about “specific things you know about that would a) help illustrate the concepts; b) refute what I’m saying; and/or c) provide further nuance and context”.
Another challenge presented by the proliferation of writing is how we readers and writers might document, manage and use this profusion of information. It is certainly a step forward that Weblog posts have permanent links. But there are so many Weblogs and so many posts that they are impossible to contextualise, at least in their current format of endless scrolling lists. RSS readers are a step forward in that they allow readers to review Weblogs and posts using hierarchical structures, get an overview of unread posts, and hide those that have been read. We need to find ways to categorise posts to bring the kind of structure that Yahoo! brought to Web sites and the seeds of this concept can be seen in Moveable Type[xvi], NewsMonster[xvii] and other tools. We also need to find ways of assigning priority to posts based on who wrote them (often referred to as reputation management) and where they were posted. Gillmor recognises this issue. Discussing current newsreaders he notes that “[t]hey assign equal weight to everything they display. So the headlines and text from Joe’s Weblog get roughly the same display treatment as material from, say, the New York Times”. Instead he would “like more flexibility, more nuance, such as the ability to highlight by topic, by writer, by popularity and other measures”[xviii].
At a presentational level we need to find ways to visualise the ‘blogosphere (and not just the blogosphere). We need to be able to use our chosen parameters and employ the visual axes of typography, size, colour, and spatial relationship to help exploit our underemployed visual powers to aid our understanding. We also need to employ reader interaction to assist with navigation and organisation of the blogosphere. This approach has been explored to an extent in discussion of Weblogging[xix], but is currently more prominent in the development of search tools such as Grokker[xx].
I will conclude with a proposal for the more serious online publishers, some of who also publish offline. High quality and informed debate about current affairs is crucial for any modern society. For most publishers Web-based discussion tools have failed to create such discussion, for reasons I have discussed, though there are exceptions such as The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Webloggers already link extensively to, and comment on, articles published online (though some publications impede this by hiding all their story information from non-subscribers or by obscuring the story URL by adding in user, session, or page element information) and often create the most vigorous discussion about them.
If online publishers, and particularly newspaper and current affairs publishers, syndicated the meta information on every article they published (title, author, date, introduction, and so on) readers could more easily find, review and organise those that were of interest to them. As writers they might choose to post a Weblog commenting on particular articles. If publishers then used the ‘track back’ model to list, in the context of each article, all posts that linked to it readers could follow the developing discussion and commentary. Tied to reputation management and good presentational tools this would be likely to facilitate a greater awareness of new ideas and a more engaged (and possibly more informative) debate about them. And for the beleaguered publishing industry it will create greater engagement with current readership, and may open new audiences as well. Come on fourth estate – what have you got to lose?
Caption: Groking the Web: a Grokker display of a search for “Dave Winer” using the Teoma search engine. [GrokkerDaveWinerTeoma.jpg]
Caption: Watching the news: NetNewsWatcher showing RSS feeds for Weblogs and news publications, giving an overview of unread posts, and showing only the titles of posts that have been read. [NetNewsWireReader.jpg]
[i] Listen to the programme excerpt http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/womanshour/15_09_03/monday/info3.shtml
[ii] Technology Special Report: ‘The Social Web ;-)’ June 10, 2003 http://www.businessweek.com/technology/tc_special/03social.htm
[vi] Extensible Markup Language (XML) allows data to be stored in ways that it can be flexibly combined and re-combined, searched, sorted and exchanged. In XML data is marked up with semantic tags that indicate, in human readable form, the nature and measure of that information, for instance that it is a last name, or a price in a specific currency.
[vii] ‘Scripting News in XML’ 15 December 1997 http://davenet.userland.com/1997/12/15/scriptingNewsInXML
[ix] ‘What makes a weblog a weblog?’ May 23, 2003 http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/whatMakesAWeblogAWeblog
[x] ‘Berkman Hosts RSS 2.0 spec’ 28 July 2003 http://davenet.userland.com/2003/07/28/harvardHostsKeyWeblogSpec
[xii] ‘Social climbers’ Jack Schofield, Thursday May 8, 2003 http://www.guardian.co.uk/online/story/0,3605,950918,00.html
[xiii] ‘The (not so) secret diary of a blogger’ Damian Whitworth, Michael Gove and David Rowan, June 30, 2003 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,7-729432,00.html
[xviii] ‘RSS Hitting Critical Mass’ Dan Gillmor, August 17, 2003 http://weblog.siliconvalley.com/column/dangillmor/archives/001285.shtml