By general assent, the first person to use the term weblog was a freelance programmer named Jorn Barger. This was in late 1997, a transitional time for the internet. Increased bandwidth and growing ease of use were making it palatable to audiences that had previously treated it as an arcane diversion. In effect, the world had gathered at the gates, and Barger inadvertently provided them with a key.
Until that point, the learning curve had been rather sharp, particularly for those not yet acclimated to the technology. For most of the 1980s, the social venue of choice had been Usenet. As one of the first publicly accessible discussion platforms, Usenet was largely responsible for demonstrating the internet’s potential to connect individuals through the otherwise opaque portal of the computer terminal. Yet access still required a certain degree of technical know-how.
Even those who managed to find their way in may not have found the view all that impressive. Essentially a bulletin board system, for most of its history Usenet was largely a text-based affair. Discussions were distributed across folder-like bundles called newsgroups. Users could read and post messages, but there was little to distinguish one post from another, much less between different newsgroups. In many regards, the liberation that many people felt participating in Usenet was bound up in that brown-paper wrapping, but the uninitiated often found it bewildering and chaotic.
Barger was part of the old school, having already logged thousands of postings on Usenet. These were the Wild West days of the internet, when cultural outsiders flocked to Usenet to vent their opinions to the sort of audiences that previously they might have reached only in smaller numbers via hand-mailed newsletters. Newsgroups proliferated, often honing in on topics and viewpoints that received very little coverage in other media. Disagreement was frequent and outspoken; what bound the communities together was the fact of their having found a place where their idiosyncrasies did not automatically mark them as pariahs. Barger was representative in that regard. He posted ASCII art, missives on James Joyce and artificial intelligence, polemic against what he took as the racism inherent in Jewish ethnic and national identity.
Most of us take it for granted that the virtual world we access through one of a handful of Web browsers is the natural form of the internet, but Usenet stands as a still-active portrait of one way that things might have been. In 1989, about the same time that Barger was first establishing himself on newsgroups like alt.culture.usenet, a computer scientist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research submitted a proposal for a system of documents that could by navigated using a protocol called hyperlinking. By making the connections between pages dynamic, hyperlinking was the first step in creating the network that would eventually make the internet part of the fabric of everyday life, rather than the domain of computer enthusiasts. Tim Berners-Lee, the author of the original proposal, called that network “the World Wide Web.”
The first wave of Web designers were drawn from the ranks of Usenet veterans. In 1995, Barger set up his own web page, Robot Wisdom. Usenet had lent itself to discussion and rant-like monologues, but this new format allowed Barger and his peers to publish more expansive forms. Usenet’s organization had been stiflingly hierarchical: posts organized into newsgroups, newsgroups organized into folder-like structures by a segmented naming convention. Web pages had a similar naming structure, but hyperlinks let you cut right across those hierarchies. Barger used Robot Wisdom as a public venue for not only expressing his own opinions, but also for connecting his readers to other web-based pages related to his interests.
He had sussed right away that the basic appeal of the Web was exploratory. Hyperlinks were portals that sidestepped time and space, allowing the reader to wander across topics by previously uncharted paths. Much as his outsider status had made him representative of Usenet, the sheer diversity of topics covered on Robot Wisdom were a reflection of the scatter shot purview the Web made possible. He linked to tech news, movie and literary analysis, political opinions, recipes. But he also recognized that his posts did more than share those finds with others. They also served as a log of his own meanderings through the Web — hence, weblog.
The irony that has since formed around that portmanteau has received little comment over the years. In Barger’s original coinage, the term refers to a curatorial activity. Barger’s weblog was a collection of links to things that other people had written. It had been made possible by the innovation of the hyperlink, thus making it native to the Web. By contrast, we tend to think of blogging as a form of serial self-publishing, the sort of thing that Barger and his peers had already been doing for more than a decade on Usenet.
Beyond Robot Wisdom
The ambiguity in the word “log” likely has much to do with the difference between the activity that Barger called a weblog, and the activity that most of us have in mind when we think of blogging. Barger was logging links to material that he had found interesting on the Web, but the first wave of bloggers were logging their own experiences and impressions.
By 1999, the term had already been pared down to blog, obscuring the form’s original emphasis on web-based hyperlinking. Most already understood the term to refer to a “personal online journal.” Beyond that, there was little consensus over what it meant to blog.
That uncertainty led to some interesting perceptions of what made a Web page a blog. Authors trying to sort out the ambiguities often doted curiously on conventions that would soon lose relevance. In attempting to compass the trend, The Economist honed in on two features supposed to indicate the “quintessentially social nature of blogging.”
The first is a “blogroll”, along the side of the blog page, which is a list of links to other blogs that the author recommends (not to be confused with the hyperlinks inside the posts). In practice, the blogroll is an attempt by the author to place his blog in a specific genre or group, and a reciprocal effort by a posse of bloggers to raise each other’s visibility on the internet (because the number of incoming links pushes a blog higher in search-engine results). The other feature is “trackback”, which notifies (“pings”) a blog about each new incoming link from the outside—a sort of gossip-meter, in short.
As blogging grew into a professional endeavor, both of those features rapidly faded into the background.
A more consistent feature of perceptions about blogging was the blogger’s role as diarist. That also helped distinguish blogs from the sort of discussion threads that dominate Usenet. Unlike most newsgroups, blogs were typically personal affairs, often published by a single person. The sort of back-and-forth that characterized Usenet required more effort on the Web, not to mention innovation in the form of embedded commenting systems.
Even as that innovation grew into a convention, the structure of discussion on blogs tended toward a more hierarchical form. Whereas Usenet discussions tended to be more egalitarian, discussions carried out on blogs inherently elevated the bloggers contributions above that of those found in the comments. Eventually, the blogger was no longer just a diarist, but also a ringmaster.
That ongoing shift in the meaning of blogging gradually eroded the necessary relation between the medium and its platform. Without the focus on linking, the Web’s primary contribution lay in providing a platform for writers who might not otherwise have found a publisher. The less weight placed on the technological feature specific to the Web — that is, hyperlinking — the less blogging seems to rely on the Web at all. By that rationale, any mode of distribution that allows amateurs and outsiders to serialize personal articles about their experiences and interests could serve as a platform for blogging. That’s the perception that allows us to connect the practice back to the pamphleteers of the Revolutionary era, or to call an essayists like Montaigne “the first blogger.”
For users that frequented this newsgroup or that, personalities like Barger’s might distinguish themselves over time, but Usenet was a distributed social channel. Giving it a sense of cohesion or community beyond the topicality of each newsgroup required effort and participation on the part of the reader. For those without the persistence to put down roots, any given newsgroup might seem faceless, generic, ephemeral.
For the flood of neophytes venturing online for the first time in the late 1990s, blogs felt like the substance of the Web. Blogging was something persistent, nearly tangible, something you could turn to time and again, and to which you could point your friends with relative ease. It provided a constant stream of new material to read, new opportunities to interact, and new connections to traverse across a growing network of Web pages. Most newsgroups had structural names like rec.arts.poetry, while a domain names tended toward the evocative, as with Barger’s Robot Wisdom. And because the sites were maintained, updated, and often owned by individuals, the blogs themselves developed identifiable personalities.
Increasingly, blogging came to see like the de facto way to participate on the internet. Usenet persisted, of course, and BBS software lent itself to the creation of more user-friendly discussion spaces, but a blog was more than a means for publishing your opinion through the new distribution channel of the Web. A blog was territory; it was a marker of presence on the internet, at a time when presence was a growing concern. Small business were rapidly learning the advantages of having a web presence, while commercial titans were reluctantly getting their feet wet with sites so unadorned and opaque that we sometimes dredge them up now for laughs.
In the late 1990s, there were no more than a few dozen sites that we would now consider blogs. Relative to Usenet, the barrier to entry had been lowered for readers, but operating a blog still required a number of specialized skills, including facility with HTML. Open Diary, a site that automated many of the functions of blogging, went live in 1998, and soon grew to host more than 10,000 online diaries. One of the site’s innovations was the addition of a field where readers could add their own comments. It was followed in 1999 by the launch of Blogger, a pivotal suite for popularizing blogs.
Within a decade of the word’s first appearance, Technorati estimated that more than 50 million blogs had been created. They were so ubiquitous that the sheer bulk of so many barely distinguishable blogs made the platform an easy butt for jokes. Unsubtle attempts to insinuate one’s blog into conversation could mark a blogger as an internet hipster.
That backlash might have reduced it to a passing fad had the political establishment not lent blogs some legitimacy. During the 2004 election season, both the Democratic and Republican conventions seized on blogging as an end-run around traditional media outlets. At the same time, political bloggers like Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald and Markos “Kos” Moulitas founded blogs that served as popular alternatives to the op-ed pages. Tech-oriented sites like Boing Boing and Gizmodo were already evolving the form, giving it a sophistication and mobility that challenged the print media, but it was blogging’s political inroads that gave it weight with less specialized audiences.
And then there was Gawker. Launched in 2003, the blog quickly demonstrated the Web’s potential to best the tabloids at their own game. Professional blogging arrived as a stool with three legs: tech, politics and gossip.
Blogging for the Times
At first, the new wave of professional and semi-professional bloggers commanded more attention than respect As the flagship sites grew more established, they demonstrated the capacity of the form to distance itself from the markers of amateurism that had once colored popular conceptions about blogging. For one thing, they faced outward with greater consistency than the personal diaries that had once characterized blogging. Each blog was defined by its handling of a subject matter that acted independently of the authors. Personality and perspective remained selling points, but unlike earlier blogs, their sights were rarely trained as exclusively on the personal, or even on the Web itself.
Blogs had long been understood as a kind of journal, but the new breed of professional-leaning blogs were changing the range of journalism available to the form. Semantically speaking, anyone who journals is a journalist, but we tend to reserve the word for those whose journalism is meant to make up part of the public record. To call someone a journalist is to invoke an ideal. It speaks to the significance of their work — or, at least, of the significance to which we feel they ought to aspire.
Over the span of a decade, then, the once neat line that distinguished blogging from traditional journalism has steadily grown more difficult to discern. It grew especially nebulous as the publishers of traditional periodicals looked for ways to reestablish themselves online. Even before the advent of the World Wide Web, some forward-looking newspaper editors were exploring the distribution potential of the internet.
In 1992, for example, The Washington Post began experimenting with PostCard, a virtual edition of the Post built on the framework of Apple’s HyperCard, a database-enabled programming tool then shipped with all Macintosh computers. The instigation for PostCard was an Apple-sponsored conference attended by the Post‘s then-managing editor Robert Kaiser. In a seven-page memo written to the paper’s publisher, Kaiser wrote:
No one in our business has yet launched a really impressive or successful electronic product, but someone surely will. I’d bet it will happen rather soon. The Post ought to be in the forefront of this — not for the adventure, but for important defensive purposes. We’ll only defeat electronic competitors by playing their game better than they can play it.
As much as the platform Mark Potts developed, the tone of journalism’s migration to the Web was predicted by Kaiser’s mention of “important defensive purposes.” The Post team seemed to believe that their primary competition would come from other established media companies. Still in development stages, the Web was a critical unknown that would change that balance of power in ways few within the Fourth Estate could anticipate.
As it happened, the Post and its competitors were unsettled not by a proprietary trump card, but by the proliferation of free tools for distributing information to an almost completely unregulated audience. The recent vogue for paywalls can be understood as a stop-gap measure to recapture the sort of paid-content platforms envisioned by pre-Web experiments like PostCard. “Newspaper Web sites, while popular,” Potts writes, “still aren’t fully ‘computer products.’ Their innovation has generally stalled—and is now being further outpaced by the advent of social media and mobile platforms like tablets and smartphones.” They are, rather, Web products, woven into the fabric of a network premised on ease of access and hyperlink connections that make the borders between sometimes competing sites too permeable for comfort.
The old institutions saw the millions of blogs launching online — saw also the rush of ordinary people to the open platform of the Web — and succumbed to the allure of presence. They quickly abandoned the notion that newspapers and magazines could offer standalone news applications offering paid content. Twenty years later, the growth of the mobile computing market with its app-heavy closed garden operating systems are reviving those hopes, but not before the culture of the Web impressed itself onto the traditions of the Fourth Estate.
Throughout the late 1990s and 00s, the editorial attitude toward bloggers vacillated between disdain and fear. They were scruffy, uncredentialed, often laughably untrained. The blog-dominated Web tended to function as a rumor mill, which did not stop it from occasionally scooping the print industry. Nor were the blogs beholden to journalistic tradition, which freed them to present popular opinions in more direct, more entertaining language. In the unregulated market of the Web, bloggers could recut, repackage and reprint news stories, with the result that readers might see little reason to wade through a newspaper for the same information. At the same time, sites like eBay and Craig’s List undercut the classified ads market that helped pay for newspaper broadsheets.
Gradually, the papers began to make a quiet but significant cultural compromise. They hired bloggers.
The rationale is plain. If some bloggers draw outsized attention, then isn’t better to have them publishing alongside the ads on your own site? In that regard, the strategy of talent acquisition was as much about the Web audiences they would inherit along with their new hires. But at the same time, the strategy continued to alter what it meant to blog in the first place.
Rarely was the question asked, in what sense is a column appearing under the heading of a major newspapers a blog? How, for example, do the regularly appearing blogs written by Andrew Sullivan for The Daily Beast or Glenn Greenwald for Salon differ from the editorials of a New York Times columnist like David Brooks. Nearly all of the old markers were rapidly disappearing. Newspaper blogs generally lack the diarist’s narrow focus on the personal, the upstart’s independence, the aggregator’s breadth of link inclusion. They are, in fact, very close in form and stature to the columns and op-eds that newspapers have carried since long before the advent of the internet. When a piece by a traditional columnist like Paul Krugman or Peggy Noonan appears on the website of their respective papers, it’s published using essentially the same tools and distinguished less by its format than by the sort of tonal differences that distinguish all writers, regardless of platform.
The answer that may hold up best under scrutiny, then, is that bloggers for major outlets are bloggers by virtue of having been hired as bloggers. The title is vestigial, a legacy of prior decades when blogs were understood as a form of alternative media. The distinction they once signaled is now more reasonably presented as the difference between gainful employment and self-publication. The economic shifts have further narrowed the divide between professionals like Krugman and bedroom bloggers with audiences in the dozens rather than hundreds of thousands. In terms of any practical difference in the work they’re doing, either both or neither are blogging.
Which is to say that, however precise it may have been when Jorn Barger first used the term for the bundles of links that traced his wanderings across the web, little may be left to blogging but the connotations brought to it by those who use the word to push their own agendas. All denotation has drained out of the word. What remains is simply publishing, the substance of the Web.