I keep hearing about blogs, but I've never really understood why they were so special. Aren't they just websites?
For a while, I've bothered our resident blog expert, Jason, with degrading questions. Why do blogs think they're so important? What's so different about them? Popularized by LiveJournal, they definitely don't have a positive connotation among tech geeks.
To answer my questions, Jason has defined blogs for me, and reassured me that Marco.org is not a blog (thank goodness). But the definition still isn't clear. What exactly is a blog?
Is there something about the content of a blog that distinguishes it from any other website? According to Jason's article:
Jeff Vail's blog has just one author; this blog has a small handful. MetaFilter has thousands. Some blogs have a single subject; some (like this one) have a unifying theme or outlook. Some have no such connection whatsoever. Some amount to little more than public diaries. Others are news sources. Still others - like this one - are more an ongoing collection of essays.
So... what exactly isn't a blog? It sure sounds like you could call almost anything a blog. Is there a difference in implementation?
Blogs have taken many common web concepts and renamed them. These are the elements of Jason's list that he didn't disqualify:
Comments - How is this different from a forum? As far as I can tell, a blog is simply a forum with fancy styling.
Syndication - RSS magically transforms the nature of HTTP in the blog world. "Simply hitting 'refresh' constantly stresses servers and leads to frustration. Feeds notify readers immediately when new material is available." No, they don't. RSS feeds behave just like any other page, and must be manually "refreshed" by the client at fixed intervals. If your RSS reader refreshes every 15 minutes (an aggressive setting), you're downloading a page from the server every 15 minutes, the same way you'd hit Refresh. And if an update occurs in minute 1 of the interval, you won't know about it until 14 minutes later. RSS simply automates "hitting 'refresh' constantly". It's a great data format, but it doesn't turn HTTP into a broadcast protocol.
Pinging - Apparently, when Jason posts to his blog, it automatically notifies some blog aggregation sites to "attract the casual blog browser." This could also be done with an RSS polling system, or simply an email notification. How is this different from any other type of aggregation and syndication? And why did bloggers steal the word "ping"? Nerds rightfully stole it from sonar, which probably rightfully stole it from tennis or the ancient Greeks or Monty Python. Don't fragment the nerd community further and try to steal our words. We already stole "net" from fishermen, only to have it stolen again by Microsoft.
Trackback - Jason says, "Many blog entries are about other blog entries. In these cases, a 'trackback' to the original post inserts a new comment pointing to the new article." Sounds like automatic link spamming to me, and it's nothing that a simple threaded discussion system, like Slashdot comments, couldn't accomplish far more effectively.
Permalinks - Permanent links to each piece of content? Of course. Every site has this. CNN.com displays stories on its front page, but each story has its own dedicated URL. Jason says that permalinks must be "human-readable URLs that will continue to be reliable, even after the passage of years and software infrastructures." Given the nature of websites (yes, "blogs" are still websites like the rest of us), I don't see how a permalink is guaranteed to be any more permanent than any other link. Software designers change their mind constantly, sites are frequently abandoned, and webmasters stop paying the bill eventually.
Blogrolling - "Many blogs maintain a list of links of other blogs they read." Yes. Most websites link to other websites of interest. We've been doing this quite effectively for a decade. We call them "links".
There don't appear to be any consistent implementation differences between blogs and other websites either. So what, exactly, is a blog?
Blog webmasters often use circular definitions. For example, a blog is a website that labels itself as a blog. A blogger is someone who writes in a blog. They've even invented outrageous new words, such as "blogosphere", to make them sound incredibly important.
It seems that the only concrete attribute of a blog is that its authors must honestly believe that they're part of a new revolution that's changing the world and making mass media obsolete. But I sure don't see it happening. Jason and many blog authors cite Howard Dean's campaign as a major accomplishment of blogs. Well, if blogs are so great, why was Howard Dean destroyed so early in the campaign? Anyone who thinks that blogs could possibly have a major impact on a US Presidential election has a painfully inaccurate perception of the US population and the dynamics of an election.
Bloggers often refer to some "revolution" in which blogs are replacing "mainstream media" journalists. Michael Crichton popularized a vision among bloggers in which the news collections of the future will simply be generated by automatic blog-aggregation bots, and we wouldn't need the New York Times or other media companies anymore. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is laughably far from reality. Again, the blog community is greatly mistaken about their importance. Who reads blogs? Authors of other blogs. It's a closed-loop system. Blogs are never going to replace your parents' TV news shows and morning newspapers. But let's assume for a moment that they did, and we no longer had mainstream media. Where would the news come from? Blogs function primarily by writing comments in response to a story from the mainstream media. Oops. Without them, who's going to pay the journalists to go out and get the stories? Moreover, if a blog could actually build up enough revenue and a large enough staff to accomplish this, how would it be any different from the New York Times?
Sometimes I see the mainstream media discuss blogs using some ridiculous hype (the blog revolution, the blogosphere, etc.), and they don't seem to know what it is either. It sounds like marketing fluff to me: entire paragraphs that say nothing, inflating themselves with meaningless fluff to appeal to people who inflate themselves with meaningless fluff, convinced that it actually means something (confusing, isn't it?). But once you try to figure out exactly what's being said, you see right through it all and you're left with absolutely nothing.
Finally, I've figured it out. That's exactly what blogs are: a huge, self-inflating cloud of websites that are all convinced that they're somehow different, better, and more influential than any other website. Labeling a site as a blog doesn't make its content any more intelligent, authoritative, or influential. Blogs are just a tight-knit clique of regular websites run by regular people like the rest of us. Nothing is radically different, they aren't changing the world, and the rest of us don't need to care about them.
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