A big problem with this entire discussion is that there really isn’t a widely agreed-upon definition of what a blog is, thanks in part to the rise of sites like TechCrunch that ran on WordPress and presented posts in reverse-chronological order and so, at least in the beginning, were called “blogs”; add to that the thinly-disguised PR-channels known as “company blogs” and it’s easy to get confused.
And so, to be clear, when I speak of the “blog” I am referring to a regularly-updated site that is owned-and-operated by an individual (there is, of course, the “group blog,” but it too has a clearly-defined set of authors). And there, in that definition, is the reason why, despite the great unbundling, the blog has not and will not die: it is the only communications tool, in contrast to every other social service, that is owned by the author; to say someone follows a blog is to say someone follows a person (This applies both for amateur and professional bloggers; most of the rest of this post is concerned with the latter).
The happenstantial timing here mostly is what struck me, because I’m of course finally re-reading Rebecca Blood’s The Weblog Handbook nearly two decades after its publication; it’s first chapter being, “What Is a Weblog?”
Back in 2002, Blood broke down weblogs into three general forms: the blog, the notebook, and the filter. Blogs, she said, were “short-form journals” about “daily life, with links subordinate to the text”; notebooks were “distinguished from blogs by their longer pieces” which were “sometimes personal, sometimes focused on the outside world”; and filters were “the classic weblog” which was “organized squarely around the link”.
The older piece Thompson links (“older” being relative) is from 2015, which was the last great collective pronouncement of the death of blogging, and he makes a point roughly similar to one I’ve made here before: blogs didn’t die so much as suffer an “unbundling” (Thompson’s term) through which various things people once mostly had to do via blogging became the focus of various silo’d platforms.
Literally billions more people now have a much simpler way to express themselves online thanks to the ease-of-use that is characteristic of any service that seeks to focus on one particularly aspect of communication, a big contrast to a blog’s ability to do anything and everything relatively poorly. It’s fair to ask just what a blog is good for anyway.
I’m not sure I agree that blogs did everything poorly so much as they did everything individually and rather than any sort of real movement and momentum toward widely- and broadly-adopted web standards which would have allowed blogs to more easily speak to each other—making the web itself the social network—the business of the web instead moved toward silos where you could easily and frictionlessly exchange an individual “post type” with nearly anyone else, as long as they were there with you in that same silo.
Someone might think of this as blogs having done “anything and everything relatively poorly”, I’d suggest here, only in the light of the success of platforms, which have created a lens which distorts both the past and the future that past could have had instead of our present.
Coming back around to the question of just what is a blog, anyway, I think part of the key lies in Blood’s suggestion of weblog as method.
It has become highly unfashionable these days to define the weblog in any way beyond its basic format. To do so is considered an affront to the creative impulse of thousands of personal publishing mavens. But I would argue that the weblog community has developed an approach that distinguishes the weblog from traditional media forms and gives it much of its strength. This approach is so ubiquitous that it is invisible to the community at large—except when it is violated. That approach is based on the link, because weblogs link to everything.
Recall here that Blood is speaking from 2002, whereas Thompson (the “older” one) is speaking from 2015 by which time, in addition to blogging’s discrete elements having become unbundled by social platforms, the general form and format had been taken up by actual news operations.
It’s hard to remember, and in 2020 some people simply weren’t even around for it, or even alive for it yet, but back in 2002 this link primacy—the ability, in Blood’s words, of the weblog to “contextualize information by juxtaposing complementary or oppositional documents and information”—truly was the driving force which defined the form in contrast to other existing forms of publishing.
I’m writing with my eyes closed here, metaphorically speaking, so I don’t have a particular direction; I’m not driving us toward some particular conclusion. Mostly, I’m just trying to draw together thoughts about blogging in 2002, thoughts about blogging from 2015, and thoughts about blogging from today, in part because I still believe there’s something fundamentally unique to the form.
It’s still about blogs, notebooks, and filters; and it’s still about what Thompson said in 2015, agreed with in 2020, and prompted others to agree with today: “To say someone follows a blog is to say someone follows a person.”
The success of platforms isn’t an indictment of blogs having done “anything and everything relatively poorly” so much as it is an indictment of our granting success to systems whose true divisiveness isn’t about pitting people against each other but in unbundling people from themselves.
It’s not just that when you follow a blog you follow a person; it’s that you follow the bundled person. Or, to bring this all the way back to Joanne McNeil: blogging is about following—and being—a person, not a user.