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The Weblog Handbook
Practical Advice On Creating And Maintaining Your Blog
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THE WEBLOG HANDBOOK
THE WEBLOG HANDBOOK
Practical Advice on Creating
Many of the designations used by manufacturers and sellers to distinguish their products are claimed as trademarks. Where those designations appear in this book, and where Perseus Publishing was aware of a trademark claim, the designations have been printed in initial capital letters.
Copyright © 2002 by Rebecca Blood
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Printed in the United States of America.
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Text design by Janice Tapia
Set in 11.25-point Dante MT by the Perseus Books Group
First printing, June 2002
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10—04 03 02
To Jesse James Garrett
There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.
“AS WE MAY THINK,” JULY 1945
Early in 1999, I discovered an intriguing kind of website. Maintained by individuals who were infectiously passionate about the Web, these sites consisted of endlessly updated pointers to other sites, usually accompanied by brash, even outrageous, commentary. In January of that year, one of these sites posted a list of twelve others, referring to them as “weblogs.” Intrigued by their self-assured voices and the value I found in being referred to sites that were reliably smart, useful, and funny, I never looked back.
In April 1999 I began my own weblog, Rebecca’s Pocket. Since then I have been privileged to watch a community form, define itself, grow, redefine itself, and grow some more. I have watched individual weblogs debut, mature, and die. I’ve seen the genre stretch to include a more diaristic style of site. I have read (and been interviewed for) mass-media pieces that seemed almost to get it, and many, many more that didn’t have a clue. During this time, the community of webloggers has expanded far beyond anyone’s expectation. New types and novel uses for weblogs surprise even the oldest, most visionary enthusiasts of the genre. The size of the weblog community now defies enumeration, and new weblogs are being created every day.
Webloggers are opinionated people, and this book is as opinionated as I am. It is a distillation of my best thinking about weblogs based on what I have observed, what I have done, and what I have learned. It is based on personal experience, but I have attempted to make it as fair and complete as I possibly could. Weblogs first rose to prominence as a means of personal expression. I have generally directed the book to the maintainer of the personal site, but I have addressed the issues of the business-oriented weblog when appropriate. Most of what I say will apply equally to everyone who maintains a weblog, whatever its purpose or type.
If you are interested in starting your own weblog, I hope this book will provide you with the inspiration and practical advice you need to do so. If you already maintain a weblog, I hope that The Weblog Handbook will provide you with new ways of looking at your weblog and the community of which you are a part.
What Is a Weblog?
A weblog is a coffeehouse conversation in text, with references as required.
You may have seen them in your travels around the World Wide Web. Some provide succinct descriptions of judiciously selected links. Some contain wide swaths of commentary dotted sparingly with links to the news of the day. Others consist of an endless stream of blurts about the writer’s day; links, if they exist, are to other, similar, personal sites. Some are political. Some are intellectual. Some are hilarious. Some are topic-driven. Some are off-the-wall. Most are noncommercial and all are impassioned about their subjects. They are the weblogs.
What they have in common is a format: a webpage with new entries placed at the top, updated frequently—sometimes several times a day. Often at the side of the page is a list of links pointing to similar sites. Some sites consist only of a weblog. Others include the weblog as part of a larger site. More than a list of links and less than a full-blown zine, weblogs are hard to describe but easy to recognize.
Personal sites and lists of links have existed since the Web was born. Indeed, the ability to link from one document to any other that existed on the global network was the great novelty that drew early enthusiasts to the Web. Like a text version of ham radio, early enthusiasts published pages and eagerly perused the pages of others. It didn’t matter what a page contained, just that it was accessible from any computer with a modem and a browser.
There has been spirited discussion in some quarters of the weblog community about when the first weblog appeared, but I think of Mosaic’s What’s New page, which ran from June 1993 to June 1996, as the progenitor of the format. Updated daily, it pointed Web surfers to sites they might enjoy seeing—and in those days Web surfers enjoyed looking at any page. Early adopters spent countless hours waiting for countless home pages featuring countless pictures of cats to download over their 1200 baud modems—and they liked it!
For a while, any webpage was an interesting addition to cyberspace, but then that space got crowded. Companies began advertising their products and services on the Web. More and more people put up pages about their lives and interests, and some of those interests were unimaginably arcane, esoteric, or just plain wacky. Newspapers and magazines published Web editions. The Web grew at an exponential rate and finding the “good stuff” became simultaneously more difficult and more time-consuming. But the good stuff was there, and enthusiasts enjoyed seeking it out.
And then an interesting thing happened. A few of these enthusiasts decided to put the links they collected daily onto a single webpage. Some of them had tired of spamming their friends with a constant barrage of email. Others had accumulated bookmark files that were bursting at the seams and sought a better way to organize the interesting things they found as they surfed. Whatever their reasons, for these folks it seemed the most natural thing in the world to put the record of their travels around the Web on the Web, and so a particular type of website was born. Enthusiastic surfers turned their home pages into a running list of links with descriptive text to inform their readers why they should click the link and wait for the page to download.
Steve Bogart created News, Pointers & Commentary (later called Now This) in February 1997, and Dave Winer launched Scripting News in April of that same year; Michael Sippey began The Obvious Filter (later Filtered for Purity) in May, and Jorn Barger’s Robot Wisdom was created in December. And there were more, most of them completely unaware of the other sites that resembled theirs. Some called them “news sites” and some called them “filters,” but most people didn’t call them anything at all. “Links with commentary, with the new stuff on top” was the formula; for those who found them, these sites served as a welcome guide through the increasingly complex World Wide Web.
In November 1998 Jesse James Garrett, editor of Infosift, another of the original weblogs, collected a list of “sites like his” and sent them to Cameron Barrett, maintainer of Camworld. Adopting Jorn Barger’s term “weblog” to describe the kind of site he maintained, Cam wrote an essay in January 1999 called “Anatomy of a Weblog,” which detailed the elements of the form. He placed the list in a narrow column to the right of his weblog . . . and a movement was born. Maintainers of similar sites emailed their URLs for inclusion on Cam’s list and readers suddenly had twelve, then twenty, then thirty and more weblogs to peruse in a day. No one liked the name very well, but with Cam’s essay, “weblog” became the accepted term. Peter Merholz announced on his site that he was going to pronounce it “wee-blog” and it was only a matter of weeks before the abbreviation “blog” began appearing as an alternate term.
Most of the early weblog editors designed or maintained websites for a living. Even those who did not work directly on the Web knew HTML, the simple coding language used to create webpages. A few computer programmers designed systems to help them manage their sites, but most people updated their weblogs by hand.
Some Web designers created “arty” pages, but most weblogs were designed on the principle of simple functionality. A main area, wide enough for easy reading, was reserved for daily entries. Often a narrow side column echoed Cam’s original list of “other weblogs” and this sidebar persists on many weblogs today. Jesse James Garrett added a link to his personal portal, a list of news sites, e-zines, and other weblogs. Partly convenience, partly an invitation to “see where I surf,” in 2002 this convention persists even among webloggers who have never heard of Infosift.
Weblogs continued to spring up. Instead of being similar sites that had discovered a commonality, these weblogs were deliberately patterned after the weblogs listed on Camworld’s sidebar. Many of them were created by Web developers who had coding skills and presumably spent their days in front of the computer. Unlike their coworkers, who sighed that the last thing they wanted to do when they got home was look at a computer, the webloggers were excited about the Web and passionate about its potential. They eagerly embraced the global network, looking first to the Web for news, information, and entertainment. It was natural that they would see their personal websites as extensions of their day-to-day lives.
Many of the first-wave weblogs updated throughout the day, providing a sort of real-time record of their maintainer’s surfing patterns. They linked to general interest articles, to online games, and often to Web-related news. Camworld’s sidebar continued to grow as these first-wave weblogs were added to his list of old-school sites.
One of these sites, Lemonyellow, was notable for being the first weblog to gain the attention of traditional media. The New York Times article about the site, published in July 1999, didn’t say a word about weblogs, but it affirmed the notion that webloggers were on to something. Maintainer Heather Anne Halpert mixed links to interesting sites with esoteric entries about information architecture and notes on going to the theater. Her engaging style inspired open admiration. Literate, personal, and undeniably “thinky” in tone, Lemonyellow is, to my mind, the prototype of the notebook-style weblog. It ceased publication in April 2001.
In July 1999, Andrew Smales, maintainer of the popular weblog Be Nice to Bears, created Pitas, a service that enabled anyone with access to a computer with a Web browser to create a weblog entry by typing into a blank box and then clicking a button on the computer screen. A month later, a startup called Pyra produced a similar product called Blogger. With the introduction of these two services and the others that appeared quickly on their heels, anyone who could type and had access to the World Wide Web could create a weblog, and the bandwagon that had been steadily gaining momentum through the summer shot through the gate.
And weblogs changed. Weblogs devoted to short personal entries appeared, usually created with one of the simple new weblog tools. When these sites included links, if they did at all, they pointed mainly to other weblogs. In public and in private, webloggers engaged in vigorous discussions over the definition of the weblog. How often did it need to be updated? Every day? More than once a week? And most heatedly: Must it include links? In an attempt to organize the increasing mass of weblogs, weblogger Brigitte Eaton created a central weblog portal for the new community. Her criterion was simple: that a site consisted of dated entries. Since the Eatonweb portal was the most complete listing available, by default her inclusive definition won the day.
The weblog community spread to include sites that originated in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and beyond. Numerous weblogs popped up in the Netherlands, which was known, for a while at least, as having the highest number of weblogs per capita in the world. Non-English weblogs proliferated, though they remained largely separate from the original community (Americans being, overall, relentlessly monolingual).
Today there are hundreds of thousands of weblogs, and dozens of software products designed specifically to make updating them easier. They have evolved to encompass any subject matter and they reflect worldviews that range from the private world of the writer to the public world of culture and current events, and everything in between. The appeal of each weblog is grounded thoroughly in the personality of its writer: his interests, his opinions, and his personal mix of links and commentary. These links point to anything and everything, from obscure articles about artists, to news analysis concerning current events, to the sites of his friends.
Each site is different—each writer decides each day what to write—but I place weblogs into three very broad categories: blogs, notebooks, and filters.
BLOGS: These sites resemble short-form journals. The writer’s subject is his daily life, with links subordinate to the text. Even when entries point the reader to a news or magazine article, linktext gives the feeling of a quick, spontaneous remark, perhaps of the type found in an instant message to a friend. Links, when included, seem to be almost an afterthought, pointers to friends’ sites or perhaps to the definition of a word. Completely unheard of when Cameron wrote his essay, this type of site dominated the weblog universe by the middle of 2000, probably due to the proliferation of tools that made posting a quick thought so easy that the addition of a link became seen as an unnecessary and (relatively) time-consuming step.
NOTEBOOKS: Sometimes personal, sometimes focused on the outside world, notebooks are distinguished from blogs by their longer pieces of focused content. Personal entries are sometimes in the form of a story. Some notebooks are designed as a space for public contemplation: Entries may contain links to primary material, but the weblogger’s ruminations are front and center. Shorter than an essay, longer than the blog-style blurt, these sites are noted for writing that seems more edited than that of the typical blog. Both blogs and notebooks tend to focus on the weblogger’s inner world or their reactions to the world around them; the links themselves play strictly a supporting role.
I suppose I should take a moment to differentiate both blogs and notebooks from online journals, which predate the weblog movement by many years. It is impossible to make a strict delineation; superficially, journals often contain one longer entry per day, one per page. Perhaps a deeper difference lies in the intent of the maintainer. Online journals are analogous to paper journals, with the sole difference that they are published for the world to see. Online journalers may keep a record of events, explore their inner world, or do any of the things that journalers traditionally have done with pen and paper.
Blogs tend to consist of much shorter entries, many per day, the blogger seemingly striving for communication more than self-enlightenment. Notebooks, while they sometimes use the “one entry per day” format, tend to be less a record of external events than a record of ideas, and those that focus on the personal tend to do so nonchronologically, dipping into their entire catalogue of experience to select individual stories rather than recount their journey day by day. In the end, it is the maintainer of the site who labels his work and chooses the community with whom he most closely identifies.
FILTERS: When I think of the classic weblog, I don’t think of a short-form diary or a series of stories or short think pieces. I think of the old-style site organized squarely around the link, maintained by an inveterate Web surfer, personal information strictly optional. These weblogs have one thing in common: the primacy of the link. Whether their editors write at length or not at all, filter editors want to show you around the Web. Some of these editors strive for pithiness, others for completeness, but even those who use links as a springboard to extended diatribes are focused primarily on the world outside their door. These sites may visually resemble the blog or the notebook, but they reveal the weblogger’s personality from the outside in. The self, when it appears on a filter-style weblog, is revealed obliquely, through its relation to the larger world.
Some filter-style weblogs focus on a particular subject. The aim of these subject-specific filters is to provide their readers with a continuous source for all the available news about a given topic. Sometimes maintained by enthusiasts, sometimes by businesses or professionals, these sites are often designed to build and enhance the reputation of their maintainers.
Collaborative weblogs, as their name indicates, are maintained by a group of people instead of an individual. Usually filters, most collaborative weblogs are indistinguishable from an individually produced weblog, except that entries list several individuals as contributors. Some don’t make even this distinction, and can be recognized only by reading the site’s “About” page. Some collaborative weblogs are also community weblogs. These range from sites on which any member can post and comment, to those on which the site owners post to the main page and members contribute in discussion forums.
Of course, most weblogs do not strictly follow the roles I’ve outlined above. Blogs sometimes link to news articles or online games, notebooks sometimes contain one-line links, and filters sometimes contain linkless personal observations. It is just this variety in content and approach that makes weblogs so irresistible to many of us. Each weblogger creates a personal version of the weblog format, dictated by purpose, interest, and whim. The weblog is infinitely malleable and may be adapted to almost any end. There are travel weblogs, photo weblogs, sex weblogs, business weblogs, wedding weblogs, historical weblogs, humor weblogs, and weblogs focused on U.S. military actions. The very best weblogs, in my opinion, are designed to accommodate unexpected turns, to allow for a little experimentation.
Weblogs Are Native to the Web
The weblog is many things to many people, but it is, above all, a form that is native to the Web. The traditional home page can range from an online resume to an elaborate family scrapbook, but it is generally an attempt to transfer the product of an older medium—paper—into the new. Intended to be updated infrequently, these documents create a fairly static representation of their creator. The weblog, updated regularly, is designed to be visited again and again, and most webloggers make a point of giving their readers something new to read every day. In other media, this takes the form of periodical publishing: editions put out at regular intervals. The Web enables continual publishing, in which updates can occur at any time; it is this aspect of the Web that weblogs can capitalize on. Whether or not the weblogger consciously associates the process of “updating” with the idea of “publishing an edition,” the popularity of websites that track recently updated weblogs attests to this fundamental truth about the form.
The weblog points its visitors to other sites. Commercial websites spent years chanting the mantra of “stickiness”: the ability to get visitors who came to their sites to stay there, even creating policies that prohibited the inclusion of external links anywhere on their sites. Weblogs have no such aspirations. Webloggers understand that people will regularly visit any website that reliably provides them with worthwhile content, even when that content is on another site. As counterintuitive as it may seem from an old-media perspective, weblogs attract regular readers precisely because they regularly point readers away.
The weblog phenomenon is democratic. Weblogs are generally published by a single person or a group of people who lack access to traditional means of broadcast. For this new type of publication, all that is required is reliable access to a computer with an Internet connection; free, easy-to-use services make it possible to produce a weblog without knowing HTML or spending a penny. In the weblog universe, everyone can say his piece. Produced without gatekeepers, weblogs focus on whatever topic is of interest to its maintainer: Web design, mathrock, world events, or day-to-day events. Webloggers who link to one another recognize their ability to leverage virtual social connections into ad hoc networks, enabling each of them to amplify his individual voice.
Weblog Filter Information
We are inundated with information; literacy and electricity have added to the din of the medieval marketplace an overlay of flyers, billboards, signage, and flashing lights. The unhappy combination of technology and hyperconsumerism has rendered our public spaces nearly uninhabitable. Radios blare out of car windows, bus stops promote shoes and sweaters, and long distance services advertise on coffee cup sleeves. Email, pagers, and instant messaging have accelerated the pace of personal communications. Televisions broadcast hundreds of channels and local newsstands carry thousands of magazines.
The Web, by allowing anyone on the network to access any and all information, has increased this din a thousandfold. Hobbyists and enthusiasts have created websites about every subject imaginable, including some that previously we had not imagined at all: The new information space includes a website devoted to the adoration of Converse’s popular “Chuck Taylor All-Star” sneaker, a site detailing the exploits of two friends who photograph each other attempting to match the appearance of strangers they happen to see, and one that seeks to elucidate an artist’s curious obsession with young women holding celery. Additionally, online news outlets bring us upto-the-minute details of important events and government sites provide the details of federal policy and congressional deliberations. With these new resources, just keeping up with the news can seem to be an infinitely expandable task; becoming and staying really informed has enlarged to become a full-time job. The terrible irony is that the more information is available, the less possible it is to know everything about even one subject. Because there is always more to know, it is increasingly difficult to feel that one knows even enough.
In such a world, the last thing anyone needs is another source of information. Indeed, for some people, this truly is the case. Some of us, having already hit our limit, have resorted to “news fasts” or to canceling all of our magazine subscriptions. Many of us return to our homes nightly unable to process any information that requires real thought or evaluation. Even for those who have not given up, interesting news goes unnoticed—and occasionally world events create so much news that no one can keep up.
Immediately after the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the Web exploded. News outlets around the world pumped out story after story about the attacks and their ramifications: why they had happened, how they had happened, and what might happen next. Like everyone else, I was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of news and commentary that sought to make sense of the event, its aftermath, and its causes. For several weeks I found myself getting most of my news by reading other weblogs, whose maintainers seemed to have much more time than I had to comb through the available news sources. I used my weblog to cull from their sites the best stories they had found. I was, for a time, filtering the filters.
For everyone, the great task of the future will not be to gain access to more information, but to develop avenues to information that genuinely enhances our understanding, and to screen out the rest. For many people, weblogs provide this useful filter. Subject-specific weblogs link to the news they need in order to more effectively run their business or enjoy their hobby. Even general interest weblogs have great value for those too busy to do more than scan the headlines. When a reader shares a weblogger’s general worldview, he can rely on her to point to articles and websites that will interest him.
Automated news aggregators, which collect the news on a given topic based on keywords, lack the human judgment to discern between two versions of the same story or to include a relevant story on a seemingly unrelated topic. Just as important, news selected by keyword is bound to leave a great deal of the world unheard of (and thus unconsidered) by the individual who relies on aggregators for his news. Even the man who turns first to the Sports section of the paper version of his hometown newspaper is exposed, however briefly, to the front news page; and an interesting headline in the Living section may catch his eye when he puts down the rest of the paper.
- On Sale
- Mar 25, 2009
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Basic Books