What is a Weblog?

Caesar at ArsTechnica has written a few entries recently concerning blogs which interested me. The first simply asks: What, exactly, is a blog? Once you get past the overly-general definitions (“a blog is a frequently updated webpage”), it becomes a surprisingly difficult question.

Caesar quotes Wikipedia:

A weblog, web log or simply a blog, is a web application which contains periodic time-stamped posts on a common webpage. These posts are often but not necessarily in reverse chronological order. Such a website would typically be accessible to any Internet user. “Weblog” is a portmanteau of “web” and “log”. The term “blog” came into common use as a way of avoiding confusion with the term server log.

Of course, as Caesar notes, the majority of internet sites could probably be described in such a way. What differentiates blogs from discussion boards, news organizations, and the like?

Reading through the resulting discussion provides some insight, but practically every definition is either too general or too specific.

Many people like to refer to Weblogs as a medium in itself. I can see the point, but I think it’s more general than that. The internet is the medium, whereas a weblog is basically a set of commonly used conventions used to communicate through that medium. Among the conventions are things like a main page with chronological posts, permalinks, archives, comments, calendars, syndication (RSS), blogging software (CMS), trackbacks, &c. One problem is that no single convention is, in itself, definitive of a weblog. It is possible to publish a weblog without syndication, comments, or a calendar. Depending on the conventions being eschewed, such blogs may be unusual, but may still be just as much a blog as any other site.

For lack of a better term, I tend to think of weblogs as a genre. This is, of course, not totally appropriate but I think it does communicate what I’m getting at. A genre is typically defined as a category of artistic expression marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. However, anyone who is familiar with genre film or literature knows that there are plenty of movies or books that are difficult to categorize. As such, specific genres such as horror, sci-fi, or comedy are actually quite inclusive. Some genres, Drama in particular, are incredibly broad and are often accompanied by the conventions of other genres (we call such pieces “cross-genre,” though I think you could argue that almost everything incorporates “Drama”). The point here is that there is often a blurry line between what constitutes one genre from another.

On the medium of the internet, there are many genres, one of which is a weblog. Other genres include commercial sites (i.e. sites that try to sell you things, Amazon.com, Ebay, &c.), reference sites (i.e. dictionaries & encyclopedias), Bulletin Board Systems and Forums, news sites, personal sites, weblogs, wikis, and probably many, many others.

Any given site is probably made up of a combination of genres and it is often difficult to pinpoint any one genre as being representative. Take, for example, Kaedrin.com. It is a personal site with some random features, a bunch of book & movie reviews, a forum, and, of course, a weblog (which is what you’re reading now). Everything is clearly delineated here at Kaedrin, but other sites blur the lines between genres on every page. Take ArsTechnica itself: Is it a news site or a blog or something else entirely? I would say that the front page is really a combination of many different things, one of which is a blog. It’s a “cross-genre” webpage, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any less effective (though there is something to be said for simplicity and it is quite possible to load a page up with too much stuff, just as it’s possible for a book or movie to be too ambitious and take on too much at once) just as Alien isn’t necessarily a less effective Science Fiction film because it incorporates elements of Horror and Drama (or vice-versa).

Interestingly, much of what a weblog is can be defined as an already existing literary genre: the journal. People have kept journals and diaries all throughout history. The major difference between a weblog and a journal is that a weblog is published for all to see on the public internet (and also that weblogs can be linked together through the use of the hyperlink and the infrastructure of the internet). Historically, diaries were usually private, but there are notable exceptions which have been published in book form. Theoretically, one could take such diaries and publish them online – would they be blogs? Take, for instance, The Diary of Samuel Pepys which is currently being published daily as if it’s a weblog circa 1662 (i.e. Today’s entry is dated “Thursday 17 April 1662”). The only difference is that the author of that diary is dead and thus doesn’t interact or respond to the rest of the weblog community (though there is still interaction allowed in the form of annotations).

A few other random observations about blogs:

  • Software: Many people brought up the fact that most blogs are produced with the assistance of Weblogging Software, such as Blogger or Movable Type. From my perspective, such tools are necessary for the spread of weblogs, but shouldn’t be a part of the definition. They assist in the spread of weblogs because they automate the overly-technical details of publishing a website and make it easy for normal folks to participate. They’re also useful for automatically propagating weblog conventions like permalinks, comments, trackbacks, and archives. However, it’s possible to do all of this without the use of blogging specific software and it’s also possible to use blogging software for other purposes (for instance, Kaedrin’s very own Tandem Stories are powered by Movable Type). It’s interesting that other genres have their own software as well, particularly bulletin boards and forums. Ironically, one could use such BBS software to publish a blog (or power tandem stories), if they were so inclined. The Pepys blog mentioned above actually makes use of wiki software (though that software powers the entries, it’s mostly used to allow annotations). To me content management systems are important, but they don’t define so much as propagate the genre.
  • Personality: One mostly common theme in definitions is that weblogs are personal – they’re maintained by a person (or small group of people), not an official organization. A personality gets through. There is also the perception that a blog is less filtered than official communications. Part of the charm of weblogs is that you can be wrong (more on this later, possibly in another post). I’m actually not sure how important this is to the definition of a blog. Someone who posts nothing but links doesn’t display much of a personality, except through more subtle means (the choice of links can tell you a lot about an individual, albeit in an indirect way that could lead to much confusion).
  • Communities: Any given public weblog is part of a community, whether it wants to be or not. The boundaries of any specific weblog are usually well delineated, but since weblogs are part of the internet, which is an on-demand medium (as opposed to television or radio, which are broadcast), blogs are often seen as relative to one another. Entries and links from different blogs are aggregated, compared, correlated and published in other weblogs. Any blog which builds enough of a readership provides a way connect people who share various interests through the infrastructure of the internet.

Some time ago, Derek Powazek asked What the Hell is a Weblog? You tell me. and published all the answers. It turns out that I answered this myself (last one on that page), many years ago:

I don’t care what the hell a weblog is. It is what I say it is. Its something I update whenever I find an interesting tidbit on the web. And its fun. So there.

Heh. Interesting to note that my secondary definition there (“something I update whenever I find an interesting tidbit on the web”) has changed significantly since I contributed that definition. This is why, I suppose, I had originally supplied the primary definition (“I don’t care what the hell a weblog is. It is what I say it is.”) and to be honest, I don’t think that’s changed (though I guess you could call that definition “too general”). Blogging is whatever I want it to be. Of course, I could up and call anything a blog, but I suppose it is also required that others perceive your blog as a blog. That way, the genre still retains some shape, but is still permeable enough to allow some flexibility.

I had originally intended to make several other points in this post, but since it has grown to a rather large size, I’ll save them for other posts. Hopefully, I’ll gather the motivation to do so before next week’s scheduled entry, but there’s no guarantee…

2 thoughts on “What is a Weblog?”

  1. For me, a weblog does have to have the ability to interact with others through links, comments, etc. in order to be considered a weblog. When I first started my personal webpage, I basically had a dated, reverse chronological journal on the index page. A handful of other people who knew about my site at that time read it, but there was no interaction because I didn’t even have my email address on the site.

    Until I joined livejournal community, which has comments and communities, I felt very isolated. Before that, all I had was a personal journal in digital form. I could have very well had the same thing on paper, or just saved all that in Word for my own eyes.

    I’ve also read (from you?) that weblogs are different than journals because weblogs discuss issues outside of the author’s personal life. I think that’s an important distinction. Of course, webloggers as they exist today tend to write about things that relate to their lives somehow because they get to choose what to write about (as opposed to, say, most journalists).

    I wouldn’t call my space on livejournal a blog because I tend to write about day-to-day things in my real life although I’d like to try writing more essays.

    I think your site is quite unique tallman because you have a weblog comments enabled, but you also have a whole separate forum, Tandem stories, reviews, the Kaedrin store, and other miscellaneous stuff. I also think your site is better organized than others. Maybe that’s just because I’ve seen your site transform from the beginning. But I find myself turned off from most weblogs because there’s so much information poorly organized. People tend to only put links (usually a very long list) on the side of the page, even without headings, like your “Inside Weblog” heading. Those six standard links at the top right are very helpful.

  2. You make some interesting points, but I’m not sure I completely agree. I agree that weblogs should involve some form of interaction through links and the like, the simple fact that a weblog is published on the public internet pretty much ensures this. Permalinks were an important addition, but when I started blogging (almost 5 years ago!) they weren’t on many weblogs. While I do think that permalinks simplified things considerably and were necessary to promote further integration of the weblog community, I don’t think it fair to say that early weblogs weren’t actually blogs…

    Isolation is one of the problems with weblogs. I publish a blog that very few people read, and I’ve been doing so for almost 5 years. Most of the people who do read it were people who I knew from 4degreez and who were already regulars at the site. My problem is that I’m not very participatory in the weblog community. I’m not very timely, and I don’t link to as many other blogs as I should if I wanted to get noticed. I think one key to blogging is getting noticed. Once you get started with a loyal readership, some of the weblog conventions cease to be as important. Now, if you’re writing a personal journal, it’s likely that you won’t build up much of a readership, but I don’t think that makes it less of a blog…

    I think the fact that weblogs are public sort of implies that they are different from journals because journals used to be somewhat private. As such, most people attempt to write things with broader appeal (unless they’re writing for a specific audience – i.e. family, friends, etc… as you seem to do, though you do occassionally tackle more general stuff). The thing is, though, in my private journal, I write about lots of stuff outside of my personal life. Sometimes, those things make it to the weblog in a slightly modified form (I haven’t been keeping a journal that long, nor have I been very committed to regularly updating it, but still).

    If you look at the Pepys diary, you see lots of personal stuff (“dined at noon”) but you also see occassional discussions of politics and science and the like. It’s interesting to consider what he would have done had he been writing publically…

    In any case, I would call your livejournal a blog, albeit one with a limited audience. The thing is, though, that it is public and can be viewed by anyone, and because you use livejournal, it is easily commented upon and linked, should anyone have the desire. I don’t think it takes much to make it to “blog.” But that’s my inclusive definition. You can certainly take a more exclusive definition and count yourself out:P

    Thanks for the kind words about my site. I know I always say that, but I really do appreciate such comments:) One thing that does bother me about weblogs is that many sites tend to be just a weblog, with nothing else included. And archives are tedious affairs, where lots of great writing and information gets lost amidst a wave of information. Category archives help, but they need to be well done in order to be truly effective. This is not easy, and my categories are without a doubt in need of a big revision. Some people have a great categorization scheme – take Kottke.org for example – his blog is actually a composite of several individual blogs. He has one for movies, one for books, one for links, one for quotes, and so on, which allows you to go to an archive page solely for books or movies &c. which can be useful.

    Jeeze, I wrote a lot more than I intended:P

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