Deciphering
Glyph
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Don't Call It Blogging

Thu 17 July 2008

Despite my own impeccable credentials as an elite cyber-hacker, I am friends with a number of people who are bewildered by the profusion of different technologies that the internet now affords us to interact.  I recently had a conversation where someone was just confused by the whole "blogging" thing.  Why do people blagoblog on the intertron?  What is the point?  I'm a prolific "blogger" myself, I guess, but I found myself sympathizing as I tried to explain.

I'm a huge fan of the activity of blogging, but I have never liked the word, "blogging".  I never really understood why until I was attempting to explain what it's all about.

For thousands of years — well, okay I don't have any citations of exactly how long, due to the evolution of English as a language, but, for a really long time — we've had one word for the activity of "blogging".  We called it writing.  That's all you're doing when you're blogging.

If we were to describe the activity of a Sumerian scribe pressing symbols into soft clay, we'd say they were writing on that clay.  An ancient Egyptian putting words onto a sheet of papyrus: they are writing.  Similarly, we don't typically have separate words for "scrolling", "codexing", "booking", "newspapering", "magazining", and so on.  Each new technology for moving writing around didn't need a new verb.  So why has "blogging" gotten one?

I think there is a good reason this term exists, but that reason doesn't justify the term, it provides a warning, and a reason to try to actively resist the term and just say "writing".  The web is a more radical and democratizing shift in publishing technology than any of the ones which preceded it, so publishing on the web (especially automated publishing, as on a blog) affords a feedback cycle where the author and the audience are effectively peers.  In fact, the nature of the terms "author" and "audience" has changed; formerly a description of social classes, the people who produce and the people who consume, they have been re-framed as roles within an individual conversation.  You might be the audience when you're reading someone else's blog, but ten minutes later you can easily reverse that relationship with that author as you're writing your own.  This extremely rapid cycle has given a wholly new quality to the style of many blogs, unseen in any prior form of written media.

So, why resist the term "blogging"?  It confuses the possibilities that the medium presents with conventions that it enforces.  Writing is a powerfully diverse art.  A lot of it's good, a lot of it's bad.  "Blogging", however, is more specific, and unfortunately implies a sort of perpetual half-finished conversation.  It calls to mind a semi-private, informal, ephemeral, link-heavy style of extremely short-form writing.  This form has its masters: Tycho of Penny Arcade infamy leaps to mind immediately.  It also has a sea of mediocrity.  Statistically speaking, you can probably click the 'next blog' link at the top of this page for an immediate example.  I don't have a problem with any of this.  Even the "mediocrity" is just evidence of the degree to which this is empowering people: much of what I'd consider "mediocre" just isn't relevant to me, and isn't written for me.

But blogs can be, and are, so much more than that.  They are a disruptive technology in the world of publishing, where any style of writing can easily be published, circulated, and promoted.  One can write an entire novel, serialized chapter-by-chapter as blog posts.  Many people have, in fact, done this already.  You don't even need to emulate older forms of writing to step outside the style implied by "blogging".  The tools that the web affords — instant publishing, hyperlinks — are ideal for collaborative scientific research.  Hyperlinks take the work out of footnoting.

Prominent web writers who I respect also seem to avoid the use of the term "blog".  Joel Spolsky refers to other people's blogs, but the term "blog" does not appear anywhere describing his site, despite the fact that there is quite a bit of self-descriptive text that refers to "this site".  Paul Graham goes a step further, foregoing many traditional blog trappings and has a link that says, simply, "Essays".  I wonder if it's for this reason.

So, if you need to explain to someone who doesn't quite get what all the whole "blogging" thing is about, don't talk about social dynamics and the singularity and the mass popularization of media.  That's all great stuff, but it's a confusing distraction.  It's just like writing a book — or, more likely, a magazine.  Except you don't have to talk to a publisher.  And you don't have to have an editor.  And it's free.  And the publishing part doesn't actually take any time.  And it's accessible from anywhere in the world.  And you can read it on your cell phone.  When you stack up all the advantages, the lack of some bound paper doesn't seem like a big deal.

If you find this explanation useful, feel free to point your relatives at this post.  Tell them that you saw it on my blog, but don't tell them I blogged about it.  Tell them I wrote about it.