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Jonathan Bell

The Weblog


Someone once suggested archiving the web - downloading every last byte onto a vast hard drive to ensure that future generations could access a snapshot of the internet's state at one precise moment in time. This ultimate archive was proposed in response to the internet's constant flux, as dead links and lack of maintenance see data seeping away daily.

Clearly, capturing a moment on the web isn't something that can be left to machines. As a fluid, ever-changing entity, the best means we have of deciphering the web's meaning are personal opinions - the opinions of people who spend their days trawling the mass of data, posting links and opinions and keeping tabs - however modest - on the essentially unquantifiable. 

Currently, perhaps the closest we have to online tour guides are webloggers. What is a weblog? Imagine an on-line diary, an easily accessible website that allows the virtually instantaneous posting of musings, URLs (Universal Resource Locators - the addresses of the internet), thoughts and pictures. Of course, the more technically minded members of the virtual community have been creating homepages since the dawn of the web. But maintaining a website takes time and effort, and the web is littered with the husks of abandoned projects, individual sites that stay static and unchanging. Weblogs, however, promise an ongoing dialogue, an on-line diary that aims to illuminate and enlighten, and hopefully encourage a response.

It's a sign that a new form of communication has arrived when it's been duly chronicled, eulogised, analysed and duly deconstructed. Frank Zappa once observed that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and webloggers will inevitably feel that yet another essay on their nascent movement is similarly futile. Yet that weblogs have reached a wider audience, is surely due to their addictive combination of the intimacy of the personal homepage with the internet's immense potential for generating a sense of on-line community. Certainly individual websites can provoke a laugh or a shudder, yet the sites that are gathered under the auspices of an on-line 'community' like Geocities rarely encourage repeat visits for the web-crawler in search of intellectual stimulation. 

The weblog is ostensibly a personal site that signals new material - or posts - with a date stamp, making the Promethean task of sifting through the terabytes of data that fly around the world each day a little bit easier. By far the majority of weblogs are created using Blogger, a piece of software created by a small San Francisco company called Pyra. Blogger is free, at least for the foreseeable future. By combining the three activies of posting, formatting and file transfer, Blogger makes regular posting to your website incredibly easy. The software works within your browser, taking the details it needs to make contact with your webspace. Would-be web-bloggers sign up, create a template that will define how their weblog appears on screen, and are then presented with a window in which to write whatever you fancy, including external URLs and graphics. All you need do is click on 'publish', and your whimsical musings are whisked up to your own site, complete with date stamp. Depending on your preference and ability, your weblog's appearance is entirely up to you. It's these bite-sized chunks of information - comment, link and, frequently, response, that makes weblogs so addictive, like a particularly morish snack. 

While by no means the only software available (other programmes include Blogstart and Pitas), Blogger had 40,000 users in less than nine months. The number of weblogs (or 'blogs' - in this brave new world a word must be compressable to its lowest decipherable form) it powers is now nearly four times that figure and rising. Blogger bills itself as a collaborative tool, although the majority of weblogs remain single-user creations, personal sites defined by personality and individual tastes. Contributions are solicited from readers and then reviewed before posting. However, if you wish, the sofware will accept posts from many different users. Metafilter (not Blogger powered) acts as a forum; members can post and comment on other postings, leading to in-depth discussions about the subjects raised. Companies are beginnng to experiment with using Blogger to track in house projects - the code is more elegant than the clunky (and expensive) shared-databases and workgroup programmes offered by the big software houses.
 
Weblogs represent a kind of internet purity; they create new content through links - if it's not on the web, post it up or forget it. As computer users move away from traditional media (print, TV) as their main source of news, they become able to discuss it with others from all over the world, safe in the knowledge that although they might not get ABC's Nightly News, they're a click away from abcnewscom

Given the Weblog's user base - readers and writers - it's unsurprising that one commentator should say that 'blogging is the CB radio of the Dave Eggers generation.' This alone might send you screaming for cover, and the close relationship between the most prominent bloggers can make it all seem a bit 'sceney' as well as the relentless American emphasis - it's a party that you don't necessarily feel invited to. Yet these sites generate a surprising amount of welcoming intimacy through their commentary. The weblog is also part of the burgeoning digital photography scene; where the personal website often contained a collection of badly-scanned family photos, the blog is adorned with artful snaps that document the blogger's day to day life. While the webcam might pre-date the weblog, the two have found a natural symbiosis. Canny bloggers might not wish to broadcast their face all over the web, but many  blogs have burgeoning photography sections, whether ongoing series (e.g. snapshots captured in a mirror) or experiments with geeky technological delights like the Casio wrist camera.

Following a personal weblog is like subscribing to a random clippings agency - a few months' devotion to a particular site can be spurred by the apparent conflation of interests - you like tortoiseshell cats, and hey!, someone's posted a link to the best tortoiseshell cat site on their weblog. Hence you follow their log to see what else they come up with, and so on, and so on. The web thus becomes a kind of hypertextual soap opera, a series of almost endless links that that leap around a variety of subjects and opinions. Inevitably, the most high-profile blogs are lumped together, products of the late 20-something character of the weblogger; the cliche, rarely contradicted by the slick scripts and knowing terms of their sites, is that they're IT workers, often on internet-based projects or services that are closely related to the subject of their weblog. 

While the automated search engines created by Lycos, Google, Altavista, and so on, crawl the web, collating vast directories based on keywords and assocations, weblogs are the human side of the world wide web; personal selections from a mire of information. Naturally, there are also weblogs devoted to particular subjects, such as design-based weblogs covering writing, user interfaces and typography. With sad inevitability, not so enlightened users have set up blogs to spready messages of intolerance, the flipside of the web's unquestioning democracy

The best blogs understand brevity, preferring to keep musings short and sweet and the links flowing. Hypertext-heavy prose makes for surprisingly easy reading; the eye ‘strips’ the copy for the links - usually highlighted - and picks and clicks accordingly. In contrast, blogs which err on the text-heavy side tend to get short shrift; blogs link to survive. 

What are weblogs best at? Propogating memes. The term 'meme' was devised by the scientist Richard Dawkins, and is defined as a ‘unit of cultural meaning’. Likening the rapid spread of ideas, trends and fashions in contemporary culture to that of virus transmission in the medical sense, Dawkins posited that memes travel the world generating a kind of common cultural consensus; hence people in Seattle are likely to understand similar cultural references to people in London. Naturally, the internet is the best meme-propogating tool ever devised, a device so perfect for the swift spreading of rumour, humour or pure insanity.

Interest in weblogs has undoubtedly spurred their creators onto other projects, enthused by the feedback and response the medium is bringing. Barbelith recently spawned a series of anti-ad websites, the ‘Barbelith Underground’, consisting of a collective blog which relegated the original personal blog to the backburner

Blogs range from the confessional to the soapy.  Blogs even have their own award ceremony, the bloggies, announced for the first time in February of this year. Naturally, a ‘worst of’ awards ceremony swiftly followed. Some blogs are just a list of links, divorced from any editorial comment, while blogs which place an empahsis on community and solicit multiple postings and comments from users can often degenerate into lengthy slanging matches. Clearly, the web's perennial problem - that of creating and sustaining meaningful content - is one which weblogging is swift to encounter. 

With many hundreds of thousands of weblogs, it's unsurprising that some believe the advent of dedicated blogging software makes creating online daily journals almost too easy. The term 'blogorrhea' has been coined to signify those weblogs that degenerate into an unimaginative stream of consciousness, purely because they can. These on-line versions of Diary of a Nobody offer little to encourage repeat viewing, the ultimate ambition of any blogger. To counter this potential click-fatigue, even blogs that are adept at sifting tasty morsels from the plankton-like swarms of data, are inviting user comment and participation.Some are naturally more interesting than others - the nigh-on 12,000 users at Metafilter (again, and rising) are increasingly swamping the site, generating much 'why oh why' style commentary, while Jason Kottke's Kottke.org has a nice line in user comments, drawn from his comprehensive community of linked sites.

Media interest drove the weblog community into self-reflection. ‘What is a weblog?’ became a common refrain in 'dead tree' media, and a swift mixture of comment and backlash countered the op-ed pieces that have brought weblogging to a wider audience. There was a palpable sense of bloggers emerging, blinking, into sunlight, unhappy at all the attention. There has even been a 'day without weblogs', widely adopted throughout the weblogging community as part of World AIDS day. 

Most importantly, blogs don't pay. But perhaps Blogger's proposal that their software be used as a means for large corporations to share information (with the rumoured Blogger Pro version) shows a way forward. For now, only sites with a clear commercial slant look likely to make their authors money. However, a commercial site like the Guardian's weblog is a model of clarity - it neatly tucks into the ethos of blogging - linking generously and comprehenisvely to a wide range of rival media sources, with the added bonus of extensive and experienced analysis. As this piece was being written, Blogger's sale was announced, as Evan Williams, by this time the sole employee of Pyra, was forced to seek a way of continuing the site. The 150,000 subscribers are watching the next move with interest. 

Does blogging encourage better writing? There's naturally a desire to seek out the wilder shores of the web, the weird and unusual, not to mention the growing amount of material devoted to cataloguing and extolling the virtues of consumer culture's immediate past. It's also nice to feel part of the cutting edge of cultural creation - even if the results are often downright puzzling. Anyone looking to the web as a barometer of cultural trends will be become confused, to say the very least.

There’ll always be something fascinating about reading other people’s diaries. Just sneaking a peak at that which was not intended for your consumption generates a little thrill, a sense of a transgressive invasion into another life. Even the humble shopping list or receipt, crumpled and discarded beside the check-out, can reveal a fascinating litany of wants and desires. For those of us addicted to this form of found intimacy, the weblog is a welcome, yet time consuming, innovation. Yet blogging's swift ascent has created a perceptible dilution of the concept

Looking back , this article has become a riot of links - so much so that it seems inelegant, impossible, even, to publish it in conventional form. Hence it's here, on our website. And naturally, there's also an ulterior motive. We're working as a means of getting ready for what we hope will ultimately become newthings - coming soon, as they say.