It’s the definitions, bloggers.

On: December 16, 2007
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here


Lately I’ve been taking a shovel to the Internet Archive, looking for material on the history of blogging. It used to be that a query for ‘blog history’ would return a number of would-be Spanish civil war buffs, but that’s changing now. More and more, attempts are made to sum up the various ins and outs of the movement that brought us permalinks and LOL cats.

This peaked in July with blogging’s 10-year anniversary. The Wall Street Journal celebrated the medium that gave “everyman a global soapbox” by interviewing Newt Gingrich, Mia Farrow and some guy from Google. All wasn’t well, though, and the anniversary brought along a quasi-interesting fight over who was first. Was the original blogger Dave Winer, as the Wall Street Journal and The Guardian contend? Or is Duncan Riley right to insist it was Justin Hall?

The problem, though, is that this is an all too narrow view of what the ‘history’ of blogging is, or should be. The focus on firsts won’t get anyone further than a timeline (surely it could at least be made reverse-chronological?). To understand how the pre-1999 grab bag of online diaries and old school weblogs produced a stable medium – their ‘moment’ – one has to take a wider view of the software features and the community. In this regard, the best account on the Web remains Rebecca Blood’s 2000 essay, weblogs: a history and perspective. (At least until Anne posts her MA thesis, that is.)

Another idea is that every blogger will have a personal take on the medium’s development. (This is perhaps already clear in the blogospat mentioned above.) Although Rex Hammock was being ‘snarky’ when he said it, it’s not so controversial to point out that blogging has a relativist impulse, and this could be applied to its history as well.

The plot thickens even more when we start realizing that controversies about definitions and trajectories of blogging have been around since the beginning (and no, I’m not going to say when that was). Consider examples like these: Camworld’s Anatomy of a WebLog from 1999, a blogging manifesto at Bradlands, and an old Slashdot feature that states:

The weblog isn’t a new term on the Net, but it’s being used in a new way. One previous definition of weblog is an archive of activity on a web server. Another is an online diary. But in the context of the e-community, the weblog is new, and evolving rapidly, despite the fact that specialized and idiosyncratic sites have been around for some years.

And consider how each of these definitions circulated – from one blog to the next, adjusted for personal use, for mass consumption on Slashdot, or perhaps for the political leanings of a certain ‘netroots’. Finally, consider how this circulation is not so different to that of definitions of software features (HTML ‘standards’), and of definitions of the community (via ‘vintage’ blogrolls, Webrings and notification mailing lists).

Follow each of these paths, and the history of blogging may start to look useful, if less like a timeline.

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