Is This a Blog?

Volume 6, Issue 39; 17 Jun 2003

Sam Ruby started a discussion about the essential characteristics of a web log entry. Herewith a few thoughts of my own.

The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.

Edwin Schlossberg

Sam Ruby asks us to consider what makes a blog? More specifically, what constitutes a well formed (is that a pun?) log entry in the abstract. He gives us a place to talk about it, too. But I'm going to start talking here because, well, yes, this is my blog.

This is my blog because this is where I write things, in the first person, about any topic that drifts through the lump of porridge between my ears slowly enough for me to capture it and wrestle it down into bits. I don't worry, usually, about who's going to read it, what they're going to think, or whether I'm “the right person” to write about it. If it percolates around in my head, it falls out here. At least sometimes.

So, I think Sam's right about the authentic voice of a person. Blogs are written by identifiable individuals (er, broadly speaking. I'm sure talented authors could coax fictional characters into blogging).

And I suppose, by definition, a web log is on the web. Though I'm less sure that this is an essential quality at the abstract level. The web gives me a soap box, somewhere to stand where I'll be heard. (Could I write a log that was unpublished and unread? Sure, but I think that would be dairy. A similar, but different, sort of beast.)

I could take a literal soap box down to the park and stand on it too. At least if I lived near the right park. Another essential quality, then, is that weblogs are written for public consumption. They're posted somewhere. That's like saying they're on the web, but it's more abstract, I think.

Log entries have unique identity. Whether I post it on the web or print it on a broadside and slap it up in the town common, it has to be possible for readers to uniquely identify each log entry. This is a little slippery because I don't think unique identity necessarily translates exactly into permanence or immutability.

Let's continue with the broadside analogy. If I typeset my ideas onto paper and pasted them up in the town common, I could still come back later and edit what I wrote. But only a little bit. I couldn't erase all the words and start over. If I'd written very much, I'd be stuck with the general tone of what I wrote, even if I added “nope, I was completely and exactly wrong” at the bottom.

Similarly I could tear the paper down (going 404), or I could paste a completely new piece of paper over top of it. But that would be going 404 too. Everyone that had seen the original piece of paper would know that this was a different piece of paper, a different log entry. On the web, of course, you could perfectly erase and rewrite on the same page and it would be impossible to tell that you'd done so. But that would be wrong. That would not, I contend, be in the spirit of a log entry.

If I can write stuff and then change my mind later and write something else, or edit what I wrote (at least a little), I think that implies that some sort of date is an essential quality of a log entry. My entries have two dates (a creation date and a “last updated” date).

Like many bloggers, I summarize my recent work in reverse chronological order on the main page. I don't think presenting the essays in reverse chronological order is an essential quality. I think that's just an artifact of the medium. Web browsers can only show you a page at a time and they don't provide any tactile sense of where you are in the work as a whole. If it was easy for readers to tell where they were and where they'd been in your blog, you could probably write in forward chronological order. This blog contains multiple essays on the same topic that make more sense if read in forward chronological order. I only present them (on the main entry page anyway) in reverse chronological order as a convenience to readers. I imagine most readers are interested in what's newest and that's the easiest way to show them.

Authorship, public visibility, identity, and date. And content.

Now, personally, I have a hard time imagining a log entry that contains no prose, but I suppose it's possible. Artwork, audio, video, you name it, I'll grant that it could be a log entry. The fact that it's (probably) going on the web means it should fit into the Web Architecture, but since I'm one of the authors of that document, that may be of more immediate concern to me than most. In any event, those are clearly technical issues not abstract ones so we can skip them for the moment. Sam says the technical stuff is out of scope for the moment. Fair 'nough. For the moment.

Authorship, public visibility, identity, date, and content. If you tossed a log entry into a pot and boiled it hard, I think you'd be left with those bones.

You'd have lost some valuable metadata along the way though (“meat”, I suppose, by way of the analogy I just started, but I don't think I want to carry that analogy any further. At least not before breakfast). I think well formed log entries usually (if not essentially) have a title as well. And often an abstract or short summary of some sort. My entries are also divided into broad categories and have subjects. The distinction between category and subject is a bit vague, but it's roughly where does the essay fit into the general framework of the universe of things described by my blog as a whole (category) and what interesting things, people, places, events, etc., are mentioned by particular log entries (subjects).

Those little icons in the upper left identify categories, by the way; not very well or completely yet, but that's because I lack artistic talent as much as any other reason. Eventually I'll add a new style of navigation to the site with them as well, “next in this category” or something. But enough digression.

Sam suggests that beyond the essential qualities are some extensions. Given that not every entry will have a title or an abstract or the other qualities I mentioned, perhaps it's fair to relegate them to extension space.

The extension space is going to have to be pretty flexible though. I have log entries (written and/or planned) with other characteristics as well including, but not limited to, geospacial information (latitude and longitude), images and the relationships they embody, relationships of all sorts in fact (the unwritten content of my Connectedness essay, I think), reader commentary, and at least one web service.