Martha Soukup (soukup) Wed 30 Apr 03 20:08
Inkwell is pleased to present Rebecca Blood, here to talk about her book "The Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice on Creating and Maintaining Your Blog", which was one of Amazon.com's top picks in Digital Culture for last year. Rebecca Blood is an internationally known weblogger and writer. She has a BA in English and has held more kinds of jobs than you have, including waitress, nanny, actress, secretary, boat-builder's assistant, evil telemarketer, film production assistant, personal driver, film extra, caterer, web designer, author, speaker, administrative director for a non-profit, and "special forces" for a small regional magazine. Rebecca has maintained the popular weblog, Rebecca's Pocket, since April 1999, linking and writing about current events, media literacy, web culture, sustainability, domestic life, and whatever else catches her eye. In September 2000 she published the influential essay "Weblogs: A History and Perspective" and in July 2002 she published her first book, "The Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice on Creating and Maintaining Your Blog". Both have been used in university courses throughout the English-speaking world. She is frequently called on by the press to illuminate the currently unstoppable weblog phenomenon, and has discussed online culture in interviews with the New York Times, Newsweek, Fast Company, the BBC, and on National Public Radio. She will be presenting a keynote at Blogtalk, the first conference about weblogs, to be held May 23-24, 2003 in Vienna, Austria. She lives in San Francisco. Rebecca will be interviewed by Inkwell's own Jon Lebkowsky. Jon is CEO of Polycot Consulting Group, an Austin, Texas technology consultancy focused on social software and web technology. He has worked in various positions as project manager, analyst, technology director, and online community developer. He was a Systems Analyst and Project Manager with the Texas Department of Human Services before leaving for the private sector. While working at TDHS, he became involved in early Internet development, and was cofounder and CEO of one of one of the first virtual corporations, FringeWare, Inc. He was a consultant and contractor for companies such as Electric Minds and HotWired before joining Whole Foods Market in 1997 to help coordinate the development of their Internet, intranet, and ecommerce initiatives in Austin, Texas and Boulder, Colorado, and later joined IGS, Inc. of Boulder before moving back to Austin to form Polycot Consulting, L.L.C. A skilled communicator, he has written about technology for publications such as Wired Magazine, Mondo 2000, 21C, Whole Earth Review, Fringe Ware Review, and the Austin Chronicle. His weblog is at http://www.weblogsky.com. Jon is President of EFF-Austin, a member of the Austin Freenet Board of Directors and the steering committee for the Austin Clean Energy Initiative, and advisor for the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference. He is currently leading a research project on wireless telecommunications for IC, an Austin think tank associated with the University of Texas. Please welcome Rebecca and Jon for a far-ranging discussion of everything bloggy!
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 1 May 03 11:10
Hi, Rebecca! We should start by discussing the definition of "weblog." There's many definitions popping up, some emphasizing structure, and others focusing on content. It's such a broad field, I like that you capture the diversity by looking at three broad categories. Could you go over those?
Rebecca Blood (rebeccablood) Thu 1 May 03 15:06
Hi Jon! First, thanks for having me here. I'm looking forward to an interesting conversation. Weblogs, these days, are defined by their format: a frequently updated webpage with entries arranged in reverse-chronological order, so the new stuff is always on top. That's a pretty open definition, which is why I think the weblog form is so strong: it's infinitely malleable. From there, I break weblogs up into three broad categories: blogs, notebooks, and filters. Blogs are the ones people compare to online diaries. Entries tend to be short, personal bursts about daily events and the like--almost like a series of instant messages to the world. These sites rose to prominence after Blogger, one of the first automated weblog updaters, became available. It was just so easy to post that people put up the most mundane details of their days! The sites I call notebooks tend to have longer, more thoughtful pieces than the typical blog--more like an artist's journal. Some notebooks muse on life, culture, or art; others relate personal stories, but not necessarily as they happen. The author may dip into any part of their life experience for the day's entry. So, notebooks tend to be personal, but less about the day-to-day and more about ideas. Filters are link-driven sites. Entries may be long or short, but the intent is to highlight whatever is of interest to the maintainer. The original weblogs were filters, and there was great controversy within the weblog community when the first blogs appeared on the scene. For the first webloggers, weblogs were about the links, and some old-skoolers still feel this way. The filter editor is, in a way, pre-surfing the Web for his or her readers. Some filters are subject-specific; others are more general. Filters may contain lots of opinion and personal information, or hardly any, but they are focused on the outside world much more than they are on the inner life of their maintainer.
Rebecca Blood (rebeccablood) Thu 1 May 03 15:32
<scribbled by jonl Thu 1 May 03 16:28>
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 1 May 03 17:58
What's the story behind _The Weblog Handbook_? Why did you decide to write about blogging?
Rebecca Blood (rebeccablood) Thu 1 May 03 18:23
It wasn't my idea. My editor is one of my readers. When Perseus decided to do a book on weblogs, he wrote me a note asking if I'd be interested in writing it. Of course I said yes. :) That same day, I got an email from another fellow who was planning a book on weblogs, asking me to participate in the public forums he had set up to discuss the book as he was writing it (he ended up dropping the project.) My husband looked at me and said "It's weblog-book time."
Rebecca Blood (rebeccablood) Thu 1 May 03 18:26
<scribbled by soukup Thu 1 May 03 18:46>
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 1 May 03 19:02
Now that the book's been out a while, and you've had time to think about it, is there anything you think you left out, or would do differently?
Rebecca Blood (rebeccablood) Thu 1 May 03 19:57
Not too much, I don't think. There are a few technical things I would mention (RSS and trackback are two of them). RSS gained traction very quickly just after I finished the book. I don't think trackback had even been introduced yet. And I would make chapter 4 a little less sappy, maybe. (It's written for the reader who is unsure of what to write or how to write it. I worked to be very encouraging in that chapter, and as a result people either love it or hate it. :) Most of the book is non-technical, and so its less prone to becoming outdated. It's about writing, interacting with the online community, and carving out a place on the Web. My advice in those areas is based on my own experience and observations since the weblog community coalesced in 1999. There is so much that seems obvious to those who have been online for years, but it really can be mystifying for a newcomer. I have had a few mentors through the years who steered me through some rocky bits--I spend part of the book trying to do that same thing for people who want to get involved in the larger community, but who just don't have any idea how to go about doing that. And I suppose my vision of what weblogs can be and what they could do is rather utopian--but I stand behind that. Weblogs are as flawed as the people who create them, but they also have the potential to be agents for change, even if it's just personal change. Everything good thing in my life right now has come through my weblog--and I've heard a dozen people say that same thing in almost the exact words.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 1 May 03 20:27
Interesting that weblogs emerged as the Internet bubble burst - do you think there's a connection?
Rebecca Blood (rebeccablood) Thu 1 May 03 20:52
I think the connection is to the bubble, not to the burst. Most of the early weblog community were programmers or web designers. Remember, there were no push-button updaters at the time--you had to know HTML in order to create a weblog. Many of these people were spending virtually all of their waking hours at work, creating applications and websites for startups. The Web was their window on the world, and they looked there first for news, entertainment, and cameraderie. They also tended to be saavy about whatever the latest "big new thing" was. So in early 1999 when the weblog community came together, it was the most natural thing in the world for many of these people to jump on the bandwagon and start weblogs of their own. Reading weblogs and updating their own became a way to keep up on current events and industry news, establish themselves professionally, and just to take a break from coding. The thing that sent the curve speeding upwards was the introduction of easy-to-use tools. starting in the summer of 1999. More than anything else, this really is the revolution. Suddenly, anyone with an internet connection and a browser could create a web page. In that sense, Dave Winer, Ev Williams and Meg Hourhan, Ben and Mena Trott--the people whose software makes this possible--are the Gutenbergs of the Web. The one thing I would say about the burst is that suddenly lots of people had some time on their hands. It's a truism that when someone who has been an avid poster suddenly falls silent, they probably have either gotten a new job or a new boy/girlfriend. :)
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 2 May 03 05:59
Just for grins, I dropped "the first weblog" into Google... with interesting results: >>> " The first weblog was the first website, http://info.cern.ch/, the site built by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN." - Dave Winer "For what it's worth, I'd like a little credit, please. I didn't use the word 'weblog' or 'blog' until very recently, but I began using vi on a UNIX shell account to publish a regularly-updated web page in March of 1995 - surely that counts for something? That predates a lot of things on the web." - Phillip Winn "Jun 1993: Oldest archived NCSA "What's New Page" page. The archive contains the page from Jun 1993 to Jun 1996. Jan 1994: Justin Hall starts "Justin's Home Page" -- which would soon become Links from the Underground [history], an important personal site and perhaps one of the first weblogs." - some history found at chymes.org " Mosaic's What's New page was started by Marc Andreesen, I think. Justin Hall's Links from the Underground was one early prototype [history]. William Gibson foresaw professional weblogging in 1996: Robot Wisdom Weblog was the first to use the name 'weblog', in December 1997." - more history from whorlpool.org <<< The which-came-first debate raises the question whether content and structure are the defining weblog characteristics. Doesn't it make more sense to say that weblogs really originated when simple content management systems were deployed by the people you mention? I.e. Blogger by Ev and Meg, Radio Userland by Dave Winer, Movable Type by Ben and Mena?
Rebecca Blood (rebeccablood) Fri 2 May 03 12:05
Well, by that standard, I still haven't started my weblog yet! Tools designed to update weblogs arose from the form, not the other way around. By tying the definition of a weblog to the tools, you cut out the original weblog community--the inventors of the form--and those of us who still haven't moved to one of the tools: the few, the brave, the proud, the hand coders-- http://tantek.com/log/2003/04.html#blog20030423t1659. And what about those people who have programmed their own content management systems? At this point I think the most useful definition for a weblog is by format: a frequently updated webpage with entries arranged in reverse chronological order. I've seen people try to expand that definition to include almost any webpage--and writers and one radio commentator who have claimed that they've been "blogging" in offline venues for years. To expand the definition in any of those directions makes the definition of "blog" broad to the point of ridiculousness. At the same time, narrowing it to require that a weblog be created with certain software quickly becomes contentious (whose software? why don't Notepad and WS-FTP count?) and leaves out a whole swath of people. Even requiring certain features is a losing battle. It's true that the vast majority of weblogs contain permalinks, for example, but there are still a few of the original weblogs that do not, and I'm loathe to leave them out of a discussion they helped start. Many weblogs now feature trackback--but many more don't. What about comments? Or an RSS feed? If the software you use offers those things, you may choose to employ them, but what if you don't? What if the software you use doesn't offer the feature du jour? All of those features--archives, permalinks, trackback, comments--arose from the behavior of the weblog community itself. They facilitate behaviors that bloggers were engaged in by brute force, if you will. They are commonly found on weblogs, but who gets to decide which ones are canonical, and which optional? Focusing on the format gives us a clear sense of which websites we are talking about, while at the same time leaving the form open for experimentation. --- The history of weblogs is controversial, for sure. I regard the NCSA "What's New" page as a prototype. I've run into numerous people who were maintaining their weblogs (as defined by format) in 1997 or 1998. Because there were people inventing this form all over the Web, many of them unaware of each other, I view the history of weblogs as the history of the community that came together in 1999. How they found each other, what happened after they started linking to each other, and where weblogs went from there. There are others who believe the history of weblogs should be a history of software or individual web sites or personalities. FWIW, I regard Justin Hall as a unique case. Perhaps he is the father of the journaling community (which predates the weblogs by years). Justin started a weblog, bud.com, back in (I believe) 1999. Of course, this is back when weblogs were about links, so I think he saw the weblog as being different from his online journal. What Justin has done with links.net is different than what the bloggers or even many of the journalers are doing. He's spent the last 8 years putting his life online. Justin is an early hominid from which many branches of personal publishing can be traced.
Christian Crumlish (xian) Fri 2 May 03 14:23
hi, Rebecca! While you're on the Well, please drop by the blog.ind conference, which JonL and I host (if you can find the time). I'm a little curious about your terminology choices, since blog comes from weblog and Jorn Barger's definition was really more what you tend to call a filter. Then again, I think usage now fits what you say, since most people call their personal logs "blogs." I think I started with a notebook (http://ezone.org/xian/breathing/) which was one of them hand-coded, simple navigation, no bells-and-whistles online journals (remember the diary-l mailing list), and I used it as a daily writing practice and a place to air my thoughts, rarely linking out to the external web. Today I think a site like this would be called a blog, but of course we hadn't heard that word yet (this was 1997).
Sean Harding (sharding) Fri 2 May 03 14:25
Terminology seems kind of sticky here. For some reason, the word "blog" is a HUGE turnoff to me. I do use it sometimes, but only because I feel that I must in order to be understood by some of the people I'm talking to. I don't know why it bothers me so much, but I do hate it...
Rebecca Blood (rebeccablood) Fri 2 May 03 15:12
Christian, you're right, blog does come from weblog, and weblog comes from Jorn, who maintains a filter-style site. Read about it here: <http://www.rebeccablood.net/essays/weblog_history.html> But distinctions are useful if you're going to talk about weblogs. People just talk in circles when one of them is using the term "weblog" to describe a link-driven site and another to refer to a teenage girl's online diary. When I talk to reporters, the first thing I have to do is to figure out which kind of site they are thinking of when they start asking questions. "Why would someone maintain a filter?" is a very different question from "Why does someone maintain an online diary?" So assuming that the format makes it a weblog, what do we have? Well, we have link-driven sites. Sites that are essentially pre-surfing the Web. "Links and commentary" was the definition of a weblog back in the day, and there are still lots of sites doing just that. I think the term "filter" clearly describes what they do. And we have the short-form diary-style sites. Maintainers of these sites almost universally referred to themselves as "blogs" when they first began appearing, and I think it's because most of them were using a tool called "Blogger" to create their sites. The Blogger interface doesn't encourage the addition of a link--it encourages a post. I think that's one of the reasons blog-style became so popular so quickly. Notebooks--I just made that up. I kept running across sites that were personal but not diaristic, with longer, more introspective pieces, more finished pieces of writing. Some of them featured links, but they weren't about the links as much as they were about ideas. They seemed to me to be something different from the two other extremes. The truth is, of course, that most weblogs do all three things from time to time, and weblogs change over time. Some people move to longer, more thought-out pieces from the shorter style blurt; some of the original filters now use links as springboards for extended posts on their own point of view. The latest fad is notebook-style pieces in the main site, with a list of links in the sidebar to satisfy that primal urge to share links. I've heard people describe my site as a notebook after reading my definitions; I think of it as a filter, but I do definitely write longer posts now <http://www.rebeccablood.net/> than I did when I began <http://www.rebeccablood.net/archive/1999/04.html>. None of these definitions is cut and dried, I was just trying to provide a framework for discussing the varieties of weblogs that have emerged over the years. Sean: I feel your pain. I don't like the term, either, and I like even less the habit people have of appending it to any and all words. Just call your site a weblog--or go all old-school and call it a "home page". :)
Sean Harding (sharding) Fri 2 May 03 15:25
<scribbled by sharding Fri 2 May 03 15:26>
Sean Harding (sharding) Fri 2 May 03 15:31
I'm reposting that last one because I accidentally posted it before I was finished... Yes, I just call mine a "weblog" for the most part. One thing I've been thinking about a bit lately (and posting about on the Well, but not on my weblog) is the range of topics covered by weblogs. While there are probably weblogs out there that relate to nearly any topic one can imagine, most of the high profile ones fall into one of a small number of categories. Weblogging at the moment seems to be disproportionately focused on weblogging about weblogging ("metablogging" if you don't mind another "blog" word), politics and web technology. In my mind, this is much like having 200 channels of cable, with 100 of them broadcasting only sports and the other 100 running shows about making TV shows. It's great if you're a sports nut or a video geek, but otherwise it's a little frustrating. I personally feel a great hunger for weblogs about other topics. The politics thing is simply overdone in my mind, and I don't care enough about weblogging itself (this may even be another form of politics if you think about it) to want to read dozens of daily posts about it. So I spend time trying to find more weblogs that are to my liking. But since so much of the weblog world focuses around the core ("a-list") weblogs, and most of the core weblogs are centered on politics (Instapundit) or weblogging (Scripting News), it's a bit hard to escape. Last time I brought this up, someone presented the idea that these topics are what sustains weblogging at the moment. Especially in that they feed on back and forth writing and frequent updates. I find that idea interesting, and it's not something that had occurred to me before. What do you think about the topics that get covered in weblogs? Do you think that the popular weblogs will diversify over time, or do you think that these (or some other small number of) core themes will always be at the top of the popularity list? (BTW, I don't want to steal the thoughts of the person who posted about these topics sustaining weblogging, but I also don't want to "out" them in this world-readable forum if they don't want to be known here. If that person is reading, please feel free to claim that thought).
rebecca blood (rebeccablood) Fri 2 May 03 15:54
Sean, what kinds of topics are you looking for? I have lots of kinds of weblogs listed on my portal--knitting, books, environmental, food, and what I call "weblogs of place" (modern day Thoreaus). The longer sections have weblogs that are less subject specific, but cover a variety of topics. http://www.rebeccablood.net/portal.html. You might try doing a google search for "topic blog" just to see if one on that topic exists. Politics will always be popular, in my opinion: some people can't get enough of reading and discussing politics. Weblogs about blogging will be popular with a subset of bloggers--and few others. Web technology--well, those are the people most likely to know about weblogs, really. There may always be a strong contingent of technical weblogs, and why not? This is where lots of the innovation occurs. More people have not heard about weblogs than have. Over time, I think we'll see even more diversification: the knitting weblogs sprung up out of nowhere last summer, as far as I can tell. As more people discover the form, more people will create their own sites about whatever they are interested in, and then others will be inspired to join in. It's interesting, because *my* frustration is the opposite of yours: there are too many interesting weblogs for me to follow. But I agree that it's difficult to find that first weblog on a topic. Most weblogs cluster so tightly that one will lead you only to others of the same type. From whatever weblog you are on, it's almost impossible to find your way to a different type of site. I think this is why so much of the press coverage about weblogs has been so clueless. Reporters start with a political weblog and click all the links on the page--to other political weblogs. Or a programmer's weblog--to other technical weblogs. It's not entirely their fault. From where they are, most of the weblog universe is invisible.
Sean Harding (sharding) Fri 2 May 03 16:05
Thanks, I'll take a look at your portal. It's been difficult for me to elucidate the weblog topics I'm looking for; I've always found it easier to describe the ones I'm *not* looking for. Perhaps this is because the most significant factor in my enjoyment of a weblog tends to be the style rather than the topics covered. This also makes it somewhat more difficult to use a given weblog as a jumping off point for others I'd like. While I may find a sports weblog I can't get enough of, I could be bored to tears by every other sports weblog out there. For me, I think it's just a matter of being persistent. It's hard for me to find weblogs to read by looking at Google. And because of the heavy politics and meta focus, sites like Technorati and Daypop aren't of much use. But I do find ones I like by continuing to click around. I know they're out there, and finding a good one is usually worth the days or weeks of fruitless clicking that preceded its discovery.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Fri 2 May 03 16:58
I find weblogs through blogrolls and pointers that others post. I'm always surprised how much great new voices are emerging. It's getting harder to keep track. Not long ago Joi Ito posted that he'd removed anybody he didn't know personally from his blogroll, and I did the same thing a few days ago - neighbors. That's one way to narrow the range.
Sean Harding (sharding) Fri 2 May 03 17:32
I pretty much don't follow any site that doesn't have an RSS feed unless it's extraordinarily compelling in some other way. I can count the number of those on one hand, and most are people I know from long before I got into reading weblogs. There are tons of RSS feeds I follow from people I don't know, though. The overhead in following them is much lower for me. The "blogroll" I actually post on my weblog is somewhat different from the list of weblogs I follow. I do follow all of the weblogs listed there, but there are a lot in my RSS reader that I don't have listed on my weblog blogroll.
It's all done with mirrors... (kafclown) Fri 2 May 03 21:14
Hi Rebecca.... I've read your book and thought the insides were quite good (although I must confess that I don't like the cover at all. IMO, whoever designed the cover of the book needs to go back to design school (I hope it wasn't you! :o) ) For those of you who haven't seen the cover, it's at <http://tinyurl.com/avcd> It just doesn't say much about the book-- it's jarring, and the way that the text runs into each other doesn't really work for me. It's a good thing I don't judge a book by its cover! Was there discussion about the cover? Did you have any input in regards to that?
Rafe Colburn (rafeco) Sat 3 May 03 09:20
I just wanted to jump in and say "Hi." I don't have any questions right now, I just wanted to thank Rebecca for stopping by. I would like to add (apropos of Sean's comments above, perhaps), is that one of the best thing about weblogging in the past couple of years has been the explosion of weblogs by topic experts. A few years ago, I basically never linked to other blogs, because it was all so meta and I wanted to link to more original source material. Now tons of what I'd refer to as source material is being published first on weblogs. Obviously politics and tech are two big areas that get blanket coverage, but even those areas have grown so much more deep lately. I mean, the lead developer of Safari has a weblog where he talks about what he's working on and seeks comment from users. We have political weblogs written by mainstream journalists who are putting out some of their best stuff on personal sites (like Josh Marshall or the execrable Andrew Sullivan). The number of law related weblogs where some of the best legal coverage anywhere is being posted is just staggering right now. I don't know how any lawyer who cares about appellate law could avoid reading How Appealing these days (it's written by Howard Bashman). There are tons of other examples as well, and I think that as more people see how you can raise your professional stature by maintaining a site where you write intelligent stuff, I think this trend will only grow. I find it incredibly exciting to be able to read real expert level coverage of various fields without being tapped in to any great degree (like working in that field or even reading the trade rags from it).
Rebecca Blood (rebeccablood) Sat 3 May 03 14:27
> Jon: I find weblogs through blogrolls and pointers that others post. I'm always surprised how much great new voices are emerging. It's getting harder to keep track. < And from my referrers. Every so often I'll find a hit or two from an unfamiliar site, and if I have time I'll go check it out. Usually our set of interests mesh somewhat (or they wouldn't have linked to me in the first place) and--as you say, Jon--often the work is just wonderful. I'm constantly impressed with the number of talented amateurs who are writing on their weblogs every day. I'va also watched many a weblog go from being okay to being extremely well-written in just a matter of months. It's really true: writing every day is the best way to become a better writer. > Sean: I pretty much don't follow any site that doesn't have an RSS feed unless it's extraordinarily compelling in some other way. < I hear that from more and more people (many of whom write to request that I provide one.) It seems like RSS just exploded in the last year, going from something that Radio users and a few other techies were using, to an essential tool for a large number of people. Again, I think this has something to do with the large number of really high-quality weblogs being produced. People are trying to follow too many weblogs!
Rebecca Blood (rebeccablood) Sat 3 May 03 14:44
> Kafclown: Was there discussion about the cover? Did you have any input in regards to that? < There was a *lot* of discussion about the cover. My contract stipulated that I had input on the cover and book design. When I was presented with an early version of this cover, I rejected it: the last thing I wanted my book to be was another web safe green book. I had suggested a white cover--something that would match my own design aesthetic. But my editor suggested that white covers (especially when they are matte, as I wanted my book cover to be) got dirty quite quickly just sitting on the shelf. But as the book designer worked out more iterations of the design, two things happened: I grew to like it better, and we ran out of time. Perseus was quite keen to be first to market with a book on weblogs, so the writing and production schedules were quite accelerated. When we came down to the wire, I just told my editor to go with what we had: I had grown to like it, and I didn't think it was worth holding up production for. (I have to say, I'm not sure whether they really would have let me hold up production for this. I know they would have tried to accommodate me, but my contract says: "The Publisher shall consult with the Author on the text and jacket design". I would have expected them to just put their foot down at a certain point if they felt I was being unreasonable.) A few people have told me how attractive they think the book cover is, so the cover is a success in some circles. And I have noticed that the book stands out on the shelf, especially when it's turned facing out. So, I've come to quite like it.
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