by Jessamyn West
Thanks for having me. I'm here to talk about blogs, in general and in specific and to give a little history about where they came from and why (I think) they became "a thing" and really changed the world. Happy to answer questions afterwards if people have them.
I'll try to keep my vocabulary non-technical, but if I wind up saying words you don't know, it's accidental and it's my fault. Please wave or something and I'll explain them. I was specifically asked for a no-slides talk about this so instead of show and tell it's going to be more about telling stories.
Freedom of the press, the cynics say, is for those who own them. My take on blogging is that it's a trend? a tool? a process? for making more of us--all of us if we want to--into publishers, creators and sharers. You don't have to own the press anymore, the means of production are available to anyone who can type in a box. This isn't quite everyone, not yet, but it's a lot of us, and it's a powerful tool.
First, a bit about me. I come from a blogging tradition and one of the things that blogs tend to be (though not always) is personal so think of this as my "About me" page. I'm a local gal. I grew up in Boxboro, my father worked for Data General out in Westboro, (so I got computers sort of early) my mother (hi Mom!) was a writer, now retired, also does photography, has a photo blog. I went to Hampshire College and then library school in Seattle in 1993. You can actually read about me on Wikipedia, where I am described as Jessamyn West "librarian and blogger" to differentiate me from Jessamyn West "writer", so if you think you recognize my name from somewhere, you're probably right though you might not be thinking about me.
I have two things that could be considered sort of standard blogs, one of which is I guess a personal blog (at jessamyn.com/journal), and one of which is a more professional blog at librarian.net. The library one is the more recent blog and it's fifteen years old next month.
I started librarian.net originally because I found that the domain name was available and I thought "Hmm what could I put here?" I was working in a community college library and active in the American Library Association and I wanted a way to share information with colleagues without putting everyone on a mailing list or starting a zine. Colin Powell was speaking at the ALA conference and I Had Opinions About That. I put up a few links with commentary on that and other topics every few days or so and it's grown from there. Now I write longer essays for it every few weeks and spend more time interacting with colleagues on facebook and twitter and sometimes on their own blogs (as well as in person) than writing on my own blog. I'm coming to talk to you much more as Jessamyn the Blogger than as Jessamyn the Blogging Librarian.
There's a handout you have which has some selected links you might like to explore and a web address for reading the hyperlinked version of this talk. One of the side effects of having been a blogger for so long is that I see links in my head as I'm writing or talking, sort of "see also" references for more information on any particular subject. The added functionality that hyperlinking can give our narratives can not be overstated.
Right now I live in Central Vermont (Randolph) where I teach basic computer classes to adults at a vocational high school (really basic, things like "where are my files?") and I also have an internet job running a massive online blog which I'll talk more about later.
I did a quick "What do you think of when you think of blogging?" survey of some of my colleagues and their answers fell into three general categories
- "those awful 'what I had for lunch' people!"
- VPR/Vermont Historical Society/newsish stuff in blog format
- keeping current professionally, reading about other people in the field, buying products, and reading product reviews
So let's back up a little and talk about where blogs came from and actually what they ARE. I see the evolution of blogging as having a few distinct eras.
1994- 2001: DIY Era
People started keeping little lists of web links as early as 1994 when the first research universities were getting connected to the internet and computer science students were poking around in it. Some early websites had "What's new" pages that were literally lists of what pages are new on the internet.
I mentioned Data General, their web address dg.com was one of the first 50 domains (explain) registered on the internet. Now it points to Dollar General. Times change.
The graphical web hit in late 1994 and I was living in Eastern Europe at the time. Who remembers their first web page? Mine was about caves, and was entirely in Romanian. Before I went to Romania there was no "WWW". If I wanted to learn about the country I had to read books or email strangers or sometimes dig some stuff up on usenet, the text-based precursor to online discussion forums. Now I can look at hundreds of photos of Romanian Fashion Bloggers on Pinterest within seconds.
Starting around 95-97, about as soon as you could create and edit web content, people started making blogs. Writing on the web. Talking about things and setting up little pointers, links to other content, where people could go to read other things on the web. The same year that google.com registered its domain name, Jorn Barger described his links collection as a weblog. Previously the word weblog used to mean the logfiles that a computer would create as a record of its activities, pages and pages of I DID THIS I DID THIS I DID THIS updates that no one would ever read. I found this new semantic coinage amusing.
The things that made early blogs different from just a web page with a list of links was
- rotating content, currency, updates, dates - DYNAMIC
- new stuff on top, pushing old stuff off the bottom
- usually personal, not like dear diary personal (not always, this is an open debate) but reflecting the personality of the maintainer, more informal than what you'd read on business websites
- soon after came features like comments, permalinks, archives, blogrolls, RSS and subscription options. Early blogs had these things "bolted on" if they had them at all.
So now freedom of the press was for anyone who could edit HTML (hypertext markup language) blablabla I know it sounds like computer programming but anyone who has used WordPerfect, the escape codes? Something like that.
But you did need to type out all the code by hand and do all the file transferring and whatnot yourself, very DIY. It was time consuming, labors of love for many. That said, when I was growing up with my Atari 2600, computers were video games and this was another way of playing around and learning stuff and sharing some of yourself while you did it.
Some blogs were personal... Mine was an early "what I've been doing in Seattle so my mom doesn't worry if she hasn't heard from me in a few days" sort of thing--some were professional, some were very narrowly topic-based (a few good library ones including Research Buzz and Jenny's Cybrary) most were a combination of these things. A few that I remember from that time were
- Camworld.org had nothing to do with cameras, the guy's name was Cameron. Do not go to camworld.com. He's now the Head of Web Site Innovation & Strategy at Newark Public Schools. The blogroll (explain) on his site points to the 100+ blogs that were around and "popular" back in the beginning.
- jjg.net Jesse James Garret set up an early TPOOWL (the portal of only weblogs) which was another list of other people with weblogs which was how we found each other. He founded the Adaptive Path consulting firm, wrote a seminal book on user experience and is married to another early weblog founder
- Rebecca Blood her blogging name, writes about food, community, blogging, domestic engineering. Wrote The Weblog Handbook. They met via their blogs, got married.
Anil Dash/Alaina Browne (dashes/serious eats)
Jason Kottke/Meg Hourihan (kottke/megnut)
The funny thing about early blogging was that a lot of us knew each other, at least online and sometimes offline. You could have a "blogger meetup" in someplace like Seattle or San Francisco or DC and ten, maybe 15, people would show up. Now thanks to sites like Upcoming.org a site started by Andy Baio, an early blogger, who also was an early employees at Kickstarter) and meetup.com ( and related sites/tools/apps the idea of getting together with people you've never met before doesn't sound totally crazy. Back then it didn't feel like you didn't know these people because you'd been reading their blogs. You knew about them, or what they'd decided to tell you about themselves.
There were a few mailing lists out there that most of the early bloggers belonged to. Email was still the tool for rapid communication and in some circles it still is. It was on one of these mailing lists that the word "blog" was coined as both a noun and a verb. I was there. I saw it! It appeared in the OED in 2003. A lot of these people didn't just have blogs but they were creating and designing tools for blogs, to help other people blog and get online. I don't mean to name drop as I tell you who some of these people are, it's just sometimes good to know when a scene is starting. And this scene was unusual in that it wasn't full of celebrities of any stripe, it was full of nerds. Tinkerers and programmers and graphic artists and writers.
In 1999 the big SXSW music festival (that had started a film/multimedia arm a few years previously) officially branded their web conference SXSW Interactive. In 2000 a lot of early bloggers from all over the U.S. got to meet each other in Austin Texas and talk shop in a sort of legitimized setting. There was a blogger party at author and Austin native Bruce Sterling's house where maybe 40-50 of us got to nerdily hang out and exchange URLs. There was a recent article about this in Fast Company taglined "how an unlikely mix of nerds, rock-and-roll hippie freaks, and business suits grew into the tech worlds most-talked-about annual gathering"
One of the people I met there was Matt Haughey. He created one of the first group blogs which is called MetaFilter, the idea being that instead of a singular person blogging about neat stuff they found online on their own space, it could be a place where anyone could post links to share to the front page and people could comment on that post. Sounds pretty standard now but it was new and different at the time. I was an early member of MetaFilter.
Everyone has their first "This was when I realized the power of blogs" moment.
Mine was the 2001 Seattle earthquake. I was at home and the house shook and kept shaking for a while. I was from the east coast and wasn't really familiar with earthquakes and like many other people wondered "What just happened"
Newspaper websites wouldn't have the news for several hours, if then. Nowadays someone can go to USGS's Did You Feel It site and look at the last few days of worldwide earthquakes.
But I got on to MetaFilter where other people in my loose geographic area were discussing what had just happened
"Big earthquake hits downtown Seattle I'm sitting at work in the Real Networks building. We have just experienced close to a minute of jostling and shaking. There is now a six foot crack on the wall of my office. Looking around, nothing appears to have fallen over, but there are crowds of people on the sidewalks. [I'll post a link in a comment when king5 gets around to reporting it.]"For many of us this blog's comments area provided a way to share news, stories and information with a lot of people all at the same time. Short of being face to face with people, there was no other way to have this sort of timely communication with this many people if you didn't own a tv or radio station.
"CNN still has no news, but is now showing "breaking news: earthquake hits seattle, details soon""
"Hi my name is Aaron. I was asleep at my home in Interbay (lower Queen Anne) yesterday during the earthquake. My brother was in my home recording studio in my living room (we are both musicians) recording some acoustic guitar tracks. Right when he hit record to do a take the earthquake started. It came out great. Here is an mp3 of the recording in case you're interested. "
In fact, oddly, the following story hit while I was working on this talk
"Early Monday morning, Los Angeles suffered the strongest earthquake it had seen in 20 years. The 4.4-magnitude seismic event woke up sleeping Angelenos, but thankfully did little additional damage.
The quake came at 6:25 a.m. Eight minutes later, the Los Angeles Times had posted a story about the quake. It had an odd final paragraph:
This information comes from the USGS Earthquake Notification Service and this post was created by an algorithm written by the author. Indeed, the a story was written by a program, but read like normal newspaper prose. "
Many more people learned about blogging later in the year when 9/11 happened. Keeping track of what was known and unknown in a situation of unclear and unverified rumor and allegations was increasingly challenging, frustrating and just plain difficult. People had more unanswered questions than the not-yet-24-hour news cycle could answer. People discussed theories (conspiracy and otherwise) on blogs since this was before newspapers were really very online, much less had comments sections.
It's always been my assertion that post-9/11 America was when people started talking about looking stuff up on the internet as if it were "research" When they thought of the web as a place to go find information and not just to read press releases.
Nowadays we have people setting up Tumblrblogs within hours of breaking news to collect and share information like Where is MH370.
2001-2004: Simple platform, evolving "features", business uses
Blogging wasn't just for techies anymore in the early new century. Simple tools had been created, for the most part by early bloggers, allowing anyone with internet access to make a blog for free. You may be familiar with Blogger (bought by Google) or Movable Type or LiveJournal or you may have even heard of more recent options like WordPress. Anyone with an email address (I think you needed email) and access to a computer could sign up for an account and start a blog. For free. And features like commenting and permalinking (a permanent link that would go to an individual post or comment) were mature now. You could cross-talk between blogs, link to other people's comments, move the conversation around.
Businesses were starting to use this as a tool to connect more informally with customers. Blogging for Business!
And you know how businesses are. They see communication and advertising/marketing as the same thing. Business blogs were sometimes (often) just another place to put press releases. No comments. Barely blogs. This was sort of an evolution and a professionalization of the blog form but also, some felt, a corruption of it.
This prompted a widely heard response from some longtime bloggers and tech pundits: The Cluetrain Manifesto which broke down, for businesses, the fact that they no longer controlled the dissemination of facts about their products. People were talking about them and not just talking TO them but talking to each other about them. Here's a short quote.
"Through the Internet, the people in your markets are discovering and inventing new ways to converse. They're talking about your business. They're telling one another the truth, in very human voices. It's making them smarter and it's enabling them to discover their human voices. You have two choices. You can continue to lock yourself behind facile corporate words and happytalk brochures. Or you can join the conversation."Sort of a shot over the bow: Learn to work within this new paradigm or become increasingly irrelevant. Ignore it at your peril. People could discuss and link to their own real experiences with products, institutions and other people and that information would be on the web right alongside promotional materials. For a long time, a post on my blog was the top hit on Google for (excuse my language) "Greyhound sucks"
I had a ticket to fly on 9/11 and my flight was grounded and I wound up through a complicated series of circumstances taking a 22 hour bus ride home. My bus driver sped, the Greyhound website said they were taking "every measure" to ensure our safety in a confusing and scary world and at some point in the middle of the night he picked up a hitchhiker (I wish I were kidding). So I not only wrote a letter and mailed it, which is what you do, but I published my letter on my blog, and other people linked to it, and it got around some. And I'm not sure if that was a fact in my favor when Greyhound decided to refund my money, but it didn't hurt.
Blogging meant you could also link to other media, bring things to people's attention. Journalists and wanna-be journalists were blogging especially in the run-up to the 2004 election.
An early big blogging story came in 2002, when then U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott made some comments at a (public) party for Senator Strom Thurmond by suggesting that the United States would have been better off had Thurmond been elected president. While this was reported barely at all initially in the mainstream media, it gained traction among bloggers, notably Talking Points Memo, an early political blog, linking to the remarks and to Thurmond's '48 "Dixiecrat" campaign supporting segregation and other racist policies. Blogging raised awareness and forced Lott to step down as majority leader.
Running up to the 2004 election, candidates Howard Dean and Wesley Clark both had blogs. The Democratic National Convention decided to do something unprecedented and invited bloggers to apply for press-type credentials at the annual convention in Boston. I was one of a short list of invited bloggers and, to me, this was one of the things that put blogging-as-something-possibly-serious on the map. We were given a small series of tables and chairs and power outlets way up in the nosebleed seats at the Boston Garden. We got mainstream media converage, we (mostly) wrote seriously about the political goings-on, we got to meet Howard Dean, and Senator Obama, many people eager to see what all the "buzz" was about with this new way of sharing content. Bloggers were on The Daily Show. People created blogrolls of all the posts that people were writing from the DNC (explain RSS) and suddenly small audiences got big. Or it seemed that way.
By early 2005 62% of americans still didn't know what a blog was. It had been in the dictionary for a few years but we were still in a situation where only 33% of Americans had broadband and another 28% had dialup (contrasted in September 2013 with 70% and 2% respectively).
2005- 2008: General adoption Era White House, every company ever, online people
A few years changes a lot. During the teach/housing/everything bubble of 2005 through 2008 the idea of "online" changed from being a niche space to being a Fifth estate, a not-quite the media collection of "'networked individuals' enabled by the Internet in ways that can hold the other estates (bourgeiosie, church, media, government) accountable."
The tools got easier, and the personalization and ways of connecting with other people got more sophisticated. In the past a lot of connection was made through reciprocal commenting and linking. Now the new tools included options to follow/favorite with special options available to people who co-linked each other like sending direct/private messages. People looked at the money Howard Dean had been able to raise "online" and got the message that engaging with people online was also good for business.
- 2005 was when I went from superfan to "community manager" of MetaFilter, that same old group blog with a gradually expanding userbase and the same old blog format. We brought in money through memberships and Google ads and I had a day job not as a blogger but as someone who managed a blog. However other people were able to make money just through creating large audiences for their blogs and selling ad space or using it to attract consulting work. The media started hiring bloggers to write for them, still maintaining (temporarily) the division between reporting and blogging.
- 2006 was when facebook became open to the general public and not just college/school age people. Facebook encouraged linking, tagging, sharing.
- 2007 was when Twitter "broke" and became popularized at SXSW as a good way to get short updates to a large number of people, quickly.
- 2007 was when Tumblr (simple blogging platform, good for mobile) got started and the idea of "reblogging" became a popular way to share content.
- 2007 was when I CAN HAZ CHEESEBURGER launched officially making "funny cat pictures" an idea with its own website and beginning to popularize the idea of zipping funny pictures around.
2008-now: Here Comes Everyone - the sharing
And then something happens: this whole blogging thing didn't just catch on, it became normal. Although that's not really true. It went from being more of a thing you did "I blogged about that" to a way of talking about interacting with content online. More people had the ability to interact with online content. Half of Americans own a smartphone, over half are banking online. Nearly every library in the country offers public internet access and classes on how to get connected.
More media was available in blog-native format. Websites like gossip magazine TMZ or productivity tipsters LifeHacker became places you could work as well as things that you read. People became aware that writing compelling content online could get you hired, could be your job, could help you meet people and could help you find a platform for your ideas in a much shorter timeframe than becoming a published author or going into academia. In post-recession America, tech jobs were still out there.
By this time I had become the director of operations for MetaFilter and I had, as I have now, a staff of eight. We hit our 100,000th user in 2007 and auctioned the usernumber off for charity. We have over 50,000 active users from every continent (though mostly in the US, UK, Australia and Japan). Our job is mainly keeping people on our part of the internet from fighting with each other. A lot of people see the place as the online equivalent to their local pub, they show up, sees who's around, say hello. Our blog has expanded to include a Q&A site where members can interact with other members and ask them questions in blog format: Where's a good BBQ place in Memphis, Why does my cat do this (answer: cats are weird) and "Hey can anyone help me solve this puzzle." Occasionally a discussion thread on our site would become the news. I've included two examples on the handout.
- code: the hive mind solves a problem together
- vienna address: the wide net allows just the right person to see your question
All this at a time when blogging as an activity is actually decreasing among younger people. "Few of the activities covered in this report have decreased in popularity for any age group, with the notable exception of blogging. Only half as many online teens work on their own blog as did in 2006, and Millennial generation adults ages 18-33 have also seen a modest decline in development that may be related to the quickly-growing popularity of social network sites. At the same time, however, bloggings popularity increased among most older generations, and as a result the rate of blogging for all online adults rose slightly overall from 11% in late 2008 to 14% in 2010. Yet while the act formally known as blogging seems to have peaked, internet users are doing blog-like things in other online spaces as they post updates about their lives, musings about the world, jokes, and links on social networking sites and micro-blogging sites such as Twitter."
I often joked that when Twitter was first starting to get prominent enough so that businesses had a presence there but not so much that everyone would try to contact them that way, that this was the yuppie backdoor to tech support.
Did you know that the Mass RMV is on Twitter? (or their wait times are?) I didn't either really until I had a problem with a car I was trying to register and the phone would just ring and ring and no one would answer my email. A quick "tweet" to the Mass Department of Transportation got me in contact with an omsbudsman who actually helped me solve my issue. Is it blogging? Not really, but it's the same "power of blogs" that we first got an inkling of back in 1998, being made real for more people, more of the time.
Of course there are downsides. The more a business learns that their Google ranking and "reach" translates into real money, the more they are incented to game the system. There is a whole industry built around improving page rankings (SEO, or search engine optimization) in both legitimate and non-legitimate ways. My personal concern is that we're getting a distorted view of privacy when popular websites who have a vested interest in getting access to more of your personal information make design decisions that make opting out of public information display complicated and confusing. This especially affects younger people and those new to technology. I'm a grizzled old veteran in some cases, so when I blog I have a fairly good sense of just how much exposure my words will get, but is that true for everyone? Does everyone understand the social impacts of blogging?
And then there's the "Internet as passive entertainment box" issue. Clay Shirky is an internet pundit who has written a lot of thins I agree with. He came out with a new book recently called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He's a big fan of people using the internet to self-organize and come together temporarily to work on projects like Wikipedia. His concern is that we're too used to being consumers of information not creators of it. His quote:
"Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan's Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up, and then they don't? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half-hour I wasn't posting to my blog, or editing Wikipedia, or contributing to a mailing list."So now we have a bunch of different ways to blog
- Tumblr SIMPLE blogging
- Twitter - microblogging
- Facebook "social utility" group blogging
- Instagram picture blogging
- Podcasting sound blogging
- YouTube - vlogging
This can lead to a bit of a phenomenon that MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte coined and legal scholar Cass Sunstein likes to talk about The Daily Me where we go online and only engage with the people who share our beliefs, and we can get a misguided notion about the relative prevalence of our ideas as a result. Even though I like to blog and interact with bloggers, everyone isn't blogging, or tweeting, or even on facebook. I have a sister who is a wonderful connected and social person and facebook doesn't solve a problem for her so she doesn't use it. She survives.
As I was tracking down some of the links for this talk I asked people to point out to me other sites that they enjoyed. For the first time in a while I really took some time out to just explore a whole bunch of new blogs and new people I hadn't encountered before (see handout). I was really moved by the vivid sense-memory I had of doing this back in 1996, 1997, discovering new people and new things and making friends and finding like-minded people to live with and work with and interact with and really thinking "This is going to change everything" and I think that's true in a few ways. Certainly I wouldn't be who I am today if it wasn't for my blogging activities, both personal and professional.
And I think society has changed. People are expected to be more accountable for their ideas. People expect to be able to interact with the companies we do business with, with the institutions that we interact with, with people who are like us, and who are not like us. There's a truism in programmer circles "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow" and I think there's a similar thing that you can say about society. I'm a big fan of privacy personally, but I also like to know the truth about our institutions and the things that affect me and I think having a voice is important, it's one of the reasons I became a librarian. I think with enough blogs all culture is accessible, and sharable.
Freedom of the press is for those who want one. Thank you for your time and attention.
50 Watts - book design and illustration
Arts & Letters Daily - curated culture
BibliOdyssey - lovely & bookish
Bookslut and BookTryst - book lovers
Books and their Covers
Library of Congress Blogs
The Millions - Books and Reviews
Neil Gaiman's blog
NYPL - blogs
Ptak Science Books - personally curated science math and tech book trivia
ReadWrite - tech/apps news
Save NYPL Blog
I've made a few small edits to the earlier draft of this to fix factual errors. - jw