What’s the deal with blogging?

Subtitled “Explaining blogging to my mother.”
I’m starting off my What’s the Deal series with blogging, because without blogging there wouldn’t be a What’s the Deal series. I imagine everything in here will be somewhat old news to most of my regular audience, but I’m writing this for the people who want to understand what these “blogs” they keep hearing about are.
It’s an incredible act of hubris on my part to say “this is blogging” and “this is why it’s important.” There are already far too many people explaining blogging online (mostly on blogs, natch), you’ll get a much more rounded idea of why blogging is so big if you seek out those resources.
Updated in response to comments from my mother.

What it is

Blog is short for weblog, and while it’s not the most attractive word at first, it becomes surprisingly catchy and utilitarian. A blog at its simplest is a website with small-ish updates called posts from an author. Even this general definition excludes many blogs though; posts are not always small (this post being a case in point) and many times have several authors or even thousands of authors on sites like MetaFilter. Posts are arranged on the site so that the newest one is at the top so that blog readers can quickly catch up on a blog as soon as they visit, no need to hunt for updates.
Blogs are typically open in lots of ways. Most blogging systems allow people to leave comments, and many allow other blogs to get a link back from a post they’ve linked to (called a TrackBack). They also are open about mistakes or updates; they’re forgiven as long as they come out but the failure to correct a mistake can be widely criticized.
Most definitions of blogs stop with the format, but I’d like to add one more qualification: the blog voice.
While many corporate and news sites maintain a professional air, bloggers are much more informal and personal (although this isn’t always the case, as I’ll show in a moment). Posts aren’t edited for content — or sometimes even grammar and spelling — and are usually posted just after they’re written. The closest thing I can think of to the blog voice is the style of an email written to a group of friends. The only difference is that it shows up on the web and winds up in Google’s cache and the Internet Archive’s servers and could remain accessible to a much larger audience.
Bloggers also link to things. A lot. One of the big breakthroughs of blogging was the idea of giving each post a unique address so that other bloggers could link to it, called a permalink. Suddenly, people were posting replies to other posts on their own sites, which got replies on more sites. This interlinking became known as the blogosphere.

Why it’s important

ABC News named bloggers as 2004’s people of the year. Their reasoning? Bloggers influenced the year in politics and news. Bloggers unseated Trent Lott in 2002, they fact checked Dan Rather and they provided first hand accounts of the tsunami. Some people paint a battle between traditional news media and bloggers, but the two have a symbiotic relationship. Bloggers scout stories and, through linking, filter the good stuff. Traditional news can use the blogosphere as a source of tips and story ideas, then the blogosphere will react and respond to the news story.
Ultimately it’s about giving people a way to be heard. One of the most popular blogging tools is named Movable Type after Gutenberg’s invention, both of which took a publishing tool reserved for the elite and made it accessible to the masses. Of course, when you enable so many people to speak there’s bound to be some bad stuff, but the good stuff is really good and you’ll find that you gravitate towards the good blogs. Blogs aren’t always written for everyone in the world to read and so it may seem at first glance some are completely devoid of content. However, one person’s inane drivel is another’s interesting commentary; even though you can’t understand why someone would feel the need to publish a description of how their dog cheered them up the author’s friends probably enjoyed reading it.
That voice doesn’t necessarily need to be heard around the world though. Many people write in their blogs to keep their friends and families updated on their life. While a daily email telling your social circle about what happened to you might start to be a bit much for people, with a weblog people approach it on their own timeframe and won’t feel overwhelmed with the same amount of posts.
Blogs aren’t even limited to text. Sites like Flickr allow people to post pictures to their blogs from their camera phones, and videoblogging is starting to take hold. The things they have in common are the open format and the personal voice.

Blogging in business

Some companies are even using the blogger voice to join the blogosphere. The 1999 essay The Cluetrain Manifesto outlined 95 theses that described how companies could participate in a marketplace that is a conversation, which is exactly what blogs have created. Perhaps the most visible example of this is Microsoft’s Robert Scoble, who is consistently credited with putting a “human face” on the corporate giant.
By blogging, a company is able to immediately interact with its customers instead of slowly reacting to changes in the market. Take, for example, what happened when Six Apart announced new licensing terms for Movable Type that outraged their users. Because they allowed TrackBacks on the announcement (go ahead and look at all the TrackBacks on that post), they were able to track what was being said and react with new licensing terms. What’s more, if you look at posts from that time period, you’ll see that they were having a conversation with their customers about the licensing terms instead of saying “this is the way it is, deal with it.”
Companies can also benefit from blogging internally, meaning that the blogs are visible on the intranet but not the public internet. Employees documenting their work on an internal blog make it easy for people to keep track of what’s going on, as well as share knowledge and information. Employees who take the initiative to blog can be a valuable resource by making it easier for other employees to do their jobs, while increasing their own visibility in a company. The down side is that some employers frown on this and people have been fired for blogging, or “Dooced.”
To get an idea of how important the blogging voice is especially with corporate blogging, take a look at what happens when a large company manages to get it right. Luckily the blogging voice is your own natural writing style, the one that you use to email your friends so it’s fairly easy to get right.

How to get started

Reading Blogs

So how do you go about finding blogs worth reading? Once you find one, it’s fairly easy to find more.
Most blogs have a list of other blogs that the author likes off to the side, sometimes referred to as a blogroll. Also, bloggers link to other blogs that they like in their posts, so there’s a good chance if you like a blogger you’ll like what they’re linking to.
If you don’t read at least one blog, a good way to start is to pick a news story online that interests you, something covering one of your interests or hobbies, and search for it at Technorati. You’ll get a list of blogs covering the story, and you can see what else they wrote too.
You’ll also come across blogs when you are searching the web. The next time you come across one take a look at the site’s main page and what else they have to say.
(Note to the geeks: I’ll be covering RSS later, but for people who want to skip ahead they should check out Bloglines)

Writing Blogs

It’s easier than you think to get set up with your own blog. There are a number of free services like Blogger, LiveJournal and Xanga or paid services like TypePad that will help you set up your blog. Most of them have WYSIWYG editors, which means you don’t need to know HTML to post. Each site has its own merits, and you should look at them all to see what they offer.
So now that you have a blog, what should you write about? Think of it as an email to everyone. Some people keep an online journal so that their friends and family members can keep up with them. Other people (like me) use it as a place to throw stuff out, an outboard brain as it were. Write whatever you want, you’ll be surprised how many people are actually interested in what you have to say.
I realize that I’m repeating myself by describing blogging as an email to everyone, but it’s the best description that I’ve heard. Other explanations I’ve seen describe it as a giant discussion forum distributed between millions of sites, an online opinion column and a personal journal shared with the world. They’re all true, but like all abstractions they miss some of the value of blogging. Your best bet is to approach blogging with an open mind and take it for what it is.

More information

I’m certainly not the only person to blog about blogging (the only more common type of post is blogging about not blogging) so here are some other resources to check out.

4 thoughts on “What’s the deal with blogging?

  1. I found this extremely well written and understandable. I know why you wanted my comments. If I could understand it, anyone could. I did. And they can.
    The relationship between blogging and media was an eye opener for me. And you included all the points I was wondering about (drivel, organization). I didn’t really understand why a corporation would blog, tho.
    I’m always impressed by your talent and initiative.

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