Targeted Serendipity

Weblogs aren't just glorified pages of links and rambling personal sites; they are an antidote to mass media. According to the author of "The Weblog Handbook," Rebecca Blood, blogs are also bringing creative expression to everyday people when they need it most.

More established than a cult and less structured than a society, the international community of Webloggers is — like its chosen medium — difficult to define and even harder to miss. A hodgepodge of HTML programmers, part-time philosophers, and linkaholics, this scattered population shares one common penchant — no, make that obsession. The Weblog.

Since banding together three years ago, Webloggers have grown in number and in zeal. As the rest of the digital populace shriveled following the dotcom crash, the group grew more fervent, espousing the mighty power of the Weblog — or blog, for short — to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and CNN, among others. But before September 11, most outsiders dismissed blogs as glorified pages of links and rambling personal home pages. And for the most part, they were. Then the landscape shifted.

"I remember one Weblogger, a few weeks after the attacks, writing, 'The wind has changed direction. I was feeling better over the last few days, but the wind changed direction and I now can smell that smell again,' " says Rebecca Blood, a long-time blogger and community spokesperson. "You couldn't read that in the daily newspapers. After September 11, blogs offered a personal level of information and emotion that you couldn't get anywhere other than ground zero."

In the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks, traffic surged to Rebecca's Pocket and other link-heavy blogs as casual readers became fanatical news junkies. Blogs, they found, offered something ABC News and USA Today did not: a human filter on an information overload. Bloggers like Blood spent countless hours sifting through the news, selecting the most pertinent and compelling articles, and linking freely to them. Others simply shared a personal prayer or memory.

"Blogs became therapy," Blood says. "As a coping mechanism, people needed to make themselves feel useful, so they collected information for their blogs 24 hours a day. Others worked through their feelings by writing for an online audience, which forced them to clarify and explain their messy emotions."

In truth, blogs have always delivered personal connections, news filters, and therapeutic value for their writers and readers. September 11 just amplified all that, says Blood, author of the forthcoming book The Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice on Creating and Maintaining Your Blog (Perseus Publishing, June 2002). Since she began Rebecca's Pocket in 1999, blogging has also delivered a book deal and a marriage proposal to Blood. (Her husband, Jesse James Garrett, was the first blogger to link to Rebecca's Pocket. They married two years later.) She has seen the metamorphosis of blogs, and she's cheering for more change.

"The Web gives everybody a place to say their peace, talk about what they love, and share their stories," Blood says. "There's nothing more important than that."

The Opposite of Sticky

The origin of the Weblog is somewhat murky, but the name is easily traced back to an essay written in January 1999 by Cameron Barrett, maintainer of CamWorld since 1997. When Barrett published "Anatomy of a Weblog," the community coalesced. The first Webloggers — largely programmers with too much free time — began linking to each other, as well as to quirky Web sites and news sources reporting breakthroughs in the world of geeks. Occasionally, they posted off-color comments about the news and tried their hand at irreverence. Stickiness was a dirty word, and the best Weblogs achieved what Blood calls "targeted serendipity," pointing readers to things that they didn't know they wanted to see.

"The people who create Weblogs have an innate understanding of the Web that most business leaders do not," she says. "Bloggers look to the Web first for information — it's their window on the world. So it was the most natural thing in the world for them to send people away from their sites through links. That's what the Web is good for: sharing information. They understand that people will come every day to a site that sends them to other interesting places."

Back in the era of IPOs and E*Trade, bloggers also thought they could make money doing what they love. They imagined that companies, freelancers, and division managers would hire them to create and maintain Weblogs designed to foster internal communication or to build a professional reputation. The short, pitchy writing of Webloggers looks easy, but it's incredibly difficult to prompt a reader to click on any given link with just a 20-word description. Certainly the marketplace would value this skill, the bloggers reasoned.

"We thought that there would be maybe 100 of us in the end, and that bloggers would be in high demand," Blood says. "We didn't foresee the introduction of tools that would enable anyone to start a Weblog. And we certainly never thought half a million people would be interested in blogging."

Blogging for Dummies

The first Weblog management tool, Frontier, debuted more than a decade ago, but most early bloggers still updated their sites by hand. Then, in August 1999, a startup called Pyra Labs introduced Blogger and created "push-button publishing for the people." Weblogging would never be the same again.

"Tools like Blogger and Pitas.com ushered in the new age of pamphleteering — except now the printing press is a lot less expensive than it used to be," Blood says. "Thanks to the electronic revolution, people with no particular background and one piece of equipment can have a public voice. I think that's important."

As blogging became more accessible, it also became more nebulous. What was formerly an index of links, interspersed with some commentary and published in reverse chronological order, became something different to each new user. Bloggers were motivated not just by a need to share information but also by a desire to express themselves or to build a powerful reputation online. The form changed first.

"Early Webloggers were avid surfers," Blood says. "They would just get online and follow links because the Web was new and interconnected and so cool. Before, it was a novelty. Now it's a utility. Fewer people have the time or inclination just to follow weird links."

As a result, new bloggers began posting short-form diary entries sprinkled with a few links. Then the links grew fewer, and the personal content grew longer and more detailed. In 2000, blogs became online, reality-based soap operas. Then in 2001, the traditional media caught wind of Weblogs and transformed them into personal op-ed pages or minicolumns about popular culture, politics, and everything in between.

"It's an interesting wrinkle," Blood says. "People are extending the form, using the link as a springboard for their own thoughts on the war in Afghanistan or on a bill in front of Congress."

Also, the tone of Weblogs changed. Political discourse became less like discourse and more like shouting, Blood says. As new bloggers began taking communication tips from mainstream media, their blogs began offering less thought-provoking dialogue and more hit-you-over-the-head rhetoric.

"Bloggers have the opportunity to stop, reflect, and talk among themselves in a thoughtful way," she says. "I'd like to see Weblogs do more of that rather than imitate what the big boys are doing. Because a lot of what the big boys are doing is reprehensible."

Fad or Phenomenon?

According to Blood, today's definition of a Weblog invites broad translation: "a frequently updated Web site that is arranged in reverse chronological order." But as the medium continues to attract new people with different motives, a hazy definition is better, Blood says. It leaves room for more exploration and expansion.

Still, it seems unlikely that Weblogs will ever achieve mass commercialization. For one, online ads just don't work on blogs. People have tried — and failed — already. And what about corporate sponsorship of popular bloggers? Blood cringes at the thought.

"A Weblog is based entirely on trust," she says. "People come because they like to read what you write. If you suddenly began promoting Nokia cell phones on the side, news of it would come out quickly because this is a close-knit community. And that would be a tremendous breach of trust. It would be a scandal in the Weblog community because it goes against our entire ethic."

That ethic, she says, is all about fostering real connections based on trust, respect, and creativity. Bloggers don't need to write a novel — or even a complete sentence — to get their point across to a mass audience. In fact, many bloggers speak almost exclusively through the links they choose to feature, revealing corners of their personality with each piece of hypertext. In The Weblog Handbook, Blood writes, "Random observations, selected links, extended diatribes — accumulated, these elements resolve into a mosaic revealing a personality, a self."

"Weblogs are bringing creative expression to everyday people," she says. "This is a realm of nonspecialists. You are not up against Steven Spielberg and Vanessa Redgrave. You are just up against a bunch of people like you. And everyone's already applauding."

Anni Layne Rodgers (arodgers@fastcompany.com) is the Fast Company senior Web editor. Contact Rebecca Blood (rebecca@rebeccablood.net) via email.

Sidebar: Blogging 101

Like any self-respecting counter culture, Webloggers have developed their own distinct dialogue and vocabulary. Here is just a sampling of the lexicon — a few choice terms featured in the glossary to We've Got Blog: How Weblogs are Changing Our Culture (Perseus Publishing, June 2002).

Blogdex 1. (n) A site developed by MIT media laboratories to track the appearance of memes in the blogging community.

Blogorrhea 1. (n) The tendency of bloggers to begin posting the minutiae of their life in an effort to keep their weblog active.

Flamebait 1. (n) A link, comment or post purposefully written to create a strong reaction from other posters. The goal behind flamebait is to start a flamewar on the discussion.

Fram 1. (n) Spam from friends. E-mails of jokes, lists, web sites and interesting tidbits with huge distribution lists are often forwarded and forwarded to others.

Linkslut 1. (n) A website owner who loves to be linked by other webpages. 2. (n) A website owner who often links to several other sites or blogs in their community in hopes of receiving a link back.

Slashdot, /.. 1. (n) A community weblog focused on technology and computer news. Owned by OSDN Inc. (Open Source Development Network), Slashdot is also an example of an open source weblog.

Troll, trolling 1. (v) To read webpages without commenting or adding content. 2. (v) To post to a discussion group an incorrect or incendiary comment in order to create responses. 3. (n) One who trolls.

The WELL 1. (n) The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link was developed in 1985 and became one of the first online communities to form. It was the first virtual community, founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation and set the stage for current Web culture. It is currently owned by Salon Media Group.

From the book We've Got Blog: How Weblogs are Changing Our Culture. Copyright © 2002. Reprinted by permission of Perseus Publishing. All rights reserved.

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