Blogs: differing definitions

Internet | Lexicon
Don’t confuse this website with a blog. It isn’t one, even though it shares similar characteristics with them, such as recent articles with lead-ins on the front page.

After all, datelines aren’t particularly new, and the lead-in size may just the fittest format for web publishing. Even The New York Times on the Web uses short lead-ins. It’s important to understand what a blog is, and how it fits into the evolution of the media, so we can see where it’s going. On a Meet the Press roundtable on 1/11, Tim Russert jokingly asked the assembled reporters, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a blogger?” The response was that not all online writing was a blog. “There’s a difference between writing and typing,” quipped Roger Simon.

Why is this important? On a recent “Blogging the President” radio special, host Christoper Lydon entertained some thoughts. One was whether media institutions such as the New York Times would begin blogging. Another was from Andrew Sullivan, who expressed that his blog let him do what his real journalism job wouldn’t allow: writing quick, unedited, off-the-cuff observations. If that is the standard thrust of a blog (we’ll check against the definition) where does it bring any value to the Times? Blog advocates could be disappointed by the lack of participation on the part of “traditional media”– when in fact, they would all benefit from improved levels of dialogue (which wouldn’t necessarily happen through blogs at all).

Here’s some popular definitions used on the Internet:

  1. typically run by a single person (OED) Web site of personal or non-commercial origin that (WHAT)
  2. uses a dated log format (WI), reversed-chronological format (RB), ordered chronologically from newest to oldest (ROOTS)
  3. that is updated on a daily or very frequent basis (WHAT) are often-updated sites (DW)
  4. which contains periodic posts in a common webspace (WIKI) of personal observations, excerpts from other sources, etc (OED), that point to articles elsewhere on the web, often with comments, and to on-site articles (DW)
  5. an online journal or diary (OED), (DRUPAL)

Sources: WHAT (, Google reports 81 mentions of this definition), RB = (Rebecca Blood, Weblogs and Journalism in the Age of Participatory Media), ROOTS= (BlogRoots), OED= (“Oxford English Dictionary’s Draft Definition of a weblog”, DW= weblog pioneer (Dave Winer’s “History of Weblogs” in Oct. 2001) DRUPAL= (Drupal terminology)

Definitions 2,3,4 could easily apply to an online magazine, like Slate or Salon or Hotwired, some of the longest-published magazines special to the Internet. The published articles are updated every day, and not surprisingly, the newest articles show up on top. The “personal or non-commercial origin” clause is rather curious as it more reflects the origins of the blog movement. A more succinct desription may be that blogs come from “ultra-vanity” publishers. Vanity publishers, in different contexts, refer to publishers of magazines which are money-losing operations (The New Yorker, Harper’s), and also to books where the author needs to put up the money. The blogger does not invest money as much as time, with the payoff being a wider readership for their thoughts.

So, what is the difference?

Let’s look at Slate, which has been an evolutionary playground for all types of online journalism (remember the in 1997 Hackathalon, where journalists were challenged, in four rounds, to deliver articles between 750-1000 words within 2 hours? Apparently I’m the online one– Google has one link on this. This may be the second one. But thanks to the blogosphere, the Hackathalon is all around us now.*)

Slate features a couple of regular columnists, Timothy Noah and Mickey Kaus, who provide a first-person commentary on politics. Noah’s Chatterbox column is very endearing to readers (this one at least), for his breezy, personal accounts of digging into stories, tracking sources, following other reporter’s coverage of stories (one example: finding out how it is that a 1960 DeSoto with an Oregon license plate 2Z351 ended up in one of Saddam Hussein’s garages) . Chatterbox entries are often the shortest in Slate, but hardly come more than once a day. kausfiles has a similar first-person style, and also mostly covers the political horserace. But kausfiles’s entries come fast and furious, like the “crawl” at the bottom of the all-news networks screens. It uses a dated log format (with some 3 weeks worth of writing), and thus bills itself a blog. (Incidentally, Slate regularly features a guest diarist each week, but no one has ever called that a blog).

So, all it comes down to is that kausfiles is written quickly, and posted immediately after it’s written. Chatterbox (and the weekly diaries) I would suspect take more time and are edited. Are we, as readers, after speed or perfection? And just as important, what is more important to us as writers?

What we really want

Certainly, weblogs drove the participatory media revolution. Blogs inspired software like Drupal and Scoop, which finally provide fundamental frameworks for communities to use at low-cost. The RSS (RDF Syndication Service) provides a standard way of pushing articles posted on one site to others. Brilliant!

Still, “blog” carries the connotation of the self-focused journal; that may not be for everyone. Also, the bar has been set high to demand frequent updates and name-dropping of others in the blogosphere. This, too, may discourage writing from people who aren’t frequent updaters.

In the Drupal software, Blogs are just one facet of content. This particular entry is technically a “story”. My Civ classification for this piece is a “response”, which should affect how people read it. Rebecca Blood, in the article referenced previously, reaches a similar conclusion: “As weblog software evolves into content management software, look for a surge of other kinds of online publications, many of which will be updated periodically instead of continually. If these publications employ a weblog, it will be as an annotated table of contents rather than as the focus of the site.”

So, will the blog label carry forth? Or will we come up with a name to encompass the old dream of hypertext pioneers– Vannevar Bush’s Memex, Howard Rheingold’s Virtual Communities, or Computer-Mediated Communications? For a time the word was “webzine”. Webzine itself was a contraction of web and “magazine”, which has been in use since 1731. It had originally had been adopted into English in the 16th century, from the Arabic makhazin, meaning storehouse, particulary for arms. Even after the the periodical definition caught on, the makers of machine guns needed a name for the container which stores the cartridges– hence, magazine. Blog fits in as a neat, short, congugatable name, alongside the other neologisms of the Internet: ebay, evite, google, meetup. And it’s even been made a “Word of the Year” for 2003, and is now in the O.E.D.

Like tabloid— which, strictly speaking, is a newspaper half the size of a broadsheet– the blog may become a victim of association. There’s a handful of blogs which are consistently readable and fascinating, while the vast millions are of uneven quality. While many made the same quantitative comparison of the early Internet homepages several years ago (quoting what is known as Sturgeon’s Law– “90% of everything is crap”), blogs have a large number of boosters. But such boosterism has engendered sharp cynicism. The online Urban Dictionary of slang has attracted over twenty-five popular definitions of blog, and only three of them are complimentary. Here’s the definition according to one detractor: “Short for weblog. A meandering, blatantly uninteresting online diary that gives the author the illusion that people are interested in their stupid, pathetic life. Consists of such riveting entries as ‘homework sucks’ and ‘I slept until noon today.'” A user by the handle of “antiBlog activist” suggests this acronym: “Boring Load of Garbage.”

The top blogs may continue to evolve, but millions of bloggers may just prefer to keep what they’ve got. So the term blog will continue to stretch. I thought I’d take a clean break with Civ for the Civilities site.

* This piece, of 700+ words, took me three hours to originally write, and it has gone through subsequent revisions.

Update, January 3rd 2005: I have set up a new page Comparative Studies of Blogs and Other Online Journalism to better organize articles about the role of blogs in online journalism.