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Understanding blogs

As we in the IndieWeb promote personal websites and encourage more people to write and publish online, and nostalgia for blogs and RSS is high, it’s useful to hone in on what exactly we’re talking about when we say blog.* Because, despite being a form of writing for more than 20 years, blogging is surprisingly hard to pin down.**

There are just a few truly defining characteristics of a blog:

  • Content is published in the form of posts, typically presented in reverse chronological order
  • Content is posted on a website, online, with hypertextual capabilities
  • Blogs are “self-published,” regardless ofย hosting platform, in that there is no gatekeeper authorizing publication

And yet, I think what makes a blog a blog is more than these technicalities; what makes a book a book is not merely “prose text, more than 50,000 words in length, on a single thesis or theme, collected in a single volume.” Printing off a long blog and binding it together does not necessarily a book make; for one, books are weighted towards linear reading — start to finish — while blog posts do not have to be read in the order they were originally published.

There are elements of bookness that make us say, this is a book. So what is blogness? From one of the many ‘yay let’s blog again’ posts everyone’s blogging about right now (which I enjoy), I wound up on a 2003 post trying to define what a blog is — but it addresses mainly the technical elements and the structure of the content. Blogging as a medium evolved out of the combination of technology and tools used; here, I’m interested in digging into how the writing and format are different from other mediums.

I’m a fan of graphic novels, and consider them a different medium than prose books; it pisses me off that graphic novels and graphic non-fiction are shelved with the comic strips at my library under 741.5. So I wonder: are blogs a distinct enough format to be their own top-level medium, or are they simply a hypertextual version of essay collections or newspapers?*** Where would you shelve blogs in the library: do they get mixed in with the books by topic, do they get their own call number as graphic novels do, are they thrown in with the periodicals, or do they go in their own section? @DavidShanske I’m sure you have an opinion here ๐Ÿ˜‰

*So I feel a little goofy writing about what blogging is in 2023. But it’s Saturday night Sunday afternoon (lol), and I possess a blog, so here we are. Sorry not sorry.

FYI, I wasn’t paying attention to The Blog Discourse back in the 2000s. This isn’t academic work, so I’m not going to try to go back and read twenty years of other peoples’ commentary and analysis I missed — in classic blogger mode, I am doing zero research and opinion-dumping ๐Ÿ˜Ž Feel free to point me to good examples if someone covered this ground ages ago!

**I’m also thinking about categorization because I just watched a video about how barnacles defied classification and Darwin spent eight years cursing their nature as he tried to figure out what they were, if not a mollusk.

***This is my wee knockoff of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, but for blogs ๐Ÿ˜… If you haven’t read it, correct that stat.

What distinguishes the blog as a medium?

Blogs arose from a particular technological foundation, but I posit the technology alone does not fully encompass what a blog is. As a distinct format, they are worthy of consideration, because the medium a message is served through is as important as the message itself.

What distinguishes a blog from other forms of (online) writing?

What differentiates a blog from other types of personal websites?

What does communicating through the medium of blogging tell us?

What doesn’t define blogging

Blogging is so broad that it seems mainly to be defined by example. I know when I’m reading a blog because it feels like a blog — but what is it about the writing that gives me that feeling? Many of the categorizations we might use to clarify blogging don’t universally apply:

  • Blogs are often personal and written in first person, but can be fully anonymous
  • Blogs can be written by amateurs or experts
  • Blogs can be written in a conversational or formal style
  • Blogs can be published by individuals or organizations
  • Blog posts range in length from a handful to thousands of words, encompassing both short and long-form articles
  • Blogs can be authored by a single person or multiple authors
  • Blogs can be purely text or primarily photos or links
  • Blogs can be single- or multi- topic
  • Blogs can be published indefinitely or for a fixed duration
  • Blogs can be monetized or ad-free
  • Blogs can be run by an editorial team or an individual
  • Blogs can be private or available to the browsing public
  • Blogs can be standalone or part of a larger website

Technology enables but does not solely define blogness

The technological elements shape the medium, giving blogs the characteristics that make them distinct from other formats:

  • Composed of addressable, distinct posts: each post can be found online, referenced and responded to individually (sometimes on the website as native comments, but otherwise from other websites and blogs)
  • Order-irrelevant and non-hierarchical: each individual post may serve as an entry point to the entire blog because visitors can land upon articles published at any time, current or long past, and all posts are part of the same feed, not organized beneath “higher level” posts
  • Impermanent and ever-evolving: the blog as a whole changes as posts are added, removed, or revised, and links and images break
  • Self- and external- referencing: hypertextual capabilities encourage authors to supplement their text with links to their own work, forming networks of connected thought, and to references on other websites and online resources

As a self-published work, a blog reflects the author(s)’s or editor(s)’s premise unfiltered. This direct, decentralized form of publication democratizes writing and the sharing of ideas. As more people of all backgrounds participate in the blogosphere, the culture of blogging accepts less formal, more conversational writing styles. While blogging is of literate culture, it also draws on aspects of oral culture.*

Publishing online is an essential characteristic of blogs, influencing how readers interact with them and how writers can expect them to be consumed. Because each post is distinct and can be read and searched individually, bloggers cannot assume their audience is familiar with their previous work, nor their style; bloggers do not know who reads their work. Those factors inform the style of writing and approach to argument.

The capability of posting multiple types of content in the same stream is also a vital part of communicating with blogs. Like the interplay of image and text in graphic novels combines to form meaning in a unique way for the comic media, in blogging, different types of entries compose a whole. Different embedded media typesย withinย the medium of the blog — text, videos, songs, and more — together can tell a different story than being constrained to a single format would allow. Whether a particular blog makes use of multiple post types is less important than that those storytelling tools were available and the author chose not to use them.

*It has been way too long since I read Orality and Literacy to explore this more but it’s probably important. Help me out here ๐Ÿ˜‰

How blogs differ from other forms of online writing

Newsletters

Newsletters are not just emailed blogs. They are blog-adjacent, sharing many of the same qualities, but their unsearchability, non-addressable nature, lack of public publishing, and direct transmission to subscribers gives writers a wholly different framework. Newsletter-runners can know their audience — they can access the database of their subscribers. Some issues may be forwarded to non-subscribers, but newsletter authors can primarily address a core, knowable audience. Interactions with their audience most likely take place one-to-one, in private, through email replies.

The context of reading a blog — a compilation of posts on the blog’s theme, or viewed as individual posts that occupy the entire window — is quite different from the reader’s experience of reading email newsletters. While an email is also viewed singly — in the frame of the email client — once opened, it is disconnected from the author’s previous work. Links are opened in separate software, disrupting the experience.

Emails are also more ephemeral; while it’s possible for readers to save them in their email inbox, more likely they are deleted after being read. Because older content is pushed down in a reader’s inbox, emails are most likely to be read soon after they are received; that also encourages writers to write time-sensitive information.

The technological underpinnings of newsletters enable the author to directly address the reader using insertable name fields from the subscriber database. This affordance fosters a sense of intimacy by likening the format to letters. Between the encouraged intimacy, presumption of a closed audience, and temporal transience, newsletter authors may be more willing to be vulnerable in what they discuss and share.

Social media

Likewise, an aggregate of social media posts does not become a blog. On social media, each post is viewed as part of a mixed feed with posts by other authors, the content stripped of its contextual connection to the original author. While authors can know their audience to an extent, on social media platforms the algorithm also incentivizes the work creators post by influencing the reach of an author’s work beyond (and even within) their “known” audience.

The platforms reinforce a strong bias to the present. Individual posts, especially older material, are hard to find and access. Responses are public and often immediate, encouraging bursty conversations rather than lengthy exchanges. The immediacy of the feed encourages replies in the moment, while a blog post can be saved and mulled over for later engagement. Social media is oral culture.

A blog forms an accretive, holistic argument

While the tone and style of a blog post is not constrained, I wonder if the approach to argument itself helps define blogging. A characteristic I’ve noticed of many blog articles is that they are not structured in the traditional Western essay format: they don’t state a thesis at the beginning.* Often, they are explorations on a theme, or build an argument as they go, only reaching a conclusion at the end.**

And if you zoom out from the individual blog post level, in a sense this also describes what blogs are: a contemplation on a particular theme in depth (even if that theme is “the author’s life” or “stuff I like”). A blog is a body of work. Blogs are composed of many posts, which stand individually and can be read in any order, and which collectively form a blog that tells a story from all of its individual posts. Unlike a book, blogs grow and shift for as long as they are online, each added post changing the blog incrementally.

*I once heard this approach to essay writing is more common in Eastern cultures but citation needed ๐Ÿคทโ€โ™€๏ธ

**Even here, I didn’t really clue you in on my thinking at the beginning of this post — I brought you to it along with my thought process of first identifying what does not define a blog.

What is the future of the blog medium?

I was chatting with a friend recently about the awkwardness of the writing in my 2004 blog — aside from being a teenager, it was the first time I was really writing in public and I didn’t feel comfortable in my voice — but I also wonder: maybe part of the awkwardness is that no one really knew how to write online yet? The culture of online self-publishing was still developing — is still developing. At only twenty years old, blogging is frankly still a new medium.

How do we want blogging as a medium to mature over the next twenty years?

Also posted on IndieNews

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at tracy.durnell@gmail.com. She/her.

9 replies on “Understanding blogs”

Thank you for such a thoughtful article. Over the next twenty years, I would love for blogging to become more accessible, simple, and easy for all people. Would it be nice if older people had a web presence where they can record their history? Unfortunately, some of that history is being recorded in Facebook which is probably more accessible.

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