This was first written some time in 1999 and last edited for content and meaning in September of that year.

Naturally it's a little embarrassing: weblogs have become the latest cooling hot trend. Like Skynet, they've become fully self-aware. The contradictory relationship with "old media" remains, with a new smell of hypocrisy as the most prominent bloggers struggle to land jobs as pundits and talking heads to make ends meet.

Weblogs have also mutated, in the popular understanding, to work less as simple link aggregators and more as amateur commentary sites. Bloggers are pundits for a day, often acting as mere echo chambers for their established, professional counterparts. Far from being foot soldiers of Web Nation, they're often the pseudo-populist shills of established publications.

I'm revisiting this piece because I'm thinking about micropublishing and working on another piece about its use. Weblogs and technology to facilitate blogging are the popular standard-bearers of Web publishing, so they have to be dealt with, but mainly with the hope that as the 'blog wave recedes, it will leave some interesting bits and pieces of custom and practice behind.

-mph, 07 NOV 02

An Aging New Trend

A couple of days ago I was reading Techdirt, which is part of one of the newer popular phenomena on the Web: weblogs. Weblogs are already passé to the digerati because first, they've been covered by Jon Katz on the pages of Slashdot; second, the item I was reading in Techdirt asked if there weren't too many already; and third, there are services that let you build your own weblog without having to know how to work a Web server or write HTML.

The last item doesn't really trouble me. Weblogs may end up being the vanity plate of the Internet some day, but sometimes vanity plates tell you a lot about who's driving the car.

Weblogs, which I'll define in more depth later, are an unpredictable alternative to portals (another buzzword for the late '90s) for people who have their own set of bookmarks but use portals to search out new content. Anyone who has navigated, for instance, Netscape's NetCenter, and clicked through five or six screens to get at content that looks suspiciously 'sponsored' knows the creeping sensation of doubt about the integrity and value of the content toward which they're being steered.

From Constantly New Interactions to Constantly New Presentations

The story of the Internet since the mid '90s has been all about the replacement of alt.* with *.com. Anyone who remembers earlier generations of Internet bbs's, Usenet news, and irc remembers the distinctly populist feel of the Internet community. You could argue that it was a false populism (it was primarily driven by academics, technicians, and students) but it wasn't corporate. Trust issues were resolved in some primitive ways: Where was the person making a claim logging in from? What was her e-mail address? Did someone else make a contrary claim with better sources?

In the ensuing years, with the rise of the Web as the primary means by which people experience the Internet, and its relatively quick fall into domination by commercial interest, it's become harder to sort out the claims and assertions made over the Web. As the Internet becomes more popular, some companies have shown themselves willing to seed discussion groups with their own employees, operating 'under cover'. As Web technology improves, designers are also able to use techniques we've traditionally associated with bypassing our reasoning brains and moving straight to the emotional core that is the ad man's playground.

It all adds up to a crisis of trust in the medium. The question stops being "how can I find something I'm interested in" and starts being "why was I referred to this site, and who paid for it?"

The Commercial Web is Tainting the Rest of the Web

...and I'm not complaining about the dough.

If a Web user decides to take the leap of faith and visit a site in hopes it won't be a colossal waste of time, or a giant advertisement, or both, the results can be distressing. Most pages run by commercial interests are laden with banner ads that take forever to load, unleash a barrage of cookies to remind you that you're paying for the "free" content with information about your habits, and lead you through as many pages as they can so you are forced to look at as many banners as possible.

Some people won't find this repellent, or will bear the banners and cookies with the same patience they grant perfumed inserts and subscription come-ons in magazines. Even if this is all taken in stride, the issue still remains that interesting content is tough to ferret out. The search engines have been crushed under the sheer mass of Web pages available, and it's common knowledge that there are ways to skew the reported results on the little bit of the Web they can still claim to crawl in search of keywords.

There are also pages that represent only a semi-commercial presence on the Web. They're focused on a theme, have the occasional banner ad or Amazon tie-in, and represent something other than a corporate storefront. Unfortunately, some of these sites are struggling for respectability by the commercial Web's standards, and these become nightmares of excess. They have garish graphics, distracting animations, the irritation of shoddy editorial practice, and a freakish desire to include frames at every turn.

Even the completely non-commercial efforts of net literates, the 'my little dog pages' of the technically aware, can be bogged down in javascript mouse-overs, murky graphics, and non-standard HTML that breaks any browser the authors don't use themselves.

Enter the Weblogs

If the problem is page bloat, lack of confidence, design atrocities, and gratuitous gadgeteering, one solution has arrived in the form of weblogs. Weblogs are pages driven by individuals or relatively small affinity groups providing less of a focus on original content than on making quality referrals.

The most minimal of my regular stops is probably Memepool, which, despite including a search engine and categorizations, offers a main page with strikingly little but dates, links, and brief comments. The interests of Memepool's contributors and editor are pretty obvious after skimming over the entries. Memepool offers a few minutes a day of generally intriguing links to sites that range from enlightening to unsettling, and the links are provided because they are genuinely interesting to someone.

Another page with simple design and specialized content is Jorn Barger's Robot Wisdom, which offers less commentary on the links it offers, expanded content on some items, and a plethora of links to portals, cams, comic strips, and even a canned search for Barger's contributions to Usenet news.

Finally, to round out a brief sample, is Flutterby!. Flutterby! offers little in terms of design (the horizontal rules feel like splurging), and offers the most personal commentary alongside links that range from asides in multi-paragraph entries to two or three words on a single line.

The bulk of my time on the Web is spent grazing weblogs like these, or keeping an eye on Slashdot, which acts like a bulky weblog/indie portal if you don't venture into the comment areas. Consequently, I've pointed to three weblogs (or 'blogs') most everyone knows about. There are plenty of others, and they frequently cite each other.

The ones I chose to link represent the things I find most refreshing about weblogs: clear design, little cruft, and a mediation of the Web experience that isn't being driven by some commercial interest trying to drag me across pages of banners and self-serving content. The pages load quickly and spare the reader confusing navigational tricks or bulky graphics. They don't mess with something as pretentious as a 'splash' or 'tunnel' page, which seem to invite the reader to reconsider proceeding to the core of the site.

They also provide a sense that the authors and contributors are interested in sharing a piece of themselves, maybe even more so than the 'my little dog' pages out there (heck, toss my pages in that category if you like), which often reflect as much personality as we've come to expect from office cubicles. Rather than clobbering us with facts about themselves, they seem to say "Hey, I think this is cool," and serve as living, dynamic commentary about the individual, as opposed to the static assertion of 200k .gif's of favored pets and a link to the Republican Party's homepage. Even the occasional musing about the mechanics of the pages themselves invite some understanding of who the maintainer is and what he or she may care about. Their use of the word "cool" comes over as unstrained.


I don't know if we truly live in an age as revolutionary as Gutenberg's. It's easy to rhapsodize about the democratizing power of the Internet. It puts the power to "publish" in the hands of anyone with access to modest computing resources. It's easy, in a place and times of plenty, to overlook that it's generally a relative elite taking advantage of this power.

Even so, the Internet has created interesting permutations in the way we communicate with each other. Weblogs form another variation in the personal page, breathing new life into something that was getting remarkably tired for being less than a decade old. They aren't an answer to the traditional media, because they tend to feed off the traditional media. On the other hand, they hint of a future based around personalized, trust-based networks standing in opposition to the shaky, authority-based, profit-motivated news channels we live with now.

Last Edited for Content: Fri Sep 10 00:39:56 1999