Boundaries of The Blog: Where does casual, socially, serialized content begin and end?

November 20, 2013 | John Berndt

Ring toss around The Thinker

Which is the hair whose loss makes the man bald?* How many features have to go away before a blog is not a blog? Yes, my friends, you are here… reading a blog, even as the very same blog at hand is questioning its own “blogginess.” This blog is full of quicksand.

What constitutes a blog in the first place? “Blogs” crystallized, somewhat awkwardly I think, in the late 1990’s— the love child of author’s frantic desire to speed-publish (often with a healthy dose of narcissism), websites needs for ever more content, and the rather remedial realization that the option to comment could drive greater user engagement. Nothing whatsoever complicated about building them technically; so they flourished.

Initially the province of individuals sounding off, quickly blogs also became important for corporations and nonprofits, with blogging becoming an accepted part of the communications toolkit. This was because it allowed for personality-based, informal publishing where users could comment. Blogs became a “thing,” a cultural reference point for any fast-and-loose publishing that ironically sometimes became quite formal, policed, and well-edited, as in the case of important institutional, multi-author blogs, and other similar developments.

Consider the loose set of elements that, together, usually constitute a blog:

  • Streamlined publishing, usually correlating with at least the expectation of frequent publishing.
  • The author or personality is important in some way—even if it is an institutional, multi-author blog. The author being explicit relates to a general consideration of the potential for authority and pundithood that is correlated with blogging.
  • Timing and topicality are important—hence most blogs default present in reverse chronological order, putting the most recent posts first.
  • Readers have the ability to comment, which may or may not be moderated by the author.
  • In many cases, blogs have a system of categorization or “tagging” that allows inter-relation of content.

Subtract one of these elements and you may still have a blog; subtract two, and it starts to be more questionable, at least as far as colloquial usage goes.

One of the reasons for the rise of the corporate or nonprofit blog, beyond the desire to publish more quickly and to associate content with experts, was a rather banal side-effect of broken web operations. Many CMS platforms (content management systems) were poorly executed or not kept up, leading to a lot of organizations with staff that hate their CMS (or have had to use it in an enfeebled form).

For this reason, the popularity, usability, and ease of deployment of 3rd party blogging software (BlogSpot, Tumblr, and WordPress, for instance) created a “path of least resistance” for content owners to do an end run around their defective CMS platforms. These people sometimes turn to “blogging” as the technical solution—for instance, where they want rapid publishing that they can syndicate easily to a variety of websites via RSS even filtered by tagging (as a replacement for true CMS related links by metadata). There are many, many corporate “blogs” with comments turned off, that are essentially secondary CMS systems, and for which no warrant would exist if the primary CMS was not somehow limited or broken. So it is that the “blog in-platform-name-only” as a band-aid to a broken CMS has become a part of the ever-fragmenting corporate technology picture.

At the same time, the aforementioned principles that underlie blogging have increasingly pervaded all other aspects of digital communications—from the transformation of norms on formal websites to the abbreviated linguistic violence of Twitter, making any self-trumpeting “blog” something of a ready-made-anachronism. The blog still exists among this density of overlapping options, but why? With a good CMS implementation, content publishing is fast, commenting is a feature to turn on or off, and of course presenting content under an editorial byline or in reverse chronological order is just a choice at setup. From a technical standpoint, there is no absolute “blog”—only a set of conventions that once socially stipulated to be a blog, are a blog. Blogs exist by stipulation from the author side, but also from the reader side, as readers may think of blogs as a type of reading material—a type of media channel so to speak.

However, this is fragile and eroding under the complexity of multiplexing mobile and social formats and experiences. Is not a million little blogs boiling in an overheated cauldron? Am I not blogging on my long Facebook or LinkedIn discussions? Twitter already calls itself “microblogging,” which is at the same time really only different from conventional discussion groups because of small subtleties of difference in format and information access. And if my whole newspaper website allows commenting, and has subtle bylines on all content, is it not simply a flock of blogs? An even more obscure point: at what point do hierarchical relationships between blogs matter, and make a blog into more of a conventional website by imputation (even if the URLs change).

Perhaps one of the main arguments for the discrete, stabilized conception of a blog is the idea of the blog as “destination”—a place I can go to read (if I know about it, or find it, and am interested). Such concepts are simultaneously crucial to the web and also completely antithetical to it—since the main human innovation of the Internet is to destroy space, making each item of information equally distant (one hyperlink away) from the next. In that context, the sense of place is a mirage held together by subtle visual and contextual clues, existing more in the mind of the user than in any actual technical limitation.

In the context of these considerations, I find “blogs” to be a very odd convention and historical moment, something that exists relatively against circumstance, probably most of all because human beings still value the coinage of personal authority, and because there is some value in raising your hand and saying “I am spouting off opinions.” What separates them from all of the other things that are, essentially the same thing, seems extremely fragile and likely to suddenly go out of focus. At the end of the day, one never knows though—certainly history provides thousands of examples of social forms and conventions that were held together by nearly nothing, but somehow managed to remain current for generations. Think of the Egyptians—or modern Americans—obsessing on cat pictures (we cop to an obsession with cat pics here at TBG, no offense to dog owners everywhere).

It remains to be seen if the transformation drive of information technology is, in that sense, more of the same sort of thing, or if some sort of higher utility will make blogs a highly dated form in no time at all.

* In philosophy this question is called “The Baldness Paradox” or the “The Paradox of the Heap.” Look it up!

About the Author

John Berndt

I'm CEO of TBG and I've been thinking about the Web in creative ways since the year it began.

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