Life news: I got a dog


From the archives: What is a blog?

I sent this email to Onward State a few days before we launched.

It has been an exciting few months for Onward State. We are close to the realization of our idea– creating a blog for the Penn State community. In the coming weeks, we are going to move quickly to set up the site and begin writing. I hope that we are live by Thanksgiving.

We have entered our infancy, and, as such, it is appropriate to examine where we are going. We know we will be a blog, and we are confident we will be successful, but our journey will be arduous.

Our challenge is making this new medium—the blog– comfortable for the Penn State community.

I began to realize what we will be facing when I first explained the concept of Onward State to my mom. She did not think it was good use of my time. I had to think about the best way to articulate ‘blogs’ to laypeople.

The connotations of ‘blog’ for many people are inadequate and inaccurate. To my mom, a ‘blog’ was a MySpace page where the user posts poorly written reflections about their personal lives, an online diary.

There is a nugget of truth in her understanding. A blog is a personal piece of writing. The full definition of blog is, however, more nuanced and much more satisfying.

I’m going to flesh out what a blog is because I want each of you to feel comfortable explaining the concept to others; I want each of you to feel comfortable evangelizing about blogs. That’s what we will be doing in the first few months: pushing the community to embrace a new medium.

I am reminded of something once said by a former headmaster of my boarding school, The Lawrenceville School. He was asked to define Lawrenceville. He paused for a moment, and then responded, “Lawrenceville is not the brick and mortar of the academic buildings and it is not the chapel. It is not the dining hall, nor is it the football pitch. Lawrenceville is simply the aggregate of all the personal relationships on her great campus.”

A similar statement can be said of blogs.

“Alone in front of a computer, at any moment, are two people: a blogger and a reader,” writes Andrew Sullivan, author of The Atlantic’s Daily Dish, one of the world’s most popular and respected blogs. “This renders a writer and a reader not just connected but linked in a visceral, personal way. The only term that really describes this is friendship. And it is a relatively new thing to write for thousands and thousands of friends.”

At its most fundamental level, a blog is simply the aggregate of personal relationships between bloggers and reader, between friends. It is a dialectical journalism. But, however fundamental the conversation is to blogs, it is not the only characteristic.

Indeed, the conversation is a result of the other properties of blogs rather than it is a property itself.

Blogs were made possible by the Internet. The medium and the message, in this case, are intertwined. Two qualities of blogs are intrinsic to the medium. These qualities contradict the common conception that blogs are online diaries.

The first is the reverse chronological nature of blogs. When somebody opens a diary, they see the oldest entries first, and as the reader pages through the diary, they get closer to the present. Contrarily, when somebody visits a blog, the newest entries are displayed first, and as the reader pages through the blog, they get further from the present.

The reader of a blog reads an inverted story. The first thing they read is the end, the most recently written post, and the last thing they see is the beginning, the oldest post. “As you piece together a narrative that was never intended as one,” says Sullivan, “it seems—and is—more truthful.”

The second property of blogs intrinsic to the medium is their public nature. Diaries are purposefully private. Blogs are purposefully public. This is an unprecedented form. As Sullivan says, “blogging transforms this most personal and retrospective of forms into a painfully public and immediate one. It combines the confessional genre with the log form and exposes the author in a manner no author has ever been exposed before.”

But to talk about the technological circumstances of blogs alone is to miss the ethos that separates blogs from other websites.

The blogger operates in a much shorter time frame than other types of writers. Whereas newspaper columnists have weeks, magazine writers months, and book writers have years, the blogger has minutes or hours. The blogger must react promptly to events. Matt Drudge, author of the right-wing Drudge Report, says the blogging is more broadcast journalism than print journalism. As Sullivan says, “If it stops moving, it dies.”

This short turn around time differentiates blogging in yet another way from traditional print media. That short turn around time is the reason why, tonight, Election night, millions of Americans are watching their computer screens just as closely as their televisions. Blogs provide instantaneous commentary and context.

The instantaneous nature of blogs can even augment traditional media. Many web sites “live-blog” certain events, like Presidential debates and episodes of America’s Next Top Model. In a live-blog, the blogger responds on the blog to the event as it is occurring. Readers follow the live-blog and the event coverage simultaneously, using the live-blog to augment the event coverage.

This is a profoundly new way of consuming information. It seems to be the natural extension of the Blackberry world, where we are never very much removed from an information source. And, the immediacy of the medium is possible because of the brevity of most posts.

The ideal blog post is about 200 words, says Nick Denton, founder of Gawker, the most influential media blog in the world. I’m sure the reason why is obvious—who wants to read a novel on a computer screen. But, as you’ll see, just because a post is brief does not mean it is trite. Moreover, not all blog posts are created equal, and not all blog posts are 200 words long. The hyperlink is what allows a five word post to be as powerful as a five-hundred word essay.

The hyperlink will go down as one of the greatest inventions in mankind. The hyperlink is indeed the fundamental feature of the internet, it is the connection between sites on different servers, between different countries, companies, and people.

And, in the history of blogs, hyperlinks play a major role. The term weblog was originally used by Jorn Barger in 1997 to describe a list he kept of hyperlinks, or webpages, he had visited and enjoyed. Somebody else changed the phrase to “we blog” as a joke in 1999. Not long after that, Pyra Labs launched Blogger, the name of which was inspired by “we blog.”

Hyperlinks allow bloggers to direct readers to articles with which they agree or disagree, or maybe just articles they enjoy. Hyperlinks are the very essence of the internet, they are the connections between websites. When blogs engage in the blogosphere, everyone wins. The environment becomes richer as more ideas are presented. It is, as Richard Dawkins would say, the battle of the memes. Hyperlinks allow the best ideas to be shared and built upon.

The internal equivalent of hyperlinks is commenting. Nearly every blog offers commenting on its posts, giving readers the opportunity to engage with the author. Commentators might agree or disagree with the author or with each other, or contribute a hyperlink that is relevant to the discussion. All of these make the experience richer for everyone.

“The role of a blogger is not to defend against this but to embrace it. He is similar in this way to the host of a dinner party,” says Sullivan. “He can provoke discussion or take a position, even passionately, but he also must create an atmosphere in which others want to participate.”

Commenting is much more popular on blogs than it is on newspaper articles because blogs are human.

Blogs are human. That’s a startling phrase. A blog reveals a tremendous amount about the author. The author does not have time to reflect on events or send posts to an editor. Remember, if the blog stops moving, it dies. In this regard, it is stream of consciousness reporting. One reads whatever disparate topics are on the blogger’s mind. As the Economist says, “Blogs, in other words, usually have a raw, unpolished authenticity and individuality.”

One of my major criticisms of The Daily Collegian’s online presence is that its blogs do not have that human quality, and because of that deficiency, the Collegian’s blogs do not engage the Penn State student body. A blog is not effective when the reader is not able to connect with the author.

I used the phrase dialectical journalism earlier in this email. It is a fine description of blogs. Dialectical journalism is conversational journalism, a drastic change from the one-way nature of newspapers and magazines. Indeed, as the roots of the word ‘journalism’ suggest, dialectical journalism is a conversation about the daily record.

The conversational nature of blogs is a function of all of its properties. It is a completely new paradigm in media. The implications of it are so great as to be difficult to overstate. Blogs enable the meritocracy of opinions and ideas. (Can you tell I like these things?)

There is virtually no cost to start a blog. “It’s the easiest, cheapest, fastest publishing tool ever invented,” says Jeff Jarvis, director of CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism. “The people have a voice they didn’t have before.”

These global voices are stimulated by the utterly human nature of blogs. As evidence of the power of blogs’ humanity, consider the number of comments on the world’s most popular blogs compared to the number of comments on the world’s most popular newspapers. It’s a David vs. Goliath competition, that these websites run by either a single person or a handful of people can outperform these old media leviathans like the New York Times. This performance is possible because the reader catches glimpses of the author through each blog post.

Indeed, with the addition of hyperlinks, blogs are conversations 2.0. A blog post can reference any number of other websites—the amount of references a blogger can fit into a single post would make Nabokov blush. This creates a more satisfying experience for the reader. Check out the links I’ve included in this email—there are some cool sites in there.

“With blogs, journalism isn’t a sermon anymore,” says Sabeer Bhatia, the founder of Hotmail. “It’s a conversation.”

I hope this email has excited you. It certainly has excited me to type it.

We are going to start a blog for Penn State, a blog true to the ideals of blogs. And we are going to succeed by steering the conversation at Penn State. We will be an utterly human source of information for the Penn State community. We will link to other websites, creating an ecosystem of information devoted to Penn State. And we will begin soon.

I’m ready, and I hope you are too.


R Davis Shaver
Executive Editor
Onward State Blog

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