What is a Weblog?

Caesar at ArsTechnica has written a few entries recently concerning blogs which interested me. The first simply asks: What, exactly, is a blog? Once you get past the overly-general definitions ("a blog is a frequently updated webpage"), it becomes a surprisingly difficult question.

Caesar quotes Wikipedia:
A weblog, web log or simply a blog, is a web application which contains periodic time-stamped posts on a common webpage. These posts are often but not necessarily in reverse chronological order. Such a website would typically be accessible to any Internet user. "Weblog" is a portmanteau of "web" and "log". The term "blog" came into common use as a way of avoiding confusion with the term server log.
Of course, as Caesar notes, the majority of internet sites could probably be described in such a way. What differentiates blogs from discussion boards, news organizations, and the like?

Reading through the resulting discussion provides some insight, but practically every definition is either too general or too specific.

Many people like to refer to Weblogs as a medium in itself. I can see the point, but I think it's more general than that. The internet is the medium, whereas a weblog is basically a set of commonly used conventions used to communicate through that medium. Among the conventions are things like a main page with chronological posts, permalinks, archives, comments, calendars, syndication (RSS), blogging software (CMS), trackbacks, &c. One problem is that no single convention is, in itself, definitive of a weblog. It is possible to publish a weblog without syndication, comments, or a calendar. Depending on the conventions being eschewed, such blogs may be unusual, but may still be just as much a blog as any other site.

For lack of a better term, I tend to think of weblogs as a genre. This is, of course, not totally appropriate but I think it does communicate what I'm getting at. A genre is typically defined as a category of artistic expression marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. However, anyone who is familiar with genre film or literature knows that there are plenty of movies or books that are difficult to categorize. As such, specific genres such as horror, sci-fi, or comedy are actually quite inclusive. Some genres, Drama in particular, are incredibly broad and are often accompanied by the conventions of other genres (we call such pieces "cross-genre," though I think you could argue that almost everything incorporates "Drama"). The point here is that there is often a blurry line between what constitutes one genre from another.

On the medium of the internet, there are many genres, one of which is a weblog. Other genres include commercial sites (i.e. sites that try to sell you things, Amazon.com, Ebay, &c.), reference sites (i.e. dictionaries & encyclopedias), Bulletin Board Systems and Forums, news sites, personal sites, weblogs, wikis, and probably many, many others.

Any given site is probably made up of a combination of genres and it is often difficult to pinpoint any one genre as being representative. Take, for example, Kaedrin.com. It is a personal site with some random features, a bunch of book & movie reviews, a forum, and, of course, a weblog (which is what you're reading now). Everything is clearly delineated here at Kaedrin, but other sites blur the lines between genres on every page. Take ArsTechnica itself: Is it a news site or a blog or something else entirely? I would say that the front page is really a combination of many different things, one of which is a blog. It's a "cross-genre" webpage, but that doesn't necessarily make it any less effective (though there is something to be said for simplicity and it is quite possible to load a page up with too much stuff, just as it's possible for a book or movie to be too ambitious and take on too much at once) just as Alien isn't necessarily a less effective Science Fiction film because it incorporates elements of Horror and Drama (or vice-versa).

Interestingly, much of what a weblog is can be defined as an already existing literary genre: the journal. People have kept journals and diaries all throughout history. The major difference between a weblog and a journal is that a weblog is published for all to see on the public internet (and also that weblogs can be linked together through the use of the hyperlink and the infrastructure of the internet). Historically, diaries were usually private, but there are notable exceptions which have been published in book form. Theoretically, one could take such diaries and publish them online - would they be blogs? Take, for instance, The Diary of Samuel Pepys which is currently being published daily as if it's a weblog circa 1662 (i.e. Today's entry is dated "Thursday 17 April 1662"). The only difference is that the author of that diary is dead and thus doesn't interact or respond to the rest of the weblog community (though there is still interaction allowed in the form of annotations).

A few other random observations about blogs:
  • Software: Many people brought up the fact that most blogs are produced with the assistance of Weblogging Software, such as Blogger or Movable Type. From my perspective, such tools are necessary for the spread of weblogs, but shouldn't be a part of the definition. They assist in the spread of weblogs because they automate the overly-technical details of publishing a website and make it easy for normal folks to participate. They're also useful for automatically propagating weblog conventions like permalinks, comments, trackbacks, and archives. However, it's possible to do all of this without the use of blogging specific software and it's also possible to use blogging software for other purposes (for instance, Kaedrin's very own Tandem Stories are powered by Movable Type). It's interesting that other genres have their own software as well, particularly bulletin boards and forums. Ironically, one could use such BBS software to publish a blog (or power tandem stories), if they were so inclined. The Pepys blog mentioned above actually makes use of wiki software (though that software powers the entries, it's mostly used to allow annotations). To me content management systems are important, but they don't define so much as propagate the genre.
  • Personality: One mostly common theme in definitions is that weblogs are personal - they're maintained by a person (or small group of people), not an official organization. A personality gets through. There is also the perception that a blog is less filtered than official communications. Part of the charm of weblogs is that you can be wrong (more on this later, possibly in another post). I'm actually not sure how important this is to the definition of a blog. Someone who posts nothing but links doesn't display much of a personality, except through more subtle means (the choice of links can tell you a lot about an individual, albeit in an indirect way that could lead to much confusion).
  • Communities: Any given public weblog is part of a community, whether it wants to be or not. The boundaries of any specific weblog are usually well delineated, but since weblogs are part of the internet, which is an on-demand medium (as opposed to television or radio, which are broadcast), blogs are often seen as relative to one another. Entries and links from different blogs are aggregated, compared, correlated and published in other weblogs. Any blog which builds enough of a readership provides a way connect people who share various interests through the infrastructure of the internet.
Some time ago, Derek Powazek asked What the Hell is a Weblog? You tell me. and published all the answers. It turns out that I answered this myself (last one on that page), many years ago:
I don't care what the hell a weblog is. It is what I say it is. Its something I update whenever I find an interesting tidbit on the web. And its fun. So there.
Heh. Interesting to note that my secondary definition there ("something I update whenever I find an interesting tidbit on the web") has changed significantly since I contributed that definition. This is why, I suppose, I had originally supplied the primary definition ("I don't care what the hell a weblog is. It is what I say it is.") and to be honest, I don't think that's changed (though I guess you could call that definition "too general"). Blogging is whatever I want it to be. Of course, I could up and call anything a blog, but I suppose it is also required that others perceive your blog as a blog. That way, the genre still retains some shape, but is still permeable enough to allow some flexibility.

I had originally intended to make several other points in this post, but since it has grown to a rather large size, I'll save them for other posts. Hopefully, I'll gather the motivation to do so before next week's scheduled entry, but there's no guarantee...