Tuesday, 12 February 2013
What makes a blog a blog? What elements, by their presence, make a website a blog? What does it matter?
Wikipedia says that a blog is “a discussion or informational site published on the World Wide Web and consisting of discrete entries […] typically displayed in reverse chronological order (the most recent post appears first).” This has a couple of interesting implications:
- Magazines (and other periodicals) are not blogs, because magazine content is posted as a bundle, without a chronological ordering between articles in the same issue.
- Blogs must be published on the web.
The first is, I think, self-evident (though not inevitable). The second is intriguing, though – must a blog be published on the web? What about .plan files, the granddaddy of personal publishing on the internet? Could a fingerable .plan file  be a blog? Read an archive of video game legend John Carmack's .plan files some time (here are 1998's entries) and tell me that doesn't read like a blog. Does it really matter that they were delivered via port 79 rather than port 80? I find that hard to swallow.
Could you publish a physical blog? Publishing costs continue to fall, and it stands to reason that at some point blogs could be rendered in a physical medium — oh wait, we've done that before. Will we do it again? Perhaps, though it's hard to imagine it as any more than a novelty. What's important is that the concept is not attached to a specific medium — a blog could be delivered on paper, just as easily as it is in HTML.
Blogs aren't defined by their underlying technology. Nor are they defined by their structural elements. I'll submit that the chronological element is non-essential as well in many if not most cases, though it has been so baked into the definition of what makes a blog that at this point it may be impossible to extricate.
After winding my way through all of that, I've come up with two elements that I think make a blog a blog:
- Constantly refreshed content. It doesn't have to be every day, and it each refresh doesn't have to contain much new content, but it has to be updated, or else it's simply “a website.”
- A way to permanently reference the content. For the web, these are blog post URIs (which shouldn't change). For physical works, this might be an ISBN, or a Library of Congress catalog number.
Now, back to the original question? What is the minimum viable blog? I don't think it's Twitter — in theory it fits those two requirements and so I should at least let it in the door, but the addition of a 140-character limit, while great for a quick and simple messaging platform, is an additional restraint in a medium that has no natural length limits, and thus goes beyond strictly minimal requirements. I think instead it's a service like Github's Gists or PasteBin, which allow the creation and publication of linkable text (another list could be kept with references to various posts, thereby meeting the “constantly updated” requirement).
Why does this matter? Well, because definitions matter. Though not quite to the extent that Sapir-Whorf would have us believe, how we define things helps to shape our ideas about those things. Blogs are helping to lead the way in changing how we communicate with one another, and yet our definition of what makes a blog a blog revolves around minutia that has very little to do with what a blog, and the act of blogging, really is. By searching for the minimum viable blog we can strip away all that is not essential, and be left with the core concepts that cannot be divorced from a blog without turning that blog into something else. Once we understand that essence, we can really start to innovate.
- I was first exploring the internet as a middle school student in the early 90s, and man oh man did that make me giggle. ↩