Defining the weblog – a typology

November 29th, 2004 | by aobaoill |

Some time ago I worked on a definition/typology of the weblog. I had worked with a peer-reviewed journal to have it published there, but for various reasons the process has taken longer than I had expected and hoped. So I’ve decided instead to post it here, in the hope it can be of some interest and value.

Weblogs have received much recent popular and academic attention, being seen by some as heralding a potential inversion in information flows in society and online. However, concurrent with the coverage of the potential of weblogs has been a discussion of what actually constitutes a weblog. It is necessary to have a clear understanding of what weblogs are, and of their structural context in order to properly assess the potential role of weblogs in the greater media environment. In this essay I examine the various elements associated with the weblog, and previous attempts at classification and definition. I develop a model that will assist future research into this phenomenon. By developing a multi-faceted understanding of the various forms of weblogs, and the roles assigned them, we can better hone research and obtain clarity on what we can reasonably expect of weblogs.
Weblogs emerged online in a rather unplanned fashion. While hosting companies and email providers throughout the 1990s billed themselves as helping to create ‘communities’ online, and tried to figure out exactly how to ‘leverage’ these communities [1], computer savvy amateurs were doing it for themselves. Slashdot, for example, was an early entrant to the scene, allowing readers to discuss stories that had been submitted by other readers [2]. Relying largely on other online outlets for original content, the emphasis is on technology related news. Entries are usually short, consisting of a link to a timely article, though there are occasional interviews and essays.
The Slashdot format (and code base) was soon taken up by others. A disaffected Slashdot user interested in discussion of broader social and cultural matters, for example, founded Kuro5hin [3]. Unlike on Slashdot, the emphasis is on original content, short essays, with links generally buttressing analysis rather than being the centerpiece of the entry. As Kuro5hin has developed so too have the services available to members, with members maintaining journals onsite. Metafilter, similarly, has an entry-and-commentary format, though here the emphasis is exclusively on pointing to outside links, with little commentary by the original author. Sundry other sites exist in similar vein, of course, from the link-centric, which serve merely to point readers to outside sites, to sites hosting more substantial essay-style pieces.
In tandem with the emergence of these community or collaborative sites, millions of individuals set up personal web sites. Initially many of these consisted of a short biography and perhaps a photograph or two. Others contained essays, photograph galleries, and other static content that would, in previous times have been included in an ftp site. Over time some began to make regular updates to their pages with links to noteworthy or timely news stories – as Slashdot and other sites were doing on a grander scale – or reports on the minutia of their daily lives – traditional journals or diaries, only now within sight of the whole world. As these two categories – links and journals – merged, they evolved into the weblogs we know today.
It is difficult to clearly delineate the boundaries of the blogosphere, the commonly used term for the space created and occupied by weblogs. Sites such as Slashdot and Kuro5hin, while not following the weblog format in their main offering, are seen to inhabit a similar, overlapping space. Similarly, some of the ‘celebrity blogs’ provided on sites such as MSNBC follow the format but provide little linkage to other weblogs – they may provide sources for other weblogs, but do not participate on a conversation with other bloggers, considered by many to be core to the weblog experience. Hence the tendency to point, on the one hand to the technology, and on the other to what Gary Murphy refers to as “the close feedback, reputation/consensus measures and other effects of the modern (largely automated) interconnectedness.”� [4]
Meg Hourihan, one of the original developers of Blogger, a tool for developing and maintaining weblogs, has described blogs as a web native format – one which liberates the writer (and reader) from the page paradigm, which was inherited from previous technologies. By this is meant that the weblog is not a translation of a pre-existing format – the book, the newspaper, the periodical – to the web. Rather it is a new format that takes advantage of the unique features of the internet, and comparisons to other media are by way of metaphor, to assist non-bloggers in understanding this new format. For her a weblog can be defined in terms of its format, the essential points of which are:

  • Web page with small chunks of hypertext (known as ‘posts’)
    • date-stamped
    • ordered reverse-chronologically
    • newest information at the top of the page
  • Posts consist of links and commentary [5]

Beyond these generic features, the reality of blogging is also tied for many people to features that have been fostered by the many software packages and platforms that have contributed to the growth of blogging as an activity. Weblogs emerged as a separately recognized category of web page mainly when specialized tools that help users create such sites were developed. Packages such as Movable Type, drawing on the example of sites such as Slashdot, allow readers to post comments in response to posts, and through tools such as ‘trackback’ facilitate cross-linking between related sites.
Many definitions of weblogs cite the propensity to link and a chronological set of entries as the essential defining characteristics of weblogs [6]. This simple definition underscores just how broad a category the weblog can be in the abstract. Jill Walker, in an extensive definition of the weblog, notes the diversity of the genre, but concentrates on the personal, informal nature of the form:

Typically, weblogs are published by individuals and their style is personal and informal… Examples of the genre exist on a continuum from confessional, online diaries to logs tracking specific topics or activities through links and commentary. [7]

Separate from the weblog as format, however, is a second meaning that is implied in many popular discussions of the weblog. ‘Blogging’ is seen as a personal activity, undertaken by individuals, with strong bonds being created between them. Two metaphors combine here, I think, to bring out the meaning at play. First we have Jo Ann Oravec’s description of the weblog as analogous to the travelogue, with an individual tracking his or her journey through the online world [8]. Second we have the idea of these many travelogues becoming part of a “continuous distributed conversation.” In order to create this conversation cross-linkage is very important, which is where the tools we see developing are very important. Gary L Murphy puts it this way:

Our conversations and the Internet diary aspects of the blog are only the signal; the carrier is the information space created by RSS, Daypop, PageRank, Blogroll, Technorati, Blogdex,, Trackback … [9]

Weblogs serve to muddy the delineation between interactive and broadcast media. An individual post can, therefore, be seen as a single speech act, which can only be understood in the context of a greater conversation. While a ‘micro’ view of an individual weblog will often result in a classification as a broadcast medium, a ‘macro’, or more distant, view of what is sometimes called the ‘blogosphere’ will allow one to see the ‘distributed conversation’ that is occurring between authors, with cross-linking, comments, and participants responding to posts on others’ blogs [10]. Weblogs are not the only websites to allow comments, but they are noteworthy for often triggering discussions involving readers and the original author. Such intimacy and leveling of roles leads easily to the cozy (some would say incestuous) nature of the blogosphere. This is fostered by tools such as blogrolling and trackback, which allow people to see who is linking to them, and thereby tighten the bonds between bloggers. This tendency has led some to concentrate not so much on the surface format of the weblog, as on the community-centred nature of the output. For instance, Andrew Grumet talks of weblogs as “massively distributed, platform-agnostic personal web publishing communities.” [11] Similarly we can look at Dave Winer’s (2001) contention that weblogs are:

  • Personal
  • On the web
  • Published
  • Part of communities [12]

However, while these various definitions stress the personal nature of the weblog, it is not always clear whether this refers primarily – or indeed exclusively – to the style, or whether it also has implications for the organizational structure and raison d’être that a site must have in order to qualify as a weblog. A variety of cases arise to illustrate this point. Columbia Journalism Review report the editor of one online magazine as saying his site cannot be a weblog as it has multiple authors. But such a distinction would disqualify multiple-author weblogs such as that run by Six Apart, the makers of MovableType, and the prominent Volokh Conspiracy, a self-defined weblog run by several members of a family and a number of their close friends. Obviously, self-definition is not necessarily sufficient to delineate the bounds of the field, so this is a question that should be addressed by any comprehensive model.
Similarly, such definitions leave little room for the much-touted expansion of the weblog format to the business world (either in terms of PR attempts like Raging Cow or the informational weblog of Gartner), or indeed artistic works like Pepys’ Diary or, to a certain extent, Dear Owen. When Gartner launched a consultancy service utilizing a weblog format it was lauded by some commentators as a welcome development that demonstrated the growing acceptance of the power of the weblog format. But such sites, while adhering to the format, obviously cannot be conceived of as personal, except perhaps in purely stylistic terms. Similarly, the controversy that erupted when Dr. Pepper launched a guerilla marketing campaign aimed at bloggers (to promote its new ‘Raging Cow’ drink) related primarily to the undisclosed rewards being given to selected bloggers in return for coverage – a breach of the social contract of the blogger in the eyes of many – and less to the existence of the ‘Raging Cow’ weblog itself.
Moving out from such explicitly corporate endeavors – whether as tools, or promotional devices – we have the blurring of the line between mass media outlets and weblogs. On the one hand several outlets have embraced, or are considering embracing, the weblog as a vehicle for their pundits and commentators. On the other we have examples of bloggers commercializing their efforts, whether in a limited fashion through advertising and merchandising, or more overtly through pledge drives. Among the more successful examples of the latter we have the pledge drive run by Instapundit, and Chris Albrighton’s successful attempt to raise funds for a journalistic mission to Iraq, through a call for pledges on his website. Similarly we have, for example, sites such as Media Channel, based around the weblog of Danny Schechter, which has recently looked for donations from users, in return for premium services, such as syndicated feeds for use on their own sites.
These various complications demonstrate the need for a model that accounts for the varied nature of these enterprises. The elements associated with the weblog can be divided into a number of categories. First, we have those basic characteristics that can be used to define the weblog-universe in basic terms. These include content management systems (CMSs) and the traditional weblog format. The systems used all facilitate users in generating and maintaining websites that conform to the traditional format; that is, short items (posts), date stamped, and listed in reverse-chronological order, generally on a non-regular schedule. This is supplemented by archives, which are presented/available in a more varied range of formats. In counting the number of weblogs in existence it seems reasonable to include all those websites which conform to the basic format – with the number of sites using one or another CMS providing a lower bound to this measure. A recent survey of some of the main systems estimated that 4.12 million weblogs have been created with these systems, with 1.4 million having been updated in the last two months. However, this study only included ‘hosted’ systems, such as BlogSpot and LiveJournal, where the CMS and hosting service are merged. As such, it seriously undercounts the number of weblogs by omitting those using non-hosted systems, such as Radio and Movable Type. In addition there are a number of smaller weblog-like services, as well as people who code their pages by hand or using a standard web-editing tool. However, as one moves from the standard tools, the nature of the output begins to deviate from what is understood as a weblog.
More importantly, however, different systems attract different types of user. Apart from the costs associated with using different systems, CMSs often include tools that build on the basic format and which, in serving varied needs and facilitating various modes of interconnection among users and readers, serve to attract different varieties of user, both in terms of demographic base and the uses to which the format is applied. Those using weblogs to keep up to date with friends, for example, are more likely to use LiveJournal, while Movable Type users are more likely to comment on current affairs. It is useful to consider here Dave Winer’s contention that weblogs are part of communities, and the similar conceptualization of weblogs constituting a distributed conversation. The dual nature of weblog posts, both as part of an individual weblog, and as part of a larger environment, is at the core of the nature of the weblog. An individual blog can be regarded as an individual narrative threading it’s way through the greater topological framework of the blogosphere, the web, and the outside world. In truth, weblogs form a large number of (generally) weakly interrelated conversations. The distinct community linkages created by the interaction of bloggers must be seen as an integral element of their structure., and categorization on this basis constitutes the second part of my model.
We can identify two main categories in terms of the form of community sustained. First we have those weblogs which deal with the personal and private. Notwithstanding the nominally public nature of the weblog – and some people do in fact restrict access to their weblogs – these weblogs are often inward looking, dealing with matters which are not expected to be of general public concern. These weblogs often operate as a site of interaction between those who are acquaintances in the offline world. Second we have those weblogs which aim to situate themselves within public discourse. These weblogs attempt to attract, and interact with, a more general public. Habermas identifies three domains within public debate – law and policy; technology and science; arts and culture – and it may be of benefit to further classify these weblogs along such lines. Of course, weblogs regularly feature crossover between the two main categories, as we can see most prominently in the example of Dear Raed, a weblog written by a blogger in Baghdad that came to widespread attention during the American war on that country. Here we see exemplified, as in other cases such as some of the many Persian blogs, the interaction of the personal and the political. However, the delineation is still useful, provided we understand the porous nature of the division. It is worth noting that it is possible that geo-cultural factors play a role in determining the nature of the boundary, and there is room for further analysis on this front.
An interesting aspect of coverage of weblogs has been the skewed nature of representations, with concentration primarily on a small number of bloggers situated within the law/policy domain of the ‘public’ category, something that has been commented on by several people. David Park, for instance, sees a contradiction in coverage – by both traditional mass media and weblogs themselves – that on the one hand speaks of an inclusive, counter-authoritarian, participatory medium, and on the other continually covers a small group of ‘star’ bloggers [13]. Halley Suitt, focusing in on gender issues, notes that lists of ‘most influential bloggers’ tend to omit women [14]. Belated recognition that there are varied groups using weblogs has generally been met with somewhat sexist dismissal of those who do not fit the ‘power blogger’ image as in this comment in the New York Times in reference to the aforementioned Perseus study:

Perhaps most biting, the study found that the typical blog is written by a teenage girl who uses it twice a month to update her friends. [15]

It is unclear why exactly such a profile is so often seen as grounds for derision, though it does suggest that journalists may have difficulties conceiving of weblogs other than as a form of journalism or ‘Op/Ed piece’ and that this may lead to diagnosing the ‘failure’ of those weblogs that they cannot shoehorn into the definition they have imposed. However, this is not to say we should ignore the relationship between traditional mass media and weblogs. An increasing number of media outlets are adopting the weblgo format as a means to communicate with their readers, as have a number of businesses and marketing groups. Although some are undoubtedly jumping onto a popular fad, others see benefits to the way they do business. In addition, some of the ‘power bloggers’ are probing the financial potential of weblogs. Most weblogs continue to be strictly amateur, engaged in as a hobby with at most a link to an wish-list. This smaller group, however, on the boundary between professional media and the weblog, raises a host of questions that deserve to be addressed by those studying weblogs. What is the interaction like between professional bloggers and amateurs – do professionals participate in debate in the same way, and to the same extent, as others? What sort of activities does funding of weblogs facilitate – does it merely provide additional income to ‘celebrity bloggers’ or is it likely to support additional sites of resource-intensive activity, such as investigative reporting? Will weblogs as a marketing or brand tool – as seen already with the Raging Cow and Barbie weblogs – endure, and if so how will their relationship with other weblogs evolve?
We have then three distinct areas by which we can classify weblogs, and when put together we get a model that helps us differentiate and examine the blogosphere, the space occupied by weblogs. First we have the definition of the weblog based on the basic format – websites with posts in reverse-chronological order. Second we have audience, the division between those weblogs that deal with personal issues and expect an audience known to the author, and those that place themselves in the public sphere, addressing a more general audience. The division between these two is somewhat problematic theoretically, and there is substantial overlap, but a general differentiation between the two categories can be made, and will aid investigations. Third, and finally, we have the organization of the weblog, either as a hobby, an income generating operation, or a professional operation. These various characteristics indicate various trends that we can expect to encounter within the ‘blogosphere’ into the future. Although we are still at an early stage a number of trends appear to be emerging that deserve ongoing attention in light of the model outlined here. More professional outlets are adopting the format for their online columnists and journalists, though there are as yet few direct revenue generating schemes in place. We must wonder however, in light of the emergence of professional weblogs and the ‘A-list’ of bloggers whether such operations will integrate added features into the format that will be beyond the ability of more amateur or occasional bloggers, and the impact that this will have on the practical participatory nature of weblogs.

  1. Figallo, C.
  2. See my essay “Slashdot and the Public Sphere” for an analysis of the operation of Slashdot.
  3. Pronounced Corrosion,
  4. Murphy, Gary Lawrence
  5. Hourihan, Meg
  6. In actual fact the standard convention is for entries to be listed in reverse chronological order, but this is a minor point. For definitions see for instance Hourihan, Meg.
  7. Walker, Jill
  8. Oravec, Jo Ann. A similar idea is used by those who refer to Vannevar Bush’s Memex – such as here.
  9. Murphy, Gary Lawrence
  10. There are a number of tools which allow one to graphically represent this situation, such as Blogstreet’s Visual Neighborhood tool and, more generally, Touchgraph’s GoogleBrowser.
  11. Grumet, Andrew
  12. Winer, Dave
  13. Park, David
  14. Suitt, Halley
  15. LiCalzi O’Connell, Pamela


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