The Blogdriver's Waltz

Weblogs as an alternative portal to the Internet

Jon Dunbar



There are several genre structures that have found their way into online consciousness. The best known, and probably one of the oldest, is the FAQ. There are more current examples, like the weblog. The weblog is an annotated guide to the Internet, combined with a personal journal in varying degrees. The weblog has simultaneously spawned its own genre, as well as created a new way of exploring the Internet. Most people are only familiar with the expanse of the Internet through the diving board of the commercial web portals, but these structures are facing increasing competition from weblogs. In a medium where information is overwhelming and knowledge is power, it is important to control the context in which information is consumed. Vast online communities have formed around weblogs, which bring an element of real life into the "communities without propinquities" (Grimes 1997 p263). While we can consider the weblog a genre, we must also pay particular attention to how it directs attention on the Internet.

Introduction: Your guides in the technosphere


Every Internet user has, at least once, opened a search engine, and stared blankly at the text field, unable to think of anything to search for. A professor once said, "If you don't know it exists, why would you punch it into your computer in the first place?" (Tinic 2001) We're sitting on the entire body of human knowledge; who in their right mind would ever think of visiting, or even looking for, a site called (a very interesting read), or typing "Bert is evil" into a search engine? The Internet is stuffed with so much information it's nearly impossible to explore, and it's time-consuming to find worthwhile content among the trash. A post-modern theorist would call the online environment 'hyperreality,' "in which we are overloaded with images and information" (Barker 2000 p158). William Gibson once said, "Pretty soon I think there'll be people who make a living pre-surfing it for you. There's a real need for that -- otherwise it becomes this monster time-sink" (not dated) The Internet is a wild, unstructured frontier, and it's being tamed by the cowboys and girls who make links.

Weblog editors, sometimes called pre-surfers, webloggers, or bloggers (Merholz 2001), forage on the Internet so others don't have to. The content of a weblog, also called a blog, micro-portal, anti-portal (Dougherty 2000) meta-site (Katz 1999), newspage, or filter, is an annotated guide to the Internet. They present the fruits of their search in a pleasantly packaged write-up on their own site. When we follow a link, we are looking at information that has been packaged and somewhat approved for our consumption. A weblog "filters" the Internet, which strains the entire thing and only keeps the good stuff. MetaFilter, a popular blog with over 12 000 contributors, derived its name from the concept of "filtering." Jorn Barger, editor of Robot Wisdom, used the slogan "I EDIT THE NET" (Laws 1998). By changing the way we move through the Internet, bloggers harness the white noise of overinformation into an identifiable discourse, personal and community forming at the same time.

Personal discourse and community building are rare on the Internet, which has been overcome by commercial interests setting up their own discourse of capitalist expansion. The Internet has gone through, and is going through, a "cybernetic Wal-Mart effect" (Shapiro 1999), an amplifying of the voices of the powerful and silencing of the powerless (Chin 1997 p1). In the search for profit, web portals like Yahoo!,, and Open Text placed online diversity in peril when they tried to sell the top slots of search results to the highest bidder (Shapiro 1999 p98). Such a sale would arrange the Net roughly from richest sites to poorest sites. Interactivity, as well as diversity, has suffered as a result of online commercial interests; many web portals realised they needed to keep surfers at their sites in order to make money. Original content has been added in the form of news, e-mail accounts, stock quote services, and online games, making the portals the destination rather than just the go-between (Shapiro 1999 p98-99; Aikat 2000 p58). As well, Microsoft designed a "channel bar," which lists commercial logos that takes the user to sites such as Disney, AOL-Time Warner, CBS, and Microsoft itself (Shapiro 1999 p96). Microsoft would defend itself by claiming it just wants to present consumers with quality choices and help them deal with the confusion of too many options on the Net (Shapiro 1999 p100). However, the message we get, to coin a popular slogan, is "Where do you want to go today--within the Microsoft universe?" (Shapiro 1999 p88). The difficulty in searching the Web is not in finding content, but in having the agency to place some contextual value on information. It is this process which is dominated by big-business portals. However, there are other ways of bypassing the commercial pathways and finding coherence the World Wide Web one might not find without a guide. Weblogs are that guide.

Weblog structure and flow: The Blogdriver's Waltz

If I were to describe a weblog as an online personal diary, I would not be upset if you put this paper down right now. The only common feature shared by a weblog and a diary is the dated-entry format. Cameron Barrett, a weblogger, says: "Weblogs…are designed for an audience. They have a voice. They have a personality. …they are an interactive extension of who you are" (Barrett 1999b). In contrast, he describes regular homepages as "places where you put pictures of your family and your cats" (Barrett 1999b). Usually, weblogs are edited by a single person, but there are communal weblogs, including MetaFilter, but also Slashdot and Plastic (currently under renovation). The average weblog editor is generally a computer expert, savvy in the design and culture of the Internet. A surprising number of bloggers are married, engaged, or spoken-for, contrary to the stereotype of the loner Internet junkie (Dunbar 2001). Few of them strictly adhere to what would be considered mainstream discourse, but it is rare to find genuinely oppositional content in a weblog, such as long-term endorsement of a political end or taboo material. One of the survey respondents, when asked whether she would post pornography on her weblog, explained, "I try to keep things so that the widest range of people possible will feel comfortable reading" (Dunbar 2001). Most nonconformist discourses can be linked to the blogger's articulated understanding of the Internet, which in itself can sometimes be oppositional. For example, a talented weblogger can deep-link into a commercial website, bypassing all advertisements1. Like the VCR and the remote control made it possible for TV viewers to skip ads, HTML experts have found a way. Many bloggers are employed in technical jobs, often Internet jobs, and have years of experience at searching the Internet (Barrett 1999a, Dunbar 2001). Jerry Everard suggested that people adapted to the Internet environment would see the world in non-linear perspectives (2000 p155). The editors of weblogs seem to conform to his vision of a 'new literacy,' where semiotics are increasingly based on "sophistication in reading/decoding images…in favour of typography, layout and design" (Everard 2000 p154).

A weblog can be recognized by its atomized, parceled layout, divided by dates rather than topic, and usually accompanied by a sidebar that gives static data (such as contact information, site credits, etc.). New entries appear at the top of the page, so surfers don't have to look far for the latest updates. As Jorn Barger says, repeat visitors can catch up by reading down the page until they find a familiar entry (1999). Old entries are pushed off the bottom of the page, usually into site archives. Cindy Curling refers to this movement as "rolling" (2001), much like the music sheet on a player piano. The content of each entry differs between weblogs, and often between entries within certain blogs. They usually contain personal commentary on objects linked on the page, which may lead to photos (such as Common Threads), mp3s, and, most commonly, links to other sites. Links can point to anything on the Internet, including other weblogs, Flash animated games or films, odd sites, and news stories. In brief, weblogs offer a look at what's happening online and within the web community (Barrett 1999a).

What makes the weblog so successful is how it functions as an "aesthetic trap" (Gell 1998) to catch surfers and hold their attention. The key to setting this trap, Miller and Slater argue, is providing interactivity rather than a static page (2000); static pages don't have the content for repeated visits, even with interesting content.

Surfers do not treat the Internet like television, willing to be passive spectators. They must be persuaded to undertake actions, such as obtaining information, buying things, having engrossed media experience: it is activity that keeps them on the site (Miller 2000 p149).
Miller and Slater list several common strategies in generating hits, such as creating online chat, polls, contests notice boards, and membership accounts that induce the feeling that a person is part of the site (Miller 2000 p165). The trap common to all functional weblogs is in the promise of new material the next day, which invites surfers to check back on a daily basis. Some sites have a "New" or "Recently Updated" page, but the weblog is a perfection of this tactic, because it gets the new material right at the top of the page, which is the first thing a surfer sees while the page is loading. The weblog design is a robust example of user-friendly interaction on the Internet, with a very simple design.

A blog is an easy passage in the flow of online surfing, helpfully referring visitors on to the next link in the flow. "The website as trap is always one point in a 'ring' or network that provides a potential flow of surfers to entrap. The more linked the site is, the more it provides a conduit for this flow of people" (Miller 2000 p78). Just as Miller and Slater describe, a weblog acts as a funnel, channeling its traffic into the sites it links. But the act of surfing links, which is the basis of Internet communication, isn't as simple as channel surfing on TV. Readers of hypertext determine their own narrative sequence, taking the production of meaning into their own hands in a way that isn't granted by the stiff linearity of a book (van Dam 1996). And unlike channel surfers, Internet surfers may still receive more than quick snippets of different programmes, different from Newcombe's "strip text" (Barker 2000 p155) in that they may still access the entirety of documents, rather than skimming on with nothing more than a first impression. The inherent weakness in weblog design is in the possibility that a user may lose the page by clicking on a link. David Kolb identified this problem in 1996, saying that hypertext needs to allow a way of backtracking, of tracing one's steps (1996 p24). The solution to this problem has been added into both Windows and Mac operating systems, but it currently works only for those who know about it. uses an adequate solution, by automating the process of opening a link in a new window. Surfers are given a number of paths to follow, and based on the sequence of links chosen, they may interpret the involved texts in a unique way. To them, the concept of authorship must seem ridiculous. Levi-Strauss' post-modern concept of bricolage (Levi-Strauss 1966) can be applied to the production of textual meaning on the Internet, where meaning is created not through the entirety of a particular text, but through its collisions and collusions with other material (Everard 2000 p156).

In order to solidify a particular entity on the Net, defined by one website, the blogger must give surfers the feeling that they have entered a separate zone. This zone should be defined by "dedicat[ion] to an argument, a discourse, or a discursive gesture with some local form, rather than being within a random cloud of associations and links" (Kolb 1996 p23). This is difficult to do with a weblog, which has no depth, or is one-page-deep, meaning the entire site is contained on the single cover page, with all links leading off-site. However, this lack of depth does not create the superficiality of post-modern theory (Barker 2000 p157); a considerable amount of depth can eventually be gleaned on the character behind the weblog, after accumulated visits.

Blogs: A flavourful concept

Contradicting the post-modern hypothesis, most blogs are composed with personality. According to Barger, "One of the greatest pleasures of reading weblogs is getting to know their editors" (1999). Evan Williams, founder of Pyra, cites the three characteristics of a blog: "Frequency, Brevity, and Personality" (2001b). However, Jakob Nielsen says "the average weblog is unreadable" (2000). Some weblogs are simply online diaries, while others are just a chronological ordering of links to other sites. There is some disagreement about how much personality should be allowed in a weblog. Curling identifies four different "flavours" of weblogs: the extremely succinct pointer site, also known as the 'microcontent' site, the researcher's list of annotated resources, the more personal journal with links, and the personal diary (2001). In these four flavours, we can see a movement between 'useful' information and personality.

On one end, we have the journal-style weblogs, which are similar to online diaries. In a pure diary, visitors read the writer's personal reflections without being referred off the page. There is a fuzzy line between blogs and diaries, but online diaries have been in decline lately, probably in their differences with weblogs: they aren't nearly as brief, and because their lack of links reduces flow through the site. A good example of a successful online journal is Wil Wheaton Dot Net, which is run by the actor most famous for his role as Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Arguably his site is popular because of his name recognition, but it is a rare example of an online journal that receives heavy traffic. It also received a lot of attention from other weblogs, and it just barely fits the definition of weblog. His site follows the structure of a weblog, but daily entries are typically longer than a regular blog entry, and rather than discussing links, he talks about himself. Offsite links lead to interviews and articles about him, sites about Star Trek, etc. Wheaton, in his site, writes that he designed the website so surfers could get to know the "real me, not the space-suited, enterprising young ensign" (Wheaton 2001). The online journal format works for him, but there are too many people on the Net for everyone to share their personal lives, and too many surfers who prefer brevity. The term "blogorrhea" has been coined to describe the flood of overly personal weblogs (Mead 2000). Curling says "…when I'm using a resource for work, I don't want to have to spend much time sifting through someone else's personal opinions to find the information I need" (2001). Curling prefers the filter-style, which cuts to the chase with less trimming.

In opposition to the journal-style, less personal filter-style sites focus on "useful" links rather than rants. There are very few pointer sites that offer no commentary; posts URLs with no descriptions. Still, a regular visitor could develop an impression of the editor's personality. Christine Booker explains, "What someone chooses to link tells me what they're interested in, what they think is funny, what they find absurd" (Katz 1999). There are a number of "librarian blogs" that are run strictly for transmitting links. Examples of these would be, which offers daily links in law research, and The Virtual Acquisition Shelf & News Desk, which is simply a list of annotated resources on varied professional topics. "These are not plain vanilla annotations," says Curling; "they are an ongoing commentary imbued with the author's voice and bias" (2001). Commentary is the heart of weblogs, but even in absence of texts, we must remember that the juxtaposition of links on a page creates a certain semiotic meaning.

Blogcasting: The news according to weblogs

It's interesting to see how bloggers frame links to news articles, putting themselves in the role of the reporter. By reporter, I don't mean that the weblogger writes his or her own articles, but takes on a role akin to an anchorperson on a TV newsmagazine, who presents larger stories in brief segments. In a link pointing to a news story, the blogger usually includes a brief description of the article, taken from the article itself, as well as a quick quote to raise the surfer's interest, and then a link to the full body of the article. A blogger's job is not to provide content, but to place some contextual value on others' content (Dougherty 2000). Weblogs report on their medium, serving as a sort of meta-site. "They're fulfilling the predictions by Internet visionaries of the rise of a new breed of personal journalism online -- only instead of pounding the physical pavement, they forage for news on the Net itself" (Barrett 1999b).

Surprisingly, professional journalists haven't picked up on the advantages of linking, which could give an interesting advantage in quoting source material. Linking is underused by commercial websites, who would ask, "Why should we send our readers away?" (Rosenberg 1999) At a panel discussion at a new media conference at the UC-Berkeley Journalism School, it was agreed upon that linking is a menial task that anyone can handle, which doesn't compare to the higher calling of traditional journalism (Rosenberg 1999). Collecting Naked News (Ranta 2001) isn't journalism in the higher sense, but it does provide an indexical stance in the vast, confusing realm of journalism. "In the age of proliferating information, personalization becomes all the more necessary" (Shapiro 1999 p106). Weblogs whittle down the glut of information into something personally identifiable.

The deficiencies of professional news websites were revealed following the WTC disaster on 9/11, and many were drawn by the news-with-context offered by the personal-level, community-building discourse of weblogs. Surfers turned to news websites for updates, flooding them past their capacity (Peterson 2001). Wired News published an article titled, "Amateur Newsies Top the Pros" (Kahney 2001) . In USAToday, the writer claimed that bloggers aren't constrained by objectivity or fact-checking (AP 2001). The first weblog entry following the disaster was posted on MetaFilter by Karen Grünberg, beating out most commercial sites. "The plane crashed into the building about six minutes ago," she wrote. "We are about sixty blocks north and we can see the smoke over the skyline" (Grünberg 2001). Haunting words, partly because we can picture her watching the billowing smoke. Weblogs provided information in a unique way; "People used to sit around a campfire and exchange stories," said Jeff Slutzky, editor of the Tin Man weblog. "People turned to Web logs in the aftermath of Sept. 11 for the same reason. They wanted to feel the same connection to a community" (AP 2001). This is completely opposite from the "professional" media discourse, which is "top-down, boring and inherently arrogant" (Katz 1999). Scripting News linked news stories from all around the world, as well as a link to the full text of FDR's Pearl Harbor speech. posted links to various news stories and pictures about the disaster over the following days. Mr. Phancy included his usual humourous links, as well as an mp3 and lyrics for Pink Floyd's "On the Turning Away." Zannah on /usr/bin/girl posted links intended to help people cope with disaster, as well as memorial pages. The discourse of weblogs offers two things that major news sites won't ever have: information that can be lived, and a feeling of community.

The Nosey Neighbour Technique and what it means for authorship

An intertextual community exists between weblogs. In my survey of weblog editors, I found that many bloggers attributed their traffic to associations with other weblogs. One survey respondent said, " I know for a fact I have many readers who are into weblogging and have stumbled upon my site from links on other weblogs" (Dunbar 2001). Curling describes this building of communities of discourse as the "Nosey Neighbor Technique":

People who write blogs tend to think of themselves as a community, and within that community there are neighborhoods of people with common interests. These neighbors keep in close touch, and spend time showing each other their best new information. If the neighborhood where you grew up was like mine, there were a few houses where all the kids gravitated because those folks had the swing set, the wading pool, the popcorn, and got the new Atari games first. Weblogs work in a similar way (Curling 2001).
Increased sophistication in Internet technology has helped create communities through the fostering of online interaction. Some blogs use JavaScript to enable visitors to post comments, which changes the semiotics into two-way communication between the editor and visitors. As well, many sites offer deeper interactive activities, such as Sleeping Pills' monthly mix-tape trade through snail-mail, and Reality Remix's Blogger Insider, where bloggers are partnered off to interview each other. Blogs even have their own annual awards, the Bloggies (Nolan 2001). The groups formed are far more than "communities without propinquities" (Grimes 1997 p263); there are so many weblogs, it's only a matter of time before a blogger meets other bloggers in the same city. Dave Winer, editor of Scripting News, writes, "No weblog stands alone, they are relative to each other and to the world" (Winer 2001).

The act of designing a blog itself is a community-forming act. The community around weblogs was originally cemented together by two things: the creation of weblogs about weblogs, such as, Blog of the Day, and webloglog, and the advent of weblog resources like Blogger, Groksoup, and Edit this Page, which provide blog startup services. Because of these resources, everyone with an Internet connection has access to the materials needed to start a weblog, even without any knowledge of HTML. Even so, learning HTML can be a community-forming act; many bloggers surveyed explained that studying the code from other sites is a good way to learn HTML (Dunbar 2001). This creates difficulty in defining authorship, when the work is a bricolage of other texts (Everard 2000 p159).

There's no fine line between bricolage and plagiarism. What accounts for intellectual theft on the Net is uncertain, and there is certainly no consensus among bloggers. Among those surveyed, some had no objection to other people using their code without asking, while others said they had no problem so long as the borrower didn't make an exact replica (Dunbar 2001). Only one of the respondents, a web designer, seriously objected to code borrowing, explaining that she spent a lot of work on her code, and that she had lost jobs because of plagiarism. "there's really no way for me to verify I actually wrote it and had it *first*", she explains. "So people think maybe *I'm* the one stealing, which really gets my goat, since I spend so much time werking [sic] on these things" (Dunbar 2001). Often, definitions of online authorship focus on design, but leave out content authorship.

A further complication to authorship and intellectual theft arises in linking other material. Ideally, the writing on someone's website should be considered copyright material, One respondent asked, "How can you own something that's just a pointer to somewhere else?" (Dunbar 2001) A majority of bloggers surveyed didn't seem perturbed by link-copying, although they usually considered it a polite formality. Another blogger explained that some links are discovered by a large number of blogs at the same time, and it's useless to credit all of them. Many defining websites of the Internet community get linked by hundreds of weblogs; it would be useless to credit every site that linked Barrett shows some concern for what crediting too many blogs would do to the flow of information the weblog is trying to deliver (Barrett 1999b). In that scenario, the number of links available increases exponentially, scattering and diluting the flow between sites.

Any attempt to create a universal standard for giving credit would likely tie the weblog community in knots. Authorship is a fuzzy concept, especially as texts are produced by 'sampling' from other texts (Everard 2000 p154). The only thing that everyone agrees is unique is the underlying personality behind a weblog, and even that can be copied, sampled, or faked. The Internet community was shocked when a weblog run by Kaycee, a leukemia patient, turned out to be a hoax (van der Woning 2001). Many people in the weblog community were shocked that they could be fooled by a faked personality in a weblog.

Conclusion: Where this is all going

While the Internet is homogenising under the influence of corporate control, with power over content and direction to content concentrating in the hands of giant portals like Yahoo, we see a contradicting force at work among the technologically literate community of the Internet. Webloggers have found a niche in the Web's "information ecology" (Barrett 1999b), foraging and making paths that commercial websites would just as soon avoid. For years, media theorists have been predicting the new journalist in the online environment. As Grimes says, "What seems to be lacking on the Internet is knowledge, not data" (1997 p267). It's webloggers who provide that knowledge, evaluating the Web and making suggestions for surfers to follow. The thousands of bloggers making these decisions can be contrasted with the corporate portals, which give only a small selection of pointers, aiming to keep traffic within their own discursive zones of consumerism.

Oddly, but not surprisingly, a few commercial news sites have attempted to publish their own blogs, such as the Guardian Unlimited, the Star Tribune, and The Age. Most of these seem to be written by a staff, except for the now defunct "CC's Weblog" at The Age. These blogs link sites that focus on commercialism, and basically legitimate and sustain the existing ideologies and politics of society as "'normal,' 'necessary,' or 'natural'" (Grimes 1996 p260). For example, the Star Tribune weblog contains links to Google, Merriam-Webster Online, and Alta Vista.

There are many forces that want to control what surfers look at, and bloggers are among the more powerful outside of the hegemonic sphere. Because of the amount of directed flow dictated by links, the Internet is no longer the unfiltered, highly democratic, non-hierarchical collection of raucous information (as described by Mungo & Clough 1992, Rheingold 1993). Weblogs offer a look at the community taking place online, forming that community by making links between sites. In order to keep the Internet democratic, according to Kolb, we need "citizens with this doubled attitude of inhabitation and reconstruction" (Kolb 1996 p20). Despite the explosion of weblogs, their applications have not yet been exhausted. Weblogs have worked for categorizing information on law, Internet technology, and a number of other professions. Barrett says, "I'm still waiting for the weblog model to be adopted by others. Woudn't [sic] it be great if all the neurosurgeons in the world had one place to go for up-to-date information about the numerous changes in their field?" (Barrett 1999b).

Footnote 1 Some companies see deep linking as a threat, and lawsuits have been filed against sites that deep-link (Rosenberg 1997). Deep linking was approved following the case of versus Ticketmaster (Finley 2000).


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Note: This is a hypertext version of a term paper written for Sociology 444:
Public Opinion and Mass Communication, at the University of Alberta.