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Blogging: past, present and future

Justin Hall - image courtesy of Joi Ito via Wikicommons

Justin Hall - image courtesy of Joi Ito via Wikicommons

Blogging has been around for a lot longer than you think (certainly longer than I thought). As a practice it first came to public attention in 1994, when Justin Hall, a student at Swarthmore College, decided that what he really needed to do was share his most intimate thoughts with the world at large. Given that in 1994 the number of people on the net was relatively limited, the world at large was considerably smaller than it is today. Nevertheless, he dived in with (very) personal revelations and in 2004 was proclaimed “the founding father of personal blogging”.

A new day dawns

1994 and ’95 were big years for blogs: Dave Winer (“one of the most prolific writers in web history”, not to mention one of the “most influential web voices”) started DaveNet, which was a stream-of-consciousness newsletter that did the rounds via email. While it’s not strictly a blog, it was the start of the opinion-type content-collated phenomenon that would become the hallmark blogs.  It also led to the launch of Winer’s actual blog, called Scripting News, in February 1997. It’s still going strong and even has an archive of DaveNet news. Winer has also been called the forefather of blogging, although his approach was less personal than Hall’s as he concentrated more on observational and eclectic content.

1994 also saw the launch of the first travel blog, which turned out to be another immensely popular avenue for bloggers. In 1995, plebs were allowed online when Vermeer Technologies released the first public publishing system, which allowed people without any technical know-how to upload content to the web.

Jorn Barger

Jorn Barger - image courtesy of Robotwisdom via Wikicommons

1995 also introduced the world to another blog pioneer: Jorn Barger. Barger was actually the first person to coin the term weblog. It took another four years for Peter Merholz to shorten it to blog. Barger meant it to represent the logging of the web, but Merholz’ interpretation was far more egocentric – we blog. Barger started his blog, Robot Wisdom, with the same intention as most people who start blogs; to record his thoughts on a variety of subjects. Barger’s interests were rather diverse, extending from artificial intelligence to James Joyce.

While Winer and Barger are still very active online, Hall’s digital life has been off and on. In 2005, after years of personal outpourings, Hall released an online video, dramatically called Dark Night, in which he had a bit of a breakdown and questioned the worth of the net as he felt that instead of bringing people closer it just led to greater alienation. He’s made sporadic cameo appearances since then and you can see his most updated news on his site Links.net (the name of which is not very SEO savvy at all).

(It’s possible that the reason Hall broke down and Winer and Barger continued is the nature of their online presence. Anyone who bears his or her soul on a daily basis can be expected to break down sooner or later, while those who take a more sardonic view of life are more likely to hunker down for the long haul. But I digress.)

The sky’s the limit

Blogs exploded in the early 2000s. Technorati started keeping track of all the blogs that populate the net, BoingBoing, Gizmodo and the Huffington Post came online and bloggers went rock star with Andrew Sullivan and Jason Calacanis.

Mohammad-Ali Abtahi

Mohammad-Ali Abtahi (image courtesy of Mmehdi.g via Wikicommons)

In 2003, the Iranian vice-president at the time, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, launched his personal blog. In 2004, the first video blog was launched (YouTube came along a year later) and Flickr made an appearance. 2004 was also the first year that the web played an important role in US politics as bloggers weighed in on the campaign. And, in 2004 Merriam-Webster declared blog to be the word of the year.

Everyone jumped on the bandwagon and Mommy Bloggers were considered the most powerful people online.

Don’t fear the reaper

Then the bells began to toll and people started saying that blogs were dead.

They’ve been saying it for about seven years.

In 2009, Scott Rosenberg, who is something of an online media mogul, published a book on the early days of blogging called Say Everything. When he was asked about the future of blogging he maintained that blogging wasn’t dead. It wasn’t even dying. Instead it’s evolving.

It’s Darwin all over again

As common wisdom has it the strongest will survive. Twitter and Facebook will not bury blogging, but will lend it new strength. Rosenberg said that Twitter will make blogging more substantial; after all, it’s difficult to exercise your full creativity within 140 characters.

In an article on NYTimes in February 2011, Elisa Camahort Page, co-founder of BlogHer, says that Twitter and Facebook are platforms for small talk, while blogs allow for meatier discussions.

In the same article, Lee Rainie, director of the Internet and American Life Project, says that the evolution of blogs will see them incorporating more aspects than mere text. People are adding videos and images to their blogs, something which is being facilitated by rising sites such as Tumblr and Posterous.

And, while blogs are losing ground with youngsters, those in their 30s and older are finding more value in a variety of blog posts than ever before. A recent survey by Pew Research Centre showed that the percentage of people who blog is rising among people aged 34 – 73 years old.

The increase has been attributed to value. People simply see more value in blogs as they provide more in-depth content.

Om Malik

Om Malik - image courtesy of Olivier Ezratty via Wikicommons

If you want more proof on the matter, turn to Om Malik (from highly regarded Gigaom), who in 2009 also likened blogs to food. He calls Twitter an entrée and reckons that blogs are the main course. This is because Twitter and Facebook give people the opportunity to introduce an idea or topic, gauge its reception and then provide the option to delve into it more deeply.

To survive the evolution, Malik says that blogs need to be more social. He qualifies this by saying, “… blogging platforms need to evolve from the hierarchical content-management systems of today to more fluid, free-flowing, more socially relevant and real-time lifestreaming systems”. This is something that has as much to do with the attitude of bloggers as the technical capabilities of content management systems. CMS systems need to adapt to a changing web where everything is sleeker, faster and more mobile.

Fashion comes and goes but style is forever

Evolution aside, blogs rise and fall on the whim of the public. Various topics have been popular at various times, while some topics appear to be timeless.

Politics always has been and always will be a popular theme, especially now that more politicians are willing to get online, sometimes even without the aid of a publicist or PR manager. News and current affairs also have long-term potential, as do how-to guides.

News about online marketing is always popular; even if you are catering to a fairly niche group, the niche is growing.

Time.com publishes an annual list of the best blogs for that year. It’s interesting to take a look at years past and present to compare the fluctuating fortunes of various mainstream blogs.

For instance, in 2010 the best blog was Zenhabits, which only made it to number nine in 2009. The rise is probably because as the pace of life keeps picking up people need a calming space to breathe, even if that space is online.

The top spot in 2009 went to Talking Points Memo (a news site), which didn’t even make the list in 2010. In 2010, TechCrunch is listed as an “essential blog”; but in 2009 it was “overrated”. In 2009, Mashable made it to number 13; but in 2010 the tables have turned and it’s on the overrated list.

Pretty much the only blog that has been consistent over the past two years is Perez Hilton, which was overrated both times.

All of which goes to show that you might not be able to predict how well your blog will do from year to year, but if you produce dubious content you’ll lose out once novelty value wears off.


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