“What is a blog?”
I’m asked that question, and I might as well be back in Mrs. Pemberton’s sixth grade social studies class, called upon to answer one of those slippery questions, like, “What is manifest destiny?”
My usual trick is to rely upon etymology, that somehow understanding how our Latin and Greek predecessors used a word will lead us, like Ariadne’s thread, out of the maze of incomprehension. But in this case, it’s a neologism, a concatenation of the words “web log” into weblog, and broken apart again into “we blog.” Even there, though, we might obtain a clue: a log book was a journal kept by sailors. The word “log” originally referenced the piece of wood tied to a rope that was thrown overboard, and helped indicate speed. Over time, it became customary to make written observations of speed, whereabouts, sightings of birds, and encounters with the Dread Pirate Jane.
It sits there like a dog’s accident in the middle of the floor.
The form, if you want to call it that, has come to mean so many different things to different people. In many uses, it simply denotes an online article. We can travel gracefully between the brief image/text musings of Seth Godin that are so Lilliputian that I can safely insert a screenshot here:
That’s it: no “read more,” links to other posts, or even an image. Godin is the master of the blog equivalent of Nietzsche’s famous aphorisms. And then we have the Leo Tolstoy of blogging, Avinash Kaushik. His posts typically run over 5,000 words, and often thousands of words more. These blog posts could qualify as chapters to a book, and by the time his fans have added their comments (which frequently add more than 5,000 more words) could even stand as an eBook.
While blogs are relatively new they have much in common with that Cinderella of literature, the personal essay. If you take that notion seriously, then we might look back to the output of Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, and Hazlitt – more recently, Joan Didion and Phillip Lopate as models. Certainly, with the millions of blog posts being written every day, we can’t expect each new piece to meet the excellence of those writers, but at the same time, the sheer volume means that norms are being established quickly.
Both authenticity and transparency have often been cited as critical elements of blogging. Even though in earlier days, “on the Internet, they don’t know you’re a dog,” – meaning, people often obscured their real identities – the fact that much journalism has become “citizen journalism” has brought with it many of those journalistic values. If your readers even get a hint that you’re anything less than genuine, their trust in your words will go flying out the window. Phillip Lopate, one of the most eloquent defenders and celebrators of the personal essay form wrote, “the personal essayist must above all be a reliable narrator; we must trust his or her core of sincerity.” He could easily have say “blogger” instead of “personal essayist.”
The age of social media has also engendered new forms of approaches to privacy – the “private/public” as opposed to the “private/private” persona – in which a person shares personal aspects of their lives, but only enough that their audience feels that they have an inner peak into the writer’s life. Likewise, Lopate asked, “Is it a paradox that personal essayists are often excruciatingly frank, yet protective of their privacy?” He added a quote of Alexander Smith, “If you wish to preserve your secret, wrap it up in frankness.” Smith was referring to Montaigne, but we could be speaking of Seth Godin, as well.
Five Things You Ought To Know
Perhaps it comes about from the expectation of being a journal or diary – that we write in our blogs, if not every day, frequently. The unremitting necessity creates a sort of self-imposed logorrhea (blogorrhea?).
One fallback has been the use of lists, such as the Top Five Things Every Blogger Should Do to Get More Traffic, or the Ten Hottest Tips for Summer. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the device – many great blog posts were built on that structure. The website www.12most.com is built on convention that each post will be about “12 most,” – for example, the “12 Most Effective Ways To Create Irresistible Content.”
The use of an underlying list has naturally become a strong component of a lot of blogging. For instance, in this post of Lisa Barone’s, “Signs You Need To Hire a Digital Marketing Agency,” Barone has resisted the temptation of using “5 Signs…” – but the list is still there, quietly in the background.
While I much prefer this latter approach without the use of the numerical specification, I’d be hard pressed to say that bloggers should abandon the “This Quantity of Something” structure. Too many successful blog posts have relied on the convention. But for me, it’s become hackneyed.
Blogging will evolve. We’ll use a convention too much, and the natural curve of the adoption of innovation will be followed. I have a feeling, though, that blogging is different. It may have its roots in the personal essay, but the rate at which blogging has been adopted, and the constant drive to write more – to, in the words of modern startups, fail fast – has resulted in the emergence of new approaches to writing that are still evolving.
In the past 100 years, an observer of literature would have seen the changes brought on by the proliferation of post cards, and then typewriters. They would have seen a decrease in personal correspondence with the advent of the telephone, and then a glorious golden age in resurgence with email.
I’ve heard predictions of the demise of the written word – that video technologies and real-time will obviate text. We might, indeed, live to see a cultural capability – the written word – become quaint and the subject of nostalgia, much like that collection of vinyl records in your closet. It’s more probable, however, that we’re still in the middle of our journey and that we will continue to evolve our literary capabilities.
“What is a blog” may be the right question. I just wouldn’t expect an answer quite yet.
Ric Dragon is the CEO and chief strategist for DragonSearch, a leading niche player in internet marketing from search to social. He is the author of the Dragonsearch Online Marketing Manual (McGraw Hill 2011) and Social Marketology (McGraw Hill 2012). In addition to being an artist and a jazz drummer, Dragon has been a speaker at events around the world including Social Media World, SMX ...
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