September 2002

Kenan Hebert

nonfiction

The Weblog Handbook by Rebecca Blood; We've Got Blog by various authors

By now, nearly everyone who uses the web is familiar with the concept of a blog. It is defined, in simplest terms, as a web page updated frequently and arranged in reverse chronological order. Apart from that, there aren't any hard-and-fast criteria. The idea is simple, the format can vary wildly, and the content even more so. But these facts don't address the main questions most people still have about blogs: Why bother? Why read one? What possesses a person to write one?

I must admit, I have a blog of sorts myself, and I still grapple with those questions. The weblog form was conceived as a handy tool to filter the massive and confusing content of the web into a more palatable list of links that are interesting, or well written, or pertinent to a particular subject. But blogs have changed since their humble beginnings to become personal diaries, random thoughts, links to other blogs, writings, musings, pontifications, rants, and chronologies of all manner of minutiae. Reading a blog nowadays can often be like being dragged along to the grocery store with a stranger, forced to participate in lives that you would otherwise have no interest in. What was once a filter for noise has become noise itself. So again, why bother?

Rebecca Blood, author of The Weblog Handbook, along with the many contributors to the volume We've Got Blog, come armed with answers. Blood is particularly eloquent on the subject of what maintaining a weblog can do for your mind. She argues that it can make you a better writer, a better critical thinker, a better netizen, and a better citizen. Joining the community of bloggers can help you find out not only about your interests, but about what your interests are. Weblogs can point you to important and interesting things that you never thought important or interesting. And yes, of course, they can also be a dump for ill-conceived, thoughtlessly executed writings on terrifically boring subjects, such as the daily lives of 13-year-olds. But before you go condemning weblogs as a format, let's examine some of the evidence in these books.

Chapter two of The Weblog Handbook, entitled "Why a Weblog?" lays down the pro-blog argument, point by point. I know each of these things to be true from personal experience.

1) Weblogs build better writers. "It's easy to write poorly," Blood says, "but it's hard to write poorly every day." The very format of the weblog lends itself to clear, concise, to-the-point writing, and anyone with a real interest in the topics they discuss will invariably develop these essential writing skills, as long as they keep at it.

2) Weblogs build self-awareness. "It's impossible to write down your thoughts every day without noticing what you are thinking." Or, for that matter, why you are thinking it. This is the very foundation of critical thinking, which is point 3, actually.

3) Weblogs build critical thinkers. Even a simple filter-style, link-oriented blog may force the writer to read several versions of the same story, choosing the best one based on style and content. This is the beginning of true media literacy, since after all, it's not the weblog that's the filter, it's the writer. The ability to self-filter media is not a higher function in an information society; it's a survival skill.

4) Weblogs build reputations. Bloggers who regularly write interesting, well-researched, well-thought-out pieces on their blogs will develop an audience. From the readers' standpoint, the blog is useful. From the writer's standpoint, they have found that they had more to say to people than they ever imagined.

The chapter begins with a problematic quote from Brenda Ueland: "Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say." Anyone who has spent ten minutes jumping from one blog to another knows that this is patently untrue. But even weblogs of the daily minutiae variety are changing as users search for more visitors, and aim to emulate the bloggers that they most admire. Not everyone has something to say, but an ever-increasing number of people have an interesting way to say it, for many of the reasons Blood cited above. The web, often blamed for decreased literacy, is in truth becoming a literacy-building tool thanks to weblogs.

The rest of The Weblog Handbook lives up to its title well-enough, though it is certainly not required reading even for beginning bloggers. If you've been managing a blog for six months already, you probably don't need to be told not to attack others, or that several free services exist to track your hits, or that learning some HTML will be very helpful to you. She doesn't say how to learn HTML, or what services to use - she's fearful of showing bias. This makes The Weblog Handbook a somewhat less than helpful book. If you have to get online to find these things out anyway, you don't need a book that tells you to do just that (actually, it doesn't even say that much). She also falls down on the job when discussing design. Here it is a sub-header that gets four pages in the book, but for many webloggers it is a huge project that deserves as much attention as the writing itself, with its own special aesthetics and sets of tacit rules. She suggests using templates, and for the beginner, I agree. Whatever gets you up and running. Because ultimately, the only way to start blogging is to jump in with both feet, and work at it from there. The average person who decides to start a weblog already spends a great deal of time online, and perhaps has friends who blog, and can certainly figure a lot out for themselves, or ask people. "How to blog" is probably not a book-worthy subject at all. Blogs are a form native to the web, and are best built and learned about in that environment alone.

Blood is captivating in her analyses, though, so it's fortunate that she appears in We've Got Blog, a collection of short essays about blogging, and what it has done for writers and the web. The editors (listed only as "Perseus Publishing") take a cue from weblogs themselves in the style and tone of the book - informal, personal, anecdotal, and readable. In fact, those who say they don't like weblogs should take a look at the easy-going wit contained here and on the authors' pages (always referred to when they exist - weblogs build reputations, remember - though some of these writers are just writers, not bloggers). Essays with titles like "Why I Weblog," "Portrait of the Blogger as a Young Man," "The Blogger Code," and "Ten Tips for Building a Bionic Weblog" will tell you infinitely more about why weblogging is important and enjoyable than The Weblog Handbook. The variety of voices offers different perspectives on the same issue (as weblogs do), and the personal opinions make for sometimes very funny reading. Advice such as "Take a look around at what everybody else is doing and then DO SOMETHING ELSE" is indispensable. And Neal Talbot's bile-laden piece on weblog hype is particularly astute: "The most popular weblogs started as junkyards of weblog intelligensia [sic]. What is amusing is that the litterboxes [sic] are being held up by others despite the rancid smell… what was once trash is now considered treasure."

Talbot's words ring all-too-true for many who have gotten fed up with the enormous amounts of crap on the web. But there have always been enormous amounts of crap on the web, and they are easily ignored. If you don't like weblogs, don't read them. It is in the true spirit of the web, however, that his hate-mail is included in a book ostensibly about how great blogs are. Blogs promote communication and opposing points of view, they promote writing and thinking skills, and even if they shouldn't always be read, they should always be written.

The Weblog Handbook by Rebecca Blood
Published by Perseus Publishing
ISBN: 073820756X
144 pages