Jorge Luis Borges dreamed of a library the size of a universe, whose wealth of books would induce first delirium, then despair, then breakdown of the social order. Since we first became aware of the Web, we have ricocheted between similar feelings over a universe far more disruptive: one of unbounded, uncensorable streams of text. The current craze is for something called a blog. The name is the diminutive of ”Weblog,” an online news commentary written, usually, by an ordinary citizen, thick with links to articles and other blogs and studded with non sequiturs and ripostes in sometimes hard-to-parse squabbles.
Here’s what blogs are not: (1) the super-personalized news filters that social critics fretted would splinter the nation into a million tiny interest groups, or (2) the Drudge Report. Blogs don’t limit your news intake, break stories or promulgate rumor, at least not intentionally. They have an only seemingly more innocent agenda. Blogs express opinion. They’re one-person pundit shows, replete with the stridency and looniness usually edited off TV.
One vote here in favor of the blogging revolution. Bloggers (from the words “Web log”) write online diaries and commentaries. The best bloggers weigh in on social and political issues, report nuggets of information that the national media miss or suppress, and provide links to other bloggers with something sharp to say. Subjects that the mainstream press is skittish about (e.g., the link between abortion and breast cancer, or the mini race riot that occurred in Cincinnati three weeks ago) tend to show up in the blogging world. Since nobody can be fired or intimidated, bloggers skip politically correct language and just write in plain English.
A minor example of the culture in action: The blogging corps got wind of an online poll sponsored by the Council on American Islamic Relations allegedly showing that 94 percent of those surveyed thought Ariel Sharon should be tried for war crimes. By linking to one another’s Web sites, the bloggers got more people to cast votes and reversed the numbers. At the end, 94 percent opposed the idea of trying Sharon.
The first commandment of blogdom is that anyone can become a pundit. Nobody is in charge. Bloggers can say anything they want and get their message out with blinding speed. This is unsettling to us lumbering print guys. Six or seven times I had to abandon a column because some upstart blogger beat me to it. Andrew Sullivan, perhaps the most quoted blogger, is surely the fastest gun. His 1,000-word analysis of the State of the Union message appeared 33 minutes after President Bush finished. Sometimes he launches attacks on wayward New York Times columnists around 4 a.m., so blog fans can read his version before they get to the columns.
I’ve been running a personal website for about six years now. You should see the ladies’ faces light up when I casually drop that little nugget at a kegger or outside the dressing rooms at Old Navy. Their voices get husky, they twist their frosted curls around suggestive fingers, jot their numbers on my bare chest just in case I need someone to do some “freelance QA work,” you know how it is.
Lately, however, I’ve run into some credibility problems. Adoring fans have started to delve into my backend, as it were, asking about my database server, flavors of Unix, PHP, MySQL, and I have to either feign pulmonary edema and excuse myself or admit that all I do these days is type something into a form and press a button. My site then automagically updates itself and archives the previous entry. “You mean you built your own content-management system?” she’ll say. “That is so hot.” And then I’ll sort of mutter: “Well, I use a tool, this Web-based thing that sort of handles all that stuff for me.”
It’s at this point that a look of growing horror emerges on the young debutante’s face, and she’ll say: “Oh dear God in heaven. You’re a weblogger, aren’t you?” And I’ll call out, “No, no, more of a personal online diarist!” but she’s already gone, chatting up some hunk with the telltale swollen knuckles of a Java programmer.
The culture of blogspace is evolving in near-realtime. Last week, a new mutation brought backlinks into a more prominent role. At Disenchanted, inbound links were automatically reflected outward. Each article grew a tail of backlinks that pointed to pages referring back to it. Suddenly a new kind of feedback loop was created. With a twist of the lens, conversations that had been diffuse and indirect came sharply into focus. Almost immediately the meme replicated.
Variants appeared at DECAFBAD and diveintomark. It’s hard to avoid the sense that there’s some biological force at work here. When blogspace told me to follow that hunch, I listened.