I gave a short talk last fall at the Zap Your PRAM conference about how some of the ideas and technology that have made weblogs so successful can be applied elsewhere on the web. However, the talk was cut short due to a tight-schedule (the conference was run by amateurs – including myself). What follows here is the substance of my talk – some of which I had time to share at the conference, some of which I did not.
What is it about weblogs?
What makes a weblog a weblog? Is it the permalinks, the reverse chronological order, the personal voice, syndication? The exact definition of a weblog is an excersize of in semantics that doesn’t particularly interests me. What does interest me, though, is what makes weblogs so engaging and powerful as opposed to standard websites.
First, let us look at some of the key distinguishing features of weblogs when compared to the rest of the web. Note that none involve any kind of real technological breakthrough or innovation. Most a simple adaptations of existing technology.
- Weblogs are easy to publish
- The process of making a post on a weblog is often as simple as sending an email or creating and saving a word processing file. As simple a change as this is from creating HTML files and getting them to a web server, the results are dramatic. All of the sudden the process of publishing is easy enough that the possible group of users is dramatically larger. Also, the easy of publish affects what, when, and why, we publish – the general result of the ease of publishing being more and more often.
- Weblogs have a tendency toward simplicity and consistency in design and structure
- Most weblogs are built on popular weblog platforms. Blogger, TypePad, MoveableType, Bloxom, Radio Userland, etc. Each of these tools, and the others like them, all include templates that make it easier to create a simply designed weblog with a structure that follows a whole series of design and usability conventions. Alternatively, if you give 100 people a variety of web development tools and ask them to create a website, you’ll end up with 100 completely different designs and structures – great if you’re into diversity, terrible if you’re trying to find something.
- Weblogs have permalinks
- Since the ease of publishing weblogs encourages more volume and frequency of publishing, often in small chunks, it is important that these chunks of content be accessible via individual links. On a weblog, the post is the basic unit of content, as opposed to the page. Again, a seemingly simple and subtle feature, the ability to link to each piece of content, affects great influence on the way content is produced, discovered, and read. Permalinks give authors the tools to easily share and interlink content. The resulting community and ecosystem is a great example of how it is best to give simple tools and architecture to people and let them go wild.
- Weblogs often allow reader feedback
- On many weblogs, if you disagree with the author, you post a reply right there on their own website and let them know. Often, they’ll reply to you in turn. There is usually no registration or signup required – just a simple form asking for little more than your name and your thoughts.
- Weblogs are easy to syndicate
- While syndication tools available on most weblogs (typically an RSS feed) are seldom used to in the tradition print media definition of syndication, they go a long way to making weblogs easier to follow and read. Where as one could previously keep up with a handful of sporadically updating websites – using an RSS reader to read weblogs takes into account the difficult imposed by their usually irregular publishing schedule.
- Weblog tools help share photos
- A more recent addition to weblog tools is the ability to easily upload and share photos. Where previously it was difficult to get photos into the appropriate size and format, upload them to a web server, and then create links to them – new weblog tools will do with automatically. While there have been tools to publish photos on the web before, none were as accessible as those already built into a weblog.
When examined individually, none of these distinguishing features of weblogs seem particularly interesting or innovative. Most, or all, of these features have been available through one for or another before. However, when combined, they create an environment where people can connect and communicate easily on a variety of scales.
Each of these attributes of weblogs can also be applied outside of the world of websites. RSS feeds can be used to share all kinds of data. I wrote, last year, about how RSS is used on the Sloan band website to syndicate four different types of data.
Amazon.com, for example, has taken great advantage of allowing reader / user feedback (mostly in the form of book / product reviews). Of course, Amazon.com has a “permalink“ for each book – as each book lives on its own page. However, Amazon.com does not offer “permalinks” for reader reviews, which limits the ability of external authors (like webloggers) to interact with the world of Amazon reviews.
I find these basic attributes of weblogs are helpful to keep in mind when developing other website and web systems. This doesn’t mean you should stick an RSS feed on every site you build. Rather, it is helpful to keep an eye out for parallels between the world of weblogs and your project and draw on your experience as a weblog reader and writer.