Welcome to Planet Blog: How blogging has taken over the world

Once, it was a niche form of self-expression regarded by many with suspicion and even contempt. Now, tens of millions of us do it every day without a second thought.

Rhodri Marsden
Friday 27 August 2010 00:00

The admission that you write a blog shouldn't be one that's accompanied by a great deal of soul-searching, any more than "I play golf" or "I like cake" would be. But the blogger's lot is not necessarily a happy one. They're pilloried by much of the traditional media for supposedly devaluing the written word. The political establishment resents their freewheeling, unspinnable vigour. Those unconvinced about the value of the web as a platform for ideas regard them with suspicion, imagining them as self-promoting at best, narcissistic at worst, while those whose lives are inextricably woven with the internet are deeply aware that "blogging" doesn't guarantee quality any more than "cooking" does. Because, in just over a decade, blogging has morphed from a niche activity, a thrilling self-publishing opportunity, into the biggest creative splurge the world has ever seen. Tens of millions of bloggers shovel many more millions of blog posts on to an already unstable data mountain every day of the week; the vast majority of those are incoherent, repetitive, self-indulgent, crass or simply boring. But the amount of good stuff is still overwhelming – certainly more in a day than you'd ever be able to read in a year. There's compelling storytelling, incisive comment, rousing calls to action. Socially, politically and commercially, blogging is a potent force, well on the way to becoming as powerful as the traditional media, while utterly unencumbered by the latter's affiliations, obligations and traditions. And yet, while "I write" has a certain nobility to it, "I blog" certainly doesn't. The two, as acts, are essentially indistinguishable, but "blog" is seen as a four-letter word.

The inherent hideousness of the word doesn't help. If it were more attractive, if it were "flah" or "sool", it might not be spat out with such contempt by its detractors. It evolved in the late 1990s from the term "web log", a collection of links to other websites with added commentary that appeared in the now-familiar reverse-chronological order. During 1999, "we" disappeared from "web log", while we embraced the way it simplified web publishing; until that point, updating a site had been a laborious, manual, error-prone process. But blogging now lent itself to the publication of more varied content – not least online diaries, which were already prevalent on the web but now found their more natural home in the (brace yourselves) blogosphere. You could visit a website, see the most recent post, click through to the comments or scroll down for older material. Today, this procedure seems like second nature to many, but at the turn of the century, it felt like a revolution. And to create, no knowledge of HTML or ownership of expensive software was necessary; you just had to type and click. Anyone could do it, and anyone did.

Nowadays, that revolution has splintered into so many varied formats that the word "blog" has become almost meaningless. You certainly can't define a blog by the way it looks; the vast majority of websites that have been built in the past five or six years are sitting on top of a blog-style content-management system. In essence, blogs are the web, and today we find ourselves contributing to them without even thinking. Anyone sharing stuff with their friends on Facebook, be it notes, status updates, photos or other media, is – whether they'd care to admit it or not – blogging. Microblogging services such as Twitter, "tumblelog" services (which hark back to the original idea of the web log) such as Tumblr or Posterous – they all make sharing of content, either yours or someone else's, ridiculously easy. As a result, it's also impossible to define a blog in terms of content; many would say that the average blog features someone prattling on about their tedious summer holiday – and that may be true, but it does a massive disservice to a huge number of talented writers. Saying "I don't like blogs" is as manifestly absurd as saying "I don't like books".

But as the mass of blog content has proliferated, it has become incredibly disposable and ignorable. Newspapers may still be tomorrow's fish and chip wrapper, but the shelf life of the average blog post, before it becomes displaced by something else vying for our attention, is way less than a day – and, in the case of microblogging, little more than a few seconds. Not all bloggers strive for maximum exposure, but most dream of having a huge audience, and the disappointment associated with the discovery that they're not going to be the next Huffington Post or Belle de Jour has led to a colossal amount of abandoned deadwood floating about the internet as bloggers become bored of howling into a void. Between 60 and 80 per cent of blogs are jettisoned by their authors within 30 days, with a significant number – well over a million, back in 2008 – containing one solitary post. We have so many opportunities to share our thoughts that we're forced to come to terms with the fact that they're fleeting and unimportant. So we leave them strewn around the internet like chewing gum on city pavements.

But for every 100,000 or so bloggers that pipe up, one or two will gain notoriety – and, perhaps ironically, find a path into the traditional media

format that the web is supposedly replacing. This is undoubtedly down to cash; while print media is experiencing declining revenues, it's still more likely to pay a greater sum, per word, than a writer could ever bank by uploading those same words to the web. The "golden era" has undoubtedly passed; there was a time when budding authors with a blog attracting a few dozen comments would be courted by the publishing industry like a celebrity on the brink of confessing a drug habit. "It reminded me of the dotcom boom," says the literary agent Simon Trewin. "Four or five years ago, I'd tell a publisher that I'd taken on a blogger, and you could almost hear them taking the key out to where they kept the money. Everyone naively thought that because they already had an audience, it would immediately translate into book sales. But it doesn't." There are many examples of blogs translating to successful books: Belle de Jour, Girl with a One-track Mind, and even others totally unrelated to female sexual habits. But the Friday Project, a publishing company that tasked itself with giving book deals to top-notch bloggers, was quietly bought out by HarperCollins after going into administration, while celebrated bloggers who found themselves in the middle of a bidding war – such as Petite Anglaise – failed to become a publishing phenomenon. "Part of the problem is the difference in formats," Trewin says. "Someone who's great at writing short pieces won't necessarily find it easy to write a great book. But equally, you can't just print a blog and say to the public: 'OK, you've had this for free, but now we expect you to pay £10 for it.' It doesn't work." The blurring of the line between free blogs, cheap newspapers and pricier books has been highlighted with the arrival of e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle, where all three sit alongside each other on the device's home screen. All the content comes together under the banner of "stuff you read"; the one you choose is simply dictated by how much patience you've got and how much money you're prepared to spend. Established journalists and authors will keep turning to blogging as a shop window for their writing, hoping that a bigger audience will lead to greater success. But no one's ever going to be keen on paying anyone simply to blog.

At least, not directly. But when bloggers write, and we read, there's a PR industry keen to inveigle its way into that relationship – and it can find a more welcoming and appreciative response from bloggers than from the battle-hardened traditional media. Bloggers can unexpectedly and delightedly find themselves lavished with free products or services in return for coverage. "We've always treated bloggers like journalists, to be honest," says Charlotte Clark, the head of PR at one of the first exclusively online agencies, Think Jam. "They certainly have the same power of voice. People don't really appreciate how influential they are – and the overlap with social media means that there's this astonishing, fast-moving word-of-mouth effect that we're able to keep a really close eye on. For example, if we're promoting kids' films, there is a group of Mummy bloggers with a fearsome network. They might only have a hundred or so readers each, but together they can whip up a frenzy of opinion that simply can't be bought." This position that bloggers have found themselves unwittingly stumbling into puts them in a difficult position; if they fail to play by the rules of the PR industry by, for example, ignoring embargoes, they can lose their previews, products and exclusive access that gives their blog its value. But if they bask in their new-found glory too much, they risk becoming little more than a series of advertisements and can incur the wrath of the readership that's put them where they are. An incident this week, where a Singaporean food blogger threw a strop in a high-class restaurant when a waiter dared to present him with a bill for the food he'd been eating, highlights this perfectly; bloggers may have wisdom, opinion and a cute turn of phrase, but if they dare to get too full of themselves, both their subjects and their readers can turn away in an instant. After all, they're only bloggers.

One blogging arena, however, where respecting the feelings of others isn't so important (in fact, riding roughshod over them is seen as a badge of honour) is politics. Blogging has transformed the nature of the relationship between politicians and journalists; a whisper on a blog can build momentum and become deafening within an hour, and, according to the political blogger and "innovator" Paul Evans, that has radically changed the balance of power. "Our ability to publish and organise spontaneously has made politicians a good deal weaker," he says. "And while the free exchange of information and ideas is unquestionably a public good, I'd say that anything that diminishes the power of elected representatives is a bad thing." While the idea of politicians running scared from bloggers has great popular appeal, the crescendo of outraged voices on the internet has made policies that fall in the category of "sensible but unpopular" completely unworkable. For example, the issue of road pricing – which once had a certain amount of quiet consensus building across the political spectrum – suddenly had to be junked when No 10 found themselves dealing with an online petition signed by more than a million people, many of whom had been directed there by blogs. "Part of the problem," Evans said, "is that the blogosphere tends to be dominated by right-wing libertarians – the kind of furious voices who've never had their 'letter to the editor' published. And it's a bad democracy where you only hear a lot of extreme views from people at one end of the bell curve. But I'm optimistic that, as more people are brought into the conversation, we'll start to hear a lot more mild preferences, and arguments won't continually become hijacked by fanatics."

Extreme viewpoints, however, lead to intense arguments, which in turn lead to huge amounts of traffic as apoplectic readers keep coming back to give their tuppence-worth. And, as the influence of a blogger is measured almost entirely in page views, and any monetary value from blog advertisements is also influenced by page views, you're going to be only as successful as the arguments you're able to kick off. It's little wonder that those with "mild preferences" whom Evans refers to have been slow to get involved with blogging; after all, once you've had it in the neck from a smug libertarian or furious left-wing firebrand, online interaction seems as attractive a prospect as being chained to a radiator and interrogated by thugs.

But commenting builds communities, and the morphing of blogging into social networks, driven by services such as LiveJournal in the middle of the past decade, has led to the current online landscape where we're all loosely bound together with our "friends" (a term which has become almost completely debased in the past 10 years, but that's another story) or "followers" in a complex, ever-changing cloud. We read each other's thoughts, we respond, interact, learn things, sound off about other things – we're all bloggers, now. And because we're not all opinionated, self-obsessed, blindly ambitious or socially challenged, it's long overdue for blogging to shrug off its undeserved reputation. Ideally, as I said earlier, we'd have a different word for it; sadly, we're stuck with it. But today, to blog is merely "to express an emotion". And surely, not even the bitterest web cynic could have a problem with that.

The bloggers to watch, chosen by Rhodri Marsden

Steve Lawson – Bass


Countless blogs speculate and theorise about the future of the music business, pondering possible business models that might see artists more handsomely rewarded for their work in a file-sharing era. Few, however, are written by people who are actually immersed in music-making and are tackling the problem at first hand. Bass player Steve Lawson documents his DIY odyssey with insightful comments on free downloads, the power of word of mouth, and the Digital Economy Act.

James Ward – I Like Boring Things


The "man or woman with a mission" approach to blogging is a well-trodden path, Kyle MacDonald's story of swapping his way from a red paper clip to a house in the space of a year being one of the best-known examples. James Ward, by contrast, concurrently pursues a number of heroically mundane projects: attempting to find out how many ballpoint pens get used in Argos stores every year, monitoring the price of Cadbury's Twirls in the London area, and, currently, attempting to "change" his name by deed poll to his existing name – all done in a beautifully deadpan style.

Emma Beddington – Belgian Waffling


The everyday comings and goings of a self-proclaimed "Eurodrone, unfit mother and slattern" are testament to the fact that you don't need scintillating material to be able to write in a scintillating fashion, and that living in Belgium doesn't necessarily compromise your blogging style, either. Emma's recent illustrated guide to Colruyt, a Belgian discount supermarket, is a perfect case in point.

Cory Doctorow – Craphound


Doctorow has emerged as one of the most coherent, thoughtful and entertaining commenters on technological matters, particularly those surrounding copyright, Creative Commons licensing, and the challenges faced by the media in the 21st century. A noted science-fiction author with a stack of awards and nominations, his blog at craphound.com has more of a personal slant. But his posts over at Boing Boing – a website that he co-edits – are essential reading.

Steve Sutton – Protopod


Video blogging, where someone you don't know addresses you through the medium of a webcam, could be interpreted as pure narcissism. But for Steve Sutton, it just seems to be a compulsion. His posts – which have, in the past, contained such revelations as "How to make iced tea" or "Things I've just found in my drawer" – have a curious, sedative quality; for fans such as myself they're as addictive and soothing as Valium.

Anton Vowl – Enemies of Reason


While many people unquestioningly lap up the messages drip-fed to them by the press, there are parts of the blogosphere dedicated to exposing their hypocrisy and double standards. Anton Vowl's blog is easily the most entertaining of these, with funny, lengthy diatribes that dissect examples of ludicrous reporting, while occasionally breaking off to, say, praise the virtues of ironing boards.

Graham Cluley – Sophos


Security threats from the internet come thick and fast, and Cluley's blog has become the go-to destination to keep tabs on the various scams that are surfacing via email and social media. Interspersed with helpful tips on choosing passwords and video guides to viruses and malware in action, his breezy style has seen him win an award for best IT Security Blog, while he's crept up the rankings on blog-tracking website Technorati, into the top 75 tech blogs worldwide.

Neil Davey – The Lambshank Redemption


Neil Davey's blog is an unashamedly blokey take on food; mostly enthusiastic outpourings about whichever particular culinary treat has recently passed his lips, but also the odd recipe and a sprinkling of showbiz references (he's a former gossip columnist).

Hannah Jones – Why Miss Jones


Sometimes you stumble across great writing by accident. The sentence that drew me in and kept me reading Jones's blog was her description of women wearing maxi-dresses at a Hyde Park music festival: "The lure of the maxi would appear to be that it hides the now-proverbial multitude of sins, but I fear that for all except the most willowy, it makes you look like you are all sin, giving the effect, from the neck down, of a Dalek in a valance."

Seaneen Molloy – The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive


A consistently excellent blog from a 24-year old Northern Irish woman, living in London and battling with manic depression ("the clinical diagnosis is Bipolar I disorder rapid cycling with psychotic features"). Funny, moving, caustic and confessional in equal measure, the blog has been running for about three and a half years, has been nominated for a clutch of awards, and was recently made into a play for Radio 4 called Dos and Don'ts for the Mentally Interesting.

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