Dan Gillmor, Derek Powazek and the weblog as writing space

The other day Scott Rosenberg offered a highly questionable generalisation:

If you look back to the roots of blogging you find that there has always been a divide between two styles: One is what I’ll call “substantial blogging” — posting longer thoughts, ideas, stories, in texts of at least a few paragraphs; the other is “Twitter-style” — briefer, blurtier posts, typically providing either what we now call “status updates” or recommended links. (Rosenberg, 2009)

The assertion that “there has always been a divide between two styles” is far from a truth universally acknowledged: it was only in the closing months of 1999 that the divide cracked open and then turned into a long-standing dispute on “whether a weblog is purely a daily(ish) list of links to other places or whether it should or could include personal information along the lines of usually more lengthy journals found online” (Gyford, 2000, p. 81)⁠.

Jorn Barger recently touched on this dispute again. Having coined the word weblog intending it to denote a particularly effective way of sharing links, he grouses: “it was a (small) catastrophe / when blogger.com co-opted the word / for online diaries” (Barger, 2009). This complaint revives a line of criticism that blames Blogger.com, established in August 1999 (Williams, 1999), for a shift in which “increasing numbers of weblogs eschewed this focus on the web-at-large in favor of a sort of short-form journal” (Blood, 2000; see also Blood, 2004).

However, the blame for turning weblogs into a writing space will need to be spread around more widely, and much of that blame can indeed be laid at Dan Gillmor’s door: He chose to embrace and extend the weblogging format months before the Blogger.com builders, led by Derek Powazek and Matt Haughey, came to support the idea of weblogs as a narrative or expository form; months before Dave Winer chose to follow suit.

Gillmor announced in May 1999 that he was going to start a weblog, and he made it clear from the outset that he didn’t intend to play by the established rules: “I’m planning to create my own version of a Weblog” (1999). Shortly after, he announced that he was going to maintain his weblog using Manila, a software package that offered “Web content creation from a Web-based perspective” (Gillmor, 1999). Manila, a product of Dave Winer’s UserLand Software, hadn’t been released yet, but according to its advance publicity, it wasn’t especially intented to facilitate reverse-chronologically sorted links; it was going to facilitate writing on the web, “so people who love to write for the public and who do it well, have an easy way to do it” (Winer, 1999).

When Gillmor launched his eJournal (Gillmor, Oct 1999), he was working as a technology editorialist at the San Jose Mercury News. He stands out among those who had “the gall, the gall, to write original content in their Weblogs” (Humphries, 2003) as he accompanied his new project with a declaration of intent that was openly defiant of weblogging conventions:

I see a weblog as a continuing diary of what looks interesting to me, and, I hope, to you.

My weblog will do some of the things other weblogs do so well, such as point you to other Web content I find important or useful or outrageous or whatever. I’ll generally tell you why I think it’s important or useful or outrageous.

I’ll write short essays – columnettes? Some will be breaking news I think you should know about. Others will say what I think about some bit of breaking news. Others will be … who knows?

Some days I’ll update the weblog two or three times, even more. Some days I’ll change the page once. And some days I won’t do anything, because I’ll be traveling or resting or otherwise out of the loop.

Sometimes I’ll use the weblog to tell you what I’m working on for an upcoming newspaper column. Yes, that means I’ll be tipping off my competition from time to time, but I have a feeling – no, I’m convinced – that my eventual column could turn out better if I hear from smart people like you before I write it. Call it “open-source journalism,” if you like.

One of the more interesting aspects of the weblog will be the way the journalism flows inside this organization. Once a week, if all goes as planned, the newspaper will reprint some of the material that appeared first on the Net. This is the reverse of what we’ve done to date, where we put online the contents from the newspaper (plus a lot more).

We’re launching the weblog to coincide with my latest undertaking. Today I leave for Asia, where I’ll spend a little more than a month teaching part-time at the University of Hong Kong and soaking up information on technology and trends in that part of the world. So the first few weeks of the weblog will be, essentially, a Hong Kong diary.

I see the weblog evolving into a combination of things that, put together, could only exist on the Web: text, pictures, hyperlinks, animations, audio, video and more. For the time being, I’ll stick mostly to the first three of those – I’m a believer in the “keep it simple, stupid” school of new projects – but multimedia is key to the long-term potential of the format. (Gillmor, 1999)

Gillmor, in other words, was never going to limit himself to the accepted rules of art.

Winer’s response to the eJournal launch was ecstatic, as he saw it as a triumph for writing on the Web: “Print assumes its proper role, as the medium for finished writing. Writing that evolves, changes, can only be on electronic media.” (Winer, 1999)

Others had reservations, however, exactly because Gillmor’s eJournal consisted of too much writing at the expense of linking, so the question “Is Gillmor’s eJournal a weblog?” (Cadenhead, 1999) was raised almost inevitably on Jorn Barger’s Weblogs mail list:

Dan Gillmor’s eJournal weblog was launched last month to some fanfare, and even described as giving legitimacy to weblogs, since he’s a well-known tech journalist.

No offense to Gillmor, but after three weeks I gotta wonder why eJournal’s being called a weblog. It almost never links to an external site – there have been around 10 links, and most of them were generic top-level ones like http://www.wsj.com and http://www.truste.org. There haven’t been any this-could-be-gone-in-a-week hyperlinks to news stories and other transitory content, aside from pointers to Gillmor’s newspaper column.

Perhaps this is due to Gillmor being on the road in Asia, where he isn’t as likely to be a web potato as he might be at home.

As a longtime newspaper journalist myself, though, I suspect it has more to do with how we view the production of information. Journalists were trained in a I-wrote-it, you-read-it mode. Webloggers, on the other hand, are more likely to find good information elsewhere than to produce it – they-wrote-it, you-read-it. It’s one of the main things that distinguishes weblogging from other Web content.

So far, Gillmor’s doing exactly what he does in the newspaper – writing interesting commentary and news reports based entirely on his own work, and it’s almost always self-contained – no external hyperlinks leading out of his paper’s site.

Not that there’s anything wrong with it – I love newspaper columns – but if one of the goals of eJournal is to see how journalism can be practiced in weblogging, Gillmor needs more weblogging in his journal. (Cadenhead, 1999)

Cadenhead’s critique resonated with many webloggers. One of them squirmed: “Welcome to media cooption, we are the hip and soon to be disposessed,” (Lyke, 1999) and another whinced: “has Gillmor ever actually looked at a ‘blog? He’s not even close” (Anderson, 1999).

Yet the rules that Gillmor had broken weren’t considered unconditionally binding even among the seasoned webloggers of the time, one of whom described his own site as “about 75% weblog and 25% journal” (Hartung, 1999), and another had already identified “WebLogs that are more than a list of links” (Humphrey, 1999) as a problem in need of a solution when it came to representing them in XML.

In February 2000, Derek Powazek openly challenged the established rules of blogging and asserted that his own preferred genre, personal narrative, was as valid an ingredient of weblogs as was linking:

Sure, they’re full of links. They’re also full of lives. Look at the way Meg uploads her train of thought on a daily basis, or Tom tells us about his love life, or Jack tells his stories. These are real people, putting their lives online. (Powazek, 2000)

Powazek’s essay came with a comment thread, and the discussion evinced a level of agreement:

I’d say the definition of a weblog is evolving, what was once just a list of links is now a window into a person’s life. The line between a diary, a journal, and a weblog is blurring by the day and there’s nothing wrong with that. (Haughey, 2000)

In March, Powazek took this discussion to the SXSW 2000 conference in Austin, Texas. Being “the first person to ever hold a panel on weblogs at SXSW” (Powazek, 2003), he put the question before this “first unofficial weblog summit” (Barrett, 2000) of whether original content in weblogs was legitimate.

The panel did not come to be remembered for what any one of the panelists said, but for a dramatic intervention by a member of the audience. Wearing a red feather boa and a studded dog collar to match, Ben Brown had come to plead with the webloggers “to stop killing the Web, to write and design full speed ahead, to pour their hearts into it the way he does” (Champeon, 2000). His speech was passionate:

“I get so angry when I hear people say they don’t have time to write,” a visibly shaking Brown told the bloggers. Friends patted his back as he talked, trying to keep him from breaking into tears.

“I spend hours on my site, and here are all these people just shooting off little blurbs of stuff, saying they don’t have time.” (Bedell, 2000)

This speaker was the Ben Brown, the web zine editor and author who had gained some notoriety dismissing the weblog as a trivial, inane “link list” (Brown, 1999) that ran counter to his ardent belief in the Web as a medium of self expression.

Brown had come to the SXSW panel expecting to be excoriated for his views, but, much to his surprise, found the assembly of bloggers wholly sympathetic to what he was saying. Having received hugs and pats on the back to help him over his immediate crisis, he struck up friendship with the bloggers, became a blog reader himself and briefly emerged as the champion of the 3,000-word blog post (Brown, 2000).

Haughey cites Brown as the catalyst for his own deviation from conventional blogging:

Fortunately, I’ve been seeing a shift away from a “links and little, if any, commentary” format on most weblogs. People are exploring the amount of personal stuff that gets into their weblog, and when all their posts are taken as a whole, I think many weblog authors pour their soul into their sites. I’ve felt confined by the format too, building a place for longer pieces has always been on the back burner for me, but I’m finally doing it here. Ben Brown was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. It was the kick in the pants I needed to finally launch this site. I hope more weblog authors give the long format a try, and my sincere hope is that there’s a place for both the short format and the long format on weblog sites. Jack doing it well, and now Brig is too, and Judith sort of does both the journal thing and the weblog thing on the same page, which is a refreshing format. (Haughey, 2000)

Dave Winer, who’d been observing the conference panel from afar (Winer, 2000), soon decided to suspend DaveNet, the 800-word essays he’d been sending out via e-mail since 1994. He was “using a different medium now” (Winer, 2000), which meant “concentrating all my writing into one flow” (Winer, 2000). As it turned out, DaveNet didn’t stop entirely and kept going for another few years, but in April 2000 Scripting News changed: having been, for the most part, a publication of links with minimal annotation, it now became Winer’s primary writing space: It continued to offer links galore, but Winer no longer saw a need to confine his essayistic writing to DaveNet: much of that writing now became part of the daily flow on Scripting News.

Gillmor and and Powazek had apparently managed to teach Winer a new trick:

From 1997 [to] some point in 2000, [Scripting News] was largely scripting issues, programming news, new software updates for Frontier, etc, but at some point in 2000, it felt more to the reader (me in this case) that it became Dave’s personal site and was no longer a general news site about web scripting. (Haughey, 2002)

At the same time, Paul Ford, a young writer and an acute observer rather than a member of the weblog community, sensed that the weblog was up for re-definition:

The Weblog is a new form in the world of arts and letters. How could the Weblog “form” be expanded in regards to narrative, not technology, to become exciting and valuable over time? (Ford, 2000)

Thanks to the efforts of Gillmor and others, the weblog was indeed being “expanded in regards to narrative,” starting as early as 1999. Co-optation is a harsh term for that process; remediation (Kirschenbaum, 1999) might help out as a more descriptive alternative.