Scripting News and its roots in Dave Winer's early web work

Scripting News, the front page feature of Dave Winer’s Scripting.com, served as a model that was imitated by many of the earliest bloggers. It was also a hub around which the original blogging scene coalesced. Its characteristic reverse-chronological ordering of frequent and richly hyperlinked short posts is part of a lineage that reaches back to the first websites Winer built for himself in January 1995.

“Scripting News was not my first weblog”

In a short piece of August 1998, Jorn Barger offered the earliest historiographical account of the emerging blogging scene and highlighted Dave Winer’s Scripting News as an inspiring model:

a growing network of freelance editors have begun maintaining ‘news pages’ or weblogs, linking to the best articles from every possible source, accompanied by honest summaries.

A granddaddy of these sites is Dave Winer’s Scripting News, and his Frontier scripting environment is the favored utility (Win95 and Mac) that makes maintaining a weblog no harder than maintaining a bookmark file. A list of first-generation descendents (generally called news pages) is maintained by Chris Gulker, while second-generation weblogs are inventoried here (Barger, 1998)

Barger also ascribed a defining role to Scripting News in his “Weblog resources FAQ” of September 1999: “Scripting News formalised many characteristics [of weblogs] in 1997” (Barger, 1999). In response to Barger’s FAQ, Winer first told his own blogging story in October 1999:

Scripting News was not my first weblog. The first was the News page for 24 Hours of Democracy, February 1996. After that I did the Frontier News & Updates page, and then on 4/1/97, switched to Scripting News. (Winer, 1999)

Winer retold this story several times (Winer, 2001; Festa, 2003), and other writers on the history of blogging, such as Duncan Riley (2005) and Scott Rosenberg (2009, p. 59), have followed this account, implying that the news page for 24 Hours of Democracy was the single direct predecessor of Scripting News.

However, Winer’s story is inaccurate on two counts. For one thing, Scripting News launched on 1 February rather than 1 April 1997 (Ammann, 2010). In suggesting that the 24 Hours of Democracy website marked a fundamentally new departure in Winer’s work, the story also arbitrarily removes Winer’s earlier news pages from Scripting News’ line of descent: Winer had been creating news pages of sorts ever since he started building his own websites in January 1995.

DaveNet and AutoWeb: Winer’s first two websites

Launched on 7 October 1994 (Winer, 1994a) and originally intended as an “experiment in electronic PR” (Winer, 1994b), DaveNet was an e-mail periodical in which Winer commented on “politics, software, platforms, and love songs” (Winer, 1995b), allowing him to “learn, to be connected to the world, to express myself” (Winer, 1994c), and to “weave, turn corners, learn, process new information” (Winer, 1996p). DaveNet built Winer’s “reputation as a writer and thinker” (Winer, 1997e).

Some three months after DaveNet’s launch, on 2 January 1995, Winer created his first website by introducing an automated feature that would automatically maintain web archives of his postings (Winer, 1995a). These archives provided a repository both for the fourty-four DaveNet essays he had already posted, and for his future pieces: “Every time I release a new essay, it automatically uploads it to the DaveNet web site, and rewrites the home page to contain a pointer to the new essay” (Winer, 1995a). DaveNet became a “hybrid of the web and email” (Winer, 1996n) through the newly added archives.

In late January 1995, Winer had been working for a while on a web authoring tool named AutoWeb, a “newsroom system for the worldwide web” (Winer, 1995b), when he decided to launch a repository for builds and documentation of this software as his second website.

The AutoWeb site was “a fork in the road” (Winer, 1995b) because it was different from DaveNet. Being intended for developers who used Winer’s software, it was “more technical” (Winer, 1995b). It also freed Winer from the formal constraints of the essay format and allowed him to explore the use and adaptation to the web of text genres in software documentation, such as the changelog, a detailed development and maintenance record which is kept over the lifespan of a software product and which usually takes the form of a reverse-chronological timeline (Chen, Schach, Yu, Offutt, & Heller, 2004, p. 199).

In AutoWeb’s changelog, Winer was posting “change notes as the features go in” (Winer, 1995d), thus giving users of the software an opportunity to “follow the progress” (Winer, 1995d) of its development. The reverse-chronological list of the site’s “Version Notes” (Winer, 1995e) linked to a list of AutoWeb beta releases spanning the period from January to February 1995, with each list item pointing to a page of changelog items for the respective release.

The AutoWebsite featured reverse-chronological timelines for other features as well. The “AutoWeb FAQ” (Winer, 1995c), for instance, consisted of user queries, each with an answer appended. In late February 1995, Winer was ready to start a new instance of such a list structure whose purpose was not limited to the distribution of code and documentation: he created a “Scripting and Other Nerdy Fun” page which would “accumulate technical information, sample scripts, fun projects, and other nerdly phenomena” (1995f), thus aggregating miscellaneous items that were connected to the software project. This feature never went beyond its first day’s worth of listings, however, as Winer decided to stop the AutoWeb development effort shortly after, cancelling the 1.0 release he had been working toward.

Even so, the use of reverse-chronological structures on the short-lived AutoWeb site marked a departure from the DaveNet site. Unlike DaveNet’s static archives which were an accessory to DaveNet’s primary e-mail distribution, these structures embodied Winer’s ongoing engagement of his software users via a website. The concept, if not implementation, of the “Scripting and Other Nerdy Fun” (1995f) page prefigured Winer’s later news pages, including Scripting News, in that it liberated the changelog from its focus on the software alone, and extended its purview to the technological and social context within which it existed.

Clay Basket

Winer relied on the reverse-chronological timeline structure again during the public beta period of Clay Basket, a piece of software intended for bookmarking and web authoring that superseded AutoWeb later in 1995. Winer promised to be especially “verbose and helpful” (Winer, 1995g) in this new changelog, and so, between 9 October and 19 November 1995, his “New Features” (Winer, 1995g) listed, in thirty reverse-chronological, time-stamped and hyperlinked entries, information about the latest features and modifications added to the product: instructions, commentary and replies to user queries. A hasty stopgap measure and an intimate work journal, this changelog was delivered in choppy, truncated and unpremeditated prose; it continually referenced the accompanying download page that provided the latest code, and it acted as a substitute for any more formal documentation. In this, Winer’s Clay Basket changelog embodied a new stance towards documentation: the user was no longer supposed to consult a manual of a finished software product as in the days of the pre-internet software industry. The user was now invited to follow the developer’s postings and take an interest in the ongoing narrative of a work in progress.

24 Hours of Democracy: A “realtime difference”

In February 1996, as a response to the restrictions on free speech imposed by the passage of the Communications Decency Act, Winer organised a protest asking web users to post essays on the subject of freedom and democracy (Winer, 1996i). Using his Clay Basket web building application, he set up a website that acted as a hub for the whole undertaking. As part of the site, Winer put reverse-chronological list structures in place, such as the project’s news page (Winer, 1996c) that he has since repeatedly identified as his first weblog (Winer cited in Festa, 2003; Winer, 1999, 2001, 2007). This news page provided “pointers to announcements and related news stories” (Winer, 1996e), which were links to updates and announcements mostly on internal matters, such as new additions to the project site.

Winer’s 24 Hours of Democracy protest has been celebrated as the “first-ever Internet many-to-many event” (Stahlman, 1996), and Winer was quick to point to his project’s network topology as an exemplary use of the technology: “by design it’s a very distributed Internet sort of thing” (Winer, 1996d). This design was a matter of necessity rather than choice, however, as the limitations of Clay Basket did not allow Winer to conduct the project using a single, centralised site.

The widely distributed nature of Winer’s event called for content aggregation strategies that would bring the effort together. Such aggregation was provided in a straightforward, continuously updated index that listed all contributions as they became known, a compilation that eventually tallied up 1,078 essays (Winer, 1996a). In addition, Winer linked selectively to the distributed essays in four separate “tours” (Winer, 1996f, 1996g, 1996h, 1996j). Each of these tours was an annotated list of selected links to essays that were part of the protest, resembling “a page of pointers to cool web sites, but with a realtime difference” (Winer, 1996k). While the main index list aimed for completeness and the news page retailed links on new developments within the project, the tours offered an editorially mediated view of the submitted essays, as Winer only linked to sites he deemed the “the most compelling ones or the most interesting ones” (Winer, 1996d). The tours were also intended as models for others to follow, and there were at least eight people who adopted the model and posted their own paths of recommended reading through the corpus of submitted essays (Winer, 1996i). Thus, in a highly distributed event, the task of winnowing for quality was decentralised as well.

Winer’s 24 Hours of Democracy project thus used reverse-chronological structures in two separate ways. The news page, descended from the AutoWeb and the Clay Basket changelogs, was mostly inward-looking and reported on the project itself: it reported news of the community activism project like its predecessors reported news of the respective software development project. The “tours” were a new departure, however, in that they were outward looking, serving as an editorial selection of the best essays that were being posted as part of the protest all across the web. Winer’s tours only highlighted sites that “were remarkable in some way” (Winer, 1996k). They were new in their element of editorial selection.

Frontier News: facing both ways

The 24 Hours of Democracy project revealed Clay Basket’s limitations as a web building tool, causing Winer to abandon it just as he had earlier abandoned the AutoWeb software. He decided to build a more powerful web framework into his scripting environment Frontier, which would be released as Frontier 4.0 in May 1996 (Winer, 1996b).

Intended to carry “news of releases for the Frontier scripting community” (Winer, 1996b), the Frontier News page launched on 27 April 1996, several weeks before the web-centric Frontier 4.0 release, but in time for the first beta releases of the software, thus following a pattern established in the AutoWeb and Clay Basket changelogs, both of which had been launched simultaneously with the respective first beta releases of the software they related to. The newly launched Frontier News was primarily concerned with software updates: users of the software were encouraged to bookmark the location and check back for new releases. But while Frontier News was a continuation of the practice already established in the AutoWeb and Clay Basket changelogs, it also adopted the outwardly oriented editorial stance of the 24 Hours of Democracy “tours”. The specific innovation of Frontier News lay in melding the inward-pointing and the outward-pointing references into a single open-ended stream. Thus, in Frontier News Winer linked to anything he deemed relevant to Frontier development: release announcements of his own software, new instalments of his DaveNet series (Winer, 1996l), but also release announcements by developers building on Frontier, impressive new sites built in Frontier, and general industry news and opinions from across the web.

Frontier News to Scripting News: more voluminous and more outwardly directed

As a matter of “not flying blind” (Winer, 1997a), Winer studied his server logs looking for usage patterns that would guide the process of developing his websites (Winer, 1996m). By December 1996 he had learned that Frontier News was not only widely read, but had, in fact, become the most popular destination of his site (Winer, 1997a), followed in second place by the awkwardly conventional home page that consisted merely of a welcome message and a table of contents (Winer, 1996o). Winer never visited his home page himself as it was an embarrassment to him for its static nature, but having realised that “dynamic sites” (Winer, 1997a) were “worth visiting” (Winer, 1997a), he “changed the structure of this website” (Winer, 1997b) and promoted his news page, the “most dynamic page on the site” (Winer, 1997a), to the front page, thus uniting the two most frequently requested pages to make things “flow better” (Winer, 1997b). By elevating Frontier News from its obscure location to the main page of Scripting.com on 1 February 1997, Winer created Scripting News.

The promotion of Frontier News to the Scripting.com home page was a structural adjustment, informed by access statistics. It did not mark any sudden change in editorial policy but was part of an evolutionary process in which the site’s news page became more outwardly directed: over the period starting four months prior to the elevation and ending four months after, the percentage of external, outward-bound links more than tripled. The increase of outward-bound links was due to Winer’s realisation that “dynamic sites are worth visiting” (Winer, 1997a), and “worth coming back to” (Winer, 1997c), so he acted on the principle of “putting interesting stuff on your home page as often as you can” (Winer, 1997d) in order to increase the number of loyal repeat-visitors.

Genre formation

The development sketched above points to a process of genre formation that unfolded over several years. In October 1999, one journalist quoted the early blogger Laurel Krahn of Windowseat Weblog saying she had “seen Weblogs blossom from rather dreary lists of links to intensely personal reflections on the world, from a service model to an imagination-based one. Instead of remaining grimly utilitarian, Weblogs are bidding fair to be considered literary forms” (Keller, 1999). As the evolution of Scripting News from Winer’s changelogs suggests, this process of genre formation was longer and stretched further back than even members of the original network of weblogs such as Winer and Barger indicated in their respective accounts. It also suggests that the humble and “grimly utilitarian” changelog, a programmers’ notation for news about a software project’s codebase, may have provided the model for the weblog’s most distinctive feature of reverse-chronologically sorted and date-stamped updates.

References

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