- A Founding Narrative
- News Pages
- The NewsPage Network
- Jorn Barger
- The Weblog Community
Responses to this paper:
- Dennis Jerz
- Jorn Barger
- Dave Winer
- John Naughton
- Andy Affleck
- Scott Rosenberg
- Phil Gyford
- Daniel Berlinger
- Mark Bernstein
- Chris Gulker
- Chris Gulker
- Steve Bogart
By Rudolf Ammann
Presented at Hypertext 2009
30 June 2009, Torino, Italy
Working from the online archival record, this paper aims to reconstruct the emergence at Jorn Barger’s initiative of the weblog community from a predecessor known as the NewsPage Network.
A Founding Narrative
Today’s blogosphere with its wealth of discursive practices is, in Jay Bolter’s phrase, a writing space. It did not start this way. The blogosphere had an immediate historical predecessor, the weblog community, in which the weblog held a rhetorically ambiguous and contested status between a writing space that answered an author’s expressive needs and an access structure through which an editor was meant to recommend and annotate high-quality URLs. The conflict between access structure and writing space appears under a number of different names in the writings of Rebecca Blood, the weblog community’s foremost apologist and chronicler, who describes it as an antagonism that split the community at its core: those who, like herself, believed that weblogs performed a “valuable filtering function” and aimed to be “dependable sources of links to reliably interesting material”:54 increasingly found themselves opposed to – and outnumbered by – an “influx of short-form diarists” who wouldn’t link but posted “entry after entry of blurts and personal observations,”:149 thus “inverting the primary values of the community.”:154
Blood counterpoints her account of a community riven by conflict with an untroubled founding narrative, first offered by her husband Jesse James Garrett, which holds that the weblog community coalesced out of virtually nothing in early 1999:
In 1998 there were just a handful of sites of the type that are now identified as weblogs (so named by Jorn Barger in December 1997). Jesse James Garrett, editor of Infosift, began compiling a list of “other sites like his” as he found them in his travels around the web. In November of that year, he sent that list to Cameron Barrett. Cameron published the list on CamWorld, and others maintaining similar sites began sending their URLs to him for inclusion on the list. Jesse’s “page of only weblogs” lists the 23 known to be in existence at the beginning of 1999. Suddenly a community sprang up. It was easy to read all of the weblogs on Cameron’s list, and most interested people did.
In a more recent telling of the same narrative, Blood slightly enriches its particulars and mentions the “Anatomy of a Weblog,” an essay that Barrett posted to CamWorld when setting up the list as a permanent feature in his sidebar, and through which “‘weblog’ became the accepted term.”:3 Barrett, then, according to Blood, in setting up his blogroll.[fn]The term blogroll obviously is an anachronism in this context, but it is chosen as the accepted contemporary term for a hyperlinked list of other blogs placed in a blog’s sidebar. The witty coinage “blogrolling” was first proposed by Doc Searls in December 2000, but originally referred to any sort of “logrolling” conducted in blog postings. It took until April 2002 for the term blogroll in its current sense to take hold, popularised by the startup Blogrolling.com, a service that facilitated the creation and maintenance of “blogrolls for friends, enemies and even in-laws.”[/fn] and in posting his accompanying analysis, provided the two founding documents through which the weblog community conceived of itself and came together as a community.
One serious limitation of this narrative is that the two allegedly foundational documents both lack originality. Barrett’s essay hinges on “aspects commonly associated with weblogs.” and thus wholly depends on a consensus that existed prior to its publication on 26 January 1999. Similarly, the first iteration of Barrett’s blogroll links to an older and larger compilation, the Open Directory’s weblogs category. A close look at the background and descendancy of these two documents is undertaken here on the basis of the online archival record; it suggests an origin of the weblog community in an older entity known as the NewsPage network and points to significant efforts expended by Jorn Barger in fashioning the weblog community out of that network.
In January 1997, Dave Winer’s software company UserLand released version 4.2 of its Web publishing platform Frontier. The software included a new feature named NewsPage, which enabled editors without HTML skills to run a site’s home page as a reverse-chronologically sorted stream of annotated links, grouped by day, with a date-stamp serving as the heading for each day’s worth of postings. Winer had been editing such a page named Frontier News for months, a current awareness resource through which he linked to Frontier-related news and tidbits from across the Web. A few days after the Frontier 4.2 release, on 1 February 1997, Winer lifted the Frontier News page from its original location in his site’s Frontier section to the Scripting.com front page, renamed the page Scripting News and, in the process, brought his own site in line with Frontier’s newly-espoused default site model, which called for a Web site to be fronted by a news page. The repositioning of Winer’s news page did not coincide with any change in editorial policy.
The NewsPage concept immediately found its devotees, both among those Frontier users who treated it as a dynamic access structure to the most recent articles published on a given site and those who followed Winer’s example in linking widely across the Web. It also inspired alternative and complementary instantiations of its basic design within Frontier itself, such as NewsCenter,, which supported multiple news pages per site, and the Ocha News Room module, which offered a number of interface improvements.
The NewsPage model also gave rise to implementations in scripting environments other than Frontier and in unscripted HTML. The first of those, Michael Sippey’s widely admired Obvious Filter, was a daily supplement to the weekly essays on the author’s personal site and ran from the end of May to mid-September 1997. The Filter replicated the news page model in static HTML, as Sippey “didn’t have tools to automatically archive those links.” Similarly, Cameron Barrett’s CamWorld started in June 1997 and, while being “openly modeled after Scripting News,” was managed without any automation for the first few years of its existence. Harold Check (né Stusnick) launched a news page called Offhand Remarks in September 1997 and paid his debt of recognition straight away: “While we hope to be original in our outlook, we aren’t original in concept. That honor goes to Michael Sippey of the always thought-provoking Obvious Filter and Dave Winer of Scripting News.” Unlike either of his exemplars, Check implemented his news page in Perl These NewsPage derivatives brought their editors’ own interests and sensibilities to the site model but did not innovate in terms of interface design, structural characteristics, or accompanying social practices.
The NewsPage Network
A defining moment for News Pages occurred in spring 1997, when Andy Affleck (né Williams) and Chris Gulker were starting their own news pages. Gulker placed a complimentary link to Scripting News in his first post. In response, Winer linked to Affleck and Gulker’s respective sites, and Affleck linked to Gulker the same day, commending “another News Page,“ which in turn prompted Gulker to link back to Affleck, stating: “News Pages proliferate […] and cross refer!”
This moment of mutual recognition came and went without immediate consequences, but in October 1997 Gulker acted on the idea of cross-referring between News Pages and set up an innovative feature on Gulker.com: he created a blogroll that featured twelve News Pages and presented them under the heading “The NewsPage Network.”
However, as some form of mutual recognition amongst network nodes is a basic requirement for a network to exist in the first place, Gulker’s NewsPage Network enjoyed a somewhat notional existence only. Winer for one wasn’t paying much attention to the “first-generation descendants” of his Scripting News and may have been entirely oblivious to most of them. When he came across a news page, he intermittently showed support by linking to it,[fn]Winer intermittently linked to news pages as they came online, yet most members of Gulker’s NewsPage Network were never mentioned on Scripting.com. News Pages that Winer linked to in 1997 included China Informed Chris Gulker’s News Page, Andy J. Williams, and The Obvious Filter. In 1998 they included Robot Wisdom Weblog, Andy Edmonds, News from the Digital Prairie, and Tomalak’s Realm.[/fn] but the watchlist he posted in January 1998 did not include a single member of the NewsPage Network amongst the sites he frequented on a regular basis.
Such lack of recognition was the norm throughout the NewsPage Network. The “hit list” of favourite links in Andy Affleck’s sidebar only included Scripting News from among the members of the Network. Similarly, “Steve Bogart’s Links Page” showed no awareness of a NewsPage category: Scripting News was listed amongst other Mac news sources, and Gulker.com, once it appeared on the list, was classified amongst regular news sites. Peter Prodoehl of Rasterweb.net felt no need to put up a list of fellow practitioners until well into 1999. Robert Occhialini of Bump.net carried a section named “Sites Worth a Look (Most of these are maintained by people I know)” on his links page: four out of the seven sites listed there were members of the NewsPage Network, but no effort was apparent to distinguish them from the other three that were not. Several years into his news page project, Daniel Berlinger for his part had yet to put up any sort of links to kindred sites. Thus, the sites that Gulker identified as a network shared a publishing tool and a publishing model but no sense of cohesion amongst each other.
The lack of cohesion amongst members of the NewsPage Network was matched by a paucity of reflection on the nature and purpose of its publishing model and, as a consequence, a lack of a compelling stated rationale. Winer himself was the most articulate in formulating such a rationale. Acknowledging that the NewsPage scripts emulated HotWired’s main page and Ric Ford’s Macintouch.com, a daily newsletter that focused on Apple-related news, Winer characterised the NewsPage model in purely pragmatic terms as an attempt to “package the idea” that had already been implemented successfully by these predecessors. Winer knew from his server logs that the news page was the most popular part of his site and attracted many loyal repeat visitors. Reasoning on this success, he found that “every platform should have a Ric Ford” and anticipated a wider adoption of the model among communities of interest beyond software: “There will be many other special interest sites whose purpose is to provide coverage to self-seeking and self-defining groups of people.” However, he did not pursue the idea any further at the time.
Chris Gulker hinted at some grand vision when he asserted that news pages were going to help bring about “a new, and possibly much greater ‘age of letters,’ not unlike the one that arose when the first reliable postal services allowed correspondents to share ideas though separated by large distances,” but he failed to elaborate on this prediction and described the “daily ramblings and links” of his news page in very prosaic terms as a mere “experiment in the possibilities offered by the rise of a global network.”
Gulker’s apologetic reference to his news page as an “experiment” was typical amongst members of the NewsPage Network. Thus, Daniel Berlinger, an accomplished essayist, launched his news page despite misgivings about a form that seemed too immediate to suit his temperament as a writer. He regarded his “relatively new (and experimental) news page” with a good deal of skepticism: “I say experimental because I’m not a big journal sort of person. I like things to wash over me a bit before committing them to the world at large.” Steve Bogart was equally uncertain of his purpose and viewed his news page as experimental too: “Picking out the one or two stories that I think deserve attention on any given day and highlighting them may be a valuable function for me to perform, or it may just be an exercise in whistling in the dark. We’ll see as time passes.” Any utility or benefit accruing from the project was a fortuitous outcome rather than a goal deliberately planned for.
The trait most widely shared among the original News Page maintainers was a lack of faith in the superior merits of their publishing model; if they had any sense of its urgency or importance, they kept quiet about it. The man who believed that the news page wouldn’t just replace “the whole idea of hotlists,” but that it was “a model that [would] become the dominant one for web publishing,” and would “transform the world” had yet to come along and engage in his “wonderful evangelizing.”
A programmer versed in modernist literature, interactive fiction and artificial intelligence, Jorn Barger began to take an interest in hypertext theory with his first attempts at Web authoring in early 1995. He joined the alt.hypertext newsgroup, where he voiced strident opposition to established hypertext experts, whom he repeatedly berated for indifference and irresponsibility towards the practical issues of hypertext design on the Web. Indignant because “the academics who claim to have expertise on these matters are not helping out in the least,” he concluded that the Web’s “explosion of spontaneous creativity is (finally!) making it possible to formulate some real theory about what works and what doesn’t.” When surveying his efforts in 1997, Barger found that most of his experiments in hypertext tried to solve either of these two problems:
- how to draw online readers into difficult texts
- how to flesh out hotlists of weblinks into readable prose
From this set of preoccupations, Barger came to be the first observer to accord the news page model serious and sustained consideration as a hypertext design of great future potential. In a post of September 1997 to alt.hypertext entitled “An Emerging Paradigm for Web Hypertext?” he first highlighted it as a “perfectly serviceable way to offer a lot of links in readable form” and wondered if there were ways to improve on it. He suggested two rules that matched his preoccupations:
- The anchor text has to include enough info for the reader to decide whether to follow it. In most hotlists I’ve seen, this is a big problem, because only a few words are used, and they’ll often make a fascinating site sound dull.
- Reading a hotlist can mean a huge cognitive burden if different items appeal to different sorts of interest, because the brain has to refocus’ between each one. Continuous prose gives the author a chance to smooth these.
Two days before launching his own Frontier-based news page, the Robot Wisdom Weblog, in December 1997, Barger followed up with an enthusiastic review of Userland’s Frontier software and praised Winer’s Scripting News, which, as he pointed out, had been his favourite Web destination for a few months: “Dave reads widely on the Web and uses Scripting News to post a running annotated hotlist of the interesting nuggets he finds – a strategy which seems to me the ideal prototype for Internet info exchange.” He deemed this prototype “a vastly better solution than 99.9% of all the webzines” and proceeded to name six criteria that an ideal implementation would need to adhere to:
- There’s a single URL that stays current, with options for ‘scrolling back’ in time.
- There’s enough description for people to decide what they want to read. (Three words of abstract link text is not enough!!!)
- Minimal graphics. Heavy graphics do not raise readership. (I try to include a nice small image from time to time, just as an added channel of communication.)
- Anthologise other sites’ text. Why are there so few examples of this approach??? No zine is an island.
- Daily updates. People can make a habit of visiting every time they’re on line.
- A single ‘editor’. You may not agree with my taste on everything, but you can grow to know my biases.
A few months later, Barger published a similar list of “design suggestions,” which increased the number of criteria from six to ten:
- Continual updates make more sense than periodic publication.
- The main page adds new links at the top
- Archives can maintain this format, broken into reasonable-sized chunks
- (Sorting archives by category is another option)
- Link-text should be a summary (not a teaser/pun)
- Pullquotes can be very effective
- When linking to a multipage or heavy-bandwidth article, include a warning
- Simply showing the URL is a convenient way of giving a lot of info about the source, date, etc
- Crediting links borrowed from other weblogs is good etiquette
These rules of art were meant to be taken seriously. Unlike earlier news page maintainers, Barger was supremely confident of the model’s merit and thought of his rules as a substantial contribution to the practical hypertext theory he was trying to discover and promote. He considered the rules not only “urgently important for all web authors” but also incontestable, authoritative, and, ultimately, binding. Accordingly, he responded with incredulity and disparagement when hypertext scholar Mark Bernstein expressed reservations about the initial six-point analysis. He also placed two sites on a “Weblog Dishonor Roll” for running afoul of the rule that credit should be given for borrowed links, then branded one of the two sites, the Arts & Letters Daily, a “plagiarist” for continued non-compliance with that rule. Eventually, he managed to antagonize a good number of his fellow webloggers when he issued an annotated list of weblogs, in which he critiqued their site design and declared that most of them fell short of his standards. Barger had evolved from implacable critic of the hypertext establishment to stern proponent of an orthodoxy he had built around the Web publishing model of his choice.
As a great believer in “utopian ideals of group process,” Barger had started online groups that “were freely, anarchically open to all, and spent many patient hours trying to build a communal consciousness within those groups.” When, with the launch of his weblog in December 1997, Barger began to propagate the weblog model and recommended that “all enthusiastic surfers take a shot at maintaining such a weblog,’” he also had a communal effort in mind: a community of practice whose shared purpose was generating salience among the Web’s over-abundance of poorly organised text. Convinced that the media were venal and dishonest, Barger envisaged an alternative that would be “authentic.” In his view, the individual weblogger’s authenticity and sheer self-interest would serve as a countervailing force to the corrupt process of salience generation that obtained: “Any website’s own index of its content is the last place you want to have to look for good reading: it will necessarily promote its worst pieces indistinguishably from its best.” The counter-strategy consisted in “linking to the best articles from every possible source, accompanied by honest summaries.” This strategy stood to benefit from a network of sites engaging in the practice, as Barger explained in December 1997: “I suspect that in a year there’ll be hundreds of people maintaining pages like this, and that this will allow good URLs to spread much more quickly.” Barger predicted that such sites would be aware of each other and be mutually facilitating in their editorial task: “new URLs will propagate thousands of times more efficiently, because each zine author can re-filter a dozen other zines that match their interests.” The result would be quite dramatic, as the weblog “instantaneously, irreversibly transfers the seat of power from well-financed publishers to essentially unfinanced editors.” Looking to “grow a community of non-corporate truth-tellers,” Barger hoped to establish, in a spirit of collaborative activism, an alternative Web interface that would overcome the inefficiencies created by the media’s lack of authenticity and trustworthiness.
Accordingly, it was with great elation that, in early January 1998, within three weeks of Robot Wisdom Weblog’s debut, Barger discovered Chris Gulker’s news page and, with it, the NewsPage Network. He duly reported the find and exulted: “Yay! A whole list of other weblogs.” Gulker in turn became aware of Robot Wisdom Weblog and added it as “another News Page” to his list, soon to be followed by Steve Bogart’s News, Pointers & Commentary, and Robert Occhialini’s Bump, thus bringing the Network list up to its final tally of fifteen members.
A newly-minted member of the NewsPage Network, Barger put himself in charge of its public relations, starting out by romanticising it and evoking a bucolic, pre-industrial past of unmediated communication:
Back before electricity, people used to send messages from hilltop to hilltop, over long distances, by building signal-fires… This new network of web-surfers who maintain newspages (mostly using Frontier scripting language, as far as I can tell) are the web reincarnation of this – scanning each others’ pages to pick up hot tips (http’s!) that we can then pass quickly along…
This evocation of a mutually supportive community of information scavengers includes what is likely to be the first use of the personal pronoun “we” in reference to Gulker’s Network, suggesting not just a shared purpose, but also a shared identity amongst its members. Yet its mythologising appropriation of an historical precedent conceals the fact that the network was no community of practice yet and remained the notional entity that it was when Gulker first declared its existence. Barger kept touting the network regardless and suggested that in usability, “the informal network of Frontier newspages/weblogs is a great step forward.” Shortly after, in a “press release” of 25 June 1998, Barger claimed pre-eminence amongst his peers: “The Robot Wisdom Weblog is a leader among the growing network of weblogs and news-pages.” On behalf of that network, he defined its purpose as a process of salience generation in competition with the established media: “We vacuum the Net for stories that the major outlets haven’t noticed yet, and pass along our sources so we can all get more and more efficient at this vacuuming.” In the summer of 1998, Barger spotted “a need for a weblog/newspage maintainers mailinglist or chat forum” and, acting upon that perception, set up a discussion group to which he insistently referred with the possessive pronoun in the plural: it was “our new DejaNews forum” or, alternatively, “our weblogs Deja group” and “our weblogs group.” If the network didn’t yet exist as a functional community of practice, Barger appeared to be writing it into existence while setting up a communal infrastructure for it.
In early January 1999, after more than a year spent linking to the best reading he found on the Web and propagating the weblog both as a publishing model and as a community of practice, Barger re-issued the recommendation that everyone should start a weblog of their own. He suggested that starting a weblog conferred membership among a peer group of fellow webloggers and made up a new name for this group: the “weblog community.”
The Weblog Community
Barger’s promotion of the weblog model, undertaken by a “fulltime weblogger” and intended to fulfil the promise of a self-aware community that the NewsPage Network held out, eventually resulted in a sense of community taking hold. In May 1998, Bogart identified a “merry band of linkers,” and sites sprang up that were named weblogs after Barger’s example. Raphael Carter, for instance, reported to Barger: “I’ve also taken your suggestion and started my own surfing discoveries page, the Honeyguide Web Log,“ and presently Joe Wilson set up his own site, placing it “in the tradition of Jorn Barger and the Honeyguide Weblog.” Sites that adopted the name weblog in 1998 include the following, in order of launch date:
- May: Raphael Carter, Honeyguide Weblog
- May: Avram Grumer, Pigs & Fishes Weblog
- June: John Wilson, The Untitled Weblog
- June: William Humphries, Whump Web Log
- August: Laurel Krahn, Windowseat Weblog
- December: Steve Bogart, Nowthis.com/log
The term weblog caught on even among those who did not name their site after it. Michal Wallace of Manifestation.com used it generically, as applying to a site model rather than just Barger’s instantiation of that model, in July 1998, when he indicated he was experimenting with his own implementation. Although his allegiance to the term weblog was weak, and he was happy to use “presurfing” and “microportal” as viable alternatives, he expressed a strong sense of commonality with his fellow practitioners and saw an opportunity for wider recognition in the complementary nature of the separate areas they covered: “Each of the current presurfers have their own interests, and they capitalize on them and share those interests. That’s why I don’t think Jorn and I are competing. Or Bill at whump.com or Raphael at Honeyguide. Or the folks at memepool. Heck. 99% of the web doesn’t even know we’re here yet.” Wallace’s site soon sported a blogroll that declared his affinity with a roster of more than a dozen “presurfers.” Raphael Carter of Honeyguide Weblog launched the “Web_Log” category in the Open Directory (DMOZ.org) and announced an inclusive editorial policy that promised a comprehensive listing: “Any other Webloggers reading this should make sure they’re included and check out their descriptions.” The launch of this directory in November 1998 marked the arrival of the weblog as a recognised new genre.
Barger aimed to raise the visibility and self-awareness of the nascent community through his own weblog. He observed a basic editorial policy: “I usually don’t like links to sites – I want links to particular pages with good reading,” yet he disregarded that policy and linked to a new weblog whenever he found a new one that met his standards. There were eighteen such sites in the course of Robot Wisdom Weblog’s initial year.[fn]The full list of weblogs highlighted in Robot Wisdom Weblog during 1998, in chronological order: Gulker.com , Steve Bogart’s News, Pointers & Commentary, Daniel Berlinger’s Digital Prairie, Honeyguide Weblog, HMS Beagle, Netsurfer Science,  Joe Wilson’s Weblog,  Whump, Obscure Store, Atrium Commentarium, Manifestation.com, Pigs & Fishes, Association of Alternative Newsweeklies,  Explorator, Arts & Letters Daily, This Week’s Finds in Mathematical Physics,  Windowseat Web Log, UseIt Spotlight.[/fn]
More central to Barger’s efforts, however, was a meticulously observed policy of crediting borrowed links to the weblogs they originated from, a practice that can be examined to determine the extent to which Robot Wisdom Weblog served as a mediator between the NewsPage network and the weblog community as defined by Barrett’s blogroll. There is no actual blogroll[fn]Barger’s list of “more logs,” started in February 1998 at the latest, differed from Gulker’s blogroll most obviously in that it was a stand-alone page, but also in that it was annotated with a one-sentence review of every site and, crucially, served as an itemization of the citation keys Barger used for crediting any link he gleaned from another weblog, hence its alternative name of “sources-page.” The Internet Archive failed to capture this page in 1998.[/fn] that Barger created in the months between the final update to Gulker’s NewsPage Network blogroll[fn]The following fifteen sites were listed on Gulker’s NewsPage Network blogroll in February 1998: Daniel Berlinger’s Digital Prairie, Steve Bogart, BookLab.com, Bump, Paul Hardwick, Iditarod, PsyberSpace, RasterWeb, The Record-Journal Editor’s Page, Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, Molly Ringwald, Robot Wisdom Weblog, Phil Suh, Andy J. Williams, and Dave Winer’s Scripting News.[/fn] in February 1998 and the appearance of Barrett’s CamWorld blogroll[fn]The first iteration of CamWorld’s blogroll included the following twenty sites: Scripting News, Hack the Planet, Manifestation [Michal Wallace], Flutterby, jjg.net, Whump, Robot Wisdom, Honeyguide, Tomalak’s Realm, WindowSeat, PeterMe, Memepool, BradLands, Haddock, NowThis.com [Steve Bogart], rc3, GrokSoup, Need to Know, Perfect, PigDog.[/fn] in January 1999, but a virtual one can be compiled using Barger’s link credits from throughout the year.[fn]Barger’s virtual blogroll as compiled from his link credits in 1998, sorted by number of links credited: Obscure Store , Scripting News , Slashdot , Common Dreams , Your Mileage May Vary , Honeyguide Weblog , Need to Know , Whump , Feed , Drudge Report , Steve Bogart , Art & Letters Daily , NASA Watch , Online Books Page , Association of Alternative Newsweeklies , Explorator , Spike , Windowseat , Coppersky , Ain’t it cool , MacRonin , Hack the Buddha [Michal Wallace] , Gulker , MacOS , Daniel Berlinger’s Promenade , Andy J. Williams , UseIt , Oneworld , BradLands .[/fn] A comparison of this compilation against Gulker’s earlier blogroll and Barrett’s corresponding later one reveals that throughout 1998 Barger kept borrowing from four sites out of Gulker’s fifteen. Out of the twenty sites in Barrett’s blogroll at its inception, three were already listed in Gulker’s, and Robot Wisdom Weblog was listed alongside eight sites on Barger’s source list. The increasing numerical overlap in these data strongly suggests that the progression from Gulker’s blogroll to Barrett’s blogroll via Barger’s source list tracks with the gradual emergence of the weblog community from its earliest stirrings in the NewsPage network. From its very beginning, Barret’s blogroll also included a link to Carter’s Open Directory “Web_Logs” category, which further accentuates the descendancy of Barrett’s blogroll from earlier networking efforts. Barrett’s list was pivotal to the consolidation and growth of this community in 1999 and secured CamWorld’s status as the “most-popular referrer among weblogs,” yet it was not a foundational effort as much as a summation and continuation of the networking and community building that Barger had undertaken in the year that preceded its appearance.
Barger’s rules of art also loom large in the background of the essay that Barrett posted to accompany his blogroll’s first appearance on CamWorld. The “Anatomy” documents Barrett’s realisation that CamWorld, the site he started in the summer of 1997 as a news page, would now have to go by a different name, a realisation that the essay substantiates by comparing the site against a list of “aspects commonly associated with weblogs.” Upon examination, those “aspects” – cited as an estalished consensus but not credited to any sources – turn out to be Barger’s rules in disguise: rephrased and tempered in most cases, somewhat called into question on the issue of giving credit for links borrowed from other weblogs. Barrett suggests two criteria that do not have a precedent in Barger’s orthodoxy: one is the need not to over-simplify things, which is a cause previously championed by Winer.[fn]Winer prized self-publishing on the Web for its power to work around the distortions and simplifications of which he accused the trade press, a point he made in his essay “Dave the Disintermediator” and elsewhere.[/fn] The other criterion is the only one that is uniquely Barrett’s own: it’s that a weblog has a community. Yet the community Barrett boasts of is the group of “repeat visitors and list members who contribute many of the links often found in CamWorld” – thus a community that congregated around his own site, not at all the weblog maintainers’ community of practice that Barger conceived of, had been promoting for a year, and which was on the point of becoming the consensual definition of the term “weblog community”. Ironically, Barrett’s blogroll and essay helped precipitate the “explosion of growth in the weblog community” in early 1999, but the one original criterion proposed in the essay also renders it unfit to be the founding text of the weblog community.
During the weblog community’s rapid expansion in 1999, Barger did not try hard to retain the leadership he had claimed earlier. Instead, he announced that his weblog was “going to be scaled way back for an unknown period” in April and went through a “downshift to parttime weblogger” in August.
Yet he initiated and launched a discussion forum[fn]Barger launched the group on 25 August 1999 using Deja but almost instantly transferred it to eGroup.[/fn] in July 1999, the Weblogs eGroup, which he ran in the following months, when it was virtually synonymous with the idea of the weblog community. It succeeded as the community’s central gathering place but ultimately foundered on the apparent impossibility of Winer and Barger having a constructive discussion of Barger’s rules of art: Barger abruptly shut the group down after a furious altercation with Winer in April 2000. The substance of the quarrel was the legitimacy of the grudge that Barger held towards Winer regarding an earlier fallout of theirs in July 1999, when Barger tried, and failed, to make Winer abide by his rules of art. That earlier disagreement had in itself been a re-enactment of the original acrimony that ensued when Barger first contacted Winer in April 1998 and suggested that his rules be implemented on Scripting News.
After the Weblogs eGroup’s demise, one former member, Brig Eaton, lamented “the loss of the small close-knit weblog community,” as none of the group’s successors managed to re-capture the spirit of Barger’s forum and fill the void its disappearance left behind: “the original sense of connection of coming together with people who know what you do, understand it, and do it themselves is gone.” Others took the occasion of the meltdown to state their opposition to the former community leader’s “normative notions of weblogging” and, indeed, to claim that “Jorn’s version of what a weblog is’ disagrees with almost everyone else’s version,” thus highlighting the community’s increasingly apparent lack of agreement on the definition of the weblog, which Blood then came to lament as the rift at its core.
As Barger withdrew from the weblog community, he diminished his weblog’s ’s pace and pondered timelines and hierarchical taxonomies as superior structures for link sharing. He came to detect a “strong flavor of self-absorbed narcissism” in weblogs and chose to stay “blissfully ignorant” of the community he had raised, eventually insisting that his was “still the only proper weblog,” thereby disowning the community altogether. In another ten-point list that Barger compiled on the occasion of Robot Wisdom Weblog’s tenth anniversary, he repeated his unreconstructed orthodoxy: he claimed that “a true weblog is a log of all the URLs you want to save or share” and elevated the observance of this principle to a matter of moral probity: “you can certainly include links to your original thoughts, posted elsewhere … but if you have more original posts than links, you probably need to learn some humility.” Clearly, Barger never moved from his orthodoxy to any acceptance of what the blogosphere had turned out to be. He shaped the concept of the weblog community out of Gulker’s NewsPage Network not merely by rebranding Winer’s NewsPage model but by unrelentingly propagating the orthodoxy he erected on that model, by setting a prolific and inspiring example in his Robot Wisdom Weblog and by meticulously crediting his fellow practitioners in its pages. Yet Barger would never accept as anything less than a betrayal of his original vision that the access structure he had once hailed as a new paradigm could have evolved into the Web’s most successful writing space.
Barger’s attempt to build the weblog community on a site model intended as an access structure rather than a writing space must rank as a significant episode lending historical depth to network theories that count salience generation among the Internet’s primary and most valuable operations. It also raises the question of what were the forces that ended up shaping the weblog into a writing space after all. If we are to avoid facile pronouncements, the answer to that question will need to be pulled from the archival record as well.
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