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.

13 thoughts on “Dan Gillmor, Derek Powazek and the weblog as writing space

  1. I was writing long-form on
    I was writing long-form on DaveNet starting in 1994.


    I’ve always felt it was a thread development of blogs, for some reason Scott didn’t think so.

    But I don’t think this should be left to one author to decide.

    If Dan Gillmor’s blog was a blog (and clearly it was) then so is DaveNet.

    I hope you take a look and try to collect opinion about this.

    BTW, Manila was organized the way it was to encourage the type of blogging that Dan did.

    There were several other sites that went up at the same time — Buck’s, my uncle’s, and a few of my own, as adjuncts to scripting.com.

    My sense of Scripting was it was the totem pole where all the stuff I found interesting, including my own writing, would be linked. To say I embraced a form that Dan started is incorrect.

    And to be fair, the credit for pushing us to center Manila on stories with titles and links goes to Dale Dougherty at O’Reilly, who we were working with on another project at the time. You won’t find that a lot of people wrote about Dale, but his fingerprints are all over early blogging, usually as a behind-the-scenes guy.

    1. Matt’s observation is his own
      Matt’s observation is his own impression, but it’s sure not borne out by the archive.

      The corner he talks about was turned in 1995 if not 1994.

      “Great Women of DaveNet” — Feb 1995.

      “Jury Duty” was March 1996.

      Check out the first three pieces of May 1997.

      “Proof that you exist”

      “Do you have a head”


      These are just some of them. To think it was all about tech — well that’s just wrong. Even the tech pieces were just placeholders for discussions about humanity. I explicitly said this at least a few times.

      DaveNet is part of the scripting.com flow. I linked to every piece from Scripting News, usually as the top item.

      1. BTW, I didn’t say all I was
        BTW, I didn’t say all I was thinking and feeling in my bit about SXSW in 2000.

        They didn’t invite me to be part of this “summit.” Never have been invited to speak at that conference.

        I think there was a lot of that going on.

        I don’t know why people are so exclusive about these things. I tried in every way I can to welcome everyone. I found the “debates” about Dan’s blog to be petty and kind of disgusting. My goal was to get everyone writing on the web, no matter how they wanted to do it, whatever made them comfortable. These are hair-splits. And look at how much is lost by not being inclusive. There’s nothing new in the idea of 140-character posts with links, if anything Twitter is a step backward in that sense, because it doesn’t have the anchor tag or styling. We should have been doing that all along. Innovation should have been encouraged, no matter who it came from. A lot of these people only recognized innovation that came from their friends. There’s still a lot of that going on (“RSS is dead,” at TechCrunch — yeah sure.)

        It was not all about Matt and Rebecca and Powazek or SXSW. According to Rebecca’s book was I even a blogger? I forget.

        I never went to SXSW but somehow was still an effective blogger, creating lots of stuff that gained traction, without getting the approval of that crowd.

        Take another look — you’re buying into something that isn’t real, imho.

    2. Dave, I *did* think so (that
      Dave, I *did* think so (that DaveNet was a thread in the development of blogs). My chapter about your work focuses, if anything, as much on DaveNet as it does on Scripting News. So I just think you’re not fully remembering what I wrote or you didn’t read it cvarefully enough.

  2. The word “always” in my
    The word “always” in my quotation was overreaching, I guess (as “always” always, er, usually is!) but if you substitute “from almost the beginning” I think the statement is still accurate. The divide was there in 1999 and before; people were writing linkblogs on the Web and people had sites for personal writing or original material that were organized chronologically. Both of these types of efforts are part of the history of what blogging is today.

    In other words: I prefer a somewhat wider and more inclusive view of the roots of blogging. If we know that for roughly a decade now blogging has included both the “linkblogging” style of the pre-99 generation of webloggers and the more substantial essay style that began to flourish thereafter, it’s reasonable to go back and include in our picture the early exemplars of the long form as well, and then say, these are both rivers that flowed into the practice we know today as blogging.

    I’m arguing against a history of blogging that excludes the “self-expression” people from the narrative. I guess that’s evident from the choices I made of what to write about in “Say Everything.”

    The efforts of some of the old-school webloggers to police the boundaries of their form never worked very well, even before Dan chose to redefine the form for his needs. I think we shouldn’t overestimate how widely accepted Barger’s “conventions” or “rules of art” were. Webloggers were always stubborn, ornery individualists. I don’t think there were many who were willing to let someone else set their rules for them.

  3. I will second Dave on that.
    I will second Dave on that. My chapter about him in “Say Everything” follows the thread of his work, the mix of the links, the observations about the software business, and the personal stuff back to the early days of DaveNet. His writing there was at least as important to the form we know as blogging today as Scripting News was.

  4. Rudolf, your prodigious
    Rudolf, your prodigious research continues to amaze me… A couple of comments:

    Dave Winer was certainly doing longer-form, narrative blogging before I started. His work was, as I said in my first blogging, one of my models.

    Rogers Cadenhead’s early critique of my fledgling blog — in particular, that I wasn’t linking outwardly enough — was a reasonable one. I remedied that over time, and would be the first to tell anyone now that linking is a critically important part of blogging.

    But when you say I was being “openly defiant of weblog conventions,” that’s a surprise to me, mainly because I figured the form was so new that the conventions would be created ad hoc by every new blogger. I wasn’t defying anything in that start-up piece; I was just saying here’s what I plan do.

    The way I ended the column you’ve quoted above may be the most important part in this context:

    Where’s it all heading? I have some ideas, but the truth is I don’t know for certain. That’s part of the fun.

    So is your part in this, I trust. Tell me how you like the weblog, or why you don’t like it. Help me make it better. Let’s create this together.

    That still feels right to me.

  5. Your observations are all
    Your observations are all interesting and useful, but — to return to the beginning — I don’t think Rosenberg’s observation was a generalization, and I’m not convinced it’s all that questionable.

    If you look back to the roots of blogging you find that there has always been a divide between two styles…

    A natural reading of this passage, I think, is that the divide between discursive weblogs and annotated reading lists extends to the roots of blogging and beyond — that is, to the earliest anticipations of the weblog.

    This makes a lot of sense. There’s certainly a sort of bloggisness about the early Links from Underground and the oldest DaveNet pieces, not to mention Suck and Fray. To some extent, the divide also animates written journals; see, for example:

    Thomas Mallon, A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries (St. Paul, Minnesota: Hungry Mind Press, 1984).

    Compare, for example, Pepys — who sticks pretty close to the events of the day — and Robert Byron (The Road to Oxiana), who uses narrative events to launch into extended essays and anecdotes.

    The term “writing space”, of course, derives from Jay David Bolter’s 1991 book Writing Space; it’s exactly the right term, but Bolter can’t have been thinking specifically of weblogs in 1991.

    1. Thanks for the comments! I
      Thanks for the comments! I wouldn’t argue with the observation that categories such as voice have observable continuities that stretch from many of today’s weblogs to the DaveNet of 1994 and much further back into the pre-digital past. Scott’s book amply demonstrates that the study of such continuities can be illuminating.

      My own focus is lower down the food chain.

      For instance: in mere interface terms, it’s fairly clear that Frontier’s news pages don’t derive from DaveNet. They derive from what Dave calls change notes (also known, in *nix jargon, as changelogs). Clay Basket was an early UserLand product, discontinued in early 1996 shortly before it reached its 1.0 release. Dave posted change notes for the beta releases of the product (Winer, 1995), and these notes consist of date-stamped entries, reverse-chronologically ordered, with links. Look familiar? Sure! Clearly, there’s a path that leads from the Clay Basket change notes (Winer, 1995) to the Frontier News & Updates (Winer, 1996) to Scripting News (Winer, 1997).

      Now, what communicative work is this (date-stamped, reverse-chronological) interface structure required to perform at different points in time? In its earliest instantiation as change notes it carries plain, factual details of software releases, plus a link to the download page where you can get the code. Does it have “voice”? Yes, Dave Winer is in there doing the Dave Winer thing, offering the occasional anecdote, and going “Coooooool!” once in a while. But is this the “unedited voice of a person” in the full, weighty sense of that phrase? No.

      So can we track the development of this interface structure and observe how, over time, the rules change, and how we get from the initial product updates to the eventual “unedited voice of a person” in the weighty sense?

      We should. I believe that such close scrutiny of archival material will give us a much more intimate, empirically grounded understanding of how all of this came to be.

  6. Like Dave Winer, I was
    Like Dave Winer, I was writing long-form blog entries as far back as January 1998. I called them “CamRants” and linked to them directly from my daily blogging.

    Note: You may want to change all the links and references for camworld.com to camworld.org. I’m no longer in control of the camworld.com domain and it is now a pornographic web site. All content from camworld.com is archived at the camworld.org domain using the same URL structure.

    1. Cameron — thanks for
      Cameron — thanks for pointing out the issue with your former domain. I have altered my links accordingly.

  7. I’m a bit surprised in this
    I’m a bit surprised in this back-and-forth that there is no discussion of interactivity, which I consider (along with crosslinking, which you use as your criterion) to be a defining characteristic.

    My column/blog made its debut on NYTimes.com on Jan. 19, 1996. It was novel at the time because it was a web-only feature:


    For the first year, I solicited comments and questions via email. Then, in January 1997, my colleague Elizabeth Osder led our site to begin to use what we called “forums,” which allowed people (the unwashed masses!) to directly post their own thoughts and comments.

    I immediately saw the possibilities, and we created the Tip Exchange, a forum that not only allowed replies to my columns, but also gave people the ability to interact with each other, with me as a sort of emcee. Unfortunately, the logs of the Tip Exchange have been lost in the mist of time, though my associated column remains in the archives.

    However, a good example of how it worked is seen in my blog/column of May 2, 1997:


    I believe the Tip Exchange was the first interactive blog at any mainstream medium site, making its debut on Jan. 17, 1997.


    The entire experiment was killed by a new management team in February 1998.

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