More or less created weblogging

In a recent response to my contention that Jorn Barger conceived and built the weblog community, Mark Bernstein notes that “Barger seems an unlikely, even preposterous, candidate to build a community” and goes on to list a number of questions that my paper fails to address. I hope to be able to answer all of these questions eventually, but this will take some time to do thoroughly.

Meanwhile, let me simply point to a CNET poll in early 1999 that invited readers to “vote for the 1998 Web innovators”.

Never mind who won. Here’s a partial list of the nominees for the title Web Innovator of the Year, sorted in no particular order:

  • Pierre Omidyar, chairman and founder of eBay, and Meg Whitman, CEO, winner of a CNET Class of ’98 People Award, have succeeded in creating an e-commerce site that has become a community.
  • Tim Bray is an independent software developer and co-editor of XML 1.0, which has the potential to reshape the way data is exchanged over the Internet.
  • Tim O’Reilly, is an open-source advocate and a leading publisher of independently developed software for the Web.
  • David Winer is the driving force behind Scripting News, an Internet community.
  • David Winer and the UserLand team developed Frontier, a cross-platform content management system that is rapidly maturing as an authoring and development framework.
  • Glenn Davis, George Olsen, and Jeffrey Zeldman co-founded The Web Standards Project, whose mission is to halt the fragmentation of the Web by campaigning for browser standards.
  • Jorn Barger’s Robot Wisdom inspired the Web Log community.

Brad Graham, early blogger and author of a widely read piece on weblogging knew who should win the poll and wrote about his choice:

Jorn more or less created weblogging and then defined it by his excellent example. His Robot Wisdom Weblog is a glimpse of the future of web publishing, a personal, edited-with-an-attitude “portal” that separates the webwheat from the webchaff and, thankfully, posts the wheat.

Clearly, I’m not going to attempt an argument from authority, as neither Brad Graham nor CNET can decide the question by their say-so. But here’s a piece of evidence suggesting that reasonable people in 1999 could look back on 1998 and observe that Jorn Barger didn’t just coin the term “weblog” in December 1997 and then left it at that.

I’m planning to revise my paper and I’m currently looking a bit more closely into how connections between the earliest weblogs were established. I’ve come to suspect this: when Barger urged in July 1998 that “crediting links borrowed from other weblogs is good etiquette,” he was in fact pursuing and advocating a community building strategy, which, I think, Michal Wallace acknowledged when he observed in response that “a credited link can do good. It’s cross-pollination”. Blogrolls came later.

If you had a weblog in 1998 and received an e-mail at the time from Jorn Barger suggesting you should attribute the source of the link you’d just borrowed from Robot Wisdom Weblog, I would like to hear from you.

More later.

5 Comments

Mark Bernstein

Was asking (in practice,
Was asking (in practice, demanding) credit for his own weblog a community-building strategy, or a credit-building strategy?

More to the point, how many people who received these emails looked forward to receiving more? (My guess: plenty of people carefully linked to Jorn, or found a new source, to avoid getting more demand notes from Barger)

My point when I wrote that “Barger seems an unlikely, even preposterous, candidate to build a community” was that Barger was almost always combative and often bitter. Contrast his persona — even back in 1999, before Barger wore his anti-Semitism so openly — with some of the others on the list. They’re fun, friendly people with lots to offer. (It’s also worth noting that, of the names on the list, only Barger and O’Reilly lack a major technical accomplishment, and O’Reilly published the books that everyone, literally, everyone, depended on.)

You wanted email from O’Reilly. It might contain an book contract, or an invitation to a cool new conference.

You wanted email from Bray; it might contain the key to a new standard.

You wanted email from Winer; it might contain a dinner invitation, or a new software release, or damn near anything. At the very least, it might contain a link from Scripting News.

You wanted email from Zeldman; he was the prince of SXSW and his web magazine was held the key to the Web design audience.

You wanted email from the eBay crowd; it might contain a zillion dollar job offer, or a Pez dispenser.

One got email (and usenet battles) from Barger, but did one look forward to it? When you think of “community builder”, you generally think of someone like these other innovators — smart, likable, gregarious, well-liked.

Rudolf Ammann

Thanks for your thoughts,
Thanks for your thoughts, Mark. I’m aware that you and alt.hypertext at large didn’t get along with Jorn Barger, and that reservations about his temperament and his ideas are widely shared.

In what I do, however, I’m not prepared to make deductions from an unproven premise such as all community builders are personable. I prefer an empirical approach that looks at the archival data and makes its inferences from those.

According to my data, the handful of sites that embraced Barger’s site model, starting with Raphael Carter‘s smart and excellent Honeyguide Web Log in May 1998 (as well as Avram Grumer’s smart and excellent Pigs and Fishes and Bill Humphrey’s equally smart and excellent Whump, both of which came shortly after), were remarkably uniform in their observance of the principle that link sources ought to be attributed. I haven’t found out yet if these early webloggers simply imitated Robot Wisdom Weblog’s meticulous and painstaking attributions or if they acquiesced to Barger’s personal and privately communicated wishes. Either way, between Raphael Carter’s arrival as a weblogger and Barger’s first statement of his weblogging principles on the Web in July 1998, link annotating via reverse-chronologically sorted personal Web sites became a shared activity among a small group of people. The practice of attributing borrowed links to other news pages dates back to the summer of 1997, as Chris Gulker acknowledged Phil Suh in two or three instances when reposting links he’d found on Suh’s news page. But it was only Barger who promoted link attribution deliberately and systematically in order to raise the visibility of a few kindred projects that were engaged in the same practice of aggregating the best links they found.

Personally I don’t have any great investment in the term “community” — or “community building”, for that matter. Maybe called the group a “network”. In November 1998, when Raphael Carter launched the Web_log directory, Bill Humphries had yet another name: “It’s Official — Web Logs are a Movement”. In my data I haven’t found an earlier instance of the term “weblog community” than Barger’s use of it on 17 January 1999, but as a matter of demonstrable fact, it’s the term that came to stick shortly after and that remained the preferred term at least until Barger’s Weblog eGroup broke up in April 2000. Given the archival evidence, it seems disingenious to deny that the weblog community, conventionally assumed to have emerged out of the blue in the first quarter of 1999, was not a direct consequence of Barger’s activities throughout 1998. Should “networking” (or any plausible synonym) turn out to be a better description of those activities than “community building”, I don’t think I’d have any objections. But to dismiss them as mere “credit-building” disregards Bargers genuine enthusiasm for the idea of a group effort, which was in evidence before he discovered Gulker’s NewsPage network in January 1998, and it gratuitously belittles his sincere desire to praise and promote excellence wherever on the Web he found it.

Mark — you’ve called my paper “convincing,” so I’m not sure where you’re trying to go with your arguments from probability and analogy, unless — which I assume — it’s all about overcoming your understandably strong emotional resistance to findings that you’ve already accepted intellectually. If it helps you overcome that resistance: Barger used to have many admirers other than Brad Graham, and some of them were saying very nice things about his work at the time. Maybe I should gather and collate those testimonials for your perusal…

Rudolf Ammann

P.S. Who won the Web
P.S. Who won the Web Innovator of the Year award for 1998? None of the above did. Mozilla did. Runner-up? Linus Torvalds. Richard Stallman wasn’t nominated, and neither was Eric Raymond.

Mark Bernstein

First, I’ve found in
First, I’ve found in historical discussion that it is customary — and often correct — to assume good faith and intelligence with those with whom one disagrees. Different historians draw different conclusions from the same facts. I grant the contribution of your archival research, but have great doubts that you have drawn the appropriate conclusion. Your “assumption” of my motivation is insulting, and happens to be incorrect. I proceed here from the hypothesis that you probably did not intend to express yourself in precisely these terms

What your archival research demonstrates is, necessarily, archival. You have shown that one document, which many believe to have been influential, may in fact depend on an earlier document which Jorn Barger published. This is an intrinsic limit of archives; we learn about documents, but must draw conclusions from those documents about events, and people.

Other explanations may be offered that fit the data. MANY other explanations; that’s what historians do. (Did Athens or Sparta cause the war? Why did Rome decline? Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Was Japan’s Edo-period technological isolationism a wise policy? I’m sure you can argue two, or five, sides to each of these. What makes your topic different?)

Did Barger play a the central role in building the weblog community? You have adduced some documentary evidence that argues for the possibility. But other evidence argues that others played a greater role. We might also consider arguments that the weblog community had no builder, that its shape and properties were technologically determined. We might consider arguments that the weblog community is not what we imagine, but something else entirely — a social circle of young designers linked by business and romantic partnerships, perhaps, or a brief publicity campaign. Perhaps there never was a weblog community.

Think for a moment of some communities where we can point to a reasonably well-established builder. St. Francis and the Franciscans. Pepys and the Royal Society. Winthrop and the Massachusetts colony. Tecumseh and his confederacy. George Ripley and Brook Farm. Randolph and he Pullman Porters. Booker T. Washington and Tuskegee. Jane Addams and Hull House. W. E. B. DuBois and the NAACP. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Step back: do these remind you of Jorn Barger and the Blogosphere? I’m trying not to load the dice here — hence the long and varied list. Take any pair: Pepys and Addams make an odd couple, but sure — you can see lots of things in common. Modest affluence, a generous temperament, the shadow of serious illness in young adulthood, eagerness to engage the ideas of humble and grand alike, remembered as gracious and hospitable hosts, ardent committee-politicians who coped with disabilities of birth and were willing to fight hard behind closed doors, convinced idealists who enjoyed comfortable surroundings.

Pepys and Barger?

Surely, you can see the documentary weaknesses here. You observe that your narrative does not coincide with other, contemporary explanations. Why were they wrong? Why were they not immediately seen to be wrong? Note that you’re not simply fighting one early account, since there seem to be several early, competing stories in play here. Explanations can be adduced, but need to be weighed and judged.

Rudolf Ammann

I meant to tease rather than
I meant to tease rather than offend, while also expressing my puzzlement at your continued demand for an analogy whose intuitively felt adequacy would validate my work, and whose absence would somehow reflect negatively on it. That mixed bag of motives came out wrong. Sorry.

Your mention of John Winthrop made me sit up a little straighter, as, I believe, it suddenly explained our disconnect. It’s a cultural disconnect and, possibly, it’s a consequence of me pushing a few of the wrong buttons across a cultural divide, to wit:

In the US, you’ve got Founding Fathers. You’re heir to a civic tradition in which the title blog father, which has variously been accorded to both Dave Winer and Glenn Reynolds by their respective followers, resonates culturally and implies a high degree of veneration.

Where I’m from, founding fathers primarily evoke suspicion rather than veneration. My namesake (no relation, most likely) Jakob Ammann, the founding father after whom the Amish are named, didn’t leave the country entirely of his own accord; the authorities strongly encouraged him to take his heresies and his followers elsewhere, and good riddance to that rabble rouser, too!

Here’s the disconnect, I believe: I never intended to make Jorn Barger into a founding father, or a counter-cultural variation on the theme of the iconic leader. I never meant to suggest that a self-respecting blogger ought to wear a t-shirt with Barger’s portrait on it.

Maybe I sleep-walked into this. I should have known better than to do whatever I did to suggest Barger was a founding father — or The Founding Father — or even that any credit for his work would need to be deducted from anyone else’s credit for theirs. Interestingly, Scott appears to be on completely safe and unobjectionable ground invoking another great American archetype — the pioneer: according to his book, there were three great pioneers in the history of blogging: Justin Hall, Dave Winer, and Jorn Barger. I don’t see him catching much criticism from you for that particular choice of metaphor, probably because the pioneer is a far less problematic figure than the founding father and, of course, is a lot closer to the regular blogger: you could have a beer and a chat with the prospecting pioneer down at the local saloon, but social relations with the founding father were likely to be trickier and likely to involve a lot more social protocol: “Excuse me, Father Winthrop, could we discuss the sermon you delivered yesterday? About that City on the Hill?” Good job Scott never appeared to be saying Justin Hall was a founding father.

My conference paper is a conference paper. Obviously it’s got its shortcomings. I’ve learned a lot from you about what those shortcomings are, where I need to dig deeper, and where I need to avoid cultural archetypes that convey the wrong idea about what it’s supposed to explain. Thanks!

Give me some time to revise that thing and I’ll make it into something better.

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