Ten years of push-button publishing

27th August 2009 | More information

On 23rd August 2009, the ten year anniversary of a web service called Blogger passed with barely a blip; only a small handful of news reports show up at Google’s news aggregating service and the world at large has paid little notice to the milestone.

In 1999, a three-person-strong company called Pyra Labs launched the Blogger service and began offering keen personal publishers the opportunity to share their thoughts with the masses. People signed up, word of mouth ensured that the service steadily increased its number of followers and the company even survived what became known as the “dot com bust” around the turn of the Millennium. The popularity of the service and its competitors promoted a term coined in 1997 and now known by millions of people all over the world: the “blog”. In 2002, the service gained a vast increase in visibility thanks to its purchase by media giant Google, thereby bringing the world of blogging into the mainstream and opening the floodgates to an ever widening range of new members.

In the early days of popular services, blogs were started by a core of online afficionados, many of whom had been hand-coding their own websites and communicating with friends and acquaintances through chat rooms, plain text messaging (IRC) and various types of online forum. The ability to blog was generally focused on specialist topics, particularly the medium itself. Early “meetups” – social events for bloggers “in the real world” – rotated primarily around the egocentric theme of blogging. As the medium grew, more specialized groups and services were created, from the blog ring collectives to the photoblog and other derivative websites.

Blogging joins the mainstream

Google’s entry into the blogging world signified the beginning of a wide acceptance by previously non-technical internet users. Blogs began springing up from an ever-increasing number of regular internet users and the medium developed from a technically-oriented environment to a much more commercial one. After the keen adoption of blogging services by politicians and news services, companies and governments began using blogs to improve communication with their customers and audiences. Israel was amongst the first countries in the world to launch an official blog in 2006, when the Foreign Ministry introduced the Israel Video blog: still online today.

Shifting into social networks

One of the major downsides of giving everyone a voice quickly became evident: if you give someone a channel to share their voice, they will probably use it when they have nothing to say. The term “cheese sandwich blog” was coined in the earlier part of this decade to describe a blog where many entries are of no interest, even to the blog’s intended audience. (The term refers to the example of an author writing the inane entry that he is currently eating a cheese sandwich.)

The next stage in the history of blogging was the development of what we today call “social networking” and “microblogging” websites; the leading examples of which are, of course, Facebook and Twitter respectively. (The latter of which, coincidentally, was co-founded by Blogger founder Evan Williams.) The massive rise in popularity of these social networking sites can be assigned to a wide number of causes, but links can easily be drawn between them and the blog: a desire to communicate and be accepted. Evidence of varying levels of social interaction in these websites can easily be seen: from the vociferous user who updates their profile many times each day to those who try to promote their businesses or personal interests.

The “cheese sandwich” blog has developed into the “tweet” and the “Facebook update”. A recent, well-publicized study of Twitter usage came to the conclusion that around 40% of a random sample of updates on the public timeline is “pointless babble”. This figure will perhaps not surprize many – and has indeed enraged quite a few – but it is a sign of how many people take the time each day to use their voice. In the same study, around 37.5% of the updates were conversational; discussions between online contacts or friends, or in response to other people’s updates.

So, what does all this show?

It shows that the internet world is continually identifying what it wants. In the early years of blogging, tools for self-publishing were primarily used by “internet experts”. As more and more people came online, they saw these tools and wanted to use them too; trying out their online voices before they really knew what they wanted to say. Once they found that they didn’t want to spend so much time writing, they looked for alternatives and fell in love anew: with tools which allow them not only to broadcast, but to communicate. Tools like Facebook and Twitter, which don’t require much effort to update but which practically guarantee discussion. These people moved into social networks and many abandoned the blogs they’d set up, preferring to enter into discussion than trying to provide a broadcast channel. Their audiences became more vocal – albeit in a shallower way – with the ability to simply “like” or “dislike” a post or shared link. This feature of social networking websites has enabled a much greater sense of interaction, as the ubiquitous comment box on a blog is rarely completed unless the visitor has something exceptional to communicate.

What started in the 1990s as a possibility for the common man or woman to speak to the world has developed over time into an environment where discussion is becoming more important than broadcasting; so much has even been indirectly acknowledged recently by media legend Rupert Murdoch.

U.S. company Espresso has published two presentations to date (the latest of them in July 2009) going into detail about what is expected of companies in modern online society. Companies themselves are slowly beginning to realize that simply setting up a blog is no longer enough to ensure success in the modern internet world. What consumers search for is discussion; a 2008 report by Core identified that 85% of the users in online social networks don’t want businesses to just have a presence online, but want them to directly interact with their customers.

Blogs are not dead

Of course, this shift in preference doesn’t mean that the blog is dead. Far from it. It simply means that the shift in personal publishing has been more clearly defined. Blogs are still being set up every day: almost 3 million new blogs were created in 2008 alone at just one of the leading hosted blog service providers, wordpress.com. Many of these will be abandoned and most of the remainder will continue to be targeted to a tiny audience: in many cases, family, friends or colleagues.

WordPress.org – which offers the blogging software as a free download for individuals and businesses to implement on their own websites – registered 11 million downloads between summer 2007 and August 2008. This comparison shows that there are many more advanced users wanting to blog on their own sites than those who are simply seeking a channel. I would envisage a much greater shift in these statistics between August 2008 and 2009: the number of new user signups during the last year has increased rapidly; Facebook having over 250 million active users and Twitter allegedly projecting around 25 million users by the end of 2009.

In the ten years since Blogger came on the scene, the “scene” itself has expanded beyond recognition. Where there were but a handful of regular bloggers here in Switzerland ten years ago, there are now thousands. The amount of information which is shared in blogs is beyond imagination and is becoming ever more difficult to filter, to the point where it’s no longer possible to read and view everything you’re interested in. Even using an RSS reader – the imagined death of which was touted in a ZDNet article just yesterday – the filtering of information is difficult at best.

Online publishers can only hope that the increase in popularity of Facebook and Twitter (and ancilliary services such as TwitPic) will encourage the less motivated to move to these services to share their information. Regular web users who want to share information with their friends and family – about “cheese sandwiches” or otherwise – should be encouraged to do so through direct connection in online social networks. By enabling networked friends and family to quickly and easily focus on what is relevant to them, blog service providers will be able to prune unused and abandoned blogs so that the medium will be able to flourish.

*The title of this blog post is taken from Pyra Labs’ 1999 tagline “Push button publishing for the people”.

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