What makes a weblog a weblog?
Fri, May 23, 2003; by Dave Winer.
At Berkman we're studying weblogs, how they're used, and what they are. Rather than saying "I know it when I see it" I wanted to list all the known features of weblog software, but more important, get to the heart of what a weblog is, and how a weblog is different from a Wiki, or a news site managed with software like Vignette or Interwoven. I draw from my experience developing and using weblog software (Manila, Radio UserLand) and using competitive products such as Blogger and Movable Type. This piece is being published along with my keynotes at OSCOM and the Jupiter weblogs conference. And a disclaimer: This is a work in progress. There may be subsequent versions as the art and market for weblog software develops. Dave Winer, June 2003, Cambridge MA.
The unedited voice of a person
During the war in Iraq I came across a page on the BBC website that claimed to be a weblog. Have a look, give it some thought, and then come back.
It's missing most of the technical features common to weblogs. I can't point to an individual bit of writing because it doesn't have permalinks. It doesn't have a calendar, and there's no link to a bio page for each of the authors. There's another problem -- it's not for one person, it's a group weblog; and they're pros, not amateurs.
On the other hand, they are writing about their own experience. And if there's editing it hasn't interfered with the style of the writing. The personalities of the writers come through. That is the essential element of weblog writing, and almost all the other elements can be missing, and the rules can be violated, imho, as long as the voice of a person comes through, it's a weblog.
So, I think the BBC page is a weblog.
Vignette and Wikis
There's been a lot of discussion about the similarities between Wikis and weblogs, but no definitions to allow us to compare them. Assuming a Wiki is a weblog-like system that allows anyone to edit anything (I know some don't) then a Wiki represents an interesting amalgam of many voices, not the unedited voice of a single person.
Similarly, a high-end system like Vignette is designed toward the same end, to make sure the voice of a greater entity, often a corporation or a publication, comes through. The workflow of the high end systems makes sure that individual voices serve the needs of encompassing entity.
Key point: On my weblog no one can change what I wrote. In contrast, having written for professional publications, pros have to prepare for their writing being interfered with. Sometimes you submit right at the copy-edit deadline. Or you write exactly the required number of words so nothing can be cut. But in the end, the words that appear are an amalgam of what your organization thought should be said on the subject you're addressing.
Weblogs are unique in that only a weblog gives you a publication where your ideas can stand alone without interference. It gives the public writer a kind of relaxation not available in other forms. That might mean that in some sense the "quality" of the writing is different, but I would not say lower, assuming the purpose of writing is to inform, not to impress. I would choose a few spelling or grammatical errors over factual errors. Like the child's game of telephone, stories that are passed from department to department in a professional organization can morph into something that bears no resemblance to the facts, or to the original author's point of view. The same is probably true, in some situations, with Wikis.
Technically, what is a weblog?
Now on to the technical features and a definition only a mathematician could love.
A weblog is a hierarchy of text, images, media objects and data, arranged chronologically, that can be viewed in an HTML browser.
There's a little more to say. The center of the hierarchy, in some sense, is a sequence of weblog "posts" -- explained below -- that forms the index of the weblog, that link to all the content in sequence.
What is a weblog post?
A weblog post has three basic attributes: title, link and description. All are optional. Some weblogs only have descriptions. Others always have all three. On my own weblog, Scripting News, all items have descriptions, a few have titles, and most have links, some have several links. Generally, a title cannot contain markup, but the description can.
Most weblog tools require titles. Manila is fairly unique in not requiring them. The tradeoff is simplicity vs flexibility. It's simpler from a user interface standpoint to require the presence of all three basic attributes, but writers can find this limiting.
If one of the basic attributes is optional it's the link. In that case the title of the post is often linked to a permalink for the item (see below).
Most weblog posts are short, a paragraph or two. Some weblog tools provide for longer articles or stories, often by including a place for a summary in the form for a weblog post. If available, there should also be an option for only including the summary in the RSS feed for the weblog.
Archives and permalinks. The home page of the weblog displays the current items, as configured by the editor. The posts scroll through the home page. Some weblogs show you the last 15 posts or the last 7 days; no matter what, eventually the item will scroll off the home page, but it will be permanently stored on an archive page. When people point to a specific post, they link to the archived version, the permanent one, using a permalink. The permalink is often displayed as a pound sign (#); sometimes it's the link from the time of a post. It tells others how to point to the item. It's a good idea to include a permalink if you want others to be able to point to your posts.
Archive page URLs. The Web addresses for archive pages, if properly constructed, can form a user interface for the weblog. For example, if the addresses are in this form: YYYY/MM/DD, one can easily type in a URL for a specific day without navigating. For example, here's a link to an archive page on this site.
Comments. A post might link to a popup window containing reader comments and responses from the author. Three bits of information are generally requested from each commenter, and are optionally retained in a cookie sent back to the reader but not generally retained by the weblog software: name, email address, and website url (usually a weblog).
Calendar. The home page and each archive page of the weblog usually displays a calendar, in the familiar format, that allows the reader to easily locate the archive pages by time. All dates but the one currently being viewed are linked; the current page is displayed in bold, or a different color, basically with some visual attribute that makes it stand out. Movable Type has a way of displaying a calendar in full-screen mode where you can see the titles of the individual posts on each day.
Categories. A post can be categorized or placed in a department. There's a way to view all the posts in a given category, and the RSS rendering indicates what categories a post is in using the category element.
Edit This Page button. When you're looking at a bit of text that needs to be changed, assuming you have editorial permission to edit it, how many steps do you have to take to edit it, and how much memorization is required? Some weblog software makes this trivially simple, every bit of editable text has a button nearby that allows the author to modify it in three steps, click the button, make the changes, save the changes.
Templates. The posts are rendered through a set of templates where the designer (often the same person as the writer) decides how the standard item elements are to be rendered on the page. There may be a post-level template, a day-level template, an overall template for the page, a template for the home page, or other templates. The rendering features, the separation of content from presentation, are the core of what makes a weblog system a content management system.
Static rendering. This is an area of great variability among the different tools. Most tools only do static rendering, e.g. Movable Type and Blogger. Radio does static rendering by default, but if you run the Radio app on a server it can be a fully dynamically rendered (a little-known feature). Manila is fully dynamic, by default, but it supports static rendering (Scripting News is a statically rendered Manila site).
Syndication. An RSS feed is available for the weblog, so people who use news aggregators can subscribe to the weblog. If the weblog has categories or departments each has its own RSS feed.
Pings. When the weblog updates, the weblog system automatically pings Weblogs.Com, subject to a preference. Some weblog software can be configured to ping other change-aggregators such as blo.gs.
Trackback. When a post links to a post on another weblog that supports Trackback it can ping the other weblog to notify it that it has been referred to. In this way each post can serve as a collection point for posts on a given topic.
Notification via email or IM. Some weblog software can automatically notify editors or community members if new posts, pictures, media objects, articles, or comments have been posted. To date no software can do this over instant messaging, although it would be relatively easy to implement.
Plug-in architecture. Some weblog tools define a way for developers to add plug-ins. Movable Type allows plug-ins written in Perl, Manila allows plug-ins written in UserTalk; Radio allows "tools" written in UserTalk.
API Support. Many weblog tools implement some kind of programming interface, making it possible for external tools written in any programming or scripting language to automate repetitive operations, or to integrate the weblog tool with other software, or to provide rich editing tools for creating and editing weblog posts. Most of these APIs are available in XML-RPC, some are also available in SOAP 1.1.
Mailto. It's possible to send an email message to to the author of a post without knowing the email address of the user.
Bulletins. Manila has a feature that allows editors to send bulletins via email to members who have chosen to receive them. Bulletins can be previewed before sending, and the list of members who will receive the bulletin can be browsed before-hand. This flow should also be available through IM.
Referrer tracking. Some weblog software automatically tracks the client browser's referer attribute so that authors can easily see where the hits are coming from.
Rankings. Communities of weblogs love to see who's getting the most traffic and who's pointing to whom. Various rankings are available in some weblog tools to provide this information.
Stories. Consider a weblog that includes longer articles (like this one) linked into the home page. There are two ways to accomplish this, by adding a summary field to the weblog post (Movable Type), or with a story list, manually linked to from a post (UserLand). The next release of Manila will have the same ability to summarize a post as MT.
Pictures. The Web can display text and pictures, so good weblog software not only can store and display pictures for you but has convenient facilities for combining them into sequences and to display them for readers of the site.
Media objects include various Microsoft file formats (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), Macromedia and Apple movies, PDF, downloadable applications -- basically any type of data that might be included with a weblog post, or as an RSS enclosure.
Shortcuts. A shortcut is a quick way to link to a page without having to use HTML, a highly valued feature for non-technical users. In UserLand weblog tools a shortcut is invoked by embedding the name in "double quotes". If something is unintentially hotted-up because of this, the author can override shortcut replacement with a backslash.
Membership. More sophisticated weblog tools have the concept of site membership, to allow editorial roles as below. A user registers with the site, provides a configurable set of information that may be customized by the editors of the site, and receives back a cookie that identifies her as a member of the site. Members can decide if they want to receive bulletins, and if the bulletins should be formatted in HTML or plain text.
Editorial roles determine which members have permission to create new posts, write stories, edit the navigation structure of the site, or edit the templates. In Manila there are five levels in increasing priviledge: non-member, member, contributing editor, content editor, managing editor.
Author information page. Each member can have a page where information gathered about the user is displayed. The editors of the site can decide which information is displayed.
Discussion group. Some weblog software comes with a complete threaded discussion group. All posts have a dual existence, in the form that's viewed by readers of the site, and as a DG for the editorial team.
Group aggregator. RSS-based aggregators can be part of a weblog. Manila recently was updated to include a simple version of the aggregator in Radio UserLand.
Blogroll. Weblogs often have a blogroll, linking to sites that the author thinks are interesting, informative, or useful. The blogroll is where you can see the political relationships between this weblog and other elements of the weblog community. Blogrolls are often stored and shared in OPML, and edited with an outliner.
Hierarchy browser. Using OPML as the format for describing hierarchies, Manila and compatible tools make it possible to author Yahoo-like directories with a compatible outliner.
Slide shows. Similar to the Hierarchy browser feature, but for displaying PowerPoint-like presentations.
Comments and suggestions
Here's a place to note errors, omissions, or kudos on this piece. Please remember this is a work in progress. Your help is appreciated.
The Good, The Bad, and the Blogly, Glenn Reynolds, Tech Central Station, June 18, 2003.
Business is Toying With a Web Tool, Amy Cortese, New York Times, May 19, 2003.
What We're Doing When We Blog, Meg Hourihan, O'Reilly Network, June 13, 2002.
What Is A Weblog?, Russ Lipton, June 11, 2002.
What Are Weblogs, Dave Winer, Weblogs.Com, 2001.
Integrity in Web-writing, Dave Winer, June 18, 2001.
The History of Weblogs, Dave Winer, Weblogs.Com, 1999.
What is Wiki, Ward Cunningham et al, ???.
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