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July 13, 2011

Filed under: culture»internet

N'est pas un blog

There's one quirk in the publishing process that has always driven me crazy (what, just one?). When we add stories to the main news section of the site, our CMS requires a separate entry for the teaser, headline, and any related links or images. Inside the building, they call these entries--each individual one, mind you--"blogs." Every time I hear it ("I'm going to write a blog for the new debt story." "Can you update the blog to add that link?" "Let's blog a new photo in the top blog BLOG BLOG BLOG.") I want to grind my teeth into little featureless nubs. Which I will call "blogs," because why not? It's not like words mean something!

Breathe. Calm. Find my happy place: Puppies. Sandwiches. Empty spreadsheets. Anyway...

After Google+ launched, something similar happened. People looked at the service, which combines Twitter's asymmetric-follow model with Facebook's rich content stream, and apparently thought to themselves "hey, this thing could be my new blog." Either they redirected their entire domain to their G+ profile (most notably Digg founder Kevin Rose) or (more commonly) they use G+ to write the kind of long-form posts that have traditionally been the province of blogs, whether home-grown or hosted on a platform like Wordpress or Blogger (similar long-form content creation has been attempted on Facebook, but it never really took off). I'm not a fan of this, obviously. It seems to be a real misconception of what blogging is, how it has developed, and where its strengths lie.

In 2011, it is past time that we understand blog culture. The practice of blogging is at least a decade old now. I realized the other day that I've been doing it here for more than 7 years, and I was relatively late to the party. So while I typically hate people who draw large categorical distinctions between, say, "bloggers" and "journalists" almost as much as I hate calling our ledes "blogs," it's not wrong to say that there is a different flavor to the way I publish here, compared to either standalone pieces or social network status updates. I think a lot of it comes down to the surrounding context.

A blog post is not an independent document in the way that (for example) newspaper stories on the same page would be. It's part of a larger dialog with the writer's surroundings, be those people or events. Most of the innovations in blogging--permalinks, comments, blogrolls, trackbacks, and organization-by-tagging, to name a few--revolve around exploring that dialog, implicitly or explicitly. When I write a post, it's informed by many of the posts that came before, by the audience that I expect to read it, and the direction I'm trying to take the blog as a cohesive work-in-progress.

Social networks have some of these aspects: they create dialog, obviously, and they allow sharing and permalinks. But social networks like Facebook and Google+ are not persistent or cohesive the way that a blog is. When you add a status update or whatever they're calling it these days, it's an ephemeral part of your lifestream (to use a now-unfashionable term), alongside all kinds of other activity from across your connections. Unlike a blog, those status updates are not a purposeful body of work. They're a rolling description of you, accreted from the detritus of what you do and what you like. Which is a useful thing to have, but a distinctly different experience from writing a blog.

My blog exists separately from me, while my social media profile is a view of me. That doesn't mean that they're not both valuable ways of interacting with the world. Social networks are great for retaining a kind of "situational awareness" of what my friends are doing, and to maintain a basic connection with them. It's like small talk: it doesn't replace real interaction, but it keeps us from becoming strangers between visits. Blogging, on the other hand, is where I feel like I can dig in and engage mentally. I don't have to worry about being rude by taking over someone's stream, or getting hidden behind a filter. It's a space that's all mine to use, controlled by me, and expressly used for my own purposes. A blog is a place to be a little selfish.

From a technical perspective, a blog is the more curated experience. When someone writes a blog entry, it gets published in a standard, exportable format via RSS. It lives in a database (or in my case, a filesystem) that can be edited and moved. Writing on a blog is property that you can own and control, and it starts from a position of ownership. Writing on a social network, although possible to extract through various APIs or Google's Data Liberation Front, is not under your control in the same way. That may not matter to you now, but one day, if you decide that you want to preserve those words--if you think your writing could become a book, or you want to give your favorite entries to a loved one, or if you just want to preserve them for your own satisfaction--a blog is probably a better option.

There are places of overlap, I think. By relaxing the character constraints, Google+ makes it possible to at least present more complex thoughts than Twitter, and it's a better writing experience than Facebook is. But when people say that they're planning on using Google+ as a blog, I can't help but think that what they really mean is "I didn't really want to blog anyway." I'm glad they've found a solution that works for them: not everyone is cut out to be a blogger. Some days I don't feel like it myself. But when I look back on writing here, on how I feel like I could develop a voice and indulge my obsessions, I wouldn't give this up for all the fancy circles in the world.

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