When the Mainstream Media First Met the Blog

About 10 years ago, mainstream newspapers began to try to explain blogs to their readers. Here is what they said.

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Blogs are such an accepted form of media now that every major newspaper and most Fortune 500 companies have them. Magazine editors blog and federal department heads blog. Gwyneth Paltrow blogs and so does your mom.

But it was only a decade ago that blogs were seen as some strange beast rising out of the Internet abyss. The following press accounts recount early traditional media encounters with these reverse-chronological dragons that indicated the edge of the media map.

In August 1997 InfoWorld ran one of the earliest accounts of blogs. In fact, when they wrote these paragraphs, Chip Brookshaw, Eric Hammond, and Brooks Talley didn't even use the words "blog" or "Web log" or "weblog"; the nomenclature didn't exist. But despite the missing vocabulary, Brookshaw, Hammond and Talley had some pretty insightful things to say about the coming media:

You may have caught wind of the latest technology that promises to be every user's electronic secretary: intelligent agents. In theory, these bots will eventually crawl the Internet collecting and collating bits you've indicated might be of value. We haven't seen a proof-of-concept yet, but there's some flesh-based filtering happening on the Web now that's beaten software agents to the punch.

Several online news sites offer headlines and off-site links to hot stories, but the coolest filtering is personality-driven. It's the model through which the Web blossomed: In its infancy, the Net's most popular pages were simply the bookmarks of early adopters. So if you need an intelligent agent, pick one with some street smarts. Dave Winer, for instance, is a sunchild-cum-gadfly who updates his Scripting News site (http://www.scripting.com) several times a day with a thread of links that record the ebb and flow of industry doings. By doing so, Winer both sparks and records a fascinating dialogue. Another strong voice is Michael Sippey, architect of Stating the Obvious (http://www.theobvious.com). Tellingly, Sippey calls his daily list of links "Filter."

The sites aren't as personalized as an envelope from Mom stuffed with hometown news clippings that "you really should read," but they've got the heart that algorithms and Boolean logic don't.

But that's InfoWorld, a magazine perhaps predisposed to have an open mind about technologically driven changes to the media ecosystem. Would more mainstream outlets have a similar attitude? Not so much. What follows is a collection of some of the earliest writing about blogs from venerable print publications.

From The New York Times, "Invasion of the 'Blog': A Parallel Web of Personal Journals," by David Gallagher, December 28, 2000, one of the earliest mainstream explanations:

The concept is simple enough. Create a Web page. Update it regularly with brief personal reflections or witty commentary, sprinkled with links to other pages. Put new entries at the top of the page, pushing older ones down. Voila, you've got yourself a Web log.

That may not sound like the recipe for a social movement. But in the past two years, thousands of people have started their own Web logs, creating a vast sprawl of sites that, to the uninitiated, might feel like a parallel Web universe.

...

Web logs are elaborately cross-linked, with Web loggers reading and commenting upon one another's sites, creating a kind of fragmented conversation. But a personal Web log is, in the end, a private playground, a place for self-expression without the criticism and hostility that can flame up in online forums.

Also from The New York Times, about a year and a half later, in May of 2002, by Judith Shulevitz (emphasis mine):

The current craze is for something called a blog. The name is the diminutive of ''Weblog,'' an online news commentary written, usually, by an ordinary citizen, thick with links to articles and other blogs and studded with non sequiturs and ripostes in sometimes hard-to-parse squabbles.

Here's what blogs are not: (1) the super-personalized news filters that social critics fretted would splinter the nation into a million tiny interest groups, or (2) the Drudge Report. Blogs don't limit your news intake, break stories or promulgate rumor, at least not intentionally. They have an only seemingly more innocent agenda. Blogs express opinion. They're one-person pundit shows, replete with the stridency and looniness usually edited off TV.

Needless to say, blogs are addictive. They are not, however, the most economical use of your time. To read blogs requires a willingness to wander from link to link in the hope that some mind-numbingly detailed dispute over, say, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Catholic Church's position on homosexuality or an Oscar nomination will resolve itself into a usable insight.

From The Washington Post, on May 17, 2001:

Blog on, America. There's a blogger lurking in every house -- you, too, could start your own blog.

If you don't know what "blog" means, you've been wallowing too long in dot-com gloom. Blog is slang for a Web log -- an online personal journal that comes in many flavors. Unlike the incredibly shrinking commercial Web, blogging is flourishing, thanks to point-and-click tools that let anyone create and update an online log as easily as firing off e-mail.

Format is what distinguishes blogs from other kinds of personal Web pages. Blogs contain brief entries arranged chronologically, the most recent at the top of the main page, like a diary in reverse. Most link to material their authors find interesting across the Web, adding the blogger's two cents and helping readers find e-nuggets they might otherwise miss.

Blogging software is spawning tens of thousands of second-generation Matt Drudges. Some of their productions resemble intensely personal diaries; others focus on career interests.

In this September 12, 2002 piece from the Los Angeles Times, we have an early use of the term "blogosphere," albeit with slightly different punctuation:

The rants are pulsing through the blog-o-sphere again, which, on most days, would mean that the online community is in its usual state of trippy high drama. Except that, this time, the topic is a radical expansion of the blog-o-sphere itself, one that would include a contingent of--quick, bottoms up on the Red Bull--traditional journalists (the ones who write, as the lexicon has it, dead-tree pieces).

In the quirky world known as the blog-o-sphere, hundreds of thousands of ordinary individuals run Web logs, or "blogs," interactive newsletters of sorts with bite-sized chunks of copy updated daily, or, in some extremes, several times an hour. On the personal Web sites, bloggers post tidbits of commentary and host unfiltered public forums in which rumors fly, news is weighed and the blog-o-sphere's stars (known simply as Dave, Meg or Evan) are pondered. The most popular bloggers build a sense of community by linking to each other and writing in a voice that cartwheels off the page, as a distinct alternative to what they see as the distant, establishment voice of newspaper journalists and others. Hence, the latest angst-filled question: Whither the blog-o-sphere, not to mention the future of the news media as we know it?

Perhaps the most surprisingly positive take is this Wall Street Journal piece from Peggy Noonan, published on July 6, 2002:

On Sept. 11, [the Internet] was the light that didn't fail. Phones in New York and Washington went down but the Internet kept humming. Separated parents, children and friends instant-messaged news of their safety, or wrote last words. And within the Internet this year the rise of a new institution: Blogging. The 24-7 opinion sites that offer free speech at its straightest, truest, wildest, most uncensored, most thoughtful, most strange. Thousands of independent information entrepreneurs are informing, arguing, adding information. Imagine if we'd had them in 1776: "As I wrote in yesterday's lead item on SamAdams.com, my well-meaning cousin John continues his grammatical nitpicking with Jefferson (link requires registration). 'Inalienable,' 'unalienable,' whatever. Boys, let's fight. Start the war." Blogs may one hard day become clearinghouses for civil support and information when other lines, under new pressure, break down.

William Safire, the New York Times's language columnist, responded in his characteristic style:

In an upbeat Independence Day column in The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan, the incurable optimist, wrote about all ''the lights that didn't fail'' America -- from cops and firemen to peach-growing farmers and cancer-curing scientists, from local churches to TV comedians to blogging .

Blogging ? She explained the word as ''the 24/7 opinion sites that offer free speech at its straightest, truest, wildest, most uncensored, most thoughtful, most strange. Thousands of independent information entrepreneurs are informing, arguing, adding information.''

Blog is a shortening of Web log . It is a Web site belonging to some average but opinionated Joe or Josie who keeps what used to be called a ''commonplace book'' -- a collection of clippings, musings and other things like journal entries that strike one's fancy or titillate one's curiosity. What makes this online daybook different from the commonplace book is that this form of personal noodling or diary-writing is on the Internet, with links that take the reader around the world in pursuit of more about a topic.

To set one up (which I have not done because I don't want anyone to know what I think), you log on to a free service like blogger.com or xanga.com, fill out a form and let it create a Web site for you. Then you follow the instructions about how to post your thoughts, photos and clippings, making you an instant publisher. You then persuade or coerce your friends, family or colleagues to log on to you and write in their own loving or snide comments.

''Will the blogs kill old media?'' asked Newsweek, an old-media publication, perhaps a little worried about this disintermediation leading to an invasion of alien ad-snatchers. My answer is no; gossips like an old-fashioned party line, but most information seekers and opinion junkies will go for reliable old media in zingy new digital clothes. Be that as it may (a phrase to avoid the voguism that said ), the noun blog is a useful addition to the lexicon.

When did that column run? July 28, 2002, nearly a month after Noonan's bit. Today, of course, were he here, Safire would no doubt have fired off his response much more quickly, on a Times blog.


InfoWorld item via @davewiner. Image: B&T Media Group Inc./Shutterstock

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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