It's a blog's life

Internet - Andrew Brown succumbs to the anarchic appeal of the web log

Blogs are one of the stranger forms of web publishing. The name is an in-joke abbreviation of "Weblogs" but much less misleading, since a log suggests some kind of organised record of the things that happen on a website, and the whole point of a blog is that it is the disorganised record of the voyagings of an intelligent mind. A blog is a web page, something like a public commonplace book, which is added to each day. There is also in many of them a certain newsy aspect, so that they record significant as well as merely interesting events. If there is any log they resemble, it is the captain's log on a voyage of discovery; and more than anywhere else they preserve the idea of the web as something with raggedy edges and strange attachments, rather than a homogenised circle of programming.

I first found them through Bifurcated Rivets, which proves that you can't have a proper blog without a name that would have been rejected as too weird and corny for an art-school punk band. This is maintained by Lindsay Marshall, an academic in Newcastle who has had two other excellent web ideas: the Virtual Memorial Garden, a site where people could put up their own memorials to the dead; and the webbed version of the Risks Digest, which is in many respects a proto-blog. The Risks Digest is a compilation of stories and discussions about all the things that go wrong with computers and their consequences in society. When magic money machines go berserk, when planes fall out of the sky or power failures take out the 999 system, the Risks Digest is the place to find informed discussions of what really happened. It started off as a Usenet discussion group, but the page that Lindsay Marshall runs collects all the postings, indexes them and makes them searchable. There are hardly any graphics, no ads and no flash, and it is altogether indispensable for anyone who wants to know what's really going wrong in the world.

Bifurcated Rivets is rather different. It is a succession of gentle, sharp-edged thoughts, like Japanese calligraphy. There is an odd intimacy to these things, as if they were addressed to the reader across the breakfast table. Quite a few discuss the happenings on other blogs. Though anyone with a web page could start a blog, there is clearly a ring of long-established ones, which must also be frequently updated if they are to keep up. Frequent updates are one distinguishing mark of a blog; another is links that run two ways, so that a simple entry such as "Jen told me about this" will have a link both to "Jen" (who runs a blog called "Whim and Vinegar") and "this", which turns out to be a Swiss Army knife especially for geeks. I don't know why the world needs one of these: you can assemble a computer perfectly well with nothing more than an ordinary Swiss Army knife. But if you like blogs, you will want one of these tools, which are full of specialised screwdrivers. Besides, it's a delight to discover that Victorinox, the company that makes Swiss Army knives, actually has a website, picturing all its innumerable models.

Some blogs are more technically oriented. It is a wonderful way for an opinionated programmer to opinionate and even in emergencies to bloviate (go on at extreme length) without damaging the environment. But most strive for a certain distance from their subject matter. "I dreamt all night about programming languages," writes Rebecca Blood on hers, "and what is worrying is that they were good dreams."

What really distinguishes a blog from a normal home page, though, is that it is made by someone who likes reading, and expects their visitors to do so. It is customary to put a list of books being read to one side, along with recently watched music and films. These lists link to Amazon.com; one reason for doing this is the Amazon "associates" program, which pays people who direct others to buy a book on Amazon's website. But it is quite common to find that book recommendations go through charity sites, which take the associates' profit and pass it on to good causes.

Blogs are never going to be big business and they're not the future of the web, either. But I find that I visit them more and more because in the blogs you can still find that educated, anarchic spirit - rather as I imagine medieval universities to have been, full of wandering scholars - which once seemed the natural atmosphere of the whole World Wide Web.

This article first appeared in A world without children

1999-10-11