a romantic view of weblogs
The Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice for Creating and Maintaining Your Blog
Perseus Publishing, Cambridge MA
ISBN 0-7382-0756-X 196 pp. $14.00
Tragedy tells us that our weblogs are the playthings of the Gods, subject to the whims of fate and fortune. Comedy promises that our weblogs can succeed through hard work, struggle, and good fortune. Melodrama warns us that there are bad people and evil forces in the world, and that only through courage and determination can our weblogs overcome their malignity. And Romance assures us that, though weblogs fail everywhere, our weblog will prosper because we, ourselves, are wonderful.
Rebecca Blood's The Weblog Handbook is an inexorably romantic guide to building and cultivating a weblog. Weblogs are simply Web sites that feature news and opinion, updated frequently, and prominently displaying the most recent information. Almost unheard-of only a few years ago, weblogs have zoomed to prominence; Blood estimates that we may soon be able to choose among 500,000 weblogs, recording everything from teen age romance to the frontiers of scientific research, from celebrity book tours to revolutionary politics.
Blood repeatedly urges webloggers to relax and be themselves.
"The more your weblog reflects your interests and your world view, the stronger your voice will be. Write as if your life were an exotic country, describing it as though it were, describing it as though it were unfamiliar to you. Work hard to share your unique view of the world with anyone who stumbles across your page. Though you may think you are boring or commonplace, your are unlike anyone who has ever lived or ever will.... Your singular way of experiencing and interpreting the world is the only thing that distinguishes you from a hundred thousand other webloggers."
The Weblog Handbook promises in its subtitle to give practical advice, and much of this advice focuses on capturing and preserving spontaneity and naturalness. When Blood enumerates reasons for starting a weblog, most of her answers involve personal or institutional self-improvement:
- Weblogs build better writers
- Weblogs build self-awareness
- Weblogs build critical thinkers
- Weblogs build reputations
- Weblogs build connected businesses -- businesses that efficiently disseminate internal information
Later, she lists four purposes that weblogs serve:
- keeping in touch with family and friends
- information sharing
Only reputation-building is truly outward-directed, and most of Blood's reasons for writing a weblog can be fulfilled even if the weblog goes unread. Social change, justice, and reform are all absent from Blood's motivations; you might start a political weblog because you enjoy politics, but there's nothing here to suggest you'd start one to launch a crusade or expose an injustice. For Blood, as for many diarists, the exercise of writing is its own reward. "If you allow yourself to begin posting entries based on what you think someone else wants you to write," she warns, "you are missing the point of having a weblog."
Blood warns of the personal hazards of writing weblogs and proposes a variety of rules and remedies for avoiding common pitfalls. Trying to update a personal weblog from the work place, for example, is a recipe for disaster; even if you don't succumb to the temptation to write in public about office politics or water-cooler gossip, you risk discovery by snooping managers who may take a dim view of romantic self-expression on company time. If you mention your children or their playmates on your web site, you might expose their names or whereabouts to stalkers. If you obsess about the popularity of your weblog, you will always find that others are more popular than you. If you dedicate yourself to building popularity for its own sake, Blood warns, you may doom your work to bland superficiality.
The growing importance of weblog clusters -- the self-assembling networks of weblogs that share common sympathies, interests, and links -- is prominent in Blood's discussions of Community and Living Online. She highlights the importance of linking to other work, even if it maintains an opposing view, and emphasizes that giving due credit is both good manners and good strategy. Petty politics infect all communities, not least the world of weblogs which can, at some times and in some cyberspace neighborhoods, seem painfully cliquish and self-conscious. Polite and subtle strategies (such as linking to a weblog and then following the link yourself, just to be certain your site shows up in the referrer logs) often prove more effective self-marketing tools than publicity stunts or starting a fight.
If simple authenticity is the goal of weblog writing...then what craft is needed?
Blood's core belief that a weblog's virtues stem from the writer's wonderful uniqueness place her in an awkward position, for to what else can we attribute the success of her own widely-read weblog, Rebecca's Pocket? More seriously, Blood's romantic conviction deters any extensive discussion of craft. If simple authenticity is the goal of weblog writing, and if you -- the Audience Of One -- are the only reader that really matters, then what craft is needed? Just as the romantics eschewed High Fashion for the shepherdess's natural beauties, Blood can offer little guidance beyond clarity, brevity, and sincerity.
It does not often occur to Blood that the weblog's persona need not be an authentic portrait of the artist, nor that the events the weblog depicts might be planned for effect instead of reflecting the writer's spontaneous (though excellent!) whims. Yet it is possible for a weblog to be plotted and planned: the diaries of Kaycee Nicole, a teenaged girl suffering from leukemia whose weblogs captivated a broad audience, were not less moving because Kaycee turned out to be a fictional character. In this light, weblogs take on aspects of both fiction and performance, but the romantic approach leaves little room for either. The frank fascination of the weblog's immediacy lends itself to strong feelings -- Kaycee's painful struggles against the disease and against the indignities of Medicine, or college freshman Justin Hall's exuberant reportage of his own sexual awakening -- but Blood has little advice to offer on harnessing this power beyond prudent warnings that artistic confession may have lasting consequences.
While Blood is fascinated by the social and hypertextual structures that bind the Web, she has no interest in software
While Blood is fascinated by the social and hypertextual structures that bind the Web, she has no interest in software or in the ways particular tools may shape weblogs and weblog clusters. She urges people to choose tools that fit their personalities, and especially recommends free tools. For Blood, weblogs are a pastime, and she is reluctant to spend hard-earned money on them.
At the very end of the Handbook, Blood looks to a weblog future that moves beyond this highly personal, romantic vision and imagines weblogs as a global, communal enterprise.
"If you asked me what the weblog community needs," she concludes, "I would answer, Stronger ties among webloggers from various clusters, more independent thinkers, and more irreverence...Let us use our weblogs to define ourselves individually as we move forward together."
This is a modern, almost a Progressive view, and moves consciously beyond the weblog writer's psyche and the "Audience Of One" to envision weblogs as a force uniting a community. Strong ties among weblog writers only matter, of course, if their irreverence and independence are engaged in something beyond self-improvement. Here, too, we sense an incipient struggle to achieve something outside ourselves, motivated by a suspicion that our intrinsic wonderfulness needs something -- hard work? wit? -- to bear fruit. The present world of weblogs may be personal and romantic, but Blood looks ahead to a better, brighter weblog future.