Weblogs maybe old hat, but these cyber-paperchains have gained an army of admirers.
The world wide web is like the ancient city of Troy: there are layers upon layers, and the further you dig, the further back you go. One of the best examples of this is the blog.
Today, its star is in the ascendant. It benefits, of course, from a name that manages to be down-to-earth and yet mysterious, curt yet clever - the first time, at least, that you discover it is a contraction of the word "weblog".
It is probably as much a reflection of the general paucity of really innovative ideas elsewhere on the web that blogs have become so high-profile. The mainstream press in particular has entered a phase of uncritical admiration of a kind that it has lavished before on portals and push (remember Pointcast?).
What is truly remarkable about this interest in blogs is that there is nothing remarkable about them. They began as one person's set of pointers to web pages, but have metamorphosed into something more like a set of pointers to other blogs, to form a kind of self-referential cyber-paperchain.
The only new element in this intertwined set of linked pages is the complicated skein of cross-links they create. Five years ago, the same idea without that skein was called a webring, and some people were as excited about webrings as others are now about weblogs. Webrings never really made the breakthrough to the mainstream, but they are still wending their circular way around the web.
If the new-style blogs are old hat, the old-style, original blogs are even more unoriginal. The best bloggers know this. For example, Dave Winer, one of the true characters of the internet, has pointed out that the blog is a direct descendant of the famous What's New page of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, creator of the graphical web browser that turned the internet into a mass medium, Mosaic. He also notes that it stretches even further back, to one of the first Web documents ever created by Tim Berners-Lee.
This gives a clue as to why blogs were taken up so quickly. They are simply the latest incarnation of an idea that goes back to the roots of the web: sharing interesting links with like-minded people. In a sense, all along there has been a secret blog nation that periodically moves on to the latest form of this basic idea. Given this constant re-invention, an interesting question is: where are blogs in the cycle of birth and death?
A good place to find out is another piece of classic bloggery, from Doc Searls. Searls is a man with an impeccable geek pedigree. As well as being senior editor of Linux Journal, he is also joint author of one of the quintessential sites/books of the internet era: The Cluetrain Manifesto.
So the man clearly has his finger on many pulses, is highly intelligent and knows how to write. And yet I find his blog unappealing in the extreme. In the main text, the density of hyperlinked words is such that it impedes your ability to read it. And the blogroll down the right-hand column is so extensive, and inclusive as to be useless. It is simply not possible to explore more than a few of these.
And so what in many ways represents the acme of the blog is also a sign that it is entering a decadent phase of exaggeration and over-ripeness. Who knows what exciting form the blog nation's next web medium of choice will take?
This was first published in February 2003