Visit my new Technology News website, TECHPopuli.

January 25, 2004

What makes a blog?

As I worked on this posting I started to think that it may be a "rite of passage" in the blogosphere to write a "what makes a blog" article. This one is mine.

I've been thinking about these things for many months, but my first visit to the Berkman Thursday meeting prompted me to write down my thoughts.

Blogs are hot these days. Throughout the history of personal computers there has been one meme after another that excited the computer world, and was then imitated by others. Some of the imitators "got it", but many did not.

There were periods in the life our industry where it seemed like every product was described as "desktop", or prefixed with an e-, or an i-. The list goes on.

Today, it's hot to be a blog.

Many of these faux blogs are good and valuable web resources. But they're not all blogs.

Here are the elements I think you must have in order to call yourself a blog.

First let's be clear. This is not about ALL the things that blogs CAN be. It merely attempts to describe the things that this author think as a minimum MUST exist for a website to describe itself as a blog.

The short list:

  • Reverse chronological order
  • Individual/Personal
  • Linkage
  • Syndicated
  • "Permalinks"

    There are exceptions, but in my (not so humble) opinion, a website really ought to have all these things if it's gonna call itself a blog.

    Let me elaborate on them.

  • Reverse chronological order

    This is one of the most visible attributes of a blog. It makes the most recent, most timely, info the first thing you see. And it allows the reader to easily catch up on what's new, by reading from the top down until a familiar item is encountered.

    Reading blogs in an aggregator is the subject for another self-important screed, but I do want to observe here, that although most (all?) aggregators do display blog posts in reverse chron, the nature of aggregation might make this reverse ordering less critical. We'll need to think about that.

  • Individual/Personal

    A couple of my favorite blogs are written by groups of people. Boing Boing and are great, and I acknowledge that they are blogs. But I submit that they are the very rare exceptions.

    A blog is authored by an individual. It is the personal perspective of one person. That's what makes it interesting. It has an individual character, its own voice.

    One person I read said that all blogs should have a bio of the author. I like it when there's a bio. It adds to the sense of personality. But I don't think it's a requirement. In a good, active blog, the archive of posts becomes a sort of implicit bio. You learn about the author by the things they write about, and point to.

  • Linkage

    Another of the things that make blogs powerful is that they don't exist in a vacuum. They are out there in the world. They inspire, and are inspired by, other web writing, and the events of the "real" world.

    A blog enriches itself by having links to source material, and other postings, about its topics.

    Website writing without links can be excellent reading. But it's not blogging.

    I also think that, more often than not, a blog should include excerpts, and quotes, from the linked material. It can be as little as a few words, or many paragraphs.

    Don't reprint the whole piece, but give the reader some idea of why the link is interesting, and motivate (tease) them to click-through.

  • Syndicated

    More and more readers are using aggregators to help them keep up with surging quantity of good blogging out there. Your blog must provide a syndicated version of itself in one (all?) of the popular formats.

  • "Permalinks"

    As I said above, linkage is a very important part of blogging. So your site must support a reliable, long-term way for others to link to your posts.

    I put permalinks in quotes, cause I think this is, technically, a tricky subject.

    Ideally the links to your blog would last forever. That's a good goal. But in reality it's not a trivial exercise to devise a scheme that will survive all the imponderables that can come our way.

    For example, one of the 'sphere's most devoted bloggers, John Robb, had all his links break awhile back, 'cause he had relied on the domain name he was writing under to always be his host. Beyond his control, that changed, and his links all broke.

    Dave Winer, on the other hand, recently changed the whole architecture of his blog, and in the process he made a big effort to keep all the old links working. He succeeded. But it's not trivial.

    What I guess I'm saying here is that this is a good goal, but "permanent" is a long time.

    So anyway, your blog should provide links to each of your posts. And we expect those links to work for the forseeable future.

    DaveW said there should be a Calendar into your archive of past posts. I'm assuming here that he meant the "month-at-a-glance" calendar that is a signature of his, and of others', blogs.

    There definately should be a way to browse through the archive. But whether it looks like a month-at-a-glance calendar, or just a list, or something else, is a design question. There are various ways that will work.


    Those are my requirements. There are lots more, cool, blog features, that make things nice, and more interesting, for the reader and the author. I'm not going to go into all of them here. Read the sources below for some ideas.

    But I do want to touch on a few things that didn't make my list.

  • Frequent

    I came very close to saying that a blog must have frequent postings. Daily, or every other day at least. But I'm kinda on the fence on this. I definately think that the best blogs are added to very often. But there are many sites that don't do "daily", and I can't say that they are not blogs.

    Also, one source that I read said that each blog entry must have a timestamp. I hadn't thought about that one. I'm not gonna call that a requirement. But, like a bio, it enhances the experience.

  • Distinctive Voice

    I was tempted to say that a blog must have its own voice. That it must regularly cover a certain group of topics, and speak to us in a writing style, that we can come to recognize. But I decided that this is another of those things that make a good blog, but is not a requirement.

    Readers return to a given blog because it talks about topics that interest them. And we also grow to value the "speaking style" of the author. Halley writes like Halley, and Dave like Dave, and Doc like Doc. That's one of the things that draws us back.

  • blogroll

    Does a blog need to have a list of other blogs? Most do have one, but I don't think it's a requirement. Many of these lists have become so long now that they are really not all that useful. OK, it is additional linkage, and that's good, but not a requirement.

  • A Comments Area? email contact?

    My blog has a fairly active Comments area. If I turned it off it would change the character of my blog, and probably make it less appealing. It works for my relatively small audience. But the very popular blogs can get so many comments that they become hard to read, and hard for the blog author to manage. As a result many good blogs have no Comments, or feedback area.

    I do think a blog should provide some sort of email address for direct feedback. But I'm not calling that a requirement.

    So that's my take of the things that make a blog. I'd like to hear what you think. Put you responses into a Comment, or write it up on your blog and link back to here. Leave a note about your blog in Comments and I'll link to you.


    After I wrote my first draft of this piece I looked at the postings which I've listed below to give me a "reality check" on whether I'd missed anything. They reminded me of a few things that I have added here. But they each include some elements that I, respectfully, believe are not requirements. Take a look, decide for yourself.

    Of these, the one that most closely mirrors my thinking is Meg Hourihan's "What We're Doing When We Blog".


    Michael (Dowbrigade) Feldman, 2003: What Makes a Blog a Blog?

    Dave Winer, 2003: What makes a weblog a weblog?

    Glenn Reynolds , 2003: The Good, The Bad, and the Blogly

    Dave Winer, 2002: What is a weblog?

    Meg Hourihan: 2002: What We're Doing When We Blog

    Dave Winer, 1999: What is a weblog?

    7/12/99 : What is a Weblog ? "A weblog is a new kind of website that's becoming popular and is easy to create and update. A weblog links to other websites, it's a collection of links, updated frequently, often several times a day, that represent the interests of a single web person. It's a neat way to share what you learn with other people who like to use the web."

    Posted by jghiii at January 25, 2004 04:46 PM
  • Comments
    Post a comment