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What's the Fuss on Blogging?

8 May, 2008 By: Tim O Reilly imageSource

What's the Fuss on Blogging?

According to author and “computer software expert” Tim O’Reilly, and
contained in his extensive articles on Web 2.0, from 2005 on, he addresses
multiple components, including  “the wisdom of blogging.” The following excerpt
focuses on the format and some uses of the blog phenomena that millions have
adopted in order to communicate on another level.

According to O’Reilly: one of the most highly touted features of the Web 2.0
era is the increasing rise of blogging. Personal home pages have been around
since the early days of the Web, and the personal diary and daily opinion column
around much longer than that, so just what is the fuss all about?

At its most basic, a blog is just a personal home page in diary format. But
as fellow tech writer Rich Skrenta notes, the chronological organization of a
blog "seems like a trivial difference, but it drives an entirely different
delivery,  advertising and value chain."

The Importance of RSS

One of the things that has made a difference is a technology called RSS. RSS
is the most significant advance in the fundamental architecture of the Web since
early hackers realized that CGI could be used to create database-backed
websites. RSS allows someone to link not just to a page, but to subscribe to it,
with notification every time that page changes. Skrenta calls this "the
incremental Web." Others call it the "live Web." Now, of course, "dynamic
websites" (i.e., database-backed sites with dynamically generated content)
replaced static Web pages well over ten years ago. What's dynamic about the live
Web are not just the pages, but the links.  A link to a weblog is expected to
point to a perennially changing page, with "permalinks" for any individual
entry, and notification for each change. An RSS feed is thus a much stronger
link than, say, a bookmark or a link to a single page.

RSS also means that the Web browser is not the only means of viewing a Web
page. While some RSS aggregators, such as Bloglines, are Web-based, others are
desktop clients, and still others allow users of portable devices to subscribe
to constantly updated content. RSS is now being used to push not just notices of
new blog entries, but also all kinds of data updates, including stock quotes,
weather data, and photo availability. This use is actually a return to one of
its roots: RSS was born in 1997 out of the confluence of Dave Winer's "Really
Simple Syndication" technology, used to push out blog updates, and Netscape's
"Rich Site Summary," which allowed users to create custom Netscape home pages
with regularly updated data flows. Netscape lost interest, and the technology
was carried forward by blogging pioneer, Userland, Winer's company. In the
current crop of applications we see though, the heritage of both parents.  But
RSS is only part of what makes a weblog different from an ordinary web page.

Consultant Tom Coates remarks on the significance of the permalink with,”  It
may seem like a trivial piece of functionality now, but it was effectively the
device that turned weblogs from an ease-of-publishing phenomenon into a
conversational mess of overlapping communities. For the first time it became
relatively easy to gesture directly at a highly specific post on someone else's
site and talk about it. Discussion emerged. Chat emerged.  And - as a result -
friendships emerged or became more entrenched.” The permalink was the first -
and most successful - attempt to build bridges between weblogs. In many ways,
the combination of RSS and permalinks adds many of the features of NNTP, the
Network News Protocol of the Usenet, onto HTTP, the Web protocol. The "blogosphere"
can be thought of as a new, peer-to-peer equivalent to Usenet and
bulletin-boards, the conversational watering holes of the early Internet. Not
only can people subscribe to each others' sites, and easily link to individual
comments on a page, but also, via a mechanism known as trackbacks, they can see
when anyone else links to their pages, and can respond, either with reciprocal
links, or by adding comments.

Two-Way Links

Interestingly, two-way links were the goal of early hypertext systems like
Xanadu. Hypertext purists have celebrated trackbacks as a step towards two way
links. But note that trackbacks are not properly two-way–rather, they are really
(potentially) symmetrical one-way links that create the effect of two way links.
The difference may seem subtle, but in practice, it is enormous. Social
networking systems like Friendster, Orkut, and LinkedIn, which require
acknowledgment by the recipient in order to establish a connection, lack the
same scalability as the Web.  As noted by Caterina Fake, co-founder of the
Flickr photo sharing service, attention is only coincidentally reciprocal.

If an essential part of Web 2.0 is harnessing collective intelligence,
turning the Web into a kind of global brain, the blogosphere is the equivalent
of constant mental chatter in the forebrain, the voice we hear in all of our
heads. It may not reflect the deep structure of the brain, which is often
unconscious, but is instead the equivalent of conscious thought. And as a
reflection of conscious thought and attention, the blogosphere has begun to have
a powerful effect.

First, because search engines use link structure to help predict useful
pages, bloggers, as the most prolific and timely linkers, have a
disproportionate role in shaping search engine results. Second, because the
blogging community is so highly self-referential, bloggers paying attention to
other bloggers magnifies their visibility and power. The "echo chamber" that
critics decry is also an amplifier. If it were merely an amplifier, blogging
would be uninteresting. But like Wikipedia, blogging harnesses collective
intelligence as a kind of filter. What James Suriowecki calls "the wisdom of
crowds" comes into play, and much as PageRank produces better results than
analysis of any individual document, the collective attention of the blogosphere
selects for value.

While mainstream media may see individual blogs as competitors, what is
really unnerving is that the competition is with the blogosphere as a whole.
This is not just a competition between sites, but a competition between business
models. The world of Web 2.0 is also the world of what Dan Gillmor calls "we,
the media," a world in which "the former audience," not a few people in a back
room, decides what's important.

Excerpt by Tim O'Reilly, publisher of the iconic "animal books" for software
developers, creator of the first commercial website (GNN), organizer of the
summit meeting that gave the open source software movement its name, among many
other endeavors. Contact him at:

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