The Blog Cycle

The basic format of the weblog medium has been pretty much set for more than 5 years now, and it’s enough time that we can probably make some safe observations about bloggers’ behavior.
First, it’s important to note that there is no “blogosphere”. There are hundreds of blogospheres. Each sub-community of weblogs has its own social norms, its own traditions and its own thought leaders. And as each community has formed and evolved, you can see it go through a few common steps as it evolves as a medium.
A lot of these points could be debated, but this is what I’ve noticed as some of the common steps of evolution within a blogging community:

  • What is blogging? There’s an initial period of a lot of excited attention to the format itself, followed by attempts to define blogging, either in reference to other media or by itself. This tends to lead to a lot of heated but fruitless debates with no clear resolution.
  • Our community invented blogging! Notwithstanding the fact that (unless you’re Tim Berners Lee) someone’s already done a large part of blogging before you, each community thinks it has invented/revolutionized blogging. Some acknowledge that there were bloggers prior to their community’s existence, but generally will point out a reason that those examples don’t really count.
  • Blogging vs. Journalism Phew. This old chestnut gets trotted out the first time someone in the community gets press coverage, the first time a blog breaks a news item before the paper of record for that community, or the first time someone makes a transition from blogger to journalist or vice versa. Ultimately, most rational people come to the conclusion that some blogging is journalistic, some journalism happens in the weblog medium, most people are content to have the lines be blurry, and in general the two forms of media are distinct but have some overlap.
  • Where are the women/minorities? We’ve been going through this one again lately in the tech blogging realm, and to a lesser degree I’ve seen it flare up with political blogs. Interestingly, it’s mostly a problem in technology and political blogs, though the most popular members of those communities are loathe to admit it. Other huge and growing communities, like knitters, food bloggers, baby bloggers, and corporate/PR bloggers don’t seem to have nearly as much of a problem being blind to identity when linking to or quoting from others.
  • You’ll get fired! If you read my site, you probably already know my feelings on the subject, but suffice to say each new community has its own backlash on this, especially as people try to find scaremongering ideas to use as the hook for press coverage.
  • Think about the children! This is the other big hook for media coverage that wants a scary angle for a story. Some vague intimation that kids who blog give out their home address and social security numbers, along with the requisite mention of a kidnapping or other threat to children, and you’ve got a basic “be afraid of new things” story. This happens with pretty much anything having to do with the Internet, but when each blog community gets its coverage, it gets the added fear that parents have of their children having a voice.
  • The technology is boring/unimportant. Someone in each community will realize that the core technology for publishing on the web is fairly straightforward, or will make the argument that you can already communicate by writing a broadsheet and tacking it to a telephone poll. This is often the first step in a blog backlash, to form the basis of an argument that blogs are insignificant.
  • Will blogs change the world? Either on their own, or in reaction to the building backlash, some of the most gung-ho bloggers (which, not coincidentally, will often be people who are newest to the medium) will declare it The End of Ignorance or The Birth of Freedom or something equally grandiose. This tends to do a better job of offending doubters than it does of convincing believers.
  • What you do isn’t blogging — do it this way. One good sign that a community is maturing is that some of the earlier or more influential members start trying to dictate how it should be done. Use more bold letters! Don’t use comments! Insert more pictures! Whatever the rule, it’s generally being used to assert authority over the nascent community, or to defend some arbitrary choices that have been made and are now being questioned. Sometimes a new community will splinter off of the existing one if the identity/definition questions are deemed to be fundamental, but usually you’ll just end up with an ugly and long-simmering division.
  • They don’t deserve it! Newer members of a community will lament that the earlier members have a disproportionate influence. This, of course, has been the trend in every human society since the dawn of civilization, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating or any less legitimate a complaint. Nobody’s figured out a way to undo this tendency, but in general, most online communities are actually much easier to enter and participate in than they may at first seem. Write a lot and write well, and see if that doesn’t help.

There’s a lot more common trends, but those are some of the main ones. You’ll see a tendency for parallel communities to hit some of these points simultaneously (for example, the food blog and baby blog communities are both on the rise right now, so infighting can be expected within 6 months or so).

It’s also common to find communities identifying themselves by lashing out at others. Early in the history of weblogs, the distinction between diaries and journals and blogs was an almost political one, with some of the biases still being carried on today. (Bloggers are full of themselves because they think the world wants to hear their opinion on everything; Journalers are full of themselves because they think their friends want to hear them report on everything in their lives.)

Once you see these trends, it becomes much easier to see how there is no one monolithic weblog medium, and that these trends are likely to repeat themselves forever. It can be handy to identify a certain news story or blog post and see where it fits into this list, and to which community it applies.

The other interesting generality about these issues is that they almost all end up not being a big deal. They seem like huge, all-consuming issues of great importance at the time, but they almost always end up being resolved with no clear answer and a vague sense that maybe it wasn’t the end of the world after all. I find it somewhat comforting that humans tend to come back down to a fuzzy moderate position instead of a crystal-clear extremist one.

If you’d like to see the early history of some of these community trends, you can take a look at Weblog Madness, an early resource from when many weblog trends were still forming. Some of the earliest items listed on the media mentions page document the first occurrences of a lot of these concepts. Those of you who’ve been around the medium for a few years – have I missed any big points?