Scott Rosenberg Traces the Blogosphere’s Origins

    by Simon Owens
    September 22, 2008
    Scott Rosenberg

    In July of last year, the Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Happy Blogiversary,” claiming that it had officially been 10 years since the blog was born. The writer cited Jorn Barger, owner of a site called Robot Wisdom, as the first blogger. After all, it was Barger who first coined the term weblog in 1997, a word that would be later truncated into the monosyllabic blog.

    But Scott Rosenberg wasn’t convinced. A co-founder of Salon.com and former technology editor for that site, Rosenberg knew that several online destinations that preceded Barger’s site still met the technical definition of a blog — a website that publishes updates in reverse chronological order — including Dave Winer’s Scripting News and Ric Ford’s Macintouch. By the time that Journal article was published, Rosenberg had already been kicking around the idea of writing a book on the history of blogs for some time.

    “I was on tour for my first book, Dreaming In Code, in 2007,” he told me recently. “I was out in Portland and I was with Matt Haughey, the guy who started Metafilter and an early blogger himself…He’s a smart guy full of interesting ideas and he just offhandedly said that nobody has really written the history of blogging. Having just written one ambitious and difficult book, I said, ‘Yeah, nobody has, and nobody will.’”


    Famous last words. And the Wall Street Journal article only stoked the flames; Rosenberg soon became even more convinced that such an historical account was necessary, both for the tech-savvy community and the laymen who only stumble across oblique references to blogs in more mainstream news outlets. He finally approached his agent with the idea in late 2007, half expecting it to be shot down.

    “When I started blogging at Salon in 2002, I thought, ‘We’re too late for this blogging thing, we missed the boat.’ I thought that blogging had happened already,” he explained. “For this book, one of my concerns was that it might be difficult to sell because blogging history is ancient history in [Silicon] Valley. And here in the Bay Area, blogging is certainly an important thing, but it has been partially eclipsed by social media. So I was a little worried how this would fly.”

    But his agent went for it, and he spent the next several months writing a proposal for the book, fleshing out the direction he wanted to take and how he would conduct research. His agent approached Crown, the publisher of his first book, and a few days before Christmas 2007 the company officially made an offer on the project.


    The Evolution of Blogging

    Speaking with Rosenberg about his book, I felt like we were discussing evolutionary biology. Rosenberg’s research goes beyond highlighting the earliest blogs, and slowly pieces its way through the primordial ooze of the Internet, tracing a line of websites in the early 1990s that first began taking on blog-like characteristics.

    “Most of the people I’ve talked to, I’ve asked who had inspired them,” he said. “Who were you reading when you decided to start blogging? To a certain point that becomes a harder and harder thing the further back you go. For instance, Justin Hall started his site in January 1994, before most of us had heard of the web. I asked him, ‘Well, you’re one of the first bloggers, was there anyone out there who you were getting inspiration from?’ And he pointed me to this other guy named Ranjit Bhatnagar who was keeping a site at moonmilk.com in 1993. And, sure enough, it was a reverse chronological list of stuff he found on the web.”

    i-01f9ab75fb58ef1d8725f6f93aa04db4-moon milk.jpg

    A view of moonmilk.com from the early ’90s

    As with most web innovations, the blogosphere moved forward in fits and starts before exploding across the Net, creating a quick succession of firsts — the first person to get fired because of something written on a blog; the first first blog to receive a major journalism award, etc. Rosenberg sees it as his job to examine the myriad turning points in the medium, exploring how they affected the practice of blogging and led to further innovations in the field.

    To do this, he interviewed over 100 bloggers, traveling to blog conferences and other online media meet-ups. Rosenberg uses these first-person accounts to detail how the bloggers pioneered new methodologies of online journalism and how they handled the unforeseen hurdles that often sprouted up like weeds. As blogging became more widespread, practitioners often faced the same ethical and practical scenarios that have plagued mainstream journalists for years.

    H2.Recognition as a Legit News Source

    While discussing pivotal breakthrough moments in blogging history, our conversation eventually turned to Joshua Marshall, founder of liberal political website TalkingPointsMemo. Marshall recently won a George Polk Award for his reporting on the firing of several U.S. attorneys — he is the first blogger to have won the award. Marshall first reached prominence several years ago after exposing controversial statements made by then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott praising Strom Thurmond’s racial segregation platform. Before speaking to Rosenberg, I had assumed — incorrectly — that TalkingPointsMemo first broke that story.

    “I should say to begin with that this is one of the valuable things for me to do,” Rosenberg told me. “You go dig into these stories like the Trent Lott story, which I go into great detail in the book. It turns out to be really complicated. Josh is credited, and deservedly so, for playing a very important part in that story. But he didn’t break the story.

    “It was more like ABC News had actually reported on the story, but then it just disappeared and dropped off the media map. And then Josh Marshall, with the help of some other bloggers, started beating the drum on it and said, ‘Wait a minute, this really is a story.’ He started digging up tidbits to show that what Lott had said was actually something that he had been saying over and over through the years; it wasn’t this bizarre slip. He put that together, and then five or six days later, the Big Media picks it up again, and it becomes a story.”

    This incident highlights the often-contentious relationship that has bubbled up between the mainstream media and the blogosphere, one in which words like “curmudgeons” and “amateurs” are bandied about in haphazard jabs as bloggers clamor for legitimacy in the 24-hour news cycle. Several traditional journalists had mocked Marshall, for instance, when he first began reporting on the U.S. attorney firings, only to later apologize when the controversy ended up being newsworthy.

    The Original Pioneers

    When it comes to the history of blogging, few are more knowledgeable than Rebecca Blood, the first person to attempt to write a comprehensive article on the subject. Her essay, “Weblogs: a history and perspective,” approaches the issue from the point of view of an insider who has been immersed in the blogosphere since almost the beginning.


    Rebecca Blood

    Written and published in 2000, the essay begins by listing a number of bloggers who emerged in the late 1990s. This was before the advent of Web 2.0. and the ready availability of free blogging software, meaning that most of these early web writers had to create their sites from scratch.

    “I was one of the original bandwagon jumpers,” Blood told me. “People at this point consider me to be one of the original bloggers, but from my perspective I came late to the party. The original blogs started in 1997 and that’s when I became an avid reader. At that time, you could read all of them every day; there were just a handful.”

    She described this first group as a close-knit band of web enthusiasts, a herd of filters whose sole focus was to find interesting pages online and then post links to them. It was in this Wild West of the web — when the tech bubble was quickly approaching the popping point — that three main factions emerged, each scrambling to gain legitimacy.

    Besides bloggers, “There were two other groups of people at the time who were producing online work,” Blood said. “There were the journalers and the zinesters; both preceded the weblogs, really.”

    I pointed out that online journalers were usually considered bloggers, to which she refuted, “They weren’t blogs; they were a completely separate community. They had a different form where they would put one entry on a page and then you’d have to click on a link to go to the next entry. It was as if they had transferred a print journal to the web.”

    She explained that it was often the zinesters, who wrote for and published online magazines, called ezines, who looked down upon the early bloggers. Their argument — that they spent hours crafting publishable prose while the bloggers merely linked to the content of others — is still repeated today by mainstream media critics.

    “But the bloggers, those who were doing it, really did think what we were doing was important,” Blood said. “We were filtering the web for people. We were pointing to things we thought were interesting. It’s kind of ironic, given that there are so many weblogs now. When we started, we were creating signal to noise — we were trying to pull out the good stuff on the web. But now, of course, there are so many weblogs that they just contribute to the noise. It’s impossible to even read all the good ones in a day much less read all of them.”

    Most early bloggers, including Blood, hadn’t expected how widespread this noise would become — or rather, how many millions of blogs would sprout up after free software became widely available. Though Blood predicted that the medium would gain in legitimacy and popularity, she thought these gains would only be reflected in growing readership.

    “I stopped making these predictions years ago when all my predictions were wrong,” she told me. “When we were doing it back then, I honestly never envisioned the expanse of the blog universe. I thought that those of us who were blogging would gain larger and larger audiences over time, until we had sort of a mainstream-sized readership. It never occurred to me that everybody would want to blog, that instead of 150 blogs with 10,000-people sized audiences, there would be millions of blogs. That’s completely backwards of what I expected. So as much as I was a pioneer, I was still thinking in old media terms.”

    Bloggers Ignorant of Their Past

    I asked Rosenberg to compare his book project to Blood’s essay; in what ways would his work expand on hers? He explained that her piece was written from the perspective of someone immersed in the field, what he called “primary source material.”

    “On one level, I think her account is very much of its time and place and shaped by her experience up to that point,” he said. “In fact, I interviewed her a few months ago. I sat down and talked to her about all the changes between then and now. A big difference is that my book is an attempt to write for a wide readership, just as ‘Dreaming in Code’ is an attempt to write about software development for people outside the software world…It’s a little bit of a different approach than Rebecca’s post because a lot of it centers around profiles of people whose stories represented some particular aspect of blogging, or some problem that blogging brings up.”

    But though the book — tentatively titled “Say Everything” and scheduled to come out next summer — will be written to engage a non-tech savvy audience, Rosenberg hopes that it will have a certain appeal to already-converted web evangelists. These very online media enthusiasts, he has found, are often clueless as to their medium’s origins.

    “Because I think that the technology industry and the web community are often a little bit ignorant of their own past,” he said. “I found this writing about software development in ‘Dreaming in Code.’ A lot of programmers are really smart people, but then a lot of them know shockingly little about their own field. It’s a cliche but a line of great merit, the one about ‘if you don’t know the mistakes of the past, you’re doomed to repeat them.’”

    Given the almost daily news stories spurring heated debate over blogger ethics — Gawker’s reprinting of Sarah Palin’s hacked emails, for example — such a book could help people put today’s ecosystem of bloggers and journalists (and blogger/journalists) into a better historical context.

    Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate blogger for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at [email protected].

    Photo of Rebecca Blood by Sebastian DeLaOsa

    Tagged: blogosphere books history weblog

    10 responses to “Scott Rosenberg Traces the Blogosphere’s Origins”

    1. Thanks for using my photo, those were lean years at SXSW for the Internet business but the Golden Years for bloggers! By the way, it’s Jorn BARGER, not BARGE. Cheers!

    2. Sorry, I should clarify. That picture of Rebecca was taken at South by Southwest Interactive in 2002. SXSW was where many early bloggers met up in person for the first time.

    3. Thanks for the piece!

      It should be noted that the book’s working title is actually “Say Everything.”

      And as James McNally already noted above, it’s Jorn Barger, with an R at the end…

    4. Thanks for pointing those out. I sent a note to the editor and hopefully they can be fixed shortly.

    5. Well, now you’ve gone and changed the photo to a different one, making my comments (even more) irrelevant! :)

    6. The funny part is that when Scott asked to interview me for the book, I didn’t even remember saying that there was no history of blogging at dinner last summer.

    7. Hi guys,
      Sorry about the errors in the piece. I’ve fixed the spelling of BARGER as well as the working title of the book. I think Rebecca preferred having this photo rather than the one by James — sorry to make your comments irrelevant!

    8. Wonderful piece, Mark.
      I write about media issues in Spanish, basically because I think there’s a lack of coverage of this issues in this language.
      I recently found out that Blogger out-paces newspaper sites in popularity in every country in Latin America except Argentina. Blogs in Spanish have become a commodity and a very powerful communication tool.

    9. Wonderful piece.
      I write about media issues in Spanish, basically because I think there’s a lack of coverage of this issues in this language.
      I recently found out that Blogger out-paces newspaper sites in popularity in every country in Latin America except Argentina. Blogs in Spanish have become a commodity and a very powerful communication tool.

    10. Miguel says:

      Rosenberg, Rosenberg, si no te hubieran matado nos hubieras ahorrado muchas malas habladas de otros países hacia nuestra Guatemala, y el ser tachado como uno de los peores países de Centroamérica pero en parte estuvo bien porque gracias a vos van a sacara a esa cosa del Presidente, pero otra cosa por que tuviste que meter a Banrural que hay de vinculación con todo esto aun no lo entendemos, e encontrado muchas cosas y opiniones en mibancoamigobanrural.wrodpress.com pero no se aun cual es cierto y cual no que pinan ustedes.

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