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Science of blogging

The technology and geeky bits of blogging

What’s in the format?
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Describing and explaining blogs can sometimes be an exercise in counter-pigeon-holing. Most people immediately try to liken blogs to something they know. Inevitably, confusion ensues.

Hm, online, web-page, so you mean it’s just a website?.. Ah, it’s more interactive, ok, a message board or a forum…? Oh, how is it different then?

A forum is the classic bulletin board format. We liken the forum to a collective drawing - each participant draws his own line(s) sometimes without regard for the others’ efforts. He who draws most lines wins. The result is a criss-cross of lines, overlapping shapes, in short, a mess that takes too much time to unravel to get any lasting value.

A blog, in contrast, is like a painting that has been hung up on the wall and everyone standing around can comment on it, say how they would have done differently or why they like it. There is a clear hierarchy between the author of the article and the person who comments on it - no drawing of moustaches anywhere but plenty of interaction. This is what makes blogs so suitable for communication between companies and their audience.

The most important feature of the blog format are permanent links aka permalinks. So few people understand that permalinks are not just a ‘nice’ feature for a blog to have, they are a crucial element in what makes a blog a blog. The ability to permalink to an article is one of the two absolute pre-requisites for defining whether of not a site is a blog or is just a ‘blog-like website’ (the other feature being articles presented in reverse chronological order).

Without permalinks, it is very difficult for others interested in what you have written to link to it on their own blogs so that they can say what they think: permalinks facilitate discussion and dissemination. Without the ability to link to discreet articles and chunks of information via permalink, you do not get the network effect that makes blogging what it is.

Blogs themselves are just one of many web formats. What makes them really interesting is the fact they are part of a social network called the blogosphere… and without permalinks, they ain’t part of that network.

Blogs differ from other online formats in many other important aspects, the most important of them being the network all blogs are part of: the blogosphere. Here are some comparisons with the most common online communication formats.

  • Websites in their conventional forms give complete control and have at most an e-mail address for feedback. It has become the norm to label websites ‘interactive,’ but usually what ‘interactive’ means is You get to click on the links. Big deal - by that definition, books are ‘interactive’ because I get to turn the pages.

    Traditional websites are little more than on-line brochures, sometimes disparagingly called ‘tombsites’ or ‘morguesites’, which are rarely updated and are almost designed not to generate return visits. Brochure sites have their uses but are of only limited value as true marketing tools. According to some marketing and Internet experts:

    Weblogs may have succeeded where corporate marketing websites have failed. That is to communicate a voice that is focused, clear and representative of the organisation, establish a relationship with customers that goes beyond the traditional buyer-seller transaction, to consistently update and provide content that is interesting and provides incentives to customers to return on a regular basis and provides added value through a feedback system that is open and unedited where ideas, concepts and opinions are discussed openly and freely.

  • Forums give a degree of control and are highly interactive. However, even if they are actively moderated, the format gives equal weight to the threaded discussion as it does to the issue which started the thread. This is generally not desirable and not effective for a company’s communications.
  • I believe that weblogs and message boards are different - different enough to happily exist together in the same online community web site. My conclusion is that online communities will use the two resources to fill two different roles. Their ability to fill independent niches will make the subtle differences between them make more sense.

    Perhaps the most compelling difference in weblogs and message boards is the locus of control. Weblogs are individual or small group resources - the control of content and value is driven by a single person or small group. Message Boards are group resources- the control of content and value is shared equally across all users.

  • Direct e-mails are totally asymmetric, with total control, but without interactivity: you send, they receive…and if don’t want to receive they regard you as a spammer, giving your communication negative value. Opt-in lists are a partial solution but emails are simply not engaging enough, there is no real conversation going on. As for interactivity, if they reply (unlikely), they have no immediate feedback other than a pro-forma, auto responder.
  • IRC Chat rooms, on the other hand, are totally interactive and therefore impossible to control meaningfully and often degenerate into chaos. The communications are transient and quickly lost in the digital blizzard of Internet Relay Chat.
  • Intranets set up by companies for internal use by their employees often lack credibility and dynamism. Their style is more formal, not casual, and any interactivity is usually severely limited. Intranets do not flatten hierarchies; in fact, they often exacerbate them.

In the end, the format and interconnectedness of blogs will become so ubiquitous that people may eventually stop talking about ‘blogs’

Metrics, Schmetrics
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In an article that was passed around our curve of the blogosphere recently, MarketingSherpa tries to validate blogging for businesses using metrics.

Looking at blogs from that perspective misses the most important aspect of blogging: The only ‘metrics’ associated with blogs for now should include in-bound links, velocity, feedback and stickiness.

Neither businesses nor blogs have reached consistency in the measurement of their influence and authority. By applying the current metrics - as understood by ‘interactive media’ types (hits, clicks, etc) - they are not only one-dimensional, they change the way people see tools such as blogs and other communication media. This is the problem of understanding what communication is all about. Just because you cannot measure something the way you are used to, it does not mean it is irrelevant or even intangible.

Technorati is measuring in-bound links and using it as a “vote” for attention to understand a blogging site’s influence. With a database of 3.2 million bloggers, A-list bloggers move to the top of Technorati’s list based on the blogger’s number of in-bound links. But even this novel approach is considered crude by no less than Technorati CEO David Sifry, who told a BlogOn audience:

Only looking at the number of in-bound links is too blunt. We need a measure of relative authority. We’re closely watching velocity - the change in the number of a blogger’s links in one hour divided by the blogger’s total number of links.

For myself, I find the metrics discussed in the article only a starting point. What constantly amazes me about Samizdata.net is not the number of unique visitors but the fact that so many of those visitors are ones who return each and every day. We need metrics for affinity and loyalty.

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