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Blogging - History and Societal Trends

This is the second article in a series dealing with blogging. The first article is available here. Don’t run away if you are not a blogger and do not have any interest in blogs. I think you’ll find this article helpful in understanding some of the wider societal trends that have led to the rise of the blog.

Let’s back up for a moment and discuss the history of the blog. While the term “blog” (which is short for “weblog”) was not coined until 1997 by a gentleman named Peter Merholz (though it was Jorn Barger who first coined the term “weblog”), blogs existed as early as the mid 1990’s. People simply wrote online journals and made them publicly available. Just like that blogs were born, though at this time people who wrote them called themselves things like journalists, journalers, diarists or even escribitionists (and I guess you can tell why those names did not stick!). They began to group themselves into informal communities called web rings, whether simply as bloggers or as subsets of bloggers with common interests. So there were web rings of people journaling about sports, politics, religion and so on or even just groups of people who journaled.

By 2001 blogs were becoming more widely known and it was in this year that many of the most popular blogs began-among them Instapundit, Little Green Footballs, Andrew Sullivan.com, and so on. I’m sure you’ve heard of some of these. 9/11 fueled the rise of the blog, as blogs provided insight, analysis, and news from the street that may have been missing from the mainstream media. The next year The Daily Kos, currently the most-visited blog around, began. Today it gets between half a million and one million visits every day—far more than many newspapers. During this time blogging technology began to increase as did attempts to bring some sense of order to the increasing number of blogs. Blogging also became more accessible so that anyone, even those with little familiarity with computers and the internet, could join in the fun. Millions of people did. It sometimes seems now like everyone has a blog. Every politician, every sports star, every media personality, every ministry has a blog. Or that’s how it seems.

Blogging quickly became established as an area that could contribute to the world of politics and this is where it made its most immediate impact. From there it spread to technology, faith, gossip and every other area conceivable. Today the subject matter of the most popular blogs is centered around politics, gadgets or technology, and Hollywood gossip. I think this contributes to the blogosphere’s crisis of identity. Many bloggers really want to be taken seriously but find that the blogosphere deals better with light information than with serious ideas. Some people write serious content and content that makes a valuable contribution to the marketplace of ideas. Yet the unbearable levity of the vast majority of blogs leads many people to lump them all into the category of entertainment or worse, amusement. I’ve recently been reading the 20th anniversary edition of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, a book in which he discusses the blurring between news and entertainment, faith and entertainment, education and entertainment, and so on. Blogs fit well in this age, often seamlessly combining news with entertainment and leaving us with little more than an amusing distraction.

Technorati, a service dedicated to trying to measure and bring organization to blogs is currently tracking an astounding 81 million blogs. Even if we grant that many of these, and perhaps even the majority, are essentially nothing more than advertising and pornography, this still leaves us with a massive number of legitimate blogs, each one of which is authored by someone who is passionate about some subject matter. There are tens of thousands of new blogs coming online each day. Though this seems akin to a land-rush, the reality of the internet is that it has unlimited capacity to grow and, at least for now, many people have a near insatiable appetite for blogs.

There are two accepted measures of a blog’s importance. The first is traffic—a simple measure of the number of people who visit a site in a given day. The most popular blogs receive hundreds of thousands of unique visitors in a day though, because many people keep their statistics private, it is often difficult to measure successfully. A very select few may get half a million to a million visitors per day with numbers shooting up during important times. When Britney spears goes through a divorce or shaves her head, the gossip blogs see a surge of traffic. As the 2008 election campaign warms up, I’d expect many of the political blogs to make huge gains and to become increasingly popular and it will be quite interesting to see if this is the case. So the first measure is traffic. The second is inbound links—a measure of the number of other blogs linking to a particular site. This helps measure how influential a blog is within the blogosphere. The top blogs can boast twenty or thirty thousand inbound links.

To measure the relative importance of Christian blogs within the blogosphere, you’d probably have to travel past 1000 sites or so to find the first non-political Christian blog. A site like Hugh Hewitt’s would be higher on the list, but his content is primarily political rather than faith-based. Of course measuring 1000 out of 75 million is really nothing to cry about!

While blogs have technically been in existence for over a decade now, the vast majority are far newer than that, with most being created in the past three or four years. The ones that began earlier typically have an advantage in traffic and the most-visited blogs are usually among the older ones in existence.

This move towards blogging has coincided with and been carried by an associated trend. When the Internet was in its infancy, what some now refer to as Web 1.0, most people were content to simply read what others wrote. Sites like CNN or BBC posted the news and we read it. Sites specializing in funny videos posted these strange and wonderful videos on their sites while we watched them and laughed. But as the net has evolved, and we’ve moved to Web 2.0, so too has people’s desire not just to read the content, but to engage with it, interact with it and especially to create it. Thus we have sites like Wikipedia where anyone can play the role of the expert or encyclopedist. We have sites like YouTube where anyone with a video camera can create a video, upload it to the site, and enjoy a brief moment of fame. We have social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook which allow people to create content and to create networks of friends and acquaintances. Even the news sites have begun adding their own blogs and adding the ability to comment to the end of their news stories. People are beginning to both expect and demand this level of interaction. And, of course, we have blogs, which allow people to be experts in any area that interests them. What we have seen is an evolution from the web being primarily about pages to the web being primarily about people.

You may have heard that TIME magazine’s person of the year for 2006 was you, or more correctly, us. All of us. Instead of featuring the usual politician or celebrity, the magazine, which had a mirror on the cover, focused on the masses. This was, I think, a logical choice. The article announcing the winner began in this way: “The ‘Great Man’ theory of history is usually attributed to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men.’ He believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species. That theory took a serious beating this year.” And this is precisely how we have come to understand much of history. Even church history, at least from our human perspective, is largely framed around the contributions of great men. I think we could find it would be possible to come to quite a good understanding of the Reformation by reading only biographies. If you read biographies of Luther, Calvin, Knox, Tyndale and maybe another half-dozen men, I think you would understand the Reformation quite well. The history of these men is the history of the Reformation.

TIME’s article goes on to say that if you look at 2006 you’ll see “a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.” The tool that has tied the world together is, of course, the World Wide Web. If we were to experience new Reformation in our day, it seems likely that it would be driven by the many rather than the few. Five or ten biographies wouldn’t even begin to cover it. Word would not travel in a few books by a few authors, but in a million blogs and web sites written by a million authors. It really is a whole new world.

What we see in this Web 2.0 world is the downplaying of expertise and the rise of enthusiasm; the decline of the position of the professional and the rise of the amateur. And I don’t think we as Christians can stress this point enough. Just as the most-visited political blog is not one run by a Presidential candidate or Senator, the most-visited Christian blog is not one run by John MacArthur or John Piper or another major ministry leader. Success and influence in writing books or preaching is no guarantee of similar influence and success in blogging. Instead, the most popular sites are run by amateurs who are mere enthusiasts rather than necessarily being experts. Blogs have given a voice to the other people-to the people who elect the politicians or who sit in the pews and are taught by these ministers. Amateurs are gaining wide influence in the information people encounter and in the interpretation of this information. And in many ways this is the way people want it.

This is a reality that makes many Christians uncomfortable. After all, the Bible is clear about the importance of leadership and leadership that is duly-appointed and properly-qualified. We only have to read Titus and Timothy to realize that, within the church, God has dictated that there must be very clear patterns of leadership and authority.

It may be worth pausing here for just a moment to ask “Why do people blog?” There are probably as many reasons as there are bloggers. But ultimately, I think we all blog because we feel that we have something to say and want to find an audience we can say it to. We all want to have some kind of an influence over others. We all want to be part of what is unfolding and this is particularly true as we see power begin to shift from the few to the many. We do not want to be left behind. This is as true in theology as it is in politics. I think the proof of this—that blogging is about influence—is shown in the many leaders who now blog and who have largely been latecomers to the blogging game. By way of example, just in the past few months we’ve seen John MacArthur and John Piper begin to blog. They know that this is how information moves and they see the importance of being part of it.

So how do Christians react to a world where the power to teach is now resting in the hands of the many rather than in the hands of the few? How do we react when we see so many people attempting to have an influence over others and an influence that falls outside the usual context of the local church? And how do we react when we understand that these people are not chosen or elected but gain prominence simply by weight of statistics-of numbers of visitors and numbers of links to them?

You can probably see what we are building to here. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the current state of the blogosphere. We’ll do this tomorrow.