A weblog primer

Published on:

Since I've sold the idea of weblogs within my company, I've been charged with the task to explain what are weblogs to people who haven't heard of them yet. I wrote this primer as a starter. This is a work in progress, with probably more to come. I'd love to have your feedback on it.

Web log, weblog, blog — what’s in a name?

“Blog” is the contraction of web log, an online journal. The term blog is more popular than weblog (Google occurences on 5/2/04: weblog (12,200,000) + weblogs (5,840,000) = 18,040,000 vs. blog (35,300,000) + blogs (8,140,000) = 42,440,000.)

Despite the Googlevox populi, I prefer and will use the term weblog over blog in this article. To my non anglophone ears, weblog sounds marginally better and is slightly more intuitive than blog to the novice.

What is a weblog?

There is no single, lest official, definition for the term weblog. The weblog phenomena is too recent and too buoying to allow anyone to assert a definitive and comprehensive definition in this matter. I’m not even sure that the term weblog, at least under its present and multiple acceptations, will sustain the test of time. Who talks about personal home pages anymore? Please take the following definition with a grain of salt and forge yourself an opinion by reading weblogs, if not crossing the mirror and blogging already!

A weblog is a website. This tautology might be the least disputable characteristic of a weblog.

A weblog usually shows the following primary characteristics:

  • It is frequently updated with new content
  • Its content unit is a “post” or an “entry” — it may not necessarily be text but also pictures, sounds, videos, etc.
  • Posts are dated
  • Full posts or summaries are displayed on the weblog home page with the last or freshest ones on top — that posts are listed in reverse chronologic order makes it very easy to see if a weblog has been updated recently, or is likely to be stalled, it is therefore an incentive (along with dated posts) for authors to publish frequently in order to keep the content fresh
  • Posts are accessible through a permanent link and/or chronological archives (daily/weekly/monthly, or a linear previous/next navigation)

A weblog may show the following secondary characteristics, which are not necessarily distinctive of weblogs but are instrumental in their adoption:

  • The publication process is supported by a microcontent or personal publishing system — the emergence of those free or cheap systems which help people without knowledge of web technologies to easily publish content on the web has been the key factor in the spread of weblogs outside the web-savvy, geek community
  • A news feed is available for use with a news aggregator
  • Visitors may comment on posts, with or without registration, and their comments appear publicly along the post. A weblog author may decide post by post and at any time if comments are opened or closed. When a weblog provides a news feed, it may provide a feed with the visitors’ comments — most weblogs allow comments while most web sites do not, what appears to be a detail makes a big difference in interaction between publishers and their audience
  • Posts may be classified by categories
  • Each post may display a list of external links that point to it allowing to discover more sources around a particular topic — techniques known as TrackBacks, Pingbacks and Referrer tracking allow for the automatic creation of such back links between two websites
  • A weblog may display a list of other weblogs (blogolist) and websites of interest — this is a great way to discover new weblogs as well as getting a better idea of who are the authors by seeing who they link to
  • Each time it is updated, a weblog may “ping” (i.e. signal to) a server that indexes and publishes a list of recently updated weblogs


Here are a few personal definitions from bloggers that I find interesting or funny:

  • “My weblog is my intelligent conversation with the living web”, Joi Ito
  • “A personal journal that’s not personal”, Daniel Glazman

What’s so particular about this “weblogs phenomena”?

One old dream about the web was that it would allow anyone to reach a global audience and rival in fame corporations despite their big advertisement budgets. In reality, the technological and economical barriers have long prevented most people to use the web to the full extent of its promises. Weblogs are simply the tip of an iceberg: the significant simplification of the interfaces to the web that help reduce or completely hide the complexity of the technologies involved. While most weblogs content publishing systems are young, they already tackle commercial content management systems that are significantly (if not infinitely) more expensive but often less efficient.

Nobody interacts with technology, everybody interacts with interfaces. The dirty little secret of the web and the success of weblogs is that those interfaces have started to become usable and accessible to the layman.

The weblogs are clearly leading the way in microcontent online publishing, mostly for individuals to date but they are making their way into corporations with corporate weblogs, knowledge weblogs or even as a new content management process for their traditional website. Even media outlets are starting to venture into the blogosphere, often under the pressure of their journalists own weblogs. Most importantly, new businesses are flourishing, and have already attracted attention from giants such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft to name just a few.

Another important thing about this phenomena, is that weblogs have popularized a new way to consume online content that is not centered on a web browser: the couple news feeds and news aggregators. This will extend way beyond the weblogs alone, changing the way people find, consume and even republish content, eventually impacting publications, search engines, directories, etc.

Where to start?

The easiest way is to start by reading some weblogs and continue your journey by exploring their blogolist. Many services have been created to facilitate the discovery of and search within weblogs, such as (listed in no particular order):

  • Weblogs.com — lists recently updated weblogs
  • Blog.gs — lists recently updated weblogs, can store your own blogolist
  • Technorati — weblogs ranking (Top 100), search engine, reports who link to what
  • Blogstreet — weblogs profiles/ecosystems, top lists, search engine and directory
  • Blogdex — recent news and search engine
  • Daypop — current events/weblog/news search engine
  • Bloglines — web based news aggregator, top blogs/links, directory
  • Syndic8 — news feeds directory and web aggregator
  • NewsIsFree — news feeds directory and web aggregator
  • Kinja — weblogs digest and web aggregator

Managing the information overload: news feeds and aggregators

How to remain up-to-date with the latest news while not being overloaded with information? Obviously not by browsing weblogs like you used to browse websites so far, nor subscribing to yet another hundred newsletters and fill your spam-cluttered mailbox even more. Discover the famous news feeds and aggregators.

News feeds

When you look at how the geeks have promoted them, it’s a miracle that news feeds have taken off. I do think that the weblogs are the only reason why they have started to spread into the public, although they are quite old in terms of web history. Learn how to recognize them despite the efforts to hide them behind the technical jargon. Here are the usual suspects:

  • look for “news feed”
  • look for an orange button like this one: xml.gif or this one: _button_rss20.gif or a similar one that reads RSS or Atom (don’t bother about the numbers, pick the highest)
  • look for “Syndicate this site” often followed by RSS or XML or Atom
  • look for RSS, XML, Atom, or Subscribe (but not the email newsletter subscription!)
  • if none of the above, complain to the site editor!

A news feed is a permanent link to a list of fresh content, usually the last posts/articles published by the site, in a computer-readable format (XML). Computer-readable means that you need a software or a web service to exploit it. Click on one of those links to see for yourself.

Frankly, if you see an ugly orange button that reads XML or RSS (which I won’t even bother to define in this primer since even the geekiest among the geeks disagree on the name) and in the unlikely event that you click on it and get garbage displayed in your browser, would you think that there is anything interesting there? Trust me, there is.

Enter the aggregators.

News aggregators

Aggregators (aka RSS readers, not to be confused with newsgroups readers) are a new breed of software that help you subscribe to news feeds and automatically poll the sites for you to check for new content. Contrary to newsletters, which are pushed to you by email and for which subscriptions are managed by the emitters, news feeds are a pull technology for which you manage subscriptions centrally either on your computer (desktop aggregator) or via a web service (web aggregator).

Subscribing to a news feed usually consists of a simple drag-and-drop of the news feed link to your desktop aggregator, or a copy/paste in your web aggregator subscriptions form. Unsubscribing is again a simple step either in your desktop aggregator or your web aggregator. Also unlike email newsletters, it is very rare that one will ask for your email address in order to give you access to a news feed (but this may change as the format spreads to business sites.)

Once you start subscribing to feeds in your aggregator, it will check at a regular interval those feeds for news, and tell you how many unread items waiting for you. Depending on how the site has configured its feed(s), you may read summaries or the full posts in the aggregator. From there, by skimming titles and summaries, you can quickly parse through a lot of news, more efficiently than if you had to check all those websites one by one.

Here is a screen capture of my desktop aggregator (NetNewsWire):


With the familiar interface of an email client, it shows me how many unread items I have, in each feed, and allows me to browse through those items. One interesting feature is its ability to detect changes made to items already published but later updated (here at the bottom, in green, text has been added). Most desktop aggregators have the ability to store feeds for offline browsing and searching, which can be handy if you want to skim the news while off the network. For news with only a summary, a simple click will open the relevant page in my web browser.

A web aggregator will allow you to keep track of news in a likely fashion, with the advantage of being accessible from anywhere with a web browser and keep track of your subscriptions even if you access them from different computers.

Warning! Aggregators can be very addictive, once you get hooked it’s hard to come back to the old and cumbersome ways of digging for news. And when you realize that you can use it far beyond weblogs, on news sites (like the BBC), with search engines (like tracking keywords on Yahoo News) and even with applications (like following a project with Basecamp) you know that it’s a tool that will sit next to your email client and web browser for a while (until they merge somehow, which is a different story.) I routinely follow 130 sites on a daily basis with my aggregator, something I would be incapable of doing if I had to manually check as many bookmarks or deal with email newsletters subscriptions.

Desktop aggregators for Windows
SharpReader (free)
FeedDemon ($30)
NewsGator (works with Outlook, $29)
NewsWatcher ($30)
Desktop aggregators for Mac OS X
NetNewsWire Lite (free) and NetNewsWire (includes a weblog editor, $40)
Shrook ($20)
Desktop aggregator for Linux
Straw (free)

What’s more?

Want more? Start a weblog! From DIY, open source software to hosted/ASP services, you have plenty of choices to start your own weblog. How to do it is beyond the scope of this primer but may form the basis of another one. Here are a few links to weblog software and services:

Weblog software (require hosting)
Movable Type (free for non commercial use, $150 otherwise)
WordPress (free, open source)
Radio Userland (includes a desktop aggregator, $40/year subscription)
Weblog services (ASP, includes hosting)
TypePad (the hosted sibling of Movable Type)


A short, non exhaustive list of useful links and links I used to build this article:

More readings
Weblogs: a history and perspective, Rebecca Blood, September 2000
Etude du blogue (in French), Laurent Gloaquen, Feb. 2004
Working the web: Newsreaders, the Guardian