Blogging: first past the post

Blogging has become one of the defining communication methods of the digital age, growing rapidly from a niche pursuit into a multi-million-dollar industry. Vision reports

Tavi Gevinson, a schoolgirl from Illinois, was 11 when she started writing a fashion blog called Style Rookie using Google’s publishing service Blogger. The first post, in 2008, was a short paragraph introducing herself as “the new girl in town” and asking for some website recommendations. Over the next five years, the online journal evolved into a document of Gevinson’s interest in clothes, music, art and literature, full of artily shot self-portraits of Gevinson wearing eccentric outfits: giant necklaces, pioneer-style petticoats, and Minnie-Mouse headbands. During that time, she became one of the world’s most celebrated bloggers, with interviews appearing everywhere from The New York Times to the BBC, and invitations to fashion shows in Paris and Milan.

Since the late 1990s, blogs (once known as ‘weblogs’) have stopped being the domain only of nerdy tech-heads with specialist knowledge. Blogs about anything, from motherhood to pickle-making, have proliferated all over the world. They’ve been turned into TV shows, films and books, and sparked political change.

NeverSeconds, the blog written by a Scottish schoolgirl about her unappealing school lunches, attracted the attention of politicians and inspired a fundraising drive for a school in Malawi that made more than £100,000 (US$155,000). No Impact Man, about Colin Beavan’s attempt to live without any negative impact on the environment in the heart of Manhattan, resulted in a book and film. It also led to the formation of a non-profit organisation called the No Impact Project, and Beavan was persuaded by the Green Party to run for Congress to raise awareness of environmental issues.

Business tools

Blogs are increasingly used by businesses to promote their products, with the most effective examples cultivating a friendly voice and giving useful, interesting updates to connect with customers. You can stop by the supermarket chain Whole Foods’ blog to read about Ramadan recipes or community gardening projects, while American Express’ advice-sharing platform OPEN Forum includes business tips, news on policy, personal stories and podcast recommendations.

It’s tempting to think anyone can jump online, blog about anything, and build a huge following; but in order to get noticed, an understanding is needed about how the blogosphere got to this point, and where it’s going next. The word ‘weblog’ was first used in 1997 but blogging didn’t go mainstream until the end of the 1990s, when the first easy-to-use blogging services were launched. The most popular of these were LiveJournal and Blogger, both launched in 1999.

During these early years, a blog was seen primarily as an online diary, written by a single person, sometimes anonymously. Although these were often personal, as Style Rookie would later be, other bloggers with specialist knowledge used the format to start spreading ideas about science, technology, environmental issues or politics. In the UK, a former financial trader called Paul Staines set up an influential political blog under the name Guido Fawkes, which published leaked political documents before the days of Wikileaks.

It’s easy to keep on thinking of bloggers as lone figures baring their souls in cyberspace, but in countries with a high level of digital inclusion and strong creative and technological industries, such as the US and UK, blogging has evolved to the point that it’s no longer easy to draw the line between blogs, aggregators, online magazines, social networking sites and online columns published by newspapers.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of a ‘weblog’ is: “A frequently updated website consisting of personal observations, excerpts from other sources, etc., typically run by a single person.”

“The thing to remember about blogging is that it’s just a platform,” says Paul Bradshaw, course leader of the Online Journalism MA at Birmingham City University – and a commentator on digital journalism. “Traditionally, people saw it as an opinion column, but it could be anything.”

Information sharing

Two innovations changed the nature of blogs. The first was a wave of social networking and microblogging sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr (they launched in 2004, 2006 and 2007, respectively), which made it easy for users to share information about their lives, tastes and opinions in bite-size chunks that are much less demanding to write and to read than lengthy posts. Although Twitter and Tumblr can be described as blogging services, most users don’t think of themselves as bloggers. The second was the way that old-school news and opinion outlets adapted to this new era of personal stories being told online.

As broadcasters such as the BBC and newspapers such as The Guardian and The New York Times started creating an online presence, they often employed bloggers as columnists who could respond in real time to rapidly changing events. At the same time that parts of the traditional media were evolving to become more like a blog, new blogs that operated more like traditional publications – with multiple authors, editors and a broad-ranging outlook – started to appear.

“The conventions [of blogging] live on, even as the blog becomes harder to pin down as a form,” Paul Bradshaw says. “The convention of linking, the more informal, transparent style and the reflective elements are still with us – and they’ve had a big impact on journalism.”

The digital landscape is increasingly diverse, but the number of bloggers expressing their own worlds in their own unique way from their bedrooms continues to grow worldwide. “Facebook and Twitter can be very fragmented and noisy,” says Hind Mezaina, the writer behind The Culturist, which documents events in Dubai. “Your thoughts and words can be easily lost there, but you can revisit a blog post.” She points out that blogging requires “a lot of time and discipline” for a “unique and valuable voice” to emerge, but adds, “there will always be something to blog about”.