No Middle Man Needed
Publishing, though arguably one of the oldest art forms in existence, has evolved dramatically in the recent past. While the web meant that publishers were unwise if they failed to consider an online presence, this online presence has more recently taken on a life of its own. Digital publishing constitutes an enormous part of the publishing world to the point that some publishers only publish online. What’s more, this has provided people with an outlet for self-publishing on the Internet; there is no longer a need for a middle man, i.e. the publisher.
It can be said that each individual social media platform is created when a developer sees for themselves or gets feedback from someone else regarding a glitch in the last platform that can be improved. This trend and natural progression transcends the social world and correlates directly to blogging platforms. These developers use the last platform as a basis for a new one, further developing what works yet removing what doesn’t.
The Early Days of Blogging (Weblogs)
Blogs have become an integral part of online culture. It is probable that everyone reads some form of blog, whether popular or lesser-known. Most Google searches will lead to a blog post on the topic, which generally stems from either opinion or research. Blogging platforms have not suffered the same labelling as social platforms have. While everyone knows Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, including which is trendiest at the time being, not many keep tabs on Links.net, LiveJournal, and Blogger. Having said that, the first popular blog host was in fact Links.net, which was founded no later than January 1994. (MySpace was only founded in 2003.) Justin Hall, a student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, started a webpage which essentially had the same form as what we have come to know as the blog. Hall’s blog remains active to this day; its format has not changed. His first entry read, “Howdy, this is twenty-first century computing… (Is it worth our patience?) I’m publishing this, and I guess you’re readin’ this, in part to figure that out, huh?” Hall’s mention of the word publishing has proven to be very telling of the present day publishing industry.
By 1997, these personal homepages were increasing in popularity. The term weblog was finally coined by Jorn Barger, who ran Robot Wisdom, one of the web’s earliest blogs. The term referenced the notion of keeping a regular record of various incidents in the form of an online post. The premise of Barger’s blog was to give readers access to topical links on the Internet; Barger also wrote his own posts. Though web historians consider Hall to be the first blogger ever, Barger pioneered the concept and brought upon its popularity. Barger always had an interest in math and computer science. He bounced around from college to college, never actually getting a degree. He finally decided education was not for him and spent a number of years farming at a famous hippie commune in Tennessee. While this may seem irrelevant, he emerged with a deep interest in human behaviour. Given his abilities and the need for computer programmers in the eighties, Barger started working in this field. In 1989, he took on a post at Northwestern University as an artificial intelligence researcher. He found that human behaviour was best analyzed through computer stimulation, hence his founding of Robot Wisdom.
Although it is important to make mention of Justin Hall and his personal webpage, Barger did not necessarily draw inspiration from him. His inspiration came from Usenet. Usenet became available to the public in 1980, when Barger began his position at Northwestern University; this is also when he developed his interest in the web. Two graduate students at Duke University conceived the idea for Usenet. Its main goal was to serve as an online community and as a host for people’s ideas; it allowed for an online discussion. It provided categories within which users subscribed. When a new article appeared, those subscribed to its category would have access to it. Here it was announced that the World Wide Web would launch. This concept was of great interest to Barger, who saw this as an almost-ideal online community. (What lacked was its inability to appeal to non-tech people.) Barger helped create some of the first forums, in the arts category, regarding signer Kate Bush and writer James Joyce. He is credited with sparking some of the earliest web studies of Joyce. A 2011 James Joyce Broadsheet article entitled “Joyce Journals in Review” addresses the notion of literary education evolving as the web developed. The article says that in the last 15 years, there has been a revolution in higher learning, which has been largely attributed to the web. “There is another set of Joyce journals that exist only digitally. The survival of the digital journals is sometimes even more precarious than the paper variety.” (Lernout 2) The article makes mention of the survival of Barger’s “one-man journal” as the earliest online study of Joyce; it has since evolved and serves as a trustworthy and respected guide on the author.
That said, Barger saw an opportunity to create something more personal and accessible. He saw Usenet as useful, but also believed it would be a much more incredible resource if it could be accessed by people who weren’t necessarily tech-savvy. Thomas Mason and J. Kent Calder wrote a book entitled Writing Local History Today: A Guide to Researching, Publishing, and Marketing Your Book, which illustrates the importance of Barger’s work as an early developer in online publishing. They say blogs and digital writing became popular because of Robot Wisdom. “Jorn Barger, the proprietor of the Robot Wisdom Weblog, originated the notion in 1997, and the blog as personal journal became popular among young people working in technology companies in the late nineties. As blogs became more popular, software packages arose that greatly simplified the task of creating and maintaining a blog. (Mason, Kent 69) What’s important to remember from Barger and Robot Wisdom is that he saw a model, one with which readers gathered as part of an online community to discuss concepts, that had immense potential to reach a wider audience. In essence, he developed his model known today as the blog based on an idea that required some improvement. From this, millions were inspired to start their own blogs as a means of digital expression. In the present-day, blogging has become a large part of the publishing industry.
Is Blogging Publishing?
Another case that can be made is whether or not blogging actually constitutes as a legitimate form of publishing. Evan Williams, an Internet entrepreneur who has founded multiple Internet companies, including Blogger and Medium, and served as CEO of Twitter, argues that the two entities are completely different. Williams co-founded Pyra Labs, which was made with the intent of managing software. From this came Blogger, a management software for creating and organizing blogs. Blogger proved useful for writers who had discovered the joy of sharing their content on the Internet; it served as a gateway tool to more powerful blogging platforms. Like Barger, he saw an improvement that could be made in a previous model – his previous model – and created Medium in 2012, which was a much more accessible publishing platform. In 2015, Williams re-evaluated his beliefs and wrote an article, on Medium, entitled “Medium is not a publishing tool.”
In his article, Williams states that the intent of Blogger was to publish online. Because it was a host, it proved complicated when he wanted to make a change; it meant every user had to accept this change. The fact that it had so many users further complicated this platform. Williams later worked for Twitter. While it had more users, they were less invested in the quality of the content given the nature of its concept (a maximum of 140 characters). Williams made sure to not use many features as a means to simplify the production process. Its simplicity meant it was easier for people to use. As such, content had a higher chance of going viral. This is where Medium comes in. The platform was designed as a simple means to publish good writing. Medium proved useful as a writing platform for people to share ideas that also didn’t want the trouble of actually creating a blog. “It’s clear that there are many more people who occasionally have valuable perspectives to share than there are people who want to be “bloggers.” These people love writing on Medium, even if they see it as just a tool to create a nice page to point people to from Twitter.” One element that has gotten a huge amount of attention is the highlight tool. This tool, according to Williams, allows for people to make note of important aspects of the writing and comment. Medium, however, is an online community; it is a networking tool for writers. It surpasses a publishing tool. Arguably the same can be said for all blogging platforms, to a certain extent. Whereas a traditional publishing platform does not allow for conversation, the blog was created with exactly this in mind.
As proven in the aforementioned examples, web developers and entrepreneurs use previous platforms – their own or that of others – as inspiration; they see an area for improvement and work off of that. Williams developed Blogger and chaired Twitter, viewing both as publishing tools. But when does publishing become social?
Social Media as an Offshoot of Blogging and Digital Publishing
This trend of improving from one platform to another is logical, has proved immensely successful, and is seen across both web-based blogging platforms and social media tools. As users develop expectations, it becomes critical to stay somewhat consistent from platform to platform. This trend on social tools is extremely common. Examples include Facebook photos to Instagram, iPhone’s front-facing flip photos to SnapChat, dating websites to dating apps in general, namely Tinder. It should be noted that some of these stemmed from a desire to publish content.
Having said that, however, the first noticeable “improvement” was MySpace to Facebook. Adam Hartung, a Forbes regular contributor, wrote an article supporting this point. The latter suggests that both platforms had the exact same audience (and even an almost identical concept) in mind, but Facebook simply did it better; they did so by noticing what was wrong with MySpace and worked with that as a basis for their new platform. Moreover, while MySpace was meant as a sort of publishing platform for writing, photos, and general content, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg allowed for his site to take whatever direction users wanted. This meant not excluding games, such as Farmville, which account for a large amount of the site’s success. Inspired by its users, Facebook grew to serve them: “The brilliance of Mark Zuckerberg was his willingness to allow Facebook to go wherever the market wanted it. Farmville and other social games – why not? Different ways to find potential friends – go for it. The founders kept pushing the technology to do anything users wanted. If you have an idea for networking on something, Facebook pushed its tech folks to make it happen. And they kept listening. And looking within the comments for what would be the next application – the next promotion – the next revision that would lead to more uses, more users and more growth.” This platform, inspired by MySpace (arguably a publishing platform) became a social network. It evolved as to what users wanted, which turned out to be something greater than a publishing platform. Like MySpace, it hosts an enormous online community, but it does not serve the same purpose.
In conclusion, blogging platforms have evolved from one to the next. Blogs are central to online communities and developers, knowing this, have improved upon their predecessors’ platforms. As per user requests, some of these platforms have blended with the social world. Whether or not social constitutes publishing is up for debate. That said, given its origins, it is likely that it does.
Djuraskovic, Ogi. “How Jorn Barger Invented Blogging.” Free Resources Guides Help for Web Newbies. First Site Guide, 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 15 Feb. 2016. <http://firstsiteguide.com/robot-wisdom-and-jorn-barger/>.
Hartung, Adam. “How Facebook Beat MySpace.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 14 Jan. 2014. Web. 15 Feb. 2016. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/adamhartung/2011/01/14/why-facebook-beat-myspace/#566d3ad47023>.
Lernout, Geert. “Joyce Journals in Review.” James Joyce Broadsheet. Oct. 2011: 1-6. Digital.
Mason, Thomas A., and J. Kent Calder. Writing Local History Today: A Guide to Researching, Publishing, and Marketing Your Book. Lanham: AltaMira, 2013. Print.
Read, Ash. “The Unabridged History of Social Media.” Buffer Social. Buffer Social, 10 Nov. 2015. Web. 16 Feb. 2016. <https://blog.bufferapp.com/history-of-social-media>.
“The History of Social Networking.” Digital Trends. Digital Trends, 04 Aug. 2014. Web. 15 Feb. 2016. <http://www.digitaltrends.com/features/the-history-of-social-networking/>.
Williams, Evan. “Medium Is Not a Publishing Tool – The Story.” Medium. Medium, 20 May 2015. Web. 15 Feb. 2016. <https://medium.com/the-story/medium-is-not-a-publishing-tool-4c3c63fa41d2#.th7bkmmhg>.