Understanding weblogs

I’ve been spending the past several weeks messing around with weblogs. I’ve written about the topic of weblogs before [1,2] and last week’s column for Business 2.0 was about the business uses of “blogging” for content and project management [3].

But last week, a few light bulbs went on.

My own web site has had a weblog for years [4], though I’ve been pretty desultory about maintaining it: The time commitments, both for writing a blog and for keeping up with dozens of other blogs, have always seemed too great to keep the thing going consistently, day in and day out.

(There is a sense in which tweney.com has been a weblog all along, in that it’s always been a “web site organized by time,” which Radio Userland documentarian Russ Lipton says defines a weblog [5]. But that definition is, to be honest, a little broad. A more useful definition of a weblog might be “an easy-to-update online journal, with the most recent entries at the top and older entries below that, in reverse chronological order.”)

I revived my weblog this month, mostly to see how the weblogging world has come along in the past couple of years. I started posting snippets of information and URLs that I found interesting, without any attempt at relevance, organization, or even coherence, and without any expectation that other people would be reading the blog.

After a couple of weeks, I realized that my weblog was turning into a useful repository of information. What was the URL for that nifty site about cork dolls? There it is in the weblog [6]. What about that news item on how many files are being traded over P2P networks? Right there [7].

In other words, I realized that a weblog could be a useful tool for personal knowledge management as well as for public communication. Because it’s so easy to create and update a weblog — the characteristic that has made blogging boom in the past year — it’s an ideal information capture device. Whenever you come across something interesting online, you can easily drop a link, a quote, and/or a comment into your weblog, and move on. You may never return to it, but it’s there if you ever want to look it up again. Same with passing thoughts: Just jot them in the weblog.

Need to find something later? Use a search engine, either one built in to the blogging tool itself or, if your site has been indexed by it, Google.

Now, because most weblogs are public, this is a little different than most knowledge management systems. It’s kind of like keeping a journal or diary on a public bulletin board in the bus station: Anyone can come along and read what you’ve written. They may even add their own comments, on their own weblog. This kind of crosslinking and cross-commentary is giving rise to an entirely new architecture for publishing, as Ray Ozzie has astutely observed [8].

The weblog model of publishing is proving wildly popular. The ease of updating and crosslinking is key to blogging’s success as a social phenomenon, and it has attracted more than a million people to the “blogosphere,” or world of weblogs. I know: most published estimates put the number far lower, at half a million [9] or less [10]. But leading Weblog provider Blogger.com has more than 700,000 registered users, LiveJournal.com (which most weblog news stories overlook for some reason) boasts more than 650,000, and Radio Userland has upwards of 50,000 users. Freeware/open source blogging tools such as Movable Type and Greymatter add even more to the total, though no one seems to know how many. No doubt a large proportion of these registered users are no longer actively blogging, or have moved on to other blogging services or software — but the numbers are still impressive. In short, we’re looking at a major social phenomenon.

While you might not post some things in a public weblog that you’d put in your private diary, the social nature of weblogs adds significantly to their value as knowledge management tools. The crosslinking and cross-commentary by multiple blogs ends up creating very useful, interconnected webs of information. You can learn a lot about a topic by finding a blogger who covers it, and by following her links to other blogs and other information sources.

As I wrote last week in Business 2.0, companies can leverage this aspect of weblogs for project management and for corporate knowledge management purposes — and I think that the corporate world is only starting to scratch the surface of how business blogs can be used.

Once I started thinking about weblogs this way, it opened up a lot of connections. For instance, weblogs’ heritage in the work of Doug Engelbart became clear [11]. Engelbart is often remembered as the inventor of the computer mouse, but he and his team at SRI also came up the graphical user interface, hyperlinks, outlining, multiple windows, version control, shared-screen teleconferencing, scripting, remote procedure call protocols, and many more insights that are central to how we use computers today. The fruits of Engelbart’s work were implemented in a system known as Augment, a kind of hyperlinked, team-oriented online journal — in other words, a weblog, avant la lettre.

Engelbart’s career has been focused on enhancing “collective intelligence,” enabling people to work together more effectively and to share and augment collective information. Although his work didn’t led directly to a successful commercial product, I suspect that the “blogosphere” is gradually turning into a kind of global Augment system.

There are still some significant limitations to using weblogs for knowledge management. The weblog model is still new and still evolving, after all. Chief among these is that retrieving information from weblogs — especially after they’ve been running for awhile and contain hundreds or thousands of items — can be laborious and difficult. Weblogs use different archiving schemes, and search engines don’t always make it easy to go directly to the relevant item. Often, a search engine points you to a weblog’s archive page, but leaves it up to you to find the exact item you want among dozens of others. And you must repeat this for each item you want to find.

Weblog integration is also just beginning. Weblogs have made great strides in integration during the past several years, primarily through various flavors of XML syndication. Now, using an aggregator (software that runs on your computer or on a Web site), you can collect the latest items from a wide variety of weblogs on one page, saving you from having to visit each one in turn. But such syndication only displays the newest content. Suppose, instead, I want to display all the old posts from several weblogs that pertain to a certain subject, or all the posts that contain a certain keyword? As far as I know, there is currently no way to do this kind of “syndicated search” across weblogs in general.

Finally, the most popular weblogs don’t give you much control over access; either you maintain your weblog privately, in a place where no one else can see it, or you expose your blog to the whole world. It would be useful if weblog creators could more easily limit access to a select group of people, or designate certain parts of their blogs as “public” and other parts “private.” In other words, let me decide how much social cross-pollination I want my weblog to have. (This will be particularly important for business bloggers.)

Commercial blogging products (such as Userland’s Manila and Traction Software’s TeamPage) offer some of these more advanced features, but I believe that weblog tools in general need to add more complete search, integration, and access control features; search will get especially critical as the ranks of bloggers continue to swell.

Weblogs have solved the publishing problem, and done a great job of it. Now let’s get to work on knowledge management, and see if these things really do boost our collective IQ.


[1] This is a weblog (January 23, 2002)

[2] Weblogs make the web work for you (Feb. 14, 2002)

[3] Blogging for dollars (August 23, 2002)

[4] Tweney.com weblog

[5] What is a weblog?

[6] Cork dolls

[7] File traders swapped 5.16 billion music files last year

[8] 14 Days, in the Groove – still seeking Rhythm, and Blues

[9] Living in the Blog-osphere

[10] Is this one nation, under blog?

[11] Douglas Carl Engelbart

Link: Understanding weblogs

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Understanding weblogs