The Bloggers' Historian

Technology journalist Scott Rosenberg recounts how blogs took over the Web.


As Scott Rosenberg was helping to found the webzine Salon in 1995, a scrappier form of publishing was emerging elsewhere on the Internet. Blogs, as they were soon known, were quirky, low-budget sites—part diary, part conversation, part list of links. "Professionally, I thought what they were doing was entirely different from what I did," Rosenberg says. "But I noticed very early that these were the pages I kept going back to. What I came gradually but steadily to see was that I was going back to them because they worked. They were an appropriate and effective format for publishing on the Web."

Rosenberg's new history of blogging, Say Everything, isn't a comprehensive treatment of the subject—at this point, with millions of blogs devoted to subjects ranging from scuba diving to the Muppets, that's hardly possible—but it is wide-ranging, thoughtful, and well-told. Unlike some writers who try to tackle the topic, Rosenberg doesn't confuse the Web communities that are most familiar to him with the blogosphere as a whole; Say Everything never reduces blogging to a single style, subculture, or political perspective. Instead it explores how the now-ubiquitous blog form emerged, evolved, and left its mark on everything from national politics to the private lives of ordinary Americans.

Managing Editor Jesse Walker spoke with Rosenberg in July.

Reason: Of the '90s pioneers you write about in the first section of the book, are there any that you feel haven't really gotten their due?

Rosenberg: In a way, that whole era is unjustly forgotten. The tech industry and indeed the online world have very little memory of history. One of my purposes in writing the book was to get it down while it's still fresh in my mind, everyone's still around to interview, and the pages can still be hauled out of the Internet Archive.

The Web moves really quickly, and we've had several generations of excitement. Today we have Twitter and Facebook and all of that, and people are having experiences in which they feel that they're doing things for the first time. But nearly all of these experiences are things that people went through in the '90s or the early part of the 2000s, whether it was revealing too much of your life and getting in trouble, or dreaming of some sort of utopia where we can all express ourselves and never get into fights. Telling those stories just seemed important.

Reason: By your account, the very first website was a blog of sorts. Do you think there's something about the Web as a medium that makes the blog format come naturally?

Rosenberg: Yes. Both Tim Berners-Lee's first website and what became Netscape's "What's New" page had this simple, reverse-chronological list form. It's like a piece of the Web's DNA.

Even today, with YouTube and podcasting, the Web is primarily a text medium. But it's also a dynamic medium. So how do you make text dynamic? You need some kind of simple structure that can be governed by a piece of software. And the form that worked and was immediately comprehensible was this blog form.

Reason: Were there any corners of the blogosphere that you most regretted having to pass over quickly?

Rosenberg: I had to leave out so much. There are two areas that I easily could have tarried in much longer. One, obviously, is the political blogosphere. The many political blogospheres, I should say. I didn't want this to be a book about politics and blogging, because I wanted to put that story in the wider context. And I put less priority on stories that I had thought had been well-told elsewhere. The saga of the rise of the progressive netroots, Daily Kos and so forth, has been well told at this point. So I didn't feel obligated to do too much about that.

The other realm, which is even larger, is personal blogging that is outside of the public sphere as we think of it. Everything from teens on LiveJournal to your neighbor who just decided to start writing. I used this Salon blog program that I had participated in as my way to talk about that a bit, because I knew those bloggers and I knew their stories and was able to get a little window into that phenomenon that way. But really what this calls for is not a journalist but a social scientist.

Reason: As you researched the book, were there corners of the blogosphere that you found yourself exploring for the first time?

Rosenberg: Heather Armstrong's early notoriety was for losing her job as a Web developer because she had written these mercilessly funny posts about her co-workers. Her blog's name, Dooce, became an idiom for being fired for what you wrote on your blog. I lost touch with her work over the years, though I was dimly aware that she had become a mom and developed a big following as what came to be known as a "mommyblogger." Going back and reading a lot of her stuff over the years, and also interviewing her for the book, it turned out to be a great story of someone finding a voice as a writer and, despite some tough experiences and her own acerbic writing, finding a lot of support from the community of readers that she developed.

It's a useful corrective to the cynical, inside-publishing worldview that equates all blogging with snarkiness and venom. People have this limited view that the particular sliver of blogging that they are familiar with represents the entirety. If there's one thing that people take from my book, I hope it's that blogging is almost as vast and variegated as humanity itself.

Reason: In your book you write, "The world of the newsroom is one of constrained resources—there are only so many reporters on staff, so many hours in the day, so many column-inches to fill—and editors spend their workdays making choices within those limits. But bloggers lived outside those constraints. They seemed to have all the time in the world to pursue their obsessions."

What struck me about that was that it reverses the usual argument you hear about journalism and blogging, in which only a newspaper has the resources to pursue stories relentlessly and bloggers are just dilettantes.

Rosenberg: The resources that a newsroom has, particularly a great newsroom like the Journal's or the Times', are impressive. They have expertise. They have a certain amount of money. But they're finite. The work is about deploying people and time, and there's never enough of either of those. The resources that bloggers have are passion and time. And in many cases also expertise, as with economics bloggers and legal bloggers.

I don't fully buy the newsroom argument that "We have resources that bloggers don't." That's an accident of history and an accident of the media business model. The truth is, sadly—and I say this as someone who worked for years at a newspaper—that most people who know a subject really well, when they read an account of their field in a newspaper, are if not appalled at least disappointed. There's always something wrong. With occasional exceptions of journalists who just happen to be really great.

Reason: Near the end of the book, you describe bloggers as the "curators of our collective history."

Rosenberg: In the future, when people write the history of our time, they're going to have this incredible trove of information. It's not totally raw, but it is much broader than the material historians have had to work with in the past. It encompasses a much wider swath of humanity. I can't help thinking of that as a monumental achievement.