Soundbite: The Bloggers' Historian
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. "I noticed very early that these were the pages I kept going back to," Rosenberg says. "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, Say Everything (Crown), 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.
Q: 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?
A: In a way, that whole era is unjustly forgotten. 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 experiencesare 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 dreamingof some sort of utopia where we can all express ourselves and never get into fights. Telling those stories just seemed important.
Q: 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?
A: 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 immediatelycomprehensible was this blog form.
Q: As you researched the book, were there corners of the blogosphere that you found yourself exploring for the first time?
A: 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.
Q: Near the end of the book, you describe bloggers as the "curators of our collective history."
A: 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.
A longer version of this interview can be read online at reason.com/news/show/134784.html.