There is no “first blogger”

“It’s been 10 years since the blog was born,” said a Wall Street Journal headline on Saturday. The article that followed declared, “We are approaching a decade since the first blogger — regarded by many to be Jorn Barger — began his business of hunting and gathering links…”

The article admits that “The dating of the 10th anniversary of blogs, and the ascription of primacy to the first blogger, are imperfect exercises” — but it barely lifts a finger to try to sort out the truth. Writer Tunku Varadarajan really wouldn’t have had to look very far: Declan McCullagh’s CNET piece earlier this year was not perfect, but it got a lot more of the story right than Varadarajan did.

Who be these “many” who regard Barger as the first blogger? Can Varadarajan name a single one? Barger’s Robot Wisdom was indeed the first site to call itself a “Weblog.” (“Blog” came later, via Peter Merholz.) But Barger was nowhere near the first person to create a Web page with frequent updates sorted in reverse chronological order — if you wish to define “blog” on the basis of that key design feature. Dave Winer’s Scripting News was going full bore well before Barger’s site started up; Winer, in turn was preceded by semi-bloggish sites like Ric Ford’s Macintouch.

Others choose to define blogging more in terms of content. (None of them names Barger as the first blogger, either.) The problem is that, from this angle, too, there are multiple roots: blogs are commonly vehicles for self-revelation — so maybe Justin Hall, the inspiring pioneer of link-filled Web diaries, was the ur-blogger. But others see the heart of blogging as being the assembly of a list of annotated links — in which case the first blog might well be, as Dave Winer has said, Tim Berners-Lee’s very first web page at CERN. (Similarly, Marc Andreessen jokes that the original NCSA “What’s New” page from 1993 was his first blog.) Then there are those who see blogs primarily as fast-moving sources for news and rumors; these people (I tend to disagree with them, but they’re out there) will typically point to Matt Drudge as a blogging progenitor.

Since the Journal article came out, the blogosphere’s self-correction mechanism has been going at full tilt. As happens in this medium, lots of good suggestions are coming to light.

Still, I think there’s a lot of needless effort being dedicated toward a pointless goal — the identification of a “first” that is really only of use to old-fashioned editors eager to fill slow-news days with anniversary features.

The hunt for “the first blog” or “the day blogging started” will be in vain. Like many significant phenomena in our world, blogging does not have a single point of origin. Blogging as we know it today slowly accreted from multiple input streams. It’s a set of practices built around a set of tools, and the practices and tools co-evolved. There are a handful of central figures in the story. They’re all important. Why argue about “firsts” when the thing whose first instance you are hunting down is impossible to strictly define?

The Journal piece, which included brief essays by a dozen celebrities and high-profile bloggers, tilts heavily toward the political wing of the blogosphere, which is only one galaxy in this continuously expanding multiple universe. That distortion is perhaps understandable from a newspaper that lies at the nexus of conservative American power and money. But, sheesh, ye Journal-ites, you ought to get your facts right.

Ironically, the Journal’s biggest-name essayist, Tom Wolfe, arrogantly dismisses the blogosphere for its “narcissistic shrieks and baseless ‘information.'” His chief complaint, oddly, is aimed not at blogs at all but at Wikipedia, which apparently contains an anecdote about him that he says is false (I should say “contained” — the page has of course been updated based on his complaint).

Blogs, Wikipedia, what’s the difference? To Tom, it’s all that crazy stuff on the Internet, and to hell with it. Plainly, we should forget about what we read online and trust titans like the Journal — they’re so rock-solid reliable on the facts!
[tags]blogs, blogging, web history[/tags]

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  1. Hmmm. The Wolfe response falls into a classic category: folks with power/platforms in the pre-net world who are upset at the entry of the great unwashed masses into their sanctum santorums. Similar to 2nd-rate educators and hack librarians who rail against google and wikipedia. Funny/sad, albeit useful in its revelation of certain hypocrisies in their supposed pursuit/support of building a more informed democratic citizenry.

  2. >>Declan McCullagh’s CNET piece earlier this year was not perfect,
    >>but it got a lot more of the story right than Varadarajan did.

    Scott, I’m a little bothered by your sort of back-handed dismissal of Declan’s piece, which at the very least takes exactly the right approach at the top, noting the controversy and difficulty of the task at hand. But if you’re going to call it less than perfect, can’t you at least link to whatever critique you’re referring to? I searched on your blog and didn’t find any earlier entry about Declan’s piece… Also a funny thought occurred to me: Tunku could have avoided all this if he (or she – not sure) had just described Barger as the person who invented the term weblog to describe a daily online diary…

  3. Aaron, not meant as a backhanded dismissal: “Not perfect” is a way I’d describe most things, including most fervently myself. My memory of Declan McCullagh’s piece — reinforced by a quick re-read — was that it was basically factually sound in a way that the WSJ piece wasn’t, but there were some things I would probably take issue with if I were reviewing it in great detail. (For example, it’s not clear to me why Barger would be described as “iconoclastic.”) But yes, I think it’s a much better piece, and didn’t intend my “not perfect” description to detract from that essential point.

    And yes, all Varadarajan needed to do was to say that Barger was the first to use the “Weblog” term. That’s a fact, and it would have been absurdly easy to shape the piece around that.

  4. I was sure it was Al Gore. Right after he turned on his IBM286 and created the internet he blogged about it.

  5. John Walker, a founder of Autodesk, used to publish regular essays on the Internet he called “screeds.” This was in the early 90s and he even posted a diet he created that led to permanent weight loss (about 40 pounds) through exercise, careful calorie intake, and the banishment of pizza. The point is that he was one of the first programmers/developers/architects to use the Net to communicate his ideas about other aspects of life, not just technology, much in the way Dave Winer has done.

    I also see the Well as an early implementation of a group generated blog.

  6. Basically, blogs are structurally similar to old USENET newsgroups, especially as read with the old “rn” news reader program. They had posts and comments (although comments _were_ posts), and were generally organized in reverse chronological order. BBSs were even closer: many of them had posts by the BBS owner and separate comments by the subscribers. If I were explaining a blog to a computer enthusiast from 1985, I’d say it’s a BBS with a linked graphical interface and no need for modems.

    The idea of blogging has been around as long as computers have been networked, so to find the “first blogs”, you’d have to go back to the early 1980s at the very latest, and possibly back to the early 1970s, when the ancestors of “netnews” came out.

  7. I guess finding the world’s ‘first’ blogger would be impossible, but I’m sure we could find who the world’s first successful blogger was (or, most read blogger – depending on what you mean by ‘successful’.) I think its crazy the way blogging has really taken over, and it certainly has already becoming a normal thing in society and how we get our information (and, who carries influence etc.) Very interesting indeed!

  8. The reason why we can’t find someone who can be called as the true first blogger is because our minds are set to the notion that a blog is a web log that is almost the same as a complete web site. The blogger must be able to handle technical skills so that his blog can have all the features that we see in famous blogs nowadays.

  9. Who was the first American Blogger?

    In an antiquated world with no technology, Benjamin Franklin stood alone as the first and foremost blogger and social networker.

    Franklin’s editorials were printed weekly in almost every newspaper in the American colonies, much like the blogs people post today. And each day of the week for over twenty years, he penned pithy sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanac—sayings that at under a hundred and forty characters long could easily be considered the same as tweets today. He also corresponded with over six hundred people worldwide by snail-mail on a yearly basis, more names than most people have in their entire email address book.

    In extensive research on Ben Franklin for my new historical time travel novel, Lightning Strikes the Colonies, (to be published November 1st) it was interesting to learn that this incredible humanitarian, scientist, and journalist was the first to network world wide.

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