How Twitter makes blogs smarter

Probably the single question I’m most often asked as I talk to people about Say Everything is: How has Twitter changed blogging? Twitter’s rapid growth — along with the preference of some users for sharing on Facebook and the rise of all sorts of other “microblogging” tools, from Tumblr and Posterous to Friendfeed and identi.ca — is altering the landscape. But I think the result is auspicious in the long run, both for Twitter-style communication and for good old traditional blogging. Here’s why.

If you look back to the roots of blogging you find that there has always been a divide between two styles: One is what I’ll call “substantial blogging” — posting longer thoughts, ideas, stories, in texts of at least a few paragraphs; the other is “Twitter-style” — briefer, blurtier posts, typically providing either what we now call “status updates” or recommended links. Some bloggers have always stuck to one form or another: Glenn Reynolds is the classic one-line blogger; Glenn Greenwald and Jay Rosen are both essay-writers par excellence. Other bloggers have struggled to balance their dedication to both styles: Just look at how Jason Kottke has, over the years, fiddled with how to present his longer posts and his linkblog: Together in parallel, interspersed in one stream, or on separate pages?

A historical footnote: Twitter’s CEO is Evan Williams, who was previously best known as the father of Blogger. You find a style of blogging that’s remarkably Twitter-like on the blogs that became the prototype for Blogger — a private weblog called “stuff” that was shared by Williams and Meg Hourihan at their company, Pyra, and a public blog of Pyra news called Pyralerts (here’s a random page from July 1999). The same style later showed up in many early Blogger blogs: brief posts, no headlines, lots of links — it’s all very familiar. In some ways, with Twitter, Williams has just reinvented the kind of blogging he was doing a decade ago.

Today, the single-line post and the linkblog aren’t dead, but certainly, much of the energy of the people who like to post that way is now going into Twitter. It’s convenient, it’s fun, it has the energy of a shiny novelty, and it has the allure of a social platform.

But there’s a nearly infinite universe of things you might wish to express that simply can’t fit into 140 characters. It’s not that the Twitter form forces triviality upon us; it’s possible to be creative and expressive within Twitter’s narrow constraints. But the form is by definition limited. Haiku is a wonderful poetic form, but most of us wouldn’t choose to adopt it for all of our verse.

From their earliest days, blogs were dismissed as a mundane form in which people told us, pointlessly, what they had for lunch. In fact, of course, as I reported in Say Everything‘s first chapter, the impulse to tell the world what you had for lunch appears to predate blogging, stretching back into the primordial ooze of early Web publishing.

Today, at any rate, those who wish to share quotidian updates have a more efficient channel with which to share them. This clarifies the place of blogs as repositories for our bigger thoughts and ideas and for more lasting records of our own experiences and observations.

There are a couple of serious limitations to Twitter as a blog substitute, beyond the character limit. But this post has gotten long — even for a post-Twitter blog! — so I’m going to address them in my next post, tomorrow.

Post Revisions: