10/11/2005

WHAT IS A WEB LOG, really? a Wunderkammer - A box full of wonders ?

Julian Dibbel groundbreaking article on blogs, first published in FEED online magazine, May 3, 2000.


WHAT IS A WEB LOG, really?

..they evolved, gradually feeling their way toward an unexpected maturity as a form. By now, hundreds of more and less artfully maintained blogs have emerged -- Lemonyellow, Boing Boing, and Cardhouse being just a few of the more memorable. There are specialty blogs, their links dedicated to music, or Web design, or Jewishness. A loosely collegial, cross-linking community of Web loggers has coalesced, trading advice, feedback, and support. Software, like the increasingly popular Blogger, is being built to ease the tedious job of daily adding links.

And inevitably, money has begun to nibble at the edges of the phenomenon. Master blogger Jim Romenesko has been hired by the Poynter Foundation to maintain his heavily trafficked media-gossip Web log full time; corporations have been rumored to set up in-house intranet blogs to track potential markets and competitors; and arguably, sites like About.com, laced with linky content drizzled out by semi-amateur specialists, have incorporated elements of Web logging into their business models. Also inevitably, articles have been written -- in Salon, The New York Times, Wired -- consecrating Web logs as yet another New New Thing: At one time or another in the last 12 months, they have been the future of journalism, a budding branch on the tree of literature, or both.

In fact, they are neither, say some members of the Web’s weary anti-hype brigades. "Sorry, buddy -- you’re just a dork who can’t come up with anything more than a paragraph or two to say every day," wrote Teeth e-zine’s Ben Brown in an open letter to Web loggers last spring. "You’re not a designer, you’re not a writer, and you’re not an editor!"

Well, no, blogger, you’re not. And therein lies your gift. Because even if it’s true the vast majority of blogs would not be missed by more than a handful of people were the earth to open up and swallow them, and even if the best are still no substitute for the sustained attention of literary or journalistic works, it’s also true that sustained attention is not what Web logs are about anyway. At their most interesting they embody something that exceeds attention, and transforms it: They are constructed from and pay implicit tribute to a peculiarly contemporary sort of wonder.

A Web log really, then, is a Wunderkammer. That is to say, the genealogy of Web logs points not to the world of letters but to the early history of museums -- to the "cabinet of wonders," or Wunderkammer, that marked the scientific landscape of Renaissance modernity: a random collection of strange, compelling objects, typically compiled and owned by a learned, well-off gentleman. A set of ostrich feathers, a few rare shells, a South Pacific coral carving, a mummified mermaid -- the Wunderkammer mingled fact and legend promiscuously, reflecting European civilization’s dazed and wondering attempts to assimilate the glut of physical data that science and exploration were then unleashing.

Just so, the Web log reflects our own attempts to assimilate the glut of immaterial data loosed upon us by the "discovery" of the networked world. And there are surely lessons for us in the parallel. For just as the cabinet of wonders took centuries to evolve into the more orderly, logically crystalline museum, so it may be a while before the chaos of the Web submits to any very tidy scheme of organization. If we hoped once to pass immediately from the Web’s Wunderkammer era to its museum age -- to fly without a hitch from What’s New to Yahoo! -- these days we’re obliged to recognize that indexes and search engines are themselves barely adequate to the job of taming the data storm, that grows far faster than their ability to filter it. We remain in a kind of stupor before the Web’s abundance, and we seem likely to stay in it indefinitely. We might as well learn how to live there.

We might also consider enjoying it while it lasts. After all, the passage from Wunderkammer to museum may have been a triumph for Western science, but it was a mixed bag for the Western soul. Wonder isn’t easily replaced once mastery disperses it, and we may sorely miss our wonder at the Web if and when the wonder goes. Better we should savor it now -- and what better form to savor it in than in its purest distillation on the Web, the blog?

JULIAN DIBBELL

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