Now hear this -- and e-mail the news to all your friends: The novel and the
short story may be the snail darter and spotted owl of the literary world. It
could be curtains for the sonnet, the rhymed couplet and the screenplay as
Like all familiar forms, they're on the endangered genres list, perhaps
bound for extinction as the world makes way for an onslaught of new, hybrid
genres enabled by hypertext (that is, links from one Website to another).
My pick for most promising new genre: the Weblog.
Weblogs are -- well, let's back up a bit. If I define a Weblog, I'm not
being true to the fluid, floating, idiosyncratic spirit of the enterprise.
Definitions are boundaries, and boundaries are anathema to Webloggers.
Moreover, the best Weblogs are always shifting and evolving, always on their
way to being something else.
To paraphrase Woody Guthrie's comment about a song: Trying to define a
Weblog is like trying to take a picture of a bird in flight.
My left-brained editor insists, however, so here goes:
A Weblog is a Web site that maintains a constantly updated list of links to
other sites; those links can deal with any subject or focus on a particular
one. Webloggers typically offer pithy, sarcastic commentary about the links.
Weblogs, in effect, are annotated bibliographies of the world.
But that's not all. Because Webloggers are a self-selected group of mostly
young (under 30), relentlessly verbal, fiendishly well-read, usually
subversive folks who relish tying together the shoelaces of the stiffly
homogenized corporate world, a Weblog can be highly personalized and
exhilaratingly eccentric, with more than a touch of the rebel and the poet.
The best Webloggers provide a daily journal of what they're reading and
what they're thinking about it. That chronicle -- at times funny, angry,
cranky, sad, bored, unpredictable and contradictory -- is like an independent
film on an endless loop. It's like a memoir of the future.
What makes a Weblog a truly creative pursuit and not just a soulless,
arbitrary list is the individual voice that emerges from the screen, the
personality that squeezes out between the links like sunlight between the
slats of a Venetian blind.
And in yet another example of the coolly independent spirit of Weblogs,
most Webloggers are decidedly underwhelmed by their work. There's precious
little hype in the Weblog world (even though, of course, some might argue that
the very act of creating a Weblog is hype enough for a lifetime, since it
involves the constant valorization of one's most trivial impressions, fleeting
opinions and halfbaked ideas).
"I have two rules: I don't do publicity and I don't sit for photographs,"
said Jim Romanesko, creator of two of the best-known Weblogs: obscurestore.com
"I rarely use the term `Weblog.' I say it's just a site with links to
stories that I find interesting," said Romanesko, and his voice shrugged even
if his shoulders didn't. "I want to remain obscure."
He may loathe publicity, but publicity seems to love him: Romanesko, who
moved to Chicago from St. Paul last weekend, recently was featured in stories
in The New York Times and Salon.com.
As a result, mediagossip.com -- true to its moniker, a Weblog specializing
in juicy tidbits about news-purveyors -- will, come October, be sponsored by
the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism education foundation whose
executives read about Romanesko and decided he was their man. The Weblog will
adopt a new name, upon which Romanesko has yet to decide.
"But they'll keep the spirit of mediagossip.com," he promised.
(obscurestore.com will continue on its quirky, zigzaggy path.)
Steve Bogart, creator of nowthis.com, was similarly self-effacing.
"Weblogs aren't really that new or unique. It's not really anything more
than self-publishing and self-publishing has been around a long, long time,"
said Bogart, who lives in St. Louis.
"At their best, Weblogs are both content providers and context providers
for the mass of information available on the Web. At their worst, they're
exercises in vanity, giving us the illusion that we've done something valuable
by copying and pasting a link."
His Weblog got under way in May 1997, Bogart recalled, because he needed
"an outlet for my frustration at bad media. It was sort of a place where I
could feel, like, `Well, I've said my opinion. It's out there if anybody cares
to find it.' I'm not that much of a ranter in person."
Laurel Krahn, a Minneapolis resident, created windowseat.org in November
1998. Reading her Weblog is like breaking into a psychiatrist's office and
rifling through the files until you come upon an especially juicy set of notes
from a client session.
Krahn's work is part diary, part consumer's guide for television, movies
and music, and part transcript of an all-night phone call with a best friend.
Anybody's best friend.
She, too, though, refuses to hype Weblogs.
"It's not exactly a real new concept," Krahn said. "I've always had this
urge to tell people about my favorite band or my favorite link. My site's been
called `warmly personal.' And `eclectic.' That's nothing new for me."
In the last two years, Krahn said, she has seen Weblogs blossom from rather
dreary lists of links to intensely personal reflections on the world, from a
service model to an imagination-based one. Instead of remaining grimly
utilitarian, Weblogs are bidding fair to be considered literary forms. The
writing can be vivid and evocative, or playfully self-deprecating, or darkly
Yet as Weblogs increase in popularity, danger looms: They may be co-opted
by corporate entities.
Romanesko said, "I get e-mails from people saying, `Don't go corporate!'
They like the fact that there are small, independent voices out there."
Naturally, though, the more ink, airplay and net time that Weblogs garner,
the greater the chances that, sooner or later, you'll be looking at
windowseat.com -- brought to you by the good folks at Chrysler.
That would be a shame, because corporate sponsorship might muffle the
feisty voice of Weblogs.
Just think: If the Declaration of Independence were written today,
doubtless it would be posted on the Web -- with links to dozens of Weblogs
whose creators would scribble furious messages in support of the wildly
radical concept of self-governance.
Finding a Weblog that suits your tastes -- by going from link to link,
searching here and there, poking around the Web like Matt Drudge does garbage
cans -- is a large part of the fun, so I don't want to be too prescriptive.
Here, however, are some of my favorites, in addition to the sites already
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