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SHE HAS SEEN THE FUTURE AND IT IS -- WEBLOGS


Tribune Staff Writer
September 7, 1999

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 well.

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 and mediagossip.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 funny.

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 mentioned:

- Kottke.org

- robotwisdom.com

- jjg.net

- lemonyellow.com

- memepool.com

- peterme.com

- flutterby.com

- Moreover.com

- Julienne.com

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