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Digital Culture
You've Got Blog
How to put your business,
your boyfriend, and your life on-line.
November 13, 2000
1
     Meg Hourihan was in a bad mood.  She had nothing major to
worry about, but she was afflicted by the triple malaise of a
woman in her late twenties: (a) the weather was lousy; (b) she
was working too hard; and (c) she didn't have a boyfriend.  Nothing,
not even eating, seemed very interesting to her.  The only thing
that did sound appealing was moving to France and finding a hot
new French boyfriend, but even when she talked about that idea
she struck a sardonic, yeah-right-like-I'm-really-going-to-do-that
kind of tone.

     I know this about Meg because I read it a few months ago
on her personal Web site, which is called Megnut.com.  I've been
reading Megnut for a while now, and so I know all kinds of things
about its author, like how much she loved Hilary Swank in "Boys
Don't Cry," and how she wishes there were good fish tacos
to be had in San Francisco, where she lives.  I know she's a feminist,
and that she writes short stories, and that she's close to her
mom.  I know that she's a little dreamy and idealistic; that she
fervently believes there is a distinction between "dot-com
people," who are involved in the Internet for its I.P.O.
opportunities, and "web people," who are in love with
the imaginative possibilities presented by the medium, and that
she counts herself among the latter.

     Meg is one of the founders of a company called Pyra, which
produces an Internet application known as Blogger.  Blogger, which
can be used free on the Internet, is a tool for creating a new
kind of Web site that is known as a "weblog," or "blog,"
of which Megnut is an example.  A blog consists primarily of links
to other Web sites and commentary about those links.  Having a
blog is rather like publishing your own, on-line version of Reader's
Digest, with daily updates: you troll the Internet, and, when
you find an article or a Web site that grabs you, you link to
it--or, in weblog parlance, you "blog" it.  Then other people who 
have blogs--they are known as bloggers--read your blog,
and if they like it they blog your blog on their own blog.

     Blogs often consist of links to articles that readers might
otherwise have missed, and thus make for informative reading:
it was via an excellent blog called Rebecca's Pocket that I learned,
for instance, that the Bangkok transit authority had introduced
a ladies-only bus to protect female passengers from strap-hanging
molestation.  It also led me to a site devoted to burritos, where
I underwent an on-line burrito analysis, in which my personality
type was diagnosed according to my favorite burrito elements:
"Your pairing of a meat-free burrito and all those fatty
toppings indicates a dangerous ability to live with illusions."
Blogs often include links to sites that illuminate the matter
at hand.  For example, when Meg wrote about planting a plumeria
cutting, she linked to a site called the Plumeria Place, which
included a picture and a description of the plant.  

     Many bloggers have Internet-related jobs, and so they use
their sites to keep other bloggers informed of the latest news
in the world of Web design or copyright law.  Jason Kottke, a Web
designer from Minneapolis who maintains a site called Kottke.org,
is widely admired among bloggers as a thoughtful critic of Web
culture.  (On the strength of the picture transmitted by his Webcam,
he is also widely perceived as very cute.  If you read around among
blogs, you find that Kottke is virtually beset by blogging groupies.)
Getting blogged by Kottke, or by Meg Hourihan or one of her colleagues
at Pyra, is the blog equivalent of having your book featured on
"Oprah": it generally means a substantial boost in traffic enough,
perhaps, to earn the blog a mention on Beebo.org, which has functioned
as a blog best-seller list.  (An example from a blog called Fairvue.com:
"Jason K.  linked to Fairvue.  My life is now complete.")


     The weblog format of links and commentary has been around
for some years, but in the early days of weblogging the sites
had to be built by hand, one block of code at a time, which meant
that they were produced only by a handful of technology mavens.
There were a few weblogs that earned a following among non-tech
civilians--Jim Romenesko's Medianews, a weblog of stories about
the media business, is one; Arts & Letters Daily, a digest of 
intellectual affairs, is another--but most remained more specialized.
A year and a half ago, there were only fifty or so weblogs; now
the number has increased to thousands, with blogs like Megnut
getting around a thousand visits a day.  This growth is due in
large part to Blogger, and a couple of other weblogging tools
such as Pitas and Editthispage, which have made launching a personal
Web site far simpler.  

     Most of the new blogs are, like Megnut, intimate narratives
rather than digests of links and commentary; to read them is to
enter a world in which the personal lives of participants have
become part of the public domain.  Because the main audience for
blogs is other bloggersblogging etiquette requires that, if someone
blogs your blog, you blog his blog backreading blogs can feel
a lot like listening in on a conversation among a group of friends
who all know each other really well.  Blogging, it turns out, is
the CB radio of the Dave Eggers generation.  And that is how, when
Meg Hourihan followed up her French-boyfriend-depression posting
with a stream-of-consciousness blog entry a few weeks later saying
that she had developed a crush on someone but was afraid to act
on it"Maybe I've become very good at eluding love but that's
not a complaint I just want to get it all out of my head and put
it somewhere else," she wroteher love life became not just
her business but the business of bloggers everywhere.

2

     Pyra, the company that produces Blogger, has its offices
on the ground floor of a warehouse building on Townsend Street
in SoMa, the former industrial district that is now home to many
of San Francisco's Internet businesses.  The company, which was
founded last year by Evan Williams (who has his own blog, Evhead.com)
in collaboration with Meg Hourihan, occupies two computer-filled
rooms that face each other across an atrium littered with random
pieces of office furniture discarded by Internet startups whose
fortunes took a dive when the Nasdaq did, last April.  Pyra survived
the dive, with some help from venture capitalists, and from Mr.
and Mrs.  Hourihan, Meg's parents.  (More recently, Advance Publications,
which publishes this magazine, invested in Pyra.) Still, Ev and
Meg ruefully talk about how they managed to get through the summer
of 1999, the season of implausible I.P.O.s, without becoming rich.

     "We first met at a party," Meg explained, as she
and I sat on a battered couch.  Ev rolled his desk chair over to
join us.  Meg, who grew up in Boston and graduated from Tufts with
a degree in English, is voluble and given to gesticulation.  She
is tall and athletic-looking, and has cropped spiky hair that
last spring she bleached white-blond after polling the readers
of her blog about her hairstyling options.  Meg and Ev dated for
a while before deciding that their shared passion for the Internet
did not translate into a shared passion for each other; but then
Ev drafted Meg to help him start Pyra, the goal of which was to
develop a Web-based tool that would help project managers share
information with co-workers.  (They have since been joined by four
other friends.)

     "I knew she was very good at helping me think about
ideas," Ev said.  Ev comes from Nebraskahe once blogged an
aerial photograph of the family farmand is taciturn and ironic;
he has a beetling brow and a Tintin coif.  In 1991, he dropped
out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln after a year and launched
his first Internet company, for which he still owes his parents
money.  

     Blogger wasn't part of Pyra's original plan; Ev and a colleague,
Paul Bausch, built it for fun, and then launched it on the Web
one week in the summer of 1999, when Meg was on vacation.That
fall, Blogger found plenty of users among geeks who were glad
to have a tool that made weblogging easier; only recently, though,
did Ev and Meg set aside their other Pyra plans.  "It took
us a long time to realize what we had with Blogger," Meg
said.  

     That afternoon, Meg sat down with me at her computer--I tried
to stay out of the range of the Webcam that is trained on her
whenever she sits at her desk--and showed me how Blogger works.
To use Blogger, it helps to know a little of the computer language
html, but, once you've set up your site, adding new chunks of
text is as easy as sending an E-mail.  Meg clicked open the Blogger
inputting box, typed a few words, and showed me how she could
hit one button and send the text to her site.  The creators of
Blogger think it may make posting items on the Web a little too
easy; a new term, "blogorrhea," has been coined to describe
the kind of entries--"I'm tired," or "This sucks"--that are the work 
of the unimaginative blogger.  

     While I was sitting at Meg's desk, I noticed the bookmarks
that she had on her Web browser.  Among them were Evhead and Kottke.org.
She had also marked Jason Kottke's Webcam.  Jason Kottke was the
object of the crush that Meg had described in her blog a few months
earlier.  They met last March, at South by Southwest, an alternative-
culture conference that takes place in Austin every spring.  

     "I recognized him immediately," Meg wrote in an
E-mail to me.  "He was taller than I thought he'd be, but
I knew it was him."  She had been reading his blog, Kottke.org,
for ages.  "I always thought he seemed cool and intelligent
.  .  .  but I thought he was a bit conceited.  He was so well-known,
and he wrote once about taking some on-line I.Q.  tests and he
actually posted his results, which I thought was showoffish."

After meeting Jason, Meg changed her mind: "He seemed not
at all conceited like I thought, and actually pretty funny and
nice, and cute, much cuter than he ever appeared on his Webcam."


     Meg made sure she had an excuse to stay in touchshe offered
to send Jason a customized version of blogger code for him to
try on kottke.org.  Once she got back to San Francisco, she said,
"I wrote on Megnut that I had a crush, and he E-mailed me
and said, `Who's the crush on?  Spill it, sister.' So I E-mailed
him back and said it was him.  He was really surprised."  Meg
took further electronic action to advance her aims, and altered
her Web site so that it included her ICQ number--the number someone
would need to send her an instant message, even though the last
thing she wanted was to be inundated with instant messages from
strangers.  A couple of days later, Jason ICQ'd her for the first
time.  ("He fell for my trick," she said.) That night,
they instant-messaged for three hours.  A week later, she shifted
technologies again, and called him on the telephone.  Then she
invited him to San Francisco, and that was that.

     Meg and Jason had been dating for two months when I visited San
Francisco, and he was due to arrive from Minneapolis for the weekend.
Meg told me about a Web device she uses called Flight Tracker:
you type in a flight number, and a map is displayed, with an icon
representing the location of the airplane.  "I always look
at it, and think, Oh, he's over Nebraska now," she said.

     I already knew that Meg and Jason were involved, because
I'd been reading their Web sites; although neither of them had
written anything about the relationship, there were hints throughout
their recent entries.  Those hints had also been under discussion
on a Web site called Metafilter.  Metafilter is a "community
weblog," which means that anyone who is a member can post
a link to it.  Most of the posts to Metafilter are links to news
stories or weird Web sites, but in early June someone named Monkeyboy
had linked to a photograph of Meg and Jason looking into Jason's
bathroom mirror.  The picture was posted on a Web site belonging
to a friend of Meg's who collects photographs of the mirrors of
Web celebrities.  Monkeyboy also linked to Megnut's "crush"
entry, and to an entry that Jason had written on Kottke.org about
Meg's site design, and he posted them all on Metafilter with the
words "So what's up with this?  I think there's something
going on here."  This generated a lively discussion, with
some bloggers furthering the gossip by linking to other blogs
whose authors had confessed to having crushes on Jason, while
others wrote in suggesting it was none of anyone's business.  

     When I looked back at Jason's blog for the period just after
he met Meg, I found no references to a romance.  Jason's style
is a little more sober.  But there was one entry in which he seemed
to be examining the boundary between his Web life and his non-Web
life.  He'd written that there were things going on in his life
that were more personal than the stuff he usually wrote about
in his weblog.  "Why don't I just write it down somewhere
private .  .  .  a Word doc on my computer or in a paper diary?"
he asked himself, and his readers.  "Somehow, that seems strange
to me though.  .  .  .  The Web is the place for you to express your
thoughts and feelings and such.  To put those things elsewhere
seems absurd."  

     One day, I met Meg and Jason for breakfast.  Jason, who is
twenty-seven, is tall, with short hair and sideburns; he was wearing
jeans and a Princess Mononoke T-shirt.  She ordered a tofu scramble
and soy latte, he had real eggs.  I asked what it was like to have
their private lives discussed among the members of their virtual
community, and they said they thought it was funny.  I asked whether
they ever included hidden messages to each other in their blogs,
an idea that seemed to surprise them.  "Well, I did once use
that word `tingly,' " Meg said.  Jason blushed.

     A few days later, they stoked the gossip further by posting
identical entries on their Web sites: word-for-word accounts of
seeing a young girl on a bicycle in the street, and descriptions
of the childhood memories that it triggered.  Then a strange thing
happened.  One by one, several bloggers copied the little-girl
entry into their blogs, as if they had seen the child on the bicycle,
too.  Other bloggers started to write parodies of the little-girl
entry.  Still other bloggers started to post messages to Metafilter,
asking what the hell was going on with all these sightings of
little girls.  When I sent Meg an E-mail about this outbreak, she
wrote back, "I was especially struck by the number of people
who thought it was a big prank pulled by the `popular' kids to
make fun of the uncool kids."

3

     There have been some ostentatious retreats from the blogging
frenzy: last June, one well-known blogger named Derek Powazek
announced in his blog that he wanted no part of it anymore, and
that instead of addressing himself to the blogger community at
large he would henceforth be writing with only a few friends and
family members in mind.  This announcement provoked a flurry of
postings from neophyte bloggers, who feared they were facing the
Twilight of Blogging before they had really had a chance to enjoy
the Dawn of Blogging.

     The people at Pyra, having generated a blog explosion with
their Blogger software, aren't entirely happy about the way blogs
have developed.  "It's like being frustrated with your kid,
when you know he could be doing so much more," Ev told me.
He and Meg have been developing different uses for Blogger, including
ones from which they might actually make some money.  One idea
is to install Blogger on the intranets of companies, so that it
can be used as a means of letting large groups share information.
(Cisco is currently experimenting with using Blogger in-house
to keep minutes of project meetings up to date.) 

     Meanwhile, Meg and Ev have developed a whole new level of
celebrity status.  Not long ago, a group of bloggers created a
community blog called the Pyra Shrine.  There are posts about how
hot Meg is ("Megnut is da bomb.  She's one kewl lady")
and whether Ev needs a personal assistant ("You know, to
make him coffee and get him stuff.  I'd do it.  For free, even!").
The whole thing is very silly, and completely irresistible if
you're a reader of Megnut or Evhead, or, indeed, if you are the
creator of Megnut or Evhead.  Meg linked to it on her site recently,
and wrote, "O.K., I have to admit, this The Pyra Shrine cracks
me up."  

     It was through the Pyra Shrine that I learned, one day last
month, that Jason was moving to San Francisco.  ("That's a
big sacrifice.  He must really love her," one of the Shrine
contributors had posted.) I E-mailed Meg, who told me that Jason
had taken a new Web-design job and was driving across the countryhe
was probably in Wyoming at that very moment.  I remarked that since
he was in a car she couldn't use Flight Tracker to see where he
was.

     "Oh yeah, it's so bad," she wrote back.  "I'm so used to being 
able to communicate with him, or at least check in in some way 
all the time (Webcam, Flight Tracker, ICQ, E-mail, etc.) and now 
there's nothing.  Well, except for phone at night, but still, seems 
like nothing compared with what I've gotten used to."

     Later that night, I called Meg, and she sounded excited.
"He should be here in three or four days," she said.   Having mastered 
the techniques for having a digital relationship, she was finally ready 
for an analog one; and she hadn't even had to move to France to 
get it.      

copyright 2000, Rebecca Mead
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