There is not an easily defined linear progression in Scott Rosenberg’s new book, Say Everything. The former Salon editor sought out over a year ago to retrace the blogosphere’s origins, but as he points out extensively in the book and elsewhere, there is no singular website buried in the depths of the 1990s web that one can simply point to and say, “That’s the first blog.” And so rather than dealing with a chronological list of events, he traverses across a number of pioneers and tools, profiling how these individuals intuitively and often haphazardly stumbled into this new medium, even though some of them didn’t know they were doing so at the time.
“The biggest challenge in the book is drawing boundaries around the subject,” Rosenberg told me. “Figuring out how to make a book that would work as a book while covering this topic. For instance I met Ethan Zuckerman at this Knight Conference the other week and he looked at the book and since his focus is on global issues — he helped found Global Voices — he said, ‘gee it looks pretty US centric.’ That’s because it is pretty US centric. There are a huge number of important stories to be told about blogging around the world. I just sort of very consciously chose as part of my effort to define the boundaries of this project so that they focus primarily on the US. And so similarly, any time you’re creating something your’e always making a decision about what to leave out, whether it’s software, a work of art or anything. Those are the decisions that in a way are the most important ones.”
He notes in the book that once blogs reached critical mass — helped in large part by the launch of Ev Williams’ Blogger — the blogosphere fragmented into several blogospheres, and Say Everything is Rosenberg’s effort to encapsulate these movements and how they fell into our cultural psyche. To do this, he interviewed hundreds of bloggers and web pioneers, and within the book’s pages you’ll read about the rise of Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo and how it methodically transformed itself into a political news brand. You’ll understand how a relative latecomer like BoingBoing was able to gather millions of readers by becoming the focal point of quirky geek culture. The book recounts Heather Armstrong’s heartbreaking story of getting “Dooced” from her job and how she blogged her way through postpartum depression.
“For me, what I felt like worked was following a spark, a spark that begins primarily with technologists, and then it just kind of jumps a barrier into the political realm, and then it jumps from politics into business … and then from business more widely into pop culture,” he said. “At a certain point, the mid point of this decade, as blogging becomes this thing that millions of people are doing, there’s really no way to craft a single narrative out of it. So what I tried to do is to focus on what struck me as interesting relative to the stories that were happening.”
Lately, there has been no shortage of journalists that have announced– usually as a form of link bait — the “death of blogging” as social news and microblogging continue to grow in market share, but Rosenberg’s book is a tribute to the medium’s still-immense power as we approach the end of the decade. He noted that long before Twitter existed there were bloggers that were writing Twitter-like posts, so the launch of the microblogging site merely carved out a niche for those kinds of bloggers, leaving the traditional blogging platform for more long-form writers.
“If you look at what [early blogger] Justin Hall did, everything that bloggers were going to do for the next decade was sort of encapsulated in his experiences,” Rosenberg said. “Similarly, if you look at the early days of Blogger, and you actually look at the blogs that they were keeping inside Pyra, they were essentially tweeting to each other. These were one-line blog posts; each of the posts were short, a good proportion of the posts had links in them. They were sharing links, and they were sharing with each other what they were up to. It’s no surprise that it’s a decade later and Evan Williams has gone back to this idea of blogging as this short message to be shared with a specific group of people, because that was a part of Blogger’s evolution. And so when you look back at early blogging you see there was always this kind of divergence, these two paths that people went down. Some saw a blog post as a little essay or something they would craft carefully as a piece of writing, others saw it as a way to offer a kind of brief update on themselves. What’s happened now is that Twitter is a much more efficient platform to do that second kind of blogging.”
As for its death, he said that there really are very few media platforms that actually expire — the telegraph, for instance, didn’t finally disappear until just a few years ago — and that the desire to declare its death stems from a technology culture that is fixated on piling on to the next big thing. After all, there has already been a flurry of posts declaring Twitter’s death as it continues to grow at exponential rates.
So is Say Everything the definitive history of the blogosphere, its bible, its chronicle of all the intricate ways that the medium evolved? I can attest that it’s certainly a fascinating book, but even Rosenberg said that it would be impossible — what with the millions of blogs in existence — to tell the entire story in one place.
“Say Everything is one effort,” he said. “There are already others and will be many others. This is certainly not the only one to tell the story, but it’s hopefully worthwhile.”