I try to read the odd book that deals with Web 2.0 stuff or blogging with an eye toward including a couple in a yet-to-be taught digital history class. I am particularly interested in books that look at the history of some digital phenomena. The time span for such a history is amazingly small; even the most optimistic readers of the blogging phenomenon don't trace the development of the medium earlier than the mid-1990s. While interviews, articles in the popular press, and simple human memory go far to provide a foundation for writing "web history", other kinds of primary sources can be amazingly ephemeral and controlled by the vagaries of the roving-robots of the Internet Archive and cached browsers pages.
With this brief word of introduction, I'll offer a few modest observations of Scott Rosenberg's Say Everything: how blogging began, what it's become, and why it matters. (New York 2009). It was a quick read by an accomplished journalist who provided a sound history of blogging from the first autobiographical pages of Jonathan Hall to the recent explosion of political bloggers. The book focuses almost explicitly on the bloggers themselves with particular attention to folks who facilitated the development of the tools that most bloggers depend upon to engage their craft (folks like David Winer (of XML, RSS, et c. fame) and Evan Williams (of Blogger and now Twitter renown)). Rosenberg manages to capture the personalities of these individuals in rather vivid style, which is fun even if some of the characters end up reading a bit like generic tech-hipsters and less like read folks.
What was really odd about the book (and what perhaps separates it from the best kind of history of blogging) is that it deals almost not at all with the folks who actually read the blogs. These are the people who ultimately made blogging a global phenomenon rather than a hobby for late 20th century ham-radio types. Of course, blog readers, as a group, are somewhat less interesting. They range from the bored housewife to the insomniac historian to the unemployed denizen of the public library to the technology consultant, and for whatever reason they found that a blogger out there had similar (or diametrically opposed) interests. Moreover, these folk had access to the technology to keep up with a blog and perhaps even comment on it through the proliferation of personal computers in the public and private zone. And these kinds of folks found in blogging a medium capable of producing a compelling message. The slick Blogger, Moveable Type, or Wordpress, driven presentation, the reliability of the prose (both grammatically and in terms of its adherence to specific language of expertise), the links to other trusted websites or blogs (i.e. a relationship to a trusted community), or even the the relationship of the blogger to certain known and trusted non-internet based entities whether these be universities, corporations, print publications, or even the government. The authority and influence accessible to bloggers was not simply a development of their own idiosyncratic genius nor was it it simply their ability to tap into or leverage a kind of "surplus authority" floating around the web. The most interesting thing, to my mind, was that bloggers were able to establish a position of authority in this new media and challenge the longstanding and time tested authority of both general and specialized print publications. And this wasn't accomplished simply because blogs were "better" or offered "better", quicker, more up-to-date news, it was because the web provided a medium where new relationships formed between authors and readers and from these new relationships new sources and forms of authority developed.
Thus, as romantic an image as Evan Williams cut in Scott Rosenberg's prose, he was only really one side of the equation. The other side of the equations is a readership who were willing to embrace and trust blogging as a medium for conveying information (in some of the same ways that we (or, ahem, our students) are willing to trust Wikipedia as a medium) or engage in a public debate with a certain faith their voices will not only be heard, but in an abstract, intangible way matter. So as much as the authors of the blogs had to feel that they were doing more than shouting into the wind, the readers had to feel the same way.
Unpacking the change in American culture that made this possible requires more than just producing romantic character sketches of cyber pioneers, but exploring the complex intersection of technology, social organization, authority, and the very acts of readership and authorship in the late 20th century. Blogging didn't just come about because people were willing to "say everything" but because people were willing to read everything.