Weblog Design: Writing Process
What is an effective writing process for a community weblog authors? Of course, there isn't one kind of writing process nor is there one purpose for writing. I sense that there are a number of strategic concerns an author needs to consider that have a direct impact on the design of a weblog. The source of design in a weblog, for me, refers more to the purpose, nature and character of the writing itself - or what we often refer to as the "content." But the content is interconnected with the tools used to create it...
1. From Comments to Links
I came to thinking about the nature of writing in a weblog via a brief exploration of the issues surrounding comment spam. Dave Sifry's Blog comment spam solutions and the coming arms race caused me to turn off commenting here in EDN. This wasn't a spur of them moment decision and has been something I've wrestled with for a while now. Turning comments off means that unless someone else has their own weblog, they will not be able to "comment" on my writing directly in my weblog, but they can connect to it via embedded links in their entries to permalinks in my weblog, or via trackback. Both of these techniques are important, but different. I won't quote from the entry here, but it is worth taking a moment to read it if you haven't already.
Of course, the first thing one might ponder is the loss of interaction that may occur by not allowing visitors to add comments. And some very valuable comments have been added. My own experiences with comment spam here have been limited since I started closing down commenting on older entries. While this step helps limit the comment spam problem, it also creates an assumption that older entries are less likely to be commented on than newer entries. While statistically this may be true, I believe it's a bad assumption from a writing perspective. The archives are part of the flow of writing and the author's mental landscape and are always integral to the present moment. The archives are just as "present" as today's entry.
Ross Mayfield's Comment Spam Solution: 1) turn comments off; 2) move discusion to a Tribe; 3) leave trackback on. This is good and, if you check out the comments to the entry, controversial advice. My take on it is this: turning off comments does not make a weblog less invitational, but it does require new ways of connecting. Tribe will take some time to explore, but it is clear that the effective use of trackback will play an important role in linking weblogs (as well as the internal linking of entries by the author - a technique not used very much as far as I can see).
[Other interesting entries on comment spam: 1. Feld Thoughts' Spyware is officially out of control: Extension to spyware. 2. Rick Klau's Comment spam: Comment registration solution; automated commenting.]
2. From Links to Maps
At the same time, merely tracking back to internal entries and entries in other weblogs is not a complete solution. A trackback link can simply act as a pointer, much like a bibliographic entry in a book. An embedded link to a permalink in my weblog may be used as a means to reference to a quotation, or as encouragement for the reader to navigate directly to the site. It is at this point that we often see the word "conversation" coming into play. As a metaphor, the connection across a geography of weblog entries may be lightly referred to as a conversation. However, I wonder if links across internal entries and/or mutliple weblogs really constitute a conversation simply by virture of the fact that links are present, or does it have more to do with how thoughts and ideas change across these links? I sense that it is the latter that is a more profitable exploration.
Providing visualizations of weblog "conversations" via the mapping of linkages can be helpful in seeing the geography of links. Judith Meskill's Visualizing Weblog Conversations makes reference to Mary Hodder's research at Berkley. One important design idea in her work is to rescue items from archive oblivion by overcoming the chronological bias inherent in weblogs. I would add that it is primarily the responsbility of the weblog author to prevent items from falling into archive oblivion. I would further add that it is the weblog author's responsibility to provide an adequate context (not merely quote+link) their own use of links by discussing how it impacts on them personally.
3. From Mapping to Archiving
The ideas that I have referred to have more to do with the author's approach to writing, than the tools for writing provided by weblogs (although they cannot really be separated - it's an issue of priority). In simple terms, the weblog author can:
A. Be conscious of their own internal geography of entries while writing, trackback and/or link to these entries, and provide adequate context for the link. Weblog authors that are sensitive to their own archives are easy to spot;
B. Be aware (as much as possible) of the external geography of related entries by other authors, trackback and/or link to these entries, and provide adequate context for the link in their own writing (not merely quote+link);
C. Review and revise the weblog archive, including renaming entries, re-writing old entries into new ones when appropriate, and deleting entries that no longer have relevance. Yes - deleting past entries.
All of this means that weblog authors are searching their own site as much as, and perhaps more than, their readers. Writing new entries, then, is an invitation to search the archives.
4. From Archiving to Prospecting
It's interesting to note that it is often the most dominant aspects of a technology that we spend the most time trying to design ways around. Weblog technology embeds certain kinds of defaults that a writer must be aware of, for example, the chronological presentation of "entries." The most obvious signs of this are dated entries as well as the presence of a calendar in a sidebar. This gives a weblog a natural sense of currency, a valued commodity in an information society. However, and this may sound a little too obvious, it is also good to remember that this ease of chronological organization is also a limitation.
In EDN, I have not displayed a calendar nor I have displayed a listing of the archive. Why? I just don't see a purpose for them. Perhaps this is a personal bias, but I never explore calendars and archive listings on other weblogs. I do, however, pop words into the search tool to see what comes up. I'd rather explore weblog archives in this way since the actual dates of entries are irrelevant to me, at least in the early exploration stages.
The archives are made dynamic by the amount of attention we give them. A category provides a way to view a cross-section of entries that have been tagged by the author as belonging to a certain class. The use of the search tool provides a way draw out entries from the archives according to common words and phrases. And the list goes on: trackback, comments, hyperlinks, permalinks, and so on. Each of these tools are ways of referring to the weblog archives in different modes.
5. From Prospecting to Writing
"To start right is certainly an essential. I have proved this too many times to doubt it. Twenty-five or thirty years ago I began a story which was to turn upon the marvels of mental telegraphy. A man was to invent a scheme whereby he could synchronize two minds, thousands of miles apart, and enable them to freely converse together through the air without the aid of a wire. Four times I started it in the wrong way and it wouldn't go. Three times I discovered my mistake after writing about a hundred pages. I discovered it the fourth time when I had written four hundred pages - then I gave up and put the whole thing in the fire."
Mark Twain On Writing and Publishing