Caslon Analytics elephant logo title for Web Log profile
home | about | site use | resources | publications | timeline   spacer graphic   blaw
























related pages icon





section heading icon     issues

This page looks at some blogging issues: finding them, questions of objectivity, editorial standards, accessibility and long-term access, 'comment spam' and 'sock puppets'.

It covers -

section marker     Identification

One reason for the supposed decline of the genre is the difficulty of identifying blogs and their content.

Most search engines do not visit every site each day (the 'latency' for major engines ranges from three weeks to nine months), do not index each (or all of every) page and use different criteria for ranking search results. That means that few blogs are readily identifiable through traditional engines and portals on a 'real time' basis.

Identification is accordingly often based on promotional activity by authors and links from other blog sites - the 'blogmedia community' is somewhat airless at times.

Blog-specific search engines and directories are also appearing. The quality of citations on those engines is uneven. They include -

  • Technorati - claiming to watch 15,101 blogs and biased towards the digerati
  • Blogfinder - a category-based directory and engine
  • Tpoowl - like the "Weblog Madness list of lists" has not been updated since 2000 but of interest as a snapshot
  • Blogs - "The Busy Person's Guide to Blogs", complete with a "Spellbinding Sites and Sources" page
  • Blogger Directory - a directory of member sites searchable by date, name and keyword
  • Blogstreet - clusters similar blogs into a "neighbourhood"
  • Eatonweb - a portal of around 7,000 blogs accessible by name, country, subject and keyword
  • Daypop - a "current events search engine" covering around 7,500 news sites, with a 'Top 40' blog list
  • - features a 'Top 100' links list.

MIT's Blogdex lists the most referred-to blogs, crawling the web to identify pointers and thus determine the most popular. (The project features an 'all-time' top links list', with plans for a search facility for bloggers needing to know "Am I hot, or am I not."

Blogdex boasts that it

focuses on the referential information provided by weblogs, or the links that people place on their sites. By amalgamating these pointers, we can get an instantaneous look at internet fashion from democratic means.

Another list of the "top weblogs" is the Technorati Top 100 ranking. Other pointers to blog statistics are here.

Notions of 'blog overload' have spawned blog digest services such as Kinja, which automatically provides subscribers with short excerpts from the latest posts to nominated blogs. Other services, such as Feedster, mimic more traditional online news feeds.

Feedster claims to monitor around 0.5 million feeds and blogs on a daily basis.

A note on arrangements in some nations for identifying a blog through an International Standard Serial Number (ISSN), the journal equivalent of an ISBN, is here. The Australian National Library's ISSN page is here.

section marker     privacy and policing

The notion of blogs as samizdat or a photojournalism with the zeal of the investigative reporter but without the inhibitions of a 'big media' corporate lawyers means that video blogging and photoblogs are likely to pose concerns regarding privacy.

Business writer Bob Parks fretted about moblogs as an online corporate lynching, offsetting hype that camera-equipped mobile phones and wireless blogs will only ever be used against the dark side (real-time publishing photos of nasties in uniform beating up brave anti-globalisation protestors or opponents of the PLA).

From a policing perspective blogs are not located in a legal vacuum. In 2005 for example Blake Ranking, who had caused a fatal car crash, pleaded guilty to manslaughter after prosecutors in the US discovered a confession on his blog (aptly located at He had previously told investigators he remembered nothing of the crash and little of its aftermath.

section marker     accessibility

There have been no comprehensive studies regarding the accessibility of blogs, ie whether most blogs can be readily navigated and parsed by readers with visual or other disabilities. Small-scale testing of major blogs and blog tools suggests that most blogs are in fact quite unfriendly, failing to meet WAI standards.

That failure reflects the technology used in some blogging services. More broadly it may reflect the market for those services, essentially authors who want to publish online with a minimum of effort and indeed may not be aware of concerns about online accessibility or consider that it is important.

The UK has seen some initiatives in the development of blogging software that is specifically intended for the blind: a laudable initiative, since the joys of writing/reading a blog should not be restricted to the sighted. It is unclear however whether there is significant uptake of the software outside the UK.

section marker     archiving and the afterlife

In discussing archival aspects of electronic publishing (and myths that "everything is online" - and will be accessible in the future) we have noted the ephemeral nature of much online content. Ongoing access to many blogs is unlikely.

Some authors have already complained that they have lost non-current entries - or whole blogs - through technical failures or the collapse of the entity responsible for hosting the blog. That is reminiscent of problems encountered by many owners of personal sites that went offline towards the end of the dot-com bubble when an ISP or 'online community' host went out of business or simply slashed free hosting as part of cost cutting. Few bloggers appear to be consistently archiving their content and institutional archiving has favoured celebrities (particularly those with academic tenure) rather than less prominent authors.

For some bloggers a concern is likely to be that their words will indeed be too accessible. The caching of blogs by search engines, cannibalisation of text by other bloggers and copying by projects such as the Internet Archive that aim to capture a slice of the web have the potential to indefinitely preserve many blogs, with a red face or two a decade hence. As with postings to newsgroups, old words will haunt some writers - particularly given the emphasis on spontaneity and intimacy noted on preceding pages of this profile.

What happens when a blogger expires? Some people make specific arrangements for their executors to delete or preserve the blog, sometimes as a form of cyber-memorial. Others leave handling of their blog and email to fate. That has proved problematical, with some hosts proving indifferent to claims by a blogger's estate. In practice some blogs have gone offline only because the estate stopped paying the bills.

section marker     comment spam

Many blogs allow readers to publish comments on particular entries, potentially offering the dialogue that is evident in some wiki editorial entries. There are no definitive statistics; the 2006 Pew Internet & American Life Project estimate that 87% of US bloggers allow comments on their blog is contentious.

That feature has however increasingly been abused by spammers, with the emergence of 'comment spam'. Typically it includes a hyperlink to the spammer's site - offering 'unbeatable deals' on chemicals to enhance your anatomy, opportunities to make money without effort or risk, or access to adult content.

Some comment spam is added manually. Publication of other comment spam reflects weaknesses in blog software and hosting services, which enable automated identification and submission of comments. Services such as Movable Type have sought to reduce comment spam by enhancing the software and by establishing blacklists or whitelists to exclude content from particular addresses.

As with bulk unsolicited commercial email (the spam with which most people are regrettably familiar) there is no simple solution and the battle between unscrupulous marketers and blog owners is likely to be ongoing.

section marker     sock puppets and stalkers

The New York Times tartly compared much reader feedback on blogs to drive-by shootings. It is thus unsurprising that bloggers have used pseudonyms or anonymity in providing supposedly independent comments on their own blogs. The extent of that practice - dubbed sock puppetry - is unclear, although 'hunt the sock puppet' has become a minor blood sport in the blogosphere.

Ethics aside (proponents argue that being a sock puppet is mere self-defence or savvy marketing, in the tradition of figures such as Walter Scott, Gerhart Hauptmann and Walt Whitman), puppetry can provoke a visceral response. That is particularly the case if the puppet is vilifying enemies or waxing lyrical about the author.

In 2006, for example cultural critic Lee Siegel of The New Republic was humilatingly exposed as contributing comments - under the pseudonym Sprezzatura - to his own blog. Sprezzatura modestly characterised Siegel "brilliant" and "brave", recurrently rubbishing detractors (eg "an awful suck-up" whose writing "is sweaty with panting obsequious ambition" or as a "bunch of immature, abusive sheep" engaged in 'blogfascism') who had unaccountably failed to appreciate the sock-master's wit and wisdom.

Siegel's blog was shuttered after exposure; he explained that

I wildly created an over-the-top persona and adopted the tone of my attackers, when I should have just gone to the gym instead

and subsequently commented

putting a polemicist like myself in the blogosphere is like putting someone with an obesity problem in a chocolate factory.

Sniping against the blogfascisti continued in his Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob (New York: Random 2008).

Other self-boosters include Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Hiltzik, John Rechy and neoconservative John Lott Jr. (active as Mary Rosh for over three years).

Blogs are also a venue for stalking, cyberbullying and harassment.

High profile blogger Cathy Sierra for example lamented in April 2007 that

As I type this, I am supposed to be in San Diego, delivering a workshop at the ETech conference. But I'm not. I'm at home, with the doors locked, terrified. For the last four weeks, I've been getting death threat comments on this blog. But that's not what pushed me over the edge. What finally did it was some disturbing threats of violence and sex posted on two other blogs ... blogs authored and/or owned by a group that includes prominent bloggers. ... someone posted personal data mixed with inaccurate information. It is the only comment I have removed from this thread. I wish to thank everyone for their support, but honestly--the high visibility and coverage of this one post has led to more trouble for me. Now, even people who had never heard of me are expressing hatred and creating new problems (posting my social security number and address, horrific lies about me, etc). ...

It started with death threat blog comments left here. We all have trolls - but until four weeks ago, none of mine had threatened death. (The law is clear - to encourage or suggest someone's death is just as illegal as claiming you intend to do it yourself). At about the same time, a group of bloggers ... began participating on a (recently pulled) blog called At first, it was the usual stuff -lots of slamming of people like Tara Hunt, Hugh MacLeod, Maryam Scoble, and myself. Nothing new. No big deal. Nothing they hadn't done on their own blogs many times before. But when it was my turn, somebody crossed a line. They posted a photo of a noose next to my head, and one of their members (posting as "Joey") commented "the only thing Kathy has to offer me is that noose in her neck size."

In an interview, she dismissed the argument that cyberbullying is so common that she should overlook it:

I can't believe how many people are saying to me, 'Get a life, this is the Internet'. If that's the case, how will we ever recognize a real threat?

One of the alleged harassers later indicated that he was a victim of identity theft.

section marker     special protection for bloggers?

Given hype about the blogosphere and the necessary death of 'old media' it is unsurprising that 2005 saw claims in the US that

  • bloggers deserved the same protection as journalists (a protection misunderstood by many enthusiasts)
  • bloggers - apparently any and all - were indeed journalists.

Scott Rosenberg commented that

A blogger is someone who uses a certain kind of tool to publish a certain kind of Web site. The label tells us nothing about how the tool is used or what is published. We went through this discussion a decade ago, when people first started asking whether Web sites were journalism. To understand this, just take the question, "Are bloggers journalists?" and reframe it in terms of previous generations of tools. "Are telephone callers journalists?" "Are typewriter users journalists?" "Are mimeograph operators journalists?" Or, most simply, "Are writers journalists?" Well, duh, sometimes! But sometimes not.

That is the only answer to the "Are bloggers journalists?" question that makes any sense. ... This answer is inconvenient, as we face the question of whether bloggers should receive the same legal protection as more conventionally defined journalists; it doesn't provide a clearcut legal rule. But, let's face it, legal protections for journalists have always involved a certain fuzziness. ...
You can try to define journalists by applying the filter of professionalism, by seeing whether people are actually earning a living through their journalistic work - but then you rule out the vast population of low-paid or non-paid freelance workers, and those who are not currently making money in their writing but hope to someday. Apparently most of the existing shield laws use some version of the "you are where your paycheck comes from" definition of journalist (see Declan McCullagh over at CNET for more). That's one good reason for thinking that they might need some revision.

There's a good definition of "journalist" sitting right at the top of Jim Romenesko's journalism blog today (is pioneering blogger Romenesko a journalist?), where CNN/US president Jonathan Klein says: "I define a journalist as someone who asks questions, finds out answers and communicates them to an audience." By that standard, a hefty proportion of today's bloggers qualify.

We question whether merely asking questions and communicating answers = journalism. That definition is so broad as to encompass your school teacher, many clerics and the bozo in your local bar, along with Joseph Roth, Ed Murrow, Paul Einzig and Martha Gellhorn.

icon for link to next page   next page  (law)

this site
the web



version of December 2007
© Bruce Arnold | caslon analytics