Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Merriam-Webster's Definition of 'Blog'

This morning on C-Span I heard that 'blog' had made it into Merriam-Websters. The term, which is a contraction of 'Web log,' is defined as "a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments and often hyperlinks." See here.

It is not difficult to see what is wrong with this definition. The main problem is the word 'personal.' A blog can be personal, but it can also be as impersonal as you like. There are blogs in which nothing of a personal nature is allowed to intrude: they treat some subject-matter in an objective way much as a professional publication would.

A large number of blogs -- the ones that I enjoy the most -- combine the personal and the impersonal. Professor Keith Burgess-Jackson's effort, for example, mixes the personal with the impersonal: we hear about his sporting exploits, his dogs, his family; we get to enjoy his journal extracts from twenty years ago; but we also receive mini-lectures on logic, philosophy of law, and cognate subjects.

To define blogs as personal online journals is to fail to appreciate what some blogs are and many will become: sources of high-level content that can compete with top professional print journals. Blogging is not just some hobby of pajama-clad nerds pecking away in their mothers' basements, but potentially a serious replacement for a lot of what goes on at conventions and in print journals. And you don't have to burn up any jet fuel to participate.

The phrase, "often hyperlinks," is not quite right either. Permalinked individual posts may not be necessary, but without hyperlinks, it would be a stretch to call an online journal a blog. A good blogger links, when possible, to material he or she is quoting or responding to. This is part of what makes this medium so useful and so powerful.

For example, in a previous post I quoted George Orwell and provided a link to the essay from which the quotation was taken. This allows the reader to (i) verify the accuracy of my quotation, (ii) read the rest of the essay to establish a context for its interpretation, and (iii) easily find other works of Orwell to widen the context even more.

"With reflections, comments. . ." It is redundant to say that an online journal will contain reflections and comments. What would a blogger be doing if he weren't commenting on this and that, whether it be on the events of the day, or on other blogger's reactions to the events of the day, or on interesting links he has dug up, or . . . .

Here is a better definition: A blog is a website with the following characteristics: (i) it is a regularly updated online journal; (ii) it consists of posts on any subject arranged in reverse chronological order; (iii) hyperlinks are provided for material quoted and persons referred to whenever possible.

This definition may need some tweaking, but I think it better captures the lexical meaning of the term 'blog' as currently used than the Merriam-Webster definition. I believe it is sufficiently latitudinarian to cover the whole gamut of what is going on in the blogosphere. Thus it covers 'anonybloggers,' self-identified bloggers, group bloggers, individual bloggers, 'linkers,' 'thinkers,' those who publish e-mail, those who don't, those who allow readers to comment directly on posts, those who don't, those who merely report on their personal feelings, those who strive for the objective and impersonal truth . . . .