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Why Blogs are Popular

On the surface, a blog appears to be nothing more than a personal website, and those have been around since the web started. So why has blogging exploded in the last six years? I think the reason can be summarized in two words: usability and community.

Blogging software is typically used to create blogs. Once past the hurdle of initial setup, such software makes it very easy for a user to create blog entries. But content creation software has existed since the early days of the web, so there must be more to blogging than that. Blogs have a consistent structure: a series of entries tracked by day of entry. Such a structure matches that of a journal or diary - everyday concepts that the non-technologically-savvy person is familiar with. Thus, the mental model of a blog is very understandable, which not only makes them easy to create, but also makes them easy to read and navigate (as compared to personal websites, whose structure and content have no such regularity). This is an important usability principle: have the system's model match the user's mental model as closely as possible.

But blogs have another feature that I think is even more important from a usability point of view, and that is web feeds, also known as syndication. Before the days of web feeds, you had to manually visit someone's website to determine if they posted new content. And due to the lack of regularity in structure for personal websites, it was not always easy to tell if there was new content. Or, if there was content marked as new, did you read it last week already? The net result: few return visitors to personal websites.

Web feeds use protocols such as RSS to publish website changes to a single file on the website. New visitors to a site can use web feed reader software to monitor this special web feed file. The feed reader software will regularly poll this file, and inform the user when there is new content. This functionality offers a major boost in usability to website readers, as they can find out quickly and painlessly when there is new content on a site, and based on the summary of the change, decide whether it is of interest.

Blogs have another important feature that I haven't mentioned yet, and that's comments. The comment feature allows visitors to the blog to enter comments for a particular blog entry, which then become visible to other readers. This feature engages visitors, and allows them to participate in the blog, turning it into more of a dialog rather than a broadcast. Over time, a popular blog can end up with a regular group of readers / commentors. A related phenomenon is a group of bloggers who comment on each other's blogs and/or write blog entries in response to others' blog entries. In both these cases, the blog(s) have been transformed into an online community. Humans are social creatures and naturally form communities (social structures) of all kinds. An excellent article I came across on this topic is Building Communities with Software from the great Joel on Software site.

Besides the usability improvements for both writers and readers, blogs provide the ingredients for new communities to arise in a way that personal websites never did. I believe it is the combination of these factors that have propelled the popularity of blogs into the mainstream today.

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One Comment on “Why Blogs are Popular”

  1. Dwayne says:

    Guy Kawasaki said it best:

    “Blogger. n. Someone with nothing to say writing for someone with nothing to do.” ;->

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