Are we upside-down?

CSS guru Eric Meyer thinks blogs are broken. Specifically:

the most-recent-first format is broken. No other form of written communication works that way, and in fact almost no form of human communication works like that.

I love Eric to pieces, but this is just nonsense. Every single serial publication works this way. Newspapers, magazines, comic books, et cetera, work this way. TV shows work this way. If blogs are broken, they're all broken too.

Newspapers don't reprint yesterday's articles for the benefit of those who missed them. On occasions they will put a date in brackets when referring to a previous edition (common on the letters page). Some TV shows, like Buffy for instance, show a "previously on this show" summary at the start, but most don't. Both are approximate solutions to the problem Eric confronts with blogs, which is essentially the problem of "catching up".

Good blogs have a much more effective method: the hyperlink. New posts will link to old posts when they refer to them. If you need to catch up, you'll click the link, then click back. If you don't need to catch up, you'll ignore it.

Newspapers, magazines, comic books, tv shows, et cetera, often utilise another workaround: they deliberately avoid inter-editional references. This is why Batman is pushing 70 and doesn't look a day over 35. But the blogosphere distains such constraints, so this won't work for us.

You've already identified a problem with my analogy, I imagine. Specifically, all these serials are produced to a regular schedule. Blog posts, with a few exceptions, are not—they're a "whenever the author feels like it" proposition. Actually, my analogy is not faulty: the regular schedule is simply another method serials have devised to notify their audience of updates. Bloggers could follow their lead and publish to a schedule as well, and some already do. I'm launching a site in a few months that will publish an essay once a week, at the same hour each week. But that is highly unlikely to happen en masse.

So we came up with another solution: content syndication. The RSS feed. An RSS aggregator is a piece of software that works like an email client: it sits in the background and quietly does its thing at an assigned interval, letting you know when a webpage to which you have subscribed has been updated. It will show you which posts you have read, and which posts you haven't read. (Just like email, there are web-based aggregators too.) Eric thinks this is not the solution:

Besides, saying "yeah, weblogs are backward but you can fix them with an aggregator" is in my mind functionally equivalent to saying "yeah, weblogs are broken but with a completely different method of representing the data and a new piece of standalone software, we can hack around the problem."

Which is like saying that the TV Guide is not a solution for knowing when the next episode of your favourite show is going to be on. It's a rather odd principle.

With cookies, you could inform readers of posts they have and have not yet read when they return to the site, if you want to invest the time. It wouldn't be hard; I think a lot of messageboard software does this sort of thing. I don't know whether readers would like this feature; I think the first time I encounter it I'll find it kinda creepy.

Eric's main point is this:

"But Eric," you cry, "we want to see the most recent information first! Newer is better!" Wrong. What's most important is catching up with the content you haven't seen before.

No, actually, I think that's wrong, or at best a matter of personal preference. It's right for certain weblogs: the few that have strong continuing narratives. I would much rather see newer information first; if I'm curious about older stuff I've missed, I know where to find it (well-designed blogs will make it easy for me too). We shouldn't get too worked up about this sort of thing; web publishing is a new medium, and one to which we as readers are still adapting. I can't say I've found the process of adapting to it at all onerous.

(I am finding adapting to Eric's chronologically ascending archives a bit of a chore though—not least because when I go directly from my aggregator to the bottom of the page, then resize the browser to reduce the lines to a readable length, I promptly lose my place...)

Joseph | 30 Mar 2004

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