“After the internet, it was an obvious next step,” says Al Gore, in that Al Gore kind of way. “People were all like, 'Before we invent social networking, we really need to start somewhere else. So how about blogging?’”
Blogs. Weblogs. Bloggering. Now an activity shrouded in the mists of the Old Internet, but in its day a pioneering way for people to share links and photos and stuff. Even older than YouTube.
Depending on who you ask, the first bloggering happened in the late 1990s, when the web was still young, and clicking links to pages where you’d click more links was cool. This was in the days when the only use for an animated GIF was to tell people you were still working on your web page. Even if you weren’t.
“I invented bloggering,” says mad old Laurence Fortey, a mad old internet guy from the old, old days. He can remember hand-coded websites. He started coding his own just weeks after Tim Berners-Lee, a tunnel engineer helping to build the STERN protein collider, discovered ancient scrolls buried in the Swiss soil that revealed the secrets of HTML.
Fortey didn’t call it bloggering then, of course.
“I didn’t know it was going to be called that,” he says now, interviewed in a hotel room in Chicago. “We had other names for it back then. FTP diary-ing. Internet log link sharing. Web journalizing.”
Fortey sits back in his comfortable chair, eyes upward, remembering. His hair and beard are huge, wild. Perhaps someone should switch that fan off, it’s blowing right into his face.
“We all thought it was pretty cool when you could put words and pictures together on the same page. That beat the heck out of Gopherspace.”
“It was good back then,” he says. “No comments. No one had invented comments. Oh God, comments.”
Another early bloggerer was Fran Lilley, later a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur but at the time winding up her first graduate degree.
“We started bloggering when we were still on Gopher,” she recalls. “We’d write up text files and upload them to Gopherspace, which was a bit like Twitter is now. But without the lolcats.”
She remembers clearly how blogging changed and grew as more people got involved: “We all thought it was pretty cool when you could put words and pictures together on the same page. That beat the heck out of Gopherspace, let me tell you.”
“Once blogging software came along and all the other stuff got added in, we thought we were in heaven.”
Categories and archives were Lilley’s favorite new ideas.
“Categories were great! Suddenly all your stuff was, like, totally categorized. OK, so a lot of the time it was categorized in the ‘Uncategorized’ category, but even so. Archives were so much more useful after that.”
Lilley pauses to watch raindrops on the window. “Well, a bit more useful.”
Asked to make some comments about comments, she grimaces and turns her attention back to the raindrops.
Lilley was joined by another early scene-setter, Kelly Blogger, who changed her name to ‘Kelly’ after a tragic Photoshop accident. The two of them collaborated on early proto-blog content on Usenet, which was known as “Usenet” back then.
Their early experiments on Gopherspace and Usenet gave the pair a good understanding of what worked.
“Basically, it was all about blogrolls,” says Blogger.
“If you added someone to your blogroll, they’d have to add you to theirs. It was like friending on social networks today.”
The blogroll was a list of links displayed alongside blogs on people’s blogs. Whenever people added a new blog on their blog, the blog template would update the blog and the blog, and the blogroll became an additional blog template visible on the blog and on each individual blog on it. Which sounds obvious to us now, but was a completely new concept to those early pioneers.
“As soon as your blog was on a popular blogroll, you’d made it,” remembers Lilley. “Of course then your blogroll would become a popular blogroll and things really started going crazy.” She flicks her eyes skywards as she speaks, and absent-mindedly strokes one of her cats.
“Once you made it big, the comments began,” she adds, but declines to elaborate further. One of her eyelids looks a bit twitchy.
In the early days, Laurence Fortey owned one of the busiest and most popular blogs in the world.
“Yeah I remember being added to Fran’s blogroll,” he says. “Of course I’d invented the whole thing but Fran had this thing going, you know? She had, like, traffic. Right. And she was using this new comments system that was, like, so much cooler than mine. And she posted tons of photos ‘cause she had cheaper hosting than me.”
For a moment, Fortey looks up from his Macbook Air. “Those were great days,” he says, before turning back to his RSS reader.
In the UK, the blogging scene began in London. Greg Fisher remembers it well.
“I was blogging about the break-up of my first, second, and third relationships,” he says.
Greg’s blog was a huge hit. He had over five regular readers, two of them via RSS. This was a huge success by British standards at the time. By any standards, actually. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. Greg met fellow relationship blogger Stephen Ralph for a drink, after stalking him on Geocities. The two have slightly different memories of the event:
Greg: “I was desperate to know more about this thing they called ‘blogging,’ and Stephen was without a doubt the biggest blogger in the UK at the time. Once I’d worked out his daily pattern, I waited at the right spot and engaged him in conversation. He was kind and generous with his time. He helped me understand what I needed to do. I bought my own domain and hosting package the next day.”
Stephen: “This weirdo accosted me on the street while I was on my lunch break. He kept jabbering on about blogs and followed me wherever I went. I wasn’t surprised he’d been through so many relationships so quickly. Can I go now? I’m late for a meeting at the Googleplex.”
“Can you imagine putting your entire life on the internet? I blogged about thinking about having a baby way before any of those mommy bloggers came along and actually blogged it.”
Stephen Ralph’s unwillingness to chat belies his influence at the time. His blog, a raw account of rawness from his daily life, was unexpectedly eloquent, emotional, and raw.
“It was so raw,” says one observer, Liz Spanton.
The first UK bloggers get-together was in a pub near Platform Nine and Three Quarters of King’s Cross station. The bloggers there knew nothing about how they’d get old and middle-aged and disenchanted with everything. Most were in their late teens or early twenties, although a couple of older geezers turned up and got deservedly suspicious looks.
Spanton remembers what happened: “Everyone knew what everyone else had been doing, because we’d read it on each other’s blogs. So mainly we talked about HTML templates. That got pretty raw, too.”
Today’s younger internet users might find it hard to grasp, but all this activity took place in a world without social networks. There was no Twitter, no Facebook, no Instagram. Steve Jobs had only just returned to Apple after his wilderness years in the wilderness.
All around him in California, the blogging scene grew fast.
“We blogged about everything,” says Kelly Blogger.
“We blogged about our entire lives. Can you imagine putting your entire life on the internet? I mean like, everything. I blogged about thinking about having a baby way before any of those mommy bloggers came along and actually blogged it. I thought about blogging it first.”
“And food. And music. We were blogging the hell out of it all for years before the foodie bloggers and the music bloggers. I can remember when mp3 files were still this crazy new idea. We blogged it all, long before anyone thought of tweeting it.”
Blogging was so big that when bloggers made out, it became BlogNews. Blogs were set up to write gossip about blog relationships. When famous bloggers got together, there were celebrations in comments sections everywhere. When those same famous bloggers broke up, people set up brand new AnonyBlogs so they could vent their anger and sorrow privately. Although everyone knew they were doing it, because few could resist the temptation of adding their new AnonyBlog to their own blogroll, thus instantly revealing to everyone the anonyblogger’s identity.
Bloggers met other bloggers in bars to talk about blogging. But when bloggers met other bloggers they talked about other things too: about beer and badgers and bereavement and birthmarks and benches and eventually—inevitably—betrothal. Blogger married blogger and the blogging community cheered a little cheer and posted a little gallery of 640x480 digital photos. It helped, of course, that there was a blogging community where these relationships could begin. It was small and it was close and it felt like something real, like a chunk of internet you could relate to. The community is still there, but after getting married the bloggers did the next obvious thing: made blog babies. Then they had more important things to think about.
Kelly Blogger was one of the first employees at early blogging software company, Bloggarrh, so named thanks to an unexpected mix-up of documents from the finance department and the personnel department. She remembers when blogging went “mainstream”.
“Suddenly all these corporate blogs began to pop up out of nowhere,” she says while checking Facebook on her phone. “Anyone could start blogging with one click. You didn’t even have to spend all weekend ripping off someone else’s HTML to make up your own page template. It was simple.” She pauses to grimace. “Perhaps too simple.”
Now that anyone could blog, everyone did. Even talk-show hosts and politicians. This was, many interviewees agree, when blogging began to go downhill.
Al Gore used a blog to blog about his blogging while on the campaign trail.
“It was an amazing new tool for political engagement,” he says as we accelerate away from Saturn in his private, hollowed-out asteroid. “You could write something half-baked and put it out there, and in minutes you’d have wannabe political interns correcting it for you. And like, some of their ideas were great!” He smiles and waves at the gas giant’s rings through the window. “Engagement, man. Engagement.”
Journalists got engaged too. Some journalists became bloggers, which turned blogging into journalism. Some bloggers got jobs as journalists, which turned journalism into blogging. None of this was at all controversial or even attracted much attention. Hardly anyone noticed. Some journalists blogged about it, and some bloggers wrote articles. The world turned, and someone invented social media, and there were new things to argue about.
Today, blogging remains commonplace but less fashionable than before. Modern webizens prefer faster ways to communicate, less about publishing and more about poking. Blogs still have a role to play, but they remain a niche product with a niche audience, and Laurence Fortey thinks he knows why.
“We made a mistake moving to blogs in the first place,” he says. “All that extra stuff about permalinks and blogrolls and RSS feeds and comments—oh God, comments.” He takes a big gulp from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag.
“I say we should take it all back. Go right back to the start, and do FTP diarying or internet log link sharing or web journalizing or something.”
“Blogs have had their time now.”
With that, Fortey ends our interview and returns to his RSS reader once more. As we leave, we catch one final glimpse of his face, lit up by the rectangle of his laptop. He seems to notice us looking back, because with a swift gesture he closes the computer’s lid and the light disappears, and all we see back there is a dark shape in a dark room in a hotel in Chicago.