One of the top questions we hear from non-bloggers interested in understanding the blogosphere is how a blog differs from a message board or a forum.
For old school Usenet experts and even modern yahoo groups or listserv devotees, blogs seem like lipstick on a pig - more flashy but no different than their software.
And yet, blogs in five short years have eclipsed forums and message boards in popularity, influence, and the ability to make money. Blogs aren't your father's BBS.
Luis Suarez, who writes a social networking blog called Elsua, got me thinking about this issue, when he asks why blogs and wikis are important now
, when the technology has been around since at least 1995.
Yes, indeed, the key message towards the successful adoption of both wikis and weblogs, amongst other social software available out there, is not the tools themselves, although there have been huge improvements about usability, scalability and accessibility all along, but more the people themselves. That critical mass of knowledge workers that I have talked about in the past and which are the main responsible parties of this hyped social media tools all along.
The people do make the difference, but three other causes brought together the blogosphere and made it what is today - the ability to control a conversation, the tools that made blogs easy to use for non-techies, and 9-11.
Emergent communities, which form the basis of the growth of social media, work in the same way that gunpowder works. Each of the ingredients on their own do very little. Combining the ingredients incorrectly does very little. But the right ingredients, in the right proportions, lead to an explosion.
These three ingredients mixed in the right proportion, were the initial engine of blogging.
1) The difference in the software is its ease of use and its visual appeal.
Blogs look better than message forums, are easy to maintain, and can be controlled by the owner. This means that the owner has effective control over everything on their site, and the only way to ensure an alternative message is to start your own blog.
That's the social component to blogging - no one can shut you up. Over time, you form your community of like-minded people and you become self-sustaining.
A second key to the software is its short-attention span. UseNet groups require you to scroll through tons of messages that may or may not be relevant. Blogging entries, on the other hand, quickly and easily allow you to skip the subjects unimportant to you. It's a small difference, but as a reader, a blog is better organized and this easier to scour for information than a message forum.2) Non-techies could use blogs
The ease of use is important because it allowed Subject matter Experts in areas other than technology the quick access to potentially large audiences. A few names come to mind - Glenn Reynolds, Jeff Jarvis, Daily Kos, Bill Whittle, Steven den Beste, VodkaPundit, Dean Esmay, Joanne Jacobs, Allahpundit, Winds of Change...Many of these blogs and bloggers have professional expertise in law, politics, education, even divine comedy. That changes the tenor and the quality of information in the blogs.
Techies can be bright, intelligent, and interesting, but there is also a subculture that is anti-social, immature, and focused a bit too much on video games and pr0n. wOOt! Mass appeal had to move from the tech-sector to professionals with other expertise. The ease of online publishing made that possible.3) 9-11
The rise of the warbloggers, a center-right constituency of Americans shocked out of complacency and looking for ways to contribute to the national discussion was the single biggest push behind bringing blogs into national prominence. All of a sudden, housewives from Tennessee were discussing Islamofascism in a detailed manner with brokers in New York City. The shock of 9-11 brought a surge of people to the blogs to read, debate, and make a difference. As they joined and started their own blogs, they found new uses, and touched off the political left at places like Daily Kos, Atrios. Politics and Media got national attention, and this lifted the tide for all blogs, including social blogs, tech blogs, and eventually, business blogs.
These three ingredients were key to the success of blogs in 2003, but 2004 and the US presidential election put the final nails in the coffin. The humiliation of CBS news and Dan Rather by bloggers finally made bloggers a household name, and the phenomenon was born.
So the question of why blogs are big now is simple - a mixture of features designed to encourage debate at a time when the country desperately wanted alternatives to the main stream media.