review of the weblog handbook: practical advice on creating and maintaining your blog

Long-time weblogger Rebecca Blood's The Weblog Handbook: Practical Advice on Creating and Maintaining Your Blog is an excellent introduction to the currently white-hot world of weblogs. Blood covers all the bases, from a history of the weblog form, through starting a blog of your own, and finally onto finding (and retaining) readers for your site. The book doesn't offer as much for the veteran blogger, but even the bloggeratti won't go away completely empty-handed -- Blood's weblog history provides a valuable common vocabulary for debating what is and isn't a weblog, and her discussion of weblog ethics should be required reading for anybody who claims to be serious about their weblogging.

Blood begins the book in the obvious place, with a discussion of the history of the weblog format, and a functional definition of what a weblog is (and isn't). One issue with the word "weblog" as it is currently used is that it means little more than "website with time-stamped entries arranged in reverse chronological order". Blood attempts to expand on that definition by pointing out that the other thing weblogs have in common, in addition to chronological formatting convention, is "the primacy of the link":

It is the link that gives weblogs their credibility by creating a transparency that is impossible in any other medium. It is the link that creates the community in which weblogs exist. It is the link the distinguishes the weblog -- or any other piece of online writing -- from old-media writing that has merely been transplanted to the Web.

One of my primary objections to this section of the book was the contradiction between the above position and Blood's inclusion, earlier in the same chapter, of "blog"- and "notebook"-style sites under the weblogs banner. "Blog"-style sites, in the book's taxonomy, are the nano-journals that showed up in the wake of easy-to-use tools like Pitas and Blogger. These web-based weblogging applications made it easy to let the world know when you were getting up from your desk to go pee -- and thousands of people jumped at the chance to do just that. "Notebook"-style web sites, on the other hand, are characterized by longer chunks of content; they tend to resemble essay collections more than anything else. Both types of sites are markedly different in content and authorial intent from the traditional "filter" style weblogs -- collections of links, annotated with short (or sometimes not so short) descriptions, reviews, or reactions.

Indeed, the former two styles of sites seem to be to be fundamentally different than the latter style, primarily in the extent to which they're inwardly versus externally focused. "Filter" weblogs link almost exclusively to other sites, and they link heavily -- usually averaging at least one link per entry, if not more. "Blogs" and "notebooks", on the other hand, have a much lower frequency of external linking, and are much more self-referential and insular than "filter" style sites. The three sorts of sites share similar formats and are produced with similar tools, but I would argue that referring to all of them as "weblogs" makes the word so generic as to render it useless as a description.

My quibbles over these taxonomic issues aside, The Weblog Handbook's introduction and definition of the "blog", "notebook", and "filter" terms to refer to the various sorts of sites that are collectively known as "weblogs" is a valuable contribution. Hopefully these words will be adopted by other writers in subsequent discussions of weblog history and form.

Blood moves on from the initial historical overview to a discussion of why someone would want to take the time and make the effort to start and maintain a weblog. She covers all the main bases: improving writing skills, improving thinking skills, and networking for personal or business reasons. This chapter might help you think of some new way to leverage your weblog to your advantage, but otherwise it struck me as somewhat redundant -- presumably, if you're interested enough to undertake reading a 200 page book about weblogs, you're interested enough to try running one for a week or a month and see what benefits you get from the exercise.

The next pair of chapters cover setting up a weblog. The target here is the new blogger, and depending on your level of technical sophistication, you might find the coverage a bit simplistic. Nevertheless, these chapters contain sound advice about choosing tools, about some of the conventions of the weblog community (permalinks, archives, sidebars), and about the all-important step of choosing a name for your weblog. After covering set-up, Blood dives into the business of actual creation: how to start writing weblog entries, and how to get better at it over time.

Blood also covers strategies for attracting and retaining readers, tempering those tips with the sage advice that webloggers that are constantly striving to get more readers will never be happy with the reader population that they currently have. This is one of the more critical points that the book has to make, in my opinion, and Blood does a good job of driving home the notion that there are better (and easier) ways of becoming famous than starting a weblog.

The sixth chapter, covering weblog community, ethics, and etiquette, is one of the book's most important. New bloggers that read this section will learn how to avoid offending established webloggers while they are starting out in the community. Bloggers that heed Blood's rules for ethical weblogging may even avoid getting sued for libel. Additionally, Blood deserves further kudos for making this section of the book freely available on her website.

Blood rounds out the book with some miscellaneous advice about maintaining a regular update schedule for your weblog, the wisdom of keeping some modicum of privacy for your off-line life, and the issues over making an email address publicly available -- opening yourself up not only to contact with your readers, but also with every spammer in the universe. None of the material in this chapter will be novel for the experienced web surfer, but Blood's thoughtful treatment is a good introduction for the neophytes that are still out there.

The book finishes up with a trio of appendices. The first covers an actual session with a particular weblog application; the second contains some practical Elements of Style-style advice on creating "linktext" -- the actual words inside a hypetext anchor; and the third offers information on the mechanics of running a weblog -- selecting a web hosting provider, buying a domain, analyzing log files, and so on.

The Weblog Handbook is a well-written, well-rounded, thoughtful introduction to the art and practice of maintaining a weblog. The author, Rebecca Blood, has taken her years of experience gained maintaining her own weblog, boiled it down into concise nuggets of information and advice, and then presented it with a vigor and enthusiasm which clearly reflects her love for the weblog form. Recommended for novice and old-school webloggers alike.