29 December, 2006

A Brief History of Blogging

One of the thoughts that drifted through my mind while laid out with the flu all Christmas concerned the history of blogging. I don’t mean its actual history – which runs all the way back to last Tuesday – but the way it sits in the long story of human communication.

Imagine you were an anthropology student, or sociologist, or even an Eng. Lit. student (why not? they’ve got to do something), and you want to set this incredible phenomenon in context. (Yes, it is an incredible phenomenon – Technorati is tracking 55 million blogs at the moment and this, I hear, will soon be dwarfed by the number of Chinese blogs we can expect to see.) How would you trace its roots? What would you say counted as an antecedent?

Well, obviously, there were plenty of online web journals long before the word ‘blog’ appeared but this doesn’t take the ‘history’ of the pastime back beyond the mid-90s. So what about the other media? TV diaries and radio diaries haven’t been common – except as specialist, ‘magazine’-type shows (where people give their opinions about what’s on at the cinema, or on TV, or in the news, or in politics). Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America was probably the most famous and by far the best of these. Going back even farther, you get columns in newspapers – and I don’t mean just editorials or literary critics. There have been some incredibly high profile, riveting and very blog-like newspaper columns even in my own lifetime. In particular, I remember Bernard Levin writing in The Times. As a teenager I was a huge fan. In fact, my first ever scientific publication was partly in retaliation to a piece he wrote called ‘The Don With The Luminous Nose’. I always thought the ideal life would have been to be a columnist with a big newspaper.

Ah well, at least now I’ve got my blog…

Before that there were, well, diaries. Mostly they didn’t get published – unless you were already famous and died – but there were notable exceptions, such as Samuel Pepys’ diary. My favourite 18th Century blogger is James Boswell, the chronicler of Dr Johnson’s life. His Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides is a great read (trust me). And, of course, Caesar’s Gallic Wars is still on my list of books I ought to read one day.

So who was the first blogger ever? Well, I reckon it must be that guy who wrote, ‘In the beginning was the word…’

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