Let’s Define “Blog”

Once again we’ve all been exhorted to blog. I heeded the call this time partly because it’s been at least a year since I got to make a little lo-fi site like this. In deciding where to blog, the obvious choice for me was my old webshare on tilde.club, an experiment in nostalgic computing by Paul Ford (who heeded the call during the last cycle).

If I wanted to just make a website, though, I’d just make a website, but I also haven’t been writing much recently, and that’s a shame. Unfortunately, when you try to “get back into blogging” (I’ve had a number of blogs, but they were usually ~thematic~ and ended when I ran out of ideas or changed careers), you’re naturally out of practice so instead of something quietly interesting you inevitably go big and write something long and self-indulgent which would be a thinkpiece if published somewhere reputable.

I’m going to articulate a revisionist definition of “blog”.

Sally Haslanger suggests that there are at least three different ways one can go about defining a word. The first way is descriptive – going out and looking at how people actually use a word and recording those uses. This is why “literally” has two contrary meanings according to Merriam-Webster.

The second way is conceptual – trying to tease out the central concept blog from the word “blog”. Probably this is what Paul Ford was doing when he characterized blogging as “amateur prose written quickly and with neither guiding stricture nor sober editing”.

The third way is what Haslanger calls analytical and I call revisionist: here we take a somewhat vague word from common language and sharpen it for a purpose. Haslanger proposes a revisionist definition of “woman” wherein to be a woman is by definition to be oppressed, because her purpose is to abolish gender.

My purpose is to encourage resistance to centralized, corporate-controlled social networks. (lol)

Anil Dash has a long discussion (published, ironically, on Medium) about the infrastructure that’s been lost in the move towards centralized networks. He touches on one problem with corporate centralization, namely “the mass surveillance of user behaviors by both the giant companies as well as governmental agencies”. Beyond surveillance there is also the loss of control over one’s content: tweets, posts, and entire blogs can be deleted at the discretion of the owner, which is not actually you.

Of course Paul Ford could delete this blog if he wanted to, but I’m pretty sure he won’t. If I wanted more control over my content, though, I could install WordPress on a VM somewhere (like AWS) and blog there.

Of course Amazon could theoretically meddle with or delete my virtual server on AWS, or close my account for whatever reason. Digital Ocean and Linode are probably more trustworthy than Amazon, but that’s still ceding some control over my content to a private company. So I should probably set up a server in my closet and run the blog from there, right?

No, because that’s silly. And even then my domain could get shut down, or my ISP could block traffic to the blog, or who knows what else.

The point here is that absolute control over one’s content isn’t really possible; at some point you have to trust a third party.

(There’s a second point to be made: each step taken here to ensure greater control over your content requires more technical skill. It’s not fair or reasonable that anyone who just wants to blog freely should administer their own servers. Even attempts to streamline the process of, for example, setting up a secure WordPress blog, require familiarity with a UNIX-like command-line, SSH, the difference between Linux distributions, and so on. So it’s hardly surprising that most users prefer the proprietary, centralized networks that are easy and sometimes even pleasant to use. Tragically, it remains surprising to certain leaders in the Free Software movement, who view “convenience” as an unnecessary luxury rather than a prerequisite for almost everyone.)

So, taking the vague term “blog” with its history of decentralization, and with the above considerations, our revisionary definition of “blog” is this:

A source of digital content which is and can reasonably be expected to remain under control of its author(s).

What does this rule out? Any accounts on

Etc. On the contrary, while Amazon, Digital Ocean, et al. could take control of your stuff, they probably won’t.

So we should blog more! And by “blog” I mean publish content to a Blog as defined above, and by “should” I mean “SHOULD” as defined in RFC 2119 and by “content” I mean 💩.

An interesting – and seemingly unwelcome – consequence of this definition is that it’s not a blog if it includes hate speech on a platform where hate speech is banned. Platforms should ban hate speech, so why is our revisionist definition of “blog” incompatible with such a ban?

The short answer is that just because I’m setting forth a definition of “blog” with a political aim in mind, that doesn’t mean that everything that’s a blog is good and everything not a blog is bad.

In fact, most blogs are bad.