2004-12-02 21:43:50 GMT/BST
Lately I've been talking to a lot of people about media consumption. In those discussions it's become clear that my reading habits are quite unusual, and furthermore, that people seem to have difficulty understanding what and how I read. This, then, is my attempt to describe my reading habits.
I spend most of my time reading blogs. Blogs are journal-style websites. They are typically written by one person (although group blogs are not unknown). Setting up a blog doesn't require any great outlay of capital, nor does it require much technical knowledge beyond basic computer-literacy. The website you are reading this on is a blog.
Blogs are a much commented on phenomenon. For some of the history behind them you could do a lot worse than starting with Rebecca Blood's Weblogs: A History and Perspective.
When I read blogs I tend not to visit the actual site in my web browser. Instead I use a piece of software called an aggregator to read lots of blogs simultaneously. An aggregator fetches feeds for a list of sites that you've subscribed to. (A feed is simply a list of the most recent entries on the site.) An aggregator can be a hard thing to understand until you see one in action, or at least a screenshot of one. So here's a screenshot of an aggregator called Blam running on my machine.
On the left is a list of fourty or so Blogs that I've subscribed to. To subscribe, I tell Blam the location of a blog's feed. (That RSS link at on the side of this page is a link to my feed.) Then Blam will regularly fetch the feeds and display them in the panes on the right. That way I know when a blog has been updated without having to manually visit it every day.
Initially this just looks like a nice way to save time, but actually the consequences are more profound than that. As I said, there are roughly fourty blogs that I've subscribed to in Blam. There's no way that I could check that number of blogs without an aggregator. So I'm reading more blogs than I would otherwise.
But it also changes the nature of the blogs I read. Prior to using an aggregator I would regularly visit a small number of large sites such as Kuro5hin and Slashdot. These sites contain contributions from many people and will typically have several new stories in a day. The quality of the stories varies. When you can only check a small number of sites per day, sites like this seem like a good deal, but once you've got a lot of consistently high quality blogs in your aggregator, these high volume sites start to look a lot less appealing. With an aggregator you don't have any shortage of reading matter and you don't have to wade through low quality material to reach it.
When I try to talk to people about this subject, I get asked several common questions. Some people wonder how communities can be supported if everyone can read whatever they want. The assumption seems to be that if everybody watches, say, the BBC then they have they have some of their culture in common that they wouldn't otherwise have, and furthermore, this is better than giving people greater freedom in what they read. Put like that of course, it hardly sounds convincing. Perhaps someone more attached to the idea can state it more persuasively.
There's another objection to this idea though, and that is that a community isn't much of a community if its members don't have any way of talking with each other, and instead are only talked to by a handful of broadcasters. I do not believe that everyone who watches the same channel is part of a community.
Also, it is clear that communities of bloggers do exist. It is a social, rather than a technological, phenomenon. And if we take the long arguments over RSS as an (extreme) example, these aren't just groups of people who agree with each other and are patting each other on the back.
Another concern is that if everyone is able to speak, it will be impossible to find the good stuff in a sea of rubbish. However, while anyone can write on the web, I don't have to read everything that gets written. The majority of my reading is from the feeds I've subscribed to, so I can already be reasonably confident that those things will be good. But also, it isn't hard to come across new things. If a site is good, people will link to it. If I like what I see, I'll subscribe to the feed, otherwise I'll just move on. It's just normal word of mouth really, and it works particularly well in a hypertext environment.
I've tried telling people about aggregators and I've tried showing them aggregators. When I tell people they don't get it, but when I show them they not only get it, they also start using it. I'm guessing that this will spread quickly.