Popular Culture  •  May 30, 2003

Psychology of Weblogs

When I first started DYSKE.COM back in the summer of 2001, I had never heard the term “weblog”. I was not aware of the fact that there was free software available to build a weblog either. This is why DYSKE.COM does not use any of the popular weblog tools such as Blogger and Movable Type. Once server-side scripting with database became simple and affordable, it was just a matter of time people started creating their own database-driven websites.

In my opinion, the only difference between static personal websites and “weblogs” is that the latter is database-driven. Even before weblogs became popular, many people had static HTML sites with nothing but links. It’s just that they weren’t updated so regularly because you needed a computer specifically set up to do so. Server-side scripting with database allows us to update our sites from anywhere and anytime with nothing more than a browser. This convenience obviously had its impact on the web. The result: weblogs.

Since around 1997, I have always had a personal website with my own writings. What changed in 2001 was that I made it database-driven. By doing so, my site effectively became a weblog. So, the broadest definition of the term “weblog” is a database-driven personal website. Within this category, you have three subcategories: journal weblog, link weblog, and op-ed weblog. Journal weblog is an online journal where you post accounts of your daily life. It is a diary open to public. Link weblog is a collection of timely links with brief descriptions or opinions. Op-ed weblog is a series of more structured essays expressing personal opinions. I am sure eventually someone will come up with unique terms to describe each of these subcategories.

In contrast to the writer of this weblog history, I have a less noble-sounding explanation of why weblogs became so popular. Even back when all personal websites were built with static HTML, most people had nothing but links on their sites. This is not because they thought their sites performed an important function of filtering information, or of transforming their roles from “audience” to “public”, but simply because they had not much else to say. So, they resorted to making content out of other people’s content by having a collection of links they thought were interesting. What this means is that content is in fact secondary to their desire to have a website. That is, it is not the content that drives people to want to have their own websites; it is the desire to have their own websites that drives them to have content.

This explains why two most popular types of weblogs are links and journals. They are the easiest kind of content to create. In this sense, there is nothing extraordinary about the popularity of weblogs. The demand to have personal websites has always existed. As with anything else with market demand, the easier and the cheaper it is, the more widespread it becomes. For those who have something to say, weblog is an effective new tool, but for those who have nothing to say, weblog has not provided them with anything to say. The proliferation of weblog has not done anything to change the fundamental nature of our need to communicate. Those who have something to say would say it even without weblogs. Those who have nothing to say would say nothing even if they were given the latest greatest weblog tools.

You might ask, why would anyone bother to build a personal website if he has nothing to say? My answer is: Because your website is an effective mirror image of your own ego. Nothing quite similar existed before the web. Even for a corporation, a website is a mirror image of who they think they are. No other medium defines the identity of a corporation so comprehensively and in such a timely fashion. Often in the process of building a website, a company is forced to understand and define who they are, what they are about, and what they want to be.

The same process of self-definition applies to personal websites. In creating a website, you are trying to define who you are in a tangible, visible form. It is a visual representation of your ego, i.e., your own image of yourself. This process is naturally fascinating if you are interested in knowing about yourself. It allows you to externalize who you are. It allows you to stand back and stare at yourself. Even if you have no fashion statement to make, you are still interested in seeing yourself in a mirror. The same goes for websites. Content of a website is secondary to this function of website as a mirror image of your own ego. Even if you ultimately have nothing substantial to say, it is still interesting to see a mirror image of your thoughts. This is what drives people to build their own websites, not so much their pressing need to communicate something.

You define who you are through the information you gather from what you perceive to be “outside” of you. This split of “inside” and “outside” is an illusion, but so is the ego itself. Who you are is nothing more than who you think you are. This image is formed over time through your interaction with the world. A weblog is a seductive medium not just because of this premise of allowing you to perceive and form your own ego via user interaction, but also because it remains strictly in the realm of ideal, as opposed to material. In other words, it allows you to escape the image of your physical self, which gives you a feeling of being more in control of your own image.

What you seek, especially in having a journal weblog, is some sort of affirmation, validation, or legitimation of who you are, what you do, how you feel, and what you perceive. In this sense, weblogs, especially journal weblogs, have psychotherapeutic value. You could find a free therapist who would talk to you about how you think and feel. The nature of the medium provides a certain amount of distance you need to stay objective. This is another attractive aspect of weblogs for some people.

From this perspective, weblogs do not turn “audience” into “public”. Psychotherapists are not audience when they listen to their clients. If anyone is “audience” in a psychoanalytic or counseling session, it would be the client himself who tells his own story to the therapist. By the same token, in most weblogs, the creator is the “audience” of his own content.