Saturday, March 24, 2007

Blogs turn 10--who's the father?

Someone, somewhere created the very first Web log. It's just not quite clear who.

It may not be one of the Internet's grandest accomplishments, but with the number of active bloggers hovering somewhere around 100 million, according to one estimate, there are some serious bragging rights to be claimed by the first person who provably laid fingers to keyboard in the traditional bloggy way.

Was the first blogger the irascible Dave Winer? The iconoclastic Jorn Barger? Or was the first blogger really Justin Hall, a Web diarist and online gaming expert whom The New York Times Magazine once called the "founding father of personal blogging"?

Or did all three merely make incremental improvements on earlier proto-blogs? The answer is most likely "yes" to all of the above. In truth, awarding the title "first blogger" is more than a little tricky because the definitions of blog and blogger are slippery. Any definition should probably include posts sorted by date, with the newest posts at the top and the rest archived for future use (criteria that would eliminate the Drudge Report, for instance).

Winer is a pioneer of Web syndication techniques and editor of Scripting News, which launched on April 1, 1997.

He boasts on his site that Scripting News "bootstrapped the blogging revolution" and that it is the "longest currently running Web log on the Internet." A decade ago, however, Winer wasn't actually using the term "Web log," nor does he claim to have invented the term. Winer did not respond to repeated requests for comment from CNET until after this article appeared. He replied in a post claiming "the first blogs were inspired" by Scripting News.

Barger, a programmer, futurist and James Joyce scholar, is not afraid to say, indeed, he's the guy who invented the term "Web log." In December 1997, he created to feature entirely bloggy collections of links to articles about politics, culture, books and technology that he found interesting.

"Since I made up the word, I assume I get to define it," Barger said in an e-mail message to CNET on Monday. "And by my strictest definition Winer wasn't quite a blog--he mixed up the reverse-chronological ordering too much. So--unsurprisingly--the first 100 percent Weblog would be mine."

Barger said his site amounted to something of a day-to-day log of his reading and intellectual pursuits--and because it was online, he called it a "WebLog." And thus a new term, which would soon be abbreviated and de-capitalized to "blog" by Peter Merholz of, was born.

"Winer called them 'news pages,' but I didn't plan to do mainly news, but rather anything I found that I thought was worth reading or visiting," Barger said in an e-mail. "So at the last minute I needed to come up with a title, and I used AltaVista to see whether various possibilities were already taken (with 'log' being the critical descriptive term). 'Weblog' was being used as a synonym for 'server log' or 'html log' by site administrators, but since they had the other options I grabbed the more general one."

Building on the .plan
But as any Internet graybeard will tell you, early Net denizens were just as active in sharing details of their personal lives and commenting on politics (though, perhaps, not the antics of their pet cats) as the latest generation of bloggers. They did it on mailing lists and through a now virtually forgotten technique called a ".plan" file that was invented in the early 1970s.

A .plan file was a publicly visible text file of any length that could be attached to each individual account on a Unix system and often used reverse-chronological blog-like ordering with newer items at the top. Internet users could edit their own .plan files to include details of their personal life, work projects or musings on the nature of reality.

Many did. One of the most famous .plan files was created by John Carmack, who co-founded Id Software and was the lead programmer on blockbuster video games including Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein 3D. (Carmack's .plan file has since been converted to a blog.)

Some of Carmack's frequent updates described programming accomplishments, such as "made qport more random" and "fixed map reconnecting." Others were conversational: "Quake has bugs. I freely acknowledge it, and I regret them. However, Quake 1 is no longer being actively developed, and any remaining bugs are unlikely to be fixed. We would still like to be aware of all the problems, so we can try to avoid them in Quake 2."

The humble .plan file even played a role in the early history of the Linux kernel. In July 1991, as part of his first public post about the kernel, Linux developer Linus Torvalds asked for help with operating system standards. As an aside, he also mentioned a tweak to his .plan file to make it change automatically, and that was what generated far more attention.

Torvalds' Usenet post was eventually seen by Ari Lemmke, who gave Linux its name (Torvalds had proposed "Freax") and who provided an online home for what would become one of the world's most popular operating systems, according to Torvalds' own history.

Putting a 'finger' on blogging's birth
Dot-plan files were read through the "finger" command, which is so antique it actually dates back to the pre-Internet days of the ARPAnet.

It was created in the early 1970s by Les Earnest, who had already invented the first spell-checker and the first successful cursive writing recognizer. Earnest is currently a senior research scientist emeritus at Stanford University's computer science department, an enthusiastic bicyclist and a cycling association official. (Read the rest of an interview with Earnest).

"It was used in much the same way as blogs are now--that is, the .plan file was intended to be just a way to tell people where you were going to be," Earnest said in a telephone interview. "If you were going off on vacation or a trip or something, or were just going to sleep for a while, you could post that in your .plan file. But then people noticed that it could be used as a statement of personal views on things and they started doing that...(For) expressing your personal views on things, it was very much like a blog, a personal blog."

Earnest's creation of the "finger" command and .plan file became an official standard (RFC 742) in December 1977 and was updated in 1991. (Along the way, of course, it also led to innumerable jokes about how to "finger me" among oversexed computer science undergraduates.)

Plan files, or at least instructions on how to read them, found their way onto business cards and into the Geek Code, a mid-1990s method of describing how geeky someone is.

Students used them to keep journals, post schedules, or talk about tae kwon do practice. In 1994, one undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon University created a rambling online diary in his .plan file that was hundreds of pages long. Some still exist today.

Because they were merely text files, however, even the most sophisticated .plan files could not include features we take for granted in blogs today: RSS, CSS, trackbacks, formatted text, hyperlinks, and of course, comments.

Those were gradually added after the Web was created, and Justin Hall was one of the first Web-based diarists to experiment with this then-novel medium. He was profiled by the Times for his very personal diaries at, which began when he was a student at Swarthmore College. Hall is now working on a research area that he calls passively multiplayer online games.

In an interview on Monday, Hall said he started in January 1994. "I was inspired by every home page I saw online--a picture of some scientist and his dog, his collection of old English riddles, whatever--it was so simple and trivial, I thought, it can't be hard to post a page here," he said. "It wasn't hard at all! Once I found a way to post my pages up, I could create more and more interlinked text."

Hall doesn't claim to be the first blogger; rather, he said he prefers thinking of spontaneous appearances of similar sites. "Where was the first printing press with movable type?" he asked. "Good luck tracking that down."