The etiquette of reading weblogs

Rands just had what he described as a “Holy Duh” moment with regard to weblogging, and what weblogs are:

The painfully simple question is, “What is a weblog?” The painfully simple answer is, “A weblog is the representation of a person on the Internet.”

Weblogs are Net_People. Just like your circle of friends, some are particularly good at original content, some are just great at relaying links to other information. Some say too much, some say too little, but a weblog is the singular voice of a person.

Every now and then the obvious is worth stating. Sometimes it can clarify a picture nicely. For me, this ties into something I’ve been wondering about lately. Namely, what is the appropriate etiquette for reading weblogs?

The situation is this: you find a weblog you like. You start reading it regularly. You get to know the blog’s author through their writings.

What now? How does this relationship move forward?

Do you have a responsibility to introduce yourself to the person whose blog you are reading? In the “old” on-line world of bulletin boards and newsgroups, people who followed discussion threads but never contributed to them were called “lurkers”. If you regularly read someone’s blog, but never drop them an email or write a comment to say “hello”, then you’re a “bloglurker.”

(I suppose “blogstalker” would work equally well, but that sounds a bit more sinister. On the other hand, isn’t there something a little bit creepy about finding a weblog, and using a pair of virtual binoculars to track the juicy personal details of someone’s life from a distance?)

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Popular, “A-list” webloggers may have thousands of readers. In those cases, it’s fairly obvious that not even every regular reader is going to take the time to introduce themselves to the author and strike up a new friendship. But then there are the small, personal weblogs that don’t get much attention and net traffic. The kind of site where the writer lays his soul bare about the death of his 15-year old pet dog, or being laid off from work, and doesn’t expect the Slashdot crowd to show up and heckle.

Here’s where I would like to introduce an alternative metaphor for weblogs: they are like parties.

Some people throw big parties. They lay on plenty of drink, crank up the music, and have hundreds of people roll through their front door. Invited guests bring along more friends of their own. The host may not even know half of the people who show up.

Then there are the smaller house parties, where you have a handful of folk over to your house for a relaxing evening watching videos and eating large quantities of snack food.

A weblog is your place on the web, and it is open to the public 24 hours a day. You are the host of a non-stop party. When you write material for your blog, you are effectively choosing the music and setting the tone for the party. That is your responsibility as a blog writer. (Unfortunately one thing you can’t choose is how often and for how long your guests come to visit.)

As a blog reader it is your responsibility to find out what kind of party it is, and act appropriately. (Tools like Technorati and Blogshares can help you find out how popular a weblog is.) If it’s a big party, then just hang out and enjoy the free beer. If you spend enough time there, you may get to know some of the other guests, and you might strike up a conversation with the host. But remember: the host has many other guests to attend to, so don’t be offended if they don’t devote all their time to your personal comfort.

But sometimes you will come across a smaller party. You’ll look through an open door, and see a small gang of people lounging around on sofas, munching popcorn and chatting about a rock concert they’ve just been to. If you want to join in, what is the polite thing to do? Do you stay at the door and eavesdrop on the conversation without letting anyone know you’re there? Do you pull up a chair, start eating the popcorn, and jump loud-mouthed into whatever conversation is going on? Or do you wait for an appropriate gap in the conversation, and take a moment to say “hello” and introduce yourself?

So here is my “Holy Duh” moment: weblogs are a place of social encounter, just like any real-world café, party, or public gathering. It is your responsibility to act appropriately, just as you would in any face-to-face encounter. Be courteous to your host and your fellow guests. Introduce yourself, and say “thank you.” And enjoy the parties you find.

2 Replies to “The etiquette of reading weblogs”

  1. First off, “Hi”.

    Secondly, I see the communities/parties that form around weblogs in a much simpler sense. I really don’t expect much of the readers of my weblog. If they like what I write, super. If they don’t, oh well… this me and what I’m about and if you don’t like it… there’s a lot more where I came from.

    BUT. I do care that there is a community/party… everyone with a weblog does otherwise why would they posting where everyone could see? I, too, use Technorati to see what kind of network is forming around my weblog and, you know, I guess I do use it to find others who I might have something in common with.

    SO. You might say the way that you introduce yourself to me/my weblog is simply through a referral.

  2. True. Referrals and trackbacks are a way for owners to send messages to each other. But you’re sending the message through a third party: Person A writes an entry; person B links to it; person C reads B’s link, and visits A’s blog as a consequence. It’s almost like the stereotypical quarreling parents going, “Son, ask your mother to pass me the salt.” “Mom, can you pass dad the salt?” “Tell your father to get it himself.”

    To compare with “old” media, it would be silly to suggest that all of a newspaper’s regular readers ought to send the editor a letter to say “hi.” But blogs are (or can be) different. They’re much more of a two-way medium. When you have the right to place your own comments on a blog, you have the responsibility to use that power appropriately. But I think you also have the responsibility to *use it at all*, and to show your presence instead of just lurking.

    I’m still talking about regular readers, though. Casual or one-off visitors follow different patterns.

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