The state of the blog
Part 2: Blogger present
The second part of our interview with Evan Williams touches on what blogging is all about, and the latest on Blogger Pro. (You should read part 1 first.)
WtW: When you meet a complete stranger on the bus, someone who knows what the web is but has never seen a blog, how do you describe what you do, and what Blogger is?
EW: I stammer a lot. I guess I've never really had a great answer to that question. I usually say Blogger is a web publishing tool, mostly for personal and independent publishers, that takes the tediousness and technicality out of adding things to web sites.
If they are still interested, I usually try to find an example they'd be familiar with -- most of the time, people get the idea of a "What's New" page. I often use that to explain what blogs are.
WtW: In your minds, is Blogger about content management, personal publishing, data management, all three, or something else?
EW: At various times -- mostly because I was thinking about payroll and impressing investors -- I've shied away from the "personal publishing" label, but these days I fully embrace it. To me, that's what is important and exciting about Blogger -- it empowers personal publishers.
Within that realm, it's about content management -- specifically, lightweight content management -- the big, embarrassingly gaping hole still yet to be filled in order to make the vision of the web democratizing media a reality.
WtW: Do you think the blog concept has become stale? Was there ever a "blog concept" in the first place?
EW: To me, the blog concept is about three things: Frequency, Brevity, and Personality. These are the three characteristics that I believe are the driving factors in weblogs' popularity as a publishing format. This clarification has evolved over time, but I realized early on that what was significant about blogs was the format -- not the content.
I always chided against the early definition of weblogs as link lists or annotations of the web. This was largely how weblogs were defined -- even by us, at first -- and partially led to the trivialization of the format by a lot of Internet "old-timers." I think it's pretty widely accepted at this point that the definition is broader -- that the "blog concept" is mostly about frequently posting chunks of content on a web page and organizing it chronologically.
So, to answer the second question, I do think there was a blog concept. Then there were a couple blog concepts. And now we're getting closer to a blog concept again.
Is this concept getting stale? Like anything, over time it's lost its newness and on-the-cutting-edge feel. It's much easier to feel like you're tuned in to something exciting when just a few insiders are doing it than when it's done by 50,000 tech-savvy teens and their not-so-tech-savvy grandmas.
But I'm convinced that we are still at the very beginning. The concept will continue to become more prevalent, to the point where it probably won't even be talked about -- simply because it is the native format for publishing all kinds of information on the web.
Blogs will become the default format for personal sites (which, despite the dot-com collapse and the inability for anyone to make money off them, continue to grow at a phenomenal rate -- both in terms of numbers and centrality to people's lives), and they will become a staple of professional publisher's and business sites, as well.
WtW: Would you like to see different uses of Blogger, or do you think that depends on upgrades to the feature set?
EW: I'm not terribly concerned with seeing different uses of Blogger. Regarding the feature set, that is one thing which, I have to admit, has gotten a little stale.
Blogger hasn't evolved nearly as quickly as I would have hoped or expected. There is a tremendous amount to be done -- which will shepherd in many exciting new uses -- but we were just too stretched, too unfocused, and too overwhelmed with scaling and other issues to ever get the really interesting stuff we've been dying to do forever out the door. (That is changing now.)
WtW: There's a lot of talk and anticipation about Blogger Pro. What can you tell us will be in it - and crucially, what will it cost?
EW: Yeah, well, hmmm... Blogger Pro has been on and off the front burner so many times, it's embarrassing. We've had a set of features, which we defined as Blogger Pro, in beta for two or three months.
We've never launched them publicly and for pay for various reasons -- largely, when I had the rest of the team, it was because the resources we felt it would take to finish, launch, maintain, and support it were not going to pay for themselves anytime soon, and we, therefore, needed to focus on bigger deals.
At this point, my plan is still to eventually offer various subscription-based services, such as Pro. But obviously my resources for providing a professional-level service have somewhat decreased, and I have a bit of work to do before I feel comfortable offering something I'm making people pay for.
In general, I'm reassessing everything -- business strategy and technology-wise -- so I can't say right now when Pro will rear it's head, in what form, or for how much money.
WtW: What has Blogger done for Pyra?
EW: Blogger has become Pyra.
WtW: Your request for donations proved extremely successful. How did that affect the way you think about your users?
EW: I was overwhelmed by the response to the Server Fund. Not only did it generate much more money than we anticipated (a total of about $12,000 from users at this point -- plus another $4,500 from Web Techniques magazine), the kind words and offers to help were both humbling and inspiring.
It demonstrated my belief that people were willing to pay for things that mattered to them on the web -- and invigorated my commitment to keeping Blogger alive. It was also interesting how the contributions were dispersed. In actuality, a very tiny percentage of Blogger users gave anything at all.
But the average donation was much greater than I would have ever guessed. Some people were amazingly generous. Of course, this is both bad and good. It may show that a few people are extremely willing to pay -- but not enough to make things viable.
WtW: Is Blogger now financially secure, or might you have to ask for help again? Presumably you have significant server-side costs that can only increase as the number of users increases.
EW: The hosting costs are a tiny fraction of what the payroll was, which made up 90% of our overhead until recently, so I don't have near the financial pressure I felt before.
On the other hand, its still rather significant for a service that is not currently producing any income and a company that is out of funding. Plus, you're right, these costs are only increasing. The good news is, I have some deals in the works that should put me in good standing for at least the rest of the year.
By that time, I expect Blogger to be sustainable unto itself.
WtW: Are you able to name any sites where you have noticed particularly unusual/interesting/different use of Blogger?
EW: We tried to highlight such sites with our Blog of the Week, which features sites like Who Would Buy That, which, with much humor, highlights odd items for sale on eBay; the Press Nothing to Continue episode of 0sil8, which hooked up Blogger to Tellme, so you can listen to a blog over the phone; and Presidential Haiku, which features, well, haikus about American presidents.
In part 3 - Blogger future: new horizons, and new directions, for Blogger.