An introduction to weblog terms for weblog readers

[This article is now also available in French. 5 March 2003]

The audience for Pepys’ Diary can be split into two groups: Those who write and/or read weblogs and those who have come to the site purely because of an interest in Pepys. The former group are familiar with the language of the weblog world (Weblog, Blog, RSS, Trackback, Permalink, etc) while the latter aren’t. And why should they be? This kind of language is a hangover from when weblogs were written largely by and for web geeks. And that’s fine — this is a new and fast-changing environment where the technical underpinnings of website construction always lies just beneath the surface. But at the same time sites like Pepys’ Diary, that cover non-technical matters, must be aware that such words often mean nothing to new readers and should explain such concepts in terms normal people can understand. Otherwise it is impossible for a reader to tell whether to ignore an “RSS feed” or learn how to use it. So, here’s my brief guide to weblog terms for readers, not webloggers…

What is a weblog or blog?

A weblog, or “blog” for short, is a kind of website or a part of a website. It is usually, but not always, run by a single person and they publish bits of writing on the weblog fairly frequently — maybe a few times each day, or once a day, or less often. These bits of writing, perhaps called “entries” or “posts,” generally appear on the front page of the weblog in reverse chronological order, that is, with the newest entry at the top of the page, with older entries progressively further down. Entries of a certain age often disappear from the front page but all entries are ususally archived on separate pages, perhaps organised by date or topic, for posterity.

Entries are usually fairly short, maybe a sentence or a paragraph, but can be much longer. Entries might be written about other websites or entries on other websites, including links to them, but they might also be the author’s thoughts on events, politics, their own life… anything. There is a grey area between weblogs and journals/diaries which are always more personal and tend not to link to other websites so much. The most often cited history of weblogs is Rebecca Blood’s.

What is a permalink?

If a person wants to link to a new entry on a weblog, they have a problem. They might try linking to the front page of the weblog, where this new entry is currently at the top of the page. But over time the entry will move down the page and eventually might be removed, only existing on an archive page. So most weblogs give each entry a “permalink” (short for “permanent link”), which is where that entry will always live. On the front page of this site each entry has a permalink marked by “Link”. Following this takes you to the permanent page for that entry. Permalinks are marked in different ways on different sites, often by the time on which the entry was posted.

What is RSS?

RSS stands for Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication, although that fact doesn’t tell you much. An RSS file (or “RSS feed”) is a text file that usually contains details about the most recent entries on a website. It doesn’t have any information about colours, fonts, layout, or any other graphical issues. It’s simply text in a standardised format. If you look at an RSS file for this site in places you can see some text that isn’t just gibberish, but is information about this site or about its recent entries. The file says “Here’s some information that describes a website and here are the titles and brief descriptions of recent entries.” Some RSS files are in a slightly different format that includes more or different information but they perform similar functions.

But what is an RSS file for? In general it is so that other people, websites and computer programs can do stuff with the information; the standardised format of RSS files makes this easy, regardless of which website the file has come from. There are two main uses for an RSS file. First, it makes it easy for one website to include a list of headlines from another, a process known as “syndication.” For example, someone might want to include a list of the BBC’s top news items on their website. They could write a program that takes the information from one of the BBC’s RSS files and displays a list of the headlines on their own site, with each headline linking to the story at the BBC.

The second use for an RSS file is so people can read entries, or parts of entries, in an RSS news reader. These are programs you run on your computer. You tell it the addresses of RSS files you are interested in and it downloads them. The program then displays the entry headlines, and maybe their content, regularly fetching the latest version of the RSS file. People use RSS news readers if they like to read lots of weblogs or news sites because it makes the process much quicker — the person no longer has to visit each site in turn, the latest entries are fetched automatically, and the lack of graphics makes the process much quicker. It’s more like skipping through email messages rather than viewing websites. The most popular news reader for Mac OS X is the excellent NetNewsWire and SharpReader is a news reader for Windows. But creating an account at Bloglines and using their web-based service may be the simplest way to get started (with the benefit you can read your personal selection of feeds from any computer). You can read more about RSS at Webreference.com.

What is Trackback?

One of the popular tools used for creating weblogs, Movable Type, introduced the ability to use Trackback. It works something like this: Let’s say a weblog has an interesting entry about the rising price of fish. After reading this I also write an entry about the price of fish, adding that the price of meat has also risen. Let’s assume that the tool I use to produce my weblog and the tool the other person uses both understand Trackback. When I publish my entry a link will appear beneath the original “price of fish” entry that points to mine. It probably includes my headline, “The price of fish and meat,” and the first few words of the entry. Now, someone reading the original entry can see that I’ve written an entry that refers to the one they’re reading, and they might choose to click the link to see what I’ve said about meat.

These are the basics and it can be hard to understand and use Trackback in practice. It is useful, but not all weblogs use it. You can read more about Trackback at Movabletype.org.

[Updated 26 February 2003, correcting which tools include Trackback.]
[Updated 7 July 2004, tweaking the RSS section.]

Comments

  • The explanations you provide are a good first step for someone completely new to weblogs. What we perhaps need (if it doesn’t exist already) is a weblog “guide” website with links to almost all weblog site there is, with indexes, search features, and the ability to be sent email or streaming text to announce new entries in the weblogs of one’s choice; and perhaps even weblog discussion groups or fan sites. Also a good demonstration section on how to start a weblog would be nice. Are there any enterpreneurial people out there willing to put the time into this?

    I have a question too: what about delayed entry? Is it possible for a weblog entry to be written and then not published until a certain time has elapsed? I could see that being useful for diaries of famous people or in situations of current political importance, where the diary could become a memoir after a certain date.

  • There have been attempts at providing lists of all weblogs for years, and they were only ever reasonably comprehensive when the number of weblogs could be counted in the dozens. These days the task you describe would be akin to creating Yahoo! from scratch. There have also been weblog discussion groups (which often seem to die) and probably fan sites, although why someone would want to start a fan site, rather than their own weblog is beyond me.

    Any weblog tool worth its salt allows the author to create entries in “draft” mode, saving them to be published when the time is right.

  • I like your Pepys Diary though I have no means of adding comments, it seems .
    I have javascript enabled on this Windows 95 Netscape 4.6 browser but no forms for annotation
    appear when I log on to the site. I can do HTML but this is foreign to me.
    Even my name disappears wwhen I try to post. I hope this gets through.
    I would have liked to comment on the smallpox discussion that milkmaids did not get smallpox as they
    had cowpox and that dairy cows were kept in the Green Park at the end of Picadilly where ladies used to walk to get a drink of
    fresh milk straight from the cow!

    M E Wood

  • I started publishing a monthly webzine (subscription) in October, called Foreign Accent. It comprises ten articles translated (mainly) from the non-anglo sector, written by locals on local subjects for local people. Meant for those that really enjoy multiculturalism and are curious to know what non-anglophones are talking about to each other.

    My web designer suggested i set up a weblog to give FA a wider profile on the net. I didn’t really follow all he said and I’m not sure what blogs are. But I imagine there are how to set a blog up instructions on the web somewhere.

    I’m not too keen on all this blabbing about oneself. It seems to me the net encourages garrulousness, incoherence and drivel and I don’t want to add to it. Is it permissible to reprint bits and pieces that you pick up here and there?

    And do you think it morally reprehensible to set up a blog merely to promote your own subscription webzine?

    I’d be glad of your comments so long as they’re pithy, structured and profound.

    Mary Rose Liverani

  • A weblog is more a definition of the form of a website, rather than its content. It’s fine to use the form (smallish bits of information put on a website, listed chronologically) for whatever you find useful! People were blabbing about themselves before weblogs became popular, but the weblog form and weblog tools make it easier to do so.

  • Hi Phil, I’d be interested in reading this page, but the text is so small, and over runs the box at the right. I can’t even read what I’m writing. The CSS formatting is backfiring. Sorry for the typos. I’m using MSIE 6.

  • I copied the text into a test editor where I’m reading it. Actually trackback is not supported by Blogger or Radio. Blogger could support it now that they’re owned by Google with their huge hardware resources. Maybe Google will operate a big Trackback server in the sky for the rest of us. Manila could support Trackback, but so far I don’t see why. It’s so geekish. Not very user friendly.

  • Thanks Dave - I’ve corrected the TrackBack section now; I should’ve checked first time round. And you’re right, it isn’t at all user friendly.

    Sorry about the size of the type… it looks OK whenever I try it in IE 6, and if pushed I can resize type from the View menu.

  • I couldn’t read this page in IE 5 on a Windows machine—type was way, way too small. I had to override your site settings in my preferences before I could make out characters. So, I guess I’m having the same problem as Dave Winer.


  • I don’t know what to say… Whatever machine I test this on I can read the text OK (I’m posting this from Windows IE 4). Sorry. Please email me (rather than posting here) if you have more problems.

  • Is there a way to get in on the Trackback goodness if you use Blogger (and intend to stay there)? From what I understand, Moveable Type lives on one’s own machine, and what I dig about push-button publishing for the people is that I can just hop over there from anywhere, anytime, and post.

    Also — this is a sexcellent page. We’re having a chat with Rebecca Blood over on the Well (well.com and look for “Inkvue”) and she recommended it. Thanks for compiling the info!

  • To answer Jerry’s question at the top, www.bloglines.com provide a service that lets you subscribe to blogs (or any other site that provides rss feed) and notifies you when updates are made. Its currently free.

  • Nice explanations, but why do you provide two RSS versions, and which one do I use? I could probably go and look up the answer, but an internet newbie who’s just followed a guide like yours and installed FeedReader might be confused…

  • You’re completely right Frankie. It’s something I’ve had at the back of my mind but never got round to changing. I’ve now deleted one of the links which should help make it clearer. Thanks.

  • hi, all this is too technical for me, I want to start a blog but havent a clue what an rss feed is, i can make websites with absolutely no knowledge of http or php so is there any kind of way I can make a weblog by using something easier, can anyone recoomend what is the easiest way

5 Jan 2003 in Writing

More Pepys and me
Slashdotting isn’t as fearful as it once was. Radio is very exciting. My voice is OK.

On this day I was reading