Weblog Weirdness

Published 20 years, 3 weeks past

Weblogs are temporally broken; the question I have is whether or not they’re temporarily broken, or if we’re going to manage to fix them.  I do not completely exempt meyerweb from this statement, either.  As of this writing, the front page of meyerweb is as broken as every other weblog I’ve ever read.  The archives are not, but the problem is that there’s an inconsistency between the front page and the archives.  That’s a different kind of broken, but I’ll get to that in just a bit.

Here’s what I mean: the most-recent-first format is broken.  No other form of written communication works that way, and in fact almost no form of human communication works like that.  There’s a reason why.  Reading a weblog is like watching Memento, which I agree was a cool movie, except all weblogs are like that so it’s as if every single movie released in the past seven or eight years was structured exactly like Memento.  If conference presentations about weblogs were true to the form, the speaker would start with the conclusion, work backwards through his points, and end with the opening statement.  (I’d love to see someone actually do that.)  If weblog entries were ordered like the weblogs themselves, this would be the next-to-last paragraph, and the one above would be below it instead.

“But Eric,” you cry, “we want to see the most recent information first!  Newer is better!”  Wrong.  What’s most important is catching up with the content you haven’t seen before.  If weblogs could run off of telepathy, the site would determine the most recent post you’d actually read, and then present you with all of the posts since that one, listing them in chronological order.  (It might also show you the most recent post you’d already seen for a sense of continuity, but that would be the very first post you saw.  You could skim through it quickly and get to the new stuff.)

It’s frequently the case that I’ll drop by a weblog and the most recent post will refer back to a two-days-ago post, or maybe to three posts scattered over the previous week.  In some cases, the most recent post makes no sense without having read the older stuff.  So I have to skip to the older material, read it all (making sure I get it in correct order), and then come back to the newest post.  For me, that means opening up the older posts in separate tabs.  Others might open new windows, or just skip around.  Another alternative is to find the least recent post that I’ve read and start reading from there.  And that’s when things get really annoying, because it means scrolling downward to read the post, then scrolling up past what I just read and the entire body of the next post, then scrolling slowly down as I read the newer post.  Lather, rinse, repeat, regret.

None of these solutions are at all intuitive.  In fact, our collective behavior when it comes to reading weblogs is a stunning example of an entire community adopting hugely counter-intuitive behaviors in order to conform to a received truth (that weblog entries should be ordered most to least recent).  I bet many of those people are the same ones that carp about the CSS definition of width being counter-intuitive.  Yet if you read a twenty-chapter book the way you read weblogs, you’d start at the beginning of chapter 20, read it, skip back to the beginning of 19, read that, and so on until you finally worked your way back to chapter 1 and finished the book.  How much sense does that make?  Close to none.

I admit that for weblogs where most entries are two paragraphs or less (*cough*Scoble*cough*), this doesn’t matter as much—you just scroll up instead of down.  But your eyes are doing the same counter-intuitive thing by scanning up, then reading down, up, down, up, down.  After a few minutes of that, my eyes start to get tired, and that makes me grumpy.

It’s also true that in syndication aggregators, you can order the feed entries however you want, but you can get true chronological order only if the posts have a sortable publication date (many don’t), and you can only read chronologically in the aggregator if full posts are being syndicated.  On many sites, that isn’t the case.  I send out a summary feed in both RSS 0.91 and RSS 2.0, and that’s it, because otherwise I’d noticeably increase my outgoing bandwidth consumption.  And yes, bandwidth still matters.  Besides, saying “yeah, weblogs are backward but you can fix them with an aggregator” is in my mind functionally equivalent to saying “yeah, weblogs are broken but with a completely different method of representing the data and a new piece of standalone software, we can hack around the problem.”  So either weblogs are broken and we’ve chosen to invent a whole new branch of technique rather than solve the problem for the Web, or else the Web is not the correct medium for logs/journals and we need to get them off the Web altogether.

I don’t believe the latter is the case, so that leaves me looking hard at the former.  And yes, syndication is incredibly useful for telling you when there’s new stuff on your favorite sites.  I’m talking about the problem with weblogs themselves.  Anyone who’s gone into my archives will have discovered that they’re in chronological order, so you only have to scroll down when reading.  A post is immediately followed by the next-most-recent post.  No up-down-up-down scrolling required.  It’s completely inconsistent with the main page, of course.  People have complained to me that going into the archives messes them up, because they go from the usual reverse-chronological-order posts on the main page to a page of chronologically ordered posts.  I agree that’s entirely too confusing, and things need to be consistent within the site.

So the solution I’m pursuing is to fix the main page to be in chronological order while still being easy to use.  I’ve been toying with ideas on ways to do this, and I hope to test some of them out in the next couple of months.  In the meantime, if anyone knows of a weblog where the author has taken a crack at doing chronologically ordered posts, I’d like to see it, regardless of whether you think they did a good job or not.

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