The Javablogs Impedence Mismatch

by Charles Miller on July 30, 2003

This article will make more sense if you have read Why I'm Not Afraid of AOL Weblogs and The [d]Evolution of Online Communities: a Case Study first, since they form the background to this article. (Originally all three were the one article called "I'm Not Afraid of AOL Blogs, I'm Afraid of Javablogs!"), but is was way too long for a single post)

Javablogs in its current form is fundamentally unsuited to the movement it was created to capture, because it attempts to map the centralized structure of a newsgroup on top of the decentralized nature of weblogs. In doing so, and by taking a powerful role at the centre of the Java weblogging community, it is holding the community back in some ways, even as it enables it in others.

This argument can be extended to encompass any topic-based aggregator that is adopted as a tool by a weblogging community. It's just, IMHO the wrong tool for the job. This is taking nothing away from Mike and the Atlassian guys: Javablogs was timely and is well-written, and a very useful tool. I visit it several times a day myself. It's a great tool, I just can't help thinking it's not quite the right tool.

As I mentioned before, weblogs form a "collaboratively filtered trust network". People read the weblogs that interest them, and link to posts in other weblogs they find interesting. Through these networks, stories tend to propagate to people who want to read them, and people tend to find what they want to read. People also feel free to indulge themselves on their own blogs, covering any topic they fancy that day, knowing their readers are all there because of personal interests shared with the author.

Mike's original Java bloggers page (now link-rotted) was a discovery service, rather than an aggregator. You used it to find new entrants in the blogosphere (each had a short blurb describing their interests and projects), went to read their site. If you liked it you added it to your own, personal news aggregator. Everyone had their own, different and personal Javablogs on their desktop.

The Javablogs aggregator replaces this loose coupling with a newsgroup structure where all posts get thrown into the same bucket. Worse, it's an 'rn' vintage newsgroup, without threading or killfiles, and with pretty primitive navigation1. As such, the social rules of a newsgroup become very important: rules designed to increase 'signal' and reduce 'noise' in a centralized environment.

  1. stay on topic
  2. avoid redundant content that doesn't add any new information ("me too" posts)

As a result, participants are pressured to avoid doing the two things that make blogging what it is: writing whatever the hell you want, and linking wildly to anything that you f ind interesting.

I find the former very difficult: what is on-topic for Java? Where do I draw the line? Should I have to? Right now my "nerd" category feeds my Javablogs RSS feed, but I could easily change that to a Java-only feed. I just feel that would be too big and clumsy a gag to wear. Most (but not all) of my technical posts are about programming and software development, and I feel that makes them applicable to a Java blogging audience, who presumably have to do development now and then. I'm a Java programmer, this is about my art, hence it must somehow be about Java right? (The posts about Apple you'll just have to live with. Get a Mac already!)

A Javablogs that was strictly "You must be talking about Java or else" would basically be Javalobby with decentralised posting and why go to all this effort to duplicate a site that already exists?

And then, of course, there's the spectre of the social problems that centralising a community brings --- social problems that we have not encountered, but which you can already see signs of emerging. Is this the right direction to travel?

It's insidious, because you can't opt out. Either because of the social pressure against "me too", or because a large number of Java bloggers don't remember life before Javablogs, there is very little inter-blog linking in the community. You don't see Java news in the Daypop Top 40, for example. Java bloggers expect everyone to be following the aggregator, so there isn't a need to further spread news that has already passed through there. As such, for a Java hacker to opt out would be to cut yourself off from your most likely audience.

This is, of course, a rant without a solution. Javablogs exists, and is doing a good job at being what it is. As much as I think it should have been otherwise, you can't stuff the genie back in the bottle. And it's not all bad. Newsgroups still survive and flourish, after all, and Javablogs has the advantage of being actively administered to keep the trolls and spam to a minimum. So long as Atlassian add filtering and threading features to Javablogs in imitation of the evolution of mail and news clients, the Java blogging community will continue to grow and share good information.

I just can't help thinking it will be missing something. Something important: that ineffable element that makes weblogging different.

1The "popular posts" feature isn't worth much: essentially you "vote" for a story by clicking on it, before you even get the chance to read it. Since the only clues anyone gets as to a post's worth before they click on it are the author and title, the popularity adds no information but "this is the sort of author or title that people feel they wish to click on". On the other hand, this sort of information would be invaluable to writers of text-ads. :)

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