Blogging: made in England?

Crouching tiger slagging blogger

Column Here's a quote from an interesting time in the past: ten years ago. You know, a decade back, 1997, when (It says here) 'Jorn Barger, who started his Robot Wisdom weblog in 1997, is "regarded by many" as the "first blogger".'

Was he heck.

The first blogger was Rupert Goodwins. He started his blog in 1996 - and very popular it was, too.

It started out as his "online diary" but apart from lacking the headline of a "Web Log" it was in all respects a web log which is where "blog" comes from. It listed each day of the week, and covered his inner thoughts, sometimes related to his work, sometimes not.

The irritating thing is, the site which hosted his blog went and lost most of the stuff from those early years. It's a loss, pretty much on a level with the BBC's decision to re-use the video tapes which contained "Not Only But Also" with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, or the loss of the Goon Show audio grams earlier.

I was there. Rupert and I, at the time, both worked for ZDNet; and both of us decided that there was loads of Stuff which didn't fit into normal journalism. The thing is, finding something from Rupert's oeuvre in those days is really hard.

I've managed to unearth one of my own online diary postings from that epoch - here's the URL: read it for yourself. It was my blog, and it pretty much dates itself. I'd just had lunch with Douglas Adams:

Douglas Adams has finally worked out that the Hitch Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy is not suitable for turning into a movie, and over lunch, he tells me about his new book, which is. That is, he tells me that he's not going to tell me about it. "If I start saying what's going to be in it, then it won't."

The whole interview is surreal enough; the sense of disjunction is enhanced by the fact that Douglas isn't really in London. He's in the South of France, on holiday and just flew in for the day to launch the game, Starship Titanic. In his ear is water, acquired swimming. He can not hear a word I say.

As you can tell by the writing style, this is a diary. It's the entry for 9 September 1997, and it carries on in typical diary style:

The company which is publishing the CD buys us lunch; and destroys any hope they may have had of a mention. It's easily done. You invite someone to lunch with a luminary like Douglas, and then instead of letting the journalist sit next to the luminary, you put your managing director next to the luminary, and send the journalist down to the far end of the table -- the other side of the PR exec. Oh, and having booked the place in Kensington (tube station closed) you drive in a fleet of limos from Olympia -- a journey that might take all of 10 minutes on foot, but takes over an hour in Princess traffic.

The date, pretty exactly, a decade ago. Princess Diana madness struck London, the games exhibition, ECTS, was on at Olympia... as the diary reported:

The day starts off with breakfast with someone from 3DFX; he doesn't show. I suppose, given the state of the London transport subsystem, this isn't surprising, but it is vexing; 3D accelerators are all the rage at the show, and Quake II is being demoed.

As you can tell, this was a long-established blog. The archives of that web site appear to have been trashed while moving the company offices (they didn't even manage to take their corporate phone numbers with them!) this year, but the "Kewney At Large" blog can be traced back to at least December 1996 when it seems I was in a Terminator style battle with "wearable PCs". And it wasn't a new feature even then; Rupert Goodwins and I both started this blogging habit several months earlier, when ZDNet was just the online part of PC Mag UK, and not a company in its own right.

You do the sums. Everybody is celebrating ten years since the death of "The People's Princess" even if Germaine Greer is interpreting "celebrating" in a rather unconventional way... and ten years ago is 1997 in anybody's money.

Can I find something Rupert posted before that? Well, yes: try this and you'll see that it definitely ran (and wasn't brand new, either!) in 1996. And you can also see that ZDNet decided to economise on disk space, and truncated it to one miserable semi-paragraph:

Saturday 21 September 1996, 10:00 AM Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Posted by Rupert Goodwins

To the Cumberland Hotel, where a floor has been set aside for a xDSL conference. xDSL covers an entire hoard of acronyms

Working in publishing, let me assure you, exposes you to some of the most pointy-haired of pointy-haired managers on the planet, but I have to admit, I haven't often worked for a more pointy-haired bunch than ZDNet management in those days, and singling out which of them was actually responsible for deleting all those pioneering blogs or which of their idiocies directly led to the decision would involve wading through a morass of managerial incompetence.

But there are examples of blogging at ZDNet UK in those days... well, here is a example of my blog from September 1996. That's eleven years ago. And as you can see, it is obviously contemporary; and I can assure you that Rupert's blog was as enthusiastically read at least.

Of course, these days, ZDNet UK has only one star writer; Rupert Goodwins. I think I've managed to show that his blog goes back to 1996, same as mine, but while I got turfed out more than five years ago - when someone discovered what they were paying me! - he hasn't missed a beat in eleven years. So you'd kinda expect that Rupert's blog would be somewhat celebrated as being the world's longest-running blog. You can read his blog again tomorrow, if you tune in. Would you not imagine that his employers would take this opportunity to razz the tazz a little, drum up some attention, give his blog star billing?

Not a bit of it. You can search through ZDNet archives in vain for any acknowledgement of his pioneering and determined work; all you'll find is blether about Jorn Barger and Robot Wisdom. Not eleven years ago; ten.

Is it the American "not invented here" thing? Is the Web something that Americans truly think was invented in America? If a blog starts up but isn't in America, is it somehow not a blog? Or is it just that the idiot who deleted the stuff off the disk to save space is still working somewhere in ZDNet corporate HQ and doesn't want anybody to notice?

I used to read, with some horror, about revisionists in Soviet Russia, who edited unsatisfactory people out of history. I really never thought it would happen to Rupert (or to me, for that matter) but I suppose, if I did think of it, I thought it would be to suppress something contentious. But just to hide a Dilbertian blunder? ®

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