Sometimes I wonder why social software has become so popular. We've never seen a phenomenon like blogs before - 16 million blogs tracked by Technorati is undoubtedly an understatement, because of all the dark blogs out there that are hidden away behind firewalls or passwords. There may be millions of blogs that just don't ping Technorati - such as Korean blogs - so are 'invisible' to their indexing spiders. Who knows how many blogs there really are, but it could well be in the hundreds of millions.
Cast your mind back to the beginnings of the World Wide Web, to Netscape Navigator, to the days when a website had to be hand coded and blinking text was all the rage. Back then, the predictions were that soon everyone would have a home page. Everyone would have a presence on the web.
But that didn't happen, because even with the eventual development of WYSIWYG HTML editors, the barrier to entry was still far too high. People didn't know HTML and didn't want to know HTML. It took Blogger to bring that barrier down and make publishing on the web as easy as writing an email.
Five years on from the launch of Blogger and the spread of blogging shows no signs of slowing down. Dave Sifry's State of the Blogosphere posts show that the blogosphere appears to be doubling in size every five to six months.
Yet I'd argue that the technology behind blogging hasn't changed all that much in five years. We've added bells and whistles - comments, trackbacks and tags - but the basics of blogging have remained the same. We are still publishing our thoughts on whatever topic we're passionate about to the world (or just our friends), the same as we were back then.
The success of blogging has nothing really to do with software or technology, but is instead down to the fact that it allows us to interact online in the same way we do offline. With chit chat and cat pictures and discussions of the best recipe for teriyaki salmon, interspersed occasionally with a bit of cooing and billing over the latest gadget/car/mobile phone/knitting pattern. Blogging allows us to get to know people gradually by reading their blog, by leaving comments, by having a blog for them to read, so that communities form unhampered by geography. It allows our personalities to shine through, allows us to be who we are (or who we wish to be).
We have a long and lustrous history of epistolary relationships, from letters between lovers exchanging heartfelt paeans to their devotion, to professorial colleagues discussing the advances they are making in their research. For centuries, the letter has been the key to strengthening weak ties. The phone seems still alien to some of us - that disembodied voice burning our ears - and email is fraught with a lack of emotion that can accidentally engender arguments. But blogs provide what letters once did - persistence, context, presence.
With blogs, we can converse with our friends and with strangers who might one day turn into friends. We can embrace the world and transcend the limits of geography. But most importantly, with blogs we are free to be who we want to be.