Today, I'll tell you an amazing story: how a blog post travels the Internet, in full detail.
Few people know the power of blogs, in particular popular ones. To illustrate just how much leverage can a single blog post have, I'll explain how a post travels around the world, from the moment it's conceived into the distant future. As you read this story, hopefull you'll learn a few awe-inspiring facts.
The braindump: from idea to article
The very first thing: a post must be conceived. Some people write several drafts, and erase old ones. Others spell the central idea out first. Some of us start with the first heading. Some others like to start from the end, by writing the conclusion first. In this story, I started with the first paragraph.
Words arrange themselves into sentences. Some sentences die an early death. Some words get replaced by more compelling synonyms. A few sentences get cut out in the process.
Paragraphs appear. Some go up, others down. The article takes shape, quickly and organically.
A good writer knows that you (the reader) deserves respect. How? He helps you read. Headings and subheadings mark beginnings of ideas and sections. Other mechanisms appear to help you find what you want quickly.
I hit the keyboard with two swift movements of my left hand. It meets the Control and the A keys, then the Control and the C keys. The article is now on the clipboard and waiting eagerly to be posted.
From the clipboard to the blog
I click on the Firefox icon. I browse to my own blog. I'm greeted by my trusty old Apache, a computer program in charge of negotiating and delivering Web pages. Apache, like every expert negotiator, talks to my browser and then to WordPress, the engine of my blog.
Through Apache, WordPress commands me to identify myself. I write the password, and WordPress verifies it. Since it's correct, I'm now authorized to publish articles and manage every dark corner of my blog. All this push-and-pull is mediated, in a matter of milliseconds, by Apache, which obscures communications. This obscurity helps me: no hacker can get to my password or blog.
A new screen appears. This screen greets me and shows me the latest events on my blog. I have a hard time ignoring them, but I'm on a mission. It's time to publish the article.
I click on the Post link. The publishing screen appears. I write the title of my new article, then click on the box where the article text goes. I hit Control and V on my keyboard. Click, click, click on the appropriate categories, because it's good to be organized. This drill takes ten seconds. Compared to actually writing the article, it's damn fast.
Now I click on Publish. Now it's only a matter of five seconds. After the clock ticks five times, it's done. A message appears on the screen:
Article posted successfully.
Does it end here? No. This is only the beginning of the Big Bang. Read on to learn about the almost unbelievable chain of events that's been started.
But first, let's review those five seconds.
Houston, we're ready for liftoff
The very first thing WordPress does with the post: save it to the database. 40 milliseconds after that, the article already appears on the home page of my site. It's also earned its own, permanent Web address -- its URL -- so everyone can refer to it quickly or bookmark it.
The text is alive, and the journey has oficially started.
Rudd-O.com negotiates with Google.com
After posting the article, WordPress rebuilds the sitemap, noting this post as the most recent one. The sitemap contains a listing of all my posts, along with their Web addresses. This process takes about 100 milliseconds.
Once the map is ready, WordPress gets in touch with one of the hundred thousand computers at Google: the world's most popular search engine. WordPress lets Google know that my site has been updated.
Hundreds of computers at Google relay this message almost simultaneously. Google fetches the sitemap, and orders its Web spiders to attack my site. These spiders are intelligent computer programs -- and they've just received orders to gather new and fresh content from Rudd-O.com.
Spiders attack my site and start asking around which articles have been updated. Naturally, this article is one of those. They take the text of this article and save it into the enormous corpus of data at Google.
In a matter of minutes (or, at the latest, hours), this article can be searched for at Google. In a matter of months, this article will be ranked according to the famous PageRank formula, which determines how important a page is, based (chiefly) on how many pages from the Web point to it.
Rudd-O.com: broadcasting to the blogosphere
After this quick negotiation, WordPress announces itself to the rest of the world. How? With a ping to Pingomatic.
In the wonderful world of the blog, a ping is a very short message that blogs send when they want to say they've been updated. Imagine yourself texting your best friend and letting him know you're ready to be picked up. In this analogy, you'd be my blog, and your friend would be Pingomatic.
Pingomatic, like your good friend, understands. Unlike your friend, its only mission is to relay this message to thousands of Web sites interested in your blog, around the world.
Thousands of Web sites. It's a stampede.
To understand this, we'll take Technorati as an example of one of these sites.
...Technorati: tuning in on the broadcast and joining the stampede
Technorati is a Web site. Its mission is to tune in to the conversations of the blogosphere. Since it does such a good job, it's visited by millions of people daily.
Technorati's secret? They maintain a global registry of blogs and their owners. Using this information, and the content of each blog, they rank each blog by counting how many inbound links the blog has. That produces a number associated to each blog. Sorting each blog by number gives you the authority ranking: the blog with the most inbound links has rank 1, and all others follow.
Speaking of authority: I'm about to enter the high authority group. That's good news, but I'll talk about it some other time, because this blog post is still traveling around the world.
So, once Technorati receives the ping from Pingomatic, it heads straight to my site and retrieves the latest articles.
The feed: how the latest articles are transmitted
In all fairness, Technorati doesn't just swallow my entire site like Google does. All it does is request an RSS feed: a listing of updated posts. Each article on the list has a heading, a publish date, an URL and, of course, the content of the post. This post, obviously, is first on the list.
Technorati saves this information and uses it to recalculate its blog rankings.
Of course, you can search Technorati. You can go there and find out who linked to this article. In that way, everyone can track the "conversations" floating around the Web. And, in a truly effective sense, it enables Technorati to discover which conversations and topics are hot, in every moment.
Finally, Technorati echoes this article. That's right, you can get a summary of this post on Technorati.
Imagine thousands of Web sites doing things like this, with the content of this post. In near real-time. Echoing these very words. It's like a 100.000 watt amplifier on steroids.
This very event exemplifies the first stampede unleashed by me, hitting the Publish button. But it doesn't end there: tens of thousands of machines are doing their job, and their job is to serve people: what I'm about to study now.
People wake up. They want information. It's inevitable.
The first stampede was completely electronic, and awe-inspiring because of its sheer size. But the second one is human.
Minutes after publishing this post, hundreds of people become acquainted with them. How? Let's find out.
The search engine users
A big part of the group are search engine users. People looking for all sorts of things end up being referred to this site.
A large slice of newcomers by search engines take some time to read other posts they might find interesting. Some of them hit the heading of this post and become curious. In seconds, they are reading it.
From now on, this article will reach dozens or hundreds of people daily, in exactly this way.
The regular readers
Another group of people really like this site. That's right, they type its address,
rudd-o.com on their Web browsers every day or so, and read just about everything that's new. Or perhaps they use a bookmark to access the site.
That's how thousands of readers will read these very words.
A small group of people are subscribers. They don't necessarily visit this site using their Web browsers -- they use their feed readers (also referred to as newsreaders) instead.
Imagine a newspaper of the future. This newspaper only shows stories of topics you dig. It continually updates itself without any intervention, and it archives all stories for future reference. Imagine reading page 7 of this newspaper, and a notice pops up gently, saying
there's news on page 4 of the sports section.
That's a newsreader. The freshest articles show up in your own "online newspaper" and organize themselves automatically according to the site. You only need to flick your monitor on and there they are, ready to be read.
All of this, of course, is powered by the RSS feed that WordPress generates. Newsreaders request it intelligently, and merge the newest articles in your screen.
That's why traditional newspapers are running, scared, in circles. Didn't I mention it? They're afraid of losing their jobs to computers.
Approximately fifteen minutes after I clicked Publish, almost all subscriptors receive a copy of this post in their newsreaders. One day after publishing this post, 90% of my subscribers will have read it.
I don't know how many subscribers I have, but I'm willing to bet it's over a thousand.
So, how many get to read this?
With time and patience, eventually more than a million people will have a shot at reading this post.
The conversation starts
Inevitably, hundreds of thousands of people will read this article. All of them will form an opinion about it, and about its author (me). A minority (hundreds, or maybe thousands) will feel so attracted or drawn away from this article, that they'll do any or all of these things:
- They'll criticize or comment it with their friends, co-workers or passers-by. A single motivated reader generates a few more readers.
- They'll submit its link (URL) through e-mail or IM networks such as MSN Messenger or AIM.
- They'll comment directly on the post, using the commenting facilities below. More words and more content that round the conversation up and make the post more useful.
- They'll write rebuttals, words of sympathy or admiration on their own Web sites and blogs. Each post that links to this will unleash its own private stampede of events. Thanks to the inbound links, more people will have a shot at reading it. Obviously this will boost my Technorati authority and Google PageRank.
The Digg effect
What's the largest honor for a blogger? To be featured in the front page of a social networking site. Social networks like Digg and Reddit are all the rage these days. Let's understand why, by using Digg (the largest one) as an example.
Every day, millions of people visit Digg. Tens of thousands post links to stories and articles from all over the world. Hundreds of thousands of people get to vote (Digg) or bury the stories as they get posted.
This posting and voting forms a giant computing raffle. ¿The winners? Those that get Dugg the most in the shortest time get to the front page of Digg.
If lots of people like this article, sooner or later someone will post it to to Digg. If that should happen, and it gets Dugg all the way to the front page, in all odds this site will cease to function for a few hours. The amount of simultaneous visitors will simply make WordPress collapse under its own weight.
All of this, just because of a few votes. Isn't that amazing?
This journey never ends
As you can see, the stampede generated by this post's journey is self-perpetuating. It's a virtuous circle. This circle helps a blog stay alive and makes the community around it happy.
The technology that powers this sequence of events is nothing to dismiss, either. It has enabled the entire world to have meaningful two-way conversations with the minimum of efforts. I'm a firm believer that it's only a matter of years before society is reshaped by this fantastic new technology.
So, the next time you hit your own Publish button, think of the awe-inspiring, monumental chatter of people and machines you'll unleash.