I've enabled Gravatars in the comments of my blog. I think they are important.
If you don't know what Gravatars are then click that link above and have a bit of a browse. Essentially though they provide you with a visual identity that can be referenced across the web in a simple, easy, manner. I think they add something that the "blogosphere" thinks it has, but doesn't seem to have in any real way.
It has often been commented on that there exists, in whatever sub-set of the blogosphere you frequent, a hierarchy. Where a small portion of the writers have most of the limelight. This is natural order of things, and I'm not sure why it came to anyone as a surprise. No-matter what medium you are part of there are always the stars of it. However, this does not mean that there should not be a sense of identity, of recognition, of community to blogs.
Take LiveJournal as an example. Our often looked down upon community of journal's has persistantly shrugged off the "blogging" tag. Some would say that that is a good thing, pointing to the high teenage girl/Harry Potter slash fiction percentage of users. Aside from being elitist and, frankly, rather silly this view misses the point: That LiveJournal is good enough, successful enough, to pull people from all walks of life into it. LiveJournal is the single most successful example of blogging there is, whether it calls itself bloging or not, and it has been built up using one thing:
There are two parts to this in LiveJournal: User icons and Friends Lists.
User icons allow people to have an identity. It may be a varied and possibly changeable identity, but it is a projection of self into the digital domain. The projection creates familiarity, comfort, and generally makes the anaemic and bland digital world have some warmth, colour, and personality. It lets users project who they are, or who they want to be, onto the sterile and impersonal digital world.
Not just that - it enables readers, including the owner of the journal, to have that same perception of a posters visual identity. Put simply -- you get to know people.
If you feel like you know someone you have an emotional investment, however small, in that person. Emotional investment is both a bonus and a drawback, as anyone who's witnessed the infamous bouts of LiveJournal Drama in any community there can attest, but that's the point -- it's a community.
Another thing that involves people on LJ is the ease of reading other peoples journals. The Friends List is both a simple mechanism to aid reading, and also a cleverly named device -- the emotional intensifier "friend" adds an additional level of meaning, an additional level of emotional investment. Different security levels add a further group dynamic to this process, and that adds even more personal investment.
So how can we apply this to roll-your-own type blogging, and what lessons can be learnt?
User icons are simple – Gravatar’s take care of that aspect. It would be nice to see blog software come with built in support for them. In WordPress and Moveable Type it could simply be a matter of pre-packaging the Gravatar plug-ins with the base distribution. This way their use would be more wide-spread. There are around 10,000 registered Gravatar users, it should be closer to 100,000 for it to be judged a saturated convention. However its existing success is very reassuring, it shows people are willing to use them, and not only that -- find them useful.
Friends Lists is similarly easy, at least the basic functionality is. WordPress already offers a Dashboard in its admin menu that performs this function for WordPress related blogs. RSS/XML feeds are the way forward here. Its trival to read in someones blogroll and check the related feeds to see when they have been updated. Again, WordPress (and I'm sure other software) does this for many blogroll links already. The only missing step here is displaying the entry, not just the name.
Privacy levels aren't easily implementable right now, although with the the abilty to register on many blogs it can only be a matter of time before this develops into a realistic part of blog packages. It may be quite possible using some systems plugin API. The challange is there, all that is needed is someone to take it.
In the end...
Blogging is still in its infancy, and to avoid just being another buzzword, and to start making a meaningful impact upon people blogging has to concider its effect -- not just on its readers -- but on the blogging community as a whole. Social networking sites are popular because people are desperate to add social aspects to their digital world. Its time for Blogging to grow-up and forge ahead.
Its time to get to know each other. Tell me about yourself.