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Hard Work

Irrespective of its provenance, it is certainly a wonderful thing that many more people are able and have chosen to be self-publishers. However, we need to encourage more people to be journalists. Journalism involves actually interviewing people, doing thorough background research on a subject, presenting a rounded and dispassionate overview, and reasoning through substantive arguments.

These activities are not characteristic of Weblog writers, despite the claims of some that they are pioneering the new new journalism. The obsession with the mechanics of, and commentary on, Weblogging confirms that the movement is more internally than externally focused. “The medium is not the message”, noted Andrew Orlowski in The Register commenting on the 2003 BloggerCon. “Imagine how tedious newspapers would be if every other story proclaimed ‘We use INK!!!’”

In his commentary Hurst also notes that “the popular conception of blogs... is a grossly limited vision of what this technology actually provides”. One of the greatest limitations of Weblogs is their temporal nature. Postings are always arranged in date order – irrespective of their other dimensions, including importance, substance, popularity – and this often celebrated and rarely decried. In reality, the Weblog model of reverse sequential posting doesn't even support story-telling, which is one pillar of journalism.

Even if they don't act as journalists, serious Webloggers will at least provide a good precis of an article or description of an event (neither of which is a trivial task). However, as I discovered when I posted a very early draft of this article – which was sucked into the blogosphere through a link from a colleague who is both Weblogger and journalist – many Webloggers consider it sufficient to link to an article with no context, or simply repeat the context someone else has given it. As Truman Capote had it, “that isn’t writing at all, it’s typing” (or, more precisely, copying and pasting).

As it is difficult to gain perspective when close to events in space and time, journalism is often referred to as the first draft of history, the implication being that more study, reflection and debate is needed before the second is written. Not only do we need more journalism, but we need more people involved in formulating these second drafts, and creating something akin to knowledge. These second drafts may take the form of books, or online resources, and they may be collaboratively created.

In the area of news journalism San Jose Mercury News tech journalist and widely-read Weblogger Dan Gillmor is writing his second draft of history by combining both approaches. For his forthcoming book Making the News (subtitled What Happens to Journalism and Society When Every Reader Can Be a Writer) he invited readers to contribute by telling him about “specific things you know about that would a) help illustrate the concepts; b) refute what I’m saying; and/or c) provide further nuance and context”.

Another challenge presented by the proliferation of writing is how we readers and writers might document, manage and use this profusion of information. It is certainly a step forward that Weblog posts have permanent links. But there are so many Weblogs and so many posts that they are impossible to contextualise, at least in their current format of endless scrolling lists. The development of RSS readers at least allows readers to review Weblogs and posts using hierarchical structures, get an overview of unread posts, and hide those that have been read.

We also need to find ways to categorise posts – to bring the kind of structure that Yahoo! brought to information on the Web – and the seeds of this concept can be seen in Moveable Type, NewsMonster and other tools. We also need to find ways of assigning priority to posts based on who wrote them (an approach often referred to as reputation management) and where they were posted.

Gillmor recognises this issue. Discussing current newsreaders he notes that “[t]hey assign equal weight to everything they display. So the headlines and text from Joe's Weblog get roughly the same display treatment as material from, say, the New York Times”. Notes on Making the News and the book outline Instead he would “like more flexibility, more nuance, such as the ability to highlight by topic, by writer, by popularity and other measures".

At a presentational level we need to find ways to visualise the ‘blogosphere (and not just the blogosphere). We need to be able to use our chosen parameters and employ the visual axes of typography, size, colour, and spatial relationship to help exploit our underemployed visual powers to aid our understanding. This approach has been explored to an extent in ;discussion of Weblogging, but is currently more prominent in the development of search tools such as Grokker, and the recently launched experimental treemap-based viewer, Newsmap.

Let's have a heated debate

High quality and informed debate about current affairs is crucial for any modern society. For most publishers Web-based discussion tools have failed to create such discussion, though there are exceptions such as The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Webloggers already link extensively to, and comment on, articles published online (though some publications impede this by hiding all their story information from non-subscribers or by obscuring the story URL by adding in user, session, or page element information) and often create the most vigorous discussion about them. However, unlike Web-based discussion postings, Weblog-type debate is distributed and hard to get oversight of.

If online publishers, and particularly newspaper and current affairs publishers, syndicated the meta information on every article they published (title, author, date, introduction, and so on), readers could more easily find, review and organise those that were of interest to them. As writers they might choose to post a Weblog commenting on particular articles.

If publishers then used the ‘track back’ model to list an appropriately edited selection of these comments, in the context of each article, readers could follow the developing discussion and commentary. Tied to reputation management and good presentational tools, this would be likely to facilitate a greater awareness of new ideas and a more engaged (and possibly more informative) debate about them. And for the beleaguered publishing industry it would create greater engagement with its current readers, and may open up new audiences as well.

In the absence of large numbers of publishers taking up such a challenge it may be possible to achieve these ends in another fashion. Many services already aggregate Weblog links to individual Web pages and could present these to readers in a ‘browsing assistant’ window that refreshed with each change of page. A similar model was pioneered by the now defunct Third Voice, whose browser plug-in used a meta-server to allow readers to write on Web pages.

This idea is not new, and was a prominent request in the pre-BloggerCon discussion. It has even been implemented in a limited way with the Technorati Anywhere! bookmarklet. If it could be realised it would at least break open the small and slightly incestuous circles into which the blogerati have settled, allowing their ideas and those of the blogging masses to spread more widely. And it would break open the out-dated model of knowledge development and discussion still being peddled by the unduly smug proprietors of the fourth estate. ®

Nico Macdonald has been working in electronic publishing since the mid-80s, and online publishing since 1994. He co-edited the March+April issue of ACM interactions, on the subject of HCI and mass communication. He is currently writing a report on mass communication for the UK Work Foundation’s iSociety project, which will be published later this year.

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