The future of Weblogging
Every badge is a press badge
The rise of Weblogging has been a cold shower for the complacent mass communication industries. Although the Weblogging pioneers are due much praise, their own rhetoric deserves examination, and they could also raise their sights higher. Nico Macdonald reports, and concludes with a radical proposal for the future of Weblogging.
This weekend the best and the brightest in the blogosphere will schlepp their WiFi-enabled laptops to the Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., where they will “celebrate the art and science of Weblogs” at BloggerCon II. Under the stern, paternal gaze of Dave Winer they will discuss users’ visions, the nature of journalism, presidential bloggers, blogging in business (and as a business), and ‘Shirky's Power Law’.
BloggerCon will be reported live, and will be up there with the O’Reilly EtCon in being the most documented conference in history. As the Web site says: “BloggerCon is an unusual conference in that almost everyone participating writes publicly. So we assume that everyone present is a journalist. Every badge is a press badge.”
The development of Weblogging is a genuinely positive development in mass communication, and particularly in publishing and journalism. It is one of those developments – like easy Internet access – that one knows is possible but couldn’t quite imagine happening. And then it slowly dawns on you that although you were only aware of small steps being taken, a milestone has been reached, and something significant has been achieved.
There is much to celebrate in the development of Weblogging – but the discussion of it is often uncritical and un-ambitious. If Weblogging is the answer, as so many claim it is, what was the question? As with the discussion of electronic voting, there is an assumption that there barriers have been put in the way of a democratic and public activity. It follows from this view that the Internet in general, and Weblogging in particular, are conscious answers to these challenges.
But this isn’t the mid-nineteenth century, when the radical Chartists in Britain took advantage of developments in printing and the postal service to publish a newspaper for newly literate and radicalised masses. In that case the government of the time really did try to suppress their activity, by requiring newspapers to be licensed by the Post Office. Today, by contrast, New Labour actively solicits our participation in the ‘Big Conversation’.
I am not arguing that all technological developments must answer a known question. Rather that we shouldn’t invent questions where they were never posed. We should avoid the habit of the man with a hammer who “always sees nails”.
In some ways Weblogging is a response to contemporary phenomena. One phenomenon is the disappearance of civic organisations and forums for public engagement and debate. A more important phenomenon is the rise of the confessional culture, in which people increasingly make their lives public and share their experiences. If the volume is kept down, this latter tendency can provide one with a more rounded and engaging picture of Weblog writers who one might not otherwise know well. But frequent and often trivial postings are more therapeutic for the author than they are informative for the reader. Intimacy and confession are for friends and family, and their appearance in Weblogging doesn’t merit celebration.
The dynamics behind Weblogging are not as contemporary as the phenomenon itself. Models of easy self-publishing and structured online discussion have been developing over the last three decades. In the 80s it was desktop publishing, pioneered by Paul Brainerd’s Aldus. The ‘home page-hosting’ model was at the cutting edge of popular publishing in the late 90s, when the spotlight was on companies such as Geocities (latterly acquired by Yahoo!), Tripod (acquired by Lycos), and The Globe (no longer operating). For a time Web-moderated mailing lists such as eGroups (subsequently acquired by Yahoo!) were in vogue. And today Weblogging is on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
One reason for its apparently meteoric rise is that other products have re-defined themselves, opportunistically or otherwise, as Weblogging tools, and erased their own less glamorous histories.
This phenomenon is common in the IT industry. At some point over the last decade every service that could credibly re-brand itself became a portal, a push software operator, a peer-to-peer (P2P) network, an application service provider (ASP), or a creator of social software. As veteran IT commentator Jack Schofield ruefully noted on the re-branding of social software “ People who have been using The Well, CIX and similar computer-based conferencing systems since the 1980s will no doubt protest but, sad to say, there have only been a few thousand of us”.
New York-based user experience consultant and commentator Mark Hurst chimes with Schofield. “Blogs are actually just an easier-to-use version of the content management system, a tool that... has been with us for years... with a far greater impact than the online diary”.
The other reason that Weblogging is on the tip of everyone’s tongues is that it was discovered by the journalistic establishment, unlike the home page-building services, which were largely used by enthusiastic amateurs. When seasoned journalists Michael Gove and David Rowan can write a piece celebrating Weblogging in The Times you know a phenomenon has really made it (though Rowan, to his credit, is more switched on to IT than most of his peers).
The ‘blogerati’ rightly present Weblogging as opening up writing and communication to the masses. However, this populist and laudable attack on the mass communication sector disguises an elitist tendency at the centre of the blogosphere. This tendency is most obvious in the habit of using first names only (or even nicknames) when referring to fellow Webloggers. For a movement that aspires to (and has achieved some) intellectual leadership, this is inappropriate.
Public correspondences, such as that which developed around the Royal Society in London in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, tended to be presented as between public equals, not private friends. And if the blogerati are truly keen for the people to have a voice one might expect them to be more vocal about the benefits of other inclusive media such as talk radio.
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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