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Webloggers deal Harvard blog-bores a black eye

"Who is Dave Winer?" Pay $500 and find out...

"Who is Dave Winer?" asks weblogger Atrios, echoing the concerns of dozens of mystified progressive and pro-Democrat bloggers this week.

Atrios shouldn't worry. Winer is real. Winer is a software developer, but one very few software developers people have heard of: he developed "outlining" software for the Macintosh in the 1980s and claims co-authorship of a couple of obscure web protocols, which are too boring and unimportant to mention. Rightly or wrongly, he has a reputation for alienating people. Now let's see what the cheeky monkey has been up to.

Along with best-selling political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, Atrios was "invited" to participate at a gabfest at Harvard's Berkman Law School called BloggerCon, to be held in October. Most recipients were flattered until they saw the price tag. Rather than being offered a speaker's fee, the spam actually asked the bloggers to cough up $500 each to attend. By contrast, the three-day long DefCon event costs just $75 and the excellent CodeCon conference, which also spans a long weekend, costs $95 (or $75 for students). Both are annual events, and bring together a high class international field of luminaries, and regularly make the news.

Any bemusement soon turned to apoplexy when the bloggers saw Berkman's idea of a representative panel. The stars of the Left were being asked to stump up $500 to hear bete noire Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit), a conservative Law Professor and author, and Berkman's own Jim Moore, a venture capitalist notorious for the Googlewashing episode, to whom we shall return to in a follow-up, such was the magnitude of his crime.

All hell broke lose, and the blog-vendor lobby who patronise the people who in their terms, "provide the content" for their "blogosphere" (on which they are now claiming mining rights), got a real sharp repost. One minute these tools guys extol the grassroots as their validation for being important, and the next minute, they see them as a worm farm, to be harvested at leisure. Needless to say, bloggers weren't buying into this power relationship:

"The only way I would attend such a conference is with 'a bottle in front of me or a frontal lobotomy'," wrote Dwight Meridith.
"A convention for blogging is like a convention for... I dunno, handwriting. Or cassette tape recording," noted John Kusch, acidly. But John, techno-utopians can't understand that computers are simply tools, not artifacts that should be revered in their right. Teresa Nielsen Hayden explained how genuine grassroots conventions are organized, and asked:

"Granted, some weblogs are more read and linked-to than others; but I literally can't think of anyone who'd be $500-a-head more pertinent, relevant, and valuable to the proceedings than some of the invitees who're being asked to ante up."

Tom Tomorrow, whose is promoting his new book through his weblog - it's currently 23rd in the Amazon best-seller list - wasn't impressed.

"But you know," he wrote, "even if Kos and Atrios were both attending - hell, even if the panels were moderated by naked supermodels flown in specially for the occasion - $500 to spend a weekend listening to people talk about blogging? Sweet Jesus. Give me the bathtub full of ice."

But it was the choice that the self-appointed 'leaders' of the blog revolution made to appoint that really ranked:

"I'm gonna pay $500 to listen to Instacracker and not insult him?" asked Steve Gilliard.

Cartoonist August Pollak runs a blog to showcase his work, and he accurately describes the attendees of such jamborees:

"Apologies to the 90% of the audience at this thing who will likely be reporters for magazines and websites, their fees paid by their respective editors to Find Out What The Kids Are Up To These Days, but I not only am not going to this thing, but publicly and pre-emptively pity anyone in that remaining 10% who would actually pay that much to do so."

Like cream, quality rises to the top

Atrios and Tomorrow don't get read by accident: they get read because they're really good. Pollak got some impassioned emails for defending the mediocrity, from lunatic blog-evangelists. But allow us, for a moment, some context.

Cast your minds back to another 'revolution', the desktop-publishing era, when a combination of easy-to-use publishing software on cheap desktop computers, and low-cost laser printers, made it easy to publish newsletters and flyers for your community. The DTP era produced a deluge of bad design, aesthetic atrocities which were ridiculed by professional designers, but at no point did the tools vendors - Aldus, Adobe, Quark and Apple - treat this as a personal affront. This is what distinguishes today's tools vendors and their permaflunkies - a contingent of reporters, 'analysts' and marketeers who have unearthed a lucrative junket circuit by exploiting weblogging. Every attack on a lousy weblog is met with outrage. This terribly smacks of insecurity, and suggests they aren't concerned with quality as much as failing to discern volume. As if the solution to bad speech is lots more bad speech.

August's eloquent reply is worth reproducing in detail:

"If Blogger and MT and LiveJournal all dissolved into the ether tomorrow, I would still be a cartoonist. I would still be trying to do cartoons and animation, and I would still be trying to post news links and interesting things on my website. The only thing that would change would be the level of convenience. That's why I find the blogging paradigm overplayed.

"The very purpose of blogging software is to increase the ability for as many people as possible to use it. The Internet is not exactly the best place to start creating private clubs for selective members - and then, of course, demanding fees for the privilege of hearing self-proclaimed 'masters of their trade' tell you how important they are it is.

"The core element, to me, is still not the blogging software. It's that those people exist in the first place."

Amen to that.

But on what grounds does Dave Winer, backed up by a small circuit of adoring journalists and fellow webloggers, have to uphold his right to fleece them for real bucks? (Sometimes the journalists are weblog evangelists and HTML coders themselves, which raises all kinds of tantalising conflict-of-interest questions we shall return to in due course).

It's real simple. It's a question of political economy (something we hope is still taught at Harvard University, if not the Berkman Center itself. 'Political Economy' isn't exactly in abundance at the Berkman website, although lots of buzzwords such as 'cyberspace' and 'meme' are plentiful.). So, is this obscure software tools-vendor worth two hoots, or are the real stars the galvanizing webloggers who have used his tools? Who, exactly, is getting famous off of who?

Well, unlike the HTML coders who populate the blogging-about-blogging part of blogdom, these excellent, content-first webloggers spend little time congratulating themselves on their choice of medium. None of them use sticky weblog distractions (sorry, 'innovations!') such as Trackbacks, which cause so much grief for Google users. In fact, they spend most of their time writing well, rather than congratulating themselves for being "bloggers".

The medium is not the message. Imagine how tedious newspapers would be if every other story proclaimed "We use INK!!!" The writers don't care, and the readers don't care, how this message was delivered: but readers do care about quality.

Atrios and company are entitled to be offended at Berkman's choice of panel. But the worst is yet to come, and and we shall examine the credentials of Berkman's in-house "progressive" in some detail tomorrow. Folks, this isn't pretty. It's dirty work, but someone has got to do it. And it might even save you $500. ®

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