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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.

Easy self-publishing

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.

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