The current state of blogging

[I just found this in cleaning out my system. People were reading my unfinished posts–can’t find anything on the ! bug in wordpress. So I cleaned them out. I wrote this on November 15, 2004, but obviously I didn’t finish :). Rather than trash it, I publish. ]

More of the Same

As with every new system or innovation encountered on “the internets,” a common claim about blogging is “it’s all been done before.” I kept a blog before they were called blogs: a frequently updated website, an email newsletter, a periodically downloadable file on “the Source,” an early ISP. And before that there was Plato. Isn’t blogging just BBS software / forums in new bottles? How is the blogosphere substantially different from Usenet? These questions are both inevitable and valid. Too often we thrill to the idea of the latest incarnation of the “virtual community,” and are quite willfully able to forget the hyperbole surrounding earlier technologies. And it is difficult not to recognize the kind of buzz around blogging as similar to these earlier collaborative technologies.

I think blogging has a simple answer to this: none of these other technologies captured the public imagination in the same way that blogging has, nor the same number of users. Sure, there are more who use email, brows the web, or communicate via IM, but these are not really the same special type of large-scale discussion technologies that blogs embody. I think that when future historians look back at the earliest years of this century, two of the things that will show up in the history books will be the mass adoption of blogs and wikipedia. I don’t think that these are the most important innovations of the last few years, but I do think that they will have some of the most important social impact. So part of the answer to that question is simply one of size. Usenet, even at its peak, did not (I believe) have a million people writing, and ten times that reading. We don’t have to fall back on hyperbole: if the story of blogging ended today and no one ever blogged again — and I although I don’t think we’ve seen the peak of public blogging, I would not be shocked if this were the case — we would still have to acknowledge this as one of the most widespread examples of user-produced media, and something worth understanding.

But really what people are suggesting when they say this is that the principles that we have already discovered in earlier examples of computer mediated communication are just being repeated in another form in blogs. One answer to that is “yes, but to a greater degree.” That is, there are more people doing it, as argued above. Or, the impediments to presenting to the web have been reduced further, so that creating and maintaining a web page is even easier than it has been in the past, and has been reduced to some critical level at which there are compounding returns. But this “more” change is not something that should be dismissed out of hand. On the other hand, there are some elements of the blogosphere that I think are, if not unique, especially important. Some of these are reflected in the neologisms and specialized services that have arisen to support blogging.

New words for new ways

One of the ways to identify what makes weblogs special is by noting some of the specialized jargon that has grown up around blogging. Unfortunately the proliferation of these terms have made entry into blogging more daunting in some ways. But they also indicate new ideas or techniques that need to be named because they don’t fit well into previous paradigms. Among these:

Trackbacks, pingbacks, reciprolinks, blogrolls.

RSS, aggregators.

del.icio.us, technorati, blogdex, furl.

The blogging factors

What, then, are the salient differences, the principle components of blogging, that we should be concerned with?

Ridiculously easy publishing.

Forging public voices.

Conviviality, conversation, deliberation?

Planned serendipity. While improving the ability to search is an important need on the web, improving our ability to stumble usefully is also important.

The return of a workable push media: now with more mods.

Convergence of exchanged data, personal server. Todo: Onfolio

Ubiquitous media.

Future

No one is good at predicting the future of communication technology; there are just too many variables. That said, a prediction of the future state of technology is really just another way of saying that you have a good feel for what is important in today’s technology. Neal Stephenson claimed that books like Snow Crash were intentionally placed in the now. The degree to which they seem to be prophetic is directly related to how well they discern the contours of the present. So the future of blogging is “more of the same” where “the same” refers to those elements of blogging that are important or unusual. If the list above is correct, we can expect innovations to continue to develop along the lines they already have.

The barriers to entry, and complexity of the process of blogging will be reduced. I suspect we will see WYSIWYG blogging software within the next year, at the outside. When you want to add or edit a message, you click on it and start typing. The RSS of anything that might ever change is already providing a way of quickly making semantic connections that allow for other kinds of rapid updates, and I suspect that this will continue. We are all blogging with kludges for blog software at the moment, and many of the ways that this needs to improve are already clear.

There will continue to be a place for small and large public voices, but I suspect we will see some serious changes in the way some organizations do business, such that they can make use of the transparency that blogging provides. This will have a real effect on how we think about privacy and how we think about who we are. The transparent and networked nature of our public identities is, I believe, reversing some of the the century-long opinions about the nature of personal identity/psyche and the networked (or urban) society. It was assumed that we would increasingly become divided into multiple selves in service to a number of non-overlapping groups. Unlike in the traditional village, the people we work and play with often do not know each other, and they each know a different form of “you.” This leads to something that appears to be akin to multiple personalities, and the purposive construction of new identities for different kinds of interactions. But the transparency that blogging seems to encourage may mean a reversal, or at the very least a complication, of this process. The identity that appears in my blog is one that looks the same to my wife, my students, my doctor, my boss, my mother, and my colleagues around the world. Maintaining any multiple identities I might have becomes far more difficult with my social circles become enmeshed together.

We can at least hope that those newly public voices will also lead to new kinds of discussion, deliberation, and conviviality. I must admit that I am particularly suspicious of this. I suspect that very little gets done in blogs, and that there is not a good framework for distributed conversations. This may change, but at present, the kinds of conversations that occur on blogs feel somehow asymmetric. I have talked about this before, on this blog and in conversations: many bloggers are the inverse of lurkers: they are “mumblers.” Lurkers read without revealing themselves to the authors. Mumblers write without knowing if there is an audience. Mumbling is good for public discourse, I think, but it may not be as good for discussion and deliberation.

While they may not host collaborations, they might enable them. The discussions that do occur on blogs tend to be a little like the pheromone trails that ants leave. Those trails may not, in themselves, represent any form of useful structure. However, they form the support infrastructure that allows for large-scale collaboration. By providing some form of transparent “contrail” on the web of your work, your interests, your ideas, your social networks, you allow for the intersection of such paths. As a bunch of ants wandering around exploring the intellectual space of our world, the likelihood that our trajectories will ever lead to a useful collision is relatively small. But this increases many-fold when we leave behind bread crumbs for others to stubble upon.

I think people are coming to understand this process of encountering trails. You see this a bit in investigations of knowledge management in the real world. More and more, people are abandoning the idea that you can download expertise into a system. If you could do that (and you can’t), you wouldn’t really need the people in an organization. Instead, you need to build tools that enhance the process of leaving a trail, so that when people don’t know what they are looking for, they know who does.

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