Personal Publishing

Mainstream Publishers & Weblogs

Mainstream publishers seem increasingly to be letting their readers start weblogs on their sites – but is this really the best way for them to connect with the personal publishing revolution?

The Situation:
Imagine, if you will, that a prominent web magazine had decided to start hosting Weblogs. Imagine if shortly afterwards another prominent online publisher said they were doing the same. And then imagine if rumours abounded that they weren’t going to be the only ones. And then imagine that you had been talking with a representative of a major UK newspaper who revealed to you that – if only for a short while – they too had been thinking of hosting weblogs on their site. What would you think? Would you think ‘what a wonderful thing for the medium’?

The Problem:
Well of course it’s entirely possible that it would be a wonderful thing for the medium – but it almost certainly wouldn’t be a particularly wonderful thing for the publisher! Think about it for a moment – most people who become committed to weblogging eventually choose to set up a site of their own somewhere – sometimes with a domain name of their own – often with a design that’s resolutely their own. The logical consequence of this (surely) is that after a while any site that offers free weblogging with little flexibility in design or personalisation will eventually be abandoned by the dedicated. And in their wake nothing a but huge wasteland of tumbleweed blogs and – dare I say it – unreadable sites. How does that reflect well on Or Salon?

The Reason:
It doesn’t take a genius to gather what is happening in corporate world at the moment – weblogs are ‘in’ – they’ve finally stopped being fashionable, and so are suddenly now becoming acceptable to the mainstream. Your executive at suddenly thinks that weblogging is the heart of the internet – the web finally fulfilling its promise. And of course they’re right… But does understanding the importance of weblogs and weblogging correspond to understanding how an information publisher should relate to weblogs and weblogging? I would say no….

The Solution?
I’m not going to claim to have the definitive answer to how (say) the BBC should interact with the ‘revolution in personal publishing’ (which is, I might add, the longest bloody revolution ever, I think) – but I have got a couple of suggestions. And they revolve around not trying to usurp the common space that weblogs exist in, but in developing ways of cementing and building upon the interactions between those two very different beasts – mainstream and personal publishers.

  • Provide tools that allow webloggers to hook into your content. At the most trivial, this includes newsfeeds and RSS/RDF feeds. Let people put them on their sites, but also let them play with them – let them develop interesting idiosyncratic ways of looking at the information you create.
  • Look at the meta-tools that exist already for webloggers – Blogdex and Daypop for example. Adapt these tools to provide a different insight into the content you produce. For example: Create a “What the web is reading” page on The Guardian – this page being nothing more or less than Blogdex’s recent links thing, but only reflecting Guardian articles. Your visitors get a guide to the best stuff on your site as chosen by the web itself. You get traffic to those articles and demonstrate your respect for the aggregate power and intelligence of the weblogging community as a whole. If you included the ‘sources’ aspect of Blogdex as well – so that everyone who has commented on an article on the Guardian is automatically linked to from the Guardian’s site, then you get a situation where both weblogger, publisher and reader benefit – the weblogger in terms of traffic, the publisher in terms of traffic but more importantly by being able to demonstrate a public, conversational aspect to their sites without any of the cost of development or legal implications. And the reader is directed to the very best content you have to provide as well as to second level commentators who might be able to provide a different perspective…

So here’s my challenge to large online publishers: rather than admiring the medium and trying to reincorporate it into your traditional models, why not respect what makes it different – the sheer volume of people doing it, the sense of link-filtering, the personal comments and ideas that it generates – and work to make the relationship between mainstream and personal publishers a symbiotic one borne of mutual respect for what makes us so different (and yet complementary) to one another?

I don’t want people to think I’m talking about Blogspot sites here – which fill a valuable niche in providing cheap or free presences for people who wish to be creative without investing large amounts of cash (but which – fundamentally – can be stripped of advertising, corporate branding and completely personalised).