So I looked at Kinja and I was pretty impressed. I looked at it and saw something clean and simple that would hopefully appeal to people who find the morass of weblogs out there to be overwhelming. I thought it would appeal to those who didn’t know where to start. It wasn’t perfect, of course – not by any stretch of the imagination. For a start, the first beta didn’t really make a clear distinction between the digests that you could make and the digests that were editorially chosen by the kinja team. It didn’t seem to know what it was there to do for you. But after some fiddling an essence started to emerge and I started to see it for what I thought it was – a nice little simple application that would appeal to the newbies…
So basically, I thought it was polished and useful but I didn’t think it was interesting. But the funny thing is that I think I’ve changed my mind. And the reason I’ve changed my mind is because of the tiniest feature that I didn’t even notice the first few times I used it – it’s not the fact that I can create my own little version of Haddock Blogs that’s interesting, it’s the fact that I can chuck it around to all my friends. I can link to it like this and – if I wanted to – I could stick it at the end of my blogroll so that other people could play with it too. I could e-mail it to someone, or IM it or even just tell someone my user name and have them go and find it.
This is the feature that I think we were supposed to catch on right from the beginning – or was somewhere in people’s minds in the earliest iterations of the concept – but has kind of been hidden by accretion, simplification and implementational problems. The message has become lost – because Kinja’s not about making the collections, it’s about making collections that we can do things with, collections with handles that can be picked up and thrown around and shown to people to explain or illustrate things.
Nearly a year ago I started writing a little post about RSS aggregators that went a little off the rails. It was supposed to be a tiny little post that spiralled and spiralled until it became impossible to finish. It kind of sat in my drafts bin, where it remains, even though I’m basically going to rip it off wholeheartedly for the rest of this enormous rant.
The draft post was written shortly after voidblogs launched – a site kind of based around the Haddock Blogs model of pulling out a time-stamp and a summary each time a post is made and then stringing them together in a webloggish format to generate a perpetually updating metaloggy thing. Around that time the new design of the the UK weblogs aggregator relaunched. I found all of these things really interesting and came to the conclusion that they were interesting not only because people liked the specific weblogs in the list and wanted to keep track of them, but more importantly because they were a way to mirror in nearly-real-time the mental life of a group to members of that group. They could reflect both ways – they revealed the compiler and they could reveal the group to itself as well.
Which made me think. A lot of people were talking then (and are still talking now) about how to use weblogs in business and education. They’ve all been working on the principle that a weblog is first and foremost a piece of social software that allows and facilitates collboration. But while it’s certainly true that weblog culture in the wild has evolved these groups, it’s less obvious that this is necessarily the fundamental structuring principle of what a weblog ‘is’. In fact I’m going to go further and state something that should probably be obvious to everyone by now: Giving a group of people weblogs does not mean that they’ll necessarily start connecting with each other through them.
First and foremost, at the smallest possible scale, a weblog is not social software. Instead it is a point in cyberspace from which to speak – it’s a representation of our very self – our voice. At the most very basic of levels, a weblog isn’t just part of a commmunity that shares and interacts, it’s an individual voice as yet unconnected. It takes time for the second-order properties to emerge – and when they do so it’s not as a rapid consolidation or phase-shift between stable states of ‘singular publishing’ and ‘many-to-many communication’. Instead familiarity is gradually gained, recurrently interesting and communicative webloggers become friends, people gradually find their communicative voices.
So the question becomes – when we talk about weblogging around educational projects or work-related schemes – given that a weblog won’t automatically make them part of a creative collaborative community – how do we get people to think in terms of their engagement with others. And how do we get them to that stage quickly? How do we help them use the weblog to express themeselves and create notes and write thoughts while simultaneously ramping up the speed at which they start interacting with each other around these issues.
Which brings us right back to where we started. In my opinion – rather than setting up a central weblog for a course or a project in which people can post their thoughts only as comments, the simplest and most effective way would be to have something like haddock blogs or the uk weblog aggregator or a kinja group digest sitting in the middle in between all the participants. Let that be the one stop shop for zeitgeist measuring and interest following and in-public annotation or discussion. Let that be the place for representing the community at a glance, to see the range of interests people have (even serendipitously the interests they have outside the specifics of the course / working environment that you’re trying to represent). Let that be the place to see what they’re getting excited by…
And hence to kinja… Please, please, please Mr Denton – don’t try and sell me weblog-management. Don’t try to make it easy to replicate the functionality of my RSS aggregator. No – your killer app is this sharing of digests, this creation of really user-friendly throw-aroundable clumps of groupness. That’s the the core of the enterprise. That’s where the fun is, that’s the playlist-making, that’s the mix-tape, that’s the place where self-defining groups can make their home and that’s where I think the future development should move (and the marketing effort). Let people make more than one digest – let them make dozens – let it represent their church group or their anthropology class or their social software circle. Let them share them – even badge them prominently so that they seem co-owned. If you do all that, then Kinja might not just be a simple app for the newbies in the audience but a project with surprising and long-lasting power. There could be something really interesting here after all, just in a slightly unexpected direction…