Life Personal Publishing Television

On being on television…

Television is such a strange enterprise! I don’t really know how else to put it. I get an e-mail in the afternoon from Tim Levell at Sky News saying that they’re looking for someone vaguely clued-up to talk about weblogs that evening. I ask a few questions and get a bit nervous, and chat to a couple of friends and then decide that sure – even though I’m scared to death by the whole idea of live television, it’s not exactly an opportunity you get every day. So I have a shower, find a shirt that doesn’t look too bad, and scrabble around for a sweater that isn’t still damp from the wash and wait patiently for the doorbell to ring.

They’re sending a cab to collect me, which is great but still a bit weird – the journey to the studio will be about forty-five minutes, with one dedicated guy organised to drive me both to and back from somewhere west of Hammersmith. I find it difficult to believe that anything anyone could say on weblogs in three minutes would be worth however much an hour and a half taxi ride must cost, but then after two years at the BBC I find many things that go on in the world of business extravagant in the extreme. I flew Premium Economy the other day! Can you even imagine! Anyway, the drive is long and makes me sleepy and I’m stuck reading some random magazine with a big feature on Bruce Springsteen and trying to make polite conversation with the driver and desperately trying not to feel like I’m somehow an exploitative √ºber-capitalist exploiting the common man.

Sky News appears to be located in a rather depressing industrial park near a motorway, and at first impressions, the whole place is much less intimidating than I’ve been expecting. It’s a completely different kind of environment to the BBC’s news rooms for a start. Stage one is to get into the building – all you can really say is, “Er, hi! I’m coming to … er … be on the news, I guess!” They don’t bat an eyelid of course. And then – having been collected – it’s a ten-second walk directly past the studio and into make-up – the kind of walk you’d take from your front door to your kitchen. It’s that close.

The woman in make-up looks me over and asks if ‘that’s’ what I’m going to be wearing on TV, which was nice. Then I’m sat down and she starts to brush me with a variety of orange shades. “What are you going to be talking about?”, she asks. “I’m going to be talking about weblogs,” I reply. “Oh, really,” she smiles, “You have to ask sometimes, does anybody really care!?” Potentially too difficult a question to answer, I demur and we talk about where I work instead.

Tom Coates in make-up at Sky News

And then after a few seconds in an actual green room devouring biscuits, I’m out on the floor talking to the newsreader Jeremy Thompson. While the previous video feature was on he chatted to me, calming me down a bit, showing me how things worked and talking about a few of the weblogs that I’d recommended beforehand, and then I watched as he did a feature about icons of Britishness (featuring Photoshop mock-ups of the Queen). And then suddenly I’m on and he’s asking me questions and I’m stumbling a bit with my language and hopefully not looking like too much of an idiot. And then – as soon as it’s begun – it’s over! And I walk out talking to Tim again, and within a few minutes I’m full of adrenalin and back in a cab heading for Central London.

Unfortunately, I have no idea whatsoever what I was like – as my Tivo refused to record the right channel. My father said that I looked okay and that he couldn’t tell whether it was the make-up or not, but it looked like I’d shaved, which was good. Unless anyone out there happens to have access to a ripped stream of the whole debacle, the best I’ve got is a couple of photos taken by some lovely friends and posted on Flickr for people to mock:

Well anyway, there were some lovely comments on my post yesterday, so thanks for the support guys (but I don’t trust you lot either)! Anyway, there’s more detail from the other perspective over on Jeremy Thompson’s weblog (which I have now confirmed is actualy written by him), which contains some of the weblogs I recommended that might like to mention on air. I think I specifically mentioned Random Acts of Reality, Dooce and Green Fairy on air – although to be honest the whole thing’s a bit fuzzy in my head.

Personal Publishing

Any consensus on 'responsible' linklogging?

This is more of a query than a post, and it’s about those most glamourous of things – linklogs on weblogs. I’m really interested in how people treat them. Linklogs as a semi-automated component of weblog systems ‘distinct’ from the ‘main’ content of the weblog really started to get going with and Anil Dash. As usual, I wasn’t terribly keen for a long time and then found my own clumsy idiosyncratic way of handling them via‘ automated posting system and a clumsy bit of Apple Script.

Since then they’ve kind of got everywhere. What interests me is that most people don’t really seem to provide much context to their linking. Have they read and approved of the things they link to, or is it really just a linkdump full of ‘toread’s? How seriously can I take someone’s linklog? Is it a personal guide to quality stuff that they find interesting or wish they could comment on, or do people treat it like oneupmanship – wanting to be first on the next meme?

My personal stance is that I never link to a resource on the web unless I’ve read the article or spent some time looking at the resource in question to work out whether it would be interesting and/or useful to myself (or others). And I always try and make sure to post some comment about what I’m pointing people to – for my own benefit as much as for the rest of you. Is that a normal level of rigour? Are people horrified at how slack I’m being, or stunned by that particular revelation? What is the current consensus on what a linklog constitutes and how you maintain one responsibly?

Personal Publishing

A weblog in negative space…

When I first started keeping a link log, I ran out of things to talk about. I’d got so used to relying on writing brief things about other people’s sites – and then occasionally writing longer pieces when I got inspired halfway through something else – that with the restrictions imposed by the linklog format, I suddenly realised I had little else to say.

Except that wasn’t true. I had an enormous amount to say and no time in which to say it. I’ve noticed as time has passed that many things get linklogged as soon as I see them. But many others sit in my browser waiting for greater attention. They’re the things I think I ought to be talking about in more detail – they’re the things I want to think about more rigorously. That’s the stuff I have opinions about. Except I don’t have any bloody time to write about those things, so two-thirds of the time they just sit there for weeks until either Safari crashes or I linklog them anyway. What a weird situation to find myself in – posting only those things that interest me enough for me to want to keep a record of them, but don’t interest me enough to write about thoroughly. There’s something wrong there, surely?

There’s a third category of things that I write about – and that’s stuff that has emerged from me, rather than being a commentary or response to what other people have done. Rather than just a reaction, these pieces represent actual work put in by me. I write these infrequently, not because I don’t have those things to write, but again because I have no bloody time. Last week I asked people what I should write about: my trip into the heart of government, my visit to Our Social World, ETech Proposals, Microformats, Controlled Vocabularies versus URL clouds, splicing semantic structures together with tags, conceptual page-rank, the Guardian redesign and … some other stuff.

What did I end up writing about? Nothing. Why? No bloody time. I have an enormous file of projects to build, ideas I’ve had, posts I want to write. I keep track of them because otherwise I forget them. I used to keep track of them by writing the damn things, in a kind of get … them … out … of … my … head kind of a way. But no longer.

It’s the white space you should be reading, not the weblog itself. The real value around here lies in the stuff that’s notable by its absence.

Advertising Business Personal Publishing

A response to the rhetoric of weblog marketing…

The story so far… Ben Metcalfe takes a vague swipe at the Stormhoek wine that Hugh MacLeod is marketing through the blogosphere. The approach Hugh is taking is to offer free bottles of the wine to webloggers on the understanding that they can write about it if they choose – either positively or negatively. Ben believes this to be a pollution of the weblog ecology and an undermining of the authenticity and personal integrity of individual webloggers who are prepared to put themselves up for sale. Here where things get a little weird, because Hugh responds to Ben’s comments with an extraordinary, and (for my part) quite unfathomable, broadside against the BBC:

The Beeb likes to think it’s in the business of “Empowering People”. Maybe they are, but only if it doesn’t lessen their own power base within the British Establishment. They sneer at commercialism; their currency of choice is control. Are they transparent about that? The hell they are.

Now there’s no point me pretending that I can talk impartially about the BBC in public. After all I consented to work for them, and they pay me for the privilege. So it’s quite lucky then that – having read the posts concerned several times – I can see no relevance to mentioning the BBC in this context at all. The debate seems to me to be in a completely different area. I wrote a comment on Hugh’s site, which I think sum up some of my feelings about marketers giving freebies to webloggers. What follows is a pretty heavily revised version of those comments, edited for readability and rhetorical weight rather than meaning (I hope):

Ben’s comments on the wine marketing move were fairly blunt and I’d probably not be so aggressive, but I certainly don’t think it’s an unreasonable position to take. Hugh and I had similar conversations about whether the Stormhoek experiment was cynical or exploitative at a recent conference we both attended. I have to say I’m still not convinced.

As another commenter suggested, if you’re a ‘citizen’ weblogger all you really have is your name. Weblogs are about authenticity – about people being able to express their voices and opinions. If people get the sense that you’re distorting your opinions for your peers because you get free stuff then it seems to me that they’d have to be less inclined to believe you (and think less of you as a person). And quite rightly – it’s a demonstration of a lack of personal integrity.

Now this case is obviously slightly different, because people are being given the stuff for free and no one is forcing them to write positively about it. But the problem is that people will always find being given free stuff attractive. And that means that – as long as there’s the possibility a negative opinion will result in no more freebies – there will always be a pressure towards playing to the sponsor. A good proportion of people will find this kind of thing completely acceptable, but let’s not pretend that it’s completely impartial, morally neutral and fair. There’s a power dynamic happening here – it is a form of bribery – it just happens to be a fairly mild and gentle form of it in which people don’t really get hurt that badly.

But because it is a form of gentle bribery to say nice things, it seems to me that this means that any positive comment will inevitably be considered dubious by the wider community, and will result in suspicion and a gradual loss of trust. It’s like that old joke that ends, “We’ve established you’re a whore, now we are just haggling over the price…”

The problem is that – at least at the moment, and long may it last – the weblog community determines its heroes and its trusted and noble citizens from smaller but finer-grained metrics than we do in the wider world. We determine who to read based on whether we’ve come to feel a relationship or a personality that means we actually directly like the person or people concerned, whether we trust them, whether they’re the kind of people we would want to associate with or who say things that we respect (or amuse us). And these relationships are more fragile, but deeper and more reciprocal, than those we have with sports heroes and movie stars.

They almost have to be – writing for a weblog is a rapid process that often lends itself to personal and informal writing. It’s harder to keep up a pretense, to hide what you’re like in such an unorchestrated space. So when someone loses our respect, or appears arrogant or when we feel they’re no longer being truthful, then we stop reading. And the brand that they’ve been marketing must get tarnished by this association as well.

It seems to me that marketing of this kind probably has an unfortunate effect on the weblog community, and will probably have mixed results that make some brands very happy but many others slightly damaged. In the case of the wine, it would seem much more sensible to just get the people who make the wine to write their own weblog and use it as a position to talk to the wider world. Perhaps there’s other ways to introduce the wine to a wider community, but the only way it will work is if any perceived link between the weblogger’s opinion and the products on offer for them to try is broken completely. And that’s a bloody hard sell…

There is also one other thing I’d like to say, and I say this with all due respect to Hugh, who I’ve met several times. There seems to be a hell of a lot of mileage recently in grabbing onto a technological trend that’s owned by the people and talking about how it’s going to rip down every aspect of the old world order and replace it with a brave new world without large media / business / governmental organisations. You find a trend and you shout about it in public, waving a fist at the big boys as you threaten to drag them down to their knees. You get invited to a lot of conferences this way. You may even get a book deal. Large companies will invite you to talk to them about why they should employ you to protect them from the future you’ve said will destroy them.

But frankly, it’s all complete balls. The world is changing really rapidly – technology is having a significant impact. I think the idea of tens of millions of individuals expressing their opinions in public is profoundly moving and important and is likely to have all kinds of repercussions that we can’t possibly foresee at the moment. And there are battles to fight and battles to win. But much of the rhetoric simply cannot stand scrutiny.

I’m totally fed up of people standing up and waving a flag for the death of institutions based on sketchy information and a vague belief in the rightness of their cause – and I’m also slightly sick of more moderate voices being drowned out under the revolutionary fervour of people fresh with their first wave of excitement about user-generated content on the web. Weblogs suffer from this enormously. Someone said that every journalist that writes about weblogs thinks that the year they discovered them is the year weblogs went mainstream. I’ve watched this for almost six years now. I now need people to think about what’s more likely to happen – that big media organisations, and governments and businesses will dry up and evaporate, or that some of them will adapt and change to a new ecology, renegotiate their place in the world and have a role in fashioning and supporting whatever it is that’s coming?

Whatever is on the horizon – social software, social media, ubiquitous and pervasive computing, technology everywhere, permanent connectivity, media distribution, mass amateurisation, disintermediation – it’s going to have an enormous impact on our lives. But that impact will probably seem relatively subtle and gradual to those people living through it, and its true effects will probably not be fully recognised for a hell of a long time. So let’s try and be a bit humble about the whole thing, eh? Let’s get excited about possible futures, let’s argue for the changes we think should happen, let’s present ideas and theories and ideas and business models and look to the future and test them and explore them. But please, no more religious wars of us versus them, big versus small, old versus new… We’ve got enough entrenched dogmatic opinions in the world already without creating new ones…

Conference Notes Personal Publishing

Supernova '05: "Apps. for a Mobile, Connected World"

Hm. So I spent a good forty-five minutes yesterday writing the next post in my series on Supernova ’05, only to lose it catastrophically when Safari collapsed under the weight of 150 open tabs. So this will probably be a slightly shorter version of that post. It may also benefit from having had more digestion time. Who knows.

The first panel of the day was “Applications for a Mobile, Connected World” and featured Lili Cheng of Microsoft, Caterina Fake of Flickr, Amy Jo Kim of, Mena Trott of Six Apart and Evan Williams of Odeo. The area that these people stake out between them could probably be summarised as individual-focused social software, weblogs/personal publishing and amateurised media distribution. All these subjects are very close to my heart and many of the people on the panel are my peers and friends. So again, I should probably throw out a quick warning about perspective and potential bias from the start.

Looking back on the panel, it basically fell into discussions about three main areas: (1) The individual’s creation of media, what it means to them and how it can be supported; (2) The effects of taking that personal creation and embedding it in a wider social context – what new things become possible; (3) The role of human psychology, trust and trusted networks in the whole enterprise.

Discussion about individual creation really started with some comments from Ev – probably doubly appropriate because both his work with Noah Glass at Odeo and his previous life at Blogger confront these issues head on. He started off the session by saying, “at Odeo we’re here to enable lots of the ideas that we saw with blogging and to take them to a new medium”. His starting point was the individual’s participation in media in general and their ability to create and share media of their own. As an example of how that could be immediately harnessed, he cited the work that Amazon undertook in enabling participation and the enormously positive effect it had on their business.

Between them, Caterina, Amy Jo, Mena and Lili focused more on the individual’s desire to express their identity online and to capture memories. Caterina pointed towards Friendster as the moment when the idea of creating a digital presence for yourself suddenly stopped being strange, alien and geeky. She said, in a comment that I personally found very resonant, that “When I first started weblogging, people thought it was very strange”.

Amy Jo picked up on this idea of expressing identity, saying that user-generated content – specifically in her case focused on games – was an incredibly important form of expression and that it was appearing at a whole range of new and interesting registers from overtly publishing in weblogs to the more tacit expression through playlist sharing on services like iTunes.

Mena really brought memories to the fore. She stated that she wished she had a record of everything that had happened in the first twenty-seven yearas of her life like she has since she first started weblogging. She revealed that she takes a picture of herself every day as a hook to hang her memories around – saying that she could see immediately her mood and her background and her surroundings and very quickly get a sense of what she was feeling at that precise moment, even years after the fact… Although there was a bit of scepticism in the backchannel about this concept, Lili Cheng supported it very rapidly by talking about how important she felt it was to capture as much information about what you were doing as possible (presumably connected to her work on Wallop and/or to Microsoft’s stuff around MyLifeBits). Her position was really interesting – saying that it was very difficult to know which memories you were going to come to cherish in the future and that having these records gave you a structure to narrativise around.

Later, in the question and answer session, an audience member expressed their anxiety that their weblog wouldn’t be there in twenty years time – that it would get lost somehow – and said that they would find that ‘devastating’. Mena answered that with a really interesting characterisation of SixApart as a company that ‘held memories’ for their users. She said they took that responsibility very seriously.

In terms of the social dimension, the panel focused on two major areas – the increasing desire to communicate in small groups of real-life friends and the larger implications / possibilities of being embedded in space where your actions became part of something larger and more powerful. Caterina was particularly interesting. She talked about how one of Flickr’s major selling points was the sharing aspect and that this is what differentiated it from the other photo-publishing services online. She pointed out that 80% of all photos on Flickr were public. And she moved on to say that many technologies developed entirely new possibilities when connected to social networks. Her prime example here was the folksonomic tagging approach that Flickr and have pioneered – and she pointed out that this was generating an entirely new way of organising and categorising content online. This wouldn’t have been possible with the substrata of the social networking functionality.

Mena and Lili were the particular evangelists of the power of communication within small groups rather than to the world at large. One quote from Mena rang particularly true:

“One of the biggest things that I’ve been able to see – this whole idea of inward conversations – smaller audiences really matter. I believe that this internal-facing weblog is really important – the kind of conversaiton that you’re goign to have with smaller audiences is different to conversations you have in public. We really realised this when we bought LiveJournal this year. An audience of six people really matters to a lot of people.

Lili took this even further by talking about the qualities of the conversations themselves, pointing towards a concept of ‘energy’ and suggesting that this quality was something that she was now able to move into the rest of Microsoft’s work:

“Sometimes you want to find a critical mass in really small circles. What’s most important is whether I’m having a dialogue with people which feels like it has energy?

At this point, Ev Williams came up with a point to balance this discussion, talking a bit about his time at Blogger again:

“Of course there are a lot of people out there who only write for strangers. We used to put everyone’s name under their posts and people used to really protest. They didn’t want people in their every day life seeing stuff they’d written online.

But probably the biggest focus of the panel, and a recurring theme of the conference as a whole was the concept of ‘trust’ and what it meant. This was a more heavily contested area – related to the idea of social networks and small groups but understood differently by different people. Caterina made a particularly nice high-level and inspiring comment about trust that I enjoyed:

“It’s trust that enables us to go out in the world. It’s the thing that makes the internet possible.”

A slightly more formally expressed and nuanced position (but perhaps a less practical one to implement) came from Amy Jo:

“You don’t build trust by ‘throwing crap up on your website’, even though a lot of the work that people are doing is foundational in building trust – personal control in who sees what. Trust is contextual – I trust my husband to be a good man and a good guy, but I don’t trust him to get the right kind of bleach. it’s contextual, it’s not global.

Finally – moving on from the concept of trust – one other interesting comment came from Ev Williams when talking about the future of podcasting. I’m not completely sure that I agree with it. It was in response to a question from audience about the future of podcasting. His response:

“The future of podcasting is not on the pod but on the phone – and it takes these ideas not only to a new medium but to a whole new audience”.

I’ve heard this particular sentiment from a lot of people recently, but as yet it seems to me entirely unproven. As I understand it, radios on phones have – on the whole – not been an enormous success to date – whether that’s because of implementation or use cases is unclear to me at the moment. But podcasting to phones also feels like something whose time is further off, when the handset has been more substantially abstracted from the concept of voice / data connectivity. But that’s all speculation, and probably a good point to end this particular batch of notes.

[You can find my full notes from the session here]

Conference Notes Personal Publishing

Supernova '05: "Perspective: Jonathan Schwartz"

Since yesterday morning I’ve been hanging around at Supernova and I’ve been taking some fairly intensive notes, but I’ve not yet had the opportunity to write any of it up. Over the next hour or so, I hope to put up some of my reactions from the last day and a half of the conference. I’m a little unclear as yet whether I’ll be posting the full notes that I’ve been making for each part of the conference. I guess we’ll see. They’re not always of the most enormous value.

For people who don’t know, the core idea behind Supernova and the concept of the conference i decentralisation and the effects of network. I guess the metaphor is of the aftermath of the exploded centre, where top-down governance and control gives up its power (by choice or by force) to the new many-to-many network where power and agency operates at the edges. The conference takes that fundamental concept and looks at its application across a whole range of different subject areas – from social software and personal publishing, search, telecoms, gaming, business, media as well as around meta-areas like how individuals deal with this radically different vision of the world. I think by necessity this creates a kind of weirdly diverse conference that attracts radically different types of people whose relationship to each other isn’t always easy. So you’ve got the business people, the alpha geeks, the legislators, the military, the policy people and the academics talking about things from very different angles. Which means that any individual part of the audience is likely to be frustrated at some points, bored at other points and insanely fascinated for the rest of the time.

I’m going to start with a brief bit of coverage of a discussion between Jonathan Schwartz of Sun Microsystems and Kevin Werbach of Supernova. The two major areas of this discussion were really about about whether or not Web 2.0 was a reality (the answers to which were relatively anodyne) and a much more interesting discussion about future business communication with weblogs.

I kind of take my life in my hands a bit every time I go off on a discussion about weblogs after six years of writing this site, but sometimes it really does seem that there genuinely still more that can still be said around the edges. Here are a few really telling quotes (probably mistranscribed) from Schwartz that I noted down during his piece:

I’ve learned a lot of things. If you think about what a leader does, you’re fundamentally a communicator. You have to be able to communicate to the marketplace to the people who report to you – there is no efficient way of doing that than using the network – using the internet. If you want to be a leader, I can’t see you surviving without a blog. It’s like being a leader without having e-mail or a mobile phone. You still find them very occasionally, but it’s moving away. It’s very rare.

Authenticity is absolutely paramount. Getting poeple to write your blogs is ridiculous. It’s like hiring people to read your e-mail. You might be able to get away with it, but it’s kind of like pushing a rock up a hill…

When I first heard Schwartz talking in these directions, I genuinely didn’t know what I thought about it. In my experience weblogs inside organisations don’t tend to be terribly interesting or useful and only a limited number of people participate with them. I was going ready to treat his comments with a similar scepticism (particularly given some of his earlier comments about authentication and the future of the web which were pretty banal), but he blew my suspions out of the water with some of his later comments. When challenged about whether he was only talking about communicating with the company internally or doing it in full view of the public, he said something really interesting.

For a start, he said that in the near future he wanted to start doing all his communications via his weblog. Then he moved on to addressing this internal / external dichotomy. He mentioned a particular case where particularly good employees had their names and photos put up on an intranet celebrating their achievements. Instead of this he suggested that it should be done completely in public. He said that some people had suggested that this might mean that the staff concerned would just be poached by other companies but he responded that good people would always be open for poaching. And here’s the interesting bit – he said he had no interest in an internal weblog, that he wants it to be completely transparent and that while he was aware that this approach and celebrating his employees achievements in public might to his competitors knowing what he was doing, it also meant that their employees could see it too – and they can then use that to decide if he’s a more attractive leader with better policies and a vetter vision of the future.

This is a view of the world that I really like – it doesn’t limit your ability to have particular specific projects operating under the radar, but it’s an acceptance that large-scale strategy and communications about your company as a whole is never secret. And rather than treating that as a weakness or as a problem, it turns and faces it directly. It let’s people see the way you run your company and encourages people to question and interrogate it – creating a virtuous circle of improvement and self-awareness inside organisations that raises the whole level of the debate. For everything else you might say about Sun, this is a noble idealistic and inspiring aspiration. Very cool.

[You can read my very rough notes on this interview as it happened here.]

Personal Publishing

Towards a picture of European weblogging…

Found via a referral and then a couple of moments later via Euan Semple, Loic Le Meur is attempting to put together a rough picture of The European Blogosphere on his wiki – with core questions about the country’s main blogging platforms, total number of weblogs, famous weblogs, impact on mainstream media etc. I haven’t really had time to dig around in it as much as I’d like, but my first impression is that – as ever – what’s going on in the UK tends to get lost in the larger picture of English-language weblogs across the world. I mean, I simply don’t believe it’s true that there are only 200,000 UK weblogs in existence as opposed to the several million in France. My instinct is that these figures are artificially low because it’s so hard to technically differentiate with statistical analysis alone (and without any strong weblogging platforms aimed directly at people in the UK) which weblogs are British, which are Irish, which are American (or Canadian or Australian or English-speaking French / German etc).

Anyway, in a nutshell, I don’t think the page about the UK adequately reflects the culture of weblogging that I’ve seen in the UK over the last five and a half years. So I’m going to go and try and improve it now, and I thought I’d ask in public for Brits (and people from the rest of Europe) to come and help me find trustworthy information online that can help Loic give a fair representation of what’s actually happening. The link again for those of you with a short attention span: The European Blogosphere.

Journalism Personal Publishing

On how journalists write about webloggers…

There’s an article in the Sunday Times today called Golden rules for blogging clever which features a few choice morsels of salient quotage from some bloke not a million miles away from this weblog. For this reason alone I recommend you buy the paper in question. Possibly you should be so impressed that you should consider sending me some naked pictures of yourselves?

Moving on though – the article itself is very strange. It seems to wend its way between a number of different registers – starting off in a ‘weblogs and online communities are important’ area and then wanders directly into a ‘who the hell do you think you are to think anyone cares what you think’ kind of space. I find this very odd, given that the article is supposedly about giving people tips for writing a weblog. It’s been a while since I read a cookery book, but I’m pretty sure they don’t start by telling people that they’re worthless and they’ll never amount to anything. That kind of motivational speech seems more commonly left to parents. (Of course the article isn’t actually aimed at people starting a weblog at all, but at people who want to observe it from the sidelines with a cup of tea and a raised eyebrow while slowly dying inside.)

From having apparently smacked down the reader for their nerve – their very presumption – that they might find value in self-expression, the article moves on to slightly self-satirise. Now the mockery is a bit ironic – it knows we don’t really want to be boring and that we’re all able to see the funny side of the whole thing. To support its case, it brings in a few of the classier webloggers (Heather Armstrong and myself) to comment. And what do we say? Well, basically we say that all this stuff about being boring is rather missing the point and it’s not about getting a huge audience and that self-expression is really important and stuff and that if people derive value from their weblogs then that’s good, right? Right?

Well, all I can say is that it’s lucky that our brief comments don’t distract from the main thrust of the article! No hippies are going to distract from the relentless pursuit of traffic, after all. So we get a humourous take on giving your weblog a sexy name, a patch on how to pander to other weblogs to get hits, a bref paragraph on Googlebombing and a few words on the apparent incestuousness of the culture. The article recommends writing about your sex life, getting fired for writing a weblog and peddling extreme opinions. All of these things will get you a book deal and only then will people want to get you naked because they’ve heard your name on television.

I think the reason I find this whole article so amusing is because it’s the ultimate archetype of all news stories about weblogs. Its every word exposes the assumptions and prejudices of journalists and – I think more widely – the British. So you’ve got the censorious attitude to people expressing themselves in public (self-expression isn’t really proper), then you’ve got the whole amateur-versus-professional argument that neurotically restates only proper journalists are worth reading. These journalists, who – we are reminded by the rest of the article – really assume that (i) the only reason to write is to get famous, (ii) there’s no value in community or discussion or debate and (iii) normal people would sell their granny for dog meat to get famous. And to cap it all off, the examples that they use are all the ones that reveal the bankrupcy of the news media – that a culture of millions of webloggers can only really be understood by the tabloidish stories that make it across into the ‘proper’ media. The whole thing is gloriously cock-eyed.

I’m being a bit unfair, of course. It’s not nearly that clear-cut, and there’s some really interesting stuff here. I like that Simon Jenkins expressed an anxiety about the role of the newspaper columnist in the amateurised opinion space. I don’t think he’s got an enormous amount to worry about – in fact he should be delighted, he could be a giant in that space if he wanted – but that all depends on viewing changes as opportunities rather than threats. Here are a few more of my thoughts – good and bad – in the form of an unordered list:

  • I love the fact that the word hippo-griff is used in this article. For that alone, I will give you one billion dollars. You heard me. One billion. Although I’m a bit surprised by the hyphen. Maybe I won’t give you a billion dollars after all. Damn sub-editors.
  • “The absolute golden rule of blogging – it is literally made of gold – is: Do not blog”, says our journo. It’s literally made of gold? What, really? Dear God, man – misuse of ‘literally’ in this way is pretty much the first thing that you get smacked in the mouth for at journalism school. What are you doing!? Unless of course there really is a golden rule cast in gold somewhere – on a mountain or something. In which case, I want to see it. While we’re at it – who the hell made up this rule? I’ve never heard it before. It’s not even a parody of ‘Don’t talk about Fight Club’. I don’t get it.
  • If you read the article in print, then you get confronted with an enormous picture of that bloody berk who got (as far as I can tell) fired from Waterstones for being a bit of an idiot and not reading his contract. I’ve never felt a lot of sympathy for him – even though the relationship between a weblogger’s site and their working life is a complex one that I’ve been coming up against a bit recently – because he just seemed to have been such a twit about the whole thing. I’d recommend reading two things about this subject: Anil Dash’s expansion on his assertion that no one gets fired for blogging and a Tech Station article called The Unbearable Rightness of Nick Denton.

Ah, that’ll do. I’m bored now. Fun article! Took me ages to respond to. Probably better than I’m giving it credit for. Seeya!

Personal Publishing

You will not tell me what to post…

Okay, this is not a big rant, but it had to be said. Some weblogs actively appeal for people to send them links to stuff that they might like to post about. I do not. No doubt some people are delighted when people say, “you should put this on your site”. I am not. Let me say this really clearly once and for all – I do not link to stuff that people ask me to link to.

This is not an absolute rule, I’ll admit. Over the last five/six years I’ve probably been asked to post someone else’s links to my site about five hundred times. How many did I end up posting? Maybe four. I’m actually less inclined to post things to my site if someone has explicitly asked me to. When under those kinds of pressure, I feel I must demonstrate the independence and freedom of my site. I feel I have to demonstrate that it’s a space where I’ll act as I think is best, with full cognisance of my responsibilities to work, friends. If people explicitly ask me to post something, then of course my assumption is that all they want is the link, that they’re trying to exploit my site for their own gain in some way and have no actual interest in my opinions or being part of a community. I will be contrary in those situations. If you are listening, e-marketeers, then take note already.

Let me be blunt – I will not link to things if you ask me to. If you send me a link saying, “you should post about this”, then – unless I’m really clear it’s for altruistic reasons – I almost certainly will not. And I may look at you funny the next time we meet down the pub. I may not go down to the pub with you at all. Are we clear? Good.

In the meantime if there’s something you genuinely think I might find interesting, please feel free to send it to me! I like reading new things – I’m interested in all kinds of stuff. Just please make it because you genuinely think it’s something I might care about rather than because you might make a nickel out of it. I thank you and good night.

Personal Publishing

The Horseless Carriage…

This is a slightly rewritten and polished up version of a talk I gave to a Six Apart event (cf. On being on the panel at Blogs in Action) at London’s Polish Club a few weeks ago. It’s kind of a personal history of and exposition around weblogs and webloggery. This version has had some of the more colourful language removed. Warning – it’s quite long and it’s a bit of a mystery to me how I managed to get through it all in ten minutes.

Today I’m going to talk about the horseless carriage. Well. Kind of.

In the middle ages, people walked to places. If they didn’t walk, then they rode horses. Some attached carts to their horses. Some time later, those carts got suspension. That’s when they started to get really popular because people’s arses didn’t hurt so much. In the late eighteenth century – joy – the steam-based self-propelled vehicle was devised. By the way, many of the most notable advances in steam vehicles occurred in England – with the Lunar Society in Birmingham. These devices were known as ‘horseless carriages’. You may be familiar with their descendents. You may have used one of them to get to this event today.

That then, was the history of the horseless carriage – and I’ll come back to that. But now I want to look at a parallel history – that of the weblog. Many histories of webloggia have been written to date. The best is by Rebecca Blood and it’s called Weblogs: A History and Perspective. Reading it, you can get a real sense about all the technologies and analogues and developments that led up to a person pointing at something for the first time and going, “that thing there is a weblog”…

To summarise – some people say the very first site on the web, Tim Berners-Lee’s homepage, was the first weblog. On it he linked to new sites, services and pages as they started to appear. That experience rings nostalgic bells for me. I can remember a community of webloggers that did the same for each new person who joined us in writing rubbish on the internet. Those were the days.

The word itself, though, was a much much later development – and came in two stages. First Jorn Barger coined the term ‘weblog’ to describe his site Robot Wisdom. Subsequently, Peter Merholz shortened the term to the more commonly used ‘blog’. So he’s the person you should be looking to blame for that one…

So we had a name, but not necessarily any sense of what these sites were for? There was enormous debate about their essential character. These first practitioners saw the ‘point’ of a weblog as linking. The core of the enterprise for these people was finding cool sites and referencing them. Although perhaps that’s overstating it a bit, since even then people had a sense of the personal as well. Dave Winer famously said of weblogs that each had a human guide that you got to know. He talked about camaraderie and politics. I think he was right. I’ll get back to that too.

Alongside the people who viewed weblogs as linklogs, another group of sites that viewed themselves as ‘online journals’ were emerging from the more arty side of the internet. I was involved in this arty community and remember seeing sites like and explore what it was to self-represent and write online. was one of the many hubs of this period of artistry and creativity. The whole space was excitingly expressive, but not particularly social. Alongside all this, the LiveJournallers made their moves. All in all these were very similarly structured takes on a completely different direction.

After September 11th, yet another group of people manifested on the internet and chose weblogs as their means of expression. These people talked in terms of punditry and they thought of themselves as following in the footsteps (to praise or bury) of Glenn Reynolds. These people wanted to express opinions, debate and comment on what was going on in the world around them. These ‘warbloggers’ at times have started various snowballing news stories – particularly in the States.

And we’re still not done – linkers, journal-keepers and pundits have most recently been joined by the commercial people. America’s Gawker Media publishes weblogs around a whole range of subjects from politics to sex. Group weblogs like BoingBoing have gone pro as well – and they are, let me tell you, making a decent amount of money out it. Yay Google Ads!

All of this means that when people talk about weblogs they tend to talk about it in terms of other things they knew about beforehand that seem to be good analogies. Which one of these is right?

  • A weblog is a thing that links to sites elsewhere on the web
  • A weblog is a kind of online journal
  • A weblog is a kind of diary
  • A weblog is about personal publishing
  • A weblog is amateur journalism

Well, I’ll leave you with that question for a minute and talk a bit about my experiences online. When I started my site in 1999 it was already a year or two since Jorn Barger had coined the term. I was one of the very first batch of people to start using Blogger in the first months after it opened its doors to the public. When I started there were probably only a few hundred webloggers in the world. I think I started the day after Anil Dash. Each new weblogger who came online was a cause for celebration. We used to link to everyone. We’d redesign every week. Happy times.

Over the years I’ve watched as things that now seem obvious got invented. I’ve seen the concept of the permalink appear – and change everything completely. I’ve watched Movable Type appear, get huge and take over the world – and I’ve watched dozens of people try and create less capable knock-offs. I’ve seen the idea of a single-page archve manifest itself and then take a billion years to get into Blogger. I’ve seen the appearance (and I fear death) of Trackback. And the slow process to get comments on everyone’s sites. All the simple structures we operate with now – all the things we take for granted as being obvious – each was invented. And I’m lucky enough to remember each one turning up.

Alongside all of this, my own use of my site has changed. I started off writing about things I found on the internet. Then I started talking about things I did with my friends and what I thought about work. I explored the freedoms of being anonymous in public. Then my friends found out. Then I had this terrible pseudo abortive relationship and started writing secret stuff in the code of the site and being all melodramatic in public. Then I got excited about some specific subjects. Then it felt like everyone was impinging on my life and that everyone knew I had a weblog. Then I felt like I had no privacy. Then I stopped writing so much about my personal life and concentrated on writing on the things I cared about. Then the things I started writing about started to coincide with the things I was working on. Then I started getting into conversations with people who shared my professional capacity, and it having an impact on my working life. And that’s where you find me today – writin a mixture of personal stuff and ludicrously complicated stuff about social software.

And with all that experience, here’s what I’m here to say. Here are my observations about weblogs and weblogging:

  • The amount of weblogs that get a lot of traffic each day is pretty tiny in comparison with the number of weblogs in the world. And when I say ‘a lot of traffic’ I mean people who get (say) a thousand page impressions a day.
  • The average weblogger – the mainstream weblogger (and there are millions of the little buggers) ‘publish’ to a tiny audience. Many of these sites are password protected or completely private.
  • Weblogs are fast and rapid to write and as such they lend themselves to a slightly informal voice. People will tend to write kind of like they speak.
  • Most sites are one-per-person – this is the most natural state of affairs.
  • People cannot naturally stay on one subject – if you start writing a weblog about something in particular then in the end you’ll almost inevitably fail. The only things you can write about honestly and consistently for a long period of time are the things you’re doing and the things that you care about at any given period of time. These things will be perpetually in a state of flux, even if patterns will emerge…
  • The only exceptions to those rules being that if you’re doing something for money or if there’s a group of you doing it. That stuff’ll keep you on track and no mistake.
  • Running and writing a weblog is a social activity – it’s communicative – and you respond to what other people write when you write. It’s no fun at all if you’re writing into a vaccuum.
  • The average weblogger will often start off thinking that they can be anonymous and write about what they want. But they can’t and they figure that out soon enough when they get fired or when their boyfriend leaves them or their friends start looking at them funny or refusing to shake their hands when they’re at work.
  • That webloggery tends to successfully transmit itself down social and interest networks. People who enjoy writing weblogs tend to do so because they got into weblogging through a friend. When they come online they know that they’re already never going to be alone. They’ll have someone to read what they write.

Fundamentally, I think I can bring all of this down to one core statement – that for the vast majority of weblogs in the world the core over-arching principle is that of personhood. The weblog becomes an extension of yourself. A suit you wear, if you will. It’s like you’re controlling a whole prosthetic version of yourself. The tone of voice will be personal. The individual weblog like the individual person will benefit from feeling like they’re a part of a community. A weblogger’s community will work best when it has connections to (and overlaps with) that weblogger’s real-life community. Most importantly, an individual weblog/weblogger will care about what they care about and nothing more.

This means that whatever you’re planning to use weblogs for, then you’ll fid them most naturally useful if you keep the individual at the heart of the enterprise. That means if you’re interested in knowledge management, or in community generation or in using them for publishing or whatever, then you should keep that idea of an individual voice at the centre of your thinking. Even Fleshbot has a sense of an individual behind it – an editorial tone that feels personable. Not that I’ve been. And I’m sure none of you have either. And nor should you.

And if you’re thinking about the future of weblogs then you should think in terms of how to support the individual in their conversations and engagements and social networks. Maybe that means developing Livejournal explicit-relationships functionality. Or maybe it means bits of Flickr. Or maybe it means better conversation-tracking.

But it’s all got to be about the individual. And my preferred way of expressing that is that a weblog is a representation of a person. I think that’s behind all of the definitions that people came up with before. I think that’s the core principle that stands behind the idea that a weblog is a journal, or that they’re collections of links that I’ve seen on the web or that they’re space for an individual to undertake a new form of journalism, etc. etc.

And my contention – to bring us right back to the beginning – is that all of those statements (“A weblog is a kind of diary”) are kind of like saying that “A car is a horseless carriage”. For years we had to descrive cars by reference only to things that had come before, but we don’t need to do that any more. Enough time has passed that we can describe a car without talking about its origins or its analogues – without talking about things that are kind of like it. Now we can start to conceive of a car without thinking of horses and suspension and traps and carriages.

And I think we can now start to do the same thing with weblogs – we can push past describing them as being like empty books that people write in and keep private, we can say that they’re not just records of sites that we’ve visited, we can stop trying to compare what we’re doing with the actions of professional journalists writing for newspapers. I think we’ve got past that now. I think we can call a blog a blog.