Gail Williams (gail) Mon 31 Aug 09 15:07
How much has blogging really changed things? We're delighted to explore the sweeping influence of this young medium with our next Inkwell guest. Scott Rosenberg got his first experiences online at The WELL, but succumbed to the Web in 1995, when he helped start Salon.com with a group of colleagues from the SF Examiner. After a decade as technology editor and managing editor there, he took time off to write DREAMING IN CODE. He returned to Salon to start the Open Salon project, then left in 2007 to write his new book, SAY EVERYTHING: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters. Today he's working on a new project funded by the Knight News Challenge called MediaBugs. Leading the conversation is Dr. Jeff Hershberger, who spent seven years as a staff scientist for the U.S. Department of Energy, working on improving the efficiency of the nation's trucking fleet, and is now in the semiconductor industry. Since the late 1990s he has participated in online communities tabletalk.salon.com and The WELL. His year-old personal blog is at myfuturepast.blogspot.com. He is interested in the face-to-face network-building aspects of blogging and newer forms of social media. Welcome, Scott and Jeff.
Jeff Hershberger (jhersh) Tue 1 Sep 09 04:30
Thanks, Gail! Scott, in the chapter on "The Perils of Keeping it Real", you talk about how anonymity and the absence of nonverbal communication can cause otherwise reasonable people to behave regrettably. (It's worth noting that The WELL is one of the few non-anonymous places online.) As I write this, I'm wrestling with the potential disbandment of my local blogging meetup group. Since 2002, the Cleveland bloggers have used meetup.com to gather once a month, and we're looking for a new organizer. We'll find one, but I take the general dismay as another indication of how important these face-to-face connections are. A blog is the one place where you don't have to back down, but putting a human face on your words can temper your more extreme stances and add whole new dimensions to the experience. Have you attended any blogger conventions, or did any of your interviewees talk about them? How did it affect their sense of the network of blogs they work in?
Scott Rosenberg (scottros) Tue 1 Sep 09 10:48
Hi, Jeff! Thanks for doing this. Let's talk about anonymity first. One of the most common questions I've gotten from interviewers about SAY EVERYTHING is one that's been prevalent since the early days of blogging: How can you trust blogs when so many of them are anonymous? And it always flummoxes me, since, in my experience, so *few* blogs are anonymous. Yes, there are the frustrating blogs that don't make it easy for you to figure out their authors' identities (via a properly linked ABOUT page or sidebar note). But that's less and less common. Then there are the truly anonymous blogs, most of which hide their identities for obvious reasons (they're writing about the company they work for, or from under a repressive regime, or other whistle-blowing circumstances). That leaves us with a very tiny sliver of anonymous blogs that are anonymous because the author wants to lob stinkbombs. Sure, it happens -- but as the author of the "Skanks in New York" blog discovered recently, your anonymity is unlikely to survive a brush with the law. Anonymity, despite the howls of folks like Lee Siegel, is not central to the story of blogging. Blogs are more commonly about self-revelation than about identity protection. And yes, once people reveal themselves and find kindred souls, face-to-face meetups and parties and conferences are a natural next step. The WELL discovered early on that offline, face-to-face events are a highly valuable way of strengthening the connections (and, sometimes, smoothing over the disconnections) in an online community. I attended the very first BloggerCon that Dave Winer organized in, I think, 2003 at Harvard. I was running Salon's blog program at the time. I talked on a panel that Ed Cone moderated (with, if I remember correctly, Josh Marshall and Glenn Reynolds). It was a stellar gathering, with lots of well-known bloggers but also lots of people who were just starting out, and it certainly focused my awareness on just how important blogs were becoming in our media environment. I've also been to Blogher and Wordcamp and other blog-related gatherings. There have obviously also been important face-to-face gatherings in the evolution of the progressive Netroots blog world, in the form of the event formerly known as Yearly Kos. I didn't focus deeply on the topic in SAY EVERYTHING but my sense is that any blog community that reaches a certain size is just naturally going to want to have in-person events. There will always be some minority of bloggers who are less comfortable in person than behind the keyboard; but the majority, it seems to me, will have a blast.
Jeff Hershberger (jhersh) Wed 2 Sep 09 04:20
Wow, that's a lot of face time. Early on I heard a phrase that stuck with me: blogging is a fundamentally networked activity. As I settled into blogging I thought about that, and about the mechanics of linking to each other and commenting on each other's posts, and I started asking around for better tools. For example, how about an RSS reader, like Google Reader, that will tell me whether or not there are unread comments on a post I'm reading? (That is, without actually subscribing to the comments as a separate RSS feed.) I asked at the Cleveland Blogger meetups but I came away more or less empty-handed. What I didn't realize was that those connections were being made right there, face to face. I can't find the passage in your book right how, but you talked about how blog networks grow organically, accidentally. It's almost always through personal connections--whether local or distant--that you start reading someone new. I started blogging specifically to find a community like that; I ended up being surprised that it happened face to face.
Scott Rosenberg (scottros) Wed 2 Sep 09 08:33
I guess we shouldn't be surprised that human networks grow from human connections. The real wonder is that people still imagine they can create value in a network *without* the intervention of old-fashioned human interaction. I certainly agree that blogging is "a fundamentally networked activity." But it's important not to lose sight of the rest of the picture. If networking is your central goal, then there are more efficient ways of achieving it than starting a blog. We've always had online communication forms (like WELL conferencing or Usenet) that allowed group formation in which participants stood on roughly equal footing. Today we have phenomenally popular social networking platforms that allow you to manage a network of friends (or "friends") far more easily than you can do via a blog. Blogs are unique, I think, in providing an environment that gives primacy to the voice of the individual blogger while still placing that voice within the wider network. As I wrote in "Say Everything," each blog sits at a sort of fulcrum-point between the individual and the group. This gives the form some of its distinguishing traits: its ability to amplify the strengths and flaws of individual writers; the alchemy that can happen when an individual writer's experience sparks an avalanche of responses.
Ari Davidow (ari) Wed 2 Sep 09 13:01
Scott, I read the book last month--gulped it last month--so I apologize if I am misremembering anything, but what I took away from the book is less evangelizing of blogging, per se, but this intricate, wonderful explanation of these different problems that get solved, from the order of posts so that people see what's new to the question of commercialization and how to make money from your blog. I handed the book to our staffer who spends most of her time on our blog just to give her a sense of where this tool is coming from and a nice sense of what she might be doing with it. I might add that the book arrived just as said blogger posted her first "link roundups". When our Executive Editor hit the room about these links being posted that took people off-site, I was quite pleased to show her the chapter in the book where you talk about link roundups and how good they are at helping establish both readership and (if I remember right--this would certainly be my belief) community. I really enjoyed the book. I'll probably have to get another copy at some point--I'll never see the original again.
Scott Rosenberg (scottros) Wed 2 Sep 09 13:52
Hey, Ari, thanks! You're not misremembering anything. I really didn't set out to evangelize at all, but to tell stories that I thought would be valuable. I've found, though, that in the current media environment, if you are not willing to join the "blogs suck" mob, or the "blogs are destroying journalism as we know it" crowd, or the "blogging is old hat so who cares" cadre, then you are going to be seen as a promoter/advocate/evangelizer. Simply by making a case for blogging, no matter how nuanced, I have cast myself as such in the primitive allegory playing out in the minds of so many media people today. So I've tried to just roll with it. When I find it too demoralizing, I can turn to some of the emails I've received and conversations I've had that echo what you say here: that the stories the book tells are actually of practical value to people who weren't there at the Dawn of Blogging and are trying to navigate the world it has shaped today. It is strange to think that there are still folks who don't understand the value of linking to other sites, but plainly there are -- so anything I've done to help explain that I'll take a little public-service credit for...
David Wilson (dlwilson) Wed 2 Sep 09 15:04
Hi Scott. I read the book and was struck that within your history of blogging, you keyed in on a few technological features such as putting the most current post on top. You discussed others which I forget now, but my reaction was that you were doing something similar to what archeologists do. They dig up garbage from the the past, sort it, and then extract the tools. They analyze the form and function and then extrapalate what social uses were. They get good at projecting themselves backward into the civilizations that they are studying. You are focusing in the same way on the "tools" but you have the good and bad actors around so you can query them.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 2 Sep 09 16:22
For those who are reading without logging in, or offsite via RSS, you don't have to join The WELL to ask a question -- you can also email questions for posting in this conversation. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org -- and please include "Say Everything" in the subject line.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 2 Sep 09 16:22
That's a very nice comment, David.
Scott Rosenberg (scottros) Thu 3 Sep 09 07:57
Hi, David -- I'll very much embrace as a compliment the "archeologist" comparison. I should add, though, that for me, the work of "projecting myself backward" and extrapolating is a lot easier because I was there -- I was following most of these stories as they happened. So it's a sort of archeology where the person who's digging already has a mental map of the culture since he experienced it himself. Makes the job easier! And of course being able to interview so many of the participants, and review so much of the record on the Web itself, then enabled me to check my recollections against others. Though I knew there was no way to keep all error out of the book -- nobody's perfect -- I was determined to get as much of the detail right as I could.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 3 Sep 09 15:04
Scott, since you started out talking about anonymity, and you've watched the dialogue about identity online evolve, what do you think the tension around credibility has done for reporting? I've been saying that we still have not seen the first major news hoax spread by blogs, twitter, forums and all. There have been some small ones, like the recent fake story of the rapper who made her record company send her to school, but no major ones -- that we have become aware of so far! Of course, in the history of journalism there were plenty of hoaxes cheerfully reported as the truth in ink on paper, too. Are we just lucky that this has worked out, or is a networked world more immune to disinformation and fake sources? Are we more critical of where information actually originated, or less?
Scott Rosenberg (scottros) Thu 3 Sep 09 19:51
It's funny -- I can still remember the time, not that long ago (a decade or so), when large numbers of reporters simply wouldn't take a quote via email: the medium itself was suspect. I *think* now we're at a point where most reporters understand that every communications channel -- telephone, webpage, email, semaphore! -- has its uses and its issues. Deception is possible in any of them. (Remember that Canadian radio-show prank-caller who got Palin on the phone last fall pretending to be a foreign dignitary?) It's just that, when a communication form is new, the journalists don't always have their antennae properly attuned to detect the deception. (And, I guess, some politicians never learn...) I thought the tale of the student who seeded the false quote in Wikipedia about Maurice Jarre, shortly after his death earlier this year, was pretty instructive. Wikipedia fixed it pretty quickly, but not before a large number of news outlets had lifted the quote for their obituaries. The record would never have been corrected if the prankster hadn't stepped forward and pointed it out. This falls into the Orson Welles/War of the Worlds category: a deliberate falsehood spread intentionally. I think that every new medium has these incidents; they put people on guard, as well they ought to be. The larger issue with the Web is not with such pranks but rather with the game-of-telephone style spread of half-truth and misinformation. It's been a war between bad and good information from the early days of the Net, for sure. But if you apply reasonable skepticism (and if you don't, surely, you ought to), you have a lot of good resources to turn to. One of the things that blogs allow for is the accretion of trust over time to an individual blogger as you observe how he or she handles incidents that arise. This does you know good if you land on a blog for the first time. But if you're a regular, you'll have a pretty good idea of where you can trust a blogger, and where you should be suspicious.
Scott Rosenberg (scottros) Fri 4 Sep 09 12:58
"know good" should obviously be "no good," above!
William Pauly (almedia) Fri 4 Sep 09 14:14
I enjoyed trying to parse the original; almost poetic ! :-, Of course, deliberate disinformation and other viral techniques are almost impossible to combat or compensate for. All media are susceptible to those, but the immediacy and density of the Net seems to make it particularly vulnerable to that kind of manipulation. Television and radio, for example, have expensive infrastructures and hierarchical organizations to buffer them from random propagation of memes; to start a virus in either you must first get those cameras and microphones pointed at you. Not so difficult to get a blogger's attention.
Gail Williams (gail) Sat 5 Sep 09 10:20
I might have thought that some years back, but I can't think of a ver good example of that, personally. There's another interesting trend of bloggers being sponsored by companies that has been talked about a lot recently, and that too mirrors the kinds of pressures of traditional journalism.
Gail Williams (gail) Sat 5 Sep 09 10:23
Scott, how do you see "microblogging" like Twitter chnging blogging, if at all?
Cogito, Ergo Dubito (robertflink) Sat 5 Sep 09 13:01
It occurs to me that an extremely reliable medium would set us up to be so trusting as to over react to a manipulative deviation. While skepticism may cause us to miss some opportunity or truth, it may be a better strategic mindset than trust. I understand that affinity groups are an easy mark for the Madoffs of this world because they are so trusting. BTW, as a skeptic, I find considerable validation in current media and may be disconcerted by too much reliability ;-).
Christian Crumlish (xian) Sat 5 Sep 09 18:30
Hey Scott! Nice to see you hear. Two quickies: 1. When you spoke at Yahoo a month or so ago I think you were asked abut microblogging or statuscasting or whatever Twitter is (and possibly Tumblr and the wall/Friendfeed aspect of Facebook) and pointed out that all of the same criticisms that were applied to blogging are now applied to this (it's trivial, who cares what you had for breakfast/your cat, etc.), and I think we can all stipulate that those reactions are missing the forest for the trees. But I wonder if you do see any substantive differences (for example, aside from Livejournal and Vox and Tumblr and Posterous and Radio and recently Blogger, you didn't typically used to have formal "following" in blogging, whereas it seems core to microblogging and may provide a bit more of a structure for conversation than that yelling into the void that blogging sometimes feels like)? 2. The current Nora Ephron movie on Julie/Julia is based on the book by the New York Times writer that was based on her blog from before she was a professional writer called the Julie/Julia Project that was one of the Salon Blogs hosted on a custom Userland server that also is the context in which we "met" (although we may have exchanged an email or two in the brief ezine era before that).... She is one obvious breakout success from that experiment. Others might be Crooks and Liars and How to Save the World. Any thoughts on what you learned from that effort? Have you looked at Open Salon which seems like an evolution of what some people thought the Salon Radio Userland Blogs community might have been dreaming of being?
Scott Rosenberg (scottros) Mon 7 Sep 09 18:22
To Gail's Twitter/"microblogging" question: I've argued, not so much in the book but over on my blog, that Twitter's success makes blogging smarter. Bloggers (as a group, and sometimes within individuals) have often been torn between using their blogs as a repository for substantial observations and as a receptable for ephemera. As more people put the ephemeral stuff on Twitter and other similar services, this frees blogs to be seen as the substantial outlets so many of them have always been. The blog form has a beautiful balance between valuing the present moment and organizing the past. Twitter, so far, has pretty much ignored stuff once it's no longer current. Twitter has not offered us much help for those of us who might be interested in using it as a means of recording the present for the future. In this sense, it remains far inferior to blogging. But it's easy to imagine how that can, and indeed must, change. Hi, Christian! The point about "following" is also relevant. I think I always thought reading blogs involved a kind of "following" anyway; we used to use blogrolls to declare our "follow" list. But of course it was less formalized (and less user-friendly) than Twitter-style following. The Salon Blogs program that started in 2002 was a transformative experience for me, and that experience is definitely one of the motivations behind SAY EVERYTHING. I was half-sure in 2002 that Salon was *too late* in starting a blog program; surely everyone who might want to blog had already started one, I worried (having been reading blogs and proto-blogs myself since at least 1997). I learned just how wrong I was, and how right Dave Winer and others had been in foreseeing how much larger this thing was going to be. Open Salon was definitely conceived, at first, out of the need to find a replacement for the Radio-based Salon Blogs effort. The idea of finding a migration path for that program ended up taking a lot longer than we'd originally planned, and when I returned to Salon after writing Dreaming in Code it morphed into Open Salon -- which I worked on for a year and a half, before leaving to write SAY EVERYTHING. We definitely saw Open as an opportunity to continue what was best about the original Salon Blogs while also learning from our mistakes. I think we actually managed to achieve some of that, given Open's success -- which must mostly be credited to the Salon folks who took over the project after my departure. PS I didn't know that Crooks and Liars had any connection to Salon Blogs -- are you sure about that? How to Save the World, definitely. Others I remember include Real Live Preacher, Reverse Cowboy, Rayne Today, the Raven, Fried Green Al-Qaedas, Dave Cullen's blog... I'm sure I'm forgetting tons of others who deserve to be recalled.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Tue 8 Sep 09 09:55
Scott, could you write more about the Salon blogs. I nibbled around the edges by reading some of them and following how you did a digest of them. I never bit off a full bite because they were in the "personal journal" phase and I wasn't interested in that (go ahead, you can mock me for being a straight man for that pun pregnant sentence). Further, I had no idea of what I would write about. It is only in retrospect that I can see what a potent set of tools blogs turned out to be. You write up a good history of it in the book. What I want to know is the fits and starts, the problems, and then when the synchrony started to kick in for the Salon blogs.
Scott Rosenberg (scottros) Wed 9 Sep 09 10:37
Thanks for asking, David. We started the original (2002) Salon Blogs program at a time when, really, Salon was at a low ebb -- this was at the bottom of the post-dotcom era bust, when we didn't really know how much longer Salon could stay in business, we'd just had three rounds of layoffs and there were no resources to spare for doing anything new. But in the meantime, there'd been this explosion of energy in blogging -- it was one of the only bright spots on the Web landscape. I'd been writing about the phenomenon and it seemed to me there had to be a way to for Salon to participate. But we couldn't build anything ourselves and the only way I could get the CEO to agree to a new initiative was if it held some sort of potential, however small, to bring in new revenue. The deal with Userland that I put together with John Robb, who was then running Userland, fit that bill: Salon was basically promoting the sale of licenses for Radio Userland and splitting the revenue with the software company. They ran the server for us; we ran the community. ("We" in this case essentially being "me" -- I pretty much ran this project in my extra time.) The thing kicked in very quickly -- we had a rush of sign ups at the start. There were two main problems: (1) Userland stopped development on Radio roughly at the time we started the program. Unfortunately, paid blogging services weren't the future, in the face of increasingly good free alternatives. (2) Salon's editorial staff and leadership, distracted by its own troubles and somewhat inflexible in its thinking about user contributions, never fully embraced the notion that this random collection of user-created blogs could be integrated into the "real" Salon. My blog got home-page placement, and I used it to promote other Salon blogs, but we should have been far more innovative and aggressive about mixing it up. I think Open Salon learned from that mistake, and Salon has gotten a lot more willing to break down arbitrary barriers between "pro" and "amateur" material.
David Wilson (dlwilson) Wed 9 Sep 09 14:50
Here is another question. One of models to promote business blogs and indirectly the business itself is the give away "free" strategy. Then once you've captured a following, you offer "premium" features for sale. I remember the rough and tumble days when if anyone tried to promote or sell their product or service, they were shouted down. Times change. Usenet was the boxing ring and then blogs came along and changed that. What is your take on that?
Scott Rosenberg (scottros) Wed 9 Sep 09 20:46
I'm not sure which "rough and tumble days" those were, David -- you mean the pre-Web Internet, when the network's denizens were dubious about anything commercial (and the network itself was largely off-limits to commercial activity)? By the time blogs came along -- whether you date that to 1997 or before -- the Web was pretty plainly a commercial environment. Most blogs were personal sites produced for personal reasons, though. Andrew Sullivan raised a significant amount of money from his readers in 2000-2001 and there were a handful of other instances of people making blog-related money. But it wasn't until Nick Denton and Pete Rojas started Gizmodo in 2002 that the whole idea of publishing a blog in order to sell ads and make money materialized. (Don't forget that in 2001-2 there wasn't a whole lot of ad money sloshing around the Web, anyway.) Today we have the blog-as-business, the blog-as-hobby, and the blog-as-reputation-enhancing-device (indirectly profitable rather than direct source of remuneration). I tend to find the most interesting bloggers in the third category, but all three approaches seem to be thriving. Though the blog-as-business thing does tend to push people in the direction of spam-like activities, "auto-rebloggers," SEO tricks and so on.
Jeff Hershberger (jhersh) Thu 10 Sep 09 04:15
And within blog-as-business, we have the current trend I like to call user-generated literature. The entrepreneur starts with an idea, like "awkward family photos", sets up a site, takes user submissions, institutes a community rating system, and waits until enough material comes in to fill a book. The LOLcats empire must be on their, what, eighth book? For me the tragicomic feature of this genre is having readers rate each other's submissions. That says, 'look, this is so not about me - it's all you, guys.' It's a complete abdication of editorial responsibility, but it's totally appropriate given the content. Of course, an RSS feed full of cat photos can only loosely be described as a blog. Still, they seem to be good business.
Gail Williams (gail) Thu 10 Sep 09 16:59
Scott, how much of the success of blogging is really about RSS? How will all these new approaches, from Google Wave to Tornado web and the RSS Cloud, etc. change all this?
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