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i-Technology Blog: Can Blogging Change the World?

After Asking Last Week "Are We Blogging Each Other to Death?" the Ongoing Debate Continues

Jeremy Geelan's i-Technology Blog: Can Blogging Change the World?

Ina wonderfully eccentric [and subsequently deleted] posting last week entitled "Does the old school accept blogging?" Alan Williamson suggests not only that I am a late adopter to the world of blogging, dragged-reluctantly-into-the-future-through-a-hedge-backwards kind of thing, but also that the reason for this is - not to beat about the bush - that I'm more or less a hidebound relic of a bygone age.

So permit me quickly to extinguish both myths.

First, as to blogging. Alan references my recent Are We Blogging Each Other to Death? posting and says that he detects in it an undertone of, as he puts it, "What's it all about? This whole blogging nonsense?" Well I have a startling revelation for Alan: this is called critical thought. Blame one of the finest educational systems on earth if you like, but I am proud to say that it's the "undertone" of everything I have done, written, or published for the past 25 years: "What's it all about? This whole BlackBerry nonsense?" -- "What's it all about? This whole 'social software' nonsense?" -- "What's it all about? This whole 'ambient findability' nonsense?" Yes, yes, yes. Until proven otherwise, all emperors are naked.

In other words, of course my default stance toward blogging is that of skepticism. Doh. That is my default stance toward life in general. If that makes me, as Alan says, "old school" (though I think this may just be a reference to Trinity College, Cambridge having been founded in 1546 and/or The John Lyon School having been founded by Harrow school in the 1870s), then so be it. To my mind blogging is no more deserving of a free ride than flogging: in my view all human activity requires critical scrutiny before being given the thumbs up/thumbs down.

Alan, bless him, then launches into the destruction of another paper tiger, namely that I am "troubled" about blogs because of their unstructured nature:

"Blogs are in their raw form, just a collection of unedited, quickly written, musings from the top of people's heads.  No, or very little, thought goes into them ...  I can hear him screaming now as he reads this very entry, thinking to himself, if he could just rearrange that sentence with this, and further explore this phrase... trying to get himself to the end without exploding. [note to Jeremy - sorry!]"
But this is in fact a complete non-issue. Little thought goes into what most people on the planet say or do, but I am not going to lie awake at night worrying about it. Blogging naturally is no exception. There's amazing, insightful writing and there's drivel; nothing new there, whether it be in newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, essays, novels, and now blogs. My concern is with insight, not blindness. The sheer proliferation of the words that make up the blogosphere may impact the efficacy of search engine results, but it is not "troubling" me. What is troubling me is the notion that there is some kind of refreshing originality to the word-morass simply because it is typed into a browser or encoded into an mp3 file instead of written down or merely spoken out loud in a FTF conversation.

Alan continues his theorizing:
"I don't think for a moment he feels threatened by blogs, but I do see him react in the same way that some developers reacted when IDEs started to include lots of wizards.  Lowering the barrier to entry can sometimes have the effect of making something look too easy and therefore devalue the real skill behind that."
Which alas is a second non-issue. To contend that those of us fortunate enough to extract a livelihood, sometimes even a decent living, from words are in some way circling the wagons and trying to keep blogs from diluting the currency of our uniquely insightful gems of prose is at best plain silly and at worst delusional. It is to miss the point entirely. The point (as Alan well knows because as he notes he and I have discussed this many, many times over the past 5-6 years) is not that blogging rivals journalism or punditry or social criticism. Of course it doesn't, it is merely a part of it. No, the problem is that people like Alan keep on (and on and on and on) trumpeting its virtues as if they were in any way different from the virtues of self-expression in general.

In short, like the inveterate technologist he is, what Alan Williamson is doing is mistaking the medium for the message and misguidely portaying blogging as Something Completely Different when everything indicates quite the contrary, i.e. that it is Something Entirely the Same. Freedom of expression, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, is hardly some New, New Thing. Viewed this way, blogging is about as remarkable as logging. That is, it isn't remarkable at all.

So what does all this leave, in terms of contradistinguishing blogging from any other form writing/speaking? It leaves what we might call the "Disproportionate Impact" issue. Alan is much exercised by the thought that, as he puts it, "if they hit the sweet spot ... bloggers can indeed change the world." He instances the recent about-face by SonyBMG over its use of copy-protection software:
"Think back to how we would have done this just 5 years ago?  We would have needed to lobby a journalist to write about it assuming his publisher didn't have any potential come back from ruining a relationship with a big national company.  Then we would have to guage the reaction from readers in a medium where communication is still very much one way.  Naturally this would have only been in one country and if the story didn't hold enough interest, well you know what they say, today's story is tomorrow's chip paper.  So the chances of Sony getting away with this tactic 5 years ago, would have been very high." 
But how, pray, does this make bloggers in 2005 any different from, say, pamphleteers around the time of the English Civil War? As Amanda Griscom has written:
"When the printing press became a public instrument in the mid-seventeenth century, the autocratic voice of England's King Charles I could no longer remain discrete, inexorable, or unchallenged. Pamphleteers could sound off to their allies and adversaries alike in the form of one-cent printed flyers created with Gutenberg's moveable type."
When Alan writes "Finally the common man has the opportunity to actually make a difference," I am at a loss to know whether he means it or is merely pulling all our legs. "Finally"??!? Good job that there hasn't been anything like a 550-year history of freedom of printed expression in the run-up to the mere 8-year history of blogging ;-)

Experience shows us that technology has the mysterious power to cause the suspension of all critical faculties in some people. Blogging is remarkable, we are asked to believe (by technologists) because it is mediated by technology. My point is merely: so was pamphleteering. "There is nothing new under the sun," as the wisdom literatures teach. Tellingly, that phrase, which comes from Ecclesiastes, is there followed by (my emphasis):
Is there a thing of which it is said,
         "See, this is new"?
     It has already been,
         in the ages before us.
"The dumbing down of a craft," writes Alan in his final sentence, "can be painful for any skilled professional to observe and change, like time, can never be stopped." Yet at no point has he even begun to make out any sort of a case demonstrating that I believe blogs "dumb down" commentary/analysis/social criticism and wish to protect my high-falutin ivory tower bastion of late-adoption. (It strikes me as being a bit perverse in any case to accuse the founding editor of a major book series entirely devoted to the future of being backwards-looking.)

It's not that blogs dumb anything down that wasn't already dumb. It's more that they don't elevate to the level of insightful anything that wouldn't already have been deemed insightful in the pre-blog era (all 542 years of it). Whereas my distinct impression just now is that blogging is being invested with all manner of curative powers akin to Coca-Cola as originally formulated in 1886 by the Atlanta druggist John Styth Pemberton -- you know, the one who ensured that it contained parts coca leaves to one part cola nut. Coke was promoted as a patent medicine that would "cure all nervous afflictions--Sick Headache, Neuralgia, Hysteria, Melancholy, Etc...." 

If blogging, as Alan contends, gives ordinary folks "the opportunity to actually make a difference," then that's a good thing. "This is of course assuming somebody is listening...," he adds, before concluding (again, my emphasis): 
"...and as the blogging world has proven, somebody is always listening somewhere."

I am not even going to say that I fear Alan here may be confusing "listening" and "hearing" (reading someone's blog is not the same thing as cognating it). I would merely note a general trend to cram into blogging the hopes and dreams of our times...and sound a note of caution. That's all. Blogging is unlikely to cure AIDS, eradicate world poverty, or bring peace and harmony to the Middle East.

Even Robert Scoble, for example, Microsoft's best-known blogger--whose blog is read by millions of people annually and is the top-ranking business blog among Technorati's Top 100--isn't able to pinpoint precisely what's so different about blogging, though his forthcoming book Naked Conversations*  (co-written with Shel Israel) ends with the sweeping statement that "something has changed, and blogging is impacting business of all sizes in most parts of the developed world."

"Ultimately, blogging has ended one era and ignited another," Scoble and Israel write, a tad over-portentously perhaps.

Of course on the other they may even be right. Caution is by no means relevant in all circumstances, and improving the human condition is probably one of the areas where one should most readily throw caution to the wind. As Goethe said: "Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."  

Author's Note
* Naked Conversations (to be published by Wiley) comes out in January 2006. Quotes here are taken from the Advance Uncorrected Proof.

     posted Sunday, 27-Nov-2005

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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