We note several high-profile critiques recently of blogging and the 'blogosphere', including this one in The Financial Times and this one in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required). Both articles cite recent figures from Technorati putting the number of blogs in the vicinity of 30 million and still growing at a rapid rate. Previous surveys (e.g., from friend and fellow blogger and executive Jeffrey Henning) also put the number in the tens of millions. What's at issue here is what to make of it all. Daniel Henninger writes in the WSJ:
...it looks to me as if the world of blogs may be filling up with people who for the previous 200 millennia of human existence kept their weird thoughts more or less to themselves. Now, they don't have to. They've got the Web. Now they can share...
The human species has spent several hundred thousand years sorting through which emotions and marginal neuroses to keep under control and which to release. Now, with a keyboard, people overnight are "free" to unburden and unhinge themselves continuously and exponentially...
The power of the Web is obvious and undeniable. We diminish it at our peril. But what if the most potent social effect to spread outward from the Internet turns out to be disinhibition, the breaking down of personal restraints and the endless elevation of oneself? It may be already.
Taking an even dimmer, more partisan view (though interestingly, from a political perch opposite to Henninger's) Trevor Butterworth writes sarcastically and condescendingly in the FT:
...blogging would have been little more than a recipe for even more internet tedium if it had not been seized upon in the US as a direct threat to the mainstream media...
...in 2004, blogging had its Battleship Potemkin moment, when swarms of partisan bloggers rose up to sink CBS’s iron-jawed leviathan Dan Rather for peddling supposedly fake memos about Bush’s national guard service.
This seemed to prove one of blogging’s biggest selling points - that the collective intelligence of the media’s audience was greater than the collective intelligence of any news programme or newspaper. It also showed that blogging was irrepressible - that power was shifting from the gatekeepers of the traditional media to a more open, fluid information society...
But as with any revolution, we must ask whether we are being sold a naked emperor. Is blogging really an information revolution? Is it about to drive the mainstream news media into oblivion? Or is it just another crock of virtual gold - a meretricious equivalent of all those noisy internet start-ups that were going to build a brave “new economy” a few years ago?
Shouldn’t we just be a tiny bit sceptical of another information revolution following on so fast from the last one - especially as this time round no one is even pretending to be getting rich? Isn’t the problem of the media right now that we barely have time to read a newspaper, let alone traverse the thoughts of a million bloggers?
The purpose of this post is not to rehash all of those arguments but to draw two recent historical analogies and let readers form their own conclusions. (Side note: blogger 'Chester' has a useful critique of the Butterworth piece here.)
Analogy number one is the desktop publishing phenomenon. Define and date it any way you like, but around the time I got my first 'real' computer (a Mac, in 1984 - not counting my dad's TRS-80 color computer with which I occasionally fiddled) it seemed that almost overnight everyone was in thrall to their ability to print... stuff. On a college campus at the time, I was confronted with fliers, posters and invitations in clashing fonts, screaming for attention, making one pine for the days of carbon paper and hand stencils.
Finding 'bad' examples of how to use one's graphics-enabled computer and printer was easy.
Sudden technological empowerment had created a do-it-yourself movement whose participants didn't know what they didn't know. The higher arts of graphic design and communication were thrown overboard before anyone appreciated their usefulness. To make an analogy on top of an analogy, they were like lepers with power tools, cutting off digits without knowing it.
A critic might easily have concluded in the mid/late 1980s that the disciplines of 'good' print output had been permanently washed away in a tide of amateurish dreck. They would have been wrong. An initial period of chaotic experimentation led to better tools, better awareness of production values and ultimately much better end product (in this case, printed material). It is still possible to create badly designed hard copy, but no longer necessary (or excusable). Anyone extrapolating from the most democratic and undisciplined period in the evolution of desktop publishing has been proven not just wrong, but dead wrong.
So too with the World Wide Web ten years later. I was involved in scenario planning workshops on the subject at the time. It was commonplace for participants in those workshops, as well as early pundits (plus some with a strong agenda, e.g. AOL) to ask "where's the beef?" Where, they would ask (and not without justification) were the compelling commercial applications, the directory services, the high graphic production values, the development tools, the security, the payment systems, the multimedia, the governance mechanisms, the eyeballs, the hits, the intellectual property protections, the higher-level standards, the public awareness, the last-mile connections and most of all the order? Where was the bandwidth, the ISP competition, and the international participation? And (years later - too many years in some cases): where were the business models to justify significant investment? All of the critiques were correct in the narrow, proximate sense. They were utterly wrong in calling the web revolution an inadequate fad.
The point? During the hyper-growth phase of virtually any technologically enabled, democratizing phenomenon it is easy (and tempting) to find and extrapolate from the really bad, distasteful, stupid, even dangerous examples. Pornography. Scams. Dreck. And juvenile use of the medium by... juveniles (as well as adults posing as same).
Such simplistic prognostications are right in a narrow sense and utterly blind in another. Right about the individual examples. Wrong about how much the examples are indicative of the medium itself, as opposed to the people initially (and most visibly) empowered by it. As Henninger hints, the real target of such critics ought not to be the medium (e.g., blogs) but the cultural norms driving individuals to use them in societally dysfunctional or valueless ways. That's a harder target to take on. Or as Butterworth notes (but does not accept), it is the aggregate - the blogosphere - not the individual blog that turns the phenomenon from curiosity into potentially revolutionary development. At its best, the blogosphere is a cauldron without precedent for incubating ideas, vetting facts and honing arguments.
Were this post not too long already (and had I more time to research it) I suspect that similar dynamics surrounded the development of papyrus scrolls and the printing press. Banal and utterly forgettable uses of those media over centuries have not impeded their revolutionary impact in toto.
Blogs may or may not turn out to be as revolutionary. And if they do, they will probably not be so in precisely the same ways. But to dismiss their multifaceted impacts based on an easy survey of individual blogs (the vast majority of which are indeed quite skippable) is to miss the larger point. To say that all ponies crap in their stalls is true. Young thoroughbreds do also.
UPDATE: Aussie consultant, futurist and best-selling author Ross Dawson also comments on the FT piece, prefering symbiosis to parasitism as the best way to describe the evolving relationship between blogs and the mainstream media.