Reflections on the first decade of blogging

I ran into my old friend Dave Winer at the San Francisco airport on Wednesday last week. He was on his way to Boston for  the Public Media Conference.

I ran into my old friend Dave Winer at the San Francisco airport on Wednesday last week. He was on his way to Boston for  the Public Media Conference. We traded pictures and chatted over early morning (6:30 AM) coffee about developers, synthesizers, speech givers, chroniclers--how people play different roles in shaping perceptions of the past, present and future.

My chance encounter with Dave reminded me that he does have his fingerprints all over important technical and publishing innovations--outlining, XML-RPC, blogging, RSS, podcasting--and hasn't gone the route of asserting IP rights, as Doc Searls expressed in his introduction of Dave prior to his speech and Q&A (audio here) at the Public Media Conference.  

In April, Dave will have been blogging for ten years. He can be considered the proto-blogger and developer of the proto-blogging software. Today, about 70 million blogs have been created--tens of thousands per day sprout up. Most of them don't get much sunlight or simply lie fallow over time, but that doesn't diminish what Dave and other pioneers of the blogosphere have wrought.

Just as Gutenberg's press unleashed knowledge from the privileged few in the 15th century and the combination of the Macintosh, PageMaker and the laser printer around 1985 turned millions into desktop publishers, the Internet and blogging is turning billions of people on the flattened, globally warmed over planet into publishers of text, audio, photos, animations and videos.

Blogging is a democratizing force on a large scale; the tools of production for personal expression are in the hands of the well as the incumbents who are struggling to figure out how to adapt to and maintain control in the changing media universe.

Within a decade blogging has became mainstream, by virtue of the fact that bloggers are highly influential in forming public opinions, although not necessarily canonical truths. Every entity, from newspapers and political campaigns to corporate executives and PR pros, has adopted blogging as a communications medium, many from a defensive posture. So-called citizen journalists and notions of participatory journalism are reshaping, in fits and starts, how news is gathered and disseminated. 

Along with the millions of voices churning out blog posts and the long tail of conversations spawned by them comes the noise, and the noise to signal ratio is way out of whack. But, the unacceptable, illogical alternative is going back to old world, with the concentration of power and expression in the hands of a few rather than spread out to reach the edges of the network.

Andrew Keen, who will soon be blogging for ZDNet, has a written a book, The Cult of the Amateur: how the democratization of the digital world is assaulting our economy, our culture, and our values (due out June 5). I read a galley proof of Andrew's book this weekend. It is very engaging, and quite controversial and provocative. He doesn't hold back any punches, arguing that unfettered blogging and social media is a kind of curse on culture, threatening the quality of public discourse, stifling creativity and encouraging plagiarism and intellectual property theft.

He posits that citizen journalists don't have the resources to provide reliable news, lacking the filters of traditional media, and that the hordes of amateur journalists often distort the news. In the introductory chapter of his book, Andrew writes:

...instead of creating masterpieces, these millions and millions of exuberant monkeys [Internet users]--many with no more talent in the creative arts than our primate cousins--are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity. 

Andrew of course isn't wrong about the noise to signal ratio problem and issues related to establishing trust, professional standards or creating a more safe online environment for kids. On the other hand, his elitist stance stance on the digital forest of mediocrity isn't a solution to filtering out the noise or even a possibility.

In fact, as Doc said during the Public Media Conference, we have an "embarrassment of riches," with people from any part of the world who bring knowledge about water quality, roads, religions or other subjects to inform the conversations.

During his presentation, Dave called the blogosphere the "unbundling of all sources." He added all the people stifled in getting ideas into the mainstream are doing blogs. "They are not all gadflies or flaky--some of them are scientists, economists, professors, ex-captains in the Air Force. They can be knowledgeable people, and you have to figure out how to qualify them, but they are now making themselves known."

The genie is out of the bottle. It's not a battle to the death of mainstream media versus the blogosphere. Over time, better filters and search mechanisms; measures of authority and trust; and natural selection will improve the noise to signal ratio, potentially for every individual's preferences, and change perceptions about what constitutes mainstream media.