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Cogosphere: Information will search for you

Saturday night we had dinner with an old friend from the trade press. He's resisted the siren call of the blogosphere longer than most, and pretends to cast doubt on its significance with the best of them.
Written by Steve Gillmor, Contributor

Saturday night we had dinner with an old friend from the trade press. He's resisted the siren call of the blogosphere longer than most, and pretends to cast doubt on its significance with the best of them. Oddly, he paid more attention to the podosphere when it emerged late last year; I took that as tacit acknowledgement of both spheres.

Over cabbage soup at Max's Opera, we dissected the continuing slide of the trade space. Print books, notoriously slim in the summer months, are even slimmer this time around. I noted Matt McAlister's bolt from Infoworld to Yahoo!, a 48-page issue from Information Week (typically the last to drop folio below the baseline ratio of ads to editorial), and the appalling lack of bodies in a JavaOne press conference as significant data points.

This may seem like so much inside baseball to most of you, but this has been building for a long time. What's new is the insistent voice of the blogosphere beginning to dominate the conversation between vendors and customers. It's more of a zero sum game than many are willing to accept. Analysts are consolidating (read: contracting) and tech news has been commoditized to something approaching loss leader. Folks like Stephen Shankland and Ephraim Schwartz are increasingly providing analysis in their beat areas, and of course the Redmonk boys are open-sourcing their methodology if not their recommendations.

My friend is still in denial about the thought leadership now resident in the blogosphere. He sees the syndisphere as a social network dominated by gunslingers and marketers-disguised-as-evangelists. To some extent the judgement is fueled by the parochialism of the journalism-arbiters (yeah, come and get me) who attack Scoble for telling people what he does before telling them what he thinks about it. Give me a break, Gartenberg and Wilcox. Who elected you guys Pope? I have no problem with Joe Wilcox skating along the line between news and analysis, but since when does a solid news analysis by someone point at subscription reports behind a pay wall? What is that beast--journalism, marketing, validation/filler for a consulting relationship, all of the above?

I'm as guilty as anyone of blurring these lines. I recoil at the idea of being called a journalist, not because I have no respect for those who wear that badge proudly, but because I know what that commitment means to them. Seeing Judith Miller locked up in jail makes me fear for those brave souls who are willing to put their time where their mouth is--the ultimate sacrifice. No, I don't pretend, or aspire, to go there, nor would I demean those who do by counting myself among them.

But that doesn't preclude me from writing these words, or producing a radio show that challenges existing media forms. It's been challenging financially and professionally to follow this particular drummer, and I've been fired or laid off by most of the fine journalists and publishers with whom I've had the privilege of working. But slowly, surely, the blogosphere has emerged as a platform where this kind of whatever-it-is is not just tolerated but vested with authority.

That's why Adam Curry called Robert Scoble the real leader of Microsoft. It takes nothing away from the genius of Bill Gates and the fundamentally honest spirit of Steve Ballmer to understand that Robert represents the WYSIWYG authority of the emergent network. The network, remember, is elastic, self-correcting, fair, and Darwinian.

Take the Microsoft announcements around RSS. The whole deal could have fallen apart the next day. Same with the Apple extensions to iTunes. And who knows how long it will really take for Google to come to the table with its RSS play--we're beyond the promised time frame already. But in every case so far, things are moving forward. Specs are being revised, tempers are being held in check, people are choosing to listen rather than preach.

Individually, it's difficult to predict what someone might do. In aggregate, patterns become visible. Markets can be guided and handicapped based on those metrics. What happens to markets when immediate feedback is introduced? When swarming behavior is reported, then amplified? When IM and SMS create back and side channels for so-called real conversations and meetings? When Skype disrupts the notion of what an enterprise is and how much a customer is worth?

The answers coming back to us from the blogosphere differ fundamentally from those of just a few years, or even months, ago. Ever since I've gained some limited control of my RSS data stream, I've noticed a common ground emerging among my cohorts on the network. Sentences begun are more and more frequently finished by someone in conversation. "Yes, saw it... Did you see..."

This is reminiscent of college dorm conversations of the 60s, where quoting punchlines from Cosby records ("Right!") was replaced by arcane Firesign Theatre epithets such as "What is reality?" or "She's no fun, she fell right over." Now Bittorrent feeds the Jon Stewart CNN confrontation to millions more than saw the original broadcast, and within months Crossfire is cancelled. AOL blows away MTV on Live8, the blogosphere erupts, and MTV reruns a special no-interruption 'cast the following Saturday. The feedback loop is virtually instantaneous.

Nobody can say which individual players will survive or prosper, but in aggregate the news is out. How to say this kindly? Here's one for Ed Brill: Like Notes, print is dead. And like print, page views are dead. Like Notes, print and the page view model will go down fighting. It will take a long time, as everyone still locked into Notes can tell you.

What wins? Attention. Who, what, and how long. It will take on, supplement, and eventually, supplant search. Information will search for you, not the other way around. How many people, once they switched to AOL on Live8 Day, went back? The same number who switched back from RSS. My friend still hasn't fired up Bloglines, or Rojo, or iTunes for that matter. But he will. That I'm sure of. It's a matter of time.

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