Saturday, January 22, 2005

The Blog Identity - The Pause Button


I have spent this week examining the different arenas of Blog influence and importance, but in reality I have barely scratched the surface. Blogs have grown quickly, in number, style, and purpose, but Blogging may reasonably be described as still in its infancy; just as you can’t look at a 2-year-old and know everything he will be as an adult, much of what Blogging will become remains to be discovered and built. Also, the Old Media and Old Order of Business and Government remains baffled by what Blogging is, and how it works. The full implementation of Blogging into the world is waiting for the world to catch up.

As an example, I read an article from the Associated Press (byline Anick Jesdanun), on the subject of Blog Ethics and responsibility. The article starts with the case of Jerome Armstrong, and quickly suggests that the voluntary ethics he imposed on his blog should be made into “formal ethical guidelines or codes of conduct”. I thought it was especially cute, how the Associated Press only identified those who wanted to impose outside control on blogs, as “media experts”. These experts are not identified by any sort of credentials or name, which speaks to the need, in my opinion, for the Associated Press to find a mirror when they want to speak about ethical responsibilities.

The pretense to reasonable discussion ends when the AP article claims “many bloggers resist any notion of ethical standards, saying individuals ought to decide what's right for them. After all, they say, blog topics range from trying to sway your presidential vote to simply talking about the day's lunch.” Considering the demonstrated arrogance of OM anchors like Dan Rather in the face of clear evidence of their complicity in fraud and political conspiracies, that sort of statement reeks of the “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy which spurred the blogs into action from the start. The Associated Press, to speak bluntly, is reacting in desperation to a force and authority they cannot defeat with evidence, so they are attempting to find a way to gain control of the medium, as they did with print and television.

In the article, Jesdanun promotes the would-be thought czar Jonathan Dube, who is the managing producer at, and as such clearly is involved in a conflict of interest. It’s also amusing to note that his suggested “code of ethics” - “Be honest and fair. Minimize harm. Be accountable” - is absolutely the opposite of MSNBC’s own conduct in the past decade.

But to address the question of blog ethics, it really comes down to what works in practice. Network news regularly lies or exaggerates, hides stories which do not support their agenda, and rewards/punishes employees according to whether the company line is advanced or embarrassed, because the other networks do the same thing. Fox News broke the conspiracy, because it realized that the falling ratings indicated viewer disgust; the impressive gains in market share by Fox, simply resulted from not talking down to their audience. Blogs simply follow that same condition of feasibility.

In my experience, I have learned that if you speak with a person long enough, you will find out quite a bit about them. While bloggers can put up a false persona and play at their work with a carefully crafted image, falsehoods and behavior generally considered unethical always gets found out eventually. Readers not only comment and discuss at the blog itself, but they visit other blogs; if a blog steals work form somewhere else, someone will notice and point out the original source. If a blog makes statements as facts which are not true, the evidence is there to be proven, and again readers will inevitably point out the truth. Blogs are communities, and bloggers form networks and associations and links to the blogs they respect and applaud. Old Media tries to exist and operate independently, even in opposition to, other sources, while New Media operates in cooperation and alliances. The AP article shows they do not understand that basic fact.

I also have a bone to pick about the lies still being spread about how the Old Media operates. In the AP article, Jesdanun states “journalism schools and professional societies try to teach good practices.” Looking at Rathergate, or the trick ABC played, asking for military funerals to show on Inaugeration Day and the like, it’s hard to believe the Old Media types expect anyone to believe them. Of course, the way they treat their own is no better. I had a friend who went and got his Journalism degree, trying to play the game as the OM demands, only to find out that most newspapers and television studios hire on two criteria only: If you are in the union, you can get a low-level spot, maybe work the cameras and build the set, and if you have a celebrity profile or look pretty enough, you can get air time. The average Joe doesn’t get in, period. The OM apparently just assumed that people would just take that forever, so it never occurred to them that they were building up the first generation of bloggers and their audience. The same treatment happens when someone inside the networks points out their conduct.

But all of this misses the simple basic fact about blogs. Blogs are the creation and work of individuals or loose-knit groups, and operate under their own rules. Outside rules and control are the exact opposite of how blogs are created and work; self-restraint and accomplishment on its own merit set the foundation for any blog. While it’s true that not every desreving blog gets the attention it should, and it remains true that some personalities are able to put up a blog on the basis of their on-air name recognition, in time and with attention by the blogosphere, a much better environment for proper recognition and growth exists in the world of Blogging, than in any other Information Management arrangement. We’re in a period of rapid growth and change, but we’re moving in the right direction.

Where do we go from here? It’s up to you and me, and everyone else who wants to be part of the NM. Video-blogging has started up, and there are all sorts of different categories, as easy to find as a simple Google or Technorati search. This series was just hitting the ‘pause’ button to look around for a little bit. Now we go back to play.

Friday, January 21, 2005

The Blog Identity - Blogs and Government


1986 was a bad year for tyrants. In one case of note, protests and uprisings in a number of Warsaw Pact countries were giving the KGB fits. In one anecdotal story, a KGB general stationed in Kiev was outraged to hear that a work stoppage had been coordinated with dissidents in Poland. “Are you telling me,” the general is supposed to have bellowed, “that the Sword and Shield of the Soviet Union cannot stop a handful of men with a couple of fax machines?” The reply given to the general at that time is not recorded, but the demise of the Soviet Union is today an historical fact.

Fast forward to January 20, 2005. President George W. Bush sent a shout-out to people around the globe; “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”
The President did not stop there, saying “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

But the President spoke to bloggers, almost specifically, when he said “when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. “

Why would I believe this? Because bloggers have already made that kind of difference, and George W. Bush is able and willing to use the tools made available to him. During the campaign, the President found himself compared to Hitler on a few websites, challenged to respond to baseless allegations on others, but also defended and championed on thousands of blogs, leading to the sudden and decisive victory over a news network’s false attacks on him, and his opponent’s inability to deny or deflect the truth of his own past dishonor. Blogs did not decide the election of 2004, but they were present in the debate and discovery of every salient point. The future of blogs will certainly make them indispensable to a potent campaign, and undeniable as a political force.

By the summer of 2004, the shift in recognition for blogs was already underway, as both the Democratic Party and Republican Party credentialed bloggers as valid journalists for their national conventions. The debates were “live-blogged” at dozens of locations, and every major speech and event was analyzed, and text of speeches and positions were widely dispersed. The League of Women Voters never provided such complete disclosure. But the clear force of blogs is still emerging.

In the state of Washington, Republican Dino Rossi appeared to win the election, but his 261-vote margin led to an automatic recount, which resulted in another Rossi win, this time by only 42 votes. Democrat Christine Gregoire demanded another recount, but Rossi was certified the winner by Secretary of State Sam Reed on November 30. On that basis, Gregoire conceded the election, but the Washington State Democratic Party pressed for hand recounts anyway, which were allowed under Washington State law. The initial recounts still supported Rossi, until a number of strange events happened, all generally centered on Democrat-stronghold King County. The King County recount not only found a few more votes for Gregoire, but claimed votes which had already been disallowed (accomplished by simply mixing the disallowed ballots in with the valid ballots), claimed additional ballots “found” in the State of Alaska, and “found” hundreds more ballots lying in an unconfirmed and unprotected location. Finally, after King County had confirmed as valid a thousand more ballots than it had voters, enough votes were found to give Christine Gregoire the lead, and for all appearances an election had been successfully stolen.

These tactics are nothing new, but the attention brought to them nationally may well be a factor in future elections, and in the laws governing election administration. The bloggers are still sorting through the available options, the consequences and opportunities of different actions, and analyzing the claims and information presented by the people involved in the issue. Blogs are therefore not only reporters of political events, but are judges and actors in their own right; some serve as activists, some as referees, and some as chroniclers. This pertains not only to national and state events, but also to county and city politics, where most of the taxes and ordinances are created and enforced. It won’t be long, before blogs covering the more immediate politics will become more prevalent. There are some out there now, as a matter of fact. A quick peek through Technorati revealed these recent blogs which addressed city and regional issues (I’ve muttered a bit about the City of Houston myself, here at Stolen Thunder):

Sean Doherty (New York City)

Rainbowfish (Atlanta)

Albany NY (Albany)

Cadee (Fort Wayne)

Newpropop (Eastern Kentucky)

Live Journal(Chicago)

Cape Cod Works (Cape Cod)

This is just the early wave, folks. Imagine a world where, instead of having to depend on the “Channel 2 News Team” to actually tell you what’s going on, you can sort out what your City Council did about Property Tax, or what your County plans to do with Flood Control, or what little surprises your State Legislature has in store for you, all by a few visits to the 3 or 4 blogs covering it. It’s already started, and it will continue.

As I mentioned in a previous article, blogs work through the interaction between the writers, readers, comments, and suggestions. An e-mail once in a while to suggest an idea, or say ‘thanks’ for a piece of news you realize you would never have gotten from the talking head on network TV, can spur a blogger on to work hard and long on their site. And as blogger networking takes hold, the political force of bloggers will simply grow in magnitude and scale. Right now, most politicians think bloggers only care about what’s going on in Washington, D.C. We will change that, if we want to, and folks, we should all want that very much. Imagine a day, when instead of taking the interviews he feels like, with nothing but softball questions from some Katie-Couric-thinkalike, a politician realizes that his only chance in an election depends on straight talk to bloggers; whether the official is Republican, Democrat, or some other party, the need for him to be honest and non-evasive is good for everyone.

Blogs can also be invaluable for calling government attention to needs and concerns. Frankly, Gray Davis might still be Governor of California, had he given some reason to believe that he was interested in the concerns of citizens in that state. But also, there are sincere and dedicated people elected to office, who would be willing to work on issues of merit and substance, and blogs can be a critical asset for them, especially when blogs can sift out the chaff of silly ideas, to find the few that can really help solve some of the more pressing problems. If two heads are better than one, allowing for public debate at length on the major concerns of our time is surely a good thing.

Finally, it may be a ways away, but one of the banes of politics these days, is the difficulty in finding a decent candidate. Exasperation at being forced to choose between two unacceptable candidates is a very common emotion, and has been for more than a generation. The problem is, the process weeds out contenders and selects candidates to represent the party with almost no involvement by ordinary people until the Primaries, by which time we already know the front-runner, and the spin machine is well into its third cycle. What if we could find the best available candidates, and make their potential know to their own party by public acclimation from the beginning? That is another potential for blogs, and I suspect the first test for candidates in the future, will be their ability to win over voters early on. This won’t replace the existing system, but maybe by 2008 we can start finding candidates with better credentials than just playing the system for a couple decades, as is often the case now.

Going back to the President’s Inaugural Address yesterday, I recall this quote:

“By making every citizen an agent of his or her own destiny, we will give our fellow Americans greater freedom from want and fear and make our society more prosperous and just and equal.”

OK fellow bloggers, let’s get to work.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Blog Identity - Blogs and Business


Anthropologists believe that Man was originally a gatherer of whatever he could find, that like the apes he sought out food and materials to make shelter by gathering. Thousands of years later, we are still gatherers of a sort, but now it’s information, and the rewards are much better.

Most people work as employees for some kind of company or boss for a living. It limits how wealthy you can become, but there is the comfort of a steady paycheck. To make extra money, you either get a second job, look around for a better position, or work for a raise at your job. Companies pretty much do the same thing, looking for ways to get more production, more customers, or else simply find a better way to compete for market share and profitability. ‘Corporation’, after all, is nothing more than a word to describe the ‘embodiment’ of a concept; ‘Ford’ for cars, ‘IBM’ for computers, ‘Microsoft’ for software, and so on. And almost every company is looking at the Internet, as a potential tool to invigorate their operations and strategy. The blogs represent the latest hope in that quest.

Hope springs eternal, but it also leads to mirages. I still remember a Business lecture in college, where an ivory-tower type assured us that offices would be paperless by 2000. If you are anywhere near a desk, you know that didn’t work out, as much for psychological reasons as for legal reasons (I once worked for one of those ‘modernizing’ types, who actually thought throwing out all our signed contracts and source documents for billing would be a step forward in our debt collection process). So, there needs to be a ground attached to these theoretical considerations of what blogging can do. With that in mind, I now turn to some interesting articles on how some businesses have addressed blogging and their corporate strategy.

To start, I have to begin with Google. If you started in on-line during the 20th Century, you have some idea of just how revolutionary the concept of web searching is, but in blogging terms, the ‘Gutenberg’ of our time may well be Blogger. People like things simple, and a free, push-button blog service is as simple and easy as you can find. What’s truly amazing, is the ease with which Blogger accepts its place, matching ease of use with a truly open-door policy. You can leave anytime, and take your stuff with you. Google can do this, because its ease of use, wide acceptance by so many users, and because they understand the demographics of consumers. This doesn’t mean Blogger is perfect – waddaya expect for free? – but it’s very, very smart. Google is going to replace Microsoft in terms of Web Services in a matter of four to five year, and that includes Office and Mail services, as well as IM and E-mail. More on that when I get to Darth Bill.

As I look at the landscape of business blogging, there seem to be three categories to consider: Corporate Blogs, Product Blogs, and Personal Blogs with Business applications.

An obvious early question for a company is why bother? The answer is ‘innovation’. An article at Reed Electronics notes that

“blogs work best internally as a knowledge management tool, because information can be made so easily accessible.”

So, besides advertising the name, products and services for a company, a blog can be valuable as a form of Customer Service, Research & Development (how many of use have received a free version of a product to ‘beta’ test it?) . A company needs to plan carefully, but a blog can make a company stand out from its competition.

More than that, the article quotes sources at Intel Research, who said "If someone was doing something with mobile phone software and someone else was working on planetary-scale computing, we could informally put things in the blog, referring people to other links and recommending sources," he says.

"I would definitely consider building a blog to generate dialogue about the product, so I could keep a bird's-eye view of what people are saying about it." In addition, beta testers could post problems on a blog and bring them to light sooner, and the blog could also quickly disseminate the solution.”

That effectively describes the blogs I would call Product Blogs, That is, they bear specifically on a product, its operation and questions about it. Even Microsoft, the giant best known to for ignoring customers during most of the 1990s, now agrees. A Fortune magazine article observed

“When Macromedia in 2003 released software that was maddeningly slow, the company bloggers quickly acknowledged the need for fixes, helping ease some of the tension. "It was a great early-warning system and helped us frame the situation," says senior vice president Tom Hale. "It accrued a huge benefit to us."

But Microsoft wouldn’t be Microsoft, if they didn’t trip over themselves from time to time. When Microsoft tried to compete with Blogger, by creating a new service called MSN Spaces, online software that allows people to easily create and maintain blogs, they also installed fickle censoring filters that did a lousy job of screening offensive material, but did a great job of annoying bloggers by blocking their choice of words and topics. Microsoft has promised to fix the problem, but the first impression is already there, and Bill blew a big chance. In a section about new Microsoft guru Robert Scoble, Fortune’s best comment for the man was his posts produced “nothing too profound or insightful, yet Scoble has given the Microsoft monolith something it has long lacked: an approachable human face.” So, note to corporations – if your best claim to success is that you don’t look that much like a monster, but you are neither memorable nor instructive, the plan is not working.

The question every business has to answer when considering blogs, is who to let blog, and who will retain control? A pure blog is the creation of a writer, and while a company should expect reasonable control of its own name and is entitled to present its name as it chooses, if and when a company tries to play a corporate advertisement for a real blog, the results have been disastrous. Fortune magazine wrote about Mazda’s attempt this way:

“Those who have tried to game the blogosphere haven't done much better. Mazda, hoping to reach its Gen Y buyers, crafted a blog supposedly run by someone named Kid Halloween”

The blog featured pics and videos of Mazdas doing, well, things that looked a lot like Mazda commercials. They got busted fast.

“Suddenly Mazda wasn't being hailed; it was being reviled on widely read blogs. "Everything about that 'blog' is insulting," wrote a poster on Autoblog”

A heavy hand shows up fast in blogs, and readers pick it up. That doesn’t mean that companies can’t have official blogs which work, though. Fortune also notes:

“Corporate propaganda almost always drives readers away; real people with real opinions keep them coming back. At the GM Smallblock Engine Blog, employees and customers rhapsodize about Corvettes and other GM cars. Stoneyfield Farm has several blogs about yogurt. Not surprisingly, the earliest adopters have been tech firms. The biggest chunk of the 5,000 or so corporate bloggers comes from Microsoft, but others work at, Intuit, and Sun Microsystems—where even the company's acerbic No. 2, Jonathan Schwartz, gets in on the action”

But a company is going to have to lay out the rules early on. An article at Reed Electronics advises:

"Just as with e-mail and instant messaging," warns Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute, "you have to follow what we call the three e's: establish a policy, educate your employees about it and enforce it."

The Fortune magazine article went on to note that ”employees have been fired at Starbucks, Harvard University, Delta, and social-networking software company Friendster for blogs the organizations apparently deemed offensive, though none will comment”. That, to paraphrase the Sheriff from 'Cool Hand Luke', is a “failure to communicate”, but it also generates very bad PR for the company which was hoping for a good word.

The Fortune magazine article notes that “Blogs are challenging the media and changing how people in advertising, marketing, and public relations do their jobs”. Great, but how does anyone make it work? The key may be from Greg Brooks, who quoted Michael O’Conner Clarke:

“Blogs are not a threat to business. Stupidity is a threat to business.”

The best rule is to keep a light hand on the bloggers addressing your product, and keep the rules for your employees clear and simple. Above all, be honest and try to avoid the desire to control your audience:

"If you fudge or lie on a blog, you are biting the karmic weenie," says Steve Hayden, vice chairman of advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather, which creates blogs for clients. "The negative reaction will be so great that, whatever your intention was, it will be overwhelmed and crushed like a bug. You're fighting with very powerful forces because it's real people's opinions."

What that all means to me, is that a company may as well present anything it controls 100% as a website, not a blog. That way, there’s no confusion, and the company may still present its products as it chooses. The company may choose to sponsor blogs by its employees, but only after setting up a contract of some kind: If the company tries to micro-manage the blog, it will be stale and boring, but letting employees speak their mind (with strategic and legal intentions agreed to in advance), the company gains some level of connection to its customers, by putting a personality to the logo. A bit like marketing, but less formal and more interactive.

The best option, in my opinion, appears to be the most risky, but is actually the least. Executives and moguls like to control every element possible, but that just creates a false world, always missing reality to one degree or another. Opening a forum to discuss a product line or service to comments from anyone and everyone may seem to lead to chaos, but in actual fact, it can generate support and respect. That is, if someone says something bitter about a company, that can be good whether or not it’s true. If it’s true, the company will have to deal with the problem, which is always better to do before a problem grows. And if the charge is not true? The truth has a way of coming out, and the blogosphere is remarkably quick to ferret out phoneys. Also, in such a condition, the host company will gain the advantage of showing a more open forum than its competition, so that the complaints and bitterness from some will make the compliments and praise more genuine in appearance. Also, true interaction will allow for development in marketing, in troubleshooting, and in strategic goals. Ford and GM lost out in the 1970s, because they did not realize the demand for efficient cars was so strong. With a blog forum, they would learn sooner and correct their course to better effect.

Companies can also educate with blogs. The simple fact is, most people go to blogs for a different reason than to a website. A company can package its ideas differently for a blog, and if an executive is ready for challenges, he can make gains every day he’s online. Then there’s the Human Resources aspect. Earlier in the article, I mentioned the need for companies to set limits and expectations for their employees blogging about the company, but there’s another goal to win here. Everybody knows how hard it is, to get a company’s attention when you’re job-hunting, but the opposite is also true: Companies go nuts trying to find qualified applicants for positions they need to fill. The sad truth is, many applicants can’t do the job, even if their resume promises they can, and other candidates just don’t gel into the team. With a company blog about the company and its work, executives can speak online with all sorts of people, and when someone proves to be knowledgeable and articulate, as well as interested in the company, a blog conversation can serve as the first interview, and both parties win.

The next element is expanding services. Back in the 1950s, companies discovered it was possible to develop video telephones. The question then was feasibility, which came about by 1978. The trouble is, there was no market for a video phone. No one really wanted someone to see them when they called, and the phone evolved for purposes largely confined to conversation. This is how hands-free phones developed, after all; by learning what people really wanted, and then delivering that product. For those who wanted to see their conversation partner, the web cam was developed, which worked because of the nature and habits of computer users. It all keys off listening to people, and providing a service or product that has a real demand. Blogs can be invaluable for that, not only in developing desired products, but also in not wasting money for something which will never sell.

Also, there is brand loyalty to consider. Ever wonder why Google has a free web search engine? Why is Blogger free? Why are Beta products free to try out? The answer, at least in part, is because these companies want you to get comfortable with them, so that later, when you’re choosing software, maybe also hardware, you may see their name on a product, and remember how comfortable you were with their work already. People usually buy books by authors they know, they buy food products from companies they recognize, and yes, they will buy from software and service companies they already trust. Instant Messaging is going to evolve, as are Music storage and player systems, and memory chips, and advanced versions of e-mails. The Internet market is just getting up to speed, and so on. How will you decide who gets your money and attention? Blogs will help you decide, as there are literally millions of analysts waiting to tell you why the new product or service is or is not worth your time and interest.

In 1975, no one had ever heard of Microsoft or Bill Gates. And believe it or not, that may be true again in 2015. Bill is smart enough, but he bet on Old Media, the same way IBM did in the late 1970s, and now he’s chasing the leaders. If he catches up, he’ll do it by redirecting Microsoft’s strategy, but that’s already the game plan at Dell, Sun, and Google.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Blog Identity - Citizen Bloggers


Blogs would be worthless without the writers, the readers (and their comments), and the interaction between them all. As the blogosphere develops, some truly great personalities are about to emerge. This happened in books after Gutenberg got his press working. This happened in radio, after Marconi started working the wires. This happened in television, and it will happen in Blogging. And some of the people who think they have it all wrapped now, will find themselves second-class in very short order, as well.

The first blogs were simple text journals, maybe a place to put up a .pdf file or the family photos for distant relatives. Those are still around, and there's not a thing wrong with that. The next development, however, was an interesting jump, as professionals found blogs an interesting way to exchange ideas and develop work; blogs are virtually limitless in their size and scope, and so serve as a natural forum for anyone with the IP address and the interest to pull up the site. Some were set up on college or company sites, some needed password protection and other types of security to protect sensitive work, but some were set up on home computers and allowed public access. Next were the tech-savvy businesses, who understood that easy access to information and answers would give them an advantage in attracting customers and clients. The official history of blog networks and expansion prior to 2004 is sketchy, but the foundation was obviously set well, and by the time most of the new bloggers like myself arrived in 2004, the prospects were already bright and the building easy.

So, what next? Bloggers are a lot like movies and books, with something for everyone. A quick peek at the Truth Laid Bear, shows a wide variety of interests and methods to bring in readers. And since blogs can bring in money through blog-ads, there are a lot of blogs whose main interest is getting the meter rolling. Of course, once you find a blog or two that you like, you'll usually choose to visit new blogs when a blog you like links to them or recommends them. The netiquette on linking is informal, but very real: Respect is earned, and if you want to have anybody read your stuff, you'll work hard for it.

In this article, I want to briefly consider the four parties to every blog: the writer, the readers, the service provider, and the sponsors. While the balance between these parties will shift from blog to blog, all four will be present in each blog.

One significant point in the balance of power in the New Media, is that bloggers are both writers and editors. While that means that a sloppy blogger will put out a lot of low-quality stuff, it also means that each blogger enjoys complete control over his/her product, which is providing us with a lot of really great work. The readers are often overlooked in any review of blogs, but they are the network which spreads a blog's reputation; readers will mention blogs they like in other places, especially in other blogs which allow comments and links, and of course bloggers are themselves readers, and will link to and recommend blogs that impress them. The service provider is another important element; the availability of free services is a spur to get many bloggers started, and there are dozens of high-quality service providers for every type of blog. Sometimes, necessity creates the growth, as happened in late September to Polipundit. Polipundit was a major site for election watchers, and featured several instances of 'live-blogging' during the campaign. During the first Presidential Debate, the servers then used by Polipundit's provider crashed and could not be brought back up, so Polipundit moved to a new provider, Redwire Broadband. The site has hummed along brilliantly ever since, but the upgrade was absolutely necessary. Security, capacity, back-up data, and terminal convenience are all reasons to carefully consider your service provider. Your site may never pull a hundred thousand people a day, but then, it just might.

The last item of the four, is sponsors. Given the way that Old Media has prostituted itself to its commercial sponsors (in the case of the 'Reagan' movie in 2004, for example, CBS did not pull the false and insulting show when hundreds of thousands of calls came in to protest, but did so immediately after its two largest sponsors pulled their contracts in protest) over the years, it's not surprising that bloggers don't like to be thought of as mercenary, and they aren't - almost all bloggers work without salaries, and only a minority receive any sort of money from advertising. But as a blog develops, the need to pay the costs of operation increase. Tip jars and blog ads are enough for most blogs, but after a certain point of success is reached, growth is requisite upon regular payment for the heavy cost. Also, some of the major names in radio and the Old Media have tried their hand at blogging, like the 40-year-old who thinks he's as good on a skateboard as Tony Hawk. Not to pick on the self-praised celebrities, but in the New Media, sponsorship will be a continuing balancing act, with the need for funds matched by a fierce determination to avoid the appearance of purchase by a commercial entity. More on that when I talk about Blogs and Business tomorrow. For now, it's important to note that the best bloggers by reputation initially were connected to their available resources, but little by little the new guys from grassroots beginnings are getting their due.

Part of this is due to the truly egalitarian nature of blogging - an idea and article is weighed on the basis of its own quality, dependent on no other element so far as the audience is concerned. But the blogs themselves are also evolving to allow for creative growth. Again, I turn to Polipundit. The creator and chief writer for Polipundit wanted to take some time off in early 2004, but without sacrificing the pace and quality of his site. So, a selected number of readers whose comments Poli liked, were invited to write as guest hosts for a week. The results were very satisfying for all parties; Poli got some time off without losing speed and readers, the readers liked the quality of the new talent [in the interest of full disclosure, I must acknowledge that I was one of those new writers brought on board, but the concept remains valid, as evidenced by the success since the staff increased], and the new writers were able to reach a broad and active audience. A true win-win-win. The use of team writers is one development I expect to see happen in many major blogs. As a caveat, the team concept must be based on free access and true partnership between the writers, however. When a Houston radio station started a blog, they invited a number of bloggers to participate as writers, but instead of running the site as a true blog, instead a few select editors ran the site in the same tired old way that they ran their website; with no imagination, putting their own work at the top and relegating everything else to the back page, not allowing comments or any interaction with readers, and spending a ridiculous amount of time on their station boasting about themselves, ignoring errors and unbalanced formatting on their 'blog'. Many Old Media types will enter blogging with the same heavy-handed and myopic style they have used for years; it's far better to run your own blog and put out quality work you control, even if only a few dozen people see it at first, than to allow yourself to be controlled or manipulated by a poser who thinks they can be a player in blogging by putting up Old Media material under a website logo. If you are offered a partnership, don't forget it has to work both ways, in both responsibility and privilege terms.

So in addition to bloggers, team bloggers, and of course, networks of bloggers who cross-link and direct traffic to their colleagues, what else can we expect? I turn back to the readers, who are the life-blood of any blog. Reader traffic determines the amount the blog can claim for an advertisement, the attention that older blogs are likely to pay to the new sites, and the buzz of attention that can inspire a blogger to become a true professional. For myself, the day I received an e-mail about one of my articles from an active-duty Marine Major in Iraq, not only made me feel very rewarded for my work, but reminded me to take my claims and statements very seriously. The day I was linked to NRO made me realize that my audience was not dependent solely on the average from my Site Meter. The same things apply to any blogger.

If you are just starting out, or are still considering starting a blog, I'd recommend go with what you know. Even if there are other blogs writing what you like, your contributions can still be unique and significant. Also, when you visit a site you like, be sure to note the links. There are political blogs, religious blogs, photo blogs, humor blogs, essay blogs, conversational blogs, news blogs, media-related blogs, you name it. And if you don't see a blog that covers what you are interested in, so much the better! You can be the first in that field, and enjoy an early lead.

Of all the articles in this week's series, this one is the toughest for me, because as bloggers yourselves, you already know the basic, and I really wanted to avoid stating the obvious (in case this one missed the mark, be happy you didn't see my first draft for this article!) or losing the focus. The simple fact is, that with the Web being virtually limitless, and each individual capable of unique insights and style, there is no way I can express the infinite possibilities for bloggers. It's like you're Michaelangelo, working with information instead of marble, although in your case, the editing will be a lot easier.

Every blogger a citizen, and every citizen equal in rights, to be judged by the quality of our imagination, work, and ideals.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Blog Identity - New Media


2004 was a good year for blogs. Powerline was named TIME’s ‘Blog of the Year” in the same issue as “Person of the Year”, and the country saw the power of blogs, as a major network was forced to admit its source for a major attack on the President could not be trusted, and millions of Americans began their own blogs.

As the blogs were discussed in news and in magazines, a new phrase popped up to describe the news networks: Mainstream Media. By the end of the year, however, even that term had been replaced by some bloggers, in favor of another descriptive term: Old Media. And ‘Old Media’ implies the existence and authority of a New Media.

Remember those news reporters in the movies? Part of the ‘ace reporter’ formula was always the big exclusive story, ‘scooping’ the competition. “All the President’s Men” (1976) was essentially a book/movie about getting an exclusive story. So was “Citizen Kane” (1941), or “The Front Page” (1931), or “The Parallax View” (1974), or “Meet John Doe” (1941). Always, it was about getting the story out first. The downside to these exciting adventures, of course, was that an ‘exclusive’ story often depended on one source, and was presented in only perspective; fact-checking was an afterthought, if it showed up at all.

That’s the key difference between Old Media (OM) and New Media (NM). New Media uses many of the same hard tools, although radio plays a bigger role in NM than OM, and NMTV usually starts with rogue networks trying to break in, as Fox did. Look for a new Conservative NMTV Network to show up around 2009 or 2010, btw, taking its audience directly from NBC and ABC (CBS News is already zombified). NM will utilize the power of blogs to determine the pulse of attention, and also use their results in news releases, as is already happening in Talk radio.

Blog media works in swarms. One or two blogs working on a story may move slowly and hit the same walls that any single OM journalist may encounter, but when a trend shifts and dozens of blogs address an issue in the same time frame, inevitably information is produced and analyzed, ultimately shaping the story. The blogs fact-check each other and reach a consensus through constant criticism and redirection of effort. As a result, bloggers act simultaneously as reporters and editors, shaping information in concert with other sources. Since bloggers link to each other and credit sources in articles (what a quantum jump from footnotes, btw, where the reader can instantly verify a source claim by clicking the link!), blogs can work as a unified group, yet each writer receives recognition for their work; those blogs and writers which refuse to acknowledge information and leads they have received, will find themselves left out of the informal but very real networks of blogger associations. Hugh Hewitt, as usual ahead of the curve, not only shows links to blogs he likes, but sorts them out into “Alliances”, thereby noting the combination of flexibility and organization unique to blogs. There are no binding contracts, yet the associations are quite real, and increasingly effective.

In his bestseller “Blog”, Hugh Hewitt repeatedly advised major news outlets to sign on bloggers, rather than try to press their obsolete practices on the medium. I disagree, to the extent that blogging rose to its present position independent of the major media networks, and so any association between networks and bloggers will need to be on equal terms – galling as it may be to Les Moonves, the only way he can restore CBS to any functional credibility is to approach any blogger as an equal to himself. Bloggers work independently of any control except their own, and so while they may accept contract with a network, they will not be hirelings or servants to a network. Any blogger foolish enough to become a network employee, will find he can no longer blog effectively. Since most bloggers are already aware of this, instinctively if not consciously, the networks are starting this leg of the race well behind the pace. The only winning solution is a loose partnership, allowing bloggers full authority to write as they please, but gaining their cooperation in daily news analysis. Just as 2004 saw blogs credentialed to attend the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, I fully expect to see some blogs accept limited partnership with networks. There will be blogs with something like “NBC News Accredited Web Analyst” on their main screen in a very short time ahead.

People in the coming years will demand information more than ever, but they will expect it to be customized in consumer preferences. The days when a customer will accept whatever the station editor decides to put on the air are already past; I am something of a news junkie, but I have the ‘puter up and running when the news comes on, and when the news goes to a fluff piece or fails to provide details on a major story, I often search online and/or change channels to see what else is on. The time is nearing, when I may not watch TV news at all, but merely use web sources for the information. Network news has a role, but it’s my guess that NM News will be much more interactive and adaptive to multiple sources. Anything else is the way of the Packard automobile (once a big name, but long gone now, because they could not change with the times).

The next major venue for NM is entertainment. Entertainment basically comes down to three industries; movies, music, and television shows. Not so very long ago, Los Angeles and New York could dictate the spirit and mood of the country, but that day is ending. One key indicator is the way many new film studios are setting up away from Hollywood. Dream works moved out of Hollywood to Glendale, but others are much more distant. Houston, Austin, Chicago, and Miami, for example, are centers for movie shoots and production. And this change of center shows up in the quality of films, as Independent films are becoming less rare and increasing their share of the market. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt when a major star takes the initiative to make a film that the OM rules would never allow. While there will always be trash out there, the number of options for movie-goers is improving, and it won’t be long before blogs do for movies, what they did for politics.

If you’re as old as I am, you can remember back when you would tape your favorite songs onto a cassette, so you could play them in your car or Walkman. You may also remember your friends always included that guy or two, who was nervous about recording a song onto tape without the record company’s permission. Those days are long gone, in part due to a computer-related innovation – the ipod. Simply put, it’s now easier than ever to carry the tunes you want, and not have to pay for the excess. With the return of Napster, the world of music is on its way to an on-demand economy, where businesses must listen directly to the consumer, or find themselves as obsolete as Betamax.

Finally, there are the TV dramas. CBS has managed to survive all the damage done by Dan Rather and Mary Mapes, because of shows like CSI, CSI:Miami, CSI:New York, and NCIS (which is just like CSI, except it’s in the Navy, sort of, and nobody on that show can act). Cold Case and Everybody Loves Raymond are carrying the network, as well. It’s worth noting that no matter how liberal the network execs are, they always return to core values on their ‘money’ shows: family values, law and order, facts and objective analysis. The basics remain steady and constant.

So in summary, the New Media is young but growing fast. Some of the OM networks have the chance to become relevant NM members, but they are trailing right now. The movement is not only dependent on news, but all aspects of media presentation, and while there will always be small and remote markets for the OM ways and goals, they are in decline, and only by retooling form the ground up can OM survive the NM dominion. As NM entities come into existence, they will in some cases develop out of blog and Internet creations, but in most others the blog contact will be through voluntary association and freelance contract. More on that when I write about the blog business environment. But New Media entities will all share three common characteristics:

[] They will be user-centric
[] They will be interactive and adjust immediately to new information
[] They will operate in partnership with both their sources and their audience.

Get on board. The bloggers are already in great seats.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Blog Identity - Preface


More than a decade ago, Alvin and Heidi Toffler wrote a book about a major “wave” of technological advances, which they said would fundamentally change how we live, work, and govern. This “Third Wave” was based on how we receive, analyze, and utilize information.

During the year 2004, blogs played a critical role in investigative journalism, uncovering not only fraud but a brazen attempt by a network to manipulate a presidential election. More than ten million blogs were created in 2004, and the best information is that the explosion is just starting. Radio and editorial personality Hugh Hewitt wrote a book about some of the ramifications of what he calls the “Information Reformation”, indicating that the window of opportunity is real but will close relatively soon.

This article is the first of a series, of changes and creation of new and different identities and roles in the world to come. I hope to address some as-yet unexamined possibilities and directions, and perhaps spark an idea or two.

As often happens when major events occur, the full impact has yet to be seen, much less considered, of the blog phenomenon. Just last week , the CBS network released a report which, instead of accepting the responsibility for promoting fraud, chose to whitewash the scandal and spin a claim of restored integrity. The network has unwittingly to extend the controversy and damn its future, because it continues to misunderstand the nature and degree of the new authorities following the case, who will inevitably return to the attack.

This is a common symptom in the Old Media. Sunday morning, Chris Matthews addressed the scandal, but only as a tangent, and with something far less than a sincere respect for blogs. In a ‘roundtable’ discussion Sunday, Matthews invited Howard Fineman from Newsweek magazine, Campbell Brown from NBC, Ryan Lizza from New Republic magazine, and Kathleen Parker from the Orlando Sentinel; Old Media and Mainstream, all of them. There was not a radio or cable television host there, to say nothing of bloggers. Matthews was his predictable moronic self, demanding to know “if a prominent scandal was broken about a leading Conservative host, would Rush Limbaugh push the story?”, never considering that as a Conservative Talk Show host, that’s not Limbaugh’s job. Matthews never once asked why MSM networks never considered the severity and sheer arrogance of CBS’ actions in Rathergate; that speaks not only to his own bias, but to the clear complicity between MSM networks to excuse felonies, as long as they were committed in the attacks on Conservatives. Matthews demanded to know “whether bloggers would care about a scandal involving a Conservative”, indicating he has somehow never heard of DemocraticUnderground or Kos. Howard Fineman opined that blogger investigations were somehow bad for journalism, as did Campbell Brown, though she stated that the Thornburgh Report is “progress”. Ryan Lizza had no comments on the scandal of any sort, while Kathleen Parker claimed it was clear that “the bloggers” were only interested in “scapegoating” big names. Not a single one on the panel spoke even once to the fact that bloggers uncovered the fraud, forced the investigation, and in every point on this case were proven correct and CBS wrong. That speaks volumes.

This was interesting to me, not because I expected that pack of egotistical liars to give a fig about the facts or responsible journalism, but because after the Report and all the evidence already cited, I would have expected the MSM to at least begin to come to terms with bloggers as a potent force. Instead, Matthews and his buddies have chosen to ignore a sea change in culture and information, indicating a level of desperation as yet unacknowledged publicly.

In that same show, Matthews opined that with the fall in stature of “men to match the marble” in Washington, “Hollywood stars to rival the gods”, and the scandals involving Church leaders, there is no one left to admire or emulate. When examined in closer point, it turns out that only the Liberals have lost their glory, another fact lost on Matthews. Republicans and 62 million voters have found President Bush a man who keeps his promises and sticks to his word. Stars like Mel Gibson who stand on principle have inspired millions, and the Church is enjoying great support and strength in many places. Only in the Left has the lie been found and caused disgrace. This hardly means that only Liberals do wrong, or that Conservatives are starry-eyed and willing to ignore facts, but rather shows that the Right has been able to find a stronger base for its support than the Left has. Many people have grown tired of pretend virtues, and returned to genuine values.

Matthews also spent a few minutes deriding Prince Harry, and suggesting that “we” should end the British Monarchy as a result. I agree that Harry’s nazi-costume stunt was stupid and hurtful, but I wonder at the notion that anyone but the British have any right to say what should happen to their form of government. It seems to me that we were right to oppose their interference in our elections, so we have no right to demand they end their Monarchy. Matthews, in typical Liberal fashion, sees nothing wrong with such presumption.

And so I come to the first group in our examination: Old Media (OM). For many years, the Old Media has seen a tide between different mediums, and the expectation was, initially, that the Internet would simply add another dimension to the palate, not changing who the major players were, or how things got done. This year, that all changed. Rathergate caught the OM completely by surprise, strategic as well as tactical. Even as OM nabobs struggled to respond to the fact-heavy attacks from Little Green Footballs and Powerline and Polipundit, new sites like Rathergate sprang up to pursue new leads and counter OM spin. Rather was outclassed from the start, but never knew it.

By the time the smoke from the scandal began to clear, the public saw gaping holes in CBS’ credibility, as the indisputable facts provided by the bloggers found attention and support in Talk Radio and other New Media, such as Fox News, Fox News represents an interesting evolution in progress, as some networks are willing to use the new resource and acknowledge the importance of bloggers. Essentially, what happened in Rathergate, is that the OM tried to stall and resist the online journalists, but the blog community had already reached a critical mass; simply too many people were aware of the blogs and were carrying their demands to CBS and the other networks. The networks were prepared to ignore hundreds of critics, even thousands, but when the outcry became loud enough, the OM realized they were powerless to deny the truth any longer. So, they resorted to attempting to spin it. I’ll discuss the New Media later this week, possibly tomorrow.

So, what will happen to the poor Old Media? Actually, in the short term, not that much. The reason is, that the OM still has a lot of money and influence in the market. Yes, they’re losing market share, but all together as a group, the OM still has money and power beyond anything the NM can muster. The OM sees the NM as a threat, but only tactically. That’s because as often happens with empires, the men at the top only see what they expect or will accept, and the most serious threats are small enough to be missed until it is far too late. The demise of the OM will not be bloody, but gradual, and inevitable for all its apparent distance now. A generation from now, television will still be here, but its value as a news commodity will depend on the competition between hundreds of outlets, and what actually appears on sets will be programmed to suit the requirements and preferences of each user. Demand will drive the medium, and it will have no choice but to submit. Information will mix with entertainment, much as Talk Radio does now, so that I can see the TV news being delivered in a “forum” setting, where viewers enjoy VR connection to others watching the news, and an interactive discussion will take place, a situation somewhere between a professional briefing and a public square. Rhetorical skills will remain in demand, but unsupported facts will be derided immediately. Other possibilities exist, not the least of which is the reminder that facts and accuracy were few and weak in Michael Moore’s work, but that did not keep it from becoming popular for people who wanted to believe in the conspiracy. The same thing will happen, to some degree, in the delivery of news. News will become a commodity of varying flavors, as it always has, but the dominance of Network oligarchies will fade and die.

The next obvious trend is the scary one. With facts being parsed about as they are, it is possible for people to sort through the available data and reach mutually exclusive possibilities. This is how, for instance, reasonable people have been able to conclude that the War on Terror is either an unquestionably necessary element of American Foreign Policy, or else an unforgivably Imperial abuse of power by the United States. Fortunately, an appetite for fact-checking remains solid, and shows a healthy growth potential. The caveat to all of this, is that there will always need to be citizens willing to watch the watchers. After all, Dan Rather was supposed to be watching out for Big Government, but we discovered we needed to also be protected from Big News.