Weblogs are a mistake.
They have come about because one important aspect of Tim Berners-Lee‘s vision of a shared information space was missing when it came to be realised.
He had envisaged it being as easy to edit as to read on the web. Instead, from Mosaic onwards, browsers have been just that. Browsers. Individuals participanting in the web space have most typically been passive consumers of content, not its active creators.
Instead of using the interface to the web – the browser – to create content, we have had to make a choice.
Either to go the professional design route involving applications such as Dreamweaver and Flash and the complexities of File Transfer Protocol. This has removed web publishing from most of the people and created an elite cadre of webmasters and web designers. It has also created content management headaches for those responsible for updating and maintaining large sites.
The other route, the people’s route, has been to use email. Until recently, this was achieved not through the browser, but through an alternative, text-based program (such as Outlook Express or Eudora). Email was our preferred means of communicating ideas and exchanging information in private and also in public (ie in newsgroups).
Though most email communications limited the user to ASCII characters in a fixed pitch font, this simplicity was its virtue. Barriers to entry were low (the technical skills could be acquired by many) and the bandwidth requirements were slight.
For a decade, most of us have divided our internet functions in two. We have used a browser to research and read (the ‘pull’ functions) and an email program to compose and communicate (‘push’).
Email, for long the web’s ‘killer application’ (the function that attracted most users in the first place), is now in turn being choked to death by spam. The inboxes of executives in large organisations are clogged by messages from colleagues. Email is becoming discredited.
Weblogs do not solve all these problems, but they do return the web to the vision and promise of its early years.
By returning editing and publishing functions to the browser, and by hiding the complexity of coding, design and content management, the weblog offers instant publishing for the people.
Given the low barriers to entry, there are now potentially as many authors as readers on the web. (This, remember, was always the vision of Tim Berners-Lee). Yet many more blogs are begun than are sustained over a period of months and years.
Webloggers should not assume that there is an audience waiting to hear from them. They should, like diarists of old, write for themselves. Then, if their thoughts, insights and links to sources prove useful to others, then this should be seen as a bonus.
The better bloggers have a purpose that sustains them over a longer period, and the better blogs gain recommendation by being discovered and linked to as sources. These links provide a form of peer assessment, as Google realised when it developed its criteria for measuring the PageRank of a site.
The huge number of blogs adds complexity. They take time to discover. They take time to tune in to. Few merit this time. Yet the network has shown itself to be self-regulating. While the words published on any subject may be expanding, the blogs of trusted authors can help to restore sense out of this confusion.
This is achieved when a trusted blog commentator acts as a filter and interpreter of breaking news and opinions, in a similar role to that of the trusted editor or reporter.
According to some, commentary by bloggers poses a challenge to the old-style model of news publishing. Yet what we see is that the interest of bloggers and their need for news sources in turn validates the role of traditional media companies and journalists. The advent of the internet has strengthened certain media operations, most notably the BBC with its global perspective and non-commercial remit.
In the realm of public relations, we’re starting to ask similar questions about the effects of online debate on the role of PR. Here’s my take. If the world were an entirely predictable and controllable place, we’d all be marketing managers or directed by marketing teams.
Yet the coming of the internet has served to remind us that people are not always persuaded by top-down, hierarchical communications. They will seek to find the truth from other sources, and check facts for themselves. They may even band together to disrupt the goals of an organisation.
In this anti-authoritarian culture, third party endorsement has more value and importance than ever before. Hence the efforts of PR practitioners to persuade journalists and opinion formers – yes, even some bloggers – of their messages.
In an uncertain and fast-changing world, the PR adviser does not hold all the trump cards. But he or she is accustomed to unpredictability through experience of handling the press, and so should have the adaptability needed to cope with the challenge of new voices.
If nothing else, in a new world where members of the public are gaining a voice, the phrase public relations begins to make more sense. PR begins to mean more than press relations.
It is not weblogging that is the radical departure. Weblogs are an extension of the bulletin boards and newsgroups that have pioneered individual and community participation online.
Yet it is through weblogs, through the breaking down of barriers between readers, writers, editors and publishers, that we are beginning to see fulfilment of Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the world wide web. Now that was a truly radical idea.