Everyone, as Tom Cruise once said about his now ex-wife Nicole Kidman, “is absolutely right.” Apparently, saying these words is the best way to prevent an argument, or at least resolve one. And while it doesn’t seem to have worked for our Tom (though perhaps it worked better for Nicole, whose own thought was, “finally I can start wearing high heels again,”) I have to say that when it comes to what’s going on in the collaborative technology space right now, he has a point.
What exactly is going on? Nobody’s sure, but one thing is certain – there’s certainly a lot of people talking about it. “Markets are about conversations,” announced the Cluetrain manifesto and several other pundits before then (not least my old boss, Robin Bloor, when he wrote about the electronic silk route in 1998 and before). With the advent of the blog of course, there appears to be more people talking about these things than ever. In May last year, Jonathan Schwartz wrote about what he termed the Participation Age on his own blog , and there can be no greater demonstration of this concept than the fact that its all being talked about on the blogs of others. The blog is a cultural phenomenon, for sure. But is it the end, or just the beginning?
There are still plenty of people who have never even heard of blogs. “You shoud have a blog, ” I said to my ex-colleague and business dynamics guru Roger Davies. “A blog?” he said, “What’s that?”
Now, I’m not dragging my good friend Roger through the slurry of the blogosphere in order to show him as some kind of luddite; exactly the opposite. The fact is, there’s a massive number of supposedly, highly connected people out there, who have never heard of blogs. Another old colleague Clive Longbottom makes the following point in a recent column for Silicon.com:
“Blogging is on the increase – at least the number of people who write blogs is growing. Our research shows that blog readership is still miniscule, and is moving more towards community-of-interest style usage.”
If we consider Tom’s first law – that everyone is right – we arrive at a conundrum. The bloggers are right, that there is something very exciting going on, and yet the non-blog-reading community is also right. Jonathan Schwartz and Clive Longbottom are equally correct to say we are in a new age of participation, and yet the majority are not participating.
To square this circle, we need remember only that the blog is a symptom, not a cause. The fundamental principle behind participation is the act of engagement, of joining in. Blogging for like minded types is no different to SMS text messaging for teenagers – each went, or is going through a similar growth curve, and blogging will no doubt find its level. People can argue about signal to noise ratios and claim to be the first to notice the clutter, but what they fail to do is remember that much conversation serves no purpose whatsoever – us Brits will talk about the weather for example, quite happily, for hours sometimes. Markets are indeed about conversations, but conversations are primarily about relationships and how these can be nutured, sometimes over a period of years.
This principle of joining in is of primary importance. With blogging, as with SMS, each provided a new mechanism that was appropriate for a certain type of conversation. The barriers to joining were lowered to the point where a large enough number of people could engage, and – lo and behold – they did, and are. Call it an application of Metcalfe’s Law. In other words, blogging isn’t an answer, it’s a mechanism. So are all these other “declarative living” tools that are springing up, for sharing preferences, photos, books and so on. They’re mechanisms, each appropriate to its audience.
Joining in is nothing by itself, however – unless all we want to do is talk about the weather. People join conversations for a purpose, in business as in leisure. Sometimes that purpose (one suspects, the vast majority of teenage texts) may be to support the growth of the relationships concerned, be they one to one or within the group. Ultimately there has to be a higher purpose than participation itself. I suspect we shall see a continued evolution of blogs, from the individual and observational type blogs to community-oriented, news-based entities. However blogs will never cut it in their current form for anything other than providing an online mouthpiece; for multi-user, project oriented interaction to take place on the same scale as blogging, other mechanisms will be required, which are still to be developed.
How do I know this? Simple – because its happened before, and because of the same premise that people use when talking about technologies that pre-date blogs by decades. “Blogs are nothing new,” they say, citing Newsgroups for example, or even uucp-based forums, which both provided an appropriate transport for the capability we have with blogging today. In the same way that Hypercard pre-dated the Web, but didn’t quite reach global phenomenon status, similarly cyberspace is littered with failed projects for collaborative working. “Failure” is a harsh term – all are successful in their own way, but none has achieved that elusive “de facto” status.
I believe that both the blog and SMS are like prophets of old, forecasting greater things to come. We are still waiting for the real hero of the piece – the globally agreed standard for collaborative working. When we have this, then can the age of participation truly begin.
Are there any contenders? Undoubtedly – but therein lies another post.