Self-important, exhibitionist geeks

In which the writer castigates the anti-bloggers, then the bloggers, and then everybody else, just to be evenhanded

My wife said to me the other day, “aren’t blogs just the online diaries of self-important, exhibitionist geeks?” Interesting perspective, I thought as I was tucking into my breakfast. That day I chose scrambled eggs, and I was wearing… not really. What I really thought was, “better write a blog about that.” Besides, I don’t eat breakfast.

There’s plenty of debate going on about the strengths and weaknesses of blogs, and I frankly don’t get it. On one side there is a camp that says “blogs are going to change the world” – a view which to me is both flawed and dangerous. On the other side there is a camp which says “blogs are an irrelevance”, or worse, speaking with palpable indignation that blogging should broker any attention whatsoever. As one who clearly has a blog, I may be biased, but equally I find myself in neither camp, which is confusing.

So, what it all the fuss about, and why is it causing such a polarisation of views? At its heart, a blog is no more nor less than a very simple Web publishing mechanism. Were I writing this in FrontPage and then running Web Publishing Wizard, would I write anything different? I don’t believe so – having uploaded plenty of text-based content to the Web over the years, the only difference to yours truly is that I don’t have to muck around with other editors. I type, I hit “publish”, and I’m done.

Ultimately however, the end result is online information, in the same way as magazines, books and newspapers hold hard copy information. There are plenty of publications that are shoddily written, poorly edited or in bad taste, but nobody would ever say “all magazines are bad”, for example. So, why should we say the same about blogs? Similarly, there are Web sites a-plenty that give us chapter and verse of the goings on of some obscure family in Maine; there are plenty of shabbily produced, poorly formatted and otherwise dubious Web sites. These are publicly accessible, and often unavoidable as they somehow get presented by search engines as “most relevant” despite all attempts to the contrary.

Somehow, however, we ignore such Web sites quite easily, but it is abhorrent that similarly low levels of quality might exist in blogs. To the anti-bloggers, this is proof if any is necessary that blogging is a crime against humanity and should be stopped. Now.

Meanwhile, the lowering of the bar to more simple Web publishing has also opened a number of opportunities, which leads to the other side of the coin. The IT industry has a tendency to hype the latest trend: this is possibly due to the fact that much technology is disappointingly dull and deserves a bit of a lift, but more likely for commercially minded types it is a way of maximising chances of commercial success. Finally, and whether we like it or not, this is a trait among tech types, we really do get genuinely excited about things technological and their potential to change the world. And so we have the overhyping of blogs – how many thousands of bloggers are really going to turn their waxings into hard currency, for example? On this, the Greek chorus may have a point – there is a lot less to blogging than meets the eyes of some zealots. Meanwhile, perfectly good columnists are calling themselves bloggers for fear of becoming irrelevant, a bit like parents trying to join in the conversations of teeenagers.

Perhaps both sides as presented above are missing the point – I can already hear little voices questioning my definition of “blogging”. So far in this piece, the interactive nature of blogs has been missed, a clear discrepancy. It could (and no doubt it has) been argued that a blog is no more than a single user newsgroup, a bulletin board channel in which the moderator creates the content and other contributors are reduced to mere commentators on the main story. This would be true were blogging in some way hierearchical, but instead blogs form a meritocratic network of networks. The blog itself is of limited value; a network of blogs, where participants exchange views and develop ideas, is really where the action is. Blogs obey Metcalfe’s law – the value increases exponentially based on the number of links between them.

Let me repeat that, then: a single blog is of limited value, and this is where I fully concur with the anti-bloggers. In the signal-to-noise ratio of the blogosphere, this is the noise – feel free to ignore it. While there may be plenty of such blogs, they make no sound if you just close the window. I don’t want to downgrade the value of using blogging tools for more conventional web sites – I’ve seen charity sites and other news feeds operate with a blog mechanism, and why not, its just a tool. Even if this were useful just to the people writing their own blogs and commenting on the blogs of others, it would already be of enormous benefit to themselves; as it happens, many blogs are generating quite a substantial readership, which suggests others can benefit from the debate whether or not they choose to contribute.

Finally then, there is the strength of syndication. Blogs feed information and content, and it would be very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff without some filtering mechanism. So, we have tools like Bloglines and Pluck, which aggregate blogs into a single window, suggest blogs based on current settings, enable the easy addition and deletion of blogs. To look at single blogs in isolation would be a bit sad, it is the power of the many that matters – and the better blogs will undoubtedly filter to the top.

So, there we have it. Should we expect today’s bloggers to be the media moguls, business leaders and presidential candidates of tomorrow? Don’t be silly. There may be one or two characters who ride the wave better than others, and come out on top – and good luck to them. Blogs are already used in a multitude of ways – from major companies market testing ideas, to hobbyists sharing information, and indeed no doubt to self-indulgent diarists. For myself, I really do not see the relevance of what someone had for breakfast, nor am I interested in the golfing progress of an executive who has clearly been prompted to add more of himself into a corporate communication. In the meantime, as a mechanism to share information, test ideas and build relationships, blogs deserve at least a place at the table. What we are witnessing is the democratisation of technology, a lowering of the bar, and that is always to be applauded.

For me, a blog serves as a channel for ideas, and a placeholder for news: the blogging mechanism has enabled me to create a three-column, dynamically changing Web site with minimal trouble. Also, as I am supposed to be a commentator on all things technological, I believe I should at least try these things out, just as I play (and sometimes struggle) with the latest gadgets. No more, no less, and if just one person has read this far, then its been worthwhile.

Next time I’ll try to answer my 12-year old son’s question, asked out of the blue the other day: “What exactly is the point of Linux?”

Self-important, exhibitionist geeks

One thought on “Self-important, exhibitionist geeks

  1. My single blog is certainly of limited value! 😉

    Where it comes in to its own, in my self-important, exhibitionist geek opinion (all of which is a pretty accurate description, at least some of the time – Hi Liz!) is precisely, as you say, in its syndication. Through Thunderbird’s native RSS reader, I’m now able to keep tabs on about thirty friends around the globe. Contact with some of them is infrequent to say the least, but blogs keep our friendships going between more active contact (in which I would choose to incude email). That’s a huge value right there, I’d say.

    People like the Bhagdad Blogger provided a vital voice from within the headquarters of a crumbing nation and at least went some way to balancing the oft-muted tones of the official press cadre, embedded with their units. The democratisation is not just in terms of the technology – which is undeniably a good thing – but more importantly in the democratisation of information.

    As for Linux, he’s basically a foil to enable Charlie Brown to make a philosophical point, innit?

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