Getting Paid for Doing Bad Things

I have recently received half a dozen offers of placing links in my blogs to reputable companies’ websites.

Think of it as product placement for the Internet. It’s been around a while, but I just figured out how it’s done, and it made me realise that the early dreams of a blogging utopia on the web are pretty much dead.

Here’s how this kind of product placement works. If I can persuade you to link to my product page in your blog, then my product will appear more popular and rise up Google’s search results accordingly. Simple.

An ad wouldn’t work. Google would see it was an ad and discount it. So one increasingly popular approach is for you to pay me to include a link in my blog. I mean, right in it: not as a link, or a ‘sponsored by’, but as a sentence, embedded, as it were, inside my copy.

I had some problem getting my head around this, so I’ll walk you through it. I add a sentence into my blog, and then turn one of the words in it into a link to the company’s website. For my trouble I get $150. The company, if it gets enough people like me to do this, will see their web site rise up through the Google ranks.

This is what the Internet, and blogs, have become. A somewhat seedy enterprise where companies–and we’re talking reputable companies here–hire ad companies to hunt out people like me with blogs that are sufficiently popular, and vaguely related to their line of business, to insert a sentence and a link.

If you’re not sure what’s wrong with this, I’ll tell you.

First off, it’s dodgy. If Google finds out about it it will not only discount the link in its calculations, but ban the website–my blog, in other words–from its index. Google doesn’t like any kind of mischief like this because it corrupts their search.

That’s why a) the blog needs to look vaguely related and b) it can’t just be any old sentence that includes the link. Google’s computers are sharp enough to spot nonsense.

That’s why kosher links are so valuable, and why there’s business in trying to persuade bloggers like me to break Google’s rules. If I get banned, my dreams of a profitable web business are gone. For the company and ad firm: nothing.

Second, it’s dodgy. It works on the assumption that all blog content is basically hack work and the people who write it are for sale. I think that’s why I loathe it so much. It clearly works: When I got back to one company that approached me, I was told the client’s request book had already been filled.

With every mercenary link sold they devalue the web.The only thing that might make my content valuable is that it’s authentic. It’s me. If I say I like something, I’m answerable for that. Not that people drop by to berate me much, but the principle is exactly the same as a journalistic one: Your byline is your bond and not a checkbook.

Gay Lesbian Syrian Blogger? Or a Bearded American from Edinburgh?

Here’s a cautionary tale about how hard it is to verify whether someone is who they say they are:

Syrian lesbian blogger is revealed conclusively to be a married man

Tom MacMaster’s wife has confirmed in an email to the Guardian that he is the real identity behind the Gay Girl in Damascus blog

Tom Mcmaster

Syrian lesbian blogger has been revealed to be Tom MacMaster, an American based in Scotland. Public domain

The mysterious identity of a young Arab lesbian blogger who was apparently kidnapped last week in Syria has been revealed conclusively to be a hoax. The blogs were written by not by a gay girl in Damascus, but a middle-aged American man based in Scotland.

The Guardian, frankly, has not covered itself in glory on this issue. The story itself makes no mention of the fact that the paper itself was duped. It was, after all, bloggers did the detective work that uncovered the hoax, not they. There’s this mea culpa, buried deep in a secondary story but it doesn’t apologise for misleading readers for more than a month:

The Guardian did not remove all the pictures until 6pm on Wednesday 8 June, 27 hours after Jelena Lecic first called the Guardian. It took too long for this to happen, for which we should apologise (see today’s Corrections and clarifications). The mitigating factors are that we first acted within four hours but compounded the error by putting up another wrong picture, albeit one that had been up on our website for a month, was unchallenged and was thought to have come directly from “Amina”. We know for a fact that the two pictures are of Jelena Lecic, but we didn’t know much else until thisevening. But we do know that when using social media – as we will continue to do as part of our journalism – the Guardian will have to redouble its efforts in establishing not just methods of verification, but of signalling to the reader the level of verification we think we can reasonably claim.

And even The Guardian hasn’t yet corrected itself: This piece is still up, uncorrected, and illustrating some more journalistic traits by not sourcing the story or expressing any “unconfirmed” thoughts:

image

The only suggestion that something is amiss is this at the end:

• This article was amended on 7 June 2011 and again on 8 June 2011 after complaints that photographs accompanying articles relating to Amina Araf showed someone other than the abducted blogger. The photographs have been removed pending investigation into the origins of the photographs and other matters relating to the blog.

Bottom line. Journalists have got to be smarter: smarter about the old things, such as dual sourcing, being sceptical about everything (a lesbian blogger in Damascus posting pictures of herself and using her real name? Even the author of the Guardian pieces was using a pseudonym—itself a no-no) and doing some basic legwork in trying to authenticate the person. And smart about new stuff: using the same tools the bloggers themselves used in exploring the real person behind it (those people could be forgiven for not having done this earlier: they, after all, are a community and accepted ‘her’ as one would in such a community.)

So what are those ‘new’ tools?

  • basic search. Do we know everything about this person? What kind of online footprint did they have before this all happened?
  • check photos’ origin. Not always easy, but worth doing. File names. Captions. Check out whether there’s any data hidden in the image. Image date.
  • IP addresses of emails and other communications.
  • Website/blog registration. Where? By whom?

These new tools need to be learned by journalists. And we need to learn them quickly.

We also need to find better ways to correct things when we get them wrong, and, frankly, to say sorry. Here are some other outlets that fell for it and have yet at the time of writing to either apologise or correct their stories:

WaPo: Elizabeth Flock, “‘Gay girl in Damascus’ Syrian blogger allegedly kidnapped,” June 7, 2011

CNN: “Will gays be ‘sacrificial lambs’ in Arab Spring?”

AP: Syrian-American gay blogger missing in Damascus – Timesonline.com- World-

NYT (since corrected, sort of, but the comments are intriguing. Readers are gullible too, although they might reasonably feel aggrieved that the NYT didn’t do its job in checking the facts): After Report of Disappearance, Questions About Syrian-American Blogger – NYTimes.com

More links:

Open door- The authentication of anonymous bloggers – Comment is free – The Guardian

Gay Girl in Damascus blog extracts- am I crazy- Maybe – World news – The Guardian

Syrian blogger Amina Abdallah kidnapped by armed men (example of The Guardian duped)

Wikipedia: Amina Abdallah Araf al Omari – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Social Media and Politics: Truthiness and Astroturfing

By Jeremy Wagstaff

(this is a column I wrote back in November. I’m repeating it here because of connections to astroturing in the HBGary/Anonymous case.)

Just how social is social media? By which I mean: Can we trust it as a measure of what people think, what they may buy, how they may vote? Or is it as easy a place to manipulate as the real world.

The answers to these questions aren’t of academic interest only. They go right to the heart of what may be our future. More and more of our world is online. And more and more of our online world is social media: A quarter of web pages viewed in the U.S. are on Facebook. So it’s not been lost on those who care about such things that a) what we say online may add up to be a useful predictor of what we may do at the shops, the movies, at the polling booth. And b) that social media is a worthwhile place to try to manipulate what we think, and what we do at the shops, the movies—and at the ballot box.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the former. Counting the number of followers a candidate has on Facebook, for example, is apparently a pretty good indicator of whether they’ll do well at the ballot box. The Daily Beast set up something called the Oracle which scanned 40,000 websites—including Twitter—to measure whether comments on candidates in the recent U.S. elections were positive, negative, neutral or mixed. It predicted 36 out of 37 Senate races and 29 out of 30 Governors’ races and nearly 98% of the House races. That’s pretty good.

Dan Zarrella, a self-styled social media scientist, counted the followers of the twitter feeds of 30 senate, house and governor races and found that in 71% of the races, the candidate with the most Twitter followers was ahead in the polls. And Facebook found that candidates with more Facebook fans than their opponents won 74% of House races, and 81% of Senate races. More than 12 million people used the “I Voted” button this year, more than double that in 2008.

Why is this interesting? Well, social media, it turns out, is quite a different beast to even recent phenomena such as blogs. Social media, it turns out, really is social, in that more than previous Internet methods of communication, it reflects the views of the people using it. It is, one might say, democratic.

A study by researchers from the Technical University of Munich of the 2009 federal parliamentary elections in Germany, for example, revealed that, in contrast to the bulletin boards and blogs of the past, Twitter was reflective of the way Germans voted. Unlike bulletin boards and blogs, they wrote, “heavy users were unable to impose their political sentiment on the discussion.” The large number of participants, they found, “make the information stream as a whole more representative of the electorate.”

In other words, social media is as much a battleground for hearts and minds as the rest of the world. Even more so, perhaps, because it’s easier to reach people. Forget knocking on doors or holding rallies: Just build a Facebook page or tweet.

And, maybe, hire some political operators to build a fake movement, aka astroturfing?

Astroturfing, for those not familiar with the term, is the opposite of grassroots. If you lack the support of ordinary people, or don’t have time to get it, you can still fake it. Just make it look like you’ve got grassroots support. Since the term was coined in the mid 1980s it’s become popular activity by marketers, political operators and governments (think Chinese 50-cent blogging army). Astroturfing, in short, allows a politician to seem a lot more popular than he really is by paying folk to say how great he is.

Whether social media is ripe for astroturfing isn’t clear. On one hand, we know that the Internet is full of fakery and flummery: Just because your inbox is no longer full of spam doesn’t mean the Internet isn’t full of it—87%, according to the latest figures from MessageLabs. You don’t see it because the filters are getting better at keeping it away from you. Twitter, by contrast, is much less spammy: the latest figures from Twitter suggest that after some tweaks earlier this year the percentage of unwanted messages on the service is about 1%.

So Twitter isn’t spammy, and it broadly reflects the electorate. But can it be gamed?

We already know that Twitter can spread an idea, or meme, rapidly—only four hops are needed before more or less everyone on Twitter sees it. In late 2009 Google unveiled a new product: Real time search. This meant that, atop the usual results to a search, Google would throw in the latest matches from the real time web—in other words, Twitter and its ilk. So getting your tweets up there would be valuable if, say, you were a political operator and you wanted people to hear good things about your candidate, or bad things about your rival. But were people doing this? Two researchers from Wellesley College in Massachusetts wondered.

Panagiotis Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj studied the local senate race and found that they were. They looked at 185,000 Twitter messages which mentioned the two competing candidates and found that there was plenty of astroturfing going on—where political supporters were creating fake accounts and repeating each other’s messages, and sending them to likely sympathizers, in the hope of their messages hitting the mainstream.

The researchers found one group, apparently linked to an Iowa Republican group, was sending out one tweet a second linking to websites “exposing” their rival’s missteps and misstatements. Overall, the message they sent reached more than 60,000 users. The researchers concluded that “the fact that a few minutes of work, using automated scripts and exploiting the open architecture of social networks such as twitter, makes possible reaching a large audience for free…raises concerns about the deliberate exploitation of the medium.”

The point here is not merely that you’re propagating a point of view. That’s just spam. But by setting up fake Twitter accounts and tweeting  and then repeating these messages, you’re creating the illusion that these views are widespread. We may ignore the first Twitter message we see exposing these views and linking to a website, but will we ignore the second or the third?

This discovery of Twitter astroturfing in one race has prompted researchers at Indiana University to set up a tool they call Truthy—after comedian Stephen Colbert’s term to describe something that someone knows intuitively from the gut—irrespective of evidence, logic or the facts. Their tool has exposed other similar attacks which, while not explosive in terms of growth, are, they wrote in an accompanying paper,  “nevertheless clear examples of coordinated attempts to deceive Twitter users.” And, they point out, the danger with these Twitter messages is that unless they’re caught early, “once one of these attempts is successful at gaining the attention of the community, it will quickly become indistinguishable from an organic meme.”

This is all interesting, for several reasons. First off, it’s only in the past few months that we’ve woken up to what political operators seem to be doing on Twitter. Secondly, while none of these cases achieves viral levels, the relative ease with which these campaigns can be launched suggests that a lot more people will try them out. Thirdly, what does this tell us about the future of political manipulation in social media?

I don’t know, but it’s naïve to think that this is just an American thing. Or a ‘what do you expect in a thriving democracy?’ thing. Less democratically minded organizations and governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the way they use the Internet to control and influence public opinion. Evgeny Morozov points to the Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “whose suave manipulation of cyberspace was on display during the 2006 war with Israel”; my journalist friends in Afghanistan say the Taliban are more sophisticated about using the Internet than the Karzai government or NATO.

The good news is that researchers are pushing Twitter to improve their spam catching tools to stop this kind of thing from getting out of hand. But I guess the bigger lesson is this: While social media is an unprecedented window on, and reflection of, the populace, it is also an unprecedented opportunity for shysters, snake oil salesmen and political operators to manipulate what we think we know.

It may be a great channel for the truth, but truthiness may also be one step behind.

Social Media and Politics: Truthiness and Astroturfing

(This is a longer version of my syndicated newspaper column)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Just how social is social media? By which I mean: Can we trust it as a measure of what people think, what they may buy, how they may vote? Or is it as easy a place to manipulate as the real world?

The answers to these questions aren’t of academic interest only. They go right to the heart of what may be our future. More and more of our world is online. And more and more of our online world is social media: A quarter of web pages viewed in the U.S. are on Facebook. So it’s not been lost on those who care about such things that a) what we say online may add up to be a useful predictor of what we may do at the shops, the movies, at the polling booth. And b) that social media is a worthwhile place to try to manipulate what we think, and what we do at the shops, the movies—and at the ballot box.

There is plenty of evidence supporting the former. Counting the number of followers a candidate has on Facebook, for example, is apparently a pretty good indicator of whether they’ll do well at the ballot box. The Daily Beast set up something called the Oracle which scanned 40,000 websites—including Twitter—to measure whether comments on candidates in the recent U.S. elections were positive, negative, neutral or mixed. It predicted 36 out of 37 Senate races and 29 out of 30 Governors’ races and nearly 98% of the House races. That’s pretty good.

Dan Zarrella, a self-styled social media scientist, counted the followers of the twitter feeds of 30 senate, house and governor races and found that in 71% of the races, the candidate with the most Twitter followers was ahead in the polls. And Facebook found that candidates with more Facebook fans than their opponents won 74% of House races, and 81% of Senate races. More than 12 million people used the “I Voted” button this year, more than double that in 2008.

Why is this interesting? Well, social media, it turns out, is quite a different beast to even recent phenomena such as blogs. Social media, it turns out, really is social, in that more than previous Internet methods of communication, it reflects the views of the people using it. It is, one might say, democratic.

A study by researchers from the Technical University of Munich of the 2009 federal parliamentary elections in Germany, for example, revealed that, in contrast to the bulletin boards and blogs of the past, Twitter was reflective of the way Germans voted. Unlike bulletin boards and blogs, they wrote, “heavy users were unable to impose their political sentiment on the discussion.” The large number of participants, they found, “make the information stream as a whole more representative of the electorate.”

In other words, social media is as much a battleground for hearts and minds as the rest of the world. Even more so, perhaps, because it’s easier to reach people. Forget knocking on doors or holding rallies: Just build a Facebook page or tweet.

And, maybe, hire some political operators to build a fake movement, aka astroturfing?

Astroturfing, for those not familiar with the term, is the opposite of grassroots. If you lack the support of ordinary people, or don’t have time to get it, you can still fake it. Just make it look like you’ve got grassroots support. Since the term was coined in the mid 1980s it’s become popular activity by marketers, political operators and governments (think Chinese 50-cent blogging army). Astroturfing, in short, allows a politician to seem a lot more popular than he really is by paying folk to say how great he is.

Whether social media is ripe for astroturfing isn’t clear. On one hand, we know that the Internet is full of fakery and flummery: Just because your inbox is no longer full of spam doesn’t mean the Internet isn’t full of it—87%, according to the latest figures from MessageLabs. You don’t see it because the filters are getting better at keeping it away from you. Twitter, by contrast, is much less spammy: the latest figures from Twitter suggest that after some tweaks earlier this year the percentage of unwanted messages on the service is about 1%.

So Twitter isn’t spammy, and it broadly reflects the electorate. But can it be gamed?

We already know that Twitter can spread an idea, or meme, rapidly—only four hops are needed before more or less everyone on Twitter sees it. In late 2009 Google unveiled a new product: Real time search. This meant that, atop the usual results to a search, Google would throw in the latest matches from the real time web—in other words, Twitter and its ilk. So getting your tweets up there would be valuable if, say, you were a political operator and you wanted people to hear good things about your candidate, or bad things about your rival. But were people doing this? Two researchers from Wellesley College in Massachusetts wondered.

Panagiotis Takis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj studied the local senate race and found that they were. They looked at 185,000 Twitter messages which mentioned the two competing candidates and found that there was plenty of astroturfing going on—where political supporters were creating fake accounts and repeating each other’s messages, and sending them to likely sympathizers, in the hope of their messages hitting the mainstream.

The researchers found one group, apparently linked to an Iowa Republican group, was sending out one tweet a second linking to websites “exposing” their rival’s missteps and misstatements. Overall, the message they sent reached more than 60,000 users. The researchers concluded that “the fact that a few minutes of work, using automated scripts and exploiting the open architecture of social networks such as twitter, makes possible reaching a large audience for free…raises concerns about the deliberate exploitation of the medium.”

The point here is not merely that you’re propagating a point of view. That’s just spam. But by setting up fake Twitter accounts and tweeting  and then repeating these messages, you’re creating the illusion that these views are widespread. We may ignore the first Twitter message we see exposing these views and linking to a website, but will we ignore the second or the third?

This discovery of Twitter astroturfing in one race has prompted researchers at Indiana University to set up a tool they call Truthy—after comedian Stephen Colbert’s term to describe something that someone knows intuitively from the gut—irrespective of evidence, logic or the facts. Their tool has exposed other similar attacks which, while not explosive in terms of growth, are, they wrote in an accompanying paper,  “nevertheless clear examples of coordinated attempts to deceive Twitter users.” And, they point out, the danger with these Twitter messages is that unless they’re caught early, “once one of these attempts is successful at gaining the attention of the community, it will quickly become indistinguishable from an organic meme.”

This is all interesting, for several reasons. First off, it’s only in the past few months that we’ve woken up to what political operators seem to be doing on Twitter. Secondly, while none of these cases achieves viral levels, the relative ease with which these campaigns can be launched suggests that a lot more people will try them out. Thirdly, what does this tell us about the future of political manipulation in social media?

I don’t know, but it’s naïve to think that this is just an American thing. Or a ‘what do you expect in a thriving democracy?’ thing. Less democratically minded organizations and governments are becoming increasingly sophisticated about the way they use the Internet to control and influence public opinion. Evgeny Morozov points to the Lebanon’s Hezbollah, “whose suave manipulation of cyberspace was on display during the 2006 war with Israel”; my journalist friends in Afghanistan say the Taliban are more sophisticated about using the Internet than the Karzai government or NATO.

The good news is that researchers are pushing Twitter to improve their spam catching tools to stop this kind of thing from getting out of hand. But I guess the bigger lesson is this: While social media is an unprecedented window on, and reflection of, the populace, it is also an unprecedented opportunity for shysters, snake oil salesmen and political operators to manipulate what we think we know.

It may be a great channel for the truth, but truthiness may also be one step behind.

The New Normal: Constant Flux

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence the lack of links.)

I was reading a blog by a World Banker the other day—now there’s a phrase I wouldn’t have thought I’d use a few years ago—about our old favorite in this column: Twitter.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s good that the World Bank is blogging, and talking about Twitter. And one shouldn’t judge the thinking of the Bank from the words of this World Bank employee—who is not part of the banking part of the Bank.

But it does reflect, I suspect, a lingering and dangerous misconception about what Twitter—indeed, social media—is among institutional thinkers.

The writer, Filipino Antonio Lambino, writes:

The point is this: norms will continue to shift around a bit (or a lot) but will eventually take hold.  The same medium or application is likely to be used differently by different people in different contexts – and rules of engagement will emerge for these various uses.  Until things settle down, however, some of us are bound to remain a little conflicted and uncomfortable.  And through this transition period, by using what we like and rejecting what we don’t, we become direct participants in the norm-setting process.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. The truth is that there is no norm. Or the norm is that there is no norm. We’re now in a state of constant flux. Antonio can become a direct participant in the norm-setting process, but he will be disappointed if he’s looking for some norm-setting moment. The reality is there is none.

The fact that he’s using a blog—and tweeting his post on his twitter feed—should give him a clue. Blogs were the first assault on the citadel of there being any ‘norm’. They were initially a reaction against the idea that you needed to know HTML, the formatting and design language of the web, in order to create stuff on the web.

The argument went: Why should we have to know that kind of thing to be able to share our thoughts online? We don’t have to know how to make a notebook to write things down. We don’t have to know how to make a camera to take photos. Why should we have to know the inner workings of the web in order to use it to create stuff?

So blogs were born. But they quickly evolved. There was no norm. Blog is short for web-log since it was assumed that blogs would be online journals. But they’re not. When was the last time you read a blog about what someone was up to? Blogs are a medium for ideas and reporting.

Then along came things like Flickr, YouTube, Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Friendster et al.

All have had to adapt to their users. YouTube was ‘broadcast yourself’ but now is more about rebroadcasting what other people, or TV stations, have already broadcast.

Facebook was supposed to be for college kids to connect to each other. Wikipedia was originally supposed to be content produced by academic specialists. It only took off when they let anyone contribute. Now it’s evolving again, as users wrestle with each other over what constitutes a Wikipedia-worthy entry.

And this process of evolution is also evolving. Twitter started out as a SMS message sharing system. Users took it in different directions and the founders were smart enough to follow. As you know, most of the features that make Twitter what it is—hashtags, mentions, retweeting—were all devised by users themselves.

Twitter is just one: look at FriendFeed, Google Buzz etc as examples of flux, where users figure out how they want to use it and the creators of the service hold their breath. 

The point, as Antonio would say, is this: Norms were norms because they were set by a limited group of people. Those with power—either financial or political. Newspapers have all sorts of norms, from the headline size to the fact that sports are usually at the back. Norms get established because the creators are limited in number and control the means of creation.

That’s no longer the case. Now the people who create things on the web have to genuflect before their customers, because the customers determine the success of a product. The customer is the user is the creator. The customer sets the norm. The creator of a medium in this new world is not the creator of the content that makes it a success. The two have been separated.

Hence, a norm today may not be there tomorrow. It used to be the ‘norm’ that if someone followed you on Twitter, you politely followed back. That’s no longer the case (spammers put paid to that, but it also became unwieldy.) It used to be the norm that you posted links to your own content on twitter; now you do it sparingly unless you’re a Twitter god.

So, Antonio and others who are waiting for things to settle. They won’t. Already Twitter is becoming something else, and probably has a life span of five more years max. Other services will come and take its place. It’s a fast moving universe.

I’m glad the World Bank is making space for Antonio and like-minded souls to ponder the significance of these new networks. My advice: jump in and experiment, and enjoy the ride. Just don’t expect it to come to a final destination. Especially one called Norm.

Software That Plays Tag

This week’s WSJ.com column (subscription only, I’m afraid) is about Jiglu, a sort of automatic tagging service you can see in action somewhere on this blog:

If you’re a writer, you hope your words will be etched in stone for eternity. If you’re a blogger, you’re happy if someone stumbles on your writings a few days after you posted them. Blogs, partly because they often consist mainly of commentary on things that have just happened, and partly because of the way they are structured (most recent postings first, making it easy to ignore everything you wrote before), are a transient medium. Rarely is a blog post treated as permanent. We write, then we forget.

The problem, I conclude, is that amidst all the writing, and despite the power of tagging

Blog posts, left to themselves, tend to have a short shelf life.

Briton Nigel Cannings thinks he has the solution to this: automatic tagging. He sees value in all those old blog posts of mine (he may be the only one) and reckons all that old content out there is a repository of wisdom that just needs to be sorted out better. Tagging it ourselves, he thinks, just isn’t enough because we don’t always see what we’ve written in a broader context. “Manual tagging is the first step” to sorting and storing blogs and other online content better, he says, “but it still relies upon people understanding themselves, whatever they’ve already written about, and how their content fits in with other people’s content.”

More at Loose Wire – WSJ.com.

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How to Flatter 100 Bloggers

Do portraits of them as ASCII art. Amit Agarwal, an India-based blogger of impeccable test and refinement, does some very cool pictures of 100 bloggers. Including that picture of me looking smarmy in the middle of the kampung:

image

ASCII Art: Colored Text Paintings of Your Favorite Bloggers – Digital Inspiration

The Rise and Fall of Blogging, Twitter and Facebook

A lot of people ask me whether they should blog. Usually I give them the stock answer: blog because you’ve got something to say, because you feel you’ve got to write, and because you want to connect to other people on the same subject. But now I think I’d add another suggestion: don’t bother.

Here, in a nutshell is a history of blogging: a few years back someone invented the idea of software that would make it really easy to add text and links to a website. It could also add them atop the existing material, so the fresh, new stuff was on top, not the bottom. Blogging was born.

Geeks were of course the first bloggers, and while political blogging is now hugely influential, it’s geeks who have led the pack, adding innovations like voice, video, and mobile blogging (where you can blog from lots of different devices, like phones.) Geeks define the way blogging is going outside political blogging, for the simple reason that geek blogging tends to branch out into other subjects, whereas political blogging is mainly political (more like pamphleteering, I’d say.)

Which is why blogging is now changing. In the past year it’s started to morph into something else. There’s been a rise in something called microblogging (sometimes called tumblelogs), where services allow you and me to post and share little snippets of information about ourselves, whether it’s what we’re doing, thinking, reading or listening to, where we are or who we’re talking to. The best known of these is Twitter, but there are others: Jaiku, Pownce, for example.

These microblogs may not look much like blogs – they’re just streams of 150-character consciousness, from the mundane to the slightly less mundane, to which other users subscribe — but for a lot of people they perform the same function: link them into a broader social network where they can both broadcast their doings and find out what others are doing too. As we in Asia found with SMS, North America has found that an enforced limit on the number of letters you can use in a message is a blessing, not a curse.

Twitter et al have not been for everybody. But as with most technology, its usage has evolved into a new medium. Technology rarely replaces another in direct succession, but creates a new category of its own, as users make it their own (or reject it.) Old technologies might fall by the wayside, but rarely because another technology replaced it overnight.)

So with Twitter. Twitter did lots of things, but probably its most lasting impact was to push blogging away from writing and more into connecting. Most people read blogs because they wanted to feel connected to other people by reading what they were thinking. But it’s time consuming, and as blogs proliferated, and as blog posts tended to get longer, readers had less and less time to read these things. Twitter made a perfect alternative: a palatable buffet of updates, without the indigestion that comes from having to read blogs.

The next step in this process (and all this is happening within the space of a few months) has been the rise of Facebook. Facebook started out as U.S. college yearbook type application in 2005, but last year opened up to all users of he Internet. In the past couple of months I’ve noticed a big jump in the number of new users, at least in my little neck of the woods.

What’s interesting about this is that Facebook, among many of its features, focuses again on what I would pompously call the “networked awareness” aspect of blogging and twittering. The most important part of Facebook is becoming someone else’s friend, which then allows you to see what the other person is saying (whether in their blog, or in a one line ‘status message’ on their homepage.) There’s nothing new about this — the music-oriented MySpace does it, the business-oriented LinkedIn does it – but Facebook revolves around the something we all have in common: a past.

In other words, we build our Facebook address book around people we used to work with, people we went to school with, people who are already in our other address books. Enter your previous jobs and schools and you can easily find familiar faces and names, and add them to your buddy list. As I’m sure you have found, it’s much easier to connect with someone you already know than someone you don’t.

Not that Facebook is a sort of gallery of the past — it also allows you to connect to people via shared interests, or shared friends, or people you worked with but didn’t know at the time. All of the communication involved in this can be done publicly or privately, and can be done individually or as part of a group. Facebook occupies a middle ground between MySpace and LinkedIn because it’s restrained in design (something that could not be said for most MySpace pages) and because it’s not too businessy, which is what LinkedIn is all about.

So Facebook finds itself sharing part of a wave with Twitter, which in turn shared part of a wave with blogging. In a year we’ve found ourselves moving on from simply blogging to make ourselves heard, to building Facebook pages to reach out to those we’d like to connect to more closely. I’m not a huge fan of Facebook but it does connect me to way more interesting people (and long lost friends) than blogging ever did.

So is blogging dead? Some bloggers like Shel Israel, who co-wrote blogging’s defining book “Naked Conversations“ have noticed a fall in readers in recent months, and his comments have quickly led to another blogging “meme” (an idea that spreads, which is what blogging does well). The truth is that more people are blogging, more people competing for attention (leading to a terrible rise in Shameless Self Promotion, where instead of commenting on other posts in the space provided, a lot of folk simply try to point readers to their own sites.) Blogging long ago reached critical mass: Now it’s reached saturation point, and something has to (to mix a metaphor) give.

So expect things to evolve further. I’m not saying there aren’t some great blogs out there — blogs aren’t just about social networks, they’re also about great writing, and about information, both of which blogs also do very well. But blogs will continue to branch off into new areas as our needs, and the devices we use, evolve.

Blogging in short, never dies: It’s just the start of a road that goes we know not where. So if you’re thinking of blogging, ask yourself why you want to do it, and whether you might not be better off twittering, powncing, jaikuing or facebooking. Or waiting until the next Big Thing. It shouldn’t be long.

The Real iPhone Lesson: the Power of Schtum

I first wrote about Scoble, then the Microsoft Blogger Enfant Terrible back in 2004 or something. Maybe even earlier. But he was the breath of fresh air the company needed at the time. Now the ‘markets are naked conversations’ thing is the main meme, the conventional wisdom the smart people (smugly) get. Now Scoble’s on his own doing podcasts, still famous for being, well, Scoble, and just posted something that made me realize the game may already have changed:

Steve Jobs is MANUFACTURING great PR by keeping everyone’s mouth shut. Heck, I’ve met some people I KNEW had an iPhone and they were so scared of retribution or consequences that they wouldn’t answer a single question.

It’s an interesting possibility: That the real lesson from the iPhone episode is that companies will throw their levers into reverse and batten down the hatches (and mix a few metaphors on the way.) Corporate secrecy rules again. What is the point of opening all your windows at the behest of bloggers if great publicity is possible by controlling the flow of information so it is not a trickle?

Let’s face it: Jobs has perfected a form of self-censorship that is the antithesis of everything Web 2.0, social media, the blogging revolution and the instincts of every decent, right-thinking person. And it works. And we love him for it. Who isn’t going to draw a lesson from that?

Blog Off(line)

I know I’m old-fashioned, but I still like to edit my blogs from a client, not from the webpage itself. It’s probably something to do with the temperamental connections I get in this neck of the woods, but I’m always convinced my ramblings are going to disappear into the ether unless they’re somehow being saved on my computer,  not on someone else’s. What’s more, I hate the fact that Control+k doesn’t always mean insert a hyperlink. It should in every language, every situation. Really.

So it’s simple. A blogging tool (or client, if you want to be fancy) simply allows you to create, edit and update your blog postings without being online. You can fiddle with them, hone them, just as I’m not doing with this one, until you get a decent connection, and then you press the button and thwang, your post is posted. No openings of browsers; no waiting for connections before the muse strikes. Thwang. I love ‘em.

Problem  is, there aren’t many of them and I’ve not seen a decent list of them in one place. So, I’ve updated my 2.5 year old directory of blogging software to fill this hole in the market, and even thrown in a Mac client or two too, to keep my friend Mark happy. What I didn’t do was to include any Linux ones; I know they exist but I couldn’t find one I liked last time. I’m sure I’ll hear from Ubuntu folks soon enough. Oh, and Microsoft Word 2007 has a built-in tool now; see this post and the comments for a perspective on this.

But I do tend to agree with the somewhat irritable sounding commenter called HolidayCornwall who complained back in December 2005 about the absence of ‘software which can organise my blogs posting schedule which are mostly related to english language’. Of course, I was too gallant to suggest they first focus on mastering the English language before they start looking for complex blogging clients. Besides, the link they posted from, Littlewood Farm in Bodmin, looks so inviting all feelings of being a churl are banished. (Can a churl be banished? What is churl, exactly? Apparently, according to the American Heritage dictionary, it’s a boorish, rude person, or, alternatively, a mediaeval English peasant. Or both, I suppose. Excellent; they didn’t mess about with their insults in those days. “Churl, bring me some more toner and two copies of Windows XP SP2. And stop looking so dang churlish. Honestly”)

Anyway, I seem to have gotten off track here. I was talking about blogging tools. Oh, and the lack of a really decent blog organizer. I would love to have one that kept all my postings in an offline database, that I could update when the feeling arose. Is there something like that, or am just Bodmin? (You’ll either have to live in Cornwall or watched Doc Martin to get that.)