Tag Archives: Political blog

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 End of Blogging Utopia

Blogs are great, but is it just a vast honeycomb of echo-chambers, where we talk to and listen to only those nearby?

Author and funny guy David Weinberger comments on Ethan Zuckerman’s remarks (both interesting fellas, and well worth reading; David in particular an antidote to the relentless and humorless self-promotion of many A-list bloggers) about how blogging grows in the developing world, the bloggers there start to write for their local audience, muting the ‘Global Voices’ effect that was Ethan’s dream.

I’ve watched this happen in Indonesia in the last year, as blogging takes off and hits critical mass, in terms of writers, readers and commenters. Quickly the issues become more local, the discussion more localized, the topics less interesting to outsiders. This is probably being mirrored all over the world.

The truth is that Global Voices — where people write from different corners of the world, and are read all over it — is always going to be just a small minority. The distortion in the first five years of the Blogging Revolution was that this small minority was the blogosphere. These were the early adopters who helped introduce blogging to each culture by looking, and talking, outwards. As critical mass was reached, the later bloggers had no need, or interest, to ‘talk outwards’: instead they addressed a larger subset of the audience they knew and wanted to reach — the people around them.

It’s not that bloggers changed their audience as blogs went mainstream on their home turf. It’s that the bloggers who came later just saw the medium differently — as another tool to participate locally. And because they are in larger numbers than the early adopters, and because they wrote about stuff relevant to their peers, they became the new norm.

There are exceptions, of course. Some bloggers have an audience that spans borders because they write about issues that aren’t geographically constrained: Richard MacManus has built a thriving business writing about Silicon Valley from New Zealand; my old chum Ong writes as much about Malaysia as he does Indonesia (and if you think those two places sound like more or less the same topic you’d need to spend some time in one to know how far apart they are.) Even this blog has tried to address a perhaps overly large topic (technology and the individual) with limited success.

That’s because the general trend of blogging is towards the specific — writing about things that the writer cares enough about to write, and the readers enough of interest to stick around to help make the blog a success. But I don’t see this as a bad thing. The impetus in newspapers is the same — those newspapers that survive are going to be those who understand and reflect their readership, which means giving as much attention to their specific concerns — however banal — as to international events.

The point here is that we read blogs who write about things we care about. The truth is that we tend to lean towards the familiar, and attach ourselves to those who can best tell us what just happened to something or someone we know (Paris Hilton, our local football team) and point us to things we care about (the bus service, relationships, dogs.) This may often mean geographically localised, but actually it’s really about being culturally localised: We read stuff that speaks to us. If we’re interested in dogs, but more specifically the Dandie Dinmont Terrier, we’ll read anyone who writes about that breed, whether they’re down the street or in Vientiane. As in all things, we tend to blogs that write about what we care about.

I think this is not a bad thing. Blogs are compelling because they’re personal: They’re a window into people’s souls, because for some reason the lingua franca of blogs has become not pretension but authenticity. So we learn huge amounts about people and about ourselves from reading blogs (and blog comments, the afterglow of blogging). Of course it would be great if we included into our daily blog-reading diet stuff from places we’d not been, cultures and issues we’d not been familiar with before, but that’s a tall order. Only a few of us are wired that way.

We should thank Ethan and his Global Voices team for helping spread the word of blogs. But I suspect from here on the revolution is going to take on a life of its own. It may not be as heady and utopian as the early days, but it means the medium is putting down roots. Which means it’s here to stay.

Vigilante Blogging

Wired offers a sobering story about the power of blogs, or rather the tendency of political bloggers to swarm (Howard Rheingold’s word). I would call it Salem-style witch hunting crossed with good old-fashioned conspiracy nuttiness.

Academic David Hailey stepped into the debate about the Texas Air National Guard memos suggesting they might have been produced on a typewriter, only to find himself the target of political bloggers, an attack that included demands for his dismissal. Luckily his university, Utah State, stood behind him and the original bloggers backed down (and, according to Wired, apologized) but as Hailey points out, it leaves more than a nasty aftertaste:

“It doesn’t matter if you vindicate yourself, you’re stained,” he said. “(The university) can support me and that stain won’t rub off. I can sue the pants off these guys…. That doesn’t change anything because everybody else only sees what is out on the internet.”

I’m all for bloggers keeping the traditional media on their toes, by original reporting, fact-checking and reasoned commentary. But this kind of thing, whatever the subject, whatever the political temperature, whatever the stakes, doesn’t do that, nor does it build confidence that that monitoring role is likely to become a long term reality.

Blogging Bloggers Just Want To Blog Blogs

A fair summary of blogs?

Peter Hartlaub, Pop Culture Critic at The San Francisco Chronicle, writes today of the blogging phenomenon at the Democratic convention and, surprisingly, concludes that “for several moments in four days of sleepless and often stream-of-consciousness coverage, the collection of mostly young writers ably explained their existence — while raising questions about the established media’s ability to stay in touch with readers, viewers and listeners”.

Quite positive, but I’m not crazy about the other things he says. He seems to think the only valuable blogs are political: “Every Web log hosted by a good writer who can type an interesting account of their day (such as Wilwheaton.net) is matched by 100 that constantly hit up readers for money, link any article that predicts a bright future for Web logs and name-drop other sites that do the same thing. Yes, most bloggers blog about blogs. But the political bloggers, as a breed, are a more focused group.”

Hmmm. Are the rest of us interested only in perpetuating our species? I doubt it somehow. It’s the typical perspective of mainstream media, I suspect (of which I’m still a member, I guess). Turn it around: Judging blogging by the most inane, self-absorbed blogs you come across is a bit like judging the mainstream media from a selective reading of family newsletters, parish fliers, smalltown rags and Fox. Blogging covers every conceivable topic, and unlike academia and localized publications, breaks out of any geographical or generic boundary. Political bloggers may be more focused, but where’s the serendipity in that? OK, so not all bloggers are Renaissance figures but I can think of quite a few who are. Blogging breaks more molds than we give it credit for.

OK, I’m waxing again. I’ll stop.