Rambling thoughts on blogging, 2006: Warning: This post contains lots of navel-gazing. And it rambles way too long. But that’s what happens when one has a four-hour flight and ones PowerBook battery stays charged longer than it ever has before (key: dim monitor).
Before writing anything more, I’d like to thank the two people most responsible for me having this weblog: Dave Winer and Doc Searls. They didn’t know me at the time I started blogging, but they still were responsible. Okay, now on with the rambling.
Almost three years ago (to the day) I attended one of the first conferences (I’m impressed that link is still alive) that ever tried to pull together “business” bloggers into one room. It was not an “unconference,” in fact, it was very much a conference-conference. However, in some ways the conference was hijacked by the attendees who actively blogged it and linked to one-another’s blogs (it was pre-tagging and track-backing) and there was a lively IRC channel (the cool kids call it a “back channel”) taking place that connected the room with dozens more who were listening in from all over the world. Way before the organizers did, the attendees of that conference figured out how to un-conference it and to completely subvert the “we’re the panel, you’re the audience” thing.
On the flight home from that conference (it was in Boston), I collected some random thoughts about my, then, two years of blogging and posted them. Several times in the past three years, I’ve thought about posting something on “where I think blogging is now,” but each time I do, I look back at that post and think, despite the explosive growth of everything related to blogging and participatory/citizens/conversational/personal/social-networking media, I really had nothing more to add.
Most of the stuff I wrote then I still think is accurate. However, after spending another 48 hours in “group therapy” (Dan Farber’s term) with people who pioneered blogging and others who think about this stuff way too much, I decided to add some more observations. The following is in no particular order, so as a public service to the easily bored, I’ve created links to each point. Also, I’d like to stress these are only my thoughts: I don’t suggest they are “rules” or truths or how-tos.
1. I am not a blogger.
2. Okay, I am a blogger.
3. How to make money with a blog.
4. If I’m a “user” then developers are “pushers.”
5. Those of us who know how to use these tools need to learn the art of “how-to” sharing and teaching.
6. Lawsuits and the lack of civility are very real threats to blogging.
7. We’re not even at the end of the beginning of personal media.
I blog. I use a blog. I write things and post it to my blog. I will start adding audio and video to my blog. I post photos and link to them on my blog. But I’m not a blogger. I’m a dad and a husband and sports fan and a small business owner and a volunteer in a few things. I’m a rookie gardener and a geek about certain types of technology. But I’m not a blogger. I use a blog. I use a telephone. I use a white board. I use conversations. I use listening. I use giving. I use lots of tools and devices and strategies to do the things I do. This blog is just one more way. [top]
As much as I want this blog to be merely a tool, it’s more. It is, as I’ve said before, my identity online. It has (and I really hate to use terms like this) become a part of my “brand.” It’s embarrassing for me to admit this, as I’ve been “in marketing” or publishing and the creation of media in some way or another my entire career, but the last thing I ever thought this blog would be is a “branding tool,” much less a “media property.” As a business owner, I wish I’d realized the whole “branding” thing and tied this blog more into the “Hammock” brand more. If I had thought about it strategically, I guess I would have figured out the business-angles as what I do for a living, custom-publishing, is more akin to what “the business of blogging” could be about than a lot of the goofy business models I see people chasing. Bottom line: I like being a blogger so much more than the business of blogging. I like the non-business, personal part of being a blogger. However, my being a blogger has been good for my business…and becomes moreso all the time. So, heck. Call me a blogger all you want. Just call. [top]
At Bloggercon, I couldn’t mention the news about PaidContent.org that I just blogged in the previous post. However, I’m very enthusiastic about someone like Rafat Ali blazing trails and displaying the correct way to build a business using the tools of personal media. He established authority and trust in his niche and now is extending his brand into various tried-and-true B-to-B media lines of business. He’ll succeed because of the years of establishing that trust in his brand. Chris Pirillo had some great comments on the topic of monetizing personal media that should be listened to by those who are trying to figure out the money angle here. He’s also shown that you can generate plenty of revenue on a blog. But more often, the real way to make money is with a blog. A blog can be the lynchpin or foundation of a business — but I’d recommend one not viewing the blog as being the business. Or, if you want to use these tools for advocacy or raising money or changing the world in any way, remember that: The core product, the core brand is you and your cause and your product or service. Using your blog (and other tools) as a means to support that brand will lead to the money. I think Kathy Sierra said it best in a post last September: “You can out-spend or out-teach your competition.” I think “the money” in all of these tools of personal media is learning to use them to out-teach your competitors (or opponents, or alternative causes, etc.). [top]
A big part of the “un-conference” model is centered on its emphasis on “users” of products and services rather than on those who develop and sell such products and services. (Note to people not living in the tech industry bubble: Developers is the term used to refer to people who make and sell products and services. In other fields, we call them manufacturers, publishers, creators, makers, marketers, providers, etc., so when you hear the word “developer” just insert whatever you call those folks in your industry.) But, personally, I don’t like the “user” label. Granted, I’m addicted to some of these tools of personal media, but “user” isn’t what I am. If I’m a user, then developers and marketers are “pushers” and media channels are “enablers.” We’re all a bunch of junkies.
Also, because Bloggercon was developed in reaction to traditional conferences (thus the “un-conference” title), its creator, Dave Winer, is adamant that developers not use the venue for touting their wares. Unless one understands the context in which this “developers can’t pitch” approach is occurring, it can seem harsh and petty. However, if one considers the context of “developers get to say whatever they want in every other conference” then it begins to be more understandable. However, the subtlety of this “don’t speak as a developer” rule can lead to some trepidation on the part of developers who may be able to spread some light on a topic who fear their contribution could be seen as a pitch. For example, yesterday there was a question raised about blog advertising networks. As several people in the room had developed and run such networks, they could have answered the question, however they may have been reluctant to respond because they would have been speaking as a developer.
As I’ve reflected on this issue, I’ve begun to believe the “developer” vs. “user” paradigm may not be the problem. Frankly, in a room of 125 or so, it’s just a bunch of people. Rather, I think the desire to remove commercialization from the conference is the appeal. Placing “selling” or “hyping” outside the bounds of commenting or commentary is the appeal. Getting rid of the “agenda” to what session leaders or attendees do is the appeal. However, if there’s a developer in the room who can talk about his or her product with a bunch of “users” who are going to call bullshit on any hype they drift into, then a conversation between users and developers is fine with me, IMHO. [top]
Phil Torrone’s session on “tools” (MP3) was great for several reasons. Number one, Phil displayed what I think a great session leader is: curious. Phil is one of the most amazing “professional” how-to people out there. His how-to hacks for Make Magazine’s website and print edition are magic. But Phil doesn’t dream those things up. He’s a sleuth for great ideas from wherever they arrive. He ran his session the same way, obviously and genuinely more curious with what everyone in the room had to say than in hearing his own voice.
However, one of the things HE suggested was the need for those people who know how “to-do” to take time to share that knowledge with those who may not know. He suggested there should be a “how-to” day each week. He also suggested that screencasts of how things work would be helpful. I agree. Unless you have someone to sit and walk you through using new software or using a new product, a video tutorial is more helpful than the thickest manual. As soon as I learn “how-to” screencast, I’m going to start sharing some how-tos with others.[top]
There are two trends that I don’t like hearing about, but I know they are going to influence the direction of blogging — they may even make us look back to today as “the golden age” of personal media, rather than the foundational era. One is the lack of civility or, as Doc Searls says, a lack of understanding of the concept of “the commons.”
I’ve read enough history to know that the lack of civility is not a new thing. Duels and wars and feuds go back to cavemen. However, the drive-by nature of many online feuds and disagreements and petty jealousies is disheartening to those who’d like to see something more meaningful emerge. I have a theory that our pop-culture’s celebrity obsessions are part of the problem. We transfer what’s okay in one arena to another without thinking of the absurdity. For example, yelling “you suck” at the visiting pitcher of a major league team leads some parents to think yelling “you suck” to the pitcher of a Little League team is the same deal. Some people apparently think the same is true online — that anyone with any degree of celebrity or even faux celebrity (i.e., anyone willing to step onto the pitcher’s mound of a blog) is fair game for personal attacks. And god forbid that someone’s blog become popular with a few dozen people.
What is it? Jealousy? Lack of civility? Stupidity? Whatever it is, the personal attacks on blogs about other blogs — and by commenters on blogs — is not a good thing. Arguing issues is good. Personal attacks, bad. Of course, there are those who invite personal attacks by their outrageous actions, or, by their open trolling for attention at any costs. Or by their pomposity and out-sized hubris. But in almost every case, the personal attacks that spew harangues rather than present countering arguments are counter-productive. And they are going to make the practice of open comments a thing of the past.
The second scary trend: Lawsuits. Robert Cox mentioned calls he’s getting from bloggers who are being sued for something they said on their blogs. (I don’t know specifically the issues in those calls, but it sounded like several are related to libel.) I have a personal bias here: I don’t like lawsuits. Lawsuits are expensive, even if you believe you are correct and you eventually win. I have the personal belief that until the U.S. reforms its tort system (for example, my favorite suggestion: user pays — or, perhaps, some sort of pre-certification or screening of cases (like the EEOC does), I worry about bloggers who don’t understand the difference in “free speech” and libel. Traditional media companies carry liability insurance to defend themselves from lawsuits — and in most cases, such companies have at least some understanding of the boundaries they can and cannot cross. Until the availability of blogger liability insurance (and even after it’s available), I’d suggest tp those who blog to eschew using their blogs to libel, manipulate, perpetuate crimes or do other stupid things that would get people in trouble in all other venues. A couple of hints: learn to complain without resorting to flame-throwing. And don’t be stupid.
One thing I’m as certain of as I was three years ago. We’re at the very, very beginning of something still. The train hasn’t left the station. There is no boom in personal media (while there may very well be lots of money and individual’s time lost on ill-fated ventures, the “bust” in those myspace knockoffs will not matter in the big scheme of things — as the “dot.com” bust didn’t matter in the long-run of how the Internet is so significantly changing our lives and business) It amuses me when any powers that be designate the winners and losers of the blogoshere.
I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: I believe all these personal media tools (blogs, video-blogging, podcasting) are like the telephone. They’re tools for connecting. For having conversations. For staying in touch. For conveying your ideas. Granted, they are as transformative as the introduction of the telephone, but they are also as simple to understand as the telephone is today. The more one tries to make this complicated, or about business, or about changing the world, the more I believe one can miss the point at how simple all of this really is. [top]