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The Importance of Blogging Earnestly

The Business Blogging Boot Camp (@ Windsor Media) provides a more bottom-line perspective on the growth of blogging, driven by Fortune's 1/10/2005 feature story on technology trends; their observations came to me as part of an email thread related to the BBC story I mentioned last night. They stress the importance of blogging for business, and furthermore the importance of blogging earnestly. They cite the Kryptonite affair and moves toward blog-monitoring by Bacon's Information -- the latter characterized as tentative, "inane", 'Not Getting It.' (I'm usually leery when a huge quant-marketing shop is characterized as Not Getting It. Often it's true, yes; but as far as I can see they often understand a lot more than they bother to explain to us proles. But I digress.)

There are two things I feel compelled to point out before going further: First, blogs are qualitatively analogous to specialist newsletters, which are nothing new to savvy marketers. As with specialty newsletters, the influence of a blog hinges on a subtle balance between the publisher's access to information, their (perceived) personal integrity, and the volume (direct or indirect) of their readership. What's new is the speed of blogging. I'm leery of pointing out emergent qualities, but it's hard to argue that a ten-day cycle time doesn't indicate that (a lack of) quantity may indeed, in this case, have a quality all its own.

The second thing I feel compelled to point out -- and this is both much more and much less important than it sounds -- is that the Kryptonite business not only didn't start on blogs, but didn't get its first traction there. It started on the cycling boards, and that's where it was hashed out, refined, debugged, and researched, and where the first instructional videos were posted, before it was ever reported on a blogospherically-integrated weblog. Some of these bicycling boards are almost as old as the web, and most have many members who trace their net-cred back to Usenet days. My point being that anyone focusing only on blogs as such is setting themselves up for obsolescence. Blogs as they are, are almost certainly not blogs as they will be.

Anyway, Windsor Media's take is largely blogospheric orthodoxy. And in practical terms, it's probably right: The important thing for businesses to do right now is to make it part of some people's jobs to go out, and read and post like humans. But there's a second thing that not only needs to happen, but will happen, and what's more will be enabled by the first: Smart businesses will take steps to understand how the blogosphere works, and how it can be gamed, and then they will go forth and game it. And it will work. The knowledge required will come from a few main sources: From big outfits like Bacon and free-range old-school marketing pundits (who will keep it to themselves and share out bits of wisdom to key clients); and from less old-school marketing pundits like Darren Barefoot and BL Ochman, and from product evangelism folks at big companies (who as a group will tend to share it on their blogs, undercutting Bacon et al's old-school attempts to make money off consulting). And, perhaps most important of all, it will come from research in social network analysis. More on that another time.

Blogging will be gamed by corporate and business interests, make no mistake about that. Because it can be, and is being, gamed. It happens every day. And, contrary to the blogospheric orthodoxy, the broader the cross-section of people who get involved in blogging, the easier it gets to game the system without looking like a weasel. And if the golden rule of capitalist systems is that money wants to make more money (and I'm pretty sure it's something like that), and if blogging has an impact on the growth and flow of money, then money will drive blogging, and blogging will get gamed.

Now I'm getting into blogging heterodoxy. The conventional wisdom on the blogging ethos is very cluetrain, and in fact, the Kryptonite affair does indeed show a real "cluetrain" cause-effect loop. I missed it at the time because I just didn't tune in to the story, but the folks at Fortune and Windsor Media are right about that: The ten-day problem-to-product recall cycle at Kryptonite was characterized by all the corporate communications failures criticized in the Cluetrain Manifesto. It just took a lot longer for this first clear case to emerge than either they or, frankly, I thought it would.

The orthodox position is that the more people get involved in blogging, the harder it gets to game the system. It's a variation on the open-source golden rule of debugging ("Given enough eyes, all bugs are trivial"): "Given enough eyes, all misinformation will be found." But open-source debugging works (when it works, which it often doesn't, but that's another story) because the "eyes on the code" belong to people who know how to spot a problem, and have the capability to affect it more or less directly. In blogging, the "eyes on the information" are often people with little or no real expertise. Much of what they spout is nonsense.

And yet, it's effective.

The blogosphere shifts like a body of water: Fast, and irresistibly. Part of the reason that happens is that the blogging community is comprised largely of small communities with large enough membership to make an impact, and what's more, those communities overlap: PoliBloggers are tight with techbloggers who are tight with lifestyle bloggers who are tight with polibloggers.... So when the loop has looped a few times, we find that a relatively small group of people can pretty reliably and rapidly shift the character of the blogosphere. But as the blogosphere becomes larger, it grows more statistically homogeneous, and small communities of movers will not have the same kind of predictable results anymore. Then it will seem less like water, and more like mud.

But I digress, again. I started this to talk about gaming the blogosphere, and that this will happen, I do not doubt for an instant. There's a lot of money riding on this, after all. Some people will figure out how to game the blogosphere -- to game the cluetrain. It will be a painful process with lots of false starts, but we are well beyond the beginning of the process. It started long before the Kryptonite affair; if I had to pick a point in time, I'd pick the consolidation of successful blogs like Wonkette, Gizmodo and ... under the Gawker Media banner. Gawker sells lots of ads, gets lots and lots of daily eyeballs, and their more overtly commercial blogs (like Gizmodo and Jalopnik) have pull with the product managers by virtue of the fact that they can say things like:

What consumers wantâ??an out-of-box way to share and transmit files between different storage media and computers (and users)â??is exactly what manufacturers don't want to give them, but they'll tease us a little. So, if you're really rich, DigitalDeck Entertainment Network is busting out an in-home network PC to gear to DVD sharing system that costs $4000 - $5000. It probably consists of a bunch of cables and a universal remote that your geeked-out younger brother could hack together himself.

And so, we've come back around again to the specialist newsletter: I take Gizmodo seriously (and I confess, I do read it more or less every day) because I see things like this that indicate to me that they bother to think a bit about what they're reviewing. They have credibility for me because they speak not merely in a human voice, but in one that says credible things. And they have the benefit of comprehensiveness because somebody (namely, Gawker Media) is paying them to do nothing but that.

And by the way, at some point does it stop being "blogging" and start being journalism? Open question, IMO.

Comments

I think blogs are like any other media: the cream will rise to the top, provided that the writers have also got promotional skills. Without the ability to promote, a blogger can toil in obscurity. The number of people who abanson blogs is high according to the stats I've read.

Is blogging journalism? Hell yes, and the best bloggers know that. My degree is in journalism and that training really helps me with research and writing. Daily journalism is hard work. Most people would rather have root canal than write and research daily. That's what journalists do.

And, while I appreciate the nice mention, I'd like to point out, that, ahem, my name is B.L. and not D.L. Ochman. :>)

... duely corrected.

Thanks for the mention of the BB Boot Camp-- I am fascinated by the details in this post. We are putting together a book on blogging (who isn't?) and I'm encouraged to see you posting about blogging as an emerging tool -- something that will grow and change according to how bloggers use it. I believe, as you do, that the ability to take this medium and individualize it, to create an online -- connected, networked -- presence, it more valuable than just blogging, as we know it today. Can't speak to the gaming portion, you have the inside scoop on that. I like the water methaphor a great deal, and the prediction that the larger the blogosphere gets, the more it will seem like mud-- but I disagree. Blogging is, in and of itself, when done seriously, with a purpose, journalism-- even in the diary-type blogs with their musings, misspellings, and inner-focus. There can never be too much journalism, too much content, too much information. The ability to filter your information, to take what you need and want, and only what you need and want, while still having the opportunity to be exposed to a whole lot more, can never be a bad thing, IMHO. More is better-- the water will merely flow faster and more furiously in some areas, and slower, more sluggishly in others. Again, IMHO, we bloggers who are on the fringes, that is to say, not affiliated with a larger, journalistic corp. and not, at this time, making waves with our words beyond our small readership, have a duty to remain steadfast and focused in our efforts to provide information, unsullied from editorial marks or censorship. Hence, we become trusted writers-- the blog becomes journalism.

Where it goes from there is anybody's guess at this point. Personally, I believe we have an exciting year ahead of us. Blogging is changing the way we (human beings in general) gather information and also, the way we assimilate it. This post is a prime example. You cite not only my Boot Camp, but a few friends, and other areas on the net that myself and many other visit for information daily. Why? Not to build your credibility, although that's what those citations do. You cite them because they pertain to your message. Therein lies the value of blogging. The message is king, not the blogger.

... but I can understand why you'd think we do. I leave things unsaid, but it's not my intent to imply by criticism that I think a view is flatly wrong.

Re. blogging as journalism, I think it clearly can be. Distinctions are artificial, especially if one starts taking an etymological approach (that is, "journalism" as derivative of "letter-writer"). Blogging is as reliable as its participants, and it's surely true that both writers and readers have opposing roles in that for a reader to properly learn from what's being read, s/he must read it critically. In business terms, it's related to active listening: You can soak like a sponge, or you can ask questions. Blogospheric conversation is a bit more roundabout, and the distributed nature of the conversation makes it harder to follow and easier to pick and choose one's text. There is, in short, no master text -- no big wall-written canon. (Note to self, need to dig up that old PARC conference presentation on PowerPoint as "wall-writing"....)

Where I have issues is with the camp (of which I sense you're not a member) that holds that the blogosphere is inherently self-policing. There seems to me to be a naïve libertarian belief that having a large body of interested parties will ultimately result in the "right" end. I (only half jokingly) classify this faith in the "power of many eyes" as a religion, and I see it overlapping with the related religion of free-marketism. (See, they worship this big, invisible hand...) I see it also as being of a piece with the "Long Boom" mythology that fueled the dotcom/tech boom-bust cycle.

And again, critique shouldn't be taken as a desire to "take it back" -- that can't be done, of course. It is what it is. I just don't see the hand of god in it, and I don't see a humane result as inevitable. Quite the reverse, in fact, unless we are vigilant.

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