Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Postlude: Weblog Business Strategies 2003

I'm not going to do too much in the way of sensemaking in the aftermath of the Weblog Business Strategies conference because I don't want to take the time to reread all of my reports, identify consistent threads, or make conclusions. But I do have some post-conference extemporizing to do.

For the most part, I'm struck by the parallels between the current conversation about blogs and discussions about the state of zinemaking in the mid-'90s. When the mainstream media latched onto zine culture in 1994 and 1995, many of the same questions people are asking about blogs came up in the grassroots print media community. What's a zine? Is it "zine" or "'zine"? (I was one person who thought that the apostrophe wasn't necessary and overly relegated zines to second-class status in relation to magazines. Silly me.) Are zinemakers journalists? Will zines overtake or create a valid media space parallel to magazines?

We didn't answer those questions about zines, and I'm not sure we'll ever answer them about blogs. You see, zines have carried on. The mainstream attention faded, and zines fell back into their quaint little underground. That's not a bad thing. And in many ways, blogs are the new zines. Or e-zines. The parallels are there. While I think blogs have a better chance of walking hand in hand with other widespread forms of Web publishing, communication, and culture, I am bored to tears by questions like "What's a blog?" and "Are bloggers journalists?" (I'm also slightly amused by folks who insist on calling them Weblogs instead of blogs. Tool preference aside, blogs are native to the Web. So why say "Web"? 'Course, I also argued against the term "e-zine," so there we go.)

The subtle difference between Jason Shellen's question -- "Does anyone want us to tell you what a blog is?" -- and Dave Winer's refinement -- "Does anyone care what a blog is?" -- is an important distinction but, in the end, is somewhat moot. Defining and categorizing often leads to restriction and gradual atrophy. In the zine world 10 years ago, we had discussions about reviewzines, perzines, e-zines, megazines, metazines and the like. If you have ads in your zine, have you sold out? Who cares? Blogs already have increasingly limiting strictures imposed on them -- their linear, reverse chronological order, for two -- and I think it's less important to ask what a blog is than it is to ask what you do with your blog.

That said, I think that there's one important difference between the current state of blogging and the 1994-stylee state of zinemaking. In the zine scene, we saw a handful of "A-list" zinemakers emerge as more professional writers and editors -- and published book authors -- because of their self-publishing. Seth Friedman, Chip Rowe, Pagan Kennedy, and others got book deals because of their zines. Zinemakers got mersh journalism jobs because of the skills they honed in grassroots media work. However, while we saw a lot of mainstream media attention paid to zines -- "Isn't that cute? The kids are making little magazines!" -- we did not see professional journalists dipping their toes into the zine world. The talent flow was one way.

In blogging, the talent flow is two way, and I think some people feel threatened by that. Just like the zinemakers of a decade ago, some bloggers may be able to better themselves professionally because of their blogging. In addition, mainstream journalists and other professionals see value in participating in the blogosphere themselves. In the zine scene, we saw a lot of wannabe, second-wave zinemakers who started wading in the DIY waters because of mainstream media coverage, but we did not see the professionals wetting their toes. We groused about the "less pure" zines that were made by folks who started self-publishing because they wanted to do a zine -- rather than because they had something important they needed to say -- just as that topic comes up in the blogosphere (and in online communities and in...).

But we didn't have to contend with mainstream media makers and business people playing in our sandbox. Here, we have the opportunity to be what Carl Steadman calls microstars. Just as folks do in indie rock, minicomics, and other creative subcultures. And I think some of us feel threatened by big-name media makers and business people elbowing their way into our comfortable little commune. Likewise, we bristle because, as "pioneers," we feel that they're co-opting what we do -- or doing something that's less pure, idealistic, or whatever. That's because there are business opportunities in blogs. There aren't in zines.

Tony Perkins is not the anti-Christ. Regardless of whether he's using the term "blog" correctly -- when AlwaysOn launched, everything was a blog: articles, comments, discussion forum posts -- what he's doing is laudable and has promise. It's even bringing increased attention to our "more pure" blogging. I'm not sure whether folks get uppity because he is commercializing an aspect of blogging... or because reporters call him for blog-related interviews instead of our A-list microstars... but in the end, while AlwaysOn is not in and of itself a blog, part of AlwaysOn is a blog. And I think Perkins would be wise to up the ante on that front. (Clue: Give every AlwaysOn member their own personal, dedicated blog. Cull the best and brightest entries and give them front-page play. Take a page from Howard Rheingold's Electric Minds playbook. Clue two: Give participants ownership of what they write. Only that way will you attract the bloggers and members you really want.)

Debate is healthy. But let's not let it lead to inaction. Or factionalization. I think mainstream media and business attention is a good thing for blogging, bloggers, and blogs. I think it's good that Perkins is trying to wrap his head around it. (Although we had him at a bit of a disadvantage yesterday, and I don't think he needed to submit to Winer so quickly.) Instead of niching blogs as something that need to be created by an individual, not edited, and not commercial, lets look at ways blogging can fit into other aspects of Web publishing and Net-based communication. Because it can.

Zines couldn't.

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