Monday, June 09, 2003

Weblog Business Strategies 2003 IV

David Winer: What Are Weblogs?

David Winer is the Berkman Fellow at Harvard University and former CEO of Userland Software. He started his blog Scripting News in April 1997. Here is a rough transcript of his comments:

I've believed in Weblogs for quite some time. I want to tell you the story about how I got involved in this. Every year is the year in which Weblogs are new for some group of people. This conference is showing that Weblogs are about to happen in business. The first group of people to adopt PC technology were programmers. Then librarians and lawyers. After that you get business, and it gets really big.

We've seen that happen again with desktop publishing and the Macintosh. And we've seen it happen with the Web, although that was subsumed because of the hype around it. I did my first Weblog in connection with a project I did at Wired in 1994. We did a project called 24 Hours of Democracy. We wanted to show our political leaders that the Web could be used for something very positive. We invited anybody to write an article for us about how the Web being a free environment would be a good thing to do. We had a good amount of people participating: 50-60 people.

I put up a Web site for this. It was kind of an internal Web site, but it wasn't protected by password. I posted links to everything that was going online in reverse chronological order. Mike's presentation was great, but I would argue whether a Weblog even needs to be open to the world. If you've got a group of 50-60 people who are working together on a project -- think of it this way. Do you have a person in your work group who keeps up a steady stream of emails about articles you should read? That's a blogger.

What's the difference between a blogger and a reporter? My opinion is that there is no difference. The relationship between Weblogging and journalism is a contentious issue in the blog world today. Is journalism really that high a calling? Is it really that rare that you can't be a journalist and still be an ordinary person? Go ahead and put your cheesecake recipes in your blog. They might help me understand more about who's talking. It may reveal some truth about you that someone else might explain to you. Weirder things have happened.

Is the Weblog part of business? If I were starting a business today, I would make the business a Weblog. Then you've got a competitive edge over everybody else. I see the Cluetrain Manifesto and Weblogs as being flip sides of the same coin. Go ahead and be yourself. Your customers can see through your BS anyway. The weird thing about it is that in the old world, the monoculture world, you had these huge conglomerates where they wanted everything to centralize and get big. On the one hand, you want companies, presumably, to tell you the truth. On the other hand, sometimes people want companies to lie to them.

When I was in software development, I wrote an article that said, "We make shitty software." It was true. You want to be up front about your biases and conflicts of interests. Another thing about integrity is that you don't say anything you know not to be true. This isn't unique to Weblogs. Personal Web sites haven't gone away. Weblogs are the personal Web sites of 2003.

Now we sort of understand how the software should work. We have a backlog of features that haven't made it out to the users. The developers have an idea of what comes next. The question is, how are they going to be used in different situations? This was in 1994. Zoom forward to 2003.

We had an experience at Harvard earlier this year. The RIAA has gone from being people you'd like to help to people you'd like to do something else to. They decided to go after individuals, five students on five college campuses. One was at Harvard. They wrote the dean of the college and said here is a student who's supplying illegal MP3's. The dean decided to remove the content and punish the student. We covered that in the Weblog. It was in the Crimson.

A college student without Internet access for a year is not a college student. He in effect suspended the student for a year. So we wrote an article. And we know that the administration watches the Web site. If we use the logo in a way they don't like, they let us know. We published the article, and they didn't say anything. I thought, wow, we're doing something universities should do. This is how Weblogs should be used in the business world.

At this point, someone stepped in with Q&A to challenge whether blogging was journalism. Discussion was lively, but the issue bores me to tears, so I took a break. Winer made an interesting point about the economics of mainstream media: The costs of running a large media organization are outstripping the organization's ability to gather and disseminate news while people's information needs are increasing.

So many of the press reports about blogs cast it as us against them. By the end of the article, they conclude that bloggers won't replace them. That violates their Rule No. 1: Objectivity. Of course they have a vested interest in not being replaced. They want to keep their jobs. I don't wake up every morning saying, "I want to replace a traditional reporter."

Question: We saw a breakdown in editing at the New York Times. Had Jayson Blair been blogging, he wouldn't have lasted a month.

The New York Times has a much bigger problem than Jayson Blair, and they're in denial. I have never read an article in the New York Times about an area in which I have expertise and said, "Those guys really covered the story right." We could talk about this all day, but let's not.

Every Thursday night, we do something like this at the Berkman Center in Cambridge. We discuss things of interest in the blogging world. So: Employees with Weblogs. I have the reputation of being balls out, let's do everything. But I'm not. Like Michael said, you've got to be careful. Userland was probably the first software company in the world in which employees were required to have a Weblog. Our philosophy was: If you don't like Weblogs, don't work here. With programmers, that can be difficult. We had an employee who was constantly posting things that I felt as CEO of the company weren't team spirited.

A Weblog is a fairly prosaic thing. Don’t get religious about it. Don't think of it as a calling. It's just like the photocopy machine, the fax machine, or the telephone. The same issues of trust apply. You have to be able to trust the people you work for. And they have to be able to trust you. Every technology is unique, but with this one, the same rules basically apply.

Halley Suitt: How much truth does a company really want to tell?

Even in a company that wants to do business as usual, their PR function should have a Weblog. I would like to see a change in attitude on the customers' side and the company's side. The customer tolerates truth. OK, I just heard something bad about this company, but that doesn't mean that everything is all screwed up and I can't work with them. Given the difficulties that they're having, that's when they might want to be transparent.

Did we come up with a set of ground rules for employee blogging? Yes, we did. Repeating something that they had been warned about means that you have to fire them. Disclosing the company's secrets, product plans, people's salaries -- what you consider private information -- is just common sense. If you've got the one person on the team who's a natural born blogger -- the NBB -- and there's one in a group that you're connected to, tie them together as an aggregator and then you've really got something. Now every member of five organizations can keep up on the news of the others. You can actually do that today.

Everything new has some risks. But that’s also where the fun comes in.

More Q&A discussion, including some commentary from Beth, who's gotten in trouble for cheating at Xbox -- and blogging about it -- because she works for Microsoft.

There's not going to be an answer for every reluctant CEO. That would be antithetical in the blog world. How can we give you a one size fits all thing? Maybe it doesn't fit the organization. Maybe not everyone should be blogging.

I don't really know about these issues. I've never run a public company. But what I have been able to personally tolerate is a moving target. On my Web site I have something called On This Date. And now, something that bothered me in 2002 might not affect me the same way. The world has gone nuts if you look at it from the 1996 perspective.

Maybe just starting a Weblog helps further democracy. It's worth thinking about being idealistic. Don't knock idealism. It actually has some practical applications.

You can also read Winer's crib sheet for the talk.

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