Monday, June 09, 2003

Weblog Business Strategies 2003 VII

David Weinberger: Why Weblogs Matter

David Weinberger is author of "Small Pieces Loosely Joined" and co-author of "The Cluetrain Manifesto." He is a commentator on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," and is a columnist for KMWorld,, and Darwin Magazine. He is also a blogger. Here is a rough transcript of his comments:

If you noticed that in the program I'm listed as Dr. David Weinberger, it's there for one reason and one reason alone: a persistent marketing effort by Doc Searls.

Why do blogs matter? It does matter. Blogging has excited the Internet community, the Web community, the journalism community, and the political community in ways we haven't seen since the Internet itself. It's one of the reason we have so many conversations about Weblogs. They are important.

When someone mentions the bubble, you know that they've missed the very purpose of the Internet. The big scary bubble thing that went away was the right bubble thing to go away. People who talk about the bubble think about the Net as a market space. Other people think of it as an information space. But the bubble is going to keep getting bigger and bigger. That bubble went away. Good. I'm glad it went away. But the Net didn't go away. And the Web didn't go away.

Somewhere between 20 billion and 500 billion pages have been created. What's driving it? Something like the fact that the Net is a conversation space. It's not just markets that are conversations. And in many ways it’s a place with some persistence. That temporal dimension of persistence is crucial.

I am going to address the question: What is a Weblog. But only to get past it, OK? Look out and see what they have in common. They tend to be daily. They tend to be a paragraph, a couple of paragraphs. They are often in reverse chronological order. But also, they're terribly about links. Lots and lots of links.

Links are interesting because they point people out of the Weblog. Stop reading me. I want you to go away. Links are part of the architecture of the Web, but they're also little gestures of helplessness. You can drop one of these and still have a Weblog. You can drop three and still have a Weblog.

So I want to address the topic of voice. There are some blogs that adopt the corporate voice. Some adWpt the voices of dead people. I'm perfectly happy calling them weblogs. But the best blogs are those full of voice.

A dirty little secret about Dave and Doc is that they hand code their pages and upload them using FTP. They're still blogs. So it's not the technology. If not technology, then lets look at it is as rhetoric, as a social phenomenon, and as something more.

As rhetoric, I think it's important that many Weblogs are written badly. When reading a Weblog, you assume that you're reading a first draft. You know that it wasn't carefully edited, not much spell checked. You have the sense, wrongly, that it's closer to the person who wrote. Second of all, by reading what you assume to be a first draft, Weblog readers tend to be forgiving. You have to forgive the broken link. You have to forgive the bad spelling. You have to forgive the fact that the second paragraph should really be the lead. Social forgiveness is not a bad characteristic.

Beyond the rhetoric, Weblogs are a lot different than Usenet because Weblogs have a place. I can look up everything you've ever written in Usenet using Google, but that's different than going to a permanent, persistent place on the Net where I'm talking about myself. What you're doing is creating a social self. For the first time we have a place that has some permanence for this Web self, a proxy for yourself. When Jimmy said when he meets people he feels like he knows them because he's read their Weblogs forever, of course he does.

What about the notion of authenticity, a topic that keeps popping up? It's vexing and annoying. We have an M&M view of the self that says there's an inner core and an outer shell. We have a whole set of virtues that are connected to the relationship between the outer and the inner. That's worked pretty well for thousands of years, but it doesn't work very well on the Web. If the Web is your outer self, where is the inner self? The model falls apart. The relationship between you and your Web self is more akin to an author and one of her characters. It's written. Of course it's inauthentic and constructed. We are writing ourselves into existence.

What kind of selves do Weblogs favor? It favors good writers. I pushes for self-exposure. The third thing is that is seems to favor the unemployed. The timing of the recession is the best thing that could have happened to Weblogs. Thank you, Mr. Bush.

I want to talk about journalism in terms of the relationship between the inner truth and the outer truth. Lots of people are talking about journalism and blogging. No, let's not talk about that. Let's talk about blogging and truth. Objectivity claims to be the world as it is. In journalism, you're interviewing multiple people. You're vetting multiple claims. It provides a kind of a baseline for the community. The weakness is that journalists are human. They can't be objective. They have opinions.

Same thing for subjectivity. The claim is that it will show it our world as it is. The strengths are that it acknowledges that there is an observer there. That the observer is rooted in a culture. And that you get more of an experience. The weaknesses are that it's scattershot, raw, and individualistic.

It seems to me that blogs for the first time allows multisubjectivity. This gives subjectivity some of the heft that objectivity supposedly has. Now we have a way that we can actually read all of these things. We have a blogosphere. There are more blogs than a human could ever read, but we can find them. Now we can read stuff from all over the world. Multisubjectivity gives a term to one of the reasons so many of us are so thrilled by Weblogs. It's amazing that we can do this. Objectivity and newspapers tend to lose some of their regalness.

What's not to like about this? If everyone has their own voice, you get rumors, gossip, lies, and misinformation. That's an assault on knowledge. Business has mistaken itself for a fort because they've been able to control their environment by selectively releasing information. Knowledge has been their weapon. The edifice just isn't working any more. Weblogs are a way that cannot be stopped providing insight punching some holes in the wall. You can pretend that it's not going to happen, but it's going to happen.

Another group of people who are not thrilled about this assault on knowledge are people who have identified themselves as gatekeepers of knowledge. An exception would be Dan Gillmor, a journalist who deeply understands what's going on. In Athens, it used to be that knowledge used to be a way to discern who was worth listening to. The city was run by people talking. Can we look at what someone is saying and determine whether they're worth believing or worth listening to? It was fully concrete stuff.

Over the course of the next 1,000 years, the quest became one for certainty. That's what knowledge became. It became so anorexic as to be uninteresting. Knowledge grew out of the body and became a purely rational thing that had no human context or relationship to the body any more.

Now I want to talk about what knowledge is on the Web. About 18 months ago, my wife and I were looking for a washer and drier. We came down to a Kenmore and a Whirlpool. We go to Kenmore's site, and what do you see there: Nothing worth looking at. It's certainly not a great way to find out whether a washer will fit into the hole I just cut into my counter -- which you can actually do after eight clicks in.

We actually didn't go to Kenmore's Web site. We googled for Kenmore, Whirlpool, and discussion. I found a guy who said he could dry a queen-sized mattress cover. I am now totally sure that Kenmore is great at drying queen-sized mattress covers because Jim said so. Had I gone to the Kenmore site, I wouldn't have believed them because I'm being marketed to. And I wouldn't have known that the done buzzer was really loud. This is knowledge you can only get from human experience. You go to the next page down, and you find Karen, who has a question. She's answered by a guy named Rinso. Now here is a physicist of lint!

Moveable Type wasn't recognizing my login. I went to the discussion forums. I explained how hosed I am. And in a couple of hours I was pointed to information about what had happened. This is what knowledge sounds like on the Web. We're really, really happy with it. We're happy to have this uncertain, improbable, extremely helpful stuff available to us.

Weblogs are just simple little publishing tools. Why is this turning the world upside down? Why are people so excited about it? It doesn't make sense. It does make sense in the context of a deeply alienated world. We believe that knowledge is certainty while every day we encounter knowledge that isn't certain. That is extremely alienating. Or, maybe we're really in the Matrix. Maybe you're not really real. That's alienated. That means that you're not kissing your spouse in the evening. You're kissing your experience of your wife.

Ray Kurzweil says that by 2029 we'll hit the crossover and be able to download our brain. For an instant, we thought that consciousness is entirely disembodied. That's an insane, alienated idea. The belief that we have to go into work every day and talk like somebody else is insane and alienated.

If you want to know about forgiveness as a topic, you could look it up in a book. Or you could look it up in a blog like AKMA. You could learn more about forgiveness by reading that blog thread than you could by reading the most objective source. It's more human. It's more embodied. As imperfect and messy as it is.

Weblogs exist in a new place. That place is the Web. We've never had a second public space that's consistent with the first public space. Public spaces are important to us because we're social animals. We've never had anything like that before. And now we do.

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