Weblogs Will Save The World
“The fundamental principle
behind the Web was that once someone somewhere made available
a document, database, graphic, sound, video, or screen at
some stage in an interactive dialogue, it should be accessible
(subject to authorization, of course) by anyone, with any
type of computer, in any country. And it should be possible
to make a reference – a link – to that thing,
so that others could find it.”
- Tim Berners-Lee: “Weaving the Web” - 1999
When Tim Berners-Lee
(TBL) created the Web he wanted the content to be instantly
and equally available to everyone and he also wanted everyone
to be able to link to that content without restrictions. This
vision of the Web is now a reality and it has manifested itself
in ways that TBL never imagined.
The most important change caused by the
realization of TBL’s vision was wresting monopoly control
of content from the hands of the Gatekeepers*. For centuries
(since the printing press at least) content and its distribution
had been controlled by the rich and the powerful. Yet, in
just a few short years, the Web had removed much of that control
and put a lot of the responsibility for content into the hands
of the masses. This was one of the sexiest features of the
non-commerce* side of the Web and is, in part, what drove
the wild success and expansion of the Web during those early
However, even though the Web provided
content to “anyone, in any country,” it was still
incomplete. Browsers, HTML and multimedia made it easy for
the masses to receive compelling content from a variety of
sources but it was not so easy for those same masses to produce
content. While creating and publishing content to the Web
had become infinitely simpler and cheaper than similar pre-Web
methods, limitations remained that often prohibited those
lacking the aptitude or skills from creating and distributing
A prime example is the “Home Page*”
craze of the late 1990s. Millions of people created free home
pages and had virtually no idea how to maintain, manage or
present their content and the result was a giant graveyard
of poorly designed Web sites with stale content. The problem
was that the masses did not have the time, energy or desire
to master the skills required to create and distribute content.
While most did have the desire to share personal content,
they did not have the motivation to invest the personal resources
that a Web site demanded. The costs, while still lower than
pre-Web costs, were still too high (or at least perceived
to be too high) for the average Joe to realistically consider
becoming an active content creator and publisher.
Think of the Telegraph. That technology
revolutionized communication. It was fast, essentially free
and easy to use – providing you learned Morse Code.
Now imagine installing a Telegraph line in every home in America
during the Nineteenth Century. In this scenario there would
be many who would sit down and learn how to use those dots
and dashes and subsequently utilize that knowledge to communicate
with others. Yet, there would also be many, many more who
didn’t want to spend the time learning Morse Code and
would decide to wait a few years for the telephone. Those
who opted for ignorance had just as much, if not more, to
say as the masters of Morse Code, but for whatever reason,
didn’t feel the same compulsion to master a new technology.
This is an obviously flawed example but the point should remain
clear, the Telephone was much easier to use than the Telegraph.
To put this in the context of blogs we
can say that blogs are the modern day telephones. Or, to use
a more appropriate comparison, blogs are the Browsers of Web
The Impact of Blogs
Blogs have made the creation and publication of content as
simple as browsing the Web. Blogging tools have removed virtually
all the technical barriers that previously prohibited publication
by the masses. Now, everyone with something to say or share
can do so without needing to learn new skills.
Giving the power of publication to the
masses signals the end of the Gatekeepers. There are no more
gates to keep when everyone on the planet can publish to everyone
else. The paradigm has shifted. Now individuals can run their
own mini-Publishing Empires and this has the former Gatekeepers
wringing their hands and trying to figure out their role within
this new paradigm.
Within this emerging landscape a debate
is raging among bloggers, technologists, former Gatekeepers
and self-proclaimed pundits about the true impact of blogs.
Many argue that blogs are merely a passing fad while others
believe that blogs will soon replace much of traditional media
methods. The truth is probably somewhere in between the extremes
but it is interesting that blogs share some characteristics
with the Open Source and Peer-to-Peer movements.
- Driven by community rather than profit
- Often subversive to existing power structures
- Unmanaged and often unmanageable
It is those very characteristics that
make the future of blogging so difficult to predict and the
impact so hard to measure. Yet, while this debate rages on,
a very significant aspect of blogging is being entirely overlooked.
That aspect is not how blogs are affecting the Web or media
as a whole but how blogs affect the individual.
Blogs And You
Prior to blogs, content basically flowed one way in relation
to the individual. Content was created and distributed by
the few and then funneled down to the individual for consumption.
While methods existed for individuals to distribute content,
those methods were primarily direct distribution through email,
letters, telephone or group distribution with a newsgroup
or bulletin board. Mass publication and distribution wasn’t
possible for the masses and so individuals passively absorbed
content. It flowed in one direction. (see Figure A).
The funnel effect is basically how humankind
has received content throughout history. The Web, while vastly
increasing the amount of information available (and making
it affordable), did little to modify the funnel. The result
is that the individual remained a consumer of content without
acquiring any real method to become a content producer. Blogs
have changed that model.
Now the funnel flows in both directions.
A funnel and an inverted funnel. The consumer is now a distributor
(see Figure B). Blogs enable individuals to compete and participate
in content creation and distribution and that participation
is having a profound effect.
There are four specific ways that blogs
are causing change among the masses.
Media consumption has traditionally been a passive event.
While each medium requires varying degrees of attention and
concentration, very few require active participation. Reading
a book demands thinking and concentration but the act of reading
very rarely motivates the reader to write his own book. And,
for the few who do receive that authorial inspiration, many
obstacles stand between a finished book and publication. The
passive nature of traditional media consumption may be by
design or it may be due to circumstances but the reality is
that blogs DO NOT ENCOURAGE passive behavior. In fact, blogs
are the polar opposite of passive media consumption. Blogs
encourage people to publish their content for the world. By
definition this is an activity and blogging encourages this
Contrast a habitual television viewer,
aka couch potato, with a blogger. The couch potato watches
programming and maybe talks about what he saw at the office
water cooler. The blogger may watch a similar show or possibly
read something interesting on the Web and blogs about it for
the entire world to read. Additionally, the content that the
blogger published could quite possibly be someone's media
consumption tomorrow and maybe inspire posts by other bloggers.
The point isn't that bloggers will change
the world but that blogging is an activity and getting involved
affects people in many positive ways. Additionally, by blogging,
the participants internalize the idea, inspiration or issue
that was published. The result of this internalization a sense
of "ownership" because personal time and energy
was invested in the blog post.
Knowing that people (many or few) consume your content (read
your blog) causes a sense of responsibility (to varying degrees).
It is similar to an actor or a journalist discovering that
people admire or enjoy their work and instantly receive an
additional motivation to do their very best. Not everyone
in life knows what it's like to have an audience but blogs
are changing that and soon, everyone who chooses to will have
an audience. It will be a decision of choice instead of circumstance.
Links are votes. Commenting about a topic is a vote.
Bloggers are trading in votes. With search engines like Google
and services like Technorati, Daypop and Blogdex, every blogger
who adds a link or bitches about a movie, enters a vote for
that particular topic or Web site. The more bloggers that
link or comment, the more important that topic becomes and
the more visible it is to the rest of the world. The more
visible the topic becomes, the more it will be talked about
and the cycle will continue.
That is only one example of how linking
and commenting on a topic can register a vote of support or
condemnation. Without a blog (or a Web site) it is impossible
for an individual to have anything close to that type of impact
on a particular topic. Empowering individuals with the ability
to actually make a difference with something he or she cares
about is a powerful thing. Be careful with those links.
Because bloggers have a means to publish anything
to a global audience they begin to view the world around them
through a blogging lens. Everyday events suddenly become potential
blog posts. An awareness develops that didn't previously exist.
An otherwise ordinary individual is now seeing things in her
personal experiences as possible content for a global publication.
Journalists learn to view life through
the lens of “the story.” Artists learn to perceive
the world as inspiration for their next masterpiece. Musicians
learn to gobble up sounds and experiences as fuel for their
next platinum record. Mathematicians learn to see numerical
patterns in nature and are motivated to develop Nobel-winning
equations. And now bloggers are learning to view everything
around them as inspiration for their blog.
Maybe all of this optimism about blogs is unwarranted. I've
often doubted my personal feelings about the role blogs will
play in the future of the Web and modern society. Maybe they
will fade into oblivion to be shelved next to the Cue Cat
and the <blink> tag. I really don't know. I'm not a
futurist. I just know what I see and what I observe is a continued
lowering of technological barriers that previously prevented
the masses from participating in media creation.
I have a friend who mixes his own audio
on his computer. I have another friend who is making an "indie"
film on a DigiCam. I know someone else who makes beautiful
art with an old digital camera and some editing software.
There is a long list of people doing things that weren't possible
a couple of decades ago. The Gatekeepers really are dead and
what is rising up out of that vacuum may be blogs or something
As those obstacles disappear people will
begin to change. How will they change? I don't know. But I
think that history shows us that the change is probably a
continuation of empowering the people with the skills and
tools that were once held by only a few. We, the masses, are
keeping our own gates and I'd like to think blogs are helping
us do that, even a little.
- By Eric Janssen