The Copacabana Hotel in Manhattan is said to be an excellent place to enjoy salsa. This week it was also a place to enjoy a discussion about the past, present, and future of blogging as more than three-hundred people gathered at BlogOn 2005.
One of the ways that you can tell if a new Internet technology is going to be successful is to look for skepticism. When people begin to say the hype exceeds the reality, it means we are on the way toward the reality exceeding the hype. I am not referring to new business models that are going to make water run uphill, but rather to fundamental technologies such as the Internet itself, the Web, Java, Linux, WiFi, and others. All of those were discounted in the early days. Blogging has now entered the phase where it is in the category of a fundamental technology — one that is enormously profound and is altering how information is documented, distributed, syndicated, and archived.
As with all fundamental technologies, there are a lot of myths in the early stages — like “The Internet is free” or “The web is for documents, not for applications”. Add to the list that blogging is a vanity tool for people to write about themselves or their hobbies. Sure there are many personal blogs. Someone may write a blog that is only read by the blogger’s mom. That’s ok. A volunteer parent on a school trip may write a daily posting for the other parents to read. Pundits may write a “column” that is read by very large numbers of people. All of these take advantage of the “diary” aspect of blogging, but there is a lot more to blogging than people writing their personal accounts or views.
Blogging is a very effective way for departments of companies to stay on top of what is going on. We all know that special person in the department who always knows who is working on what. That special person is now blogging and providing the departmental “news column”. It is not a task that can be assigned to someone, it is a task sought out and enjoyed by that special person who loves to write, takes the extra time to add useful links to what she writes, and is a very effective communicator. Similar persons will arise for customer support, providing valuable insight to customers and business partners. In every walk of life, the “authors” among us arise to share their skill with others. The old saying, “I could write a book”, is true. Millions of people have a book in them but prior to the power of blogging they had no practical way to publish. And blogging is not just about writing a point of view.
How about warranty expiration notices, product recalls, press releases, weather updates, shipment notices, doctor appointment reminders, auction completions, and wine harvests? Blogging is not limited to traditional documents or notices. For example, a patient on a hospital gurney moving from the ER to the recovery room can generate important information as the patient is wheeled through the doorways of the hospital. An RFID tag could trigger a short posting which gets delivered to the primary care physician’s Patients folder. A periodic glance at the doctor’s blog reader would incidcate whether there are any new postings advising of patients whereabouts. The bottom line is that it will become very hard to justify publishing any kind of information in anything other than a blogging format. What is the blogging format?
The dominant format for blogging is called RSS — really simple syndication. Some will argue that Atom is going to supersede RSS. Some like to call them protocols instead of formats. The more important thing is what RSS and Atom enable — context. Formats sometimes turn into philosophical battles and in the end it doesn’t matter what we call them. What does matter is that they become widely adopted through a standards process. The web has billions of pages and most of them have nice layouts, colors, and fonts but most of them do not have context. Another way to say it is that most web pages have “tags” that describe what the page looks like. Blog web pages have formatting tags but also have tags that describe what the page is about. In their simplest form, blogs have five tags: date, author, subject, category or categories, and the content itself. These simple tags allow the content to be found, organized, categorized, archived, and syndicated.
Syndication is a fancy word and it is a hallmark of blogs. There are some sophisticated definitions of syndication but the significance and subtlety for most of us is that it provides a way to “subscribe” to something without providing your email address. Every blog has a “feed”. I call the feeds “webtocs” because in effect a feed is a weblog table of contents. The webtoc contains the date, author, subject, categories, and content of the stories that the blogger has written. The blogger decides whether the webtoc will contain a list of everything they have ever published or, more likely, the latest fifty or the latest thirty days worth of postings. Web sites where blogs reside normally contain an orange icon ( ) which if clicked upon will take you to the webtoc and you can then paste the url into your blog reader (often called an aggregator). Many blog readers will automatically ask you if you want to “subscribe” to the blog. Your blog reader (I use the one built in to the Opera browser) will periodically check the webtoc to see if anything new has been posted. (In Opera the default is every three hours, but you can make it anything from every five minutes to once a week). This means you are “pulling” content from the blog, as opposed to email newsletters which are “pushing” content to you. Email newsletters are a thing of the past.
Most of us are looking for quality, not quantity, when it comes to content. With blogs you can set up folders to automatically receive content from those bloggers and publishers that you care about. There are many sites, such as technorati, that specialize in cataloging blogs and showing how many people are reading them. Over time I expect to see more sophisticated metrics about the creditability of bloggers — something even beyond the multi-star ratings of buyers and sellers on eBay. In the meantime it is mostly word of mouth (or email) that enables us to learn about good blogs from our friends. One of the things a speaker at BlogOn pointed out was that many people regularly read blogs but don’t realize it because frequently blogs are integrated into a web site (like patrickWeb).
Where do we get the time for blogs — either to write them or to read them? Think of blogs as a new “channel”. There are only twenty-four hours in a day so when a new channel appears, it has to take away from other channels. Email reduced the amount of paper documents. Instant messaging reduced the number of emails (relatively speaking), and blogs will reduce the number of email newsletters, journals, and notices of various kinds. Over time more and more of the things you read will be in one of your blog folders — not in your inbox where there is a good chance you will either overlook it or your spam filter will delete it. Instead of sifting through a large number of emails, most of which you don’t want, you will be able to go directly to folders in blog reader and enjoy the things you do want. Blogging gives “power to the people” — both the publisher and the consumer.
As traditional advertising becomes more offensive and less effective, more advertising will find it’s way into blogs. As more than one speaker at BlogOn pointed out, when you “Google” something, for example “motorcycle” it doesn’t necessarily mean you want to buy a motorcycle. You may want to find out how to replace a leaking gasoline hose on your Harley-Davidson (as I did this past weekend) and you want to find out what those in the know can tell you about how to do it. In some cases like this, when you find a blog page with information on it that you are looking for, you may also find an advertisement for Harley-Davidson motorcycles on the page. You probably won’t consider it obtrusive.
There were speakers and technologies at BlogOn to help bloggers and especially corporate bloggers integrate their blogging activities with their marketing activities. In the corporate world, sophisticated tools are emerging such as Cymfony’s Orchestra which can analyze who is saying what about what and when and slice and dice the information and produce a clear picture of what is going on. Such tools can enable a company to find out what their enthusiasts and key influencers are saying. Another exhibitor at BlogOn showed a blog reader called BlogBridge. BlogBridge is a tool for “info-junkies”, enabling professionals such as analysts, journalists, sales people, researchers, writers, public relations specialists, etc. to organize, sort through, skim and discover content in a dozen or even hundreds of blog feeds. I found it to be very easy to use — and it works on the Mac, Linux, or Windows.
Last but not least are the multimedia dimensions of blogging — podcasting is booming and videoblogging/videocasting is already beyond an early stage and growing rapidly. There is no doubt that the new iPod will make it more popular. The key for any form of podcasting is the tools and we are at the same stage with multimedia blogging as we were with web page development in 1994. I don’t know how many disc jockeys and news anchors there are in the world — thousands for sure — but I am certain there will be millions of podcasters as the tools become simpler and more ubiquitous.
John Furrier is an example of a new breed of talk show hosts. After getting his education at Northeastern University and Babson College in the Boston area, John began a career in the technology field. He held senior positions at RealNames and at several other startups and then moved to Palo Alto where he started Broadband Developments Inc. which specializes in Internet and communications technology. His consulting work includes Blog and Podcasting Consulting but after being interviewed by John or listening to one of his podcasts, you can tell that being behind the microphone is his passion. John has mastered the process of identifying interesting people to interview, setting a mini-studio in a hotel lobby, putting enthuiasm into his interviews, keeping them short and interesting, and organizing and promoting his content online. John’s infoTalk Podcast, presented by Podtech.net, is gaining in popularity in the technology industry and likely will become a sustainable advertising-supported business.
Podcasters will emerge to create “infoTalk” podcasts about baseball, fly fishing, sewing, running, geocaching, stamp collecting, how to do your taxes, political commentary, and every subject imaginable — and probably some unimaginable. My dream is for podcasting to take off in K-12 education. Imagine Mrs. Smith recording her summary of the day, prescription for tonight’s homework, and a preview of tomorrow’s class and then the students listenging to it on the school bus with their mp3 players. Even better, imagine Mr. Jones, another teacher, hearing kids in the hall talking about how cool Mrs. Smith’s podcasts are and then going hnome that night to google his way around the web learning how to become a podcaster.
Is blogging the last straw which drowns us in information and overwhelms our daily lives? To the contrary, blogging may be the greatest new information channel yet to arise from the Internet. For the blogger or information creator, blogging facilitates a powerful new way to create context rich content which can easily be organized, searched, syndicated, and archived. For the reader or consumer of content, blogging is a powerful new way to subscribe to content we care about and stay abreast of the latest thinking of those we respect.
Practicing what I preach, you will find a podcasted version of this story below. You can find it on iTunes too, in the technology section. Click below to play, stop, or pause!