PREFACE: This is the fourth and final segment of the edited transcript from an April 6, 2004 panel moderated by CONTENTIOUS editor Amy Gahran: “Alternative Media: Attack of the Blogs.” See the index to this four-part series for links to other segments and panelist bios.
Q&A: AUDIENCE AND PANELISTS:
QUESTION: Declan, you talked about percentages on blogging but when you consider the millions who are on the Net, that’s actually a large number of people who are blogging, right?
DECLAN MCCULLAGH: Absolutely right. If you have a large enough number, a small percentage can be substantial. But when you compare it to the vast majority who don’t have a blog, well…
For example: I created a blog for my mom, who teaches public middle school. It sounded like a great idea all the parents could see what the kids were supposed to be studying in math and English classes. But before too long she abandoned it, because it was easier to deal with kids the old-fashioned ways.
Many bloggers think the ease of blogging will revolutionize communication, but it’s actually a lot of work.
ANDY IHNATKO: But what percent of the population owns a newspaper? It’s not about percent ownership, it’s about how many people does that media can affect.
Secondly: I’m not surprised, I’ve read those same figures. You either have the mentality that says, “Hey, there’s something weird about the plot of this last Walker Texas Ranger,” or “Something really annoys me about local politics,” and feel compelled to write about that on a regular basis.
The high failure rate of blogging is just like the fact that there are many people who love music but cannot write music and never will; or why nine out of 10 restaurants fail; or why nine out of 10 computer-specific magazines I’ve written for fail.
History looks kindly upon the winners. When you have a blog that does a good job of serving needs of its readers, that’s written by an expert, that’s the cream that rises to the top. That’s what counts. Not all the mediocrity and failures.
DECLAN MCCULLAGH: Yes, but that “cream” falls under the less than 50,000 blogs updated daily. It’s such a small number, you have to admit it’s overhyped.
ANDY IHNATKO: Absolutely.
QUESTION: How many newspapers are there in the US?
DECLAN MCCULLAGH: Between 60-70% of Americans still read newspapers daily. That’s a pretty good number.
AMY GAHRAN: I read newspapers daily online.
DECLAN MCCULLAGH: Sorry, printed papers, I mean.
THE UNIQUE CHARACTER OF WEBLOGS:
ANDY IHNATKO: I chose to focus here on my favorite aspect of blogging: community. However, Act II of that is definitely this:
By God, if I hear another article from someone who just discovered blogs a week ago, who was clearly naked at Woodstock, who’s raving, “Oh my God, this is the transformative experience of the younger generation. The scales have fallen from my eyes and I’ve seen the face of God in CyberGrrrl2448’s LiveJournal blog…”
Yes, blogs are definitely overhyped.
Still, one of my favorite aspects of blogs is I get to look through someone else’s eyes and understand their perspective.
One of my favorite blogs is NotMyDesk.com. It’s about a guy who’s a 30-something professional temp worker. Every three days he shows up at a new office.
In one entry he was shown to his latest new desk, and saw a big black smudge of ink in one spot, and couldn’t figure out what it came from. Later in the day, someone dropped off new forms on his desk and he reached across to get them, pen in hand, and his pen tip touched the desk right in the middle of the smudge. He suddenly realized that he was only the latest temp worker to make the same smudge in that same spot. He thought he was a free individual, but no he’s just another drudge.
(Editor’s note: I could not locate this article on that site. If someone has located it, please post the link in a comment to this entry. Thanks.)
I don’t think most people should go to a blog for hard news. You do need resources to properly research a story, and also to properly vet a story. For instance, I wouldn’t want any important piece of political coverage to be written by just one person, unless it was also being reviewed by three other editors who turn a skeptical eye toward the task. But for the individual point of view, blogs are valuable.
QUESTION: Regarding the community aspect of blogging: Will the Net evolve to become a primary info source? Will people get away from print media?
ANDY IHNATKO: I think community is an important part of blogging. I know what I thought of that one article from Salon, but it was interesting to see what other writers from a variety of experiences and levels of success, people who face the spectre of a blank page every day, had to say. To see them talking as peers.
Of course, the flip side of that is: How much do those communities overlap, vs. how much is it feeding upon itself preaching to the choir?
DECLAN MCCULLAGH: Let me add to that. I think the community point is wonderful and right. It’s one of the great aspects of the Net, not just blogs. It’s been happening for years in lots of conversation threads and forums, like The Well. This is real, it’s been happening online, people share common interests.
I’m looking right now at the LiveJournal community Claim an Episode. This is where people “claim” episodes of various TV shows and post their comments. Obviously, this is not going to change the world but it makes these folks happy. It’s a great example of a community. Weblogs are just the latest instantiation of online communities.
DECLAN MCCULLAGH: It’s definitely going to happen, the question is how long is it going to take?
There are a lot of people out there taking digital photos. Most of them are pretty crappy, so I’m not sure that will change the blogging world much. But video probably will play a bigger role in blogs in the future.
Of course, there’s more involved technically. Video requires more memory, beefier computers, and most importantly broadband access. That 2003 Jupiter report on blogs I mentioned earlier said that more than half of all people reading blogs have dialup connections. So it’s really just a question of technology rolling out the last mile, and getting good photo editing software out there for everyone (like you can get for free with Mac OSX)
ANDY IHNATKO: I think it’s a question of infrastructure. Yes, we already have the capacity to stream video but let’s make this a full-on Apple lovefest. If you go to the Apple site, you can download a free program called QuickTime Broadcaster which you can use to set up a live video broadcast from anywhere for up to 2000 people. As long as you’re not charging anyone, it’s free.
I think the reason blogs took off is that it was the first opportunity that most people had to have a present on the Web without owning a physical box tied into a T-1 with a static IP address and all that technical, technical stuff…. Services like LiveJournal and Blogger made it easy to have a site that you could update. That’s easy when it’s just text and photos. But when you want to upload 15 minutes of video with stereo sound, that’s gonna be a big deal. Once we have the bandwidth and service structure so we can give away stuff like that, maybe we’ll see video blogs.
…Then we get to the next question which tends to torpedo most technology startup businesses: Do people actually want video blogs? For now, people most people don’t want to do that. Right now there are a lot of people on the cutting edge who like to use the cameras on their fancy digital phones to take pictures and post them on moblogs/photoblogs, and video mobile blogs… and I’m not convinced that a lot of people want to visit those blogs.
AMY GAHRAN: Keep in mind that blogs can exist as an adjunct to other media.
For instance, I could see that if someone like Kim was going to run a special series of documentaries on LinkTV, you might want to start a weblog to support that and build a sense of community and buzz around that project. To talk about here’s where we’re filming this week.
KIM SPENCER: Actually, right now we have a series targeted at older teens and college students. We’re working with the Internet Archive, where people can post their own videos. We’re going to sift through them and broadcast the best of those. That might be a good project to support with a blog, given that audience. Internet archive is great, because they take care of a lot of the bandwidth concerns.
Bandwidth is a huge issue for online video. It’s not like broadcast where you just put it out there and any number of people can get it for no additional cost. With online video, there’s an associated cost per download, paid either by the webcaster or the user. Internet Archive is a great resource. They have a growing server farm that can handle this load.
AMY GAHRAN: So if you were to support a project like that with a blog, you could link to video clips etc.
QUESTION: Declan, you seem to have a perspective I’ve seen from a lot of journalists that only experts are qualified to comment on topics, only experts are worth listening to…
DECLAN MCCULLAGH: Some people are true polymaths, absolutely brilliant, could have an interesting opinion on anything but that’s rare. There’s a reason why people specialize.
For instance, my mother who teaches middle school would probably have a lot to say about education policy, No Child Left Behind, and how the federal government sis screwing up some things states are trying to do. But would she be the best person to talk about politics and technology? Probably not. People generally have their limits.
Some folks are genuinely good at even speaking beyond their areas of expertise. For example, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit. But he generally takes the time to do research. And he’s a tenured law professor, he can afford to take the time. Teaching one class a semester is not that difficult.
ANDY IHNATKO: It is in a sense a meritocracy. A lot of people who have made it to the media big time did so on the strength of their blogs.
For instance, when you look at Josh Micah Marshall’s blog, it’s true that he’s not credentialed as a reporter, but he’s a postdoctoral fellow in politics. You still have to take it as commentary, as opposed to reporting, but I think that experience weeds out the crap. You tend to believe the people whose credibility has been maintained over time. If you’re not simply self-delusional, and not just reading people who tell you want to hear, you’ll find some good stuff.
Here’s a good example: News from Me is a blog written by my friend Mark Evanier. He has been a professional writer in Los Angeles since he was in college in 1968. He wrote every episode of the Garfield TV show, started by writing for Welcome Back Kotter. You cannot mention a comic book, cartoon, or TV show that he has not has some kind of hand in or experience with.
As you know, I’m a geek. So when Marvel Comics reprinted Fantastic Four #1 yet again in an anthology, there’s a panel in which one of the character has bare hands. But in some reprints, he’s wearing blue gloves. Now this is not something that consumes my life, but after seeing it 5-6 times, I asked Mark if he could explain that. His answer (and this is a direct quote) was, “I don’t know, but next week we’re having lunch with the guy who colored Fantastic Four #1 and I’ll ask him.”
So while Mark never been a journalist, he has impeccable sources. If he says something is true, I tend to believe it implicitly.
QUESTION: What about blogging outside the US?
DECLAN MCCULLAGH: About a year ago, when we were invading Iraq, there were people on the ground there blogging and I read them.
I don’t read geographically targeted blogs, but I do read blogs about technology, like about cascading style sheets. some of the best blogs in those areas are from overseas. I don’t care where they come from.
AMY GAHRAN: Often, when you’re following news of world events, it can be helpful and surprising to look for blogs from that part of the world to add context.
Recently with the elections in Iran There are a huge number of bloggers in Iran, many available in English. They provided a lot of first-person coverage of the elections, great variety of perspectives and observations. I don’t think they presented a substantially different story from the media reports I read of the election, but they did add a very human and personal touch with a surprising amount of depth.
QUESTION: What software/tools do you need to start a blog?
ANDY IHNATKO: Some of the most popular tools are not software that you install on your computer, but web-based services. Have you ever used webmail? It’s kind of like that. Blogger, LiveJournal, and Typepad, all are free or cheap opportunities to start your own blog.
I think perhaps that the fact that you can do this for free is why so many blogs get started and abandoned so quickly.
If you’re not the sort of person who really wants to blog, you do tend to burn out quickly.
AMY GAHRAN: But it can be a good tool for independent professionals to support their business. And there are software packages such as Movable Type, Radio Userland, pMachine that vary in cost and how geeky they are to install or configure.
ANDY IHNATKO: If you’re looking for a recommendation, I really like Typepad. The best software for running blogs on the server end is Movable Type, it’s free but little support. They’ve started a good hosted service with a 30-day free trial. I keep getting tempted to toss my own blogging software and switch to this, because there are so many more features.
QUESTION: Is there a way to find communities or topics of interests for Weblogs?
ANDY IHNATKO: That’s a little bit of controversy about this. Weblogs may contain keywords that people search for, but they may not actually contain info or answers that people who are searching Google would probably be seeking. So when Google ranks sites for search results, they’ve been trying to rank blogs lower than other sites.
The chief way to find blogs is via other blogs. If you go to News from Me, you’ll see in the sidebar links to other blogs you might like. These will have their own collections of links. I have a blog menu that’s probably two dozen items deep. These are blogs that I fetishistically hit when I have mental down-time that I need to fill to keep myself from starting fires or something. All of those I found through other blogs.
ANDY IHNATKO: Feedster is a search engine just for blogs. If there’s breaking news and you want to see what everybody’s thinking about it, type keywords into Feedster and you’ll see what the blogs are saying about it. That’s another way to find blogs that are of interest to you.
It’s a long, painful process to come up with a good collection of blogs you really like.
QUESTION: Credibility is a concern for blogging and online media in general. CU doesn’t allow online references on any of their papers…
AMY GAHRAN: You’re kidding! There are so many academic journals that are only published online these days!
ANDY IHNATKO: That is actually a very big problem, and although that policy sounds crazy it’s actually a sane thing to do.
A technical paper is supposed to live. So what if, eight years from now, this paper on protease inhibitors is exactly the paper I need. But the reference is a URL, and that URL is 404 and the paper is not there anymore.
There’s a happy medium to be had. Screening committees now will often let you cite online material if you can attach it as a pdf, and if you can get an agreement with the original author to host it as a permalink on their site.
Whenever I’m researching articles and I see something online, I will print it to a pdf file rather than bookmark it, so that Web page is always there in a tangible form I can refer back to.
KIM SPENCER: That’s another reason why the Internet Archive is such a good resource. You can find a lot of stuff there that doesn’t exist at the original location any longer.
DECLAN MCCULLAGH: I think it’s insane that the school or the professors are doing what you said at least that was my first response.
But then I thought again, that maybe this is a good thing because it teaches students to go to the library rather than just use Google. Law schools actually have a class just for this, a legal research class, for first-year students, and they’re not allowed to use Lexis-Nexis. This is good because a lot of smaller law firms, nonprofits, etc. don’t have unlimited access to Lexis-Nexis, so you actually do have to hit the books.
That said, the broader question is: Can we trust the Internet? Well, if you look at any magazine stand, a lot of the stuff there is not really worth reading. How can you tell the diff between good magazines and the Weekly World News. There is no central rating agency, nor should there be. You just use your best judgment.
INDEX to this series