On blogs, bloggers, blogging

If you would ask me to pick one technology phenomenon that had the largest impact on and was the most characteristic for the technology during the years 1995-2000, my answer would be “Web, of course”. For the years 2000-2003 I’d vote for eCommerce, online applications and collaboration (like Google, eBay, Amazon and many others). And for the last 3 years, I would definitely pick online communities and blogs.

Blogs are like tsunami that is changing the landscape of online content. There is nothing really new about what they are. Blog is user editable Web page, with very few features: implicit tracking of entries by creating calendar-based index of older entries, ability to add comments to the entries, limited form of categorization and tagging as well as some simple, blog-2-blog notification mechanisms (backtracks and pings). The only aspect in which blogs are different is simplicity of creating and running a blog. The same way as Google made searching for on-line content very easy and accessible, blogs are the very easy way how to create that content. Good content is one of the main reasons why people go online.

To have better idea about the magnitude of the effect, here are some numbers. According to David Sifry

“… there is 50 million blogs out there (as of August 2006) and this number doubles every 6 months.”

Now this is *some* growth – the blogosphere is 100 times bigger now than it was 3 years ago.

“As of July 2006, about 175,000 new weblogs were created each day, which means that on average, there are more than 2 blogs created each second of each day. The total posting volume of the blogosphere continues to rise, showing about 1.6 Million postings per day, or about 18.6 posts per second. This is about double the volume of about a year ago.”

If you would expect that huge majority of the blogs is in English, you would be surprised. According to David, only approximately 40% blogs are in English, trailed by about 30% in Japanese and about 15% in Chinese. I wrote “about” as the number go up and down by few percent from month to month.

I was quite surprised by really high ratio of Japanese blogs – high relatively to population size of Japan versus English speaking countries. Maybe the penetration of the market with very advanced video-internet capable computer-phones is responsible for the high number. I also believe for variety of reasons that large Chinese presence in cyberspace is a good thing, both for China as well the cyberspace. The “Internet services superpower” – India is probably under-represented and relatively invisible, hiding between English speaking blogs. Maybe because only few percent of huge Indian population has Internet access.

These numbers are simply overwhelming. Growth rate of the blogsphere is much higher than growth rate of the rest of WWW. Relative impact and weight of community driven web content will soon be larger than more traditional media with companies and organizations behind them (I consider both New York Times, CNN.com and Yahoo! being “traditional”, because the content is created by dedicated professionals).

But (there is always a “but”) – to really understand this new trend, it is important to have deeper look on the content, authors and audience of the blogs. A blog can be very different thing than a blog.

These basic questions help me to better understand and to organize my view of the blogospere:


1) Who is the author ?

Is it single person providing his/her unique viewpoint or is it a community (such as Gizmodo, Lifehacker) ? Is it an organization ?
Most of the growth (in absolute number of blogs) is coming from new individual bloggers, grouped around free hosting sites such as Blogspot, Livejournal, Yahoo etc.

Corporate blogs (see whitepaper) are also growing in popularity, both for internal and external use. Sometimes there is dedicated group of employees commenting on and discussing internal affairs on closed forum, sometimes the blog is public (such as this one ). Corporate blogs are representing much smaller percentage of the new blogs, but their contribution to the content is higher than from individuals. They also more often use premium hosting sites.


2) What is the purpose / motivation for publishing ? What is the benefit for the author ?
Surprisingly large amount of blogs I’ve seen, did not have obvious motivation, rather than “because I can”. The main difference between publishing a Web and publishing a blog is very low barrier of entry. Almost everybody can blog. And as it looks like, almost everybody does.

Some people start writing blogs because they are following the masses, joining the crowds – or because their friend Mike is blogging too. Some want to satisfy the innate human need to be heard / read, receive feedback and be more visible, be more important or just in order to become part of some community.

Technology related blogs often follow “meritocracy” principle from opensource movement. The more you contribute to a project, the higher is your influence and “rating” among your peers. Publishing and sharing your tips, tricks and insights on the blog is great way how to start contributing to the shared pool of knowledge.

Many blogs are just plain public journals or on-line diaries. One can debate what is the value of putting your private journal to public consumption. IMHO, it takes some degree of exhibitionism to do that, assumed that you are honest with yourself and writing diary, not work of fiction about a non-existing person.

You have certainly seen (and likely ignored) many blogs that looked like they were created just to let the “steam off”, to express the the author’s frustrations. Aside from possible therapeutic effect for the owner, I find these of little interest to spend on them any time – unless you know the author personally. In this case, the journal blog provides unexpected insight (often quite unwelcome). In rare cases, the effect *can* positive.

I have read nice dedication on one of the blogs (do not waste your time going there unless you speak Slovak) where 40+ new blog writer summarized his motives for blogging as:

” I am a father of a blogger. From his blog, I have discovered a lot about his world and learned to understand him better. With this blog, I’d like to return him the favor”.

Lot’s of blogs are being created daily with one very specific purpose in mind: blogging for money. To do that, you need just two ingredients – large enough audience visiting your site and ads they can click on. The business model is simple: for every click on the displayed ads by your visitors, Google gets some tiny amount of money from advertisers and sends some percentage of this tiny amount of money to you. Which means you need many many many clicks to earn few bucks. And only very few sites actually get enough out of it, to use it as sustainable business model. Ads work best for focused community sites such as Gizmodo, with huge targeted audience. One nice example of site making money this way and still providing interesting content, created by single individual is Steve Pavlina.

Unfortunately, there are few more “business models” for monetizing your blog – for example when a company pays seemingly unaffiliated bloggers to promote a product or service through “objective reviews”, but I do not consider this dubious business practices to be blogs (and certainly not worthy spending more time on).

Legitimate blogs created by business tend to have better defined purpose. It costs money to pay people to blog and as business owner, you do not do it, unless it gives you back some value: new marketing channels, community building, evangelization of company/products/individuals or even direct sales. See Tim O’Reilly’s blog or http://www.joelonsoftware.com/ for a great example of valuable “personal business blog”

Quite specific category of blogs are aspiring amateur writers and journalists, trying to do what they cannot do as their main job: writing and publishing fiction, novels, short stories, providing news and comments on events of interest. For these people, the blog is just easy, zero-barrier-of-entry delivery channel. Which leads directly to the next question: the content.


3) What is the content/topics covered ?

Again, there is huge variety of all content imaginable out there – from blogs about Joe through blogs about world’s politics up to blogs about galaxies. The difference is degree of egocentrism, or in other words – how much is the personality and life of the blogger object of the blog. Usually (unless Joe Blogger is a celebrity) the more it is about Joe, the less interesting it is. Why would you (as a reader) care about Joe’s private life, what he did yesterday and what are his plans for vacation ?

Well, you actually *may* care if:

• Joe is somebody like George Clooney, Wayne Gretzky, Richard Feynman or Add-Your-Favorite-Celebrity-Here (guess who of the three mentioned is mine ;-) )

• Joe happens to share something with you – it may be something good (like your secret passion for building model airplanes in scale 1:59 which very few people do), or something not so good (like lung cancer). By discovering a virtual acquaintance that shares your pain or passion, you feel less alone and may find something useful in how Joe copes with his situation.

• you are compulsive watcher of reality shows and spend your own life by watching other people lives, regardless how boring they are (there must be some amount of people like that, otherwise the reality shows could not be so wildly popular )

• Joe is your neighbor across the street and you have been wondering what business is this guy in to afford the new Lexus every year
• Joe is your perspective employee or business partner, and you need to find out more about him before you employ him / sign a deal

Many bloggers do not realize the hidden danger in last two cases – see these few examples to be warned.


4) What audience is the blog for? What is the benefit for the readers ?

Surprisingly many bloggers seems not to think about their audience at all, which makes their blogs uninteresting and boring. At the other side of the spectrum are blogs addressing by choice controversial topics, written specifically to attract lots of readers and spark lots of heated online discussions. You can easily tell by the titles people use for their entries. This type of competing for the readership is very obvious when there is a ranking system on the server which sparks the competition or when there is a monetary incentive to have many readers – like using Google Ads. This has sometimes the very same effect as in journalism – previously good and respectable site degrades to some form of tabloid in chase for ad-clickers – I mean readers.

What value do the blog readers gets out of blog ? I do not dare to make any guess for the others. There must be something in it for many different people, otherwise there would be no large audiences. Basic motivation can be curiosity and leisure – passive content consumption – pleasant way how to spend time. A kind of new TV, with much more control over what you read/watch/listen to (considering the increasingly popular audioblogs aka podcasts and videoblogs).

For me personally main value areas I get out of reading blogs and community driven content repositories are:


1) learning and problem solving

You may not always find answer you are looking for in the “traditional” professional Website. Whether I need need an explanation why am I getting mysterious SQL Server 2005 error message or how to get iMovie to recognize MPEG file from Sony HDD digital camera, my best bet usually are forums, Wiki’s and blogs. None of them is clearly superior, and blogs have their perfect place in the infospace.

Compared to Wikis and Forums, Blogs are more personal,with more narrow focus. Which means once you find a blogger that works on similar problem or in the same area, you have best possible match. In Forums, many people contribute and create topics. This leads to wider area coverage and to more ideas, but also to less coherence and (in order to find something) more clutter for the reader to work through. Blogs are less formal and less structured than Wiki’s. It leads people to providing and sharing content more easily. I have less worries and things to consider when I add new entry on my blog than when I am editing a Wiki page, possibly modifying somebody else’s contribution. There is more personal touch in blog and little need for consensus as with Wiki. Blogs are also more convenient for the authors – content for the blog can be created offline and uploaded, edited directly in browser or even sent through email, whereas Wiki and Forum must be accessed only through browser.


2) navigation guide and discovery

It happened many times with books: I have found blog about books, where the blog author highly rated several books that I liked a lot as well. On the same site, I have also found recommended other books, I never heard about before. After reading them, I loved them. This is how I found Red Dwarf series, the Frederik Pohl’s Heechee saga as well as Andrzej Sapkowski fantasy masterwork . Similar idea are Amazon “recommends” and Amazon user book lists, but there is bigger chance of commercial motivation behind book great 5-star review and also less visibility to the personality behind the recommendation(s).


3) filter …

something like SQL View, limiting the data to what is relevant. It is one of the ways how to deal with information overload. Many people browse the Web and blog on nuggets they discover. If you find and pick right person, his/her trail may be very interesting to follow.

The bookmark community sites such as del.icio.us, digg.com, reddit.com are doing something very similar, but filtering “by statistics” rather by interest. They are usually best bet to discover trends, fashion waves and new fads, but if your information taste differs a lot from Average User, you may be better off with finding few virtual buddies that are more like you and follow their trails – through their blogs or bookmark collections. Chances are, they are reading digg or reddit and will report their findings anyway.


Blogs++

With all the millions blogs in existence, what is the point of adding another drop to the sea of blogs ? What is the motivation and intention of the author of this one ? Where in the classification should this blog fit in ?

This is an individual blog. It does not represent standpoint of the company I am affiliated with. There certainly is strong alignment between many of my company values, views and visions and my values, goals and visions – which is why I work there – but this is not meant to be our official PR.

The topics reflect my interests and are therefore (mostly) technology and cyberspace related. From “real life” I am commenting on very few topics, e.g. books and personal productivity / personal development (aka “lifehacks”), all of which are quite close to technology and cyberspace. I have all intentions to avoid easily inflammable topics (such as politics or religion) unless it is “flamewar” about technology (for example Linux vs. Windows vs. Mac or .NET contra Java – be my guests!).

It is not a personal journal. It is subjective – as every blog is – but I’ll try my best to stay focused on the topics other than my personal life. No pictures of the kids or family vacations here. They are some out here on the Web, but audience is limited to mostly family only. Unless you know me quite well, it would not really interest you anyway.

Writing a blog takes a lot of time. This blog is my spare time activity. While ago, I found out that for me personally writing is the best way how to organize my thoughts, pretty much on anything. During last two-three years, more and more of this writing was happening on computer. So in addition of many paper notebooks, I have created many small files, in variety of formats, spread across variety of computers. As many users of multiple computers, only way how to have my stuff available was to store it somewhere on-line. I tried several offline+synchronization strategies too, with mixed results, but that is a different topic, I’ll get back to it.
So my files as well as electronic trace of interesting topics and places have been stored online for over two years now.

What benefit do I expect to get out of making my e-Stuff publicly accessible ?

Several benefits, in fact:

– quality of content. I saw huge jump in quality when I started to write things down compared to just thinking about them. Writing forced me to formulate my thoughts much more precisely and writing/typing slowed me down enough to spot obvious problems. I hope for similar effect when going from writing privately to writing publicly. Chance of a feedback and possibility of an audience will (hopefully) force me to improve my communication skills, upgrade my English grammar and vocabulary and communicate more clearly. Time will show if it will indeed happen …

– accessibility. If something is easily accessible for everybody, it is easily accessible for myself as well -)

– diligence in active processing of the content. Responsibility of public blog will hopefully help to overcome laziness. It happens all the time: I have interesting idea or observation, but because I am lazy, I just fire off an email to myself with 3 cryptic words or write them down on piece of paper. Week later, nothing makes sense any more, and idea is gone. If I’d spend 5 more minutes on making it a short blog entry, it could have been still there. With my Mac virtually always with me, I can do that from any place

– learning on own mistakes
You can never learn from a mistake unless you find out you’ve made one first. And nobody will give any feedback, unless they know what you are doing …

synchronicity and serendipity.
One cannot rely on it, but I have seen evidence of it too many times to ignore it. Just trying to increasing the chances of any of that happening again, is worth the effort.

Scrolling back to top in ecto , I think that the very first skill I have to master will be how to write shorter entries :-).

If you managed to read until here, thanks for your time. See you soon.

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