Dispatches From Blogistan

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the book
Dispatches From Blogistan
by suzanne stefanac
peachpit/new riders
voices that matter series
shipping now
> amazon
> barnes & noble
from the book
> table of contents
> chapter 2 history of open discourse
> chapter 6 history of journalism
> 10 blog design tips
> what is this long tail?
> trackback demystified
> blog ethics primer
> glossary
> resource hotlinks


> cory doctorow

> farai chideya

> bruce sterling

> denise caruso

> craig newmark

> jamais cascio

> laura lemay

> christian crumlish

> jon lebkowsky

interview with christian crumlish

Ccap.gifhristian Crumlish has been blogging for as long as just about anyone out there. As the interview below testifies, he’s used most of the tools and launched a number of blogs that address a broad spectrum of topics. His perspective on blogging is valuable and I thank him for taking the time to not only answer a few of my questions, but to invent a few of his own.

personal blog history

I started using the Internet in 1993 and published my first website in 1994. In 1997, it occurred to me that a daily journal online would provide a good outlet and discipline for my writing practice. At the time there weren’t any tools for automating this process so I came up with a format and standard navigation and used a simple template for each new entry. (Those entries are still online - the site was called Breathing Room and can be read at http://ezone.org/xian/breathing/). Someday I will manually migrate it into Movable Type or whatever blog software I’m using in the future.

As various software solutions for weblogging or diarying came along I tried most of them (Pitas, Diaryland, Blogger, Radio Userland, Movable Type, WordPress, and the various slashclones).

Nowadays, I host about 24 blogs on a Movable Type server and aggregate the recent entries at Telegraph.nu. I still keep an online journal but I post to a number of blogs as a way of “channelizing” my output by topic. Then I pull most of them back together again at a site called X-POLLEN (which used to be a fake header I used in email messages for cross-posted content).

I also write a blog for my employer, Extractable, called Extra! Extra!

on truth emerging from the healthy clash of ideas

To the extent this rule can be proved (or even is a rule) I’d say blogs tend to support it. I don’t believe in absolute truth but there can be a near approach to it and blogs have definitely widened the range of possible public conversation. Fostering critical thinking is a long slow uphill slog and by the time people are reading and writing online it may be too late for most of them if they didn’t get it from their parents, guardians, and teachers.

on relevance and discovery

Readers of today and tomorrow will need to learn news ways of judging authenticity, expertise, and reliability. Authority is something that will emerge gradually from a dialogue and a record of one’s past statements, much the way Wikipedia slowly grows more authoritative. Credibility will no longer be handed down with credentials. The positive side of this is that people informing themselves will also learn to question “official” and “published” sources of information and ideas.

on citizen journalists

Mainstream media should not be nervous. They should be studying this trend and applying its lessons to their own practices. Blogging is collaborative and complementary to professional newsgathering.

Mediocre journalists and columnists should be nervous. The bar for them has been raised.

Citizen journalists should disclose their biases and their financial interests and should strive to report the truth and to admit mistakes.

In five years news will still be delivered on TV, in newspapers, and on the Internet. More people will get their news filtered by bloggers though, as I tend to do today.

on blogs as political vehicles

Can blog-influence translate to political clout? Absolutely. To some extent it already does. Like him or not, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga is very influential with the activist/pragmatist/wired wing of the Democractic party. (Full disclosure: for several months in 2004 I worked with Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong doing strategic planning for their now-defunct political web consulting firm.)

Demagoguery is always a risk. It is no more of a risk when the masses have a voice. It may even be less of a risk. Classical demagoguery is a one-to-many phenomenon.

The global implications are in many ways more profound than the implication here in the U.S. Watch for blogs to affect politics in Iran, China, South Asia, and eventually Africa. Note how this week the riots in France have been to some extent fanned by bloggers.

on intellectual property

I fall in with the Creative Commons crowd in that I feel that current IP law skews toward wealthy powerful established interest. I am not a content-anarchist, though. As a published writer I appreciate my own copyrights. I do think that digital media are slowly transforming the way we view much creative material and that the law will slowly catch up with these changing perceptions. I have no doubt that we will always find ways to compensate people for their creative expressions.

on new information architectures

I doubt we will ever see the end of top-down hierarchies but I do think that more open, more lateral, more network-y, more emergent, more self-organizing forms of organization are on the ascendant now. We will potentially unleash a huge wave of progressive human creativity if we enable these more spontaneous and improvised forms of getting-things-done to flourish. It may be that we merely need to avoid placing barriers in the way of their development.

Our best strategies for adapting will involve embracing the new modes where possible. Just as the web privileges an ongoing sense of becoming over a beginning-middle-end format that inevitably drifts into obsolescence, so will our own approaches to making and doing benefit from accepting this empirical unfolding of nature amidst an ever-changing now.

The dumbest way to adapt is to become firmly attached to some artifact of the present snapshot in time and then cling to it as it is borne back ceaselessly into the past.

on the viability of folkonomies

They are infinitely viable in that they are here to stay, in the right circumstances. As powerful and effective as Flickr and Delicious, etc., clearly are, they represent a fairly unique type of information structure, one that welcomes the widest possible base of involvement. There are many smaller microcosms in which the critical mass required to benefit from user-applied tags does not obtain.

I haven’t discovered the downsides of tagging yet, unless they depend from unreasonable expectations.

on sustainability

Nothing comes for free, at least not forever. Everything must be paid for by somebody. Startups must eventually leave the nest and learn to fend for themselves. On the leading edge there will always be free services, and some may manage to spread the cost around invisibly with one or more variants of the advertising-supported strategies that broadcast media rely upon. We all pay for television when we buy products whose markup incorporates the expenses of advertising.

on long tails

I was not aware that Amazon and eBay have demonstrated that aggregated niche markets can outperform traditional bestsellers. I would have to see a case study or some data to understand what that really means. I doubt we will ever see the end of markets that are driven by hits and media created in search of mass audiences. Alongside these marketplaces, though, I think we will also find the niche microsystems where long-tail media and products can thrive.

For example, if the only thing motivating you to play music or perform or write is the possibility of becoming a rock star or a movie star or a literary star then the future may not work for you, although the present may not either. People who want to make stuff or be creative will always do it and some may find the local rewards adequate to justify the effort, whether mass success is in the offing or not.

((note from suzanne: From Chris Anderson’s original “long tail” column for wired: “What’s really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you’ve got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are (see “Anatomy of the Long Tail”). In other words, the potential book market may be twice as big as it appears to be, if only we can get over the economics of scarcity. Venture capitalist and former music industry consultant Kevin Laws puts it this way: “The biggest money is in the smallest sales.”

The methodology for coming up with those figures can be found here.))

on product development

I think it’s very likely that savvy marketers and product managers will learn to view public discussion of their wares not as a PR crisis to be managed but as a free worldwide focus group and a source of invaluable feedback in their ongoing development process. This is another aspect of the never-finished culture that the Web fosters.

on scalability

Scaling issues will persist, even if they are solved in the physical realm or in some aspects of record-keeping and communications-management. Tim O’Reilly has written convincingly on how re-intermediation tends to follow disintermediation and new aggregators tend to make themselves useful by filling gaps in the value chain. Also, every new capability eventually brings its own challenges as the low-hanging fruit becomes a commodity and market competition finds its way to the leading edge of innovation.

on media filters

I think the filtering of social media will become a persistent way of managing the ever-growing flood of information aimed at our minds. In the attention economy, we will continually seek aids for sussing out the most relevant information and ignoring or at least outsourcing the tracking of less directly important information.

on privacy

There will always be a difference between public and private, but under the present infrastructure nothing put into the infosphere can be considered reliably private. From a distance, the boundary between public and private already looks like a large fuzzy gray area, a sort of no-man’s land that seems neither private nor public, but that’s not really be the case. One will need to take a magnifying glass to the boundary - a fractal - to approach the exact location of the border.

on threats to privacy

The people in the cusp generations are most at risk as they have not internalized the actual risks of a two-way online presence the way they have the syntax of television or the vocabulary of advertising. There will be painful lessons along the way and a compromise between a legal solution and a social solution will need to be hammered out. Ideally, people need granular control over the release of information related to their own identity to concentric circles of audiences, from the self only, to close confidantes, to one’s peers, to the entire public; and people will need to be educated about the need to police their own privacy.

The definition of privacy will be no different in 10 years but the domain of privacy will have shrunk and fewer things will be considered plausible to keep private.

on blog interfaces

Blog are by no means the ultimate platform for personal expression online. They are really just the current “least worst” interface. Blogs work because they’ve made it much easier to update one’s own stream of writings.

The more barriers we (toolmakers) put between people and the moment of adding something to their knowledge store (even if we call these barriers “features”) the harder we make it for people to adopt and continue to use the our tools. So, blogs work because to add a new blog entry you essentially just type in a text box and click a button. The system handles archiving and display and extracts what metadata it can (primarily the date of publication and, if you included one, a title or perhaps a category or tag).

What blogs don’t do well is organize information (beyond chronologically). Wikis are much better for that, in that they permit constant reshuffling and restructuring of a knowledge store. A combination of the two (I think of them as left-brain and right-brain solutions, or, less whimsically, as knowledge storage and knowledge retrieval modalities) would be a good start toward a better solution.

Having said all that, front-end filing is one of those little bits of friction that, like a grain or two of sand in a shoe, in the long run causes a great deal of pain or even a prohibitive barrier to the completion of a journey. Search methods are getting better and it’s becoming more feasible to expect that we can simply throw our pieces of information, our ideas on a big pile and still be able to find what we need later.

on spam

We will reach moments of truce or equilibrium with spam, but spam grows from openness and convenience, and may simply be - as you say, like mosquitoes - nature’s way of exploiting exploitable ecological niches. Still that doesn’t mean just putting up with the bloodsuckers. We can make email, for example, more accountable. For the moment my spam is under control, but it takes a complex of strategies, since I’m using an email address that has been harvestable on the web for nearly a decade.

Spam also exists beyond email, as with “splogs,” and no doubt there will always be some kind of spam in the system as a consequence, as I said, of the openness and ease of entry.

on reading blogs

I do read some blogs regularly, although my reading list shifts over time. What keeps me coming back is a steady supply of compelling content in some cases and in others its the ability to find and filter information for me.

on blog tools

The improvements I’d like to see in blogging tools would constitute another entire interview. We’d need to go through the entire user experience and discuss the areas that could do with improvement. I’m hopeful that the brisk competition among blog services will help keep the interfaces improving.

on blogger mistakes

I don’t see bloggers making big mistakes. Many write without providing enough context for casual visitors, but that’s not necessarily a mistake.

and of course, what did I forget to ask?

should everybody blog?

No. Not everybody likes to write. Not everybody has the time. Not everyone would realize the benefits of blogging.

what advantages/disadvantages do you see in blogs that emphasize audio or video content?

I’m a text guy so I suspect I’ll end up being nostalgic for the heyday of ascii. Right now it’s a bit harder to index and search audio and video, and I don’t like that the pace is dictated by the recording. I’m also not at all interested in listening to bloggers wheeze and gulp air. I love Ze Frank’s show but I find Rocketboom tedious. Not sure where that puts me on the vlog-fan spectrum.

do you blog from a phone or portable device? do you believe this will have any impact on traditional journalism?

I’ve sent photos to Flickr from my phone. That’s about it. I tried posting a blog entry from my new smartphone the other day but it was too much of a hassle and I gave up.

do you read blogs via newsfeeds? what advantages/disadvantages do you see in the delivery system?

I’m currently on hiatus from using my newsreaders (NetNewsWire and Bloglines), because of burnout. I sort of trust the important information to find its way to me via my social network. Then again, I’ve been using Google desktop’s sidebar and it quietly grabs feed from sites I visit, so maybe I’m slipping back into feedreading, but it’s happening a little more dynamically.

Blogging is clearly making headway within the more daring corporate and business circles. How do you see this evolving over time?

It’s now trickling down to the less adventurous companies. I’m seeing corporate blogs, internal blogging, and customer-support wikis in places where I would not have expected them six months ago. My more traditional clients are no longer taken aback when I suggest they should consider a blog strategy as part of their overall marcom effort.

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