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The Blogosphere’s New World Disorder

Weblogs are changing electronic media, but that change is just beginning to take shape.

Peter Tupper 21 Feb
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The soft glow of laptop and handheld screens in the lecture hall made it clear to me that this was a gathering of the early adopters. I felt a moment of technological inferiority, clutching my steno pad and cassette recorder.

As the speakers gave their presentations, accompanied by giant projected images, you could see people in the audience typing notes, snapping pictures with digital cameras and cameraphones, recording digital audio, blogging about the blogging conference.

On Saturday, all of this went through the free public wireless network that blanketed UBC’s Robson Square campus and out into the blogosphere. Even as the Northern Voice conference continued, speakers displayed blog posts and Flickr postings about the conference on the projection screens.

Though it isn’t the most elegant of words, “blogosphere” is a necessary and useful term. An individual blog is just like someone’s personal diary or fan newsletter, or an updated list of a magazine’s articles. However, assemble an exponentially growing number of them, and use software tools to search and study them, and you get something with a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

When that whole is fully realized, the blogosphere will be useful in ways we can only imagine.

New technology, new content

Right now, however, plenty of people are still uncertain of the meaning of “blog”, let alone “blogosphere”. It’s a technology for publishing and updating content on the Internet, that’s clear, but how should one run a blog, and how should a blog article be written? A new medium of distribution demands new styles of content.

RSS, the prototype format for publishing data on the web, was invented in 1999. (The development of the RSS standard is an unusually convoluted story.) Yet today people are still trying to figure out what resulting flood of blogs are and what they can do with them. Conferences like Northern Voice are where people try to answer those questions.

Tim Bray, director of web technologies at Sun Microsystems, addressed some of these questions. Blogs, said Bray, should be personal, opinionated, and “balance hubris and humility.” A blog should be a striking contrast to the blandness of corporate and government media. That’s why the job of blogging for a company should not be fobbed off on somebody who has no interest in speaking for the company or genuinely communicating with people. The various corporate-backed blogs pretending to be grassroots phenomena have been quickly discovered and derided by other bloggers.

Robert Scoble, a “technical evangelist” blogger from Microsoft, demonstrated “How I read 1000 Weblogs a day.” He uses an aggregator plug-in for Outlook to keep track of his numerous news feeds, instead of going to all of those sites to see if anything has changed.

Life before Google

Remember, if you can, what the Internet was like before Google and other useful search engines. The information you wanted was scattered around, and finding what you wanted was a matter of luck and persistence. To find something, you had to burrow down through the vast hierarchy of the Yahoo directory, which might not make sense to you. Now, we just type into a search box in a browser for Google or another engine and almost always get something satisfactory.

Aggregators and similar applications make interesting things possible, like tracking a rumour back through multiple links to its source, or finding out what the buzz is on a given topic as it happens. The notion that you can pick a Kryptonite bike lock with only a ballpoint pen, which once would have been only a rumour, became an embarrassing fact over a weekend, before the company had time to react.

Scoble, as the face of Microsoft in the blogosphere, cited this as an example of how the way corporations relate to the public has changed, and that PR flacks can no longer control the flow of information.

What began as an incrementally better way of speaking has lead to better ways of listening to the collective voice of the world. We can spot trends and watch ideas clash and compete and interbreed.

How do we use information?

The idea of what we can learn by listening to the blogophere was a major part of the presentation by Stephen Downes, a National Research Council researcher who runs the OLDaily and NewsTrolls blogs.

Now that the blogosphere can be indexed and search and studied, with tools like Technorati and, Downes’ idea is that the blogosphere should not be seen through categories or even keyword tags. Tags can be used to spread spam and categories are always arbitrary.

Instead, we should try to get an overview that will show us new ways of organization information according to how items are used. It’s like a library that, instead of ordering books alphabetically or by the Dewey Decimal system, shows you books that were taken out by people who have taken out the same books as you. The meaning of a blog post comes from its relationship to other posts — as comments, reviews, corrections and so on.

The dream is to create a way of looking at the pattern of connection that comes from how data is used. It’s a little like when Soundscan began cataloging music sales, and it became widely apparent that huge numbers of people bought country and rap records. Who knows what patterns and clusters of knowledge may be discovered once we can see the way people actually use knowledge?

Why Canada lags

At “The Blogger as Citizen Journalist”, it became apparent that Canada is lagging behind the rest of the world in the impact of blogging and related technologies.

In the U.S., blogs are credited with pushing Howard Dean to the front of the Democractic party, breaking major news stories and bringing down mainstream journalists. The resignation of CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan two weeks ago was prompted by blogs that accused him of saying in a private forum that U.S. troops target journalists.

In Iran, says blogger Hossein Derakhshan, there are 70,000 or more people writing weblogs that provide a window on Iranian society to outsiders, bridge gaps between generations and cultures and create a public sphere of discourse outside the state controlled mass media.

Here in Canada, the blogosphere has yet to exercise comparable political or journalistic muscle. There are plenty of reasons: the overwhelming presence of American media in Canadian society, a different political system that makes parties more significant than candidates, lag time in adopting new technology.

Media concentration is another factor: three of the four daily newspapers available in Vancouver keep most of their online stories subscriber-only. Canadian bloggers can’t draw on the work of the CanWest Global media conglomerate to feed their own work, and in turn they can’t feed readers back to the original sites.

Peter Tupper last wrote for The Tyee about the changing laws governing pornography in Canada.  [Tyee]

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