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May 7, 2014

Putin cracks down on our fellow bloggers

Putin’s crackdown on Russian bloggers is what totalitarian dicks do. And it’s a reminder of how much we should cherish and protect our freedom.

I have nothing to say, but I did not want to leave it unremarked.

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February 7, 2014

When the Web was young and neither was I

Christian Sandvig has a fun post that looks back at his home page from 20 years. (Your “home page” was a place where you could express yourself to others on the World Wide Web.)


Unfortunately, the earliest versions of my home page (hperorg.com/evident.com) and of my newsletter site (hyperorg.com) archived by Archive.org’s WayBack Machine date back only to 1998. Here they are: Evident Hyperorg (and here are screen captures: Evident Hyperorg).


Evident was the home page for my business, Evident Marketing, Inc. I registered that domain in 1994, I think, so I know I had a home page up for a few years before the archived one. Likewise, Hyperorg.com was the site for my JOHO newsletter (Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization), and it had been running for a couple of years before 1998.

I was surprised that Hyperorg page didn’t have instructions for surviving a nuclear war, but Google helped me to remember that that was on its own page. Here are the two key illustrations, both taken from How to Survive an Atomic Bomb, by Richard Gerstell, Ph.D., Consultant to the Civil Defense Board (Bantam Books, NYC, 1952).

Lie face down in a ditch to survive a nuke

Wear a hat to survive a nuke

My old font graphic was there, though:

know your fonts, period

And then there’s this lovely animated gif I made to explain the basic principle of the Hyperlinked Organization:

know your fonts, period

I think that’s self-explanatory, don’t you?

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January 23, 2014

The Flu

I am just emerging from what I will call “the flu,” even though I have no idea what it was, but to call it “a cold” would be to disrespect it. Flu, suh!

I am, of course, a delicate flower (i.e., a man) so I lay on my back and moaned for several days. Today I am upright and moaning, so that’s progress. (BTW, yes, I did get a flu shot this fall. Thanks for nothing, Evolution via Natural Selection!)

Just to catch you up, not that you need to know, but I started coming down with The Flu on our plane ride home from London through which my wife and I walked for several days. Saturday night we had a Bloggers’ Dinner, which was tremendous fun, although physical space being what it was, the socializing was unevenly distributed. But it was great to see people I know through blogging and hadn’t seen for years, and to meet some new people I hadn’t seen in all my years.

The purpose for our trip was to participate in a meeting at the Cambridge University CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities) about a new program they’re developing in digital humanities. I got to spend a day with an awesome set of people. More later.

From there we went to London for the weekend. London was great fun and I would tell you about it, but I feel an approach of the vapors and now must sleep for 3.5 hours.

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January 8, 2014

What blogging was

At a recent Fellows Hour at the Berkman Center the topic was something like “Whatever happened to blogging?,” with the aim of thinking about how Berkman can take better advantage of blogging as a platform for public discussion. (Fellow Hours are private. No, this is not ironic.) They asked me to begin with some reflections on what blogging once was, because I am old. Rather than repeating what I said, here are some thoughts heavily influenced by the discussion.

And an important preface: What follows is much more of a memoir than a history. I understand that I’m reporting on how blogging looked to someone in a highly privileged position. For example, the blogosphere (remember when that was word?) as I knew it didn’t count LiveJournal as a blogging service, I think because it wasn’t “writerly” enough, and because of demographic differences that themselves reflect several other biases.

 


I apparently began blogging in 1999, which makes me early to the form. But, I didn’t take to it, and it was only on Nov. 15, 2001 that I began in earnest (blogging every day for twelve years counts as earnest, right?), which puts me on the late edge of the first wave, I believe. Blogging at that point was generating some interest among the technorati, but was still far from mainstream notice. Or, to give another measure, for the first year or so, I was a top 100 blogger. (The key to success: If you can’t compete on quality, redefine your market down.)

Blogging mattered to us more deeply than you might today imagine. I’d point to three overall reasons, although I find it not just hard but even painful to try to analyze that period.

1. Presence. I remember strolling through the vendor exhibits at an Internet conference in the mid 1990s. It seemed to be a solid wall of companies large and small each with the same pitch: “Step into our booth and we’ll show you how to make a home page in just 3 minutes.” Everyone was going to have a home page. I wish that had worked out. But even those of us who did have one generally found them a pain in the neck to update; FTPing was even less fun then than it is now.

When blogs came along, they became the way we could have a Web presence that enabled us to react, respond, and provoke. A home page was a painting, a statue. My blog was me. My blog was the Web equivalent of my body. Being-on-the-Web was turning out to be even more important and more fun than we’d thought it would be.

2. Community. Some of us had been arguing from the beginning of the Web that the Web was more a social space than a publishing, informational or commercial space — “more” in the sense of what was driving adoption and what was making the Web the dominant shaping force of our culture. At the turn of the millennium there was no MySpace (2003) and no Facebook (2004). But there was a blogging. If blogging enabled us to create a Web presence for ourselves, blogging was also self-consciously about connecting those presences into a community. (Note that such generalizations betray that I am speaking blindly from personal experience.)

That’s why blogrolls were important. Your blogroll was a list of links to the bloggers you read and engaged with. It was a way of sending people away from your site into the care of someone else who would offer up her own blogroll. Blogrolls were an early social network.

At least among my set of bloggers, we tried to engage with one another and to do so in ways that would build community. We’d “retweet” and comment on other people’s posts, trying to add value to the discussion. Of course not everyone played by those rules, but some of us had hope.

And it worked. I made friendships through blogging that maintain to this day, sometimes without ever having been in the same physical space.

(It says something about the strength of our community that it was only in 2005 that I wrote a post titled No, I’m not keeping up with your blog. Until that point, keeping up was sort of possible.)

3. Disruption. We were aware that the practice of blogging upset many assumptions about who gets to speak, how we speak, and who is an authority. Although blogging is now taken for granted at best and can seem quaint at worst, we thought we were participating in a revolution. And we were somewhat right. The invisibility of the effects of blogging — what we take for granted — is a sign of the revolution’s success. The changes are real but not as widespread or deep as we’d hoped.

Of course, blogging was just one of mechanisms for delivering the promise of the Net that had us so excited in the first place. The revolution is incomplete. It is yet deeper than we usually acknowledge.


To recapture some of the fervor, it might be helpful to consider what blogging was understood in contrast to. Here are some of the distinctions discussed at the time.

Experts vs. Bloggers. Experts earned the right to be heard. Bloggers signed up for a free account somewhere. Bloggers therefore add more noise than signal to the discussion. (Except: Much expertise has migrated to blogs, blogs have uncovered many experts, and the networking of bloggy knowledge makes a real difference.)

Professionals vs. Amateurs. Amateurs could not produce material as good as professionals because professionals have gone through some controlled process to gain that status. See “Experts vs. Bloggers.”

Newsletters vs. Posts. Newsletters and ‘zines (remember when that was a word?) lowered the barrier to individuals posting their ideas in a way that built a form of Web presence. Blogs intersected uncomfortably with many online newsletters (including mine). Because it was assumed that a successful blog needed new posts every day or so, content for blogs tended to be shorter and more tentative than content in newsletters.

Paid vs. Free. Many professionals simply couldn’t understand how or why bloggers would work for free. It was a brand new ecosystem. (I remember during an interview on the local Boston PBS channel having to insist repeatedly that, no, I really really wasn’t making any money blogging.)

Good vs. Fast. If you’re writing a couple of posts a day, you don’t have time to do a lot of revising. On the other hand, this made blogging more conversational and more human (where “human” = fallible, imperfect, in need of a spelpchecker).

One-way vs. Engaged. Writers rarely got to see the reaction of their readers, and even more rarely were able to engage with readers. But blogs were designed to mix it up with readers and other bloggers: permalinks were invented for this very purpose, as were comment sections, RSS feeds, etc.

Owned vs. Shared. I don’t mean this to refer to copyright, although that often was an important distinction between old media and blogs. Rather, in seeing how your words got taken up by other bloggers, you got to see just how little ownership writers have ever had over their ideas. If seeing your work get appropriated by your readers made you uncomfortable, you either didn’t blog or you stopped up your ears and covered your eyes so you could simulate the experience of a mainstream columnist.

Reputation vs. Presence. Old-style writing could make your reputation. Blogging gave you an actual presence. It was you on the Web.

Writing vs. Conversation. Some bloggers posted without engaging, but the prototypical blogger treated a post as one statement in a continuing conversation. That often made the tone more conversational and lowered the demand that one present the final word on some topic.

Journalists vs. Bloggers. This was a big topic of discussion. Journalists worried that they were going to be replaced by incompetent amateurs. I was at an early full-day discussion at the Berkman Center between Big Time Journalists and Big Time Bloggers at which one of the bloggers was convinced that foreign correspondents would be replaced by bloggers crowd-sourcing the news (except this was before Jeff Howe [twitter: crowdsourcing] had coined the term “crowd-sourcing”). It was very unclear what the relationship between journalism and blogging would be. At this meeting, the journalists felt threatened and the bloggers suffered a bad case of Premature Triumphalism.

Objectivity vs.Transparency Journalists were also quite concerned about the fact that bloggers wrote in their own voice and made their personal points of view known. Many journalists — probably most of them — still believe that letting readers know about their own political stances, etc., would damage their credibility. I still disagree.

I was among the 30 bloggers given press credentials at the 20042005 Democratic National Convention — which was seen as a milestone in the course of blogging’s short history — and attended the press conference for bloggers put on by the DNC. Among the people they brought forward (including not-yet-Senator Obama) was Walter Mears, a veteran and Pulitzer-winning journalist, who had just started a political blog for the Associated Press. I asked who he was going to vote for, but he demurred because then how could we trust his writing? I replied something like, “Then how will we trust your blog?” Transparency is the new objectivity, or so I’ve been told.

It is still the case that for the prototypical blog, it’d be weird not to know where the blogger stands on the issues she’s writing about. On the other hand, in this era of paid content, I personally think it’s especially incumbent on bloggers to be highly explicit not only about where they are starting from, but who (if anyone) is paying the bills. (Here’s my disclosure statement.)

 


For me, it was Clay Shirky’s Power Law post that rang the tocsin. His analysis showed that the blogosphere wasn’t a smooth ball where everyone had an equal voice. Rather, it was dominated by a handful of sites that pulled enormous numbers, followed by a loooooooooong tail of sites with a few followers. The old pernicious topology had reasserted itself. We should have known that it would, and it took a while for the miserable fact to sink in.

Yet there was hope in that long tail. As Chris Anderson pointed out in a book and article, the area under the long tail is bigger than the area under the short head. For vendors, that means there’s lots of money in the long tail. For bloggers that means there are lots of readers and conversationalists under the long tail. More important, the long tail of blogs was never homogenous; the small clusters that formed around particular interests can have tremendous value that the short head can never deliver.

So, were we fools living in a dream world during the early days of blogging? I’d be happy to say yes and be done with it. But it’s not that simple. The expectations around engagement, transparency, and immediacy for mainstream writing have changed in part because of blogs. We have changed where we turn for analysis, if not for news. We expect the Web to be easy to post to. We expect conversation. We are more comfortable with informal, personal writing. We get more pissed off when people write in corporate or safely political voices. We want everyone to be human and to be willing to talk with us in public.

So, from my point of view, it’s not simply that the blogosphere got so big that it burst. First, the overall media landscape does look more like the old landscape than the early blogosphere did, but at the more local level – where local refers to interests – the shape and values of the old blogosphere are often maintained. Second, the characteristics and values of the blogosphere have spread beyond bloggers, shaping our expectations of the online world and even some of the offline world.

Blogs live.

 


[The next day:] Suw Charman-Anderson’s comment (below) expresses beautifully much of what this post struggles to say. And it’s wonderful to hear from my bloggy friends.

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February 4, 2013

[2b2k] Are all good conversations echo chambers?

Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at Scientific American, has a great post about bad comment threads. This is a topic that has come up every day this week, which may just be a coincidence, or perhaps is a sign that the Zeitgeist is recognizing that when it talks to itself, it sounds like an idiot.

Bora cites a not-yet-published paper that presents evidence that a nasty, polarized comment thread can cause readers who arrive with no opinion about the paper’s topic to come to highly polarized opinions about it. This is in line with off-line research Cass Sunstein cites that suggests echo chambers increase polarization, except this new research indicates that it increases polarization even on first acquaintance. (Bora considers the echo chamber idea to be busted, citing a prior post that is closely aligned with the sort of arguments I’ve been making, although I am more worried about the effects of homophily — our tendency to hang out with people who agree with us — than he is.)

Much of Bora’s post is a thoughtful yet strongly voiced argument that it is the responsibility of the blog owner to facilitate good discussions by moderating comments. He writes:

So, if I write about a wonderful dinner I had last night, and somewhere in there mention that one of the ingredients was a GMO product, but hey, it was tasty, then a comment blasting GMOs is trolling.

Really? Then why did Bora go out of his way to mention that it was a GMO product? He seems to me to be trolling for a response. Now, I think Bora just picked a bad example in this case, but it does show that the concept of “off-topic” contains a boatload of norms and assumptions. And Bora should be fine with this, since his piece begins by encouraging bloggers to claim their conversation space as their own, rather than treating it as a public space governed by the First Amendment. It’s up to the blogger to do what’s necessary to enable the type of conversations that the blogger wants. All of which I agree with.

Nevertheless, Bora’s particular concept of being on-topic highlights a perpetual problem of conversation and knowledge. He makes a very strong case — nicely argued — for why he nukes climate-change denials from his comment thread. Read his post, but the boiled down version is: (a) These comments are without worth because they do not cite real evidence and most of them are astroturf anyway. (b) They create a polarized environment that has the bad effect of raising unjustified doubts in the minds of readers of the post (as per the research he mentions at the beginning of his post). (c) They prevent conversation from advancing thought because they stall the conversation at first principles. Sounds right to me. And I agree with his subsequent denial of the echo chamber effect as well:

The commenting threads are not a place to showcase the whole spectrum of opinions, no matter how outrageous some of them are, but to educate your readers, and to, in turn, get educated by your readers who always know something you don’t.

But this is why the echo chamber idea is so slippery. Conversation consists of the iteration of small differences upon a vast ground of agreement. A discussion of a scientific topic among readers of Scientific American has value insofar as they can assume that, say, evolution is an established theory, that assertions need to be backed by facts of a certain evidentiary sort (e.g., “God told me” doesn’t count), that some assertions are outside of the scope of discussion (“Evolution is good/evil”), etc. These are criteria of a successful conversation, but they are also the marks of an echo chamber. The good Scientific American conversation that Bora curates looks like an echo chamber to the climate change deniers and the creationists. If one looks only at the structure of the conversation, disregarding all the content and norms, the two conversations are indistinguishable.

But now I have to be really clear about what I’m not saying. I am not saying that there’s no difference between creationists and evolutionary biologists, or that they are equally true. I am not saying that both conversations follow the same rules of evidence. I am certainly not saying that their rules of evidence are equally likely to lead to scientific truths. I am not even saying that Bora needs to throw open the doors of his comments. I’m saying something much more modest than that: To each side, the other’s conversation looks like a bunch of people who are reinforcing one another in their wrong beliefs by repeating those beliefs as if they were obviously right. Even the conversation I deeply believe is furthering our understanding — the evolutionary biologists, if you haven’t guessed where I stand on this issue — has the structure of an echo chamber.

This seems to me to have two implications.

First, it should keep us alert to the issue that Bora’s post tries to resolve. He encourages us to exclude views challenging settled science because including ignorant trolls leads casual visitors to think that the issues discussed are still in play. But climate change denial and creationist sites also want to promote good conversations (by their lights), and thus Bora is apparently recommending that those sites also should exclude those who are challenging the settled beliefs that form the enabling ground of conversation — even though in this case it would mean removing comments from all those science-y folks who keep “trolling” them. It seems to me that this leads to a polarized culture in which the echo chamber problem gets worse. Now, I continue to believe that Bora is basically right in his recommendation. I just am not as happy about it as he seems to be. Perhaps Bora is in practice agreeing with Too Big to Know’s recommendation that we recognize that knowledge is fragmented and is not going to bring us all together.

Second, the fact that we cannot structurally distinguish a good conversation from a bad echo chamber I think indicates that we don’t have a good theory of conversation. The echo chamber fear grows in the space that a theory of conversation should inhabit.

I don’t have a theory of conversation in my hip pocket to give you. But I presume that such a theory would include the notion, evident in Bora’s post, that conversations have aims, and that when a conversation is open to the entire world (a radically new phenomenon…thank you WWW!) those aims should be explicitly stated. Likewise for the norms of the conversation. I’m also pretty sure that conversations are never only about they say they’re about because they are always embedded in complex social environments. And because conversations iterate on differences on a vast ground of similarity, conversations rarely are about changing people’s minds about those grounds. Also, I personally would be suspicious of any theory of conversation that began by viewing conversations as composed fundamentally of messages that are encoded by the sender and decoded by the recipient; that is, I’m not at all convinced that we can get a theory of conversation out of an information-based theory of communication.

But I dunno. I’m confused by this entire topic. Nothing that a good conversation wouldn’t cure.

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August 16, 2012

Authors don’t scale. Topics do.

I suspect there’s a lot of truth in Richard MacManus’ post at ReadWriteWeb about where Web publishing is going. In particular, I think the growth of topic streams is pretty much close to inevitable, whether this occurs via Branch + Medium (and coming from Ev Williams, I suspect that at the very least they’ll give Web culture a very heavy nudge) and/or through other implementations.

Richard cites two sites for this insight: Anil Dash and Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Excellent posts. But I want to throw in a structural reason why topics are on the rise rise: authors don’t scale.

It is certainly the case that the Web has removed the hold the old regime had over who got to publish. To a lesser but still hugely significant extent, the Web has loosened the hold the old regime had on who among the published gets attention; traditional publishers can still drive views via traditional marketing channels, but tons more authors/creators are coming to light outside of those channels. Further, the busting up of mass culture into self-forming networks of interest means that a far wider range of authors can be known to groups that care about them and their topics. Nevertheless, there is a limit within any one social network — and within any one human brain — to how many authors can be emotionally committed to.

There will always be authors who are read because readers have bonded with them through the authors’ work. And the Web has enlarged that pool of authors by enabling social groups to find their own set, even if many authors’ fame is localized within particular groups. But there are only so many authors you can love, and only so many blogs you can visit in a day.

Topics, on the other hand, are a natural way to handle the newly scaled web of creators. Topics are defined as the ideas we’re interested in, so, yes, we’re interested in them! They also provide a very useful way of faceting through the aggregated web of creators — slicing through the universe of authors to pull in what’s interesting and relevant to the topic. There may be only so many topics you can be interested in (at least when topics get formalized, because there’s no limit to the things our curiosity pulls us toward), but within a topic, you can pull in many more authors, many of whom will be previously unknown and most of whom’s names will go by unnoticed.

I would guess that we will forever see a, dialectic between topics and authors in which a topic brings an author to our attention to whom we then commit, and an author introduces a topic to which we then subscribe. But we’ve spent the past 15 years scaling authorship. We’re not done yet, but it’s certainly past time for progress in scaling topics.

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August 4, 2012

Ethanz on culture’s shaping of technology

I wasn’t sure how to title this post from a few weeks ago by Ethan Zuckerman. His own title is also inadequate: “Kenya, Power, and Questioning My Assumptions.” It’s not so much that the title is bad as that the post is too, too rich.

Holy cow, Ethan is a good writer. And this piece is superb in every direction. It’s structured around assumptions of his that were overturned by his visit to an “upscale slum” in Nairobi, exploring what might be needed from a power generating business he is involved in. (No, he’s not turning into a utilities baron.) In the course of the post, we learn at every level possible: about technology, economics, communities, Nairobi, and the persnickety ways culture shapes technology.

Ethan is special. If you know him or have heard him you already know that. So I would never want to generalize based on him. But he’s engaged in a style of writing that we simply would not have been able to find in the past, which meant that people didn’t bother writing it. Thank you, Internet!

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February 18, 2012

Back to the Future Past

I’ve spent most of today working on something I haven’t done since August 18, 2009: Publish an issue of my old newsletter, Joho.

I started it in around 1995 as an internal up-to-dater for Open Text where I was marketing vp. The idea was to share links, explain some stuff when I could, and crack wise. In other words, it was a lot like a blog that I folded up and sent through email once every few weeks. (In case you were wondering, Joho gets its name from this period: Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.)

When I left Open Text, I opened up Joho as a free online newsletter. I’d post the hmtl and send out the text. Because we still didn’t have blogs, much of the content consisted of amusing emails from readers, with my occasional semi-amusing riposte.

As the new millennium dawned, I was blogging up a storm and thus felt less of a need — and had less time — to write up articles for a newsletter. And formatting it was a pain in the tuchus. Yes, I know it’s got all the usual hideous elements of my “design aesthetic” (as Jeff Goldenson, who works with me at the Library Innovation Lab, once called it with a straight face). But putting it into that format, and then taking it out so that I could do an ASCII-based version of it for pre-html email took more of a part of a day than I’d like to admit, even after automating as much of it as I could.

But now I’m getting ready to send out another issue. What prompted me was an article I’ve been working on about echo chambers, culture, and Reddit. It’s long for a blog post, but a good length for Joho. And, I have to admit that the publication of a new book undoubtedly is also at least a bit behind my decision to reach out to Joho’s subscribers. Shameful, I know.

I’ll post the linked table of contents here in a few days when I actually send out the newsletter. Until then, I’ll be revising drafts of the three articles in it, and feeling like a young man of 50 again.

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December 28, 2011

The end of blogging’s golden age

Brian Solis has responded to Jeremy Owyang’s provocative post declaring the end of the golden age of blogging. Here’s the comment I posted on Brian’s site:

I think in a sense it’s true that the golden age of blogging is over, but that’s a good thing. And not because of anything bad about blogging. On the contrary…

Blogging began when your choices were (roughly) to dive into the never-ending, transient conversational streams of the Internet, or create a page with such great effort that you didn’t want to go back and change it, and few could bother to create a different page in order to comment on yours. Blogs let us post whenever we had something to say, and came with commenting built in. The Net was already conversational; blogs let us make static posts — articles, home pages — conversational.

Thanks to that, we now take for granted that posts will be conversational. The golden age ended because when a rare metal is everywhere, it’s no longer rare. And in this case, that’s a great thing.

Yes, that metaphor sucks. An ecosystem is a better one. Since the Web began, we’ve been filling in the environmental niches. We now have many more ways to talk with one another. Blogs continue to be an incredibly important player in this ecosystem; thank of how rapidly knowledge and ideas have become part of our new public thanks to blogs. But the point of an ecosystem metaphor is that the goodness comes from the complexity and diversity of participants and their relations. I therefore do not mourn the passing of the golden age of any particular modality of conversation, so long as that means other modalities have joined in the happy fray.

Blogging isn’t golden! Long live blogging! :)

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October 11, 2010

Why it’s good to be boring on the Web

Casually and randomly click your way through the Web, and it’s as if you were to knock on the doors of random people around the world and were to see a startling set of stupidities, insults, and depravities.

Of course, if you actually were to knock on random doors and get to listen in on what’s going on in living rooms and bedrooms, you probably would be depressed. It’s even worse online because extremism — and not just in politics — drives up traffic.

That’s one reason why, despite the “Who cares what you had for breakfast?” crowd, it’s important that we’ve been filling the new social spaces — blogs, social networking sites, Twitter, messaging in all forms, shared creativity in every format — with the everyday and quotidian. When we don’t have to attract others by behaving outlandishly, we behave in the boring ways that make life livable. In so doing, we make the Net a better reflection of who we are.

And since we are taking the Net as the image of who we are, and since who we think we are is broadly determinative of who we become, this matters.

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