So are blogs just a passing fad, as Kevin Maney claims? His USA Today column stirred up a minor tempest in business blog circles, mainly for assertions such as:
So, yeah, blogs are cool. Anything that gives people a voice benefits society and makes us all better and smarter - and, as bloggers have proved, makes established information outlets more accountable. But blogs don’t seem to be the second coming of the printing press. They’re just another turn of the wheel in communications technology. More likely, a few years from now, after the blog bubble has normalized, we’ll look back and say that this technology made a difference and that our total fascination with it seems quaint.
He calls it the “blog bubble.”
This leaves me wondering: Was the craze over the telephone a “bubble”? Was the radio simply a passing fad?
My colleague Katherine has spoken much about Debora Spar and her insights on “disruptive technologies.” I will leave the real discussion to her – to them – except to make the observation that it’s not all that surprising that a (minor) celebrity in what must be considered the “old media” takes issue with the credibility, longevity – even the reality – of a “new media” phenomenon like blogs.
But in the past, each technology has also gone through a cycle of superhype, followed by a hype-o-glycemic crash. After that, the technology reaches equilibrium and steadily evolves into a crucial piece of the global fabric. “For the moment, blogs are on the ascent to the detriment of other media activities,” says Larry Downes, professor of information economics at the University of California-Berkeley. “But newer and more interesting communications technologies will unthrone blogs soon enough.” The novelty of blogs will wear off, Downes says, just as it did with Web sites a handful of years ago. “How much time do you spend anymore just surfing the Web - you know, for fun?” he asks.
The step that Mr. Maney seems to miss – or deliberately ignore – is that these new technologies become part of the very fabric of our society.
I’m sure in the early days of telephones, people would call each other just because they could. “Wow! Isn’t this so terrific that we’re talking to each other from 100 miles away?” they would say to each other, though perhaps not in so many words. Following on Professor Downes’ rhetorical question: How many people simply call each other up, “you know, for fun?”
Blogs have changed the very fabric of our communications culture. The obvious impact has been in politics. The rising influence of high-profile bloggers like Markos has been the most noted. Also, the mainstream media have acknowledged – albeit grudgingly – that the “blogosphere” has fact-checked some important news stories, and even broken some key ones. Heather Green, on BusinessWeek.com, observed that blogs…
…are simply another innovation in a long line of changes in publishing. But certain innovations, such as the Internet and, we argue, blogs, have characteristics that allow them to leap ahead of other inventions in impact. The ability to publish your thoughts easily, quickly, and link to others is part of what makes blogs stand out.
There’s no missing that. The people have found their voices.
So why is it that the mainstream media, for all their “objectivity” on the news, find no parallels to the Gutenberg press?
Instead we get more and more treatment of “the bloggers” as either a politically cohesive insurgency, or another channel to compete with cable news.
And then there’s Jon Stewart’s hilarious take on it all.
What’s been missed from most mainstream analyses of blogs is how the people, the individuals, the citizens, the consumers, suddenly have ways to communicate with each other. This has had profound effects upon politics – but more subtly, yet perhaps more profoundly, the biggest impact is happening in business. Why ask Apple for tech support when you can go to an Apple users’ discussion forum and get your question answered within minutes? Why go to a travel agent when you can go online and find the best fare within minutes? Why complain to some customer service department when you can go gripe on a discussion board and be heard, really heard?
This is the heart of the Open Source revolution in computer systems and software. Why go with a product offered up by some monolithic corporate giant that really doesn’t give a damn about you, when you can go with an open source alternative that is developed by individuals with whom you can talk about what your needs are?
Amy Gahran offers this insight:
This may seem obvious, but the two things which matter most in virtually any aspect of media (including the net) are content and connections. These principles, which are deeply intertwined, form the foundation of all types of value yielded by media whether for broadcast TV, a national magazine, a web site, a weblog, or a simple exchange of e-mail messages.
The opportunity that comes from interactive media like dynamic websites is that this connection can be two-way. In a previous post, Ms. Gahran makes the real insight:
At some level, all events, actions, and communications are deeply personal, because they affect who we are within ourselves and in context with others. This, I suppose, is why I care so much about communciation and interaction, how we learn about our world and the meanings we make of it. It seems that when I take the time to focus on connections between people, meanings and patterns appear. Even flaws and stress are an important part of the picture. I appreciate this world more, and I sense my own place in it more securely. So even though I prattle on here about technology, media, etc., please understand what compels me toward those fields: people. I like to see people connecting in a more conscious way, even though these experiences are often imperfect or uncomfortable. Every time we connect, and especially every time we empathize, if only for a moment, our world gets wider and stronger. We can accomplish more.
How many connections, real human connections, do you have in your business life? Of the ones you do have, how much weight do they carry over your other relationships? Do you think that maybe if you had stronger connections with your customers – and that they felt they had stronger connections with you – that this could have some impact on your business?
What if you ignored those real human connections in your business dealings? What if you limited all those connections to just those with whom you actually shook hands? What about the rest of the world?
Blogs – and I use “blogs” as shorthand for the entire online interactive phenomenon happening as you read this – are not just a new information or entertainment medium – they’re a new way of communicating.
What “blogging” is will almost certainly change over the coming years, but what’s almost certain to remain is the idea that business communication, real business communication, is a two-way street. It’s a way to build relationships, connections, trust. And you don’t need Madison Avenue dollars to do it. Back to Professor Spar:
We are undeniably living in a revolutionary period. We see this revolution every day and feel it crack the structures of our lives. We see it in the rush toward Silicon Valley; in the euphoria that drove Internet stocks to unbelievable heights; in the intrusion of e-mail and surfing and “dot.com” everything. At a more profound level, it is also clear that this revolution will seriously affect both business and politics. It will open vast new vistas for commerce and, in the process, will challenge relations between private firms and the governments that seek to regulate them. The information revolution is alive and well. It will change the way we work, they way we play, and the way in which we order our societies. It will change in particular how we think about governments, because cyberspace is a realm that seems inherently to ignore traditional authorities. Cyberspace, in fact, is a truly global phenomenon, something that spans borders irrepressibly and imperceptibly. Purely by accident, the Net shatters our notions of what a “state” does or what a “national economy” is. For cyberspace is bigger than any state and well beyond traditional powers of enforcement. What can the Pope do if Bishop Gaillot uses his site to condemn celibacy in the priesthood and encourage the use of condoms? Not much. How can Singapore stop its citizens from peeking at Hustler on their laptops? Or the U.S. government prevent American firms from using high-powered security software in their overseas affiliates? Again, they essentially can’t. Silently, cyberspace challenges the power of government by going where it, by definition, cannot: across national borders.
When other bonds fail, what is there but the personal bond?