FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Monday, May 23, 2005

The True Power of Blogs

After the heady days leading up to and following the 2004 presidential election, are blogs headed for the "trough of disillusionment" on the Gartner Hype Cycle?

Recent research suggests that the power of the blogosphere may be vastly overstated. A Pew Internet study has found that blogs don't create news so much as pass it around (which blog readers already know, but more on that in a minute). It also found that 16% of US adults read blogs... which, spun another way, tells us that 84% of US adults don't read blogs. If that's the case, how important can blogs be?

It's not surprising to see blogs entering the Gartner "trough." I've believed for awhile that the current state of the blogosphere is analogous to the state of the Web during the late 1990s prior to the dotcom bubble burst. Not everyone was on the Web, but that's what made it so cool -- the Web represented an elite of trendy, smart, affluent people. Then as now, enthusiasts congratulated themselves on having entered a brave new world that would obliterate the old. And for awhile, it looked like they were right.

But then the bottom fell out. Many dotcoms went down the toilet, driven under not by the technology but by bad business models or bad management. The Web hit the "trough" hard (the 2000/2001 recession didn't help), but came back and is now on the "plateau of productivity." The Web left the domain of geeky kids with funky body piercings to become a much more democratic medium. True, websites aren't as sexy as they were seven or eight years ago, but that's only because they're a ubiquitous part of the business and social landscape. To businesses in 2005, having a URL is just as essential as having a phone number. Perhaps even more so.

So it will go with blogs. Lots of us bloggers like to pontificate about how we're destroying the "old media," that we're rewriting the rules of journalism blah blah blah. As with the early webmasters, we se ourselves as an elite, smarter and hipper than everyone else. True, some blogs and websites have scooped the mainstream media, and blog discussions have called the MSM on some errors. Blogs also allow "citizen journalists" to provide "man on the street" perspectives in regional hotspots.

Both the early Web and the blogosphere were unique products of their time. A "perfect storm" of technological and economic factors (a red-hot economy, the introduction of Windows 95 that brought GUIs and multimedia to the masses, the arrival of cheap Internet connectivity, etc.) made the Web possible. Similarly, blogs have benefited not only by easy-to-use blogging services like Blogger and Movable Type, but by a political and social atmosphere that invites commentary and controversy, as well as a fundamental distrust of the MSM.

But instead of destroying the MSM, blogs are entering into a symbiotic relationship with them. When a blogger calls a MSM publication or broadcaster on an error, that, in the long run, helps make the MSM stronger and better by forcing it to stay on top of its game. Checks and balances, as they say in DC. In turn, the MSM provides blogs with source material for discussion and analysis. Most blogs, after all, "reblog" material, putting it into the hands of others who might not otherwise have the opportunity to see or read it. In this way of acting as repeaters and amplifiers, blogs provide the bulk of their service.

Blogs won't "destroy" the MSM any more than television destroyed radio, or websites destroyed brick-and-mortar businesses. However, they may well alter them. Before television, radio was a very different medium than we see it today. It featured drama and comedy shows as well as music, and because of that, people related to it differently. When television came along, that programming moved to TV, and radio had to reinvent itself. Exactly how blogs will change MSM, if at all, remains to be seen.

Blogs will enter the "plateau of productivity" when more professional journalists and MSM start blogging (as is happening already), and more bloggers acquire sharper journalistic skills. Quality will replace hysteria and hyperbole as the hallmark of good blogging (though there will always be room for a juicy rumor now and then). And, as more "ordinary people" discover the blogosphere, it will lose its stigma as being solely for extremist politics and weird ideas. Some will mourn that, but the blogosphere will remain a place where smart, insightful people can speak their mind and be heard. And if that's not power, I don't know what is.

RELATED: Adam Thierer of the Technology Liberation Front echoes many of my sentiments.

UPDATE: The Newest Industry blog notes concerns from prominent bloggers about "blogger burnout" and the need to step back a bit. The post proposes a "Break from Blogging Day," on which no one would read or post to blogs. "Walk away from your computer. Go outside. Go for a walk. Write a long journal entry, ON PAPER. Read a book." The post even proposes a date: Friday, June 3. Is this simply a healthy reassessment from people who are overworked, or the seeds of a full-scale backlash?