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Linux for Suits

Beyond Blogging's Black Holes

Doc Searls

Issue #159, July 2007

With death threats and other terrorism, blogging ain't what it used to be.

On the evening of March 27, 2007, I was a guest speaker at an evening class called Marketing 203, at a local community college. I was there to talk about blogging. Partway into my talk, the teacher, operating the classroom's built-in computer, put Technorati up on a screen in front of the room. I told him to click on one of the Top Search links. There, in the first item at the top of the screen, was my name, associated somehow with “death threats”. For me, that marked the beginning of the end of Blogging as Usual. And I don't think I'm alone.

The original death threats were issued by an anonymous coward in the lively comments section of the blog by a veteran game developer, book author and speaker at tech conferences. I'll call her Barbara. (I am not naming names other than my own, because this column will find its way to the Web, and I don't want search engines to associate any of those names with the controversy that followed or further smudge any party's already-muddied reputation.) The original comments didn't bother Barbara too much, but she found her fears moving over an edge when a number of especially nasty posts appeared at “blogs authored and/or owned by a group that includes prominent bloggers...”, she said.

I know the people who put up those blogs. They are friends of mine. I also know why they put those blogs up: to commit satire, lampoonery and other acts of fun at the (presumably tolerable) expense of familiar figures in the blogosphere. But, things got out of control. Rather than making fun, they made fear. A few of the posts were not only misogynistic and cruel, but threatening as well—or could easily be seen that way. None of the worst posts were made by people I knew (at least not that I know of), but guilt was implied by context and association. Long story short, things became FUBAR, and the sites were taken down.

Meanwhile, Barbara wrote in her blog post that she would not come to the conference where she was slated to speak that week, and that she was zero-basing her future in an on-line world where she had been a prominent fixture:

I do not want to be part of a culture—the Blogosphere—where this is considered acceptable. Where the price for being a blogger is kevlar-coated skin and daughters who are tough enough not to have their “widdy biddy sensibilities offended” when they see their own mother Photoshopped into nothing more than an objectified sexual orifice, possibly suffocated as part of some sexual fetish. (And of course all coming on the heels of more explicit threats.)

I do not want to be part of a culture where this is done not by some random person, but by some of the most respected people in the tech blogging world. People linked to by A-listers like Doc Searls...I do not want to be part of a culture of such hypocrisy....

For more than a week following Barbara's original post, her name was the top search term on Technorati. To put this in context, consider the fact that Technorati—the blogosphere's main search engine—began as a hack by David Sifry in the fall of 2002 to help the two of us write a feature on blogging that ran in the January 2003 issue of Linux Journal. The whole thing lived on a Penguin Computing box in David's basement, serving the world through a DSL line. Now David has lost count of Technorati's servers, and the engine's traffic rank on Alexa now averages in the top 200, worldwide. In the US today (late April 2007) it's #59—out of billions. According to Technorati's stats, there are now more than 72 million blogs, with 120,000 more coming on-line every day. No wonder the controversy became named after Barbara, starting minutes after her post went up. No wonder she's put up only one post since: a “best of” collection of the informative and lighthearted graphics that were her specialty.

As of right now (a couple months before you read this), Barbara is done as a blogger. I hope she comes back and starts to contribute again, but I can understand why she might not. The old 'sphere ain't the same. And, the problem isn't just incivility and flamage. As old hands know, that's been around for the duration and will never go away. The problem is blogging itself. Somehow it's becoming more like TV and less like what made it great to begin with.

A few years back, Don Norman said, “Microsoft is a conversational black hole. Drop the subject into the middle of a room and it sucks everybody into a useless place from which no light can escape.” Microsoft doesn't have that kind of gravity anymore, thank goodness, but the black hole metaphor still serves for any subject with an event horizon that exceeds the conversational space that surrounds it.

This controversy became one of those holes. I realized after several posts that there was no way I could blog about it without doing more harm than good—for two reasons. One was the nature of the controversy itself. Once something becomes a Hot Topic, opinions get polarized, and people start forming buzzy hives around one position or another. The other was the persistent absence of hard facts. Nobody knew who made the original death-threat comments. And, nobody knew who made the most offensive posts, some of which appear to have come from a familiar blogger who insisted that his identity was hijacked while his servers were trashed. (He did that insisting through an e-mail to me that he asked me to share with the rest of the world.) Nobody was willing to press him hard on the issue or to mount a criminal-grade investigation. Meanwhile, the posts piled up until the ratio of opinion to fact verged on the absolute. At some point I came to realize that nothing I could say—no matter how insightful—would help if it took the form of opinion rather than facts.

Three weeks later, I found myself in another hole, right after the Virginia Tech shooting. From the beginning of that event, it was clear that mobile phones were the technology in the best position to help the killer's targets help themselves and each other. As it happens, I knew about ways that mobile phones and services could be made to provide additional help in an emergency like this one. That's because I advise a company that provides cell phones and services to universities. These phones not only have features made to help in emergencies on campuses, but they are open for users to develop their own applications and other improvements. In e-mail conversations right after the shooting news broke, I advised this company to do the sensible thing and not promote its “brand” or its services, but instead quietly to look for ways everybody could learn from the tragedy there. I didn't say any of that on my blog, or anywhere else in public print. But, I did say that stuff in a private e-mail to somebody who put that e-mail on his blog without asking me first. I called and asked him to take it down, which he did, but by then that cat was out of the bag. RSS feeds had gone out. Another blogger published it, accusing me of taking advantage of a tragedy to advance a commercial cause. (Although he said it in far less polite terms than those.) In a comment under that blog post, I said the republished post was a private e-mail that was never meant to be blogged. But the blogger left it up, as an act of snarky passive aggression.

Then, several days after the shooting, NBC went public with the package of pictures and computer files mailed to it by Cho Seung-hui during a pause in his shooting rampage. In a private e-mail exchange with a small circle of individuals, a thoughtful discussion followed—about whether or not NBC should have released the whole pile of files, once the police had said doing that was okay with them. I privately took the position that the files should be released. Others didn't. Discussion among individuals was civil, thoughtful. But after I blogged my opinion about the matter (offering full respect to other positions), darkness fell in two forms. First was dismissive nonconversation about the subject on other blogs. Second was the time-suck that the whole discussion turned into.

In the midst of that, a reporter with NPR (also a blogger of far more prominence than my own) asked me if I'd be willing to share my thoughts about the Cho files in an interview. So I did. As an old Radio Guy, I thought I did a pretty good job. So did the interviewer/blogger. But did I shed much light? Did anybody? I don't know. When I heard myself on the radio, I had to admit that I sounded like yet another talking head. As I look around the blogosphere for illumination on the matter, I can't find much. Did we learn anything? Not much, I don't think.

When blogging came along, I welcomed it as a big advance over other public discussion systems, such as Usenet and IRC—for three reasons. First, nearly every blog is controlled by an individual. It is that person's soap box, pulpit, personal journal. Second, blogs are syndicated, meaning that others can subscribe to their feeds, or to searches for subjects that might lead readers to a blogger's original thinking on a subject. And third, blogging seems especially well suited to what I called “rolling snowballs”. That's what happens when a good idea gets rolling and then is enlarged by others who add to it.

Blogging also has a provisional quality. You don't have to hold down one corner of a “debate” like the yapping faces on CNN and Fox News. You can think out loud about a subject that other people can weigh in on. You can scaffold an understanding, raise a barn where new knowledge can hang out while more formal accommodations are built.

In this last respect, blogging is a lot like open-source code development. Anybody with something useful to contribute is welcome to come in and help out. As with open-source code development, the results of idea-building on blogs have NEA qualities: Nobody owns them, Everybody can use them, and Anybody can improve them.

This provisional quality relieves blogging of the need to put everything in final draft form, which can be labor-intensive. Blogging is a kind of half bakery, falling somewhere between public e-mail (a way to write for “cc:world”) and polished journalism of the sort we write for print publications like this one. In fact, lots of ideas I've written about in Linux Journal were half-baked first on my blog. Software as construction, the Live Web, independent identity, the Giant Zero, VRM and The Because Effect are a few that come to mind.

But, it ain't working like it used to. The black holes are getting more common and sucking up more time. The old leverage also seems to be drooping a bit. And, I don't think it's just me.

In fact, I see myself as a kind of controlled study. That's because my blog hasn't changed much in the 7.5 years it has been running. The “A-list” label (one I have never liked) owes more to longevity and reputation than it does to actual popularity. Or perhaps it applies to a relative popularity that has long since faded to B-list or lower status. Daily visitor traffic has stayed in the same range—a few hundred to a few thousand—since soon after the turn of the millennium. Back then, those were big numbers. Today, they're peanuts next to BoingBoing, Kos, Huffington Post and lots of other blogs. In other words, the blogosphere has grown while my readership has not. At one point, my blog was as high as #9 on the Technorati Top 100. Today, it's #609.

I don't regard that slide as a Bad Thing. In fact, I think having a limited but persistent appeal is a Good Thing. Judging from e-mails, mentions and inbound links, my blog always has been read by a lot of very thoughtful, engaging and interesting people. But, I sense a decline of influence and involvement, and a rise in barely civil exchanges that fail to cause much progress. Maybe that's me. Or, maybe it's just the ratios. Hey, even thoughtful, engaged and interesting people have a lot more places to go on the Web, every day.

Meanwhile, my work as a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center and UCSB's CITS is getting more rewarding every day. Real progress is being made on projects at both places. And, both are doing a better job of spilling ideas and material into my work as an editor here at Linux Journal. The contrast between those activities and the Olde Blog are getting higher.

I can still find a lot of interesting stuff on Technorati, but I feel like I need to navigate my way past more and more noise thrown off by popular culture. (Disclosure: I'm on the company's advisory board.)

Now I'm looking for something that will do for blogging what blogging did for Usenet: move past it in a significant way. We need a better way for thinking people to share ideas and improve the world. What would that be?

It might help to think of the answer as the opposite of a black hole.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a Fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.

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