On June 17, the day after Father's Day, I got a book in the mail from my mom, the most wonderful person I've ever known--she raised seven children, six of us boys--but someone whose increasingly conservative views don't match my own. At first I thought it was a gift, but when I saw the book jacket, "Coloring The News: How Crusading For Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism," by William McGowan (Encounter Books, 2001), I knew better. Mom was sending hard-copy proof to support her side of an argument we'd had a few weeks earlier about the state of journalism or, as she would say, the sorry state of the liberal media. Chalk one up for Mom.
It's not the only time lately I've heard less-than-flattering views of my profession. There's a widening group of Web devotees who think they, through the power of their own observations and unfiltered analysis, can provide a better alternative to the traditional media. They're using electronic publishing tools to create Web pages, called weblogs, or blogs for short, that are heavy on opinion and that link to other Web pages to support their points. Link enough blogs, the thinking goes, and you get a far-reaching network of insightful views that diminishes the need for conventional media.
For most people, though, blogs won't be a replacement for conventional news outlets. It's more likely that bloggers and journalists will use the tools and techniques of weblogging to create complementary informational channels. Freewheeling thinkers and far-flung experts will link to the Web sites of news organizations, creating a real-time, interactive content matrix that's better than the sum of its parts. Journalists such as Dan Gillmor (http://www.siliconvalley.com/mld/ siliconvalley/ business/ columnists/ dan_gillmor/ ejournal), a columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, and Andrew Sullivan (http://www.andrewsullivan.com), a writer for the New Republic and other publications, have created blogs, where they work outside the scope of print media, saying different things in new ways to more people.
As a journalist with more than 15 years' experience myself, I'm more excited by the prospect of blogging than threatened by it. So, my business is in the midst of transformation brought on by this new technology. Isn't yours?
There are two basic types of weblogs. Personal blogs are written primarily by a single person, and can range from articulate essays to trivial thought bubbles, while portal-like blogs tend to serve as content aggregators by offering links to personal blogs, news stories, discussion threads, and other electronic content. Among the earliest blogging practitioners are code-in-the-blood techies, such as the Unix and open-source programmers whose days aren't complete without a visit to http://www.slashdot.org. Many personal blogs are part diary, part opinion page, part eclectic reference guide.
The vast majority of people who blog, and there are hundreds of thousands of them, do so on their own time. So far, few businesses have adopted blogging for use by employees on company time. But that might be the direction things are heading. John Robb, president and chief operating officer of UserLand Software Inc., which develops blogging technology, envisions individual workers using blogging tools to jot down their thoughts during the course of the day and as a platform for collaboration among colleagues. A doctor might make note of a new symptom that's begun to appear in patients during the summer months, or an insurance agent may observe that a series of accidents involved a certain vehicle model. "The basic organizational structure of a weblog--they're time-stamped and archived--provides a record of what people are doing and thinking," Robb says.
For years, knowledge-management applications such as Lotus Notes have been offered as a way to help companies harness the knowledge in employees' heads. But for a variety of reasons, technical and cultural, the reality has never lived up to the promise. To jump-start the use of weblogging as a new approach to knowledge management, Robb started a discussion group on Yahoo in October (groups.yahoo.com/group/klogs). So far, the give and take there is mostly theoretical and technical--gritty detail on how to use RSS syndication and search engines, for instance--and lacking in business-world examples. Robb admits UserLand doesn't have many big-name accounts, though he says Harley-Davidson Inc. is a recent convert. When I asked the director of knowledge management for a major company about weblogging, it was barely on his radar screen. All of which tends to support the view that weblogging will be a grassroots movement in business in the same way that, say, instant messaging has been.
YAY OR NAY?
I found myself scooping major news outlets on arcane electoral details about chads and voting machines. Peer-to-peer journalism, I realized, had a huge advantage over old-style journalism. It could marshall the knowledge and resources of thousands, rather than the certitudes of the few.
Isn't linear thinking so '50s? Well, yes and no. I don't think it's dead in our digital future, but I do think that the non-linear, Web-like, hyperlinked mare's nests of blogthreads can often be a better way to get a view of a topic. I'm just not an either/or type of guy, I guess. Color me wishwashy.
What are the selling points for using weblogs inside a company? Ease of use, for starters. "It really doesn't take much in terms of learning to get people up to speed," Robb says. With their focus on a single person's point of view, weblogs are distinctly different from bulletin boards and discussion threads, which are group-oriented. And practitioners say weblogs are less disruptive than E-mail, which can demand hours of attention during the course of a day. Omar Javaid, chief technology officer and founder of mobile-computing consulting firm Mobilocity, says blogging has cut down E-mail chatter at his company. A prolific Web surfer, Javaid used to regularly E-mail the URLs for items of interest to colleagues and clients. Now he accomplishes the same thing through a weblog that he updates frequently (radio.weblogs.com/0101123).
Other Mobilocity workers have blogs, and the company even provides custom blogs to some clients as a value-added service. "For a lot of companies, especially for those that are looking to make investments in knowledge-management systems, it's something that's absolutely worth a look at," Javaid says. (It's worth noting that Javaid's blog tends to include fresher content than Mobilocity's Web site, http://www.mobilocity.com, and there's no direct link between his blog and the Web site. That suggests business bloggers like Javaid are still figuring out the potential conflicts between their personal postings and the more formal face they present to the world through their company Web sites.)
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