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.
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.
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.)
What's more, and this is key, there's built-in motivation for people to participate in blogging: They get credit for their ideas. A blog is essentially a repository of a person's intellectual capital--a record of their thoughts, observations, contributions. People may switch employers, but they'll take with them electronic journals of their best ideas. Blogging is a way to protect the most important brand of all: yourself.
If you're wondering what blogs look like, they're essentially Web pages with some common characteristics: commentary, sometimes lengthy, but often only a sentence or paragraph per subject; hyperlink connections to other Web pages; discussion threads; a search-engine function; maybe even advertising. Within this story, you'll find references to other sources, including weblogs. Bloggers do that a lot--link to one another. A standard feature of many blogs is a recommended-reading list of other blogs. That leads tens of thousands of visitors to the most popular commentators. Not bad numbers for people with something to say.
I know of at least three places you can find tools to create weblogs: http://www.userland.com, http://www.moveabletype.org, and http://www.blogger.com. UserLand went commercial with its $40 Radio UserLand client software in January. The company's development environment, Frontier, sells for $900, and includes Internet server software called Manila.
Don't look to Microsoft for weblog tools--it doesn't sell them. Microsoft product manager Trina Seinfeld says the company's SharePoint Team Services--included in its FrontPage 2002 Web-site-creation software, which is part of the Office XP applications suite--and SharePoint Portal Server fulfill some of the same functions. Both, for example, support workgroup collaboration and idea-sharing. SharePoint Team Services lets a person quickly create an intranet, where things such as online discussions and surveys can facilitate communication. Microsoft says 10,000 impromptu sites have been created this way by employees in its own business. SharePoint Portal Server is a content aggregator aimed more at departments and business units. Among other things, Portal Server can link together the intranets whipped up by Team Services.
So, there are similarities and differences among the software tools you can choose from. My hunch is that it's possible to build something that looks and feels like a weblog even if the underlying technology isn't from one of the developers that specialize in this market. In this respect, the concept of weblogging would seem to be more important than the technology that enables it. If so, it's already passed the most vital business-value test.
Weblogs empower the individual, which is a mixed blessing. In addition to being magnets for a few deft writers, Web sites that aggregate blog traffic can be portals into some of the most painfully pedestrian prose generated by our say-anything culture. Here's a sample from a blog titled The Genuine College Experience: "Well, the night was long. We played with sparklers (fireworks are outlawed) and toyed with more beer. Our card game from the day lasted all night. We switched to golf. Which was something I had learnt, but can't remember now."
That excerpt, found on a quick visit to http://www.blogger.com, was low-hanging fruit--there's lots more like it. Blogging is a way for public diarists to reveal things about themselves that really should be shared only with their closest confidants, or for people to broadcast eccentric views and shallow tidbits from an electronic soapbox. Professional bloggers (yes, some make money at it through ads and reader contributions) acknowledge that not all the output is well put. "A vast amount of drivel will no doubt find its way to the Web," writes Sullivan.
But when the same tools are put to productive use, weblogs can trigger a rich chain reaction of ideas and possibilities, which is why they hold such great potential for the workplace. Give individual employees within a company their own weblogs, encourage them to document their best ideas and personal experiences, link them, add search capabilities, and it's easy to imagine that at least some innovation will arise from the ordinary. "Blogging is a train-of-thought technology," says Scott Dinsdale, executive VP of digital strategy at the Motion Picture Association and a blog reader. "In corporate environments that are creatively oriented, there's probably some use for it." A potential application, he says, would be for newly hired employees to come quickly up to speed by reading the blogs of colleagues.
Corporate cultures will need to change if blogging is to fulfill its promise as a tool for collaborative business. There's a "reluctance to open the floodgates of letting opinions fly around and not be able to control that," Chen says. Good point. There's little reason to invest in this democratizing application if strict authority remains the status quo. On the other hand, companies that blog need to be prepared for the bad ideas, disagreements, and general dissonance that might also be generated by the system. "If there's anything blogs aren't, it's succinct and direct," says Dinsdale. The flip side of blogging for business innovation would be this: hours wasted recording, reading, and responding to low-value meanderings. There's a risk of getting bogged down in blogs.
If they really want to be taken seriously, bloggers might think about using a different term to describe what they do. The phrase "I was blogging last night" is just as likely to trigger thoughts of impropriety as it is to impress a listener with one's philosophical side. Still, it's easy to have fun with the term. Writer's block: slogging through the blogging. Knowledge management: bloggin' with your noggin. High society: hobnoblogging. Lumberjack author: logger blogger. Or you can improvise to popular old melodies, like this: When the web, web logging goes blog, blog, blogging along.
We can see how weblogging has expanded the influence of the individual and envision the transformational effect it can have on the employees of a company and the company itself. Put those three dynamics together--the empowered consumer, the connected professional, and the collaborative business--and it's easy to see why there's so much buzz about weblogging. What professional wouldn't benefit from being part of a loose-knit virtual community that helps people share ideas and experiences? Already, the software-development community provides a model.
Now, it's journalism's turn. Newspapers, magazines, and other media increasingly use blogging techniques to provide information in new ways and not only extend their reach to broader audiences, but also bring new and different voices into their circle. InformationWeek and our sister publication, Optimize, will introduce blogs in the weeks ahead on our respective Web sites, informationweek.com and optimizemag.com.
For nonjournalists, the playing field becomes more level. Rather than griping about the left-leaning, biased media over morning coffee and the paper, they can use blogs to provide commentary, counterpoints, and connections to alternative sources. It doesn't mean you and I--or even my mother and I--will always agree, but at least we'll hear each other and have a new way to explore our differences.
Want to give collaborative journalism a try? Let me know what you think about the blogging phenomenon and its potential to change your business.