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15 May 2003Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Blog eats blog
The rise of the blogeoisie.

by Bill Thompson

The O'Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference (ETCON) has established itself as the highlight of the geek calendar after only three years - the place where technology meets the street (1).

Yet something was missing from this year's conference, and many topics were simply disregarded. The sole discussion of the 'digital divide' was a session about providing wireless networks to native American communities, as if only people in the backyard count - what of rural India, or South America? Even the conference's focus on disruptive 'emerging technologies' seemed skewed, since the social order that these technologies will disrupt is that of the west coast of the USA, not that of rural Chinese villages or even European cities.

The conference discussions about 'mapping the wireless revolution', understanding 'Amazon web services', or searching for 'riches in rich internet applications', were really attempts to corral, control and neuter these technologies, before they do anything unpleasant.

Of course, it's important that someone, somewhere tries to get a handle on the future, and we should be grateful to the assembled geeks and net gurus for taking time to do that. But we also need to ask some hard questions about the people behind the conference, and about the agenda and baggage that they carry with them.

In theory, it should be easy to find out what went on at ETCON - after all, it is probably the most heavily blogged event in the world (2). Every talk, keynote, informal session, water-cooler conversation, party and failed sexual encounter was extensively covered, in real time, by bloggers who would rather write 'I am sitting here' than sit there, and note that 'the audience is not paying attention' rather than consider that they aren't paying attention either.

Sadly, hours spent with my head down the wirelessly-enabled toilet that is today's blogosphere revealed only that these many and varied comments form such a complex tapestry of overlapping meanings, that they make the reports from embedded journalists in Iraq seem like models of clarity.

Not only are the blogs of individual attendees, like Matt Jones, the father of warchalking, available to be read, but various collaborative authoring tools have been used to create summaries and commentaries on many of the talks and discussions. This creates a seamless and essentially author-free porridge of commentary - lacking substance, structure or meaning (3).

Reading the blog coverage may not tell us much about what actually happened, but it does reveal something of interest. Within the blogosphere, we can identify some that belong to a new intellectual elite - a small influential group of people, who have managed to turn their self-publication obsession into a power base. It will come as no surprise that many of them either organised or spoke at the conference (4).

Howard Rheingold, Tim O'Reilly, Clay Shirky, Doc Searls, Dave Winer and Ben Hammersley (no, I'm not going to promote them even more by linking to them) are all what Register reporter Andrew Orlowski calls 'the A-list bloggers', the people whose regular musings on their personal websites can shape debate and make reputations (5). (Shirky may not have a conventional blog, preferring instead to post essays that are then linked to by others - but since his importance derives entirely from others' blogs, I feel justified in including him in the list.)

If this was just a random collection of people with more time than sense - a self-referential group of average intellects sharing their views on the internet - then it would not be worrying. But these discussions do not take place in a vacuum. Despite the findings of the Pew Internet and America Life Project - that the number of regular visitors to even the highest-profile blog is too low to be statistically significant - blogs exert real influence over how many others think about the internet and its future (6).

Also, this particular group of bloggers are starting to have political clout, and have shaped the direction of technological developments in the area of 'social software' and groupware. They matter.

The blogeoisie and their acolytes dismiss 'journalism'
It seems that the A-list may soon have their first real-world political success, with their campaign to deregulate radio spectrum in the US - a move that uses a poor technological argument to push forward an assertion about the most efficient ways to allocate resources that would be remarkably familiar to any Reagan-style voodoo economists left over from the 1980s (7).

As economic libertarians, these people believe that markets should be free, formed by the rational actions of rational agents - who need only to be provided with perfect information about goods and services in order to build a stable economy. As technological utopians, they believe that everything will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds, if technology is modelled on the American dream and the American way. And as opinion formers, they claim no formal power base, operating instead by linking exhaustively to one another.

Fortunately for them, in the hyperlinked world it is not necessary to airbrush dissenters out of the group photograph. You can simply wait for Google's PageRank to promote the ideas the A-list find acceptable and linkworthy to the top of the page, while the websites of apostates disappear below the fold and out of history. Who needs a memory hole when the world's favourite search engine does the job so effectively?

These people are not quite an aristocracy. Perhaps they are simply the blogeoisie (pronounced bloj-wah-zee), a dominant class in network society. Or it may be simpler to think of blogs as a feudal system, with respect and links acting as the chief currency. The peasants toil in the low-rank blogs, paying their tithe in LazyWeb projects to the lords of the link in return for an occasional mention from Hammersley or Searls.

Whatever analogy we choose, one thing is clear - any group with influence needs people outside that group who will criticise it. In the real world of politics and society, journalists do that - proper journalists who know what having principles means, who aim for objectivity while accepting that it is unattainable, and who are open about who pays them and who they work with.

When überblogger Joi Ito spent weeks lauding the creators of Movable Type blogging software, and then invested money in the company, you could almost hear the sound of a thousand technology hacks muttering, 'Now that's interesting'. But search the blogs of his friends for critical comment, and you'll find none.

Yet the blogeoisie and their acolytes dismiss 'journalism' and those who practice it, arguing that the direct reporting of events is the only thing needed. As Dave Winer says: 'The typical news article consists of quotes from interviews and a little bit of connective stuff and some facts, or whatever. Mostly it's quotes from people. If I can get the quotes with no middleman in between - what exactly did CNN add to all the pictures?' (8)

This isn't about not liking blogs. It's about not liking unaccountable concentrations of influence, about believing it is still true that 'the first duty of the press is to obtain the earliest and most correct intelligence of events of the time and instantly, by disclosing them, to make them the common property of the nation' (9) - and about noting that 'most correct' does not mean 'what the blog says'.

What is happening at ETCON, and elsewhere in the world of the bloggers, needs to be reported and commented on by those who haven't bought into the worldview. Sadly, this does not seem to be an acceptable activity.

Bill Thompson is a technology writer and critic. He used to be head of new media at the Guardian, and now appears on the BBC and elsewhere talking and writing about this sort of stuff. He really likes blogs and cool technology, honest. Visit his website.

Read on:

Gone to the blogs, by Brendan O'Neill

(1) See the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference and Burning Man websites

(2) A Google search for ETCON blog gives 1020 entries

(3) See Matt Jones' work and thoughts weblog and the Hydra website

(4) See the speakers section of the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference website

(5) Anti-war slogan coined, repurposed and Googlewashed... in 42 days, Andrew Orlowski, Register, 3 April 2003

(6) See The internet and the Iraq war: how online Americans have used the internet to learn war news, understand events, and promote their views (.pdf 87.2 KB), Lee Rainie, Susannah Fox and Deborah Fallows, Pew Internet and America Life Project, 1 April 2003

(7) Spectrum for all, Lawrence Lessig, CIO Insight, 14 March 2003

(8) Blogging comes to Harvard, Paul Festa, CNET News.com, 25 February 2003

(9) Leader in The Times, 6 February 1852

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