Blogging = Freedom

by Doc Searls

Paul Boutin is a friend. I love the guy. I also think his latest Wired piece — Twitter, Flickr, Facebook Make Blogs Look So 2004 — is a crock.* Two reasons. One is that blogs are fine, even if they seem passé. The other is that blogs are free and open, while Twitter, Flickr and Facebook to varying degrees are not.

Paul begins,

Thinking about launching your own blog? Here's some friendly advice: Don't. And if you've already got one, pull the plug.

Writing a weblog today isn't the bright idea it was four years ago. The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge. Cut-rate journalists and underground marketing campaigns now drown out the authentic voices of amateur wordsmiths. It's almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers. And why bother? The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter.

I've been blogging since 1999. I've also been flickring, facebooking and tweeting for most of the time those services have been around. All are good for some things, but not everything, least of all for what blogging does best.

As personal journals on the Web go, blogs have no substitute. Twitter is fine for 140-character micro-postings, and for the ecosystem surrounding it. But micro-posts are not journals. Flickr is great for posting, tagging, organizing and annotating photographs, and for allied services such as creating groups and the rest of it, but it ain't blogging. Facebook has some blogging features, but at the cost of forcing the blogger to operate in a vast hive of non-journalistic activity — and flat-out noise.

Paul again:

Impersonal is correct: Scroll down Technorati's list of the top 100 blogs and you'll find personal sites have been shoved aside by professional ones. Most are essentially online magazines: The Huffington Post. Engadget. TreeHugger. A stand-alone commentator can't keep up with a team of pro writers cranking out up to 30 posts a day.

Keep up with what? Playing a popularity game, like you're still in Junior High? When my old blog peaked at #16 on Technorati, I knew it was a temporary artifact of an underpopulated sampling. Lemme see... Okay, on Technorati my current blog has an "authority" of 424 and a rank of 7,765. When I moved to that URL it had an authority of nothing and a rank down in the millions. But I still had the same few thousand readers every day, still had the same rough number of commenters, still had the same volume of inbound links, still had the same sense of participation in the world, that I've had since I started out.

He continues,

When blogging was young, enthusiasts rode high, with posts quickly skyrocketing to the top of Google's search results for any given topic, fueled by generous links from fellow bloggers. In 2002, a search for "Mark" ranked Web developer Mark Pilgrim above author Mark Twain. That phenomenon was part of what made blogging so exciting. No more. Today, a search for, say, Barack Obama's latest speech will deliver a Wikipedia page, a Fox News article, and a few entries from professionally run sites like Politico.com. The odds of your clever entry appearing high on the list? Basically zero.

That's just wrong. If you write quotably and link generously, your stuff will get read. Maybe not all of it, all the time; but you still contribute, and searches find your goods.

Blogs in the early day kinda "gamed" Google because Google was tuned to value lots of inbound links. But if Mark Pilgrim got more links than Mark Twain, so what? This is the Web, not the public library. Live stuff happens here. Mark Pilgrim was writing on the Live Web about relevant and interesting subjects. Mark Twain remained important, but dead. And it wasn't like you couldn't find stuff about Mark Twain.

And blogging still has pull with Google. Dave Winer's Scripting News still shows up on the first page of results in a search for Dave. I'm still in the first page of search results for Doc. I'm behind the gunslinger and ahead of the dwarf and all sports figures and musicians with the same nickname. Is this right or fair? Probably not. But credit blogging for what it still does.

As for this...

That said, your blog will still draw the Net's lowest form of life: The insult commenter. Pour your heart out in a post, and some anonymous troll named r0rschach or foohack is sure to scribble beneath it, "Lame. Why don't you just suck McCain's ass." That's why Calacanis has retreated to a private mailing list. He can talk to his fans directly, without having to suffer idiotic retorts from anonymous Jason-haters.

Not in my experience. We get a few trolls here on Linux Journal now and then, but we don't feed them. And we've got good spam filtration as well. Over on my own blog the dashboard says "Akismet has protected your site from 99,572 spam comments already, and there are 4,610 comments in your spam queue right now." Posts from unknowns are moderated. If you flame or spam you don't get in. I get flamed so rarely that I don't remember the last one. Strong disagreements, sure. But nothing wrong with those. Hell, bring 'em on.

One reason I don't get much flaming is that I don't play the popularity game. I know how to flog for buzz (and flames, and the rest of it). But that's not what I do with blogging, and not what I recommend for other bloggers. Write substantive stuff, link to others who have substantive things to say, and stay with topics as they roll forward in constructive ways. That's not a box-office game, but it works if what you want is to drive more understanding around a topic. Blogging has always been good for that, and still is.

Paul again:

Further, text-based Web sites aren't where the buzz is anymore. The reason blogs took off is that they made publishing easy for non-techies. Part of that simplicity was a lack of support for pictures, audio, and videoclips. At the time, multimedia content was too hard to upload, too unlikely to play back, and too hungry for bandwidth.

Social multimedia sites like YouTube, Flickr, and Facebook have since made publishing pics and video as easy as typing text. Easier, if you consider the time most bloggers spend fretting over their words. Take a clue from Robert Scoble, who made his name as Microsoft's "technical evangelist" blogger from 2003 to 2006. Today, he focuses on posting videos and Twitter updates. "I keep my blog mostly for long-form writing," he says.

First, why give a damn about buzz? Here are the main things it's good for: 1) popularity, by itself; 2) driving eyeballs past advertising. Nothing wrong with either, as long as substance is involved. Even if all you want is ad bux, it helps to remember that there isn't a 1:1 ratio between traffic and click-throughs. Quality still matters, and buzz isn't its only driver.

Second, Scoble still blogs. (Do you think for a second that he'd give that up like Jason did? Not a chance.) Also note the symbiotic relationship between social multimedia services and blogging. They support each other. There's an ecosystem here.

Hell, I have 23,950 items on Flickr , and mine are among the thousands more we have on the Linux Journal Flickr site. I love what Flickr does, including its open API, which allows me to suck my own pictures sideways out of Flickr and put them on Tabblo. (Here's a blog post about it from more than two years ago. The points still apply.) Bravo for them.

But let's remember that these are private services. They are, literally, proprietary.

Which brings us to the matter of freedom.

To the credit of Flickr and Twitter, they are mostly friendly to the open Web, and not roach motels tricked out as friendly walled gardens. No 'fence, but that's what Facebook looks like to me. (Argue that if you like, but you still have to admit that it's a private space rather than a public one.)

Meanwhile, blogging is free-as-in-freedom at its core. It's something you do as an independent human being.

Although most blogs run on hosted services, those blogs are still ours. Do it right, and the constraints are minimal. http://doc.searls.com is a WordPress blog on a Harvard server, but if I want to move it elsewhere, I can do that. I have data portability, and service substitutability.

Freedom matters. Independence matters. Not being utterly dependent on any single service provider not only matters, but is an essential virtue too rarely visited and too lightly respected. What Richard Stallman said about clouds (that they're "a marketing hype campaign" and "You're putty in the hands of whoever developed that software") has more than the ring of truth to it. His is a warning as righteous as those made by responsible forecasters of the financial meltdown.

Blogging at its best is free speech working in open spaces. That virtue persists, no matter how many slums get built in blogging's hosted services, and no matter how passé it seems at the moment.

* Seamus McCauley calls it "Most flagrant flamebait ever". I've seen worse, but, like Seamus, I'm biting anyway. Sorry, Paul.