Blogging vs. Flogging

by Doc Searls

It's time to draw a distinction between blogging and flogging. Because the former has become so buried in the latter that we've lost track of what blogging was in the first place, and the promise it still holds.

Ed Bott tried to get us back on track in a recent post titled What’s wrong with the blogosphere, part 1. In it he called Gabe Rivera's Techmeme "the Short Attention Span Theater of the blogosphere". Specifically,

It’s an echo chamber. It encourages reactive, uncritical thinking. The blogswarm gets outraged by whatever they see on Techmeme, they write down whatever pops into their heads (without checking any facts and in most cases without even following the links), and then moves on to the next topic. A "discussion" lasts 24 hours.

Techmeme is a template for a gazillion me-too bloggers who manage to write a dozen posts a day without ever expressing an original thought. That, depressingly, appears to be a successful business model, at least for now.

Gabe Rivera tweeted back, "Unintentionally hilarious rant on Techmeme from ZDNet's Ed Bott, who's depressed that some bloggers make a living". One standout response to both was Why Original Blog Thought Is So Difficult, by Mark Evans. I'll compress his points:

  1. Writing original thought-provoking blog content is a challenge. It takes time, thought and effort. The problem, however, is many bloggers are often short of time, which means it is difficult to come up with insightful thoughts...
  2. Many bloggers just want to be part of the conversation before it moves on. You see a hot story and you’re keen to jump in but not willing to simply leave a comment on someone else’s blog...
  3. Writing original content often provides a low return on investment. Let’s face it, traffic is what drives many bloggers, which explains why checking your stats on a regular basis is a key part of blogging...
  4. Unless you blog for living like Mike Arrington or Erick Schonfeld, or you’re a tech reporter like Mathew Ingram or a conference junkie like Robert Scoble, you don't have steady access to people and new ideas that often spawn original blog posts.
  5. Vanity and Envy. If you really want to see your name on Techmeme, write about the top news on Techmeme. If you want to talk about whatever TechCrunch is covering, blog on what Arrington thinks about something...

Dave Winer pointed to the Tehcmeme-ing of Mark's post as Proof that the end is near. Said Dave, "I pulled out of the tech industry and started blogging in 1994 or 1997 depending on what you count as the start so I could get away from the crap. Now Mike Arrington is talking about turning TechCrunch into CNET. That's a sure sell signal." So Dave has taken action:

Over on Twitter I am unceremoniously blocking all tech industry superdelegates.

Let me explain.

Imagine if the tech industry was the Democratic Party, then the insider's insiders would be the superdelegates. The people who talk about people talking about people talking about people talking about tech.

Somewhere at the end of the chain there are products and users, forgotten in all the drama.

While Dave does that, I'm going to try rehabilitating blogging by distinguishing it from flogging.

To start I'll assert that blogs are journals, in the literal and legitimate sense. As Dave put it here in 2003, blogs are the unedited voice of a person. They are also the most common form of Citizen Media., which share the same ideals as traditional journalism: accuracy, thoroughness, fairness, transparency... and one more big one: independence. That doesn't mean blogs are always accurate, thorough or fair. Often they're not. But at their best, blogs work to serve those virtues. And, in some ways, they do a much better job than mainstream journalism ever did. That's because their methods and and structure allow any number of writers to build as well as share what they know.

Last Thursday and Friday at the Media Re:public conference at the Annenberg Center in Los Angeles, we took on the challenge of "undertaking an assessment of the state of the field of participatory media within the overall news and information environment". We chose the term "participatory" because "citizen" seemed kinda narrow. I didn't think much about it at the time, but as an adjective participatory applied as well to free and open source software development. After all, that stuff is entirely participatory. It's all barn-raising, all the time.

Blogging for me has always been participatory journalism. It's inherently constructive. This makes it a bit different from the traditional journalism, which has a central purpose of delivering information, and leaving most of the constructing up to the reader. True there are two-way elements in traditional journalism -- letters to editors in print and comments online, for example -- but mostly it's one-way.

Meanwhile, participatory journalism isn't just "two-way". It's a construction project. It's not about buzz, notoriety and money. It's about building that almost three-dimensional thing we call understanding. Here's how I unpacked that difference in a Linux Journal column last year:

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.

It's significant to me that what I'm writing here in the online side of Linux Journal is now also a blog. That's what it's called. I don't just write here. I blog. So does everybody else with a byline.

In Drupal's earlier days, when we adopted it as our content management system, I disliked the way the system applied the term "blog" to several different things, none of which -- I thought at the time -- was a blog. Now I'm glad we've stuck with the term, because it makes sense to me that blog and journal remain almost synonymous. And that floggery for its own sake be exposed for the mongering that it is.

If your blog exists only to drive traffic, make noise, and join the amen corners of blogging's so-called "insiders", then what you have isn't a blog. It's a flog.

No, I'm not saying that making money with blogging is a bad thing. (Hell, I'm doing that here.) I am saying that blogging only to make money is actually flogging. So is jumping onto a topic only to goose it up on TechMeme. So is not being original. Which is to say, not being true to your own unique self, and what only you bring to the world, to your work, to conversations on the Web, and to the great weave of all three, and more.

It's really not hard. When we're not trying to be popular or otherwise insecure, we all have something original to contribute. Humans are born curious, built to learn, and built as well to share and teach each other. To serve our curiosity is human nature at its best. It is, therefore, also blogging at its best. Being curious is more important than being authoritative. Also more necessary, because curiosity is what creates and maintains authority. This is why nothing will drive understanding (and sometimes traffic) better than good questions posed by curious minds.

I unpacked that a bit in this post about blogging. An excerpt:

I don't think of my what I do here as production of "information" that others "consume". Nor do I think of it as "one-to-many" or "many-to-many". I thnk of it as writing that will hopefully inform readers.

Informing is not the same as delivering information. Inform is derived from the verb to form. When you inform me, you form me. You enlarge that which makes me most human: what I know. I am, to some degree, authored by you.

What we call "authority" is the right we give others to author us, to enlarge us.

The human need to increase what we know, and to help each other do the same, is what the Net at its best is all about.

Here's how Mark Evans puts it in the same post quoted above:

At the same time, however, writing original content is so much more satisfying because there’s a sense of accomplishment that you've been inspired by something you've read or talked about with someone about. It’s those nuggets of original content gold that make blogging so rewarding.

And not just with money.

[Later...] After I wrote this post I realized that Mark also works for a company on the board of which I serve. This post is not about that company in any way. But still, in the interest of transparency, I'm disclosing that.

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