Silent Revolution

There’s a lot of developments going on in the online space but most of them, while potentially changing the state of online business for years to come, have been flying under the radar for most people. It is interesting to see that what some of us are witnessing is really the beginning of a silent revolution, currently underway but far from the glare of most journalists and of the general population.

An example of this is the weblog. While the more web-savvy participants amongst us are very familiar with the concept, there seems to be a lack of understanding of what blogs are about. Most dismiss them as diaries (which some blogs, like those hosted by LiveJournal, truly are) but fail to realize that there is a lot more going on in the space.

I recently had a chance to discuss emerging trends in technology with a number of Internet executives for large companies and was very surprised to see how quickly the weblog phenomenon is being dismissed. What I suspect is that this is largely the result of the complexity of weblogland, an area that is hard to really classify neatly in a few buzzwords. A world where Glenn Reynolds sits only a few clicks away from Mark Pilgrim or Alan Reiter is one that reflects only the diversity of opinions you can find in the web space, and the variety of subjects that are covered.

I suspect that what we are witnessing is a very quiet revolution in content publishing. For starters, most mainstream B2B publications are starting to loose ground to the web. The reason behind this is that information is more widely available in the only world, and at a much faster rate than in the print world. Furthermore, the costs related to printing and shipping weekly publications are much higher than those of setting up websites, even considering the high price of full content management solutions.

Meanwhile, individuals with particular knowledge of a field can set themselves up online for a relatively small amount of money and start producing content almost instantly. What is needed after that is some amount of personal marketing, which in itself is becoming much easier with the rise of social network sites like Ryze and LinkedIn. The next step in this new format for online publishing will be a revenue model. Some people have already tried taking donation and, increasingly, companies like Google are starting to aggregate advertising across networks of blogs. I suspect that, within the next five years, we probably will start seeing blogs appear as a new form of micro-publishing.

But what about the editors?

Of course, the discussion of weblogs as journalism inevitably leads to a discussion of the role of editors within the journalism field as a whole. However, the interesting thing happening in blogland is that the editing is actually distributed. To a large extend, services like Blogdex Daypop, and Popdex are starting to serve as basic editors in terms of automating the information on what story is seen as important across the web world. This level of automation is similar, in a way to that used by Google News and fills an important part of the editor’s job: setting the agenda. By aggregating data across blogland, those services use “blog populi” as their editor, essentially letting the aggregation of links set the basic agenda. What is important to a lot of blogger must be an important story and therefore deserves front page treatment.

The next role for the editor is in establishing whether facts are correct or wrong. This is largely done through a level of checks and balances in the blog world that can rival that of the best news organization. A story that is considered important by “blog populi” will get a lot of linkage and, using such technologies as trackback and comment system, will provide much in the way of corrections. As a result, discussions starting in one location can feed another, be criticized by a third one, and all and all present a fuller picture. However, a lot of system (including my own), do not offer trackback yet. Once all blogs do, this kind of fact checking could increase the overall value of the content. System like Technorati provide a good idea of what other people are saying about a particular entry. This, once again, goes to the fact checking nature of the editor’s role.

The Distribution Issue

The nature of online publishing is largely one of pull versus push. Few people actually receive news from web sites in the way they do from other media form. For example, I receive a newspaper every morning. This is what is called a push model. I subscribed to that newspaper and do not have to remember to go and buy it every day. However, in a pull model, I decide where to go to get my information. In a way, one could argue that broadcast falls under both categories: one decides what TV or radio station to pick up (pull) but once they did, the information is pushed to them. Similarly, one decides what address to type into the URL box on their browser. However, a small format called RSS allows to turn weblogs into push medium. Using a client called an RSS reader, one can subscribe to a weblog and, after that, receive abstracts from the weblogs on a regular basis. This model allows blog publishers to end up with more regular subscribers, and is key to the weblog world because these reminders do not require any extra work on the part of the reader to gather the information. As a result, one can grow his/her readership. I’d recommend that every publisher reading this look into the format and consider implementing it. There are some tremendous income opportunities there, ranging from publishing of highlights with text-advertising attached to them to offering customized RSS feeds for an extra fee.

Journalism or not?

So, in the final analysis, some blogs are emerging as a new form of journalism, while others do fall squarely in the world of diary. As a result, they can be used as useful knowledge management tool and potentially micro-publishing platform.

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