Friday, May 20, 2005

Do blogs have a future?

"At the Aspen Institute's Conference on Journalism and Society in mid-July, a question was put to executives of major news organizations: Whom do you trust in online media today?" (Lassica, 2004). Their feedback showed that a major transformation is underway. Observers are finding that "a nobody with a Weblog can build up a more loyal audience than news brands that have been around for a century or more" and that bloggers make up a large and growing number of the national top 40 attention getting sites on the web whose credibility and respect matches or exceeds major news outlets (Lassica, 2004). Not only are these audiences more loyal, in many cases they are larger, with more readers than major newspapers and magazines have subscribers.

This transformation in communication is happening at several levels. At one level it is changing whom we trust, from large organizations to individual voices. At another level it is changing the understanding of cyberspace. Outsiders and beginning users of the Web first see it as a place for random searches for information, for googling data. More experienced users recognize that blogs have given mainstream legitimacy to a long standing but often overlooked value of cyberspace, the Web as a place for talk. Through such online chat the Web serves as community builder, consensus maker, and hub for intimate social and political conversations. Decades before the phenomena of blogging made Web sharing an instant simple act, millions of email conferences were taking place within systems of communication called newsgroups and email lists or listservs. Blogs help reduce the email glut and also serve as a wedge to bring more cyberspace users into these older forms of dialog as well.

By combining intelligent and informal thoughts with this inexpensive design, blog voices are also contributing to brand and reputation building on a scale from individual writers to Microsoft and General Motors (GM). In the short time since the concept emerged, the Wall Street Journal noted that some 4% of major U.S. corporations have blogs available to the public. Blogging jobs are not only well paid but growing in popularity (Needleman, 2005). Some have found that blogging has been added to their job description and others have used their blogging skills for advancement and promotion purposes.

More importantly, by changing the nature of public voice, blogs have changed the nature of power distribution (Gillmor, 2004). Gillmor provided multiple examples of the power pyramid being inverted. Prior to the Web, society's priorities for distributing information were based on wealth. The bigger your city or organization, the bigger your media outlets from newsprint to television stations, and therefore the greater your influence. Further, the more money your institution or corporation had, the more global their reach with advertising, and "spin" or propaganda. This influence dictates public policy and consequently the distribution of wealth.

Blogs increasingly provide hope that the least powerful groups, the poor, the rural, and the public educators in public schools, have a tool to match the power reach of the wealthy. Currently Gillmor (2004) reports that only a relatively small slice of the polity have had the digital knowledge to have engaged the top of the power pyramid and to have been successful in getting heard and having an impact. A far larger portion of the population stands outside this digital conversation, unaware of this new powerful contribution to democracy. Educators at all levels should explore their free use, for the value of their contribution to culture, to professional communication and in teaching and learning to determine which of the many values of blogs makes the most sense for their educational situation.

Those who live outside a democracy have found the Internet a major tool in their fight against authoritarian regimes. On September 22, 2005 the group Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based media watchdog, made available a Handbook for Bloggers and Cyber-Dissidents. "It gives detailed advice on safeguarding anonymity by using psuedonyms and proxy services that can replace the easily traceable IP addresses of home computers" (Naughton, 2005). Those using blog sites and other Internet tools to report the news are often the only independent and truthful voices available to citizens of oppressive countries. Unfortunately the desire for access to markets and profit has led to companies based in democracies providing technical skills and knowledge about the Internet to help dictatorships suppress the sharing of ideas that challenge their power. Dissidents that are caught face jail-time, torture and death.

For those who need to share a perspective on the conditions around them, blogs provide a quick way to get started, but they too are limited in their power. As the culture moves past the hype on blogs, a true partnership between blogs and other new ways to communicate will emerge. Blog-wiki combinations seem likely. Furl and Flickr also seem likely allies. Blogs will also become part of many earlier designs. For example, Moodle, an online class management system, is adding the blog concept. Moodle is a free, open source competitor to commerical applications such as WebCT and Blackboard. Students can blog in a "walled garden" in which outsiders to the school cannot see what is there, or also allow some blogs to be visible and interactive with the larger world.

Can we effectively spread the word about blogs? Will the lower rungs of the power pyramid also use the web to find and share their voices? Is there the will and the discipline to do so? For those individuals or organizations with a need to develop local, national and international reputations as voices of change, blogs are simplicity personified. Welcome to the blogosphere!


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11/21/2005 06:32:00 PM  

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