Blogs bring content alternative

Blogs deserve our attention because they're an important technological advancement. They make it possible for anyone with an internet connection to quickly post text and images, and eventually audio and video, to the web without any real technical knowledge.

Blogs are hot news. In February, Google caused a stir by acquiring Pyra Labs, creator of Blogger.com. In the past few months, many businesses have been experimenting with blogs as a way to make their websites and intranets seem more current and friendly.

In the wider world, politically oriented weblogs such as AndrewSullivan.com have emerged as important voices in the ongoing debate over Iraq. More poignantly, the Baghdad blogging of Salam Pax was a rare source of pre-liberation Iraqi candor.

Blogs deserve our attention because they're an important technological advancement. They make it possible for anyone with an internet connection to quickly post text and images, and eventually audio and video, to the web without any real technical knowledge. Blogs resemble email in that they enable us to actively contribute to the internet, as opposed to simply consuming it.

Over the past five years, hundreds of thousands of blogs have been developed. That the great majority of them are little more than vanity pages seen only by the creators' friends and family shouldn't turn us against the technology. Self-publishing will eventually prove to be an important internet industry factor.

But exactly how remains unclear. While there is considerable interest in corporate usage, the current enthusiasm seems a bit exaggerated. Large businesses already have the ability to regularly post content to the web, and although blogs can make this even easier, their appeal would seem to be at least partially offset by real concerns regarding control and quality. The net increase in business empowerment is significant but relatively modest.

The biggest benefits will continue to accrue for individuals and small businesses, who are increasingly being freed from the requirements of HTML and the expensive web professionals who understand it. Someday, all of us will post information to the web as easily as we make PowerPoint presentations today. That's real progress. But again, the question is, Toward what end?

Many enthusiasts see individual blogs as an alternative to commercial web content, but this still appears unlikely. Maintaining a high-quality blog takes considerable time and therefore requires sustained motivation. Self-expression and self-promotion have clearly motivated many, but they have obvious limitations. AndrewSullivan.com has had some success soliciting voluntary financial contributions, but this is a rare example.

To me, the key question is whether individual blogging can be harnessed to create something larger than any one person could develop. Consider the analogy with open source software. No individual could compete with powerful commercial software interests. Similarly, no individual blog is going to challenge Yahoo or The New York Times. But the idea of bringing together the focused, organised and peer-reviewed work of knowledgeable individuals can be applied to many fields, not just software. Perhaps this is what Google has in mind.

In this sense, blogs should be viewed as an important addition to the content marketplace. If commercial sources provide most of what people need for free, the potential for blogs will remain limited. However, should commercial content be withdrawn or made available only for a fee, the demand for alternatives will surely increase. In this sense, the blogosphere is likely to prove an effective long-term check on the power of commercial content interests, to the great benefit of us all.

Moschella's latest book is Customer-Driven IT: How Users Are Shaping Technology Industry Growth.

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