Just finished Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters by Scott Rosenberg (http://www.wordyard.com) the co-founder of Salon.com. It is definitely a must read. Writing present or quasi-present history is a difficult genre and any author will always be suspected of lacking the distance necessary to separate out the wheat from the chaff, especially in a world where everybody craves for celebrity status. Scott Rosenberg largely and skillfully avoids this pitfall — although it’s almost certain that some will have a different opinion: Welcome to the blogosphere!
Over the last 25 years, digital technologies have empowered people a little bit more each time, but blogging has brought a new type empowerment, not simply the ability to do more things better and faster, but to say and share things differently. The three main sections of the book describe the progressive expansion of the art of blogging from pioneering individuals to the build-up of the massive blogosphere that has reshaped our connection to what’s happening around us and to the news media altogether. As noted by Rosenberg in his introduction, September 9/11 was a turning point in both the history and the meaning of blogs: “at that moment of crisis, many of us looked to the Web for a sense of connection an a dose of truth. The surrogate lamentations of the broadcast media’s talking heads sounded manufactured and inadequate. […] Now for the first time, the nation and the world could talk with itself, doing what humans do when the innocent suffer, cry, comfort, inform, and most important, tell the story together.”
Pioneers: The book starts with the portraits of pioneers between 1994 and 1999: Justin Hall, Dave Winer, and many others such as Jorn Barger, Matt Drudge, Jesse Garrett, Rebecca Blood, to name a few. Although all very different people with very different agendas, they all speak their mind. Until 1994, the Web was primarily an information repository — a system of interlinked hypertext documents. Even though Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Caillau were changing the communication process between engineers at the CERN, the focus was on the documents exchanged, not on the actual messenger, the human voice behind the message (Berners-Lee started a blog only in 2005). Blogs brought that voice to the forefront.
Rosenberg’s first three chapters read like short stories: the Dada-style diary of Justin Hall in a Puritan world; the technology journey of Dave Winer (http://dave.scripting.com), who sent out a DaveNet essay titled “Billions of Websites” in 1995 and became the tribune defending the rights of all individuals by letting anyone start a weblog in Userland; the eccentric trip of Jorn Barger who published his first post using Winer’s Frontier NewsPage, ended up coining the term weblog for his Robot Wisdom Weblog that focused on links to articles that he found interesting, thus establishing “the idea,” Rosenberg says, “of the blogger as a human filter of the Web’s overwhelming bounty.” Incidentally, it’s by clicking on a link that Rebecca Blood (who wrote the first history of weblogs in 2000) met her husband, Jesse Garrett. The early days of blogging are complex, and identifying who was “first” is sometimes tricky, except for the technology side, but by 1998, it was already clear that traditional news media had lost their monopoly on the newness of news and their ability to control how long any event would stay in the spotlight: in 1998 the Matt Drudge site launched the Monica Lewinsky story.
Scaling up: The process started around 2000. The word “weblog” progressively became obsolete and the word “blog” picked up: “I’ve decided to pronounce the word ‘weblog’ as wee’–blog. Or ‘blog’ for short,” Peter Merholz posted on Peterme.com. As the word shortens, the numbers of blogs and the “blogosphere” (William Quick) increased dramatically. Numbers may vary, but here is a sample scale: “in 2003, Technorati reported tracking 100,000 blogs and by October 2006, the figure had leaped to 67 million.” New platforms and technologies had made it easier to blog. Here are a few reminders: Blogger (read the stormy life of Evan Williams and Meg Hourihan) was created in 2000, Typepad in 2002 (by Six Apart, founded in 2001), WordPress in 2003; in 2001 Movable Type (from Six Apart) made it easy to leave comments; in 2002, RSS 2.0 became a widely adopted standard supported by most blogging tools — and Rosenberg reminds us that while building out the infrastructure, Dave Winer also created what came to be known as a ping server at Weblogs.com. As the technologies for mass adoption got fine-tuned, the blogosphere turned into a vast jungle with a huge number of new actors and a lot at stake — so ideological debates and rivalries escalated: liberal and republican blogs tore each other to pieces, but both did shoot at the traditional news media. Monetization of the new “media” was now on the agenda. VCs got involved and “blogging for bucks” put in practice the 1999 The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual stating that “market are conversations:” Robert Scoble who had once worked for Dave Winer’s Userland and was famous for his own blog (http://scobleizer.com) gave Microsoft a humanized face between 2003 and 2006. Jason Calacanis and Nick Denton were to enter into their colorful business duel. Meanwhile, in addition to getting a Whuffie score (Cory Doctorow’s reputation-based currency), a new measure in the popularity contest had appeared: the anti-media medium now had the Technorati Top 100 (2002), a Nielsen rating of sorts. Controversies raged around the meaning of “unpublish” at Boing Boing, and Heather Armstrong experienced the torments to being “dooced,” which contributed to her success (http://www.dooce.com). This section of the book is as epic as the first one — and incidentally, you will find out that there may be lots of commonalities between the blogosphere and the micro-blogosphere.
What have blogs wrought: This last section is a three-part conclusion. Rosenberg summarizes the interminable debate “Journalists vs. Bloggers,” which unfolds throughout the book, and boils down to a desperate attempt by traditional media to rescue itself from the wreckage of print, as well as from the shortcomings of its self-professed objectivity and self-declared professionalism. The Ancient scribes, faithful servants of the pharaonic bureaucracy didn’t want anybody else to write. Guess what? They disappeared or jumped ship. The reality is that skepticism and righteousness have never stopped the course of history and blogging under one form or another will stay and prevail. “The anarchic, energetic Web I fell in love with fifteen years ago had indeed lasted,” Rosenberg concludes. “It continues to provide people of meager credentials and little means with a home for their idiosyncratic ideas and unlikely innovations. Their ideas will continue to flow in a profusion of unpredictable courses.” After all, the idealist, “Utopian fervor” of the pioneers may still be around — just kind of spruced up.
As I said in the beginning, this book is fantastic. It reads like a novel, and contrary to most “business” books, it is very well written. The only thing that’s missing may be a summary map of the technologies from which products and enabling platforms were derived and subsequently leveraged by bloggers. Yes, Dave Winer may very well illustrate ‘the unedited voice of a person,” in the end, though, his unique technology insight, influence and persistence also made him one of the most prominent crystallizers of just anybody’s voice.