Blogs and InfoWorld

When a writer for IDG's newsletter asked me some questions about how weblogs relate to InfoWorld's mission, I realized I might as well use the medium self-reflexively. I'm more often an interviewer than an interviewee. But like a lot of other distinctions, that one has lately begun to blur. By posting a draft of my answers to his questions, I hope to demonstrate -- not just describe -- the process of public writing and cross-blog commentary. I expect this writer will wind up with a deeper and richer story as a result. That, of course, is exactly why I think blogs matter to InfoWorld.

Q: For the uninitiated, what are blogs? (In layman's terms, please.)

A: Blogs are public Web journals. 'Public' can mean a few different things, though. Usually blogs are world-visible. But they can also be company-visible, or department- or workgroup-visible.

Q: Why are they so important to InfoWorld now?

A: Here's an example. A couple of months ago, I wrote an item on my blog in response to an item on Scripting News about the Windows "blue screen of death." I used my posting to broaden the discussion, pointing out that device drivers are problematic in every operating system. In passing, I mentioned that Windows Server 2003 moves some HTTP networking code into the kernel, and wondered about the performance/stability tradeoff.

An hour later, I happened to check my Technorati cosmos -- that's a website (one of several) that keeps track of blogs that cite other blogs. In response to my posting, a Microsoft developer named Ari Pernick (whom I'd never heard of) posted an item on his blog that said, in part, "Well, it's a scary change, but hopefully appropriate." Ari went on to explain more than I'd seen or heard previously about this potentially controversial feature of Windows Server 2003. In so doing, he helped to defuse controversy.

Stop and think about this for a moment. Ari's not one of Microsoft's stars, like Don Box or Chris Anderson, both of whom have lately become fascinated with blogs. He's a footsoldier in Redmond's army of developers. And yet he felt empowered to clarify how and why part of the HTTP stack was pushed down into the Windows kernel.

Some in the journalistic, vendor, and user communities think that this kind of open, cross-blog conversation is the way of the future. If that's true, it'll change a lot of things -- including the nature of tech journalism.

A conspiracy theorist, noticing that Ari's blog went silent a few days after that extraordinary posting, might conclude that he'd been shut down. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, however. I see lots of other blogs cooking at Microsoft. Maybe Ari decided he's not cut out for public journalling, or just got too busy.

Maybe there's a real change underway, maybe not. And maybe that change will broadly transform the way information flows in the vendor/customer/journalist ecosystem. Time will tell. I certainly hope that that we're moving in the direction of more openness and transparency. That can't and shouldn't mean, of course, that people inside vendor or user organizations will divulge secrets on public blogs. It can and should mean they'll present real faces, and speak in real voices about issues of interest to colleagues, partners, and customers. Think of an organization as a single-celled animal. Blogs increase the surface area of the cell, help nutrients flow across its membrane, and promote multicellular cooperation.

You haven't asked why people write blogs. At first glance, the whole thing looks like a gigantic vanity press, and indeed there are elements of that. But every serious professional blog has an agenda. Reasons to invest time and effort in writing a blog can incude:

The blog network is a kind of engine for processing all of these agendas. Think about how science is driven by publication and citation indexing. Blogs, and the aggregators that track them, make publication and citation indexing a realtime 24x7 process. The blog universe is a literal marketplace of ideas, an economy whose currency is the hyperlink.

Q: How do they work?

A: Technically, blogs are dead simple: static Web pages, with diary entries ordered newest to oldest. In a pinch, you could maintain one with nothing fancier than a text editor and an FTP program. There's a bit more to RSS (Rich Site Summary), the XML format that's the basis of a blog syndication network, but in the end it's dead simple too. The real innovations are cultural. In other modes of electronic discourse -- Usenet newsgroups, Web forums -- you join a shared public space and take turns speaking in that space. Blogs work very differently. Your blog is your own personal space, an extension of yourself that you project with pride, and control with care. You write about things that matter to you, optionally referring to other blogs and acknowledging other blogs' referrals to you. These referrals and acknowledgments are driven by the other cultural novelty of blogging: the use of RSS newsreaders to selectively tune into the "channels" broadcast by other bloggers.

Q: How are they integrated into InfoWorld's site?

A: The site points to InfoWorld-written blogs, and vice versa. And all of InfoWorld's print content flows out through RSS feeds advertised on the home page. But there should be more to the story, as I'll explain below.

Q: Kevin McKean said that blogs can be a distant early warning of something before it breaks in a conventional news story. Can you explain that?

A: I think that blogs can sometimes scoop conventional news stories, but can also support and deepen them. It depends on the nature of the story. Three of the five W's -- who, where, and when -- are becoming commodities exchanged at light speed on the RSS network. But the remaining two -- what and why -- require synthesis and analysis. Journalists who read and write blogs will find themselves better connected and more able to do that synthesis and analysis effectively.

Q: Do InfoWorld writers maintain blogs or do they monitor other people's blogs or both?

A: The balance between original writing and commentary is a matter of individual style.

Q: What does it mean to be a blog-friendly IT site?

A: More than just converting columnists into bloggers. It's a two-way street. InfoWorld's regular news, reviews, and features -- as well as our blogs -- are widely read and commented upon. Increasingly those comments appear on readers' weblogs, where Technorati, Popdex, other aggregators, and our own referral logs can track them. Chad Dickerson signed us up for a Technorati watchlist last week, and was blown away by the amount and quality of feedback reflected there. I'd like to see weave those perspectives into its presentation. Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Dan Gillmor says that journalism should "help the former audience become part of the process." I violently agree, and have in fact worked that way since about 1996. That's when I realized how the newsgroups I ran at could enrich the editorial process of BYTE magazine. What was then the exception is now -- I hope -- going to become the rule.

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