Random Thoughts from BloggerCon

This section is for recording random interesting things that happen at BloggerCon…

One constant debate was on whether blogs will substantially improve journalism, public discourse, and worldwide understanding.  At first this idea seems laughable.  All of the money is in Big Media and in our society money = impact.  As an example of how pathetically uncommercial blogs are, consider this one that you’re reading now.  It is the #2 most popular blog on Harvard’s server.  The ranking page shows that it has been viewed about 450,000 times in six months.  Google AdWords pays publishers roughly 50 cents per 1000 pages in which its ads appear (see this story for how serving Google ads, like other forms of advertising, can only be done if you’re willing to accept some limitations on your future speech).  So the total revenue for a moderately popular Weblog is apparently on the order of $400 per year, i.e., only barely enough to pay for a DSL line.  The New York Times has a larger budget than this for even the smallest story.

There are smart people out there in Blogland, e.g., Larry Lessig.  Lessig is of course much more interesting than 99 percent of the day-to-day journalism out there.  But if you don’t know Lessig, how would you find him among the clutter?  Perhaps technology will help us.  Right now there is no good way to ask an information system “Show me blog entries that people at least as discriminating as Larry Lessig thought were interesting.”  Maybe it will happen in 10 years or so.  As Jin S. Choi says “Mere matter of programming.”

Meanwhile the profusion of garbage leads salaried journalists to cluck with disapproval and quote the old adage that “A lie gets halfway around the world before truth gets its boots on” (Winston Churchill by way of Christopher Lydon).  Some audience members argued that truth propagates faster than ever.  My personal experience is that Google makes it fairly easy to check the veracity of a story.  If some organization is out there trying to debunk an urban legend Google will bring up their page.  In the pre-Google era people had no easy way to evaluate whatever they heard from a neighbor.

One woman on a panel is an author/editor at gawker.com, which today carries a somewhat cruel story about Lori Berenson, the MIT alumna imprisoned in Peru since 1996.  Hearing about Lori, though we did not overlap at MIT, always makes me sad.  Visit http://www.freelori.org/ to learn more.  You can help Lori’s parents with a Paypal donation or frequent flyer miles.  I kicked in $250 on the following theories:  (1) MIT alums should stick together, (2) the money won’t be squandered on administration as at most non-profit orgs (this report on Harvard shows what a successful non-profit looks like financially and how little they need $250).

A woman from the Harvard School of Education made what I always felt to be the canonically stupid comment on any Internet application:  it won’t help people who lack Internet access and the people who are working on the app should turn their attention to the “digital divide.”  Her main concern was American kids in the inner city.  It is true that a decent used PC can be obtained for $200, less than the cost of the most fashionable running shoes, but what remains expensive is Internet access.  I was tempted to jump up and push my idea that the Federal Government should sponsor a universal wireless Internet over the U.S., with access free to people who don’t need much bandwidth, a system that would cost a tiny fraction of whatever it is going to cost us to invade whatever country that is next on our list.  Fortunately a much more intelligent audience member spoke first, noting that Moore’s law would eventually take care of the economic divide (ed: unless the telcos and cable monopolies have their way) but the real divide would be literacy and if we want the underprivileged to benefit from the Internet we should concentrate on teaching them to read and write.

Speaking of the benefits of IT… after I introduced myself as a CS teacher from MIT and made my first comment, the guy two seats over pulled me aside.  “Aha,” I thought, “those trenchant observations really made this guy think.”  He said “I hate to bother you but since you said you were from the MIT CS department I thought you could help me with this Macintosh, which seems to have crashed and no amount of paperclip sticking into the little buttons on the back will revive it …”

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Blogging and Education

One of the panels at BloggerCon concerned blogs and education, mostly for full-time K-12 and college students.  Whenever people talk about education it seems inevitable that debates will break out concerning what to do about public schools: “Why shouldn’t a kid in the ghetto have the option [vouchers] of attending private school, the same as George Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s children?” and “I worked in the U.S. Air Force for four years before moving to the San Francisco Public Schools and let me tell you that, for a government agency, schools are remarkably efficient.”

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What is the point of blogging?

This weekend is the BloggerCon conference at Harvard.  A young audience member had the courage to ask “What should I say when someone asks me what the point of having a blog is?”

Indeed this is a variant of the early 1990s question the first personal Web sites went up “What is the point of having a personal Web site?”

What then IS the point of personal Web site or blog?

Let’s go back to the beginning.  The commercial publishing world supports basically two lengths of manuscript: the five-page magazine article, serving as filler among the ads; the 200+-page book.  If you had a 20-page idea and didn’t have access to the handful of “long-copy” magazines in the U.S. (old New Yorker, Atlantic, etc.), you could cut it down to a meaningless 5-page magazine piece or add 180 pages of filler until it reached the minimize size to fit into the book distribution system (cf. any diet book or business bestseller).

Personal Web sites are interesting because they support 20- or 30-page essays beautifully, with search engines directing interested readers to those essays right at the moment that they’re curious about that topic.

Blogs are interesting because they support the 2-paragraph idea.  It is sort of ridiculous to create a separate .html file for every little aphorism or fleeting thought and it would be a shame to clog search engines with pages that have such a high machinery-to-content ratio.  Blogs and the RSS format make it work.  Everyone can write like Nietzsche or a Marcus Aurelius, even if few people ever come up with enough clever small ideas to fill a 200-page book.

Of course there remains the question of why write at all.  You don’t make any money from writing and wouldn’t it be more pleasant to concentrate on getting full value out of your digital cable TV subscription and luxury SUV?

What did folks at the conference have to say about this topic?  One panelist noted that Benjamin Franklin was an early blogger (personally I prefer Marcus Aurelius as an example).  Emerson, a Harvard alumnus (just like Ted Kaczinsky) was dredged up.  He would have loved blogs (“A chief event of life is the day in which we have encountered a mind that startled us.”).  The journal is a well-respected literary form and the blog is simply a more efficiently available journal.

Some panelists seemed insanely optimistic.  One guy noted that the nation-state wasn’t working.  We are afflicted with racism, wars, etc.  We need a new way to aggregate the wisdom of people and blogs are the answer.  Listening to this, I was struck by a horrifying thought:  George W. Bush must represent the aggregated wisdom of the American people, i.e., us.  Adam Curry compared the Weblog to the telephone in its potential to revolutionize society.  If the early results are mostly lame he related that “the telephone was first used to call ahead to say that a telegram was on its way.”

My personal answer:  my main site (philip.greenspun.com) is there to relate things that I’ve learned so that others don’t have to repeat my mistakes; this blog is here to entertain friends and if other folks stumble across it and are entertained or find their thinking sparked in new directions, that’s gravy.

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