Blogging on the QT

By Kurt Cagle
September 3, 2008

About six months ago (has it really been that long?), I came aboard O'Reilly as the editor for xml.com, little realizing just how radical a change would be taking place to a site that, for me as a blogger, was taking on many of the characteristics of a well-used easy chair. Such chairs are comfortable but are also beginning to wear out, the springs long since having been bent in to conform to your shape and your shape only, the upholstery beginning to become threadbare along the edges, the once smooth action of the little foot-rest increasingly noisy and balky.

The changes, past and ongoing, have certainly shifted us all - bloggers, editors and producers alike - out of our complacency, and forced each of us to rethink what exactly the mission that we're trying to achieve really is. One change has been that at least a few of the regular writers have become more closely identified as being journalists or analysts, the former seeking the stories as much by using the traditional tools of interviewing, investigation and being ever vigilant to changes in the tide of life, society and technology, the latter focusing more on longer term trends, on how this technology has value to each of us, and on what is currently bubbling up that has value to investors.

I've deliberately chosen that last word, not because I want to imply that the only value that is meaningful is the one associated with making money, but rather that for many people involved in IT, there is a similar investment - one of time, of focus, of energies devoted to mastering this language or that toolset rather than another.

Like financial investors, programmers and IT managers are constantly taking risks - it takes anywhere from six months to two years of working with a programming language or technology to reach a point where you're reasonably competent in it. Choose the wrong language and you lose competitive advantage in a lucrative but sometimes brutal industry. Choose the right language or technology early enough, and you hit the peak earnings potential for that particular language (hey, in 1993, HTML programmers could charge $200 an hour - it's always a matter of timing!).

Thus, the role of an analyst in the technical space is to help technologists know where best to focus their time and energies, either at the individual or the corporate level. Given the rather amazing level of talent and expertise at O'Reilly, it's not surprising that even the "reporters" often have an insight that may be missing from more traditional venues.

Given both of these, the primary focus for the last several months has been on rebuilding the ability of O'Reilly to be able to report on the news in a meaningful fashion, something that we're close to achieving. Yet the people who write for O'Reilly are also experts in their own rights, and it is their words, their thoughts that have drawn readers in for the last several years.

Broadcast is the realization of the second half of the O'Reilly focus, and one that I'm personally glad to see. There are differences between articles and blogs, something I've been acutely aware of as both a writer of articles and a blogger for the last half decade. An article should inform, certainly, but it should also adhere to a standard that's very different from blogging.

An article gives you information about a person, a technology, a company, a phenomenon. It's impersonal - the story is not (and should not be) about you, but about the focus of the article itself. The role of an article writer is, to quote the late Jack Webb, to stick to "just the facts, ma'am.", and any opinions that you hold should show through more in what you are writing about and covering than in any bald assertion that "this is a good thing, this is a bad thing".

A blog, on the other hand, is ultimately an editorial - you are making a statement, expressing an opinion. Experts, not surprisingly, have opinions, often strongly held ones, and perhaps not surprisingly such opinions, while typically articulate, well thought-out and informed by consideration of others, are nonetheless very personal things.

I think this is why successful bloggers tend to develop larger followings than journalists. We are all interested in the narrative, in the story, and while we may not necessarily agree with the blogger in question about this or that point, overall we also seek validation for our own beliefs.

To me, though this is one of the journalistic quandaries of the twenty-first century. Where is the dividing line between news and opinion, between the article and the blog, because objective reporting and subjective editorializing? Is one better than the other? Is one more ethical than the other?

I cannot claim to have an answer here - only my own opinions, for what they're worth. Earlier today I wrote an article covering the introduction of Google Chrome. While my review of the product was reasonably positive, I tried to make sure that the criteria I used for that review was also reasonably objective. I raised questions that I foresaw this particular product raising by others, and I also tried to tie it in to its impacts upon other people, companies, projects and the like, a bit of speculation that was more or less my own opinion, based upon my own understanding of the market.

I don't think, however, that this article was a blog. The focus of the piece was on the technology, not on my opinions of the technology. It was on the people involved with the project, not on me. It's probably not the best piece I've ever written, but its far from the worst - and as a piece of journalism it's passable. It will inform people and teach them at least enough for them to explore more on their own.

What you are reading right now, however, most assuredly is a blog, a piece about me wrestling with the ethical critters of my mind. It does, admittedly, hope also to elucidate, but the goal in writing this is as much to raise questions in your mind as to provide answers. The response I'm hoping to elicit is not "Hmm, that was informative - I should look for more information about this and potentially use it" but "Hmmm, that was thought provoking - how do I feel about these things?".

Like so much in the whirling evolutionary stew pot that is the Internet, blogging is evolving. The current crop of content management systems used for blogging have become quite sophisticated, providing mechanisms for linking and tagging and dissemination through RSS syndication that far outstrip far higher priced production tools used by some of the largest publishers of even just a few years prior.

Moreover, blogging itself is seen not just as a personal expression but also as a tool used by companies and organizations to provide a level of accessibility and insight to its customers, employees and partners in a way that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. I don't necessarily think this makes organizations more "transparent", a particularly hollow piece of marketing-speak, but it does provide channels of communication that turn such organizations into collections of human people.

Thus, I think that one of the biggest effects that blogging has had is that it makes such conversations possible, and ultimately I think this can only work towards the good. We are, all of us, only human, though often times one of the effects of wrapping yourself up in the mantle of a company is that it "dehumanizes" those interactions, and as such makes it easier to make errors on a purely colossal scale, if only because there's no sounding board, no reality check to keep you from doing something which may be stupid, dangerous or both.

That's why I ultimately look for good things to come from Broadcast. I'm all for reporting "just the facts, ma'am" in the context where such things are important, but at the same time I think that a channel for reporting the more human side of the story is just as important, and I hope to avail myself of that opportunity frequently.

One of this industry's biggest bad habits is the tendency to categorize everything as a buzzword, such as social networks. As an engineer, I'm certainly interested in the "network" side of the equation - how the systems are set up, what protocols are used, how modularization is enabled, how is security set up - but as a student of human psychology and philosopher I also have to remind myself that the social side of the equation is in many ways the more important piece.

The computer revolution is, when you get right down to it, a communications revolution, and as such a revolution in that we interact with one another. Perhaps it is time for us to start recognizing this fact, to stop treating people as demographics or interest groups for tagging purposes in favor of treating them as ... well, people.

Enjoy!


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