The WordPress linkfarm furore – symptomatic of a wider problem

There’s been a lot of discussion about the way that Matt Mullenweg has been trading‘s Google PageRank for cash, hosting unrelated articles on his server in order that they rank more highly in Google. discusses the issue at length, Shelley, as usual, gives a great overview, Jonas Luster adds his thoughts as someone involved with WordPress, and Jason Kottke is short and to the point.

I don’t think there’s all that much to be said about the pros and cons of the case – it was probably a mistake for Matt to enter into an agreement with a company in which he assists them in gaming Google for money. It doesn’t just run counter to the ‘spirit’ of the blogosphere, where we are constantly fighting against spammers and gamers, but more importantly it has created a lot of ill-will, and open source projects like WordPress depend on goodwill. But the furore will die down, and Matt and WordPress will survive, and maybe Matt will be a wiser person in the future.

To me, though, the important thing here is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, but which I haven’t blogged because I haven’t been able to come to any solid conclusions. I had a conversation at lunch yesterday about this with Saul Albert, Possum and Javier Kandinski and despite the high calibre of the conversation, I still couldn’t find an answer.

The real problem here is that there are a whole raft of people who are struggling to keep the wolves from the door whilst doing something which benefits a community but for which that community are not paying. Matt saw a way to keep the wolves at bay without having to ask for money from the WordPress community, and whilst maybe it wasn’t the best thing for him to do, I understand completely why he did it.

Creative people have always had a problem making enough money to live, there’s nothing new in that. That’s why the music industry is so exploitative – musicians generally make crap business people and, because many reach a state of financial desperation, they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Wherever you have vulnerable creative people, you will have someone exploiting them. Happens all over the place.

For a while, it seemed that the internet would be a great leveller, and anyone with the talent would be able to make at least a modest living from the products of their creativity. The boom could be seen as a product of that optimism – people with ideas managed to find funding to develop those ideas even though in many cases they had no solid business plan to back them up. And we all know what happened next.

So where we are at the moment is that ideas are not enough. Creativity is not enough. And there is such a low barrier to entry that lots of people have entered the market, creating a signal:noise ratio unfavourable to the discovery of any individual person’s talent.

Yet there are a lot of people with very good ideas which fulfil the needs of a given community who have the skills to bring those ideas to fruition. What they are missing is a business model to allow them to earn enough money to make development of their idea financially viable. But because there seems to be a fundamental disconnect in many people (not everyone, I hasten to add) between creativity and business acumen, and becuase there is no existing business model to follow, we now have a creative class who are chock full of bright ideas but who just don’t know how to scrape a living from them.

Unfortunately, many business models that are being tried out at the moment can work only for a small minority of people. Jason Kottke’s micropatronage system, for example, has worked for him but, whilst this may be overly pessimistic, it’s not going to work for many other people – you need to have a huge audience, and already be at the top of your mountain in order to be in a position to ask for donations.

If you’re in a niche, and let’s pick the Welsh language niche because that’s something I know all about, your work may well be addressing a fundamental need within a clearly defined community, but if that community is not willing or able to donate, or even buy merchandise, then your business plan, all those pretty numbers you invented for your bank manager, is oh so much toilet paper.

Advertising is another ‘will work for some, not for others’ revenue stream. Some projects, for example, do well out of advertising, but for others it is a waste of screen real-estate. Again, you need to have a high traffic in order to get the clickthroughs you need to make any decent cash.

Plus advertising doesn’t always sit well. I keep thinking that I should put some ads on Chocolate and Vodka, but I haven’t got round to it yet, at least in part because I am really not sure I want ads on my personal blog. I get decent traffic there, according to my server stats, but yet putting ads up somehow feels wrong, even if I can’t articulate why.

Perhaps the root of it is a fear that I’d earn bugger all money whilst simultaneously appearing greedy – a no-win situation. Instead I’d prefer to go the Hugh Macleod route, making money because of my blog, instead of from my blog. That seems to not only suit my personality better, but also to be more probable.

There are cultural problems too. The ‘free as in beer’ attitude is ingrained in the majority of web users, particularly when it comes to content. Subscription models are not only unpopular, they are on terribly thin ice as more and more people find ways around them. For news vendors dependent on the walled archive model, there is going to be a nasty shock awaiting them as more and more people find ways to tunnel round or under those walls.

For companies with large amounts of data online, however, there are additional services that they could offer which might replace the subscription model. Make your archives free, but make money out of data-shuffling – provide keyword tracking services, research services, clippings services. Stop being a repository and start being a service.

But yet again, there’s only a small minority of companies who could turn their large data stores into money. That model doesn’t work for the micro-company or the self-employed.

So where does that leave us? Thrashing about in the dark, searching for a way to earn enough so that we don’t have to do hand-to-hand combat with the wolves at our door every month. We can moralise about whether Matt should or shouldn’t have taken money for helping a company game Google, and we can say ‘Oh, he should have asked for donations – I would have given him money’, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t address the root cause of the problem.

Matt’s actions are symptomatic of a far wider problem, and that’s that there are a huge number of very creative people out there who don’t know how to make money out of their ideas. (Not saying that Matt is one of them, necessarily, but his actions could be interpreted that way. Or simply as bad judgement, but I’m being generous.) Some people find it hard exploit their own skills for their own benefit, and existing business models are too unreliable, too hit-and-miss, to be of any real use.

Maybe the people who are clueful as to the realities of such things could assist the people who are grappling with the wolves by discussing their business models in detail in public a bit more, instead of hiding them away where they can’t benefit anyone else.

And they call this ‘knowledge’?

Some choice snippets from Wharton article Blogs, Everyone? Weblogs Are Here to Stay, but Where Are They Headed? which will allow you to decide if you really want to spend precious minutes of your life reading it, minutes that I have already sacrificed on your behalf:

online diaries

amateur content

It’s not clear how it will turn out

create buzz through blogs

written, not by trained journalists, but by regular citizens

to drive people to our sites

lots of drivel, some useful items and plenty of opinions

blogs are mostly associated with politics

readers will just flock to sites they agree with

a technology may be created to rate credible bloggers

blogger pecking order based on readers’ opinion

Are bloggers journalists?

usurped by a bunch of amateurs

chasing tips, rumors

Can blogging pay the bills?

charge for their output

blogging overexposure is on the horizon

You are going to see blogging move to video and instant messaging

OK, not all of it is utterly clueless, but it could easily have been a lot more informed. Easily. An awful lot more informed. Just doing some basic reading would have helped.

*mutters: I will resist the urge to fisk. I will resist the urge to fisk…*

Whuffie and the snowball

Doc Searls blogs about how these days he prefers to roll snowballs downhill instead of pushing rocks uphill:

Tell ya what. I’m fifty-seven years old, and I’ve been pushing large rocks for short distances up a lot of hills, for a long time. Now, with blogging, I get to roll snowballs down hills. Some don’t go very far. But some get pretty big once they start rolling.

See, each snowball grows as others link to the original idea, and add their own thoughts and ideas. By the time the snowball gets big enough to have some impact, it really isn’t my idea any more.

Anyway, at this point in my life I’d rather roll snowballs than push rocks.

He then quotes Steve Gillmor and Jay Rosen about getting ideas moving, and concludes:

I think Big Challenges start with conclusion, with finished opinions. That’s what makes them sysiphean. They are bodies at rest that are hard to put into motion, especially in an uphill direction.

But if you start with an idea, whether partly formed or whole, whether yours or somebody else’s, and push it in the downhill direction that all blogging (thanks to links and RSS) essentially goes, it’s bound to have some impact once it grows large enough. And as long as it keeps going.

The problem I have with Doc’s post is this – in order to get ideas rolling downhill, you need to already be uphill, you need whuffie. Firstly you need people to be reading your ideas, secondly they need to want to do something with your ideas (there’s always extra kudos and therefore motivation in doing something with the ideas of someone who’s got a bit of whuffie), and thirdly they need to tell people that they got their idea off you (so that your whuffie builds).

People like Searls, Gillmor and Rosen have whuffie in spades, and this is why they can start snowballs rolling downhill and why those snowballs grow as they go. If you have no whuffie, your snowball will just melt – no whuffie means few readers, no one gaining kudos off developing your idea, no whuffie coming back to you for having had it. The idea goes nowhere.

It’d be nice to think that it’s the quality of the idea that gets the snowball moving, but more often than not, that has nothing to do with it. Hugh Macleod, for example, has so much whuffie that all he has to do is fart and the trackbacks start rolling in.

I saw exactly the same thing when I worked as a music hack – it’s not the bands with the best music or the journalists with the best writing skills that make it, it’s the ones with the whuffie. Same in the film industry – doesn’t matter how good your script is, if you have no whuffie you aren’t going anywhere.

It’s no surprise that it’s the same in the blogosphere, after all, we all know that we have a small minority of bloggers who have all the whuffie. They stand at the top of the mountain, from where it’s easy to start an avalanche. Those of us in the foothills can throw snowballs all we like, but it’s not going to have the same effect.

The trouble is that there are a couple of whuffie Catch-22s going on: firstly, those who have whuffie get more whuffie and those with none find it hard to build up. Secondly, my own personal whuffie Catch-22 and one common to all those in the whuffie-dependant industries, is that I need to blog to gain whuffie so that I can get more work, but the things that pay the bills take me away from blogging thus preventing me from gaining more whuffie in order to obtain more work. That’s basis of the feast-or-famine self-employed life.

The answer? Find a ski-lift.

Blogs in Action and a nasty case of speed mingling

Just sitting on the train home after a great day up in London, which was capped off by the Six Apart-arranged Blogs in Action seminar featuring short presentations from Tom Coates from the BBC but talking about his own experiences of blogging, Neil McIntosh from Guardian Unlimited, Dominique Busso from VNUNet Europe, John Dale from Warwick University, and Charlie Schick from Nokia LifeBlogs, with a coda from lawyer David Carr about libel.

Funny, although I’ve been reading Tom for ages and keep bumping into him at various dinners and events, this was the first time I’ve seen him speak. I always had the suspicion he was a good speaker, and he did a great job this evening having been suddenly oiked up from attendee to speaker and having only ten minutes to prepare. I like the points that he made about how we need to stop talking about blogs in terms of what came before and start talking about blogs as blogs, as they are now. His personal blogging experience life-cycle I found interesting, having had parallel experiences. Also curious about how he defines a lot of traffic as being ‘over 1000 people a day’. I guess that puts Chocolate and Vodka firmly in the ‘lots of traffic’ bracket, which is a surprise to me. Hm. I see a blog post coming on about that.

Neil McIntosh was very interesting, although to some extent I felt that I was cheating a bit because he and I have spoken about his experiences putting together the Observer blog, and the Guardian Unlimited blogs that came before it so I had the background already. The most important point that he made was that the Guardian/Observer blogs are not about bringing traffic to the website nor are they about marketing, or trying to somehow bolster sales of the paper. He see them instead as a foray into new territory: “We see it as editorial innovation, a place where we are learning a new form of journalism.” Yet again, I have to say that Neil really gets blogging in a way that most journalists do not (and there are plenty that think they do).

Final highlight (is three out of five too many for ‘highlights’?) was John Dale who gave a fascinating account of implementing blogs at Warwick University, not just for academics but for all students and workers. Creating their own blogging platform gave them a degree of flexibility and integration with existing systems that they could not have had from a commercial solution, and it took them only nine months to go from concept to full launch. The blogs have been very successful, the surprise being that students’ blogs aren’t all bacchanal debauchery but have included some intensely personal writing and some well reasoned commentary.

Unfortunately, the seminar overran a little, leaving me with only 40 mins in which to talk to the people I wanted to talk to. The only way I could get round to say hi to everyone was to embark on a bit of slightly manic speed mingling – like speed dating but without the promise of a snog at the end of it – with conversations along the line of ‘Hi! Drink? Next week? Good!’ before diving off into the far distance to accost some other poor innocent soul. So sorry if you suffered my whirlwind hello-goodbye. I did catch my train, though, so it all came good in the end.

Anyway, I had my demon typing hands with me, as usual, and I managed to capture these semi-verbatim notes, EAOE:

Introduction by Alistair Shrimpton

What they want to do is evangelise blogging, and share experiences of how blogs are used in schools and education, within the media, or personally. A wide span of different groups of people, from different sectors.

Tom Coates

Tom is the author of the weblog which has just received the 2005 Bloggies award for Best British Weblog and Lifetime Achievement. He works for BBC Radio and Music Interactive and thinks about social software, personal publishing, graphic design, online gaming and the future of media consumption.

I’m the warm up act, everyone else is from business, and although I do work I’m not here in that capacity. Just to distract you, I am going to talk about the horseless carriage.

In the middle ages people walked or rode horses. Some used carts, and later the carts got suspension and got more popular because they were kinder to your bum. Then steam-based appliances arrived – horseless carriages, and derivatives of this product line are still here.

Lots of histories of blogs talk about technologies. Some say the very first site on the web at all, by Tim Berners-Lee, was a blog. All of those early people were pointing to other pages on the web, but they also realised the personal aspects.

Dave Winer talks about humans, camaraderie, community, and I think he was right.

Photographers created the arty side of the net. Early experiments in self-representation online. Not particularly social, but communicative in that they stand up and talk about themselves.

After Sept 11, an entirely different group of people used blogs for punditry. More recently, people have been commercialising weblogs, e.g. Gawker. Group blogs like BoingBoing making a decent amount of money.

All those uses of blogs, you can see why people have different understandings of what blogs are. Diaries, linklogs, personal home sites, etc. Multifarious use set.

This is the history of, and my blogging experience: Started talking about blogging, then talked about friends, but was anonymous so could say what I like. But then my friends found it. Shit. Then had an apocalyptic relationship and blogged that in secret. Then felt like there was no privacy so stopped. Then there was writing about stuff I was interested in and got into new conversations with different people. Now it’s a mixture of personal stuff and ludicrously complicated stuff about social software. Been doing it for 5.5 years, and at times it’s been boring, but mostly tremendously rewarding.

Has come to conclusions:

The amount of blogs that get a lot of traffic, i.e. 1000 people a day, is tiny. Still a lot of money can be made if you’re interested in that. The average blog, not in the spike, and there are millions of them not in the spike, publish to a very tiny audience. The bulk of the net is read by 4 or 5 people, or completely private.

Weblogs are fast, rapid to write, so are informal. I speak in long archaic rambling sentences, hence my site is unreadable. An individual writes about things that they are interested in, but people are not good at staying on topic. The only thing that people can write about at the time are the things they are doing at the time – the common thread is the person themselves. The only ways to stay on topic are if you’re being paid or in a group so they can kick you in the head.

Blogs are social, they are conversational. It’s not fun if you are writing into a vacuum, but they run down existing social groups. If you start a blog then your friends might start a blog too.

On messageboards, loads of people lurk. Bloggers think that they can be anonymous when they start, but then they tell some friends and they’re not anonymous anymore.

All comes down to one core statement: A weblog is a representation of a person. An extension. Like a suit you wear when you engage with someone. You interact with people in the space by wearing the blog as an outfit. Comes down to the fact that the tone of voice is personal, an individual wants to be part of a community, which will increasingly the same as offline, and they care about what they care about and not other things.

What you do with blogs. If you want to use blogs for what they’re most naturally useful for, if you’re trying to exploit what makes them brilliant, keep the individual at the heart of it. Knowledge management, or community building, or publishing Wonkette style, keep the individual at the core, be conversational. Even Fleshbot has an editorial tone, not that I’ve ever been, and neither have you, and nor should you. But a blog is a representation of you as an individual.

Diary, linklog, journalism – all about individuals doing what they want to do. Personal publishing is about an individual, that’s at the core of it.

These statements are like saying that a car is a horseless carriage. We don’t call them that anymore, we don’t think of things anymore in terms of what came before, we think that we can define a car without talking about the origins. I think we can do that now. I think we can call a blog a blog.

Q: What about blogs with no voice?

A: This is not surprise. The things that make blogs useful, like the permanent address, makes people use them commercially, but if you look at what the massive use of blogs, 7 million or something, it’s all about individuals, individual expression. It’s like with phones, or computers, people put stickers on them, and it’s the same with blogs. It’s about representing yourself, looking cooler, or less cool.

Q: How does a corporation use blogs?

A: Look at Microsoft. But that’s people. Corporations don’t have authentic voices, it’s the people who have the voices. If you want people to use blogs, it’s individuals. It’s representative of a cultural change, that people can be public. What’s increasingly clear, there is a sense that people who represent themselves online, and move from job to job, it doesn’t trump the corporation, but it moves with it. Or you can split yourself. Some people do that – split themselves into personal and work.

Neil McIntosh

Neil is assistant editor of Guardian Unlimited, Britain’s most popular newspaper website. Since launching its first two weblogs in 2001, the Guardian has been a keen supporter of weblogs for individuals and for businesses, and now has five blogs live. The most recent launch was a new weblog for The Observer. Neil oversees the weblogs initiative at Guardian Unlimited, and was previously deputy editor of the paper’s technology section, Online. The Observer Blog | Onlineblog | Newsblog | Complete Tosh (personal blog)

First of the business people, it’s a war of suits here. My first blog was a personal one, which I started in 2001, about Swindon FC. I was writing for the Guardian and I had 50 people look at it every day, and when it went to 60 I was overjoyed.

But I am here to talk about the Guardian and what we’re doing with blogs. We started with the News Weblog in 2000, brainchild of then editor of David Rowen [?], and it was a repository of links. Linking to the rest of the web is something that’s slightly daring at some news sites even today, but it’s important to show there’s discussion elsewhere. Not until 2001 that we at Online section got interested and the Online Blog was the first blog blog. The Newsblog had an editorial policy, no comments, no permalinks, but it was blog-like.

The Online blog started in the aftermath of the collapse – we were talking about how few pages were left in the Online section, but we had lots of content and nowhere to put it. So I put something together on Blogger, which allowed us permalinks and comments, which was unexpected for us. Suddenly people started talking back to us and telling us where we were going wrong.

Decided to put Online and News blog onto Movable Type. Bought a domain and server space with a credit card because it was difficult to get it through IT. Eventually we decided to do it all properly last summer. Launched two more, incl. computer games blog which is a group blog.

Decided to explore what blogs could do for us. In this country, the sticking point is, as one individual asked “These blogs, what can they do for me when I’m trying to build a brand to last the next 100 years?'” We have to ignore the fact that there were a lot of bloggers undermining his business case as he sat chatting. Another sticking point is that these people [the mainstream media] aren’t welcome in the blogosphere. Just look at Dan Rather.

Editors worry about people commenting and journalists writing with no editor, and this fills them with fear, about libel, quality, and brand. At the Guardian we care passionately about our brand and not libelling people, but we also care about pushing the boundaries of news. I really don’t believe the place we are now is as good as it gets, and I’m not happy to accept that.

This isn’t difficult technically, but it’s a cultural problem that’s holding things up. The quality of our blog is as high as anything that we do on our site. We apply the same standards about accuracy, fairness etc. The thing for us is comments. We had 800 comments in one night during the US election. Get a higher level of debate than even on the most popular news articles. Journalists engage too, so maybe we get a better debate. Plus the internet rule ‘don’t feed the trolls’ applies as much as on blogs as usenets, so we moderate the comments an have good systems for dealing with that rapidly.

If we think the blogosphere is hostile to us, hadn’t we better get there and find out why? Blogging’s had a big impact on journalism, which is only going to grow: it gives us lots of ideas, it’s helped us with research, as we can reach out to the community to ask them, and helped us correct things before they are published, and it helps us recruit writers – if someone comments eloquently, why not use them in the paper?

One thing is clear – the next four years are going to be even more exciting than the last four. Lots of very exciting things happening, and in four years it’s going to be a million miles ahead.

Q: Do you view blogs as having any serious revenue generating potential for a publisher? Or promotional benefits for the paper?

A: Personally I see it as neither. We were asked when we launched the Observer blog if it was a marketing exercise, but marketing weren’t consulted at any point. There was no marketing plan. The game blog, maybe there’s a market there as we have a good market, but as far as I am concerned the opportunity is journalism, to move journalism on, ‘way new journalism’.

Q: How effectively have you crosslinked from blog to paper, for stories to extend from one to the other and back again?

A: Links of communication are short, so the people who write the news are the people who write the blogs, same with the Guide. all the blogs are supporting strong areas of content in the paper.

Q: Is there and editorial policy for comments? Offensive comments are straight forward, but do you remove banal ones?

A; Hard to draw the line with banal, but we try to be as liberal as possible. We only act when someone has clearly crossed the line. Banal quotient has fallen dramatically by itself.

Q: Are blogs more mainstream? Do you track blog stats? Do you see any trends?

A: We see a growing trend, but blogs take a very small % of the traffic on the network. But that’s never really been the point. We see it as editorial innovation, a place where we are learning a new form of journalism.

Q: Have been cases of blog being used for marketing, like Nike?

A: The Guardian is not Nike. When you have an editorial innovation, pursue it for that reason. There might be a marketing benefit, but it’s not the point.

Q: Why was the Observer blog more about practices and less about content or breaking news?

A: Every blog has a slightly different purpose. They all do something slightly different, so Online blog is linked to that section, Newsblog is more a reporter’s notebook. Gamesblog is a more conscious attempt to go to a specific area. Observer wanted something that lifted the lid on processes, and explained what they actually do all these days of the week. They regard that as very important and it’s gone down very well.

Dominique Busso

Dominique is the CEO of Vnunet Europe. VNU is a global information and media company. Vnunet in Europe is VNU’s Business Media’s network of websites, breaking technology news, thousands of product reviews and the latest software downloads. Dave the dealer | The Test Bed | IT Sneak

IT Publisher, seven websites across Europe. Been running blogs for a couple of years. Not as early an adopter as the Guardian, as initially was not sure what to do. Should we observe or throw ourselves into it? A year ago, we decided to launch and now have 20 blogs all over Europe. Use RSS and ATOM feeds. Five or six blogs in the UK, 15 outside.

Start to see significant amounts of traffic. About 1 million page views across Europe. – readers know a lot about IT, so create a reader expert community blog. Launched a week ago in France. Offer readers a blog on a given topic, and they write about it, e.g. Instant Messaging. We can focus on finding blogger to write for them.

Had to reconcile offline and online properties and journalists. For a while web was a big thing, you were no one if you weren’t writing for the web, so offline journalists felt out of it during the dot.boom, but have now reincorporated online and offline together. Give this tool to print journalists, so as they start to write it reconciles them to the online community.

Deadline issues – offline journalists getting frustrated with lead times, and if a story out of date prior to publication then they would not write it, but with a blog they can get it out when the news breaks. Then they write up longer stories for the magazine with more detail.

Blogs brings a buzz and interest – one of the first IT publishers to move into blogs, and it’s good for readers, and journalists, and maybe now advertisers. Getting much more vertical, say about firewalls, and sponsors maybe more interest. Not a big business thing but it might be in the future.

Q: Journalist negative about blogging – are you getting more work from them for no more money?

A: Most UK writers are negative, and they don’t see the point. More and more, people are seeing that there is a use, a benefit. But we can’t force them. If they want to blog, fine. They don’t have to blog, but they can if they want. But it’s a good way to make more momentum.

Q: Tips for getting people to blog for the first time?

A: Personal blog, 99% it’s about your personal things, and you want people to know about what you are talking about, blog about your passion. You can stay anonymous if you want to, and if you want to you can put your name.

Q: Can they blog anonymously on VNU?

A: Usually we want the names, but they can blog anonymously if they want.

Loic: Le Monde have 1000s of blogs, over million page views per month. It was hard for them to recognise that the audience has a voice.

John Dale

John Dale manages development for IT services at the University of Warwick. More than 2,500 students and staff have signed up for the university’s blog service, making it one of the largest academic blogging operations. John believes that blogging will open new opportunities for students and staff. Warwickblogs | Autology (personal blog)

A year ago, gave all their staff/students blogs if they wanted one. Mixed reaction.

‘Students aren’t employees how can you control them’ or ‘students are either dull or bacchanal, you don’t want them blogging’.

First nut to crack – giving everyone a chance. All universities give students webspace, provided you can write HTML you can have a website, but most can’t. Wanted to lower the barrier to entry, and blogs are a good fit for that. Want to encourage creativity, outside of the work students do for their courses.

Wanted to foster community, a collaborative space as well as a personal space. Want to slice and dice the content of the blogs so that people can get the content as they want. Blogs are also useful for helping people acclimatise to university life. Personal development plans – blogs have a role there too.

Blogs are kind of portfolios. The stuff you put on your blog you could show to future employers, a record of what you did at university. But a lot of students have published stuff, and have discovered that it’s not always good to be on Google – needs to be handled with care.

Built own blogging platform, not using a commercial solution. Needed to scale, needed admin, university authentication, privacy issues, e.g. just me and my course, me and my seminar, etc. Many different groups of people and needed a way to tap into that and reflect those. Has to fit with existing stuff too.

Released versions and didn’t want to have to rely on vendors not supporting all the features that they wanted to – if they forgot something they could just build it. Had built other systems before, so wasn’t a big leap. One commercial possibility was Typepad, but couldn’t buy an instance you can run locally, so built their own.

Took four months to get a beta to a pilot of 30 users, and five months later it was open to everyone. Good opportunity to do focus groups and decide on what people wanted. Did paper prototypes to find out if people understood the UI and functions.

As blogs are relatively new and interesting, they did a large-scale marketing campaign. Did posters, including in Chinese, and banners that were irksomely big and could be plastered over everything else on the noticeboards, and some v. cool fridge magnets – ‘mad night? blog it!’ ‘great curry? blog it!’.

3095 blogs

24,674 posts


32,790 photos

More comments than you might expect. nearly 2 comments per post. More discussion and debate that you might expect. It’s already a community, so you can tap into that.

Frequency of blog entries is good – predictable seasonal graph. Top 250 entries a day. Hasn’t nose-dived after first flurry of excitement in October. Dip during Christmas, then back afterwards. Active blogs up to 450, 250-300 average.

What have we learnt: Positive reaction from staff and students. Senior managers were positive, and have seen advantages. Relaxed and courageous – they accept that criticism is bound to be part of what goes on in the community.

People who’ve never met are organising social events, through blogs.

As soon as you put anything online that can be gamed, people will game it. Auto-generated hot topics or latest entries, boxes. Soon as you give people an incentive to comment, they will comment. People leverage post titles that are intended to get comments – e.g. about sex. Need to balance needs of writers, readers and institution, which doesn’t want to been seen as having students who are all debauched fools.

Very high quality of writing, sometimes highly charged and personal. Some people write very personal, serious posts and the act of sharing has been valuable to them. Expected people to write about their work, and some frivolous posts, but it has been more intense than that.

Has an acceptable use policy, and other than a few hiccups when people were testing the system, e.g. whether you could post the word ‘fuck’ 27 times, but controversial posts are moderated by the community, it regulates itself. Commentary more reasonable and thoughtful than perhaps some disruptive posts deserved.

Remain challenged by copyright – users are very relaxed about re-use. Need to get on top of that, in terms of whether they can spot that and educate students about it.

Academic use is growing more slowly than social and recreational use. Need to look at parallel uses. If you’re an academic used to publishing in journals, and need to look at way to support that – rather than have them posting alongside the students’ blogs.

When should a blog be used, when a forum, a web page?

Can read it across blogs, say just about music. Can filter it on subject.

How do we get people to start blogging? Once people have got a blog they don’t know what to do, so have created a sort of ideas builder to encourage posting.

Q: Do most active bloggers come from particular courses? Private/unrestricted blogs?

A: Don’t think that there’s a specific concentration by department – maybe philosophy, law, computer sciences, but it’s pretty even. Public to private – 2/3 public to 1/3 private, or 50:50, but issue with definition of ‘private’.

Q: How wide a cross-section is there? Can the dinnerlady blog?

A: Anyone who is a part of the institution can blog. Do cross shift blog entries for management of shared spaces such as computer rooms.

Q: Metrics for most popular bloggers?

A: It would be possible to publish stats, but don’t want people competing, so no they don’t know themselves who is most popular. Don’t want students to compete to be No. 1.

Q: When students leave, what happens?

A: Three things: Students can choose if they will delete their blog or not. They would like the blogs to be permanent after they’ve gone, but if they want to wipe they can. They will also be able to export it and take it with you. And provisionally, they want to offer continued blogging to people once they’ve left as long as they want, not sure about ongoing support but that’s the plan.

Q: Do people use things like Technorati, or do they migrate to other places?

A: Yes, to both. We want to do more to support external services, like Flickr, and pinging Technorati. Down to us to create the infrastructure. We are bound by acceptable use, and by technology, so some people to migrate to other places where they can be more flexible.

Q: Commercial gain?

A: A tiny bit – affiliates. We don’t necessarily object, but we ask for disclaimers. Small ads too.

Q: Any other reactions from other universities.

A: Yes, some don’t get it, some do. Some do not want to be in the self-publishing business, they want their web content to be managed, and that’s legitimate if that’s the road you want to go down. Some people are trying to do this in a more low-key, walled-garden way. Ours is entirely public. And that’s [the walled garden a pproach] a smart choice – you might want to be more careful. We couldn’t pull the plug now.

Q: Is the software free licence, open source?

A: In practice, it’s so coupled into our system that when we’ve told people what would be involved in getting their own instance working, then they run screaming. But happy in principle to be open source.

Charlie Schick

Charlie leads the global marketing and sales team for Nokia Lifeblog, a multimedia application for smartphones and PCs. In addition to having written numerous articles for online and print telecom publications, he has written various research papers in leading journals and co-authored a book on advanced phone systems. Personal blog | Lifeblog focused blog | Joint blog

Fusion of blog, PC and a mobile is transforming the way people interact. Blog is not new, just adding interactivity. A moblog is a blog. The PC and the moblog complement each other. Blogs are text based, but moblogs more mobile, done from anywhere, more immediate.

No such thing really as a moblog, it can be everything. His is a mixture of stuff from phone, stuff from the computer – no difference.

Blogs are about communicating, people want to communicate. It’s about conversation.

In John Dale’s presentation, the dip at Christmas is down to people not posting because they can’t see people at lunch and say ‘did you see what I wrote?’. Mobile becomes a life recorder, SMS, camera, everything is there. The more you have the more you want to share, and you don’t want to wait. Start from the content and share that.

See the mobile, content is there, want to do it right where you are. You can’t do that with the digital camera – need to download to PC and then upload. Same with digital video – need to download, clip, etc. and get it online. But a mobile phone is just shoot and send. Will change the way people use this stuff. That’s what we’re getting involved in.

People use mobile to share memories. Gave phones to artists to see what they would do. Immediate things people are sharing. Can be personal.

Tool doesn’t matter, it’s what you use it for.

Q: how do you send your pictures? Email or phone number?

A: Most phones are posting by email through MMS, works well, because images are VGA small images, but with new phones and larger images it’s a problem. We use a client so you can pick what you want, resize, etc. By using the client, the experience is better – do more with title, body text etc. Even with 3G, upload speeds are not better because the speeds are download not upload.

Q: Stats

A: We don’t have any hard numbers, but I think more people are using it as a blogging tool not a storage tool. The idea of having your content in one place, the more you have the more you’re going to want to share. Most people don’t have unlimited money to be posting over a 3G network, so need a choice to do it through their PC and broadband.

Q: How do you think the networks will develop? The data is so expensive, compared to voice. How do you see the tariff packages adapting?

A: Service provider should answer that. Look at the US, they have a lot of flat rate GPRS phones, so that’s one thing, but I’m not saying that’s the answer because that has issues. But each operator sees it differently, they all have their services that they’ve created, in the absence of this, and they’ve been receptive to blogging so they are open to this. People use their mobile to how much as they can afford it. They are not going to post as crazy as Loïc or I, but they’ll use it. It’s a continuum, so users need to find the way that is best for them, MMS, via the PC, or email, depending on what kind of experience they want, how much they can afford and what they want to achieve.

David Carr

Lawyer and director with the Big Blog Company. Issues around libel etc.

Lots of horror stories that can frighten any blogger – the lesson from that is stay away from lawyers. There are several issues, such as privacy, but the one that comes up most often is libel. It’s a major worry and with good reason. Some people have formed the view that the internet is beyond the reach of law and that you can post whatever you like and it doesn’t matter. This is nonsense. All the law that applies to traditional publishing applies to blogging. There’s a little difference in the way corporate and vanity publisher are treated, but not with libel. Whether you are commercial or not, the position is unsatisfactory for bloggers. Law is governed by the Defamation act,

In 97, someone pretending to be one Dr Godfrey posted to a Usenet group and said lots of horrible things about him, the real Dr Godfrey took the view that the comments were libellous. Faxed Demon internet, and asked them to take it down. Demon said it’s nothing to do with them, they were just hosters. Godfrey took Demon to court and won – Demon said they were innocent carriers. But that only works up to the point that they have received notice of the libel. Because Dr Godfrey had noticed them, and not taken down the posting, they lost their defence.

Law does not require you to police your comments – if someone leaves a libellous comments, you are not necessarily obliged to do something about it unless someone notifies you, and then you must take it down. Difficulty is what is a plausible complaint and what is silly and frivolous. Puts blog owners in difficult position, because they will remove the offending item rather than face a lawsuit, although implication that someone wrote something libellous could also be interpreted as libellous.

Have disclaimer on the comments to the effect that your comments are here under sufferance and that it’s a privilege not a right, and that comments may be removed at any time for reasons of law, taste or decency. ‘On any grounds that the editors see fit’. May be less important with personal blogs, but particularly with commercial concerns.

Photos and permission is another issue.

Now Public now public

Whilst I was at Northern Voice, I had an interesting chat with Michael Tippett about citizen journalism and his site NowPublic, which was then in beta. NowPublic’s remit is simple – marry photos and news stories so that anyone with a digital camera or cameraphone can become a photojournalist.

Once logged in, you can either request photos to go with a story that you’re interested in, add photos to a story someone else has uploaded as an assignment, or just browse the news. Assignments are as diverse as a multi-car pile up or U2 playing a surprise gig at Brooklyn Bridge, and can be voted on by users so that there’s a clear indication to photographers as to which stories are important.

Even though NowPublic is in its infancy, it shows what’s possible when you give people the right tools for collaboration – it’s a clear example of citizen journalists adding depth and detail to stories that were covered either cursorily or not at all by the mainstream media. It’s not that the mainstream media don’t have the skills, it’s that they don’t have the manpower to get photos of everything.

I can see sites like NowPublic changing the way that we take photos too, changing the way we think about what we are doing, what we are involved in. By giving people an outlet for citizen photojournalism, I think we’ll see more people taking photojournalistic pictures rather than just the family snaps or artistic vistas that make up most people’s photo albums. Instead of passing by an incident or event, people will be more likely to stop and document what has happened if they have a community with which to share the resultant imagery.

This existing snaps-and-vistas photographic paradigm is Flickr‘s domain, but although brilliant for sharing photos and serendipitous discovery, it’s not so useful for finding them, particularly if the photo does not have a short, obvious tag attached. Etech05 is easy, yes, but how would you tag/search for photos of a multi-car pile up or the underfunding of the public transport network?

By giving people the ability to upload related photos, NowPublic gives people the opportunity to add their personal experience of the news and create a richer, more vibrant, more relevant news media for all of us.

Linkylove or blog fuckwittery?

How many apples of rotten experience does it take to sour a whole barrel?

That’s a question that Adagio Teas should be asking themselves right about now. They recently made an offer on their website that if you link to them you get a reward ‘commensurate with your webpage’s Google PageRank’, and sure enough, if you search Technorati you’ll find a good number of blog posts from people who’ve been happy to take some tea off Adagio’s hands for the sake of a link. Nice bit of PR, you might think? Well, yes, until you get to Jay Allen’s experience, and then it all starts to sour.

Jay sent in a link to a blog post that he had written about Adagio Teas, but because Adagio were looking at Google’s PageRank to determine which of three rewards linkers should get – 0-2 get a tea sample; 3/4 get a sampler set, 5+ get an ingenuiTEA Set – and because the PageRank of a single post is not the same as the blog it’s posted on, Jay got only a tea sampler when he should have got the tea set.

Now that’s not, really, a big deal. What brings this whole story into the blog fuckwittery camp is the response of Adagio’s customer service representative, Ilya Kreymerman, who managed to show a complete lack of comprehension about how blogs work, i.e. that a post can be on the front page of a blog and in the archives at the same time. He then went on to be sarcastic and rude in Jay’s comments.

How, precisely is this supposed to help the situation? And how close are Adagio going to get to stuffing up a nice bit of PR with some ill-conceived ‘banter’ that does nothing but make them look like a bunch of nitpicking, tight-wad chancers?

This is something that has bugged me about alleged customer service representatives since pretty much the dawn of time. Listen, Mr/Ms Customer Service Person, your job is to say ‘I’m sorry. How can we make this better?’, not ‘This is all your fault, you’re an idiot, you should have done/not done this.’ Is that really so hard to comprehend?

Disgruntled bloggers are a vociferous bunch, and any company who thinks about using blogs to manufacture good PR have to remember that it can be easily undone. Piss off just a few popular bloggers and you’ll be really wishing you hadn’t.

UPDATE: Adagio Teas’ Ilya Kreymerman emailed me after reading this, and offered to send me tea because even though I hadn’t applied for their link scheme, I’d still linked to them. I accepted their offer, and true to their word they sent me one of their ingenuiTEA Sets and some tea. So, whilst I still think the tone of Ilya’s posts on Jay’s blogs were somewhat ill-considered, I will freely say that their wee tea set is pretty darn ingenious and cool. Unfortunately I never drink tea, but my parents say that the leaves Adagio sent are a good step up from “the usual stuff we drink”.

So, a good save from Kreymerman, or have I been swayed by a freebie? Bit of both, I’d say, but you can make your own mind up.

Etech Camgirl!

I had really hoped to get over to Etech this year, but circumstances conspired against me and instead I am stuck here in Dorset, bemoaning my fate. Well, not completely… Thanks to iChat, a webcam, Kevin Marks and the very flakey network at the Etech venue, I’ve been Etech Camgirl, as Cory put it, smiling out at everyone from Kevin’s laptop.

Etech by webcam

The view from here

I’ve caught snatches of various presentations, although never enough to say for certain what they were about, and have mingled with attendees in the hallways and lobby. I have smiled and waved at a number of very pixelated faces, and attempted to say hello to some people who probably couldn’t hear what I was saying – I certainly had a hard time making out what they were saying – but it was fun anyway.

If you were amongst that number and asked me what the weather was like in England, I was trying to say that it’s been dull and grey here.

Virtual attendance it is not – no need for O’Reilly to get worried about people ‘getting in’ for free. But it gives me a feel for the conference, for what I’m missing out on, and it’s the best we can do under the circumstances. I just wish that the networks were a little more robust, and that webcams were better, and then maybe, just maybe, it would I would have spent the majority of the last few hours actually watching and listening, instead of restarting iChat, attempting to get a video link going, and cursing the connection when it craps out.

Fingers crossed that next year I get to be there in person.

(Crossposted from Chocolate and Vodka.)

Dark Blogs: The Use of Blogs in Business

When people think about ‘business blogs’, they usually think about blogs used as marketing tools by businesses who want to open a dialogue with the public. Thus discussions about business blogging tend to revolve around issues like authenticity, transparency, honesty and voice.

There is, however, a ‘dark matter’ of blogs which we know exists but which we cannot observe directly. These ‘dark blogs’ are those used internally by companies for purposes such as team management, event logging, cross-shift communications or knowledge sharing. Because dark blogs are behind the firewall we can’t see them, can’t evaluate their usefulness or find out what hurdles had to be jumped in their implementation.

Yet, because blogs are easy to use, flexible and cost-effective, they are an obvious choice for business use. Coupled with RSS feeds, aggregators, and other social software, it is possible to create a powerful knowledge sharing system which can be used with minimal training and IT outlay.

For the last few months I have been talking to a number of blog software vendors and blog technology companies, along with businesses that are using blogs behind the firewall, and have gained their support for a new research project – Dark Blogs.

In Dark Blogs I shall be interviewing businesses from a variety of industry sectors to find out how they use blogs, RSS feeds, aggregators and other social software; what challenges they faced and how they surmounted them; and the impact that blogging has had on their business.

The case studies, some of which will include a podcast/webcast, will be published here on Strange Attractor under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. The first one is already underway, so keep your eyes open for it!

If you are interested in being a sponsor or a case study, please email me and I will send you a prospectus.