Six Apart spins like a Whirling Dervish

I’ve refrained from blogging about Six Apart lately, because I have nothing positive to say about them or their products right now, but I’m afraid I can’t let their latest marketing email pass without calling bullshit.

I have spent the best past of the last four or five months listening to various friends struggling on a daily basis to keep Movable Type up and running. In fact, if you’re a regular reader then you’ll have experienced for yourself some of the problems that Corante have had with MT: the slowness, the failed page loads, the inability to post comments and, at one point, Strange’s total absence. I know of at least four large commercial installations of MT that have struggled – and, at times, failed – because Movable Type simply did not scale. (Although the new Rebuild Queue has helped.) I have personal friends who have had significant problems with MT, even though their sites are relatively small. And I have consoled more than one developer as MT saps their will to live, with significant bugs in 6A’s code being found and, eventually, fixed.

(Note: I am not going to name names, other than Corante’s – you knew about that anyway. Businesses in particular seem to be very wary of admitting when they are having software problems, but I am talking about household names both in the UK and the US who are having problems, and not small ones.)

With all this in mind, I find it totally disingenuous of 6A when they write:

We talk a lot about helping bloggers succeed with Movable Type, and that requires us to also focus on an important rule: Failure Is Not An Option.

You see, one thing Movable Type users often have in common is that, whether they’re writing a personal parenting blog for friends and family, or they’re publishing their opinion on case law for a law blog, they just can’t accept downtime on their blog. Fortunately, Movable Type was designed from day one to be super-reliable, standing up to the heaviest traffic load, even if you get linked to be a huge website.

This is nothing more than marketing department spin. MT is not super-reliable. If it was, then I wouldn’t keep hearing of yet another blogger who has abandoned MT, or another company that’s fighting to keep its MT installation going.

Six Apart is talking about MT as if it’s only used by individual bloggers, and that the only problem is when you get linked to by a big site. But whilst there are plenty of individual bloggers who are having problems, there are also business who have paid good money to MT for a commercial licence and are now finding MT to be a liability. And it’s not necessarily a big link that’s causing the problem, but fundamental flaws in the way that MT deals with spam and comments, and other bugs in the code that frankly should have been picked up years ago.

The spam problem, as I understand it, is that MT doesn’t differentiate between a spam hit and a proper comment until it has hit the database. It does the same amount of work in both cases, and the only difference is where that comment eventually turns up: on your blog or in the junk folder. So if your blog is hammered by spammers, the database does the same amount of work as it would do if it were hammered by real commenters. Of course, a spambot can hit your database with more comments more quickly than a human being can, and that alone can bring a blog down.

I heard of one case where, every time a comment was made, it caused 250mb of data to be transferred between servers. Scale that up to 100s or 1000s of spam comments, and suddenly you have the kind of load that can melt a server.

So no. MT is not super-reliable, and it cannot stand up to the heaviest traffic loads.

Six Apart go on:

How does it work? Well, unlike most blogging tools, Movable Type supports two different ways of publishing your pages — it can look in your database and choose which posts to display each time someone visits your site, or it can just generate a regular HTML web page that gets displayed without having to touch your database. That’s what we’re talking about when we say Movable Type supports “static” or “dynamic” publishing — static publishing doesn’t talk to your database every time someone visits your blog, and it’s the default in Movable Type. We let you choose between both so you can set the right balance of performance and scalability. (Static publishing takes longer for you as an author, but less time for your readers — so if you’ve ever waiting for your site to “rebuild”, you can take some consolation in the fact that your readers will have less of a lag when they visit you.)

Aaah yes, the rebuild. They talk as if this is a good thing. The trouble with rebuild is it’s really not very efficient, and frequent comments cause superfluous tasks to be queued for the rebuild, so you end up wasting a lot of server capacity. God knows the number of times I’ve sat there, waiting for a blog to rebuild… and waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

If you have the very latest version of MT, you have Rebuild Queue, but if you don’t then it doesn’t matter whether your site is static or dynamic, the problem is total comment load, including both spam and valid comments.

Most other blogging tools don’t do rebuilds the way MT does, and I can’t think of another tool that I use that suffers as much from bugs and downtime as MT. Doing things differently doesn’t mean you’re doing them right and everyone else is doing them wrong.


Now, if you have a huge farm of servers and lots of technical staff, you can make dynamic publishing work at very high traffic volumes, too. In fact, our LiveJournal team here at Six Apart invented a lot of the open source technology that makes that work — the people behind sites like Facebook and Digg and Wikipedia and our own Vox use it, too. But if you’re running on a regular web server at a standard hosting company, they’re going to get kind of annoyed if your blog is hitting the database thousands of times just because you wrote a popular post.

Most commercial installations don’t have big server farms, nor do they have lots of technical staff. Yet even if you do chuck a few extra blades and a couple of developers at the problem, it’s still difficult to make MT work in either mode, static or dynamic, if you’re being hammered by spammers. Again, writing popular posts isn’t the problem. Serving pages isn’t the problem. Comments are the problem.

Now, it’s very easy to blame the spammers, but the sad fact is that spammers aren’t going to go away, and tools have to be built to withstand their onslaughts. MT isn’t. It didn’t matter how many servers you threw at MT 3.2x, comment spam could still kill them.

Oh, and just to nitpick… all that lovely open source stuff from LiveJournal? Well, let’s remember that minor point of fact that 6A bought LJ for its open source goodies. No sneakily trying to claim credit for LJ, please.

You might’ve seen this effect already — ever check out a link that’s been promoted on a big site like Digg or Slashdot and been faced with a “database connection error” when you visit the blog that got Dugg? Well, Movable Type is designed to prevent you from ever having to face that problem.

I feel like a broken record. Spam, guys, spam. Not the Slashdot Effect. (For the record, I’ve noticed that the Slashdot Effect is nowhere near as strong as it used to be anyway.)

For more tips on how to make sure your blog is performing as reliably as possible, our community’s put together some resources:

* MT Wiki
* Performance tuning Movable Type
* Enabling FastCGI
* Movable Type System Architectures

MT was always a tool that you needed to have a reasonable amount of expertise to install. Then they made it a bit easier, so you didn’t need to have quite the developer chops that you used to. Now you need to be a developer again to make the damn thing work. Make up your minds, 6A. Either MT is a developer tool or a consumer tool – you can’t keep wavering between the two.

And of course, we haven’t yet achieved this goal of making blogs failure-proof. Some of the steps for making a Movable Type blog bulletproof are too obscure or confusing. So we want to collect your feedback on the questions and concerns you have about the reliability of your Movable Type site — if you’ve ever missed out on some page views or potential readers because your blog wasn’t reachable, let us know or briefly summarize your story on this Movable Type wiki page.

OK, so 6A haven’t achieved their goal of making blogs failure-proof, why spend five paragraphs claiming they had?

If they want to understand where the problems are, they should start offering some support instead of expecting the people they’ve let down put the time and effort into writing it all up for them on their wiki. I know of people who have paid good money for MT who have had to fight to get 6A’s attention for support – 6A have complained when people ‘don’t use the ticketing system’ when the ticketing system was in fact broken. Hell, I even know of companies that have had to fight to pay them for a licence to use their software as per their terms and conditions. What sort of way is that to run a business?

Give proper support to the people whose MT blogs are failing, and you’ll soon gather all the stories you need to figure out what’s screwed up with MT. Instead of asking us to put the effort in, why don’t you, for a change?

We’ll start blogging about the reliability stories we’ve heard, both where MT has held up under pressure as well as where MT didn’t do what you’d expect, and how to fix it. Until then, you can help by pointing us at examples of Blog Failure, whether it’s on Movable Type or not, and we can all work together to help solve the problem.

Frankly 6A’s marketing department should be given, at the very least, a strong talking to for this email and especially the first and last paragraphs. Why should we do your work? It’s not the consumer’s job to figure out what’s wrong with your software – that’s your job, and if you provided decent support you’d have most of the answers by now anyway.

MT 3.34, released on 17 Jan 2007, has helped a few of my friends and contacts, but they are still having to do significant work to get all the plug-ins installed and working efficiently. Spam is still a problem. FastCGI gives a perceived speed increase, but frankly is a bit like faking it.

And whilst Rebuild Queue helps, it comes too late for many individual users and large MT installations. In commercial settings, MT’s damaged reputation has rubbed off not just on other third-party blog-related tools, but also on those evangelists who championed blogs in the first place, obscuring blogs’ benefits with serious performance issues that blot everything else out. It also makes it much harder to sell other Web 2.0 applications because of the fear that they too won’t scale.

The truth is that 6A have dropped the ball. They abandoned MT and their users, and their lack of support and updates has caused significant problems for even those people who are paying to use the software. Instead of keeping on top of MT and ensuring that it can cope with a rapidly changing environment and increasingly sophisticated spammers, they’ve spent the last two years focused on Vox.

Personally, I find it hard to have faith in Six Apart’s commitment to developing, improving and supporting Movable Type, which is why I now advise clients to avoid it at all costs.

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Strange Attractor Podcast III: Web 2.0 myths, blog fuckwittery and Twitter

Suw and I have been away from podcasting for a while. It’s only been 107 days, Odeo tells me, since the last podcast. Erk. Sorry.

We decided to relegate Suw’s tried but tired £7.99 Tandy-special plastic microphone and get a nice Sennheiser. It was giving both Suw, and the mic, psychological complexes after interviewees (including our friend, Euan Semple), chortled at the poor thing. If we ever get around to having little podcasters, I’m sure it will return to service.

powered by ODEO

We begin the podcast by groveling and begging for forgiveness for not podcasting more frequently. Quickly moving on from self-flagellation, we restore confidence in our own superiority by rubbishing the Daily Mail (1:25), and a particularly shitty column on blogging. Listen to me put on my best crusty, faux-posh British accent. If you’re still listening, we move on quickly to trashing Forrester (2:28) and a pay-for report about this whole Web 2.0 thingumy. Suw was directed to it by a super-secret squirrel contact so she could rubbish it. She obliged. Then, having not had enough of rubbishing clueless online efforts, we make fun of The Independent and their ahem… blogs (4:40). Oh, newsflash! They have actually updated the ‘blog’. Hell, the Indy’s bloggers – and I use that term loosely – took almost as long to post as Suw and I have to podcast.

After a brief description of mushy pees peas at 7:40, we discuss the criticisms that clued-up journalist Martin Stabe had of the Indy’s efforts. And just to highlight a great blog post, I’ll mention the questions that Andrew Grant-Adamson thinks editors should ask:

1. Does it do anything which cannot better be done in another section of the site?

2. Does it develop the paper’s interaction with the readers?

3. Does it gain a valuable audience? (A particular niche, readers who are new to the paper etc)

4. Can you give the blogger sufficient time to blog successfully?

5. Have you chosen a writer or writers who have the aptitude to blog successfully?

From 11:37, we talk about Twitter. Suw Twitters about it as we podcast.

If you want to download this as an MP3, you can download it here.

Suw and I have plans to podcast more often. She says, optimistically, once a week. Maybe when we get a portable recording device. Any suggestions?

Feed the Geeks

Last week, my good friend Chris Vallance was asked in a radio interview: “What is a geek?” After the interview, he asked me how I would have answered. I thought about it for a while.

A geek is someone who talks about technology as much as most men talk about football.

I am the first to admit that I’m a geek, and I’m proud of it. I’m a geek about all my passions whether it’s food, wine, backpacking through the mountains or journalism. I revel in the minutiae of anything I’m interested in (but hopefully don’t bore to tears anyone who happens to talk to me about them). But almost everyone has their personal passions, some are just more socially acceptable.

Most mainstream media organisations are following mass media strategies when it comes to blogs. They are producing general interest news blogs in spades because journalists think that everyone is interested in news, and a very narrow definition of news at that. They are pushing large numbers to blog on mega-blog sites without understanding that blogging is personal publishing where blog readers develop strong ties to the blogger. In the age of social media, it’s good to remember that people develop relationships with people, not brands, organisations or ‘content’.

Not unsurprisingly, mass media organisations are still focusing on the mass. They are still focusing on the ‘rat’s ass of the long tail‘, as Mark Cuban calls it. Andy Kessler quotes Mark as saying in an e-mail exchange:

…in a long tail universe, the cost to crawl up the tailto the rat’s ass is more expensive than the production.

Andy Kessler, as part of a series of posts on Media 2.0, goes on to advise: “Go horizontal.” I couldn’t agree more. Feed the geeks, and by that I don’t mean just the people who are passionate about technology. Feed the foodies, the wine officianados, the travel buffs, the video gamers, the greenest thumb gardeners, the DIYers, you name it. A blog is an inexpensive, lightweight content management system that lowers the barriers to entry and speeds development. Blogging will allow media organisations to target niches that would be impossibly expensive in print. And a good blogger can connect directly with their audience in ways that print can’t and build a loyal community.

At a recent new media event I was lectured by the managing director of a major UK media company about blogging and told that my job was to bring eyeballs to advertisers. Memo to self: Avoid old media execs who have had too much to drink.

But it’s a mistake to think that blogs are about the old-fashioned concept of ‘sticky eyeballs’. There is a business model to blogging – if used strategically and not just as a technological solution to allow comments on traditionalcontent.

As Paul Gillin says in an article about the troubles facing the American newspaper industry, “This new medium (blogging) is far more cost-efficient than the ones it will replace.” Google’s AdSense tied search to ads so that people who were searching for something would find related ads. Niche blogs do the same thing. Someone coming to a wine blog is already interested in wine and wine-related products. Just as tech advertisers do better on BoingBoing than on general interest sites, wine advertisers will find a more interested interest on a wine blog than they would a general news and information site. It’s a sound advertising model, and there is a sound business model behind blogging.

Want proof? Under heading of: “It’s not just a hobby – some small sites are making big money. Here’s how to turn your passion into an online empire”, Paul Sloan and Paul Kaihla wrote in Business 2.0:

Denton won’t discuss financial details, but industry experts estimatethat Gawker Media will bring in as much as $3 million in revenue thisyear. Gawker Media’s average CPM is between $8 and $10; CPM rates onGoogle AdSense and competing automated systems are estimated atanywhere from 50 cents to a few bucks.

But media organisations won’t succeed in the age of blogging with a mass media strategy focused on bland, broad-based blogs where there is no ‘there’ there. Instead, news organisations can grow the business by targetting passionate niches in their audience. If you don’t, there are lots of passionate bloggers out there who will.

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Exploding the blog myth

I really shouldn’t take the piss out of a British media icon, but in this case, it’s just too inviting.

Jeff Jarvis pointed out something in the Indy, in which they asked a bunch of British media heavyweights about the future of newspapers. Jeff pointed to Piers Morgan as someone who gets it and to the BBC’s John Humphrys, presenter of the Today programme, as someone who doesn’t. Jeff pulls out this quote from Mr Humphrys’ statement on why he thought it was preposterous to conceive of a society that functioned without newspapers:

And sooner or later we will explode the blog myth. The idea that you can click on to a few dozen blogs and find out what’s going on in the world is nonsense. It’s fun but that’s all it is. …

OK, let me explode the blog myth, not the myth that Mr Humphrys thinks will be uncovered but the myth that he and several others propagate about blogs:

  1. Myth number one: Most bloggers write about news.
    As my friend Say Na in Nepal points out: 37% of American bloggers want to write about their lives and experiences, compared to 11% who write about politics. She’s writing about a Pew Internet and American Life study. The report says:

    Most bloggers say they cover a lot of different topics, but when asked to choose one main topic, 37% of bloggers cite “my life and experiences” as a primary topic of their blog. Politics and government ran a very distant second with 11% of bloggers citing those issues of public life as the main subject of their blog.

    …most bloggers are primarily interested in creative, personal expression – documenting individual experiences, sharing practical knowledge, or just keeping in touch with friends and family.

    The news media provides disproportionate coverage of political and news blogs because that’s what they are interested in. They cover news, not the intimate details of people’s lives.

  2. Myth number two: Bloggers just want to become journalists or pundits
    Again, as the study found out, most bloggers write for a small audience of their friends and family: “Most bloggers do not think of what they do as journalism.” They write for the pure love of self-expression, not for recognition or money. Mass media doesn’t really understand the motivation of most bloggers because they can’t understand publishing for a small audience for no money. (And in some ways, it’s one of the reasons why most mass media blogs suck. Most bloggers write about and are interested in their personal passions and interests, which is slightly anti-thetical to general interest publications like newspapers.)
  3. Myth number three: Blogging is all opinion
    This is such a common yarn, but unfortunately, this view itself turns out to be only uninformed opinion. First off, see myth one. Most people are just writing about their personal experiences. Of course it’s their opinions. That is totally the wrong yardstick with which to assess blogs.

    But more than that, it’s just flat out wrong. One of the blogs that I read when I want to know about what’s happening in the US Supreme Court is ScotusBlog, which is actually done by the Supreme Court practice of a law firm. It’s great niche coverage.

    Dr Jeffrey Lewis writes, along with a number of other experts, the very interesting Arms Control Wonk blog. NKZone is a great blog that provides some excellent coverage of North Korea including translations of North Korean defectors’ stories, which are common in the South Korean press but rarely translated into English. I’m sorry, but that’s coverage that’s hard to find in the mainstream media.

But really the biggest myth is that these shifts in media consumtion are all about blogs. Blogs are just one of the little pieces of social software that knit my life together. Flickr, instant messaging and Skype help too. I often say that my network is my filter, and whether it’s on friends’ blogs, via e-mail or via IM, I’m constantly getting a feed of information that is more relevant to my life than the crap that passes for ‘authoratative comment’ – as Simon Kelner Editor of The Independent called it. What a load of self-important tosh.

Mr Humphrys admits to ‘being an old fart’ and still loving his news in print. I’m sorry, news on paper, non-time shifted radio/TV and, to be perfectly honest, radio presenters like Mr Humphrys don’t really have much of a place in my information diet. By the time Mr Humphrys has let his first guest get a word in edge-wise, I’ve already skimmed a dozen feeds – some news, some blogs – in my RSS reader. On the Tube, I read through the headlines and some stories in the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post and The Guardian on AvantGo before I’ve gone three stops. Try struggling with all the print versions of those papers on the Tube, or better yet, try buying them at your local news stand in London.

Mr Humphrys might be suprised to find that for someone who reads and writes blogs, I value information over opinion. I agree with Kevin Marsh, editor of the BBC College of Journalism, that media opinion really has a shrinking market. I can think for myself, and I don’t need some celebrity commentator telling me what opinion I should have. Comment will be free; but information to help me make personal, professional or political decisions might be a going concern.

Is Flock the ultimate blogging tool for journalists? Almost.

I first used Flock last year after meeting Chris Messina in Paris. He was working to get the word out about the read/write browser at the time. I really liked the idea, partially because it just makes sense as a concept. With blogs, photo-sharing sites Flickr and social bookmarking sites such as, it makes sense to have a support for these social tools on the browser level.

I have to admit. I downloaded it in December, wrote one blog post and quickly decided that it wasn’t ready for prime time. The tools didn’t work as advertised. I couldn’t even get it to work with my Flickr account, and it made life more difficult not easier.

That was then. This is now. A few weeks ago as I was looking for an RSS reader and other blogging tools to make life easier for my new colleagues at the Guardian. I downloaded Flock again. It’s now my default browser at work. The RSS reader alone is pretty good. RSS is the most under-utilised technology for jourrnalism bar none. For journalists wanting to use RSS, Flock is definitely worth a download (and this article is worth a read). It’s not as full-featured as NetNewsWire, but it’s damn good.

And from a blogging standpoint, it’s better than Sage, my favourite RSS plug-in for Firefox. If you see a post in your feed reader you want to blog, just click the blog button and up pops a window for a new blog post.

I actually like the uploader tool for Flickr photos better than Flickr’s own tool, although truth be told I haven’t used the Flickr uploader in a few months. But even more than the uploader, I like the fact that with a click, I can create a new blog post from my Flickr photos. I can easily see the pictures of my Flickr friends, too, which is a nice feature for personal use.

It has all the search functionality of Firefox and more. You can also set it to search your local history. It has all of the search plug-ins from Firefox.

OK, that was the good. Now for the bad, or at least the work in progress. I liked the spell checker because as you well know if you’ve read Strange for a while, I really benefit from a good editor. However, I discovered just yesterday that it puts span tags around the words it questions or changes. Well, initially, I just saw all the span tags and wondered WTF? It was only after a quick Google that I discovered it was the spell checker that was spawning the spans. It doesn’t look like a new problem, blog posts about it since the summer. I hope it gets fixed.

Suw downloaded Flock after finding Firefox 2.0 broke her can’t-live-without session saver plug-in. Here are her impressions:

I am finding that it isn’t behaving well when posting to a blog either – it just sits there and tries to post without ever completing the action (even though it does post). As you say, minor but annoying.

I also have a problem with the behaviour of their search bar – the sub-menu comes up whenever you click in the search area, instead of when you click on the G, (which is Firefox behaviour) meaning that when I am trying to select all by triple-clicking, it doesn’t work so well.

I have to admit, I am still liking Firefox better than Flock, but determined to still give it an honest trial

The HTML code is not entirely clean. I’m just looking at the source code of this post. The code definitely needs a tidy up.

But it’s getting there. Beginning bloggers could definitely do worse, and journalists who find Movable Type or WordPress’s interface daunting or difficult will find it much easier. It’s come a long way in the last year. I’m hoping that development continues and the bugs and quirks get ironed out.

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Blogged with Flock

The most awesome comment system ever

Jack Slocum has hacked together the most awesome blog commenting system I have ever seen, using a combination of WordPress, Yahoo UI and YAHOO.ext. He’s created a system for paragraph- or sentence-level comments with a slick AJAX user interface which could just revolutionise the way we comment. I saw similar functionality on Traction’s Teampage when I got a demo of it last year, and I can imagine that Jack’s approach would be a very powerful way of facilitating quite granular discussions.

At the Open Rights Group we sometimes do public consultations, such as the one we did for the Gowers Review. To gather public input we use a blog and break down the consultation document into sections. This is quite a clumsy way of doing it, and doesn’t really allow for very fine-grained discussions, but Jack’s solution would be far more elegant and would allow us to tease out the nuances of what can be quite complex calls for evidence.

Question is, how do I get one?

(Thanks to Kevin for pointing this out via IM.)

SHiFT: Martin Röll – Time for a SHIFT

How we need to change our thinking and acting to use information technology sensibly.

At these sorts of conferences, there seems to be quest for identity, to find out who we are, and how we shape the word, and how the world shapes us. Thomas talked about hacking language. Stowe will talk about tools, how we shape them and how they shape us. I’m talking about hacking the human operating system, how we live and how we interact.

Two assumptions in the title: we need to change, and that we aren’t using IT sensibly. Lilia thinks we are using IT sensibly, but what I mean is that we are not using the possibilities we have from the things we’ve invented, there’s a lot more we could do, and there’s a lot of tech that’s not useful at all.

The other assumption is that we need to change, and I’m not going to argue that point. But I do think it’s time for a shift and we do need to change, because I see things that we are doing on this planet that I don’t like, but I’m not going to labour the point about when we need to change.

But these points I am going to make are going to work for you no matter if you think the world is going to change or disintegrate.

Wishes don’t work, no point wishing for change. Need to act ourselves. That’s why he used ‘we’. Also, pointless blaming others for our misfortunes, we have to own that ourselves.

Idea of this talk is that when we look at the tech we’ve invented we can see it helps us get more things done. Can access more information, can find things faster, can communicate with more people, can work more effectively. Question is, what are we going to do with all that now? What work are we going to do? Are we going to use it to fight faster and more dynamically, or are we going to come up with some better ideas?

Two things are important:

– the way we interact with each other when we use IT.
– the way we work, the things we work on, and the type of work we do when working for other companies and the way we earn our money.

There are things we get wrong, specially when we access the web for accessing information. We tend to believe that what is in the browser is the world, don’t take into account that it’s a snapshot of the world, and we don’t think about the state of mind we are in when we access information.

So you’ve just got up and haven’t had coffee and are feeling groggy, then a comment on your blog may read as a stupid comment, but later on when you read it you may realise it’s constructive criticism.

Often we mis-interpret things online because we don’t take into account our own state of mind, we no longer see things the way they are, we see our own emotions in the email we get and the information we process. We react to this information badly when you are in a ‘fight’ mode, or a ‘protect’ mode. But have to think about why you are reacting the way you react.

Our information systems are created in such a way as it’s easy to get drowned in information. When we try to absorb too much information we become ineffective.

Once we’ve found out what we want to do, once we have our thinking clear, we have to go on to the acting part. One of the most important things here is what do we focus on. We tend to multitask, think about email, or what we have to do… when we don’t focus on what we need to do, when we are procrastinating we don’t get anything done. But we are the ones that decide where to put our focus, our attention.

There are lots of tools there to help us find what is interesting… but that’s frequently defined as what’s being linked to a lot. But when we do that we get into mob behaviour. We find something on the net, but we don’t know anything more than what we’ve seen. So we amplify what is happening without really it being important or relevant to us.

We should stop doing that. People will not stop reading a blog because I haven’t linked to popular things. In fact, if I stop for 2 weeks, it doesn’t matter. RSS feeds mean that people will stay, they can see when you start writing again. We should blog less about things that suck. What I get mad about when I see what’s happening in my part of the blogosphere – so many people spend so much time commenting on things that we don’t like, or things that suck.

There is so much stuff that sucks, everyone could easily write a list of 100 things that suck, but a blog entry is not going to change it. We should focus on what’s really important to us, what’s positive, what can make a difference. Don’t waste time on criticising politics or business or user-interfacces on a new gadget. We shouldn’t talk about he things that are irrelevant to our own actions.

Also need to be aware of the consequences of what we do, particularly the economic consequences. At this conference, you’ll meet a lot of people who are inventing new tools or processes. We are innovating. This is important for companies because they are hiring us and paying us. But we need to be aware of the repercussions of what we do. We need to think carefully about where we are going to put our new inventions. In the end it will all be freely available, but we are the ones who decide who gets it first, we shape the first behaviour, we help the first users make use of the tools. And by making this decision of how we use the tools, if we are not giving it to some people we can stop development, and by giving it to others we can speed development, so we need to think about where we apply these tools.

We have a duty too to share what we know and what we are developing. Not enough to just talk amongst ourselves, to show the demo to other geeks, but they can find it themselves anyway. If we really believe in what we do and we think that it’s important we need to go out and show it to people who don’t know yet. Most people don’t care about what we do because they don’t know about what we do.

You won’t find them on Google or Skype or IM, but our duty is to go out there and find people to share with. But we are developing stuff for us, not for people who are not at our conferences. We can work effectively but other people don’t, and some people are getting left behind and we should show what we do to other people and let them participate in this new world that we are creating.

I believe we are not using the tools we have developed effectively today. Much of the time we use our computers we are recreating other tools we already have, or engaging in the same behaviours. We need to think more about why we are doing what we do. We shouldn’t confuse the browser with reality. We should be mindful when we communicate with others through the electronic medium. Too often we misunderstand others because we’re not aware of our own state of mind when we are interfacing with the system. We need to co-exist with everyone.

Also need to be careful who we work for, whose money we take. If we aren’t more careful, we’ll just be the generation that made things faster. But if we do, not only can we get more things done, have better communication, but we can also shape a world in which more people can live together peacefully.


Why I blog, and why the MSM should and many times shouldn’t

That’s the title of the talk I gave last week at IBC and that I have given in various forms at other places over the last year. I began the talk by showing off some numbers from Dave Sifry’s most recent State of the Blogosphere reports, the latest one being from early in August. Technorati is now tracking 50 million blogs, and that’s just a self-selecting sample of people who have registered with the site (well self selecting and plenty of splogs, spam blogs, which the Team Technorati is working on trimming from its ranks). That’s a lot of people.

The mainstream media, or MSM for short, can give 16-year-olds trying to lay their hands on the latest fashion a run for their money when it comes to herd-like activity. And newspapers, TV networks and everyone else trying to protect or resurrect an old media business model have jumped enmasse on what Jon Stewart called the Blogwagon. But it’s mostly been an unthinking, headlong rush towards the blogosphere, “to get snaps” from the good-as-advertising-gold 18-to-34 demographic.

Is this really about giving a voice to the already voiced, as Jon Stewart says? What value is it to our audiences to serve up ‘news sushi’, content we already produce and publish but just served up in bite-sized blog bits in reverse chronological order? And I can hear the editors out there saying: “But blogs are just snarky comment, and hey we’ve got snarky columnists in spades. We are so going to own the Technorati and iTunes Top 10.” (And I’ve heard them say this.) Sorry, but if you want to sit up on high and keep pushing your content out at the “great unwashed masses”, YouTube, CraigsList and their successors are so gonna own your asses.

This is not about changing your content management system. You’ve already sunk a lot of cash into those. This is about changing your culture. What do blogs allow you to do that you don’t already do?

  1. Blogs can get you closer to your audience
    And that’s exactly where you need to be. I met Robert Scoble at a Geek Dinner here in London last summer, and he talked about having a conversation with his customers on how Microsoft could better serve their needs. I don’t really understand when journalists moved away from their audience, but many people have that impression.
  2. Blogs can bring new voices to your journalism
    Since when did journalism become a game of pick the pundit? It’s lazy, and it’s turned a lot of journalism into a talking shop amongst pundits, politicians and other journalists. Google yourself some new voices. In the last year, blogs have helped me bring serving soldiers in Iraq onto programmes, helped me hear from a Saudi teenager calling for women’s right to vote and let me eavesdrop in on a guy’s thoughts as he left New Orleans to escape Katrina.
  3. Blogs can get you closer to the story
    Blogs and a world of tools that have grown up around them make creating multimedia stories in the field easier than ever. I’m an online journalist because I believe that the internet is a revolutionary medium. I can do better journalism with blogging tools: Real, raw and in the field, while being in constant contact with my audience. What do they want to know? What questions do they have for the people I’m interviewing?
  4. Blogs could just re-invigorate western democracy
    OK, OK, maybe I’m getting a little carried away. But I’m still an idealist at heart. That’s one of the reasons I got into journalism. Steve Yelvington, who really should be in your RSS reader, put it this way recently:
    1. The end of mass media. Here’s what the 20the century gave us: A population of consumers whose economic role was to eat what they’re served and pay up. These “people formerly known as the audience” are alienated, disengaged and angry. Instead of setting our sights on building a nation of shopkeepers, bankers and passive consumers, what if we set our sights on building a nation of participants in cultural and civic life? Perhaps this world where everyone can be a publisher will not be such a bad place.

And as Steve says a few days later in his blog, there isn’t a silver bullet, and I’m not going to try to sell blogs as one. But Steve told me in Florida a year ago that blogs represent a complex set of social behaviours that we’re just understanding. Blogs are just the tip of the ice berg in this fast moving world of participatory media. Blogging and the mainstream media has to be more than ‘me-too-ism’, and it can be. With a little thought to understand these new behaviours and a willingness to actually accept and adapt to these changes instead of wishing they weren’t happening, we might just have a chance.

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County fairs, country music and loving your audience

I grew up in the rural Midwest in the US, about 90 miles west of Chicago, and my father loved – still loves – county fairs. Back in the mid 1980s, I was lucky enough to see Johnny Cash with his wife June Carter at a country fair. I still remember the shiver that went down my spine when he took the stage and said: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

I’m not a huge country music fan, but I love good music. Johnny Cash was a living legend, but he still thanked the audience for coming to the concert, for buying his records. He was humble, but it was a humility and a gratitude for his audience that was common to country singers. When I saw Walk the Line this year, I realised for Johnny Cash it might have been because of all of the letters of support he got, especially when he was struggling with his demons and addictions.

I got that feeling of connection with my audience when I was a cub reporter in western Kansas. It was not just a connection with my sources but also with my audience. That feeling of connection is one of the reasons that I find blogging as a journalist more fulfilling than traditional publishing or broadcasting. I find it odd now to write a story that doesn’t have a space for comments. Yeah, I can see the stats. I know people are clicking on the story, but I find having a conversation with my audience more fulfilling.

I talk to a lot of people in the media who view their audience as an annoyance. In the past, the only time they ever heard from members of their audience was to complain. Here in the UK, they jokingly refer to agitated callers or writers with the blanket phrase, ‘Angry in Milton Keynes’.

When I started this post, I was going to point out some of the many incidents when the media turns on their audience. It’s a pointless exercise really. It gets pretty ugly pretty quickly, like when Richard Cohen of the Washington Post this spring called e-mail correspondents a ‘Digital Lynch Mob‘. (For more background, Kos called it the ‘Substance of a Blogswarm‘. Tailrank has a nice roundup of this particular spat.)

I’m not going to pick on Mr Cohen or any publication. Even I have found myself in a middle of a blogswarm or two, such as when the brothers at Iraq the Model banned the BBC from their blog last year. A poor colleague, Sarah, who actually had little to do with the misunderstanding, got some pretty abusive e-mail. She asked me to help out. I hopped into the comments and explained what we were doing. Two comments later, the tide turned, and a commenter named Thomas was even talking about linking back to us.

As I’ve said before, if we in the traditional media blog, we have to play by the rules of blogging, not our own rules. You don’t issue a press release. You get out ahead of the blog storm. You get into the comments. You give your side of the story.

But you don’t always have to be on the defensive. Real blogging – getting out there and actually engaging in a conversation with your audience – has real benefits, both in terms of the business bottom line and just in terms of personal satisfaction.

What do I get back from it? A lot. As I blogged a few weeks ago, I’m changing jobs. Friday was my last day in the office at the BBC, and my colleagues blogged about it. I had plenty of well wishers. Abdelilah Boukili in Morocco has become a loyal member of our audience. He’s been quick to let us know when something is wrong with the blog, usually technical glitches. But it’s helped us fine tune our blog setup. He has also set up his own blog to chronicle his comments on BBC websites. But his comments on the World Have Your Say blog and here on Strange Attractor show how blogging opens new ways to relate to your audience. He said in a comment to me:

It was your interaction with the contributors to the BBC blog that encouraged me to be one of the frequent contributors. I am not a journalist like you equipped with means to get information. All I can do is give my comments which can be good or bad.

In case, you leave BBC blog I will be “following” you in the Guardian blog.

And there are several bloggers who have become frequent visitors to my blogs, Steve in Utah, Ipanema, Anbika in Nepal and Roberto in Miami, who have wished me well.

It takes time to build a community with a blog. Media companies are rushing to blog, rushing to use social networking tools. But as Suw and I always say, the technical tools are just the start. First off, learn to love your audience. We need to learn from the country music crowd. They remember who pay the bills.