Democracy, business models, and blogging as a new communication medium

Weblogs are a popular topic on the web (have been for a while), and are picking up academic clout, despite constant and gleeful anti-emergent-technologies-and-people bashing.

For a while already, I have been wondering about two distinct characteristics of blogs: on the one hand, their social and political implications, and on the other hand the industrial future of the companies that make a business of blog-related activities. I’ll start with a practical example around the social acceptance (and need) of new communication media, as blogs are described by Elmine Wijnia in the thesis mentioned above.

In October 2004, Alexis Braud was invited to a conference organized by a local Attac, titled L’internet, Dans la société, l’économie et la culture : outil de liberté ou instrument de domination ?. The debate featured a high-profile French sociologist, Philippe Breton. Alexis was expected to defend the social potential of internet.

There was a bit of debate whithin the board of Ouvaton before that conference, when Alexis discussed with the rest of the board of web co-op Ouvaton (of which I am a member) some issues raised by Breton in his controversial book Le culte d’internet.

Breton’s book was the source for a whole part of the argument of my own masters thesis. I had found much interesting material in that book, and a very valid critique of a certain public discourse held around internet. I felt compelled to argue with Alexis, particularly in defense of Breton’s vision of the concept of transparency as a tool of domination.

A key point in Breton’s thesis is indeed that internet memes tend to mimic some patterns last seen in the counter-culture movement of the 60s and 70s in the US. Manuel Castells seems to confirm this, and the current blogosphere (the Dean campaign, podcasting, etc.) would seem to perpetuate the tradition, through both behavior, identity (Castells’ resistance identities probably apply very well) and discourse (championing the little guy, touting the power of self-organizing masses, etc.).

However, as mentioned in the Register article above, there is a bit of an issue with the business model of the blogosphere: the more vocal its proponents, the less convincing it becomes.

Have a look at Dean’s failure to win the Democratic nomination and Kerry’s defeat in November despite MoveOn and the meetup-powered crowd’s support (for the non-profit side of things), or the more traditional business models of blogosphere companies (SixApart, blog search and context-building engine Technorati, blog-reader BlogLines, etc.) or blogosphere-impacted companies (Google, broadcast media).

Beyond the general perception of and discourse about democracy, grassroots movements, self-organizing people’s groups, which are good but abstract, there is the need for those companies to succeed. On the non-profit side, there can only be one outcome: victory (at the polls, as a positive image and lots of media coverage are only a tool on the way there). Quite obviously, this has not worked very well.

Dean seems (to me, but I’ve got a very partial view of the matter) to be marked as the man who failed to make something of blog-powered politics. This might be due to Dean himself (someone else would have been able to use the once-convincing (?) one blogger = ten votes principle), or to the conservative movements success in also adopting the medium, but I do sense a general agreement outside of the blogging community that while blogs are clearly vital to helping politics remain an important feature of modern societies, the emergent crowd is however not actually capable of delivering tangible results.

On the other side of the spectrum, the business models of blogging-related companies give interesting insight into the social room and role blogs can claim.

Contrarily to the yet unsuccessful Xanadu project which attempted to enforce a verifiably high value of the content, the concept of blogging relies on purely voluntary structuring and qualification of the information, and on a very very low threshold of publishing.

Companies hysterically touting the hypothetical social benefits of blogging or promise to deliver still more in realizing these benefits, will never be successful. On the contrary, the future belongs to those that build their industrial project on the essential characteristics of blogging, and particularly that are ready to deal with masses of content of declining value. In other words, blogging (or internet in general) hasn’t changed much to the fact that few people are capable of producing valuable content. While it has made it a bit easier for all of these to indeed get published, there is no hope of turning large numbers of people in instant journalists, researchers or columnists who each deserve a large readership.

Indeed, a good blog-related product will not be a computer program that emulates human understanding of content, helping to get the right message to the right user, letting order emerge of chaos as two congruent states of the same body of information. It is pretty intuitive that from the incredible amounts of data created on blogs every minute, not all is interesting. The obvious consequence is that in order to get the “good stuff”, you’ll have to cut the crap. Again, anyone can understand that if you cut the crap, you do lose some content.

However, what might come as a surprise, is that the process of cutting the crap leaves out both good and bad content: both signal and noise are lost when automatically extracting information from loosely structured content. The result of that process of automated extraction is another type of valuable information, which bears no relation to what an individual reader will experience as valuable or useless when reading a blog.

This is somewhat similar to canvassing for an election: the individual discussions the volunteers have with the voters and the information collected in questionnaires are highly valuable. In turn, the aggregate information collected nationally by processing the (somewhat structured parts of the) questionnaires is highly valuable. However, those two levels of information, regardless of their common base, are not of the same sort.

Let’s take the example of a questionnaire that was sent to the inhabitants of Paris last year, about their wishes for the urban development of the city. My mother, who had just returned from visiting me here in Amsterdam, wrote in the “suggestions” field that it would be nice to build sidewalks with a gap at the foot of buildings so people could grow flowers and plants. This suggestion is valuable in itself (even if it’s ultimately not used!), but is irremediably lost when her form was processed automatically. In general, free-entry fields in such surveys are sampled (one in 10 or 100 forms are actually read by a human being), and simply cannot be automatically processed.

The principle is the same with blogs: fairly complex, powerful and cleverly designed computer systems are capable of detecting “relatedness” between various posts by processing a set of observable features of these posts (links, keywords), and hence to emulate a certain level of understanding which can be given back to the user (particularly in the form of context). However, the sense contained within the text remains essentially hidden to the robots.

Incidentally, this is the reason why comment-spamming is a problem conceptually inherent to blogs, not only a temporary technical quirk.

Thus, if we come back to the issue of the business model of those companies, we see that they simply can not rely on good content, which (whether blog-based or not) remains the exclusive domain of the publishing world and remains ruled by publishing concepts. No, those companies must necessarily base their added value on the agglomeration of large amounts of blog content, the quality being utterly irrelevant.

In other words, the companies that stand to make money from the blogosphere have no business interest in the quality of what is being posted nor in its political weight, only in high volumes of users and created content.

This observation is not contradicting the conclusion of Wijnia’s thesis: that the concept of blogs is relevant as a new communication method and that it has potentially positive political implications is simply unrelated to the business viability of companies creating those products or hosting content created with them.

However, it allows me to finally return to the issue of democracy. Alexis did make a very strong point in our debate: he said that Breton was ignoring the reality of social action on the internet, and that by focusing exclusively on the discourse (and, Laurent Chemla and Alexis say, on an outdated and partial discourse, a point I disagree with, as I explained), Breton was not doing justice to the potential offered by internet. Alexis further insisted upon the idea that Breton was thereby defending an established, undemocratic pecking order within which he (Breton) was close to the top, and which is globally threatened by the horizontality of computer-mediated communication.

It seems to me that once you have identified the very positive potential of the blog concept with regards to publishing, as well as the absence of a link between that potential and the full ecosystem around the concept, you can further the study of that potential with regards to concepts such as democracy, by isolating the context where the concept applies. Specifically, I think it is relevant to establish the impact of the concept on the preexisting conditions of publishing, and particularly publishing by a larger number of content producers.

In the pre-internet academic world, established authority controls publishing. Various mechanisms such as peer-review, selective hiring by universities and research institutions, strict expectations in postgraduate schooling, etc., ensure that the signal-to-noise ratio of published literature remains extremely high. Comparable mechanisms apply to other domains (journalism, politics, industry) to obtain similar results.

This can be seen as efficient but could very well be qualified as rather undemocratic. This is meritocracy when it works well, and nepotism in the worst cases. The blog concept brings fresh air, by allowing just about anyone to publish (the understanding of English and a few basic web concepts are sufficient to start posting on Blogger). In a way, the blogs introduce a dose of free-market way of working to publishing, by allowing anyone to start and by ensuring that only the successful ones are left standing.

However, it seems to me that the issue of authority remains unanswered by the irruption of the blogs. Indeed, while the sheer success of a blog is to some extent a measure of the value of its content, it can be measured in many (sometimes contradictory) ways, and it concerns only marginally people who wouldn’t have been otherwise successful in more classic environments.

My underlying point, which would probably need to be more fully developed and supported, is that existing power structures are not so much being changed by individual internet-based tools such as blogs, wikis or RSS, as they are encouraging the development of new processes and supporting technologies and services (I’m talking about you Paul!) that support the changing characteristics of our contemporary life. Entering the “information age” as defined by Manuel Castells, and its disintegration of the nation-states and other civil-society features into fragmented resistance communities, we should probably have expected to need new ways to interact with a reality that won’t sit still.

This shows our admirable capability to (gingerly?) adapt to a radically new environment, and to shape ourselves to the new demands of the societies we live in. Let’s just not confuse this with our hope that one day, mankind will democratically and collectively seize and assume control of the power structures that oppress it.

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