Danah Boyd is an information management PhD student at the University of California, where she researches how people negotiate their presentation of self in online communities and other social contexts. Anil Dash works as VP of business development for Six Apart, the company behind Moveable Type. And Justin Hall serves as a fellow at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.
Considering the success of blogging to date, the SXSW Interactive panel debated some of the potential trends and paths the medium could take. While slightly focusing on industry insiders and personal blogging, the conversation might make a useful corollary read to Jena McGregor’s April Fast Company feature on business blogs. What follows is a partial transcript of the panel discussion.
Justin Hall: When I was 19, I was a student in college, I wanted to be a writer, so I started a Web site and started publishing. Originally, that site was a list of links. Then it because an online diary, a personal Web site, and now it’s a blog. I went up to Apple earlier this year and said I was a hard-blogging cyberathlete. They should sponsor me.
Danah Boyd: In 1996, I started updating text on a Web site to share information with my Zen master. There wasnt a name for it then. About a year ago, I started researching Friendster. I started writing about what I was researching. I went from having two or three readers to hundreds of people I didn’t even know. That was a real startle.
Anil Dash: We’re going to touch on a lot of topics. This is a huge are. I’m going to give topics, get some feedback from you, and get questions right in the beginning. We’re also going to ask a lot of questions of you.
The first area is social mores. I know Justin socially, and last week we were talking about business, technology, and social life, and immediately we abandoned something I usually do, saying this is off the blog. Justin has a lower threshold than I do, but I was surprised I was able to be so open.
Boyd: People think that people are publishing for the public at large. But people are publishing for a small group of people they know. One of the tricks that people have to constantly negotiate is who are they writing for? What is the audience? People tell me what they’re afraid of, who they’re afraid of seeing what they’re doing. People are afraid of mom, boss, ex-lovers. People create a set of social mores around who they think they’re talking to. If you’re talking with friends, you don’t say things. Or you resort to seventh grade behavior and say don’t tell anyone I told you this.
Dash: Are you saying I’m a seventh grader?
Hall: I used to say, I can reach the world! But all of these services are going small, small. I was talking to the Trotts, who do Moveable Type and Typepad. More and more people are doing private blogs. We’re going to be reading hundreds of private blogs — and maybe 50 public blogs.
Dash: How many of you have experienced unexpected audience? That’s a pretty common experience. Justin, 10 years ago, who did you think your audience was?
Hall: At first, there were a lot of people at NASA. I started publishing in 1994, and at that time, you could surf the entire Web in two weeks. And you could track the growth of the Web because you hadn’t seen that page before. But the audience was a lot of physicists and scientists. I started installing Web browsers on all of my friends’ computers, so maybe I did it to myself. People would start using the Web, search for themselves, and come across my informal psychological analysis of them and a write up of some exciting experience we’d shared.
Dash: How can we control access to your blog? Who’s working on this?
Audience Member: A lot of people get in trouble for blogging about something they’re angry about. Go to Anonyblog, where you can go, put up whatever you want, and get it out of your system. Anonymous blogging and places to vent is one solution, but it’s not the only solution.
Boyd: Teenagers have learned that if they show their mom their LiveJournal and she thinks she’s seeing the whole thing, there’s a degree of safety. But there are public and private entries. We can create one environment, where the appropriate people can see the appropriate things at the appropriate times.
Sam Ruby: For the last 20 years or so, email has had a forward button. Even if you just send it to your friends, they’re not the only ones who are going to see it. So I got over the idea long ago that I’ll be able to control who sees what I say.
Hall: Using words like work, buddies, and family to determine who’s going to see something is hard work.
Boyd: It goes back to social mores. If someone forwards something that you dont want to be, it’s a personal attack. It’s like saying something in confidence and passing it on. These data bits have persistence in the actual item. When I say something here, unless I’m being recorded, it’s ephemeral. When you have a hard copy, it’s a different trust factor.
Dash: Let’s talk about time. How many of you are writing for people who are going to read it in the next day? How many of you are writing for your children? How does it change things when you think about 20-30 years from now?
Liz Lawley: I have a 7 year old and a 9 year old reading and writing blogs. And there are things that I won’t write about the family and things that are going on because I know that they’re reading it — and that the 9 year old will challenge me. “Why did you say that about me?” We need to be very aware that the people we write about can be seriously affected by what we say.
Dash: There’s all sorts of blogging that doesn’t involve words. Moblogging and other badly named ideas. What are your experiences with mobile publishing?
Hall: I think that Weblogs are native to the Web. And the form of Weblogs is about links. What they call moblogging, which I think is a tremendous thing, it’s halfway right. Mobile Weblogs don’t have links. You don’t type links in your moblog. In the future, what will happen is that four people will go out for dinner, and they take a picture of some crazy crab dish, and the software knows that they were together in the same place eating the same crab. The links will be informal. But what is fun and native to the Web is not suited to the mobile phone.
Boyd: Links aren’t an essential part of blogging. I think it’s storytelling. We spend a lot of time in front of the computer, but most of the world does not. But everyone has a cell phone. That allows people to make a presentation of self in everyday life. Classic Goffman behavior. The link ends up not being another piece of text on the Web but a piece of part of your actual everyday life. The link is more about the person and the place represented than the space in the online world.
Dash: Is there a way for my camera to say this is where I was physically and link to the CitySearch review of the restaurant I’m eating at?
Hall: URL’s are universal research locators. Mobogs ae physical resource locators. And theyre becoming less virtual and more cyborganic.
Boyd: With traditional photographs, people shove them into shoeboxes. Only albums have narrative. Wedding photos? Always in albums. Moblogs allow you to say something like “This is me in a desert.” You might not want to develop a narrative. I might not want everyone to know what bar I frequent.
Hall: For your friends who see a picture of you in the desert, they think Burning Man. If your parents see it, they may think you’re taking advantage of the California landscape.
Dash: Is there an opportunity for a new kind of communication?
Boyd: Genevieve Bell is an anthropologist who looks at how people use mobile phones, particularly in terms of religion. It allowed for people to talk of different generations, with different backgrounds, and in different locations. There’s something about daily lives and stories. We used to get that from literature. But in blogging, you get a new sharing modality.
Dash: This is till the early stages. In Saudi Arabia, there is a bias against having gold accessories for men. There’s only five major handheld manufacturers in the world. What if we made a hold handset that could transmit text and images and distribute them in Saudi Arabia. We would create an instant network of women because of the natural exclusion of men.
Molly Steenson: Make ways to share mobile voices. Add voice to text. And get rid of the Web paradigm. Get rid of the desktop. Most of the world isn’t ever going to have a computer. Use the mobile phone.
Dash: In addition to assuming desktop, we’re assuming reverse chronology. We know there’s going to be frequency and recency. I know you think about the tyranny of the permalink.
Hall: I think recency is important. What’s up with my friends? But a lot of times, the inevitable march of the update buries important stories about meaningful moments and signposts for me. Maybe people outside your Weblog mark that with incoming links or comments, but it seems so nascent for me that there’s only one way of filing and linking. I’ve been talking to a lot of librarians, and I think the time of the librarian is nigh.
When I hear talk about mobile phones, I think what I talk about is more useful for the high archon of Web writing, but for most everyone, maybe it’s mobile phones.
Audience Member: My URL is muniwireless.com. It’s built on Moveable Type, and it looks like a newspaper on municipal wireless projects. If you make it reverse chronology like a diary, people would never find the news. You can’t do it with the standard diary form.
Hall: Do you consider this a Weblog?
Audience Member: Well, it’s built on Moveable Type.
Hall: Well, if it looks like a duck…
Wes Felter: People criticize me for using an old Weblogging tool. But I resist having items and titles. You can see there that there are items, but there’s no fluff around it. I also like to move stuff around throughout the day, but there’s no chronology throughout the day.
Dash: Rebecca Blood has said the same thing. She wants to prioritize content in relation to other content and on vectors other than time.
Adam Weinroth: If you make things much more complex and capable, we’re probably risking making things too esoteric.
Dash: You make a tool. How do you give people guidance to make better content?
Adam: I don’t try to encourage them through the product. I am very sensitive to feedback. But I leave the writing and content up to them. I’ve seen people abuse the simple framework that we offer in some pretty interesting ways.
John Poisson: With questions like, “Is that a blog?” I think we’re having a lot of trouble with terminology. I work for Sony in Japan, and our mobile media-based content system works because we don’t call it a blog. It doesn’t really matter. Blog is a geek term for people who think they have something to say. Most people don’t think that what they have to say is relevant to the rest of the world.
Dash: The death of punditry is critical for this to continue to exist.
Boyd: Do you identify as a blogger? Does it feel like blogging? Unfortunately, the media have started using the umbrella term “blogger.” That’s kind of dangerous, because a lot of people don’t identify with that. That’s particularly true in LiveJournal, where people are vehement that they’re not bloggers.
Dash: We had this discussion five years ago! There’s a sense that you have to put this in regular people terms. Maybe we need to blow that up and get rid of jargon and assumptions.
Hall: The blogging impetus is core to what was the home page, the online journal. I want to share with myself. Then I had an insight. Orkut and Friendster are blogs for people who don’t want blogs. This is what I’m listening to. I’m in a relationship, sorry. It’s an open relationship.
Jason levine: Ultimately though, blogs are a convenience. This is a debate that was played out a century ago with the term “journalist.” Who cares? You just do what you do well.
Dash: There’s such a concern with libertarian notions of privacy, and we don’t care. I just want to send pictures to my friends.