Blogs For Business
The “killer app” for the Internet has always been human-to-human communication. Although the Internet’s original designers thought they were creating an infrastructure that would be shared by expensive computers, email quickly became the dominant use.
We humans want to connect, converse and find new friends, and new technologies to help us meet that need. Over the past few years, Instant Messaging (IM) and Short Message Service (SMS) have joined email and mobile phones, and now a new tool, weblogging, is reaching critical mass in terms of adoption.
A Blog Is Born
Weblogs, now usually called blogs, are a form of lightweight publishing. They’re simple, primarily text-oriented and use the Web’s hyperlinking capabilities. When they first appeared in 1999, they were personal journals on the Web—they’d offer links to other websites, discussion group posts or other blogs, and provide a brief summary or commentary. One of the earliest and still among the most widely read is Dave Winer’s Scripting News, which many consider to be the heart of the blogging world.
The first bloggers were HTML experts who constructed their own postings and links. But quickly, publishing environments were created that made it possible for anyone with Web access to start a blog. Some of the major platforms are Blogger, Movable Type, LiveJournal, Traction, Manila and Radio. The first three of these are available to individuals as free software; the others are sold under traditional software licenses. Manila and Traction are aimed at business use, while the others are more oriented toward personal weblogging.
Weblogs are simple, easy to install and use, and emphasize maximum flexibility rather than maximum control. Think of them as groupware, but the antithesis of products like Lotus Notes. They are inherently Web-based, and thus can span enterprise boundaries, but you can also keep the conversations internal to your company by hosting blogs on your intranet. Many weblog platforms allow a team approach—a small group of people maintain a common blog. A great example can be found at Pursuing Perfection, where four people in Washington state are trying to redesign the healthcare-delivery system in their community.
In general, blogs are meant to be short, frequently updated posts, not lengthy analyses or essays. Usually, the more pithy and personal the author’s style, the more popular she/he becomes.
Most blogs have a time-ordered journal in the middle of the screen and a list of URLs down the left-hand side (usually called the “blogroll”). Some are just pointers to the other bloggers, and they might be organized by person or topic. Usually the right-hand side of the screen provides access to historical posts.
Some platforms have added extensions, enabling bloggers to more easily interact with each other, either by posting comments or constructing two-way hyperlinks; entries soon begin to take on the characteristics of a real conversation. Trackback, part of the Movable Type platform, allows a blogger to know that his/her post is being referenced in near-real time. Services such as LiveJournal help a community of users find each other and interact.
The growing interactive nature of blogging moves it from a broadcast publishing mode to something closer to a conversation or a community-building and coordinating tool. However, many different styles and uses have emerged.
For business purposes, the most important is the subject-oriented blog; Glenn Fleishman’s blog about 802.11b WLAN technology (80211b.weblogger.com) was a good example. Another style might be characterized as a continuous op-ed page on the Web, where experts in politics, social science and economics reference and comment on current news stories or journal articles, the most consistently popular of which is Instapundit, written by Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor. Even the humorist Dave Barry has a blog (davebarry.blogspot.com).
Blogs are also finding serious use in journalism, and perhaps the strongest proponent is Dan Gilmor of The San Jose Mercury News. Dan maintains his own blog (weblog.siliconvalley.com), and he believes that it serves, in effect, as a near-real-time, vast, fact-checking engine that can dramatically improve the quality of journalism and speed with which breaking stories can be researched and pursued.
As more people started writing weblogs, an obvious problem arose-choosing which ones to read. In response, “weblog aggregator services” emerged, which compile and rank lists of weblogs in much the same way that Google identifies how often a given site is referenced by other sites.
One such aggregator is Daypop, which, in addition to listing the most-referenced weblogs, also identifies which words are being most frequently used within the blogger community; it’s a quick way to find what the hot topics are. Dave Winer’s weblogs.com provides a list of weblogs that have changed in the past three hours, allowing you to quickly scan for current information. An-other site, www.technorati.com, is sort of a search engine for blogs.
Speaking of Google, it recently purchased one of the original blogging software companies, Pyra, the creators of the Blogger platform and the Blogspot hosting service. This makes sense, since weblogs are the most dynamic and inter-linked sites on the ’Net, just the stuff Google likes. It is also evidence both that blogging is entering the mainstream, and the effectiveness of this loosely-connected network of blogs and blog aggregators at capturing and disseminating timely information—i.e., locating the buzz.
Blogs Creep Into Business
How will these tools get used in the average business? One obvious application is communication and collaboration for a distributed team. Blogs can keep a running, time-ordered record of discussions concerning requirements, design trade-offs and decisions. New team members can review the blog for a quick context ramp-up, and the asynchronous nature of a blog makes it ideal for a team spread across different locations and time zones. Blogging platforms support the ability to reference documents as well as other websites.
With more people bringing wireless laptops, tablets and PDAs into meetings, meeting notes and action items can be immediately posted and shared, and people outside a meeting can comment on what’s going on. Although this can obviously be distracting, it also can lead to more productive meetings, lessening the need for everyone who might have something to contribute on a subject from having to attend.
Blogs also can become a powerful tool for reaching out to a customer community. Think of blogs as a webified version of bulletin boards and moderated chat—although they are really more than that. They can be particularly useful for keeping in touch with the experiences of, for example, early adopters of a new product or services.
Blogs also are a lightweight, highly flexible approach to knowledge management. An expert on a subject can maintain a topic-specific blog that allows others to tap into his/her evolving thoughts and discoveries. This use of weblogs even has its own name, K-logs, and toolmakers are creating platforms that are optimized for references to documents, emails and other resources. Traction Software has created a weblogging toolset specifically to assist in the gathering and dissemination of competitive intelligence information within a business.
All this gives me a sense of déjà vu—it feels a lot like 1993, when browsers came into the market. Nobody knew how much innovation and sophistication it would enable, but it was almost immediately clear that this was something flexible enough and accessible enough to become really big. And Blogger already has more than 200,000 active users. Like the original Web, blogs are a grassroots phenomenon, with many of the most popular software tools being free, developed through an open source process.
What is driving the blogging phenomenon? Some have suggested that it demonstrates how social status is now determined less by your possessions rather than by the hot, interesting information you are in touch with. You can increase the value of your network of friends and colleagues by giving them tools to quickly exchange information anytime anywhere. Who you know is what you know.