Friday, August 25, 2006

Blog Furor

We've heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true. ~Robert Wilensky

Robert Scoble is nothing if not a prolific blogger. His claim to fame came as a Microsoft “evangelist”, a term MS came up with to describe people who tout their current wares and (more importantly) their coming wares as the be-all and end-all of modern computing. He became well-known around the 'Net universe for his blog, “The Scobilizer”, which he appeared to update more or less continuously during his waking hours. Somewhere along the line, Mr. Scoble became disenchanted or just found greener grass (and money) elsewhere. Either way, he now “scobilezes” on his own as head of his own concern.

In the olden days, before blogs, during the ascendancy of the Usenet, Mr. Scoble would have been one of those technically knowledgeable gadflies who would create postings that would alternately inform and infuriate. The latter posts would come to outweigh the former in the minds of readers, leading to inevitable flamewars stemming from innocently offered questions. The original poster would ultimately wonder what happened and where he/she might actually find some real information.

One advantage about blogs is that they allow this sort of thing to be localized.

Mr. Scoble didn't exactly leave Microsoft gently. While there's no indication that anyone was trying to get rid of him, he offered a parting shot at Steve Ballmer that wasn't the sort of thing to get you welcomed back into the fold if the new gig didn't work out. I presume (and this is just my supposition) that Mr. Scoble's tendency to veer off the MS party line made him anathema to some highly-placed folks in Redmond, perhaps including Mr. Ballmer. Again, that doesn't mean anyone forced Mr. Scoble, kicking and screaming, out the door, but it might have made the environment less than personally gratifying.

All this verbiage is preface to a new debate Mr. Scoble has sparked. He seems to take issue with some Microsoft trumpeting concerning Live Spaces (TM, Copyright, etc., etc.), Microsoft's entry into the “social networking” or whatever the My Spaces (also TM, etc., etc.) genre of personal-web-space plus blog plus lonely-hearts plus sexual-predator-hangout plus law-enforcement-stings-to-catch-sexual-predators web sites that are all the rage at the moment.

I've forgotten what I was going to say.

Oh, right, I remember now. Microsoft is claiming that they are already have the most blogs of anyone (if I read Mr. Scoble's site correctly). Mr. Scoble is taking exception to that statement. To find the discussion, just go to the the link above. The items relating to Live Spaces are sort of mingled in and around other topics, but you'll be able to find them if you're interested.

(Some people had live links to the discussion, but none of them seemed to work.)

Mr. Scoble has basically gone tiptoeing through the blogosphere and has found, unsurprisingly, that many blogs are blank or have one or two posts. So, I guess he reasons, what passes for a lot of blogs is actually a lot of empty space. Why this makes Live Spaces any different from any other large grouping of blogs is unclear to me. There is also a lively debate over whether private blogs count as blogs at all.

Let's take a step back here. “Blogs” is supposed to be short for “web logs”, which began as nothing more than online journals or diaries. Many had access limited while others were public but not exactly intended to be considered as great news sources or as nuggets of literary gold. Before the news media decided that blogs were some kind of threat and before every columnist (online or print) was ordered to create his or her own blog, most bloggers were just doing some free-associating, sort of like Ulysses with even less of a plot.

Ultimately, the half-life of the average blog is somewhere around that of one of those sub-atomic particles that flashes into existence in a particle accelerator then disappears. The blogs don't exactly disappear, but the people responsible for them appear to, since the updates quickly stop, leaving the blog just sort of lying there. Keep in mind that there are millions of these things coming and going all the time, so just floating through a site's blog space is going to turn up live ones, dead ones, and some that sort of come and go.

So what's the big deal? Well, Mr. Scoble notes, the issue is all about advertising. If you claim to have more blogs than anyone else, you have more bloggers. Which means that more people are entering through your portal. Which means more people to view ads. Which means you can charge more for said ads. This, according to Mr. Scoble, is the Web 2.0 model.

Welcome to the world, sir. Advertising has been the model on the Internet long before anyone started blithering about Web 2.0 (whatever the devil that actually is). If it weren't, we wouldn't have all that ad-blocking software running around. Advertising has become such a big part of the 'Net that viewing a site with an adblocker running can convince you that the site has no content at all. The absurdity is that, on the Internet, advertising has become almost an end in itself. It doesn't matter if anyone actually buys anything thanks to an ad; all that matters is that they click through. Once they do, they're confronted with even more ads that might take them somewhere else, and so on. And I'm not even going to talk about using bots to generate clicks.

Add to this the fact that “social networks” or whatever the Live Spaces, My Space, and whatever sites are called, have become hotbeds for adware, spyware, trojans, and any other malware you can to name. So even if you don't make a date with Jack the Ripper, you're quite likely to turn your machine into a spambot or bring it to its knees with popups and illegal software monitoring your every Internet move.

My point, and I've certainly taken enough time to get around to it, is that Mr. Scoble's being upset with how many blogs actually exist on Live Spaces is missing the point. First, blogs, for most of us, are an amusement. Second, the “social networks” are a dangerous mess, although they may have started with the best of intentions. Third, if blogs have morphed into regular websites, so what? It's not like personal web sites haven't been around since just after Tim Berniers-Lee first typed “http”.

If people are going to get worked up about something, they should worry about teaching kids to discern what's appropriate and not appropriate to post (like home addresses, for instance). They should be concerned about getting those same kids to understand that not everyone who is posting on these sites is a nice person. They should be concerned that advertising has reduced the “Information Superhighway” to an overgrown path in a rain forest. And Microsoft, no matter how you feel about them, didn't create any of these issues, although they have the power and influence to do something about them.

Speaking of influence, wouldn't it be nice if Mr. Scoble could use some of his (and he does have influence if only because so many people know of him) to address some of these and/or some of the other problems surrounding the Internet? Of course, it's not as much fun as making Steve Ballmer mad, but it would be more worthwhile.

Besides, ticking off Mr. Ballmer is just too damned easy.

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