Category Archives: web

The Collision of the Personal and the Professional

BLOGS VS MAINSTREAM MEDIA…FIGHT!!

Eight years ago, when I was a pretentious, know-it-all 19-year-old, the conversation about new media was dominated by the rhetoric of bloggers and journalists, citizen and mainstream media. I had seen the blogosphere call out Dan Rather for running with forged documents as evidence. I learned of the role they played in making sure Trent Lott’s statements saw the light of day.

As far as I was concerned, newspapers and news outlets in general were old hat on their way to extinction, and blogs were the future.

What did I think this meant?

It meant that newspapers would unbundle. It meant that articles on the Iraq War or science features written by journalists with little background in the subject matter would be replaced by people living in Iraq, and actual scientists, who would have blogs. This wasn’t all in my head–such blogs existed and have only grown more numerous.

My thoughts on whether anyone would make money on this new way of things, and how, went back and forth. But I thought the future looked more like Instapundit and Sandmonkey than like The New York Times and The Washington Post.

As I have witnessed the evolution of the web over the years, aged to a point beyond a number ending in -teen, and followed the conversation and research on new media, my point of view has changed–to say the least.

It’s not simply that it was wrong, but that it was far too narrow. It has not only become clear that professional media, in some form, is here to stay. It has also become clear that the old blog vs mainstream media perspective misses the big picture.

What has happened is that many activities that we conducted in our personal lives have moved online; they have become digital and they have become some approximation of public. This has big implications for other people’s professions–one tiny corner of which is the impact that personal blogs have had on professional media. But it also has an impact on our own professional lives.

In short, the personal and the professional are colliding on a number of fronts. How this collision will play out is an open question.

THE PERSONAL BECOMES PUBLIC

The vast majority of my conversations with nearly all of my friends and family occur in a digital format. It happens on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. It happens in email, in text messages, and in Google Talk chat windows. A very large proportion of this is public or semi-public.

I also enjoy writing about subjects that I’m thinking about. For that reason, I’ve maintained a blog in one form or another since 2004. I have never made one red cent off of my blogging. It has always been something I’ve done out of enjoyment of the writing itself.

Before the Internet, my writing would undoubtedly have been relegated to the handful of friends I could strong-arm into looking at some copies I made for them. I certainly wouldn’t be able to ask this of them on a very regular basis, so most of my writing would have remain unread–or, discouraged, I would have written a lot less.

The thing I enjoyed about blogging from the beginning was that it provided me with a place to put my writing where people could find it, without me having to make the imposition of bringing it to them. However, translating this private analogue activity into a public and digital one has implications beyond this simple convenience.

For one thing, it makes it possible for me to connect with new people who share my interests from anywhere in the world. It can also have implications for my professional life. If I write something insulting about my coworkers, or, say, something extremely racist, odds are it could get me fired and possibly have an impact on my long-term employability.

Conversely, just as I can discover and be discovered by new friends, I can also discover and be discovered by people who might provide me with a career opportunity–and indeed this happened to me earlier this year.

When enough enthusiasts move online in this manner, it begins to have consequences for the world of professional writing in general. One lone guy blogging about a few esoteric subjects isn’t going to have much of an impact. Over 180 million people writing about everything under the sun will have some serious implications. If we take Sturgeon’s Law at face value and say that you can throw 90 percent of that in the garbage, we’re still talking about tens of million of people writing pieces of average to excellent quality.

This is a dramatic expansion in the supply of written works. This has understandably made professional producers of written words sweat more than a little. One way of looking at this is from the old blog vs mainstream media perspective. A better way to look at it is from the understanding that any professional content outlet is going to have to adapt to the new reality of personal production if they want to survive.

That process of adaptation has been messy and is still ongoing.

THE PROFESSIONAL BEGINS TO ADAPT

What my 19-year-old self did not realize is that the media business has never really sold information. It has sold stories, it has sold something for groups to rally around and identify themselves with or against. There is still money to be made by selling this product. Clay Johnson has documented some methods that he finds vile, but there are plenty of perfectly respectable ways to do it as well.

Take The Verge–a technology site that launched last year. It does not suffer from the baggage of a legacy business–it was born online and lives online. It was created by a group writers from Engadget, another professional outlet that was born on the web, who thought they could do better on their own. I have argued that their initial success was made possible in part by the fact that the individual writers had built up a community around them, through their podcast and through their personal Twitter accounts.

The Verge invests a lot in building its community. The content management tools it offers in its forums are, they claim, just as powerful as the tools they themselves use to write posts. They frequently highlight forum posts on their main page. Their writers engage with their readers there and on various social media.

Another way that the professional world has adapted is by treating the group of unpaid individuals producing in their space as a sort of gigantic farm system for talent and fame. This system is filled with simple enthusiasts, but also includes a lot of people consciously trying to make the leap to a career in what they’re currently doing for free. Either way, a tiny fraction of this group will become popular to varying extents. Rather than competing with this subset, many existing professional operations will simply snap these individuals up.

Take Nate Silver, the subject of much attention this election cycle. He started writing about politics in a Daily Kos diary, then launched his own blog on his own domain. Eventually, this was snapped up by The New York Times. The article on this is telling:

In a three-year licensing arrangement, the FiveThirtyEight blog will be folded into NYTimes.com. Mr. Silver, regularly called a statistical wizard for his political projections based on dissections of polling data, will retain all rights to the blog and will continue to run it himself.

In recent years, The Times and other newspapers have tapped into the original, sometimes opinionated voices on the Web by hiring bloggers and in some cases licensing their content. In a similar arrangement, The Times folded the blog Freakonomics into the opinion section of the site in 2007.

Forbes did this with Modeled Behavior; Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish has done this with The Atlantic and now The Daily Beast. In publishing, Crown did this with Scott Sigler, and St. Martin’s Press did this with Amanda Hocking.

Suffice to say, these markets continue to be greatly disrupted. However, I do not think the adapted, matured versions of these markets will involve the utter extinction of professional institutions.

YOU GOT YOUR PROFESSIONAL IN MY PERSONAL

I consider my Twitter account to be extremely personal. No one is paying me to be there. With a handful of exceptions, I don’t have any professional relationships with the people I follow or am followed by there.

But there are definitely people who I feel have followed me because of some notion that it might help their career. Not because I’m some special guy who’s in the know, but because they think, say, that following everyone who seems to talk a lot about social media will somehow vaguely translate into success in a career in that industry. A lot of people who consider Twitter a place for human beings to talk to one another as private individuals have a low opinion of such people.

But I cannot deny that I have, on occasion, used Twitter to my professional advantage. And it’s not as though there’s a line in the sand for any of these services stating FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY. It’s difficult for journalists of any kind to treat anything they say in public as something that can be separated from their profession. I have seen some create distinct, explicitly labeled personal Twitter accounts, with protected tweets. Of course, Jeff Jarvis would point out that they are merely creating another kind of public by doing so.

Moreover, more and more services we use in our personal lives are having implications for our employers. How many of us have had an employer ask us to “like” the company page on Facebook? Or share a link to a company press release? These services are far too new for us to have expectations set about them. Is this overstepping the boundaries of what is acceptable, or is this a legitimate professional responsibility we have to our employers?

In a world where a personal project or an answer on Stack Overflow can be added to your resume when applying for a job, the line between personal and professional is not quite as sharp as it used to be.

Take Marginal Revolution as an example. Is it a personal or a professional blog? Certainly Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok are not paid to write what they post. But they are using the blog as a venue for participating in the larger conversation of the economics profession. Of course, they also post on any number of specific subjects that catch their interest. It is both a platform to promote their books, as well as to solicit advice from their readers on what restaurants to check out when they are traveling.

Are categories like “personal” or “professional” even useful for describing things like Marginal Revolution? Is it an exceptional case, or–its particular level of popularity set aside–is it the new normal?

How Has the Web Evolved?

Here’s a pocket history of the web, according to many people. In the early days, the web was just pages of information linked to each other. Then along came web crawlers that helped you find what you wanted among all that information. Some time around 2003 or maybe 2004, the social web really kicked into gear, and thereafter the web’s users began to connect with each other more and more often. Hence Web 2.0, Wikipedia, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, etc. I’m not strawmanning here. This is the dominant history of the web as seen, for example, in this Wikipedia entry on the ‘Social Web.’

But it’s never felt quite right to me.

-Alexis Madrigal, Dark Social: We Have the Whole History of the Web Wrong

Madrigal’s summation is definitely not a strawman. Take the following passage from Paul Adams’ book, Grouped:

The second shift is a major change in the structure of the web. It’s moving away from being built around content, and is being rebuilt around people. This is correlated with a major change in how people spend their time on the web. They’re spending less time interacting with content, and more time communicating with other people.

Is this the case? Was the pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter web really just a bunch of “documents linked together”, as Adams claims elsewhere in the book?

Madrigal doesn’t think so, and neither do I.

The Web Was Always Social

I spent most of the 90s as a teenager in rural Washington and my web was highly, highly social. We had instant messenger and chat rooms and ICQ and USENET forums and email. My whole Internet life involved sharing links with local and Internet friends. How was I supposed to believe that somehow Friendster and Facebook created a social web out of what was previously a lonely journey in cyberspace when I knew that this has not been my experience? True, my web social life used tools that ran parallel to, not on, the web, but it existed nonetheless.

Madrigal’s experience parallels my own. It might be more appropriate to speak of a social net rather than a social web, since the social technology of my youth included AIM and ICQ and IRC. The web itself was definitely social, however–in Middle School, I spent a lot of time on fan sites for the video games and TV shows that I was into, and those sites had forums and Java chatrooms. The sites became the common space the site community used, and individual connections could then be followed up through email and ICQ and other chat services with personal accounts.

eGroups–an email list service that was eventually swallowed up by Yahoo!–was another source of social activity for me; it became a sort of forum in my inbox.

Later, I got deeply into EZGroups, a service for quickly making your own forum with a decent discovery mechanism for finding other people’s. Then there was also LiveJournal; which came closest to the modern idea of how social graphs work.

In short, there were a ton of services for connecting with other individuals and groups, and interacting with people on those services was what I did with the vast majority of my time online in those days. And I don’t think Madrigal or my experiences are unusual in this regard.

The Web Was Always Viral

Before “going viral” was the phrase we used to describe when a piece of content suddenly went from a few dozen views to a few thousand, or tens or hundreds of thousands, or millions of views, the phenomena existed. One example that stands out in my mind from when I was in High School (over ten years ago) is “Irrational Exuberance (Yatta)“.

Yatta was part of a class of videos and animations that everyone suddenly knew about. Hanging out at a friend’s house, one-on-one or in groups, eventually ended up having a set amount of time where we all gathered around a computer screen and watched the videos we’d all found that everyone just had to be sure to see too.

This was before YouTube of course. The sources were big flash portals like Newgrounds and Albino Blacksheep. Sometimes they were just some random, small website. But there was never any shortage of stuff to sell on our pre-Facebook social networks, or in our old fashioned in person ones for that matter!

We Have Increased What We Can Measure

One thing that Madrigal and Adams agree on is that modern social networks have vastly increased our ability to measure what people are doing online. Here’s Madrigal:

Second, the social sites that arrived in the 2000s did not create the social web, but they did structure it. This is really, really significant. In large part, they made sharing on the Internet an act of publishing (!), with all the attendant changes that come with that switch. Publishing social interactions makes them more visible, searchable, and adds a lot of metadata to your simple link or photo post. There are some great things about this, but social networks also give a novel, permanent identity to your online persona. Your taste can be monetized, by you or (much more likely) the service itself.

And Adams, in Grouped:

The third shift is that for the first time, we can accurately map and measure social interaction. Many of our theories can now be quantitatively tested. This is incredibly exciting for researchers, but it will also transform how we think about marketing and advertising. Many things that were previously hard to measure, for example, word of mouth marketing, can now be analyzed and understood. We can now start to measure how people really influence other people, and it will change how we do business.

It is certainly true that Twitter and Facebook have increased the measurability of certain activities. As someone in the digital advertising industry, and someone with a strong interest in the social sciences, this is certainly and exciting shift to me. And certainly, the information being generated will inform the decisions made by these services, as well as make it more possible to sustain such services financially–so in that regard, measurability will have an impact on user experience.

But measurability isn’t really all that directly exciting to me as a user of these services. Can we really encompass the big change that’s happened since the onset of the modern social web under the heading of what we’re able to quantify?

Common Spaces

As you may have guessed, I don’t think the measurability really covers it. And I don’t think Madrigal’s characterization of the transition as one to publishing really does the trick, either–it is just as much “publishing” to write in a publicly viewable forum as it is to post a status on Facebook.

One change that has happened rather rapidly is the emergence of gigantic, global common spaces. It may be that many of the basic activities people do on Twitter and Facebook–sharing links, having conversations one on one or in groups, sharing pictures–are not new, but what is new is that it is being done in a space shared by a ridiculously large percentage of the connected world.

Twitter activity is public by default, and anything you say on it can pass into a gigantic number of people’s timelines in an instant if it is carried far enough on a wave of retweets. Conversely, your circle of 15 friends you follow on Twitter who all live near you in DC may seem as insular as any old fashioned forum or email list, but the fact of the matter is that tweets from people anywhere in the world can enter your timeline at any point when any of those 15 friends retweet them.

Facebook is ostensibly more private than Twitter, but in practice content can travel just as far and wide–farther and wider, in fact, as its service reaches a billion users, almost half of the connected world.

We are only beginning to understand what it is like to live with these enormous online common spaces. Serendipity, which some people seemed to think was going to be killed by algorithms and automation, is a larger force than ever. This includes the case where you’re having a conversation with one person on Twitter and someone who follows you both jumps in because they find it interesting, or entertaining. It also includes the case where you are discovered and end up with a job.

Somewhat more controversially, it may even include the case where one man’s Facebook group leads to the overthrow of a 30 year old regime.

Always Connected

I would be derelict if I didn’t mention the obvious impact that mobile devices are having on the evolution of the web. From a pure input perspective, we can now record anything from anywhere and share it immediately. It is even possible to stream live video from a mobile device–so that anything can be covered in near real-time.

From a usage perspective, it’s like being able to carry around your friends in your pocket, all the time. When I was coming up to New York every other week for work, it was a comfort to be able to have conversations with my friends and see what they were saying on Twitter and Facebook. Especially on those nights when I didn’t have anyone to meet up with for dinner, and had to strike out on my own.

Much has been said about how mobile is revolutionizing our lives, and I don’t have too much to add to that here. But we can’t talk about the web without thinking about how its evolution is tied inextricably to the increasing mobility of our connected devices.

The Maturing Ecosystem

One big thing that has happened since I started using the web is that the ecosystem of social, content, and commercial services has matured significantly. What was there before our big common spaces have adapted to the existence of those spaces. As an example, I can’t help but see Instapundit as a blog that is frozen in a very particular time in the web’s evolution–today, if the vast majority of your updates are a few words and a link, it makes much more sense to publish them on Twitter than to have a full-fledged blog.

Of course, Instapundit became popular long before Twitter existed, and has no reason to change since his audience has stuck with him. But I have to think that if Glenn Reynolds had started it 10 years later, it would have been on Twitter.

Meanwhile, more mainstream publications have migrated completely online, and more publications that were born on the web have become mainstream. The conversation about whether amateur bloggers are going to replace professional publications has basically died out, as an ecosystem which includes both has become quite robust. Twitter and Facebook act a glue that brings content and people together on a scale unprecedented in the web’s history.

In tech circles we love to talk about what is dead, and what new thing is replacing something that has already grown old in the short timescale of modern technology. But the fact of the matter is that blogs did not kill professional content, and Twitter did not kill blogs. As our connected services evolve, specific companies may fall but it’s unlikely that any particular category of thing is going to truly die. What changes is their role, as the ecosystem absorbs the new tools, new conventions emerge for the old tools, and people simply get a better idea of just what any of this is good for.

The Web Has Evolved

The web, and the Internet more broadly, have undeniably changed in my lifetime. The story of that change, however, is often far more subtle than simply “it has become social” or “viral” or even “mobile”. People are still talking to one another and sharing things online; that has not changed. What has changed is how we’re going about it.

Homesteading the Open Web

Look at four other social things you can do on the Net (along with the standards and protocols that support them): email (SMTP, POP3, IMAP, MIME); blogging (HTTP, XML, RSS, Atom); podcasting (RSS); and instant messaging (IRC, XMPP, SIP/SIMPLE). Unlike private social media platforms, these are NEA: Nobody owns them, Everybody can use them and Anybody can improve them.

-Doc Searls, Beyond Social Media

Unlike Searls, Zittrain, and many others, I am not greatly bothered by the fact that a huge amount of our social interactions are taking place on privately owned platforms like Facebook or Twitter, and an increasing amount of stuff we used to use the web for is being done on privately owned platforms like iOS. From an economic point of view, I think it’s good for someone to have a vested interest in investing in these platforms.

It cannot be denied, however, that a user of Twitter is much more a tenant than a landlord; they can be kicked off without any reason whatsoever, if the company desires it. Moreover, the consolidation of such a large and distributed platform under one company gives it many of the characteristics of a technology of control. This is obscured by the fact that it has already been the tool of resistance in several countries; and certainly it isn’t straightforwardly one or the other. But Twitter is a single company that hundreds of millions of people are using as a communications platform; it therefore is one big target for regulators and tyrants the world over.

Consider: they recently announced that they created a way to censor tweets in specific countries without removing them globally. They knew that in order to enter certain markets, they would be forced to comply with some less than thrilling local regulations on freedom of expression. As a company, the decision was either to stay out of those markets or comply with the regulations. So they came up with an approach that wouldn’t allow local censorship to extend its reach globally, and they announced it before anyone asked them to use it in an attempt to preempt the bad PR this would inevitably bring.

That will never happen on a blog like mine.

I pay for server space and a domain name, and I use WordPress’s software. If the hosting company tried to mess with me, it is trivial to move to another one. If WordPress makes changes I dislike, or somehow builds tools for censorship into its code, I can swap it for Moveable Type or any number of alternatives. I regularly backup my data, so if someone seized the servers it was on I would not lose it.

In short, I have carved out a small piece of real estate in the open web.

Now, the advantages to platforms like Twitter are undeniable. No one is going to Twitter in order to see what the latest thing I have to say or share is; they go there because everyone they might be interested in hearing from is there. Most of the time this blog sees very little traffic, while I have conversations on Twitter and Facebook basically every day of the week.

Again, unlike Searl, I do not see the rise of these walled garden platforms as onerous. But I do think everyone should consider homesteading the open web; setting up something that is truly theirs that they can invest in over time.

That is part of the reason why, after seven years on Blogger, I decided to jump ship and start this site.

If you’re interested in this but aren’t sure how to proceed, my friend Lauren is offering to help people for free, if you sign up for a Bluehost account through her site. Many hosts have easy, one-click options for installing WordPress after you’ve paid for space, so you probably won’t even have to worry about the technical aspects of installation.

Just as there are benefits to having privately owned platforms, there are definite benefits to having something that you own from end to end.