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Summary:

Blogging has evolved, becoming more than just a source of straight information or opinion, but of rich context. But that’s not enough. Blogs need to evolve further, to become open, more social — to reflect more accurately our dynamic, real-times lives.

istock_000006184805xsmall Dave Winer’s ability to peer into the future is uncanny. He was talking about a river of news long before the current activity streams became popular. He was evangelizing RSS long before there were blogs. I could go on and on about his prescient observations, but it’s his warnings that are especially prophetic.

For as long as I can remember, he’s been warning that users of new social web technologies need to be in control of their own destiny. He sounded the alarm about Feedburner and how it was hijacking an open standard, RSS, and inserting itself between content creators and consumers. And he’s long cited the need for open social communication platforms, often voicing his displeasure with newer services such as Twitter.

People have ignored Winer at their own peril, as two events over the last week have made clear. First was the shutdown drama around a little-known URL-shortening service called Tr.im. While it’s since been resurrected, the incident showed me how by championing these URL-shortening services, we’re essentially putting the entire link economy in the hands of companies that are skating on thin ice during the peak of summer.

Second was FriendFeed becoming a Mark Zuckerberg Production thanks to a $50 million buyout by Facebook. The likelihood of Zuckerberg & Co. shutting down the upstart social aggregation service has brought into the spotlight the misalignment between the needs of online communities and the companies that provide them.

The cynical me believes that it’s foolish for any of us to expect that Web 2.0 companies be in the business of providing services for charity. They are, after all, for-profit entities and when opportunity arises, everyone looks out for themselves. That’s just the way of the world. But somewhere between my cynicism and people’s Utopian desires lies a happy place. It’s called the blog.

Blogging: The Evolution

Late last year, following the Bombay terrorist attacks, I wrote about Twitter’s growing influence as a source of breaking news and how, in order to make sense of it all, we need more context. The best place to provide that context is now in blogs. To be sure, most people view Twitter as a microblogging service, but I’ve always seen it as micromessaging service — and the more I used it, the more I realized what a disjointed conversation it can produce.

As Twitter has become increasingly ingrained in our everyday lives, its value as as source of information tidbits has become clear. Think of it like that plate of chips and salsa you get before the entree arrives: tasty — spicy, even — but not entirely satisfying. Meanwhile, blogging has become the main course — the source of context. And the evolution into that role has injected new life into the blogosphere.

Earlier this week, while at dinner with Matt Mullenweg (Disclosure: Matt, a close friend of mine, started Automattic, whose WordPress platform powers our network. Both Automattic and the GigaOM Network are backed by True Ventures, where I am also a venture partner.), we talked about how many amazing blog posts we’ve read in just the past month alone, such as:

And these are just the ones that I hastily jotted down on the back of the dinner receipt. Now it would be easy for “blogging” to be satisfied with this information-sharing role. But that won’t be enough. Blogs need to evolve even further.

Why? Because the nature of content sharing (call it publishing) and content consumption is changing.

Blogging needs to be social. There are many reasons for this, but the most important one — in my mind — is the changing nature of content. “We will all be streaming life moments as more and more bandwidth is available both at home and on the go,” I wrote two years ago. It’s already happening. Today most of us walk around with newfangled smartphones that are nothing short of multitasking computers, essentially content creation points. And they’re networked, which means creating and sharing content is becoming absurdly simple to do. With the increased number of content creation points –- phones, camera, Flip video cameras, Twitter -– we are publishing more and more content.

Most of this content is disjointed, like random atoms. In the past, I (and others) have referred to this as the atomization of content. These atoms need to be brought together in order to make sense. But while many have argued that self-hosted Facebook- or FriendFeed-styled services could fill this role, I disagree. As I’ve said in the past, “We have two choices in order to consolidate these — either opt for all-purpose services such as Facebook (as tens of millions have done) or use our blogs as the aggregation point or hub for all these various services.”

The Next Step

Millions of Facebook users will have no reason to use any other service for the foreseeable future. And even when they decide to leave, they’ll realize they can’t, for they’ll have stored their photos and videos into the service, which has no visible way of exporting such data. It’s the ultimate lock-in: control consumers’ data and you control everything.

For others — whom I would loosely define as “power users” — today’s blogging software and services are the best option for becoming a repository of our digital creations, because they are more open, more extensible and at the end of the day, give us more control. Chris Messina, a technology evangelist, has been promoting this vision for nearly two and a half years, including starting a project dedicated to it called DiSo.

What Facebook and FriendFeed have shown is that people want to consume and publish content in a more dynamic fashion — more in real time, so to speak.

At the risk of repeating myself, I will quote from a previous post. “As a society, we are entering an increasingly narcissistic phase, enabled by web technologies…The evolution of blogging platforms needs to match these societal and demographic changes.” What I meant was that blogging platforms need to evolve from the hierarchical content-management systems of today to more fluid, free-flowing, more socially relevant and real-time lifestreaming systems.

Two services — Posterous and Tumblr — are taking a shot at this. WordPress, with its P2 theme, has showed that it’s thinking along these lines as well; we tried it out with the GigaOM Daily plugin. But these are not enough. There needs to be more real-time collaboration built into these systems. They need to become socially relevant. They need to take into account that today, consumption and creation happen not just on traditional computing systems like a laptop, but also on highly mobile devices. Imagine the volume of information we’re going to create and consume when we have broadband speeds on our on-the-go devices.

The next generation of blogging systems needs to account for the fact that information — and most importantly, conversations — flow via email, Twitter, instant messages and other formats. In order to do that, the innards of blogging systems need to be rethought. Perhaps the older, relational database models will need to be replaced by more nimble data stores. We may see XMPP become the layer that facilitates collaboration and real-time communications. But these are complex topics for my more esteemed colleagues to tackle, the ones who are builders and creators. I am merely a thinker, who is firm in his belief that this real-time social collaboration is a powerful force, and blogging, if it wants to move further forward, needs to embrace it.

  1. Totally agreed. Can’t wait to see this happen. For the meantime we’re stuck with a weird system that isn’t all that great. By the way, I saw this article on Twitter first.

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    1. Robert,

      I think we have a habit of assuming that one form of media/communication will win over the other. But reality is that the media adapts and learns to co-exist. I think Twitter is a great platform that makes Blog creation and discovery better.

      I am hoping to see your next post about this soon :-)

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      1. This is the key Om. I think because we have had Windows since what seems to be the dawn of time, now, we all think that one prevailing method will “win out”, and such is not the case. We will see degrees of popularity, but so many other technologies adapt, that the technology is like all business, abundant and diverse.

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  2. Great post, Om, and thanks for the high praise. I think in short, blogs are going to do what they always do: Decentralize giant networks that have become unresponsive to the needs of their users and audiences. Today’s mainstream social networks look a lot like yesterday’s mainstream media — they might well face the same pressure from blogs that their predecessors did.

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    1. Great post, Om and Anil, yours was great too hoping that Six Apart is working to bring us this vision.

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  3. the blogs are a dynamic social graph/relationships with constantly new context vs. the static ‘click to friend’ alternatives which assume a past context….

    if clueful sorts figure out a way to evolve and capture these kinetics, and become a context-ful repository of it, they will become as pervasive/permanent as any other format of social interaction online, real-time.

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    1. rohit

      totally agreed. I think this is what you and i have talked in the past about and now i think the time is right.

      i am pretty sure one of the smart ones will figure out an answer to this and we will all benefit.

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  4. Great ariticle. I’ve also been concerned about the same data being sent all over the web without it being normalized. What we need is what you call a data store, and what I call a relational database, where we can store once and read many times. There are too many islands of information where our data now lives. In my simplist example, if I create a video and send it out to 10 sites to distribute it widely, what happens when I need to change it?

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  5. [...] messaging. Before committing money to these activities, I’d strongly recommend anyone to read Om Malik’s thoughtful piece about the evolution of blogging. His sweep across the social computing landscape is instructive for those looking at where to put [...]

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  6. Om, I completely agree and have been pondering this same issue for some time. Blog software paved the way for personal publishing, and social networks have accelerated our virtual and IRL connections and conversation. Twitter’s popularity stems from its immediacy and inherent ease of use: go to one place and see what’s happening. So easy that it’s taken over our RSS reading habits. The problem with the ecosystem is that it’s a competition between startup companies/services. As you point out, our conversations and our content are locked-in depending on the service we use. Even aggregating this output on our own blogs isn’t enough. What I want (and have done some sketches for) is a self-installable system where I create my content (text, photos, videos, links, etc) and selectively push that content to the greater ecosystem as digital copies. I maintain and create the “write” privileges to my content, allowing social networks to “read” the digital copy. It’s certainly an evolution of blogging, but I like to think of it as a personal user platform. Create once, own the content, distribute widely, receive real-time incoming conversations and connections in my dashboard.

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    1. Emily

      What a pleasant surprise to see you back here. Yes, it is almost like back to the future again. I remember talking about this with you three years ago when we were doing GigOM first edition. I think little distractions are what happened.

      I think we have talked about this but now it is time to make this happen. perhaps you will share your sketches and help trigger the movement. I think what this needs is the involvement of smart doers like yourself. I can only hope that this will happen.

      Also can you elaborate on the write/read aspect. I think it is worth exploring.

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    2. Maybe the consumer is ready for an open format to store personal data and new services to provide storage, management and access to it. The consumer would first choose a place to store their data and then a network/site/etc to connect a portion of that to, thus retaining their “stuff” while being portable.

      In this context, the control shifts to an individual essentially managing an api to their stuff.

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      1. A Personal API…. a great idea imho. Perhaps Google Wave would be a good place to try it out where I “set” what others can or cannot see/sync. Same goes for two way interaction with socialblogs, tweets, friendfeeds, etc etc…

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      2. I have been reading The New York Times, The Nation, Time and Newsweek, since they were first made available OnLine. In fact back-in-the-day, the NYTimes.com would only make [today's] issue available OnLine. If one needed even yesterdays cyberIssue, they would have to pay for it. We were also required to pay for the “Opinions” page — obviously because the ThePaper understood our ‘addiction’ to them. I am not in the least bit opposed to well-researched/well-written, responsible-for-every-word type newsprint (in paper form); but I do more so enjoy pulling up the page, article, or even AD I desire at the moment–OnLine; then clicking-off when I am finished with: The’Paper’. I will only purchase physical ‘Paper(s)’ when something [collection]-ready, (like the day President Obama is sworn-in for example,) is published.

        ps: You’ll notice I’m sure that most Charge/Debit Cards, (including AmEx) are recently asking/demanding that we click-to-receive our Monthly Statements–OnLine. This OnLine (flip) has become the wave of the future, not so unlike a number of other contemporary SocioPhysical “happenings”!

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      3. Great article by Om, and a very interesting conversation.

        While there is a lot of emphasis on real-time content creation and sharing, also on binding the various atoms of content, there has not been sufficient attention paid to content ownership and portability. Indeed facebook represents the ultimate lock-in. Not that lock-ins are necessarily bad, but portability is almost always necessarily good. A “personal API” (as you call it) is indeed what is needed, a mechanism (service) that separates content ownership from presentation.

        Are “content vaults” – web services that offer (web-scaled) structured content hosting services – to popular presentation engines (think of the brand equity of facebook ) – a new business opportunity that can drive the world of blogging to the next level?

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  7. [...] our rants, and leave comments (even the shitty ones!)  We really appreciate it. We know there are countless other blogs out there to occupy your time and we’re honored that you’d give ours even a few minutes of your [...]

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  8. Interesting post Om. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the issue of blogging and how it’s lagging in relevance to the increasing importance and integration of “lifestreaming”. To me, I’m still not buying it. I don’t think blogging and lifestreaming are supplementary but rather complementary. I think there’s space and importance in both.

    Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie in services that cover all angles within itself, but rather in services that enable you to simultaneously cover all angles from an external “control panel”. Ping.fm is a very simple version of the kind of concept that I am thinking about. Postling.com is taking it one step further, with a focus for business. Ever past that, I think that traditional blogging is still very relevant, but are no longer the only efficient method to provide content.

    Lifestreaming is important, and perhaps blogs need to be slightly altered to better accommodate for these new trends, but to completely replace services like wordpress with services like tumblr and posterous, would do a disservice to our communities and communications.

    @DavidSpinks

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  9. Making blogging more nimble as a platform is all well and good but I think the takeaway here is that blogging will continue to become less like a lecture hall and more like a cocktail party. The structure of the traditional blog post, including this one, isn’t designed to be free-flowing, it’s designed to worship the blogger. The responses are at the bottom, not the top and all of them can be ignored. Twitter is the opposite. This isn’t to say that one style is better than the other, both are important, but I think you can guess, when given a choice between a lecture and a cocktail party, where you will spend most of your time.

    Twitter also has many problems, I go into it here:
    http://codybrown.name/2009/08/06/myspace-is-to-facebook-as-twitter-is-to-______/

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    1. Whoops. I read the middle of your piece *after* I posted this comment. “Blogs need to be more Social” We are on the same page. (a good way to start would be to install Disqus so I could have edited the above comment)

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