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On Broadcasting

The Two-Way Web is a very simple concept. It’s all about normal everyday people having a publishing platform on the Web. Sounds reasonable to me, but a thread on Many-to-Many this week has complicated the issue. Here’s my summary, based on how I first discovered and then tracked the thread (the process somehow seems important here):

1. In my daily viewing of Scripting News, I came upon Dave Winer’s comment on David Weinberger’s weblog post about a Clay Shirky PopTech presentation. This is the sentence that I believe started the thread:

“Even though blogs are two-way, the broadcast pattern has re-emerged. “The broadcast pattern arises out of the social wiring of large groups of people.” “

The context of this quote is that Shirky believes that A-List bloggers operate in “broadcast” mode, because they cannot interact with their audience. Dave Winer said in response:

“Clay’s still giving the power-law rap. His thesis is that weblogs are just like television all over again. That makes Luddites feel comfortable, until you see that’s not what’s actually going on. My thesis: it doesn’t matter if only 25 people read your blog, or even 2.5 people, if they’re the right 2.5 people.”

I agree with Dave Winer, weblogs are not just a broadcasting medium restricted to a privileged few. That’s the whole point of weblogs – they allow anybody to broadcast to the Web. It’s the Two-Way Web’s defining principle.

The next chapter in this thread was as follows…

2. David Weinberger posted an article saying that the lines between email and weblogs will blur. He also drew a distinction between “big, high-traffic blogs” and the rest of us – implying that this was due to the broadcasting mode that A List bloggers operate in.

3. Liz Lawley posted a response to David’s article, saying that “there’s a big difference between the blogs at the top of that power law curve, the ones in the middle, and the ones at the tail.” In a comment, I asked what exactly this difference was. Liz replied:

“…when you’re at the top of the “power law curve,” you’re in broadcast mode. When you’re at the tail end, you’re in private diary mode. But in the middle, thatís where the interlinking and dialog and community-forming are happening. Those are very different modes of communication.

4. Clay Shirky then weighed in with a post on Many-to-Many. Once again the distinction between the “head and tail of the power law distribution” was mentioned. I found the following words, from an earlier essay by Shirky, very helpful in understanding the “broadcasting” concept he was pushing:

“At the head will be webloggers who join the mainstream media (a phrase which seems to mean “media we’ve gotten used to.”) The transformation here is simple – as a blogger’s audience grows large, more people read her work than she can possibly read, she can’t link to everyone who wants her attention, and she can’t answer all her incoming mail or follow up to the comments on her site. The result of these pressures is that she becomes a broadcast outlet, distributing material without participating in conversations about it.

Meanwhile, the long tail of weblogs with few readers will become conversational.”

5. It was at this point that I weighed in with my own post, where I wrote that I am also a broadcaster – even though I am not an A List blogger. I disagree with Clay that a weblog, just because it has few readers, is necessarily “conversational”.

6. Seb Paquet was the next Many-to-Many author to write on this topic and he seemed to support my viewpoint, drawing a comparison with 19th-century pamphleteers. That turned out to be an interesting link. Lisa L. Spangenberg described 19th-century pamplets like this:

“People, all kinds of people, read and wrote them. Sure, there were “cranks,” but the vast majority of authors were quite serious, and were perceived that way.”

OK, so maybe I’m a crank 🙂 But if I’m even a little bit like Milton and Thoreau then I’m not complaining!

7. Liz then posted a follow-up, talking about her “frustration with the sense that on some level, people are equating large audience with quality or success”.

Um, that’s not what I was saying… my frustration is that people are trying to define different “modes” of weblogging, based on audience alone. Which is missing the whole point IMHO. Weblogging is about dissemination of ideas. Audience, or lack thereof, is irrelevant. It’s all about the ideas.

8. Clay Shirky posted another article on this topic today. In it he makes the point again that popular bloggers can’t interact with their audience, because there are just too many readers. This I agree with. But then Shirky says:

“Most writers, however, have very few readers, and the pattern of those weblogs is online diary.”

He makes a distinction between a “publishing pattern” and a “conversational pattern”. He seems to be saying that size of audience has a big effect on which “pattern” bloggers fall into.

So after following this thread through all its twists and turns, I don’t think I’m much the wiser. I still think I’m following a broadcasting mode, not an “online diary” one, despite having “few readers”. I’m broadcasting my ideas on the Web, right? But my opinion seems to be a minority one…maybe I am a crank 🙂

My point in summary: the Two-Way Web is about allowing people to publish on the Web and we can choose to publish any way we want. Most people may well be writing an “online diary”. But some of us are using this medium as a broadcasting platform. We’re media too, the only difference is we’re not mainstream.

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