June 4th 2005

Blogs? zzzz ...

Gaga press hype notwithstanding, what's exciting about Internet Web logs isn't new and what's new is, well, boring.

by Wynn Quon

Someone should open a detox center for blogging fans because many are getting drunk on hype. Even the pin-striped editors of Businessweek have been spotted whooping it up. Their recent cover story (with a 2-inch bold headline in red) trumpeted that blogs are "the most explosive outbreak in the information world since the Internet itself". They will "shake up just about every business". Blogging consultants have opened up shop. Not sure what ails your company? Never mind, a swig of blogohol is sure to fix it. Good grief.

Now it's true that blogs are new and exciting. But what's exciting about them isn't new and what's new is well, boring.

The funny thing is that despite the all the ga-ga press coverage, many are still unclear on what blogs actually are. But that's not their fault. With all the fuss, most people think there's more to blogs than meets the eye. There isn't. Here's Blogging 101: Ever since the early days of the Web, people have recognized the advantages of setting up one's own website. Many have taken up the challenge and millions of websites have been built. But the mechanics of updating a website can be time-consuming. A few years ago, some clever software designers created tools that let you set up a personal website in the form of a chronological journal or web log (the latter is where "blog" comes from). You can easily add new entries to your blog and automatically notify websurfers when your blog has been updated (using something called RSS or Real Simple Syndication). Readers can post their comments and you can also create two-way links to journal entries in other blogs (known as "trackback"). Write something good and the buzz spreads.

Blog tools have lowered the cost of publishing and distribution. But here's the reality check: in the age of the Internet the cost of publishing was already low to begin with. Blog software is to the Internet what cruise control is to the automobile. Not a fundamental advance but a streamlining of process.

Blogging enthusiasts say that blogs will revolutionize the business world by giving voice to consumers. Really? Sorry to break the news but that particular hurricane started ten years ago. Think Amazon.com and hundreds of other product-category websites that solicit consumer opinions. Think Usenet newsgroups (which predate even the Web). Think of advocacy websites like walmartwatch.com. Yahoo! lists 147 consumer action websites targeting individual companies. Walmartwatch.com is only one of thirteen websites dogging the retailer's footsteps. These facts haven't diminished the gee-whiz blog coverage though. A recent Fortune article implied blogs have "suddenly" empowered passive consumers. The example they give: Bloggers humbled lock-maker Kryptonite by circulating a video showing how its locks could be picked using a Bic ballpoint pen. Ho-hum. I wonder why they didn't mention Jonah Peretti. When Peretti tried to order a set of custom Nikes emblazoned with the word "Sweatshop", it became a PR disaster for the company. The news was propagated over the Internet and soon hit Business Week, the Wall Street Journal, and the Today show. Oh, yeah, except that was four years ago. No point repeating old news.

What about blogging's impact on the political world? Bloggers love to point to Rathergate as a defining moment in the history of blogging. Wasn't it bloggers who broke the forged-memo story that led to the resignation of CBS' Dan Rather last year? Well, FreeRepublic.com the website that was the first to ask questions about the memos has been around since 1996, three years before the term "blog" was even coined. But regardless, the test of whether an innovation is fundamentally important is to ask the what-if question. Without blogs, would Rathergate still have happened? Absolutely. The forgery was terribly amateurish. A simple e-mail from any number of sharp-eyed viewers to any number of interested journalists and the whistle would have been blown.

Still unconvinced of the pre-blogging power of the Internet? Consider the overthrow of Philippine President Joseph Estrada. It began with an exposť of the President's finances by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. The story was circulated on the Internet and the resulting public outcry forced a formal investigation and Senate impeachment hearings. When the Senate judges refused to consider crucial evidence, the people took to the streets. Using a combination of e-mail and text-messaging, activists orchestrated mass demonstrations involving up to 1.5 million people. Within four days, Estrada was forced to resign. The key point: this happened almost five years ago, way before blogs hit the mainstream. Today's sudden obsession with the potential of blogs is a weird retro-news event because the Internet has already demonstrated its power to channel outrage and bring down governments.

One of the worrying things behind the blogging buzz is the sentiment in some quarters that bloggers are somehow more honest or more incorruptible than mainstream media. It's true that in totality the sheer multitude of bloggers means that different voices can be heard where before there was silence. But individually speaking, the fact remains that blogging pays a fraction of a working journalist's salary, if that. Who is more likely to be co-opted, the one who is making a living wage or the one who's barely scraping by? One answer came in March of this year. Wordpress.org a popular blogging website was found to have been secretly manipulating Google's search engine results to increase its own advertising revenues. This didn't get a lot of media attention but the day of a front-page Blogger-gate is probably not far away.

Perhaps the main reason behind blogmania is the oft-quoted statistics. "There are some 9 million blogs…with 40,000 new ones popping up each day" says Businessweek. Intoxicating numbers for sure. All these new bloggers are sure to have a lot of fun but it's wrong to confuse fun with influence. Who are these new recruits? Step back for a moment and think about this. Let's say you are a writer, an artist, an advocate or an analyst. You are passionate about your subject and you've decided you want an online presence. You want to set fire to the old way of doing things. Here's the question: Why would you have waited until now to get on the Web? It's been ten years already. Unless you were in diapers during the Internet boom, you would have found a way by hook or by crook to do it. Maybe you would have set up a website, or an e-mail discussion list or even a moderated Usenet newsgroup. You would have jumped over the hurdles and shrugged off the hassles. Really, if you're the kind of person who needed the invention of cruise control before you would consider buying a car, then I'd say driving is not your forte. The revolutionaries, the firestarters that ignited the Internet explosion blitzed this territory years ago. There is no second wave. Blogs are business as usual.

Wynn Quon is chief investment analyst at Legado Associates (e-mail: wynn_quon@legadoassociates.com)

Copyright 2005.