How foolish would someone sound in 2007 making a sweeping generalization about what people do with websites? Probably about as foolish as making sweeping generalizations about what people do with printing on paper — and as foolish as making sweeping generalizations about what people do with blogs.
A blog, after all, is just a content management system. Blogging, as a phenomena, happened because blogging software is free, dead simple to use, and interactive, e.g. comments, trackbacks (broadband penetration helped too). Blogging has empowered lots of people — but really it’s the web that’s doing the empowerment. Blogs are just websites with better technology.
The way people use — and in some cases abuse — blogging software is as infinitely varied as what people do with websites in general. At the end of the day, it’s all publishing (i.e. publishing broadly defined to include video, “social media,” etc.), and the issues surrounding power of the press have been around for hundreds of years.
I started thinking about this when I saw this rant by a columnist in the Sunday Times:
Unlike the world of newsprint, there are no rules out there in the blogosphere and that makes it a very confusing place for the consumer. I have no objection to reading my Sunday Times on the Internet because I know the content has been through the same process as the print edition. I do, however, object to some anonymous, scrofulous nerd pumping meaningless drivel into cyberspace at all hours of the day and night simply because he canâ€™t find a girl to sleep with him. These are the sort of wackos who gun down their fellow students at university. I visited a site the other day that was so hideously racist that it would have qualified its publisher for a long spell in prison if it had appeared in print. So whatâ€™s the difference? How come newspapers and magazines have to carry the names of their editors and publishers and watch their content and websites donâ€™t? Iâ€™m told that itâ€™s possible to track down the author of any offensive website and perhaps thatâ€™s what the government should be doing instead of looking at legislation to gag legitimate publications.
This guy is so clearly over the line with his reference to gunning down students that I won’t dignify that with a response. But this attitude, while extreme, is symptomatic of a larger misconception.
People have been abusing the anonymity of the web since the days of Compuserve 1200 baud dial-up (and probably before that). I argued that the user revolt at Digg was in part enabled by user anonymity.
But the problem of abusing a medium is not just a function of anonymous use, and it’s not unique to the web in general or blogs in particular. “Mainstream media” has abused the power of their medium and abdicated their responsibility on plenty of occasions. A lot more people can publish a blog than, say, broadcast a TV network or publish a print newspaper, so that increases the incidence of abuse, but it’s not the fault of the medium.
The problem isn’t the publishing tools — it’s the people. Anyone can be a publisher, but a lot of people who are publishing online — whether it’s blogging, submitting a story to Digg, or uploading a video to YouTube — have no understanding of and/or no interest in the responsibilities of being a publisher. And nothing is likely to change that, even if we fall down the legislation/regulation rabbit hole.
The next evolution of the web is going to require helping users distinguish between publishers who are acting responsibly and those who are not — even mighty Google struggles with this, e.g. made for AdSense sites, so it’s probably going to require more human intervention.