And now for an opposing view.
Rich Levin has extensive experience as an editor, writer, journalist, broadcaster, and programmer. He’s producer and host of the PC Talk Radio computer talk radio show, which debuted on CBS Radio in 1994, and was among the first talk radio shows to air over the Internet. He’s former editor-in-chief of Booktech, PrintMedia, and Graphic & Design Business, national business trade magazines that cover printing, publishing, and graphic design technology. He’s author of five computer books published by McGraw-Hill and Dorling-Kindersley. Levin is a former senior editor with InformationWeek, and a former technology reporter for KYW NewsRadio 1060 AM, CBS Radio, and Greater Media Radio. He is also the developer of the popular Space Ace automatic hard disk cleaning utility, and dozens of other Windows applications.
At one time, Levin, Scoble and Steve Rubel were friends and co-workers at CMP publishing. When Scoble was bitten by the “blog bug,” Levin was among the few that tried to talk him down off the ledge, warning him that blogging was yet another passing fad. At Robert’s request, I circled back to see if his views had changed much, particularly since Levin now blogs.
The short answer: apparently not. His interview comments:
1. Five years ago, you warned Robert Scoble not to waste his time getting into blogging. You were convinced it was just a fad. Now you're blogging yourself. What changed your mind about blogging?
(A) I didn't warn Robert not to get into blogging.
(B) My mind isn't changed.
(C) I think it was 2001, so it would be four years ago. I'll defer to Robert's recollection on this.
Let's get the story straight. Robert called me and was very excited by his new discovery—weblogs. The purpose of his call, as I remember it, was to turn me onto blogging. He was very excited by it, more so than I had seen him be in the past. Robert was always onto the next big thing, but I don't recall anything working him up as much as blogging did back then.
I had already caught the early buzz on blogs and blogging, but Robert was the first person I knew who had jumped on the bandwagon with both feet. He was clearly working his Rolodex to get as many influential people on board as he could, and probably targeted me in the hopes I would cover blogs on my CBS talk radio show, or in the pages of one of the magazines I was freelancing for at the time.
I expressed that I didn't understand why anyone would waste valuable time posting personal thoughts in an online journal. When I pressed Robert on this, he admitted posting to his blog continuously throughout the day, every day. I recall him saying there were days where he was posting blogs every 5 to 15 minutes (he might have said 5 to 15 times a day).
That struck me as obsessive/compulsive, and a huge waste of time better spent on productive pursuits. When I asked Robert for a reason why I and others should be blogging, he gave me nothing better than the classic "because it's the next big thing; because it is cool beyond belief" type of response.
I pressed him to give me practical reasons for blogging, but he didn't (indeed, couldn't) articulate any business agenda for promoting blogs. It was pure passion for the medium. In the end, I didn't see why anyone would spend time keeping an online diary, which is how I recall Robert describing it, nor could I see why anyone would want to spend time reading them.
When I considered the notion of changing gears every 15 minutes to jump on a blog and post my latest thought, I came to the conclusion that I was too busy to feed a hungry blog -- and so were most people I knew. I had seen this passion in the industry before, most recently (at the time) with "push", "content channels", Internet appliances, smart "connected" homes, etc., all of which were hyped to the hilt by early adopters, and went nowhere.
That's where and why I came to the conclusion that blogs were a fad. I still believe they are. I'm not sure they have peaked yet, but I think they are inching close to the top of the bell curve. Ultimately, blogs will be Yet Another Communications Channel (what I call a yackety YACC), sharing space and time with online forums, e-mail and e-mail lists, instant messaging, chat rooms, VoIP, Web cams and conference rooms, Webcasts and Podcasts, and who knows what gets invented next.
As far as blogs becoming permanent centers of influence, as with any publishing medium, the laws of natural selection will winnow the field and allow the best to rise to national prominence, just as Robert's and a handful of other blogs have. Then there will be the "top tier" blogs, with small but influential vertical audiences. And then there will be the remaining 80% of blogs, which will be like 80% of Web sites, e-mail lists, photo sites, forums, 80% Webcasts, and 80% e-commerce sites: they'll suck.
I have long said that, while the public will occasionally turn to a media phenomenon such as Drudge or some blog, in the end, the people prefer conventional journalism, with its editorial standards and processes that vet the reporting (ideally). I took a lot of heat for this view, but I now see that same line of thinking being evangelized by blogging's best and brightest, Robert among them.
That said, bloggers talk about becoming more like journalists, but they will never be journalists until they conduct their reporting using the same unvarnished methods as the greats (Murrow, Woodward & Bernstein, etc.). As long as they're interviewing via e-mail or IM, the final product is compromised [NOTE: I interviewed Levin by e-mail after he offered to do it by phone]. As long as they remain mired in the pool of opinion, the final product is compromised.
Like Drudge with “Lewinskygate,” blogs will have their day in the spotlight with the few scoops they've managed (Rathergate*, etc.), but in the end, people want reporting that is well-sourced and vetted, however flawed that process might be (and given recent scandals, vetting is intensifying).
It's that aspect that will prevent blogs, in general, from going horizontal in readership. Most blogs are nothing more than utterly boring personal diaries (bloggers hate to hear this, but it's true). People wouldn't want to read them if they found them in a desk drawer, and they're no more interesting online. Those which aren't poorly written, wholly unedited cures for insomnia are, increasingly, driven by public relations and marketing teams.
Indeed, the initial beauty of blogging -- the notion of truly personal publishing -- is now becoming corrupted, thanks to legions of marketers discovering blogs (thanks to legions of bloggers warning marketers not to ignore blogs). This is going to become a huge challenge for legitimate bloggers to overcome, as the grass roots, pure nature of blogging is Balkanized by marketers. PR gurus everywhere are evangelizing the importance of blogging and, as a result, disingenuous corporate blogs are growing like kudzu.
Corporate executives at all levels of organizations, especially technology companies who ride the Cluetrain, are now feverishly blogging or feverishly planning blogs. Does anyone in their right mind think these corporate wonks are (A) actually writing stuff off the top of their heads, and (B) that their copy doesn't have a PR team ghost-writing and aligning the content with the company's agenda?
I also believe research would reveal that the people who read blogs are largely the same people who write them, and that few "Mom and Pop" casual users hang on blogs the way they hang on MSNBC -- unless we're talking about a non-marketing-driven blog of someone of note (such as a leading journalist, author, or celebrity).
I have previously characterized blogging is a closed loop society, much like BBSes before them, and online forums (communities) today. Closed loop societies are ultimately self limiting. Whether blogs can break out of the closed loop remains an open question. My guess is no.
(*On the topic of Rathergate, had blogs not existed, the result would have been the same. Techies who discovered the fraud would have spread the word through Web sites, mass mailings, and forums. Blogs don't get the credit.
Disintermediation does [old buzzword, still relevant].)
2. You are a multiple media kind of guy. You have talk radio, you've authored several books, been a technology reporter, etc. Now you're a blogger. How is blogging different from these other media?
Actually, I have worked hard to enlist for tours of duty in as many forms of media as I can. As a result, I am not aware of any communications medium, other than billboards and answering machine messages, that I haven't worked professionally in.
I have done desktop and software development; software documentation; BBSes (including writing my own, BBSX); books published by McGraw-Hill and Dorling-Kindersley (and soon, another as yet-unnamed publisher); Web publishing; news radio and talk radio for CBS; staff reporting/editing for CMP's InformationWeek; newspapers, magazines, and TV; e-mail lists, forums, and blogs; and mountains of freelance and staff writing for top marketing and PR organizations, including Microsoft, Sun, Oracle, Compuware, IBM, WaggEd, etc.
While I am technically a blogger, I characterize myself as a writer. That's what I do, whether it's words on paper on words on electrons. Blogs are just another medium which any serious communicator should leverage to reach people.
Consider PR. Steve Rubel recently wrote "Blogs are the New Press Releases." Like Robert, Steve and I go back a few years (we worked together at CMP). Steve, I love ya', and I read your blog and you have a lot of great ideas, but on this point, you're wrong. Blogs are just another delivery medium, not "the" medium, and certainly not the content. Like Robert, Steve has the religion, and he's not seeing things on balance.
PR practitioners need to be masters of multicasting; that is, capable of spinning a story simultaneously as a news release, a query, a blog post, a blog comment, a byline, a phone call, a flyer, a TV or radio interview, a wire feed, a billboard, a text message, an e-mail, a T-shirt, a pen with a slogan, etc.
The people and firms who master multicasting will be the survivors. Anyone who chooses to narrowcast or over emphasize one medium over another or, worse, suggest that the medium IS the message, as Steve is suggesting, will shoot themselves in the head.
The same holds true for ALL communicators: journalists, marketers, advertisers, producers, filmmakers, talk show hosts, etc. Any communicator who fails to exploit all popular communications channels is destined for marginalization. The notion of the "mass media", which really meant the power to communicate was "massed" among handful major communications organizations, is slowly ending.
A new "mass media" is rising; that is, myriad forms of communication, because every person likes to get his or her news and information differently. The guy who likes to get his news via a text message on his mobile device is no less important than the gal who likes to read a blog via a newsreader. If your job is to communicate with the public, the medium is not the message: it's the message transport, and you had better be capable of disseminating via all available channels.
To answer your question directly, blogs are not much different than e-mail lists, online forums, so-called "talk backs" that appear in Web magazines, or the letters to the editor page in traditional print publications. The only differences I see are:
(A) They're engineered to emphasize the initial post, as opposed to facilitating a discussion as e-mail and forums do. In this way, they are closely related to an op-ed piece or a letter to the editor.
(B) The underlying technologies, specifically RSS and its spin offs, and the publishing/consumption tools that leverage them (blog sites and newsreaders), make it easier (notice I didn't say easy) for the average Joe to publish or peruse the headlines of what others have published.
But are blogs more influential than other mediums? No. They generate the same type of viral influence as online forums, e-mails, IMs, and chats. Again, it's just another medium, and it will be eclipsed by the next big thing—whatever that is. I don't buy the "blogosphere" notion, because the "sphere" of influence is much larger than blogs.
At any one time, what blogs are influencing can also be found in forums, e-mail, chat rooms, and so on. I call this the "infosphere," of which blogs are the newest medium, but certainly not the noisiest. Frankly, I think blogs are less influential than e-mail and forums at this juncture (despite Swift Boats and Rathergate).
That's not to say they should be poo-poo'd or ignored. It is to say that people need to regain their sanity and maintain their perspective. Communicators need to step back and take in the big picture to see the true role blogs play. Doing so, right-sizes the notion of the blogosphere and opens up the notion of the infosphere.
3. You stated in an earlier conversation that you believe print will be dead in 20 years. Can you expand on this a bit? Do you mean news media?
Books, TV Guide? All print?
What I mean is, we won't be cutting down trees for magazines, newspapers and such. I believe virtually all communications except book publishing will go digital, and go to the 'net. RSS and its offspring (blogs and Podcasts) are accelerating this trend, simply because they make it easier (note that I didn't say easy) for people to manage (find/consume) what they read.
The trend is clear. The younger generation is leaving traditional media in droves. Print, as we know it, will be dead in 20 years or less, when the current generation, which doesn't remember a time before computers, becomes the establishment. Nobody will be reading paper-based newspapers or magazines. Nobody will need them. Only books will survive.
The Internet will also consume all other forms of mass communications: voice, video, TV, radio, print, music, billboards, film (while big-screen movies will survive, they too will be digital). And there's no turning back. Like 35mm film, Polaroid and smoke signals, print will be relegated to an art form, and will no longer be part of the mass media.
4. What does a print-less world look like to you?
All electronic and wireless, based on flexible and transparent flat-panel displays.
Flexible and transparent displays are already off the drawing board, and in prototype form. They're very small right now and have limited life spans and can't reproduce all colors accurately.
But in 20 years or less, people will be able to fold up their wireless Web browser and carry it in their pocket. They'll unfold it on the train or at breakfast, and read it just as they do a newspaper or magazine today. Or they'll pop on a pair of Web-connected sunglasses and read, watch, or listen to their favorite 3-D audio/video Web-based wireless programming on demand (the audio will be generated via ear pieces, without ear buds, but rather, through a bone amplifier).
5. How do you see blogging evolving as it goes mainstream?
It depends how you define "blogging" and "mainstream".
I don't see blogging going mainstream, which I define as being as popular as e-mail. I do see RSS and it's spin-offs going mainstream, which means newsreader-type technology, but not newsreaders per se, goes mainstream. I don't see a majority of Web users writing blogs, nor do I see a majority reading them.
I do see publishers using RSS as one of many ways to syndicate their content and reach the public. Much of this content won't be blogs, in the sense that there won't be one person penning one post that is then syndicated and commented on, but rather, a publisher such as MSNBC will use RSS to distribute its headlines to browsers, mobile phones, and Web-based sunglasses.
Likewise, the TV networks will use some future form of RSS to publish their TV guides. Radio stations will use it to post their daily schedules.
Advertisers will use it to promote coupons and new products. Wire services will use it to distribute press releases. Restaurants will use it to post their menus. And so on. If you have something to promote or communicate, I see RSS as one of many important vehicles.