UEN Tech Summit: Weblogs are Loosely Coupled Conversations


As a consequence of being stuck in Atlanta I missed my session at the UEN Technical Summit this morning. I was supposed to modertate a panel on using Weblogs. I was very disappointed to have missed it. I haven't heard how it went. When I realized last night (at 10pm) that I wasn't going to make it, I sent a note off to Barry Bryson and gave him a message to read on my behalf. Here's what I hope was said:

People often ask me how a weblog differs from a normal web page. The answer, in short, is that it really isn't all that different. Weblogs are written in HTML and served using the HTTP protocol, just like web pages. There's nothing special about the servers that make them available on the web. Frankly there's not even anything special about the software that creates weblogs. You can use a text editor if you like, although that would be inconvenient.

What really sets weblogs apart is the way that they are connected to each other. Viewing weblogs as part of a two-way conversation takes some effort. In an email conversation, a chat, a mailing list, or a newsgroup, there is a threaded discussion happening. You see the conversation happening sequentially like you were watching a dialogue between two people. Not so with weblogs.

But conversations do happen in weblogs. While the conversation make include an occasional back-reference to something someone else said on the topic, there is not explicit threading of the conversation. I heard Greg Bear, the author of Darwin's Children and a number of other science fiction books say once that Sci-Fi authors are having a conversation in slow motion. One author writes something and then gets response in the book of another author and in this way a conversation develops. Weblog conversations are like that except for two interesting points:

  1. The cycle times are much shorter because weblogs are easier to publish.
  2. The technology allows you to discover who's responding more easily than in print.

So how does the person writing weblog A know that weblog B has said something about what A wrote? By watching the traffic on their weblog, in particular by paying attention to something called "referrers." Referrers are the back links that are automatically stored in the web servers logs whenever someone retrieves a page on the server. By doing a simple traffic analysis, the owner of a weblog can see that there's a jump in traffic from a particular website. Following the link back, A can determine what B said and then, if they like, respond to it on their weblog. B will see the jump in traffic from A in their referrer logs and do likewise. Tools like technorati.com help make this task easier by showing all the links to a particular site in context.

Now, this may seem like an especially backhanded way to carry on a conversation. If you were setting out to design a communication system, you'd never design it like this. Even so, it is surprisingly effective. Conversations, important ones, happen on weblogs all the time. People feel remarkably empowered by their ability to control the editorial policy and speak in their own voice. This is an excellent example of a keyword I think describes an exciting trend in computing: decentralization.

Another term that has been used in conjunction with decentralization is "loosely coupled." What sets weblogs apart from other ways of having a conversation is this loose coupling. Other conversational forms are tightly coupled by the explicit threading that is part and parcel of their very design. As we've discovered, weblogs lack this explicit threading. This makes them better for some things, and not as good at others. Weblogs would be a poor tool for quickly reaching a consensus on a meeting time for a large group, for example, unless someone in the group has dictatorial powers. They're a great way, on the other hand, to share institutional knowledge.

Weblogs are a effective method for members of an organization to narrate their work, keep track of things they think are important, annotate links to important information, informally describe project plans, and understand what others in their group are working on. I think weblogs could be particularly effective in education as a way for teachers to share primary sources of information with their students, model good writing, and provide deeper commentary on issues being studied. Likewise, weblogs in student hands provide students with a place to practice their writing skills, try on new ideas for size before committing to them, and get a sense of what their peers are thinking on an issue.

For some people, starting a weblog seems natural and for others it takes some getting used to. In the first place, weblogs are about writing. If you don't like to write, a weblog can seem like drudgery, but its an excellent place to hone your writing skills. Writing workshops encourage people to write for 30-45 minutes per day to improve their writing. A weblog is an excellent place to do that.

I often tell people that starting a weblog feels like you're having a conversation with yourself for the first few weeks or months. Eventually, however, you start to see the feedback on other weblogs, get email from folks who read, and even the occasional in-person conversation.

The loosely coupled nature of weblogs makes them a unique conversational space, but one with real rewards. Knowing that you have an outlet can be personally enriching. Producing content that even a small audience finds useful can be deeply satisfying and provide surprising reach for your ideas. Add your voice to the thousands out there and find your audience. Its out there waiting for you to start.