Editor’s note: William Dunk is an international business consultant based in Chapel Hill. To learn more about William Dunk Partners, visit www.globalprovince.com/williamdunkpartners.htm

CHAPEL HILL,Back in the beginning, when the Internet was the Internet, not a device to spam you into numbness and mindless submission, it was an agora for academics and scientists to quickly diffuse knowledge amongst their peers.

Content that mattered was exchanged among those who want to know. Since then, spammers, Yahoo, EBay, Amazon, pornography, pop-up ads, cookie-cutter websites, and a lot of other things have gotten in the way. All the search engines meant to sift out the good stuff, including Google, have been watered down by the quest for advertising dollars, so you can no longer use them to find the gems that sparkle for you. As the sources of intellectual capital grow more numerous and more dispersed by the hour, our ability to find them has atrophied.

Along the way, blogs and weblogs have raised their heads, first as places for Web explorers to provide links to websites they care about and then as diaries for people who think they have something to say. In the United States and elsewhere this has created a vast underground society of interchange that has far different things to express than all our official channels of communication. Now, inevitably, commerce has pushed into the blog world, with AOL and others trying to connect with bloggers, and some companies using weblogs as a means of building internal communication.

We are not sure whether Blogville is good or bad. The weblogs do get a lot of people talking to or at each other. But the prose in them is usually pretty undisciplined, often nattering on to no purpose. The freedom is wonderful in theory, but it does lead to an awful lot of drivel. Yet we find ourselves quite interested in them, because we think they create an atmosphere where intuition and creativity can run rampant, that condition which is the sine qua non of America’s future.

And they further an era, begun by the Xerox machine, where personal, one-on-one communication is shoved aside, since every writer on the Net is talking to an assorted community or to the whole world. Blogs are groupthink, make no mistake about it. The blogger, sometimes a lonely person on the prowl, has given up personal intimacy and letter writing, hoping that anybody, preferably many bodies, will catch hold of his messages. This is not prose about “thee” and “me.”

Blog history and growth

In 2000, Rebecca Blood gave us a feel for how this phenomenon got underway as a venue to list links and how it grew into personal epistolary. See her account of its growth at www.rebeccablood.net/essays/weblog_history.html. Also, see some of her favorites at www.rebeccablood.net/portal.html. And for a bit about the evolution of tools to make blogging easier, see www.cjr.org/issues/2003/5/blog-jensen.asp. For some background on the movement of blogging into the mainstream including business, see “Golden Blogs,” August 14, 2003, and “Blogging Goes to Work,” May 11, 2004 in The Economist.

Strangely, we have not seen any commentary on the displacement effect of blogging. That is, weblogs and blogs soak up a lot of the leisure time of intelligent people normally given over to reading. We suspect that weblogs are dragging all sorts of people away from our conventional media and mass outlets, such as TV, cable, newspapers, and the like.

We ourselves have advised several of our clients that they must connect with the underground press…weblogs and bloggers…if they want mindshare and marketshare around the world in years to come. Some businesses are now including forums and other forms of personal content on their websites, as the Internet further redefines what marketing is all about.

For pent-up authors

We remarked above that the outpourings in blogs and weblogs often amount to no more than undisciplined ravings that lack shape, substantive content, and engagement. On the other hand, they do permit people of some creativity to burst through the bonds imposed by mediocre editors the world around and to publish rapidly enough so that their thoughts are not outdated before they see print in a world that’s moving along in double time. Then, too, they unleash thoughtful people, such as a former chief executive of our acquaintance, who puts out his take on the news every day, since he feels our mainstream media give us such a sorry picture of the world. Blogs, weblogs, instant messaging…they all lead to unfettered discourse.

Michael Beirut, partner in global design firm Pentagram and blogger in the making, has been kind enough to share with us his views about the freedom and fun that weblogs afford authors on the run:

“The world of weblogs has transformed publishing, although no one seems to know whether the change is meaningful or meaningless. The importance, naturally, is predicated entirely on how involved you are with the world of weblogs.

“For the uninitiated, a weblog is simply an online diary, facilitated (and somewhat defined) by the features of a few simple off-the-rack software programs that make it easy to post entries, add images, and invite comments from others. Whereas media entrepreneurs from ages past needed a certain (usually large) amount of capital to publish a newspaper or magazine, today’s Luces and Hearsts need only a program like Moveable Type, a little bit of imagination, and coffee. That was the idea at the beginning, at least. The real boom in blogs happened when writers realized that it was a perfect vehicle not for would-be publishers, but instead for would-be (or, frequently actual) columnists and commentators. Forget Luce and Hearst. The blog world belongs to today’s Lippmans and Winchells.

“Last fall, Bill Drenttel, Jessica Helfand, Rick Poynor and I decided to start a blog called ‘Design Observer’ (www.designobserver.com) and subtitled ‘Writings About Design and Culture.’ I have always liked writing for magazines but have always hated many tangential aspects of writing for magazines. First, there is the deadline. I hate deadlines and my editors, who seem familiar with this syndrome, have devoted a lot of time to manipulating, cajoling and threatening me. Then, finally I would submit my piece and, normal publishing cycles being what they are, I’d have to wait weeks … no, months, to see it actually published. Then, I’d always wonder if anyone actually read the damned thing.

“Blogs do away with all of these irritations. There are no editors, and there are no deadlines. If I have an idea for something I want to write, I simply write it. When I’m ready to publish it, I enter it in our online publishing software, press a button, and a second later it’s published. And within hours, people will start posting responses to it.

The blog form is designed to exploit what the Internet does best. Connectivity has a magnifying effect, which makes scale entirely relative. One convention of blogs is lots of embedded links in entries, often to other blogs. These lead to more links, and more links. ‘Design Observer’ now gets more than 70,000 hits a month. It costs almost nothing. We make almost nothing off it. It is fun, though.”

What we see is that the Internet has unleashed a self-publishing movement that sets authors free. For very little cost, they can almost instantly see their words in print and know they are reaching likeminded individuals around the world. No second-guessing, no delays, no mass market banalities, etc. We are seeing a rebalancing of the relationship between publishers and writers, and our modern day minstrels and soothsayers have a chance to be heard as never before. To some extent, publishers are being taken out of the equation. This puts more pressure on media barons and publishers of all sorts to reinvent themselves.


.Clearly blogs put out a lot of dreck, but they also foster a great deal of creativity. A parallel activity in the self-publishing movement makes this abundantly clear. Research and development in the sciences is clearly being spurred by free scientific “journals” on the Web where articles get published in a hurry, for little cost, and are available to the peer science community around the world before you can say, “Jack Robinson.” In this respect, we refer you to the Public Library of Science (www.plos.org), which already has online PLoS Biology and PLoS Medicine. There are a host of similar efforts in other areas of science about which one of our colleagues will comment in future weeks. Voices are heard that were choked in the world before the Internet.