For web users of a certain vintage, "1994" has the same ring that "1969" has to other ears. That year graphical browsers brought the medium to the masses, and suddenly gave individuals the potential to become their own publishers.
For quite a while, everyone was fascinated by this phenomenon. When businesses large and small began investigating this new medium and considering setting up their own sites, consultants -- and, yes, journalists -- told them they had to get on the bandwagon. You've got to have content, they said. You need community. That's what the Web is all about.
But instead of flourishing communities, useful information, and genuine conversation, what we got was pop-up customer service windows and 100 different sites running the same five A.P. stories. The problem, it seems, is that you can't make money providing content and it costs money to create community. What's needed is some way to do both, without spending much money.
I've got one: It's called a blog.
Diary of a Passionate Professional
Blogs (or Weblogs, as they're more properly called) are pages of links and comments created by individuals or small communities of Web users. Evan Williams began blogging before the term had even been invented. He and his company, Pyra, created a simple, free program called Blogger that individuals can use to create such pages quickly and easily.
Most blogs are personal, the equivalent of journals or vanity pages. They can be compelling reading, but a casual browser who stumbles across the Weblog of Otto the Cat (www.leeks-and-roses.net/otto.html) may not realize that they're looking at a powerful business tool. "We never really designed Blogger as a tool for keeping your diary," Williams says. "I've always encouraged and really liked the more professional ones."
David Sorkin, a lawyer specializing in information-technology law and assistant professor of law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, maintains a site called Lawblog.com. He updates it every few days with a links to articles he has read (recent ones have included "Annual Police Wiretap Report Released" and "Small Claims Court Becomes Spam Battlefield").
Lawblog doesn't get much traffic and Sorkin certainly doesn't try to sell advertisements over the top of it. "The beauty of Weblogging is that it's not much work to do," he says. "You just set it up and click a button whenever you want to add anything." He doesn't try to make his blog a comprehensive resource of every important development in IT law. It's a modest collection of links of what happens to seem important to one individual.
"I'd been posting things on the Web for quite a while," he says. "Now I can throw it up on my Weblog, and if I'm talking to a colleague, point them right to it."
Passionate, involved professionals do this sort of thing every day. They keep their client and colleagues informed, put them in contact with each other, and generously share their knowledge and opinions. They don't expect any immediate compensation, but know that if they earn people's respect and trust, they'll reap dividends in the long term.
William's company began as an ambitious startup with big plans to develop Web-based collaboration tools; Blogger was simply a side project. But, Williams says, "it took over."
They used Blogger to create a sort of bare-bones Intranet. "We had an internal blog almost from day one, which we used for pointers and such," Williams explains. "We were working on much more complicated products, but this was the most-used thing. We were really intrigued by that." Because internal blogs aren't the type of thing people tend to advertise, it's hard to tell if they're catching on. "It's something that hasn't gotten a lot of attention," Williams says.
Are blogs the fulfillment of all the promises about the Web? Far from it. But blogging is an easy form of publishing and collaboration, a continuation by other means of the conversations that we carry out every day, and that make life and work worthwhile -- whether those be conversations with clients, customers, colleagues, or simply ourselves.