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Techno Greeks
Voiced on 09.29.00 +
Voiced by webchick
Carl Malamud


“We are a nation of commentators, either heckling the mass-media magnates from the cheap seats of our living rooms or cheering on the hecklers that are delivered to us there: Beavis and Butthead, the political pundits and media watchers, the robots of 'Mystery Science Theatre.'”

- Steven Johnson, Interface Culture

“When there's nothing new in what I have to say, I must make up for its staleness by something new in the way I say it. And if that were all, if each novelty hunter struck out a line for himself, we could be content to register novelty-hunting as a useful outward sign of inward dullness, and leave such writers carefully alone. Unluckily they hunt in packs, and when one of them has a find they are all in full cry after it, till it becomes a vogue word to the great detriment of the language.”

H.W. Fowler quoted in From Lascaux to Brooklyn by Paul Rand

“You say you want a revolution...

...Well, you know, we all want to change the world.” The Beatles defiantly made this statement on their enormously popular White Album in the late 60's. Some 30-odd years later, this tune has been running through our minds, in seemingly never-ending techno-ambient fashion, as the Internet industry routinely uses the “R” word in trade press and business plans. We are deluged with “revolutionary technologies,” “revolutionary new business models,” and “revolutionary revolutions” to the point that the word doesn't carry any clout anymore (other examples of formerly reserved words diluted by marketing hyperbole include “visionary,” “pioneer,” and “guru”). Over the past year, we have been hearing much ado from the various factions and fighting from the front lines of the Blogging Revolution. This Web trend certainly has the earmarks of an uprising, as well as its fair share of passion from all sides, but is that enough to categorize it with other great revolutions throughout history? Since the craze began, commentary on weblogs has run from the astute to the absurd. Since we are all slaves to Internet time, we decided to throw our own hat into the ring by providing metacommentary on the craze, while the latest rash of historical retrospectives are still fresh in our RAM.

Throughout history, revolutions and movements have rarely resulted in peaceful resolution, even among the parties who represented unification at the outset. The Russian Revolution started with many splintered sects all moving towards a general goal, then unified under the banner of Lenin to overthrow the Czar. The unity did not last as communism split into a bewildering mass of Socialists, Communists, Socialist Democrats, Trotskyites, Marxists, Leninists, Marxist-Leninists, and Maoists.

In the late nineteenth century, the individual efforts of artists such as Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro were unified in the public eye as “Impressionism,” until the movement was splintered by newly-proclaimed schools attempting to carve a general vision into distinct, unique sects, such as neo-impressionism, fauvism and, later, expressionism. When Impressionism was at its peak, respected artists such as Edouard Manet, who was who highly influenced those practicing the genre, ironically resisted being associated with it. This led to his work being appreciated in a broader context by future generations. Other artists dissatisfied with the limitations of the movement included Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. They were labeled as “post-impressionists” by art critics, as their distinct individuality made them difficult to categorize. The artificial taxonomies of the critics were shunned by these artists who did not want their work to be part of a movement. Of course, lesser artists were happy to associate their “products” with the impressionists or the school-of-the-day.

Cool vs. Content
“I think the word 'cool' has replaced 'content.' If you have enough attitude in your work, if it's cool enough, then it doesn't matter that there's no content. The best example of this is David Carson. It's cool, and so it doesn't need to say anything. And I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what design is. Because it's a language. It's a means of communicating. It's a medium. It's not a message.

Because of technology, we have the opportunity to become really important. We don't need publishers anymore to do this ... We can also do this for free; we can do it all at home, not only [web] designers, but also everybody else in the world. So, I am excited by it because I am hoping that people are going to be serious enough to not be constantly in search of something that's just cool, but to be in search of ideas that can eventually begin to fill these huge empty vessels of technology.”

- Tibor Kalman quoted in Design Dialogues by Steven Heller

The Internet – a true modern day publishing revolution, of Gutenberg proportions – started with many individual efforts as well, distinct yet unified under a vaguely coherent vision of a global network. In the public eye, the Internet emerged as the World Wide Web, the symbol of that global network. Once again, we see sects proclaiming new niches for their particular flavor of the revolution.

The Rush To Pledge Phi Beta Blogger

So, what of the Blogging Revolution? Theorists of the revolution inform us that a weblog (otherwise known as “blog”) is “a one person maintained small Web site, that is updated on a regular basis and has a high concentration of repeat visitors...often highly focused around a singular subject, an underlying theme or unifying concept.” Taxonomists of the revolution subdivide the genre into a variety of meaningless subsects. While curmudgeons of the revolution readily admit that the movement has its limitations: “The vast majority aren't very interesting, but that's OK. We'll make it up in volume.” (Via WIRED)

The idea of a daily update with news about the Web is certainly not new. Indeed, the concept of a diary is not new. In order to keep our trendiness quotient intact, an investigation of the oft-emotionally charged Blogging Revolution seems in order.

So, is this revolution a real solution, or is it simply a software template packaged up into a cult of celebrity? Rather than being a revolution, blogging as practiced seems to resemble a fraternity: lots of people dressing alike, banding together for comfort against outsiders, and preaching lofty goals of brotherhood while practicing digital toga parties.

One has to wonder if this rush to build Web sites that are all based on a cookie-cutter template is the best thing for a medium as democratic and individualistic as the Internet. John Maeda of the MIT Media Lab makes a persuasive case that “designers are being misled into thinking that they can do anything they want with the available design software.” While publishing templates such as Blogger and Microsoft FrontPage have a vital role to play, to argue that any one of these web macro packages is a revolution takes the focus away from the more important issue: what goes into the site.

There certainly can be no argument that blogging is a hyper-popular form of Web publishing, but is it the next step towards improving the diversity of the global network? One could argue that the employment of a primary set of design and publishing conventions makes this subcategory of Web sites readily identifiable and familiar to audiences, and therefore theoretically more usable. But, doesn't that sound a whole lot like the preaching of a certain web pundit that receives his fair share of criticism from blogs and Web sites run by designers the world over?

Could it be the ironic reality may be that weblogs contribute to the continuation of the 7-11ization of the web instead of combat it? The 7-11, of course, serves a purpose. But after all the cries of concerned developers decrying dot-coms for turning the Web into a huge strip mall, what balance are we maintaining if weblogs are the counterculture? Fortunately, we can take comfort in the fact that even in the back alleys of strip malls we can find magic.

One benefit frequently cited by the blogging world is that now anybody can build a web page. This is, of course, a Good Thing®. But, is it the blog that allows anybody to build a web page or is it the Web that allows anybody to build a web page? Laying claim to this phenomenon is hubris, and stretches credibility in the same manner as the often-unpalatable practice of trademarking generic terms in the collective cybersphere such as “Web of Trust.”

Numbers Don't Lie
0. TermGoogle Hits
1. blogger
2. blog
3. weblog
4. revolution
6. Linux
7. homepage
8. Zeldman*
*In a bizarre phenomenon that Webologists have dubbed The Orange Effect, the Zeldman Revolution appears to be running a strong second to the Blogging Revolution.


It is interesting to weigh the rhetoric against the practice. Let's start with a bit of empirical data using a random search engine. While there may be a blogging revolution underway, the evidence suggests that a “revolution revolution” or a “Linux revolution” may have more market share. What seems to be apparent in most blogs, unfortunately, is a degree of logrolling unprecedented in the history of the web. “Link to me” seems to be one of the main goals of the blog–the words “me” and “my” occur in 19,300 of the 33,300 pages that hit on the word “blog,” and 50,200 of the 190,000 hits on the word “weblog.”

Cheap statistical tricks aside, a certain degree of reference to “me,” “myself” and “I” is to be expected on a genre of publishing which claims to make instant publishing on the Web easier for individuals. Got a thought or a rambling? A pointer to a cool site or pertinent story you just read? Then, publish it for all the world to see. The promise of this new breed of software apps is that you can supposedly post a thought as quickly as you can think it, subject to, the usual technology pitfalls (via Michael Sippey). But since the Web itself is what has truly given rise to the reality of instantaneous publishing, it seems the blogging revolution has done more to promote a different 20th century phenomenon: the cult of celebrity.

The cult of celebrity reached unprecedented heights in the era of mass media. Although this concept wasn't invented in the 20th century, society managed to elevate it to the status of an industry during that time period, through paparazzi, soft-journalism, tabloid magazines, and the never-ending rush for ratings. This had a highly negative effect on the media, and led to a feeding frenzy where ordinarily commonplace stories and banal observations were elevated to “big news” status, and endless circles of stories about the stories infiltrated the airwaves. As one online source puts it: “The explosive growth of the media, notably television and 'people' journalism over the century has seen a constant widening of the gulf between achievement and popular adulation.”

Eventually, no aspect of our culture was left untouched, as evidenced in an article from international fashion circles:

“you don't have to have a weblog to update daily. you don't have to write long, detailed entries of what you had for your third snack, either. you just have to WRITE, put something up there that is you. i don't understand why this is such an issue, why everyone has to be so quick to pigeonhole themselves. are we nothing more than demographic calves readying ourselves for the inevitable marketing slaughter? i just don't get it.

i have a Web site. i don't have a diary, or a journal, or a log, or a domain, or a phleekerlinkbot. i have me, and my mind and what wants to be let out. and that's it.”

Maura via powazek.com's “What the Hell is a Weblog??”

“Fashion is so self-referential and its cycles are so short that a lot of the "content" of fashion has disappeared; that is, nothing today has the political impact of '60s near-nudity, or shirts made out of the American flag. Bra burning? Huh?”

Now that the Web has become part of the mainstream, it only makes sense that something like blogging should come along to make it highly fashionable. The fact that independent publishing on the Web has become so personality-focused is a reflection of the mediums we grew up with. Throughout history, new mediums have been influenced by their predecessors, and vice versa. Radio drew from theater to become radio theater, the Internet pulled the radio metaphor into the World Wide Web, and now radio and television are struggling to become more web-like. So much so, in fact that one often wonders what affect the Internet would have had on other media had they intersected on the hypertext timeline of history.

A further word from that same article on the fashion industry:

“All this makes sense in societies with soaring stock markets where the social fabric is money. In fashion the social fabric is just that, fabric. All of us in this way invent ourselves like Jay Gatsby, with, one hopes, better results. In that sense, fashion helps to create some kind of melting pot. But sometimes this also puts the culture into a serious state of cognitive dissonance.”

On the Internet isn't our social fabric the digital bits and bytes of the cybersphere, and our challenge is to shape those bits and bytes, be it individually or collectively, into something that is unique, useful and meaningful? It is important to note that the pervasiveness of the cult of celebrity into our current Internet consciousness is not the fault of any individual, or popular trends in general, such as blogging. Our culture is simply conditioned to think in terms of celebrity status and instant gratification, whether we are producers of the new media or part of the audience. Which brings us to another point: in many cases, blogs turn one of the strengths of the Web into a meaningless 1-way filter. There is no public discourse or interaction happening here. In the midst of secret handshakes, inside jokes, and disjoined conversations between tribes of bloggers, very little meaningful analysis occurs. It leaves many scratching their heads, wondering what's the point?

Parasitically Yours

The point is, there is a special niche on the Internet that perfectly suits the blogging form of publishing and its natural tendency towards the cult of celebrity. In his excellent book, Interface Culture, Steven Johnson identifies this niche as “parasitic media,” a metaform of media that was first introduced to us through television. Metashows include interstitial programming such as Beavis and Butthead, Mystery Science Theater, or Joe Bob Briggs' MonsterVision where other content is viewed through the perspective of a filter. Other metashows include happy-talk soft-journalism, such as Entertainment Tonight or Inside Edition, and most recently include the outbreak of shows on television devoted to the Internet. (It should be noted that this reciprocal logrolling effect between media is generally the result of monetary calculations by their corporate owners).

Recursive Loop
"These new organisms don't tell stories. They riff, annotate, dismantle, dissect, sample. Everything they do refracts back onto some other "straight" media, on which they rely for their livelihood. ...they run the gamut from high to low culture, from mass appeal to indie cachet...and regularly manage to make news out of pure mediation.

There may not be a great deal of "quality programming" in this mix, but the sheer quantity of this new genre–the diversity of the species–is remarkable. All the evidence suggests that the metaforms are evolving at a much faster clip than their storytelling competitors".

- Steven Johnson
Interface Culture

Johnson's insightful book foreshadows the blogging revolution, which is impressive given that it was first published in 1997, a year before the blog was “invented.” His erudite explanation of the parasitic media form is particularly illuminating when viewed with the hindsight of three and a half years of Web evolution:

“Imaginative transformations...do not take place in a vacuum. They are invariably accompanied by more lateral effects, unintended consequences that ripple out into other fields. Perhaps the most vivid example of this lateral movement can be seen in the endlessly self-referential loop of nineties television programming. As the traditional narratives–the sitcoms and soap operas and talk shows–plod reliably through their conventional paces, the metashows, the shows interested not in telling stories but in riffing on other media, have experienced a genuine flowering in recent years–not just in cultural significance but also in genetic diversity. These are the real innovators of modern television, attaching themselves like parasites to larger, more sluggish host organisms, and replicating indirectly through them.”

Johnson goes on to explain that although parasitic media seems a little out of place in the analog world of television, they do serve an important role in the digital realm as the sheer volume of information becomes overwhelming and increasingly difficult for individuals to navigate. We have absolutely no argument with Johnson on this point, nor seemingly do others who have embraced the concept of weblogs as filters. The idea that a series of daily links provides a personal filter, "an antidote to mass media," is certainly a valid one. But, these personal filters are only worth the time that are put into them. All media reflects a personal bias and personal media is no different.

With the rise of technologies such as XML, the promise of the true metafiltering and metaprogramming alluded to by Johnson are firmly within our grasp. Look at the inherent filtering aspect of the blogs, and imagine how powerful they could be in a collaborative context. Unfortunately, in many cases, the blogs degenerate from a useful filtering mechanism on the net into a series of disjoined one-way conversations, connected together only by elite cross-linking. This is not the creation of a useful collaborative space. The tools exist on the Internet to build truly collaborative spaces. Instead of publishing free-form text, imagine the publication of XML-based templates that list the link, comments, the date, and other relevant information, such as Tomalak's Realm does to supplement his daily updates. This supplement to the free-form blog allows you to take the XML output, add it to your own series of links, and provide a true filtering mechanism. It is ironic that this shining example of the genre is actually not considered a true blog by purists, who label this site a “mere headline aggregator with pull quotes.”

XML support is present in Blog-hosting services such as weblogs.com and blogger.com and in popular software packages such as Manila and Custom Blogger. But, blogs are predominantly used to create islands of daily pronouncements, joined together by services that signal which blogs were recently updated or which site scooped others in picking up a link. But, if headline aggregation and link exchanges are the essence of the blogging paradigm, shouldn't the exchange of XML-based information among communities of bloggers be an integral of the process instead of an afterthought for power bloggers?

Writing on the Wall
“What good is a library without an index-catalogue? If you want a picture of the future of Cyberspace content, imagine all communication being filtered either through virtual corporate shopping mall menus or a Beavis and Butthead level kibitzing–forever. An infinite public urinal wall filled with nothing but trivial graffiti or disconnected truths which are essentially useless due to their sheer volume and the lack of factual verification.”

- Paul Mavrides
Sci-Fi Artist, Cult Personality

“You say you got a real solution...

...Well, you know, we'd all love to see the plan.” As the famous lyric goes, we're all asking for contributions, we're all doing what we can. The Internet medium is in its infancy, so it is often useful to step back and take note of the ever-present dynamics helping to shape it and our culture. Rome wasn't built in a day, and as Lisa Gitelman said, “no inventor is the beginning of a circuit, sprung whole, like Athena from the head of Zeus.” The Internet was built by a collaborative group of intelligent, hard-working engineers and architects who wanted to build something truly revolutionary for the common good. Blogs are a useful technique that is a contribution to the whole, but not a revolution. To call this minor movement a revolution is to buy into the latest marketing hype, disregard the notable contributions of many, and to attempt to create a movement where none exists.

In summary, as a publishing technique the blog will take its place in the ranks of programs such as DreamWeaver unless its power as a parasitic media form and collaborative filter are fully harnessed and realized. As a collaborative space-building exercise, the software currently fails to deliver on that promise, and the blogs themselves often degenerate into one-sided discussions to promote a series of small cults of personality. And, as a filter on the Web, the way blogs are predominately being used, more noise than signal is being added. Which leads to our primary criticism of blogs: observing the manner in which they are often used by their most ardent proponents, it sometimes appears as if the first “W” in World Wide Web stands for Wayne, and the point of the exercise is to prove that any two blogs are connected by only a few degrees of separation.

In all fairness, many of these folks have day jobs and make the blogs their contribution to the community. This is a noble sentiment, and a daily diary can certainly be useful when delivered as an adjunct to other activities. A personal filter on the net can also be useful when researched and crafted with care. And, some level of personal celebrity (or notoriety, as the case may be) can be put to good use in the filtering context. But to attempt to redefine the personal web space as a blog is to misunderstand the many personal efforts that exist on the net. Many times, the best of these efforts are highly personal but are not self-referential. So, how can these efforts be taken farther? How do we encourage the Manets, Van Goghs and Gauguins of the Web to unleash their unique creativity in a manner that both promotes and builds on a unified global vision and is inspirational to future generations?

Change The World...
...or just read what others have to say about the revolution.

One immediate solution is simple and within each of our grasps: strive to be socially responsible in your independent development efforts and build something real. Look at BugBios, for example. The creator, Dexter Sear, has a day job. He could publish a diary as his contribution to the net, but instead has come up with a beautiful site devoted to the "shameless promotion of insect appreciation." And Dexter is not alone. Others have devoted their personal bandwidth to charitable causes such as relaying the story of a personal hero, promoting a cause that is important to them, or trying to change the world. A personal site doesn't have to include the word “I,” “me” or “mine” to be personal. The individuals responsible for these online treasures may not be a household word with the in-crowd, but their work is a shining beacon of their accomplishment. This type of work will enlighten and influence aspiring developers to create something unique, instead of encouraging poseurs to hop on the latest Internet bandwagon just to be popular.

Revolution? Solution? Blogs let everybody get their Warholian 15 nanoseconds of fame, but to call this a revolution takes attention away from the real revolution: reaching out to build sites that matter.

other voices
09/30/00 Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic - A discussion at MetaFilter on the weblog revolution.
09/08/92 Beavis and Butthead - Poster children of the parasitic media revolution.
06/21/68 McCartney and Lennon - Poster children of mop-top haircuts and “Revolution 1.”
06/08/00 Blogs For Dogs - On the Internet, no one knows we're not a dog.
06/08/00 Doggie Ring - Blog with the Big Dogs.
08/1663 Samuel Pepys - A seventeenth-century “blog” highlighting daily events such as the Plague and The Great Fire of London.
12/09/99 If The Great Movies Had Been Websites - Zeldman waxes Web nostalgic and ponders the implications of an Orson Welles weblog.
09/08/00 Ad Infinitum - A recursive discussion at a weblog about an essay posted on a weblog on the history of the weblog.
09/29/00 Ad Nauseum - A little navel-gazing is nice sometimes, but how much is too much?
08/09/00 The Problem With Weblogs - An insightful aside on one of the things wrong with weblogs.
11/22/99 My Ass Is A Weblog - Yet another insightful aside by Greg Knauss.
06/01/99 An Open Letter To Jakob Nielsen - Clay Shirky makes some astute observations about homogenization and centralized control of the Web.
03/04/96 HyperTerrorist's Timeline of Hypertext History - The term “weblog” appears to be missing on this timeline provided by Jorn Barger.
05/28/99 Fear Of Links - Scott Rosenberg of Salon on the weblogging phenomenon.
03/13/00 Of Bonding and Bondage: Cult, Culture and the Internet - Denise Caruso rallies independent developers to respect the medium.
09/01/98 Outrage, Infamy, and the Celebrity Cult - One conservative viewpoint on the destructive role of the cult of celebrity.
06/30/95 FEED Magazine - Online home of erudite editor Steven Johnson, author of Interface Culture.
04/27/00 re: Malcom Gladwell - Steven Johnson interviews the author of The Tipping Point, a book that examines epidemics in our daily lives.
06/01/99 John Maeda @ ADC - The respected MIT Media Lab professor pays homage to Paul Rand and poo-poo's off-the-shelf software.
09/29/00 Indie Exposure - A call to action from A List Apart to independent content developers everywhere.
06/21/68 Join The Revolution! - If you want a revolution, maybe you should sing along?

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The medium is NOT the message. The world IS listening.