Blogs as news

I met with the boss of a major publishing firm today. It was because I was pitching an old-school printed paper book idea to him. Fortunately he loved the idea, and I loved it even more when he said he prefers books to be shorter rather than longer… though he was thinking of 55,000 words as short. Rather longer than the average blog post.

I asked him about blogs, how his firm might promote the new book online and he did outline the fact that they have quite a sophisticated global online strategy, including some strong media links as well as excellent global distribution for the books. But he did mention something interesting to me – he never reads blogs.
This is the director of a major publisher. Should those of us who blog regularly be shocked or should it be something of a wake-up call?
I hear a similar message all the time in boardrooms across the world: “I read the paper, I watch the TV, but I don’t get any news from blogs because it’s too much hassle to remember the good ones and to return to them…” The same could be argued for podcasts and video blogs. When I tell people that I get a huge amount of my daily news from podcasts they often look at me as if I’m from another planet – yet if I said I just listened to BBC Radio 4 it would provoke no reaction at all.
Blogs are gaining status because of the social networks that allow them to be marketed to a large audience. Prior to the wide adoption of Twitter and Facebook you either used an RSS reader or just returned to favourite blogs regularly.
Now you just follow your Twitter stream and the blogs that matter all come to you. So does this mean that the only people who read blogs are those who also use social media?

My books

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Well, I guess it depends on your priorities. In any case, the quality of blogs and other social media varies wildly (not to mention the quality of comments ;-)). As a result, many of us still find ourselves gravitating towards blogs related to trusted "brands" anyway, such as Computer Weekly or preferred newspapers, as a way of homing in on the "good" stuff, even if the contents of these are often heavily influenced by commercial considerations. Not really so revolutionary, then. As for content, we are definitely in the realm of Sturgeon's Law (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon's_Law) where "90% of everything is crud", and it often seems that in cyberspace no-one can hear you scream, because they're all too busy screaming themselves. These new media make access and communication much easier, but it's the message that counts, not the medium. So your focus on blogs etc as marketing tools actually illustrates why I for one tend to be fairly sceptical of much of what I read in the blogosphere. The fake authenticity of many commercially sponsored blogs pastes a thin veneer of modern technology over a very traditional message: Buy this! Only thanks to the new technology, the suckers will actually volunteer to swallow - sorry "follow" - advertising online. But marketing is still marketing, whether it's shoved through my door by a weary postman or posted online as an advertorial complete with tweets and its own Facebook page. Of course, there are many excellent independent blogs out there, but the ease of online publishing also eliminates any kind of quality threshold, so you have to wade through a lot of lesser material to reach the good stuff. Your publisher might well feel he and his colleagues already do enough of that in their day jobs. And speaking of jobs, not all jobs are about following what other people are doing, or confusing noise for meaningful communication. I can spend all day reading tech blogs (and how sad is that?), but I'm paid to produce software. Sure, the blogs are a useful source of information but there is a trade-off between online "research" and actually getting the job done. In an increasingly time-poor commercial world of information-overload, the most productive thing to do might actually be to disconnect from all this noise and give yourself space to think creatively for yourself. Finally, your remark that "you just follow your Twitter stream and the blogs that matter all come to you" reveals an important general truth about online media: these channels tend to pre-filter material, either because they focus on specialist areas, or because you apply filters yourself to cut the tsunami of data down to manageable proportions. Like jittery currency traders, they can also be prone to self-reinforcing feedback effects: if a post or blog is popular, it becomes even more popular regardless of the merits of the actual content (which I guess is the goal of marketing anyway, but the world isn't exactly short of advertising already, is it?) More generally, the end result is that you can end up hearing only about stuff you already know about from people who already agree with you, like all those comments on so many blogs that consist simply of links back to similar blogs/pages: a constant regression to the mean determined by Amazon-style recommendations that "People who think X may also think Y". For all this explosion of media channels, and for all our supposed freedom of choice, we risk becoming digital sheep grazing meekly in an astroturfed playpen. No challenges to our pre-conceptions, no space to breathe or think, and no danger of any serendipitous surprises. For example, last week I could have spent an evening catching up on the blogs, but instead I found myself watching a BBC4 programme about Wagner that I hadn't intended to watch - far more interesting, challenging and rewarding. Sure, I could probably have found some fascinating blogs about 19th century classical music instead, but the fact is it probably wouldn't have occurred to me to look for one in the first place. So if I have specific goals, in work or otherwise, then blogs can be a useful resource up to a point. If I am simply surfing for fun, then they can be interesting and entertaining, but there are many more rewarding sources of intellectual stimulation. Either way, there's more to life and work than (anti-?)social media!
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