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June 28, 2004

Letter to Bill Gates, Soon to be a Weblogger

I heard that Bill Gates may be blogging. In the Seattle Times, which broke the story, Barry Mitzman is identified as "a former public-television host who helps Gates write materials such as position papers." He was told the news. "That's cool," he said. "If Bill were to do a blog, that would be very interesting. I'd read it." But would I? Will you? Advice to Gates follows...

June 28, 2004

Dear Mr. Gates:

Welcome to weblog writing. Since you are the person who least needs my advice, I am perhaps the best person to give you advice on the matter of what your weblog should be about, and how to do it reasonably well.

Instead of, “I need a blog myself,” start at: I need a self to blog with. You are less likely to go awry that way. Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine says: know my blog, know me. This condenses into five words his experience of meeting people who said: man, you’re exactly like your weblog. Jarvis thinks there is something common to successful weblogs in that experience, and I agree.

Dave Winer, who’s been doing this a while, calls it, “the voice of a person.” (A group weblog: the sound of six people.) Joi Ito says: my blog is like my house. People hang out there because they like the atmosphere. Of course, the author has to be comfortable in the house first.

It’s the person that comes through. That’s what these authors are saying. Self filtered through world. (Or be funny. If you can do funny, I will read you.) But just because a blog is inherently personal doesn’t mean it should have tidbits about the private life of Bill Gates. The Seattle Times story was a little discouraging on this point: “He’s expected to share personal details such as tidbits from recent vacations, according to tech pundit Mary Jo Foley’s Microsoft Watch newsletter.”

Now that would be awful—- a celebrity weblog. I say don’t share any of your personal life, not a word. Do share some of your public life, by which I mean your outlook on the larger world, especially problems where you have already taken some initiative, and invested time.

Most people are today assuming that you will blog about Microsoft products, the software industry, and the road ahead for technology companies— the sort of things that are in your speeches. But the “tech biz” is not the right frame or focus. Strike industry talk right away from the comparison list for blogging.

Indeed, there was a certain cluelessness in the Seattle Times account when it came to describing what the weblog “trend” is all about. “Yes,” said your home town newspaper, “the world’s richest man may start his own blog, one of those online diaries that have been the rage among techies for the past three or four years.”

The rage among techies… That might have been apt three years ago. The only rage worth talking about today, in a news story about blogging, is the worldwide rage for personal authorship generally, for self-insertion into the public world, residence in the new media space emerging online, via the incredibly simple device of citizen with weblog, plus digital camera (and so on.) Techies? That’s not the audience. Customers? You have many other forums for them.

I have a different idea: Do a newsy blog. Something like: Bill Gates reads the headlines. Gates on politics and world affairs. Gates on the spread of freedom and markets, war and peace, public education, AIDS prevention, the limits of technology, the misery of Africa, and the difficulty of solving messy global problems. Gates on why the politicians are sometimes a joke. The big picture Gates. The occasionally angry Gates. Even the ranting Gates. The man who had to expand his knowledge in order to extend the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to its practical, global and problem-solving agenda.

Bill Gates the global man—as might appear at the World Economic Forum in Davos—is a little closer, but not there. The weblog, we know, is not a lectern, or a seat on the rostrum. But I’m told you are quite an e-mailer. For me, it is one of the more entertaining legends about you, because I identify, as I think most people would, with the naive receiver: young geek getting his first email from Boss of the World. Gulp.

So in rifling through the possible selves for speaking in, when you start your blog, “Bill Gates, precision e-mail bomber” seems right to me, but switch the premise. It’s an email to the reading public, the intelligent lay audience, the global market for news and commentary. If occasionally, people are startled to find themselves and their problems addressed, then your strikes are hitting their mark. If you have unpredictable opinions then share them. Doc Searls says: Blogging “may be partisan in many cases, but it is also inconclusive.” That means you get to change your mind.

The late night email bomber of Gates lore goes public about events and problems in the world that you know and care about. Bill Gates, real person, rich person, de-illusioned person, satirical person, reads the headlines, edits the Web (Rebecca Blood calls it the “filter style of weblogging”) and sometimes speaks out. Presenting from a certain angle not the man behind the aging boy genius CEO Microsoft Founder persona, but an author’s deliberate and public persona, behind which stands a man with a biography, and in which we can hear the voice of a person.

Should you have ghostwriters? No. Helpers, yes. To go with your new blog, I recommend a new blogger. One body, not a fleet. Hire some kid—or maybe not a kid, a writer you trust—with a feel for the weblog form and its larger, public sphere.

This lucky person’s only job is doing the Gates blog with you, but never for you. Blogger interviews you for five minutes and weaves what you say into quick, biting commentary. Blogger fetches killer links for your three-sentence riff on the Wall Street Journal story you read. Blogger writes in his or her own voice, closely attuned to yours, when you’re too busy elsewhere.

Blogger handles e-mail and comment threads at the blog, turning them into posts. Blogger edits your blog roll, moving items on and off recommended lists and such. Blogger does special section: Gates and His Critics. Every year, recruit new talent to the job, as with Supreme Court clerkships. Fire them if you can’t hear yourself in every detail of your blog.

Two more things, Mr. Gates. In your company there are over 800 blogs by employees. (Partial list.) I know that in your calculations about weblogs and the Net you have factored in business blogging. But that factor begins with freedom of speech for employees who blog.

You speak often as Microsoft as a leader. One of the simplest ways of making this so would be a Bill of Rights for Microsoft bloggers, or at least a determination to widen protection for their freedom of speech. This involves, of course, your own perceived openness to debate and minority opinion— and even controversy from time to time.

It might be good to ask yourself: How political can people be who work for Microsoft and become weblog authors? How personal can they get? How real? You can set an industry standard for openness and dissent allowed in weblog writing, and you can begin at your own blog.

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” wrote A.J. Liebling in 1960. Well, increasingly every citizen owns one. This puts pressure on all guarantees. My advice is get out front, and if you have to fight with company lawyers it’s worth it to make a little history.

Finally, a history lesson glancing backward. Rich, famous and powerful people have always had three options in dealing with a micro-inquisitive press. The first is to have it threatened, muzzled, jailed— a method still at large around the world. The second is to simply hide from the press, lock it out. (Think Sonny smashing a photographer’s camera in The Godfather, wedding scene.) The third, more modern and truly American way is, of course, public relations, which is not just a practice but a mentality, the business of selling applied to self and all possible forms of publicity.

An original weblog by Bill Gates—rich, famous, powerful, controversial person—could be a fourth way a business titan deals with the press: as author and critic, reading the headlines, putting certain ideas at risk, inserting himself into public conversation as a citizen of the planet, a reader of the news, (a sharp, funny person) editing the Web like all good weblogs do, and finding a honest voice in which to speak. Cure your blog of public relations, every hint and drop, or don’t do it at all.

Best of luck with it, Mr. Gates.

Jay Rosen

AfterMath: Notes, reactions & links

Okay, what do you think? What should Bill Gates do with his new weblog? Hit the comment button and venture a view.

Seattle Times, Bill Gates could join the ranks of bloggers.

Email exchange with Lawrence Lessig:

Bill Gates may start a blog. My letter asks for a bill of rights for Mircosoft bloggers. What do you think he should blog about, Lessig?

Lessig: That would be very cool. Though no, I don’t think he knows how to speak authentically anymore.

So at a certain point authentic speech becomes impossible for some public figures and their weblog can only be PR or manipulation?

Lessig: Or he should prove me wrong.

Fair enough.

Microsoft employee and blogger Robert Scoble says in comments:

I can’t tell you what Microsoft’s financial results will be next quarter. I have to represent the corporation in a professional manner — and “being professional” is in the eye of the beholder.

In fact, if Gates were to blog I think this would be the major problem: can Gates be himself? I don’t think so. For a whole raft of reasons.

I still don’t know if Bill is gonna blog, though. It’ll be interesting to see if he does.

“My idea: The Vision Thing Blog.” Over at Scobelizer, Christopher Coulter writes:

I don’t agree with Jay’s advice. Gates as Glenn Reynolds-styled save-the-world political cause-of-the-moment blogger? Ummmmm no thanks. And getting stuck in the daily techie news, comment quip trench is boring and redundant, eternal conversations without going anywhere. And I don’t want a Bill Gates Tour 2004 type of Blog, he’s not a rock band.

I think the Gates blog that needs to be out there, is the “vision thing” blog. Big picture, grand ideas of where things should go, The Road Ahead style; his Essays are a good clue, go in that direction. But then blogs NEED to be personal too, needs to share insights, things not filtered through the prose-killing PR machines.

So Big Picture and the Human, but how human CAN a person who can buy the world a Coke 14 times over ever really be? He’s superhuman. And privacy issues at play here too. But maybe something like letting his kids play with Tablets and insights from that; items like that. Personal, and human, but abstract that still fits into the big picture. (This is Coulter’s site, link wasn’t working for me.)

Julie Leung, What I hope Bill Gates Will Blog.

I’m eager to hear his take on the headlines of the day. Yet when I think about what I want to read on Bill G.’s blog, some different questions come to my mind…

In “What Makes a Weblog a Weblog,” Dave Winer says about the authors: “they are writing about their own experience. And if there’s editing it hasn’t interfered with the style of the writing. The personalities of the writers come through. That is the essential element of weblog writing, and almost all the other elements can be missing, and the rules can be violated… as long as the voice of a person comes through, it’s a weblog.”

Jeff Jarvis adds: “Who needs to be humanized more than Bill Gates? Who needs a means of talking directly to the people without enough filters to clean up the Hudson more than Bill Gates? What modern business mind would be more fascinating to step into more than Bill Gates? Plus, we fellow bloggers can suddenly find ourselves in the same club with Bill Gates. And we can all hope to get a little Gates link love (a Microlanche?).”

Jarvis suggests the nearest parallel to a Bill Gates weblog would be Mark Cuban’s. He is the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and made his money in the technology biz. See his bio.

World Editors Weblog: “…all this assumes that Gates has some sort of higher motivation beyond Microsoft and Gates Foundation PR for (possibly) starting a blog, and that the world at large, or at least a significant group of people, care about his political opinions. Is that so?”

Scott Rosenberg of Salon, Blogs, bosses and bucks: “The blogs you’re going to see from within most traditional companies will be either uninformative snoozes or desperate attempts at butt-covering and -kissing. Not because people don’t have great stories to tell — but because telling the truth has too high a cost.”

Ross Mayfield on the need for a Standard Weblog Employee Policy, with links to some that exist and other arguments for it. See also his post, Corporate Blogging and the Boss.

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 28, 2004 2:37 PM