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November 7, 2004

BloggerCon III: Notes and Observations on the People of Moore's Law

"The people of Moore's law are not necessarily optimistic about events in the world, but it's so normal to them they don't realize how optimistic is their casual assumption that platforms change, and new, more powerful, progressively smarter ones will get built."

Palo Alto, CA, Nov. 7: Last night we said farewell to another BloggerCon, the third in the series begun by Dave Winer, creator of Scripting News and lots of other things. The first two were in Cambridge, MA at the Harvard Law School. The third shifted to a similar venue, Stanford Law School, in the heart of Silicon Valley, headquarters for what people at the conference frequently call “the tech community.”

It is for me one of the primary pleasures of BloggerCon that a good number of participants—the majority, in fact—seem to think they are attending a tech conference, a little matter of interpretation that separates me from them. In my view BloggerCon is not a tech conference—it’s about democracy, and the blogger’s “producerist” vision of it—but I am perfectly happy when others define the event differently. Part of a good conference is the clash of interpretations, which includes definitions of what the event is for and even which “normal” will be the norm.

I learn from the tech part of BloggerCon, although I understand only 50 percent of what’s going on in most discussions. It is also inspiring for me to be around tech people (especially the younger ones) when they get engaged in politics, writing, civic invention and what is sometimes called “arguing the world.” (Link.)

In hanging around the patio with them, and listening at the sessions, what I find remarkable and educational is the ease in which they accept that the platforms we build our work on, the systems we have for doing things, will in a few years wear out, and get superseded, just as a matter of course. The people of Moore’s law are not necessarily optimistic about events in the world, but it’s so normal to them they don’t realize how optimistic is their casual assumption that platforms change, and new, more powerful, progressively smarter ones will get built. We’ll be able to do way more.

That kind of overturn hasn’t happened in mainstream journalism for at least 30 years, and almost no one in mainstream journalism is ready for it to happen now. But in the tech community, even the kids in college have lived through a couple of revolutions. It’s no big deal.

The tech conference theme was especially strong this year because of the location: Silicon Valley. Many of the people attending BloggerCon III had careers in the tech industry. They were software developers, or had started and lost a tech business. They saw blogging and social software generally as the “next” thing coming up, one sign of a revival in the Valley after the Big Crash. Someone told me $60 million had been invested so far in blogging tools and the companies making them.

Some of the more prominent bloggers who gathered at Stanford are, likewise, writers and journalists in the tech world. They know all too well about tech industry conferences. Apparently, these events have a reputation for arrangements that are not altogether intellectually honest. This is because companies sponsor conferences, and therefore feel a right to sponsored speech. This history burst into the room in the wrap-up at BloggerCon, which unfortunately was dominated by a dispute over a Dave Winer-enforced BloggerCon rule that says vendors are not to promote their products. (Here’s a post about it.)

I told Dave in the parking lot of Ricky’s Hyatt the next day that I didn’t think the wrap-up should have been about that. He told me why it happened. Again I understood about 50 percent of it, but I realized that here it did matter what definition of the event people carried around in their heads.

BloggerCon is not a tech conference because blogging is not fundamentally for “techies,” it is for citizens, for everyone, by which we mean a good blogger could be anyone. And of course techies heartily agree with this. (That’s another thing I like about them; democrats about their own inventions.) BloggerCon is primarily for the producers of blogs, who find they have to gather now and then in order to understand what they’re doing, pool their knowledge, look ahead— and chat each other up.

When the tech industry is the base line for discussion, these people are called users, because that is how they stand toward the technology. But blogging is about how people stand toward their democracy, toward the public square, toward the First Amendment. Suddenly, when they start to blog, or comment at weblogs, they become producers of argument, of information, of social criticism and civic connection— producers of media in the same online space as Big Media. And if freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, bloggers own one.

A producer democracy is altogether differerent thing from the consumer-driven version most of us were raised on. It has a different media system too. Dan Gilmor’s essential book, We the Media, expresses and inscribes this idea.

At Stanford there was another crowd mixed in: people who build things for bloggers (and spend the $60 million.) BloggerCon is for them too because they are trying to make blogging more productive, better. A third group in attendance at BloggerCon III are stakeholders from industry, journalism and academia, who feel they cannot afford to ignore this sudden class of producers.

It’s fascinating to hear the stories from a public relations executive, a strategic planner for the Associated Press, an outreach expert from the BBC, a law professor who doesn’t blog (yet) but feels he has to know about it. If you ask them why they came, it never has to do with the tech industry. They sense some kind of social momentum; they are curious about where blogging will go in the wider universe. They have, I believe, an intimation of what a “producerist” democracy looks like. They want to see it for themselves.

Dave Winer, conference creator, calls Bloggercon a users’ conference. This is a perfectly good language and an excellent idea: the weekend is not about the vendors, he says, it’s for the users. They own the conference and are the conference. The vendors can come, but on the users’ terms. I agree with this approach.

But it’s worth adding that it’s only a contingency—the way things happened to work out in this case—that many of the first bloggers were people who were around the technology, or who invented blogging tools, so they were the ones who blogged. The roots of blogging are in the tech industry, and people in technology circles are still disproportionately involved. However, that is going to fade as democratic diffusion takes place. It won’t matter as much where it started. When there’s a Slashdot for knitting, the techies—who don’t knit—will have succeeded.

The producer revolution in media is related to a possible producer revolution in politics, and both are related to a broader revolution in knowledge, the one that confronts medical doctors with patients who have researched the medication the doctor just prescribed and talked via the Internet with other patients who have done the same thing. Medical authority doesn’t disappear in this new world. But it has to take sudden account of knowledge-producing patients who have their own ways of finding out what works.

Interactive authority in medicine is not going to be the same kind of authority—“I know, you don’t, so listen to me.” The search for what replaces do-what-I-say medicine is an important search for practitioners in medicine. I see blogging as partly about that. In the field I know best, journalism, it could not be clearer that the terms of authority are changing. It’s not that “no one trusts the press.” It’s that trust is not going to be established any longer on the old terms that “traditional” trust-me journalism thought immutable and just.

There can be new terms, as described in the New York Times Magazine cover story on political blogging:

A pizza-stained paper plate sat between Moulitsas and Atrios. Together, they have more readers than The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Exactly. And it’s more readers who are deeply engaged and in fact help produce a site like Daily Kos. The people in the tech industry are used to this happening. Upstarts upend everything. Happens all the time! Journalists don’t even know that it’s happening, or what that pizza-stained plate means for them.

Producer democracy may never come to fruition (it’s only a vision, and hard to achieve) but the experimental pursuit of this vision by blogging—-and not Silicon Valley’s next new thing—is how I define the purpose of BloggerCon. The event is a gathering of producers, people who “own one” and speak freely through it.

Users? Bloggers I see as vendors to the public square, suppliers for the national conversation. The speak to a public that is potentially world wide. For my money—another great thing about BloggerCon: it’s free—you cannot do better than Chris Lydon’s motto for political blogging: “take back the conversation.”

After BloggerCon I (Oct. 2003) I said: that was fun, a cult of bloggers. After BloggerCon II (Aprill 2004) I said: that was fun, a community of bloggers. At BloggerCon III it felt like a nation of bloggers was getting it together (well, half a nation, the blue half.) Maybe BloggerCon IV should be global somehow.

London calling, several people said to me. “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.” (Leonard Cohen.) Anyone for setting BloggerCon IV in Waco, Texas? You know, closest town to Crawford, Texas and the President’s ranch. Think what interesting posts you would get from the wild heart of Bush country.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links

What do you think? Is it twilight for the users conference frame? Is there a point to these BloggerCon things? Share impressions, reactions and reflections on BC III— or argue the world. Hit the comment button and speak.

Technorati’s aggregator for BloggerCon posts. Morning after comment thread where Blogger participants give thanks, suggestions, initial reactions. This is the BloggerCon blog.

Attention BloggerCon participants. To be a “BloggerCon participant” means you blog about it— you know, produce good posts. If you don’t know what to write, or have too much to say, just tell us one thing you learned, and how it happened that at BloggerCon you learned it.

Good summary of the Politics session with Ed Cone from Extension 337. (And here is an Ed Cone article on blogs and Senate campaigns.) Also, Renee Blodgett at Down the Avenue has a good wrap-up. She quotes my remarks in the final session as: “When I went to the first BloggerCon, I went home and said ‘Cool, a cult of bloggers. When I went to the second BloggerCon, I went home and said ‘Cool, a community of bloggers.’ At the third Bloggercon, Iíll go home and say, ‘Cool, a nation of bloggers.’” One Pilgrim’s Walk gives a summary of the session I moderated on academia. JZip has another, quite detailed. Thanks!

Doc Searls posted his photo file.

There’s now an audio file of my session on blogging and the academic world at IT Conversations.

Wired, in a report from BloggerCon, on candidates and blogging.

Tim Oren, Foolish Mobs: Why Does The Networked Left Keep Losing? Provocative and useful, but I find it odd that he refers to “left technology determinists” (and how wrong they were) without naming any, linking to any, or sampling their foolish pronouncements.

David Kirkpatrick in Fortune Magazine… To Slog or to Blog: Is the Future of Media in the Blog? What commercial media websites can learn from taking the unconventional approach of bloggers. (Nov. 4, 2004)

Blogs aren’t merely an alternative to the press or a critical commentary on it. They are symbiotic with it. And the software that enables blogging is getting so simple to use that almost anybody can use it. That’s why the power of this medium will grow over time.

New York Times Magazine, Fear and Laptops on the Campaign Trail, by Matthew Klam.

Posted by Jay Rosen at November 7, 2004 11:21 PM