The Internet era was born around 20 years ago, when Netscape went public in August of 1995 and caught the world by storm with its highly successful IPO. For many people, myself included, the Netscape IPO marked the passage of the Internet from a network primarily used by universities, research labs and the technical community in general, to the universal platform for content, communications and commerce it’s since become.
The Internet ushered the rise of a highly connected economy all around us, whose magnitude and implications were nicely captured by NY Times columnist Tom Friedman in his 2005 bestseller The World is Flat. But it’s a measure of how fast things are changing that, as Friedman observed in a conference in 2011, the environment he described was already out of date. In a short 6 years, we were already transitioning from the connected world of PCs, browsers and web servers he wrote about, to the hyperconnected world of smart mobile devices, cloud computing and broadband wireless networks, a transition that in 2015 is now in full swing.
Friedman’s words came to mind as I was reflecting on the evolution of blogging since I posted my first blog in May of 2005.
According to Wikipedia, something like blogging got its start with the advent of the Internet era in the mid 1990s, although the term weblog, later abbreviated to blog, didn’t come into being until the latter part of the decade. In its early years, blogging was mostly viewed as something geeks did, - technical knowledge was required since the tools were fairly primitive, - or as a narcissistic endeavor, - early blogs often felt like online personal diaries.
This all started to change in the early 2000s. The advent of easy-to-use tools and platforms brought blogging to a much larger, non-technical population. People started to blog about a wide variety of topics, from politics and journalism to business and technology. Internal company blogs, only accessible to employees, began to appear. By the mid 2000s, blogging was growing quite rapidly and had made its way from the fringes to the Internet mainstream.
In the Spring of 2005, IBM was getting ready to launch a major blogging initiative, - including the publication of an excellent Blogging Policy and Guidelines, - to encourage its employees to join the rapidly expanding blogosphere. As part of the initiative, colleagues urged me start my own blog, given my close association with IBM’s Internet strategy. I was worried about the commitment of time and energy it entailed, as well as whether I would have enough to write about week in, week out. But the excitement building up around the new IBM blogging initiative pushed me over the edge. I finally took the plunge with that first blog 10 years ago this month, and have continued doing so every week since then.
In those early days, I wrote about my experiences with blogging every few months. When I go back and read those entries in that giddy first year, what comes through is an unexpected sense of wonderment and excitement about being a blogger, part of the emerging, mysterious, amorphous blogosphere. For example, in December of 2005 I wrote about my feelings after the first several months of blogging:
“At heart, blogging is very personal, intensely so. After all, this is all about writing: deciding what you want to write about, organizing your thoughts on the chosen subject, and finally, finding the needed ‘quality time’ to put your thoughts down ‘on paper.’ I did not anticipate how much effort writing this blog would take. I also did not anticipate how much I would enjoy doing it.”
“At the same time, blogging is all about community. Like so much in the last ten years, blogging has to be considered in the context of the rise of the Internet and the World Wide Web. You share what you have to say with others out there by posting your blog entries on the Web. You link to other people's blogs and more generally to content on the Web. People out there somehow find and read what you write, and can post comments or link your entry to their own blogs if they so wish. Sharing what you have to say with other people and hearing from them is very much part of the enjoyment of blogging. It is this balance between the personal and the collaborative that gives blogging its unique flavor.”
Why I Blog, published in November of 2008 in The Atlantic by author and editor Andrew Sullivan, is one of the best articles I’ve read on the subject. Sullivan reminds us what a web log shares in common with its namesake, the ship log.
“In journeys at sea that took place before radio or radar or satellites or sonar, these [ship] logs were an indispensable source for recording what actually happened. They helped navigators surmise where they were and how far they had traveled and how much longer they had to stay at sea. . . A log provided as accurate an account as could be gleaned in real time.”
“As you read a log, you have the curious sense of moving backward in time as you move forward in pages - the opposite of a book. As you piece together a narrative that was never intended as one, it seems - and is - more truthful. Logs, in this sense, were a form of human self-correction. They amended for hindsight, for the ways in which human beings order and tidy and construct the story of their lives as they look back on them. Logs require a letting-go of narrative because they do not allow for a knowledge of the ending. So they have plot as well as dramatic irony - the reader will know the ending before the writer did.”
“Anyone who has blogged his thoughts for an extended time will recognize this world. We bloggers have scant opportunity to collect our thoughts, to wait until events have settled and a clear pattern emerges. We blog now - as news reaches us, as facts emerge. A reporter can wait - must wait - until every source has confirmed. A novelist can spend months or years before committing words to the world. For bloggers, the deadline is always now. Blogging is therefore to writing what extreme sports are to athletics: more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive. It is, in many ways, writing out loud.”
I really like Sullivan’s view of blogging as an on-the-fly-narrative piecing together disparate events. It’s been particularly applicable to me, as my blog has been a record of the major changes in my professional life over the past decade, when after working for one company, - as I did for 37 years at IBM until June of 2007, - I transitioned to the more distributed phase of my career, consulting with a few companies and being affiliated with a few universities.
The weekly blogs I’ve been writing for the past 10 years constitute the overall narrative of my professional interests. They chronicle the different topics I’ve worked on over the years, as well as the different institutions I’ve been affiliated with. And, not being exclusively involved with one company in one industry, I’ve had the freedom to think, explore and learn about all kinds of new problems that interest me, many of which then become fodder for my blogs.
Blogging has added a significant degree of discipline to my fairly eclectic life. Given the different institutions I work with, my calendar looks very different from day to day and week to week. But the one constant is the weekly blog which I have been writing since May of 2005. Writing and editing each post consumes quite a number of hours each week, let alone the time it takes to think what to write about and how to best frame the subject. For me, blogging has played an important role over the past decade, providing a structure and a narrative to my otherwise, unstructured professional life.
Blogging has undergone major changes over these past 10 years, - as has the Internet in general. Beyond personal blogs like mine, there are now many different kinds of blogs including group blogs where posts are written by more than one author; microblogs, including the many posted in Twitter and Facebook; institutional blogs from a company, government agency or other organization; and topical blogs on all kinds of genres - politics, health, travel, gardening, parenting, and so on. In addition, blogs have also become a part of online mass media, giving reporters a more informal channel to their stories as well as welcoming guest columnists, as is the case with my own blog, a version of which is also published in the WSJ’s CIO Journal.
“This form of instant and global self-publishing… removes from the act of writing any considered or lengthy review. It is the spontaneous expression of instant thought - impermanent beyond even the ephemera of daily journalism. It is accountable in immediate and unavoidable ways to readers and other bloggers, and linked via hypertext to continuously multiplying references and sources. Unlike any single piece of print journalism, its borders are extremely porous and its truth inherently transitory.”