Anil Dash explains how the blogosphere has grown from a small, tight knit community to a pervasive engine of modern communication, and evaluates whether or not it’s a good thing for our culture.
Question: How has blogging changed since you started ten years ago?
Anil Dash: I think blogging has changed tremendously over the past decade. One, we didn’t really think of it consciously as something that would be quite so pervasive, quite so influential. So early on when I started reading blogs I felt like everybody in the community—a few dozen of us—read every other blog everyday.
That’s really hard to do when the other 100 million or so show up; you think, “Gosh, this is a little bit more than what we can read.” But there was a very, very strong sense of community, and what came from that was the same feeling I have being in this village here in New York, and where I live; saying, “I know who my neighbors are. Maybe I don’t know this person well, but their face is familiar to me”. The same way, their voice is familiar and so your norms for a community that size are really very thoughtful, very, very considerate.
Blogging today may has gotten a reputation as being a free for all [where] people can say anything, do anything. There are a lot of really unkind comments, because as newer sites came along, or newer bloggers came along, they hadn’t quite learned the lessons that you get after 5 years, 10 years of blogging—which are, you really want to make sure you have a human connection between the readers of your site, between you as a blogger and your readers. If you do these things, you can preserve the best elements of it. So, I think we’ve lost a little bit of the personal connection; certainly the biggest blogs have been the ones that define people’s perception to medium, and those are essentially just more broadcast or large-scale publishers like TV, radio and newspapers, where it is hard for them to keep a relationship with their readers.
Question: What is your take on the authenticity issues presented by blogs and new media?
Anil Dash: I think there’s a lot of a conversation where journalists say, “What do we do about the authenticity problem, how do we confront it?” I think the fact that I’m in the journalism world is described as a problem is very telling. The reality is humans are very well wired to evaluate the credibility of the source of their information all the time. We do it night and day. There was this pretense for a long time, when journalism was primarily a mass market endeavor, that you had to defend your credibility at all times and that nobody would know what your bias was if you sufficiently hid it. The thing is, we’ve always known. We’ve always been able to see through that, and so I think step one was acknowledging how much people wanted a real human voice—they will be their own judge as to whether there was a bias there, and what the background was. Then, the question of credibility comes up all the time.
What about if something CNN reads on the air from Twitter isn’t true, then it gets corrected, and that’s okay. As it turns out, a lot of what gets reported gets corrected later. I wish that they got it right the first take every time both in blogs or on TV or in newspapers or whatever, but the reality is we don’t know what something means right away. So the immediate reporting of a fact is only one step to figuring what the truth is, and the analysis that comes later is necessary to do that. If some of those initial facts are fuzzy or incorrect or even lies or deliberate act of deception—that actually happens all the time. I can think of a million political examples where what somebody is saying is actually the opposite of what they’re doing.
Question: Do you think the popularity of blogging has peaked?
Anil Dash: I think a lot of people are asking, “Is blogging over? Has it runs its course? Is this new thing cooler—Facebook or twitter?” You will know blogging has really truly succeeded when it becomes invisible. I think about this a lot with phone calls. I get introduced still at events as, “Oh, he’s a blogger.” and it feels a little bit like being introduced as an e-mailer or a phone caller. These are things we do everyday. You don’t think about them as a conscious act. Its just part of what you do to communicate to the world. We’re still a few years away from everybody realizing that every time they take a phone, a phone camera picture and they post it up somewhere they are acting as a blogger. Everytime you jot down a couple of notes online and show them with your friends or write “Check out this link,” that is blogging. It doesn’t have to go by that name to be that important act of documenting what you think matters to you. That fundamental act of connecting and sharing and building a relationship with someone around the things you share with them, that’s empowering in a way.
When I used to work in television or the music industry, I never could have made the show on my own. I never could have made an album on my own. I never could have made a film on my own. But a blog I can do entirely by myself. I can, I have to create a document of what I’ve done. That impulse will never go away. There will always be somebody that has something to say. This is what I want to do all by myself—get my word out there. The fact that people think that’s possible—I talked to young people, I said, “What can you do with the book?” and they were like “Oh, you can read it. You can put a cover on it. You put it on a shelf.” And I said, “What can you do with the web?” and they said “I can make it. I can create it.” That is the fundamental difference that blogging brought about. As long as that’s true and people feel like this is a place where they can create and express themselves blogging, it is fine whether the name is there or not.
Question: What do you make of claims that today’s blogosphere and social media tools do more to drive people apart than to bring them together?
Anil Dash: People ask a lot about, is the web bringing us together or taking us apart? I think culture has changed the point where shared experiences much less common. As we talk today, it’s very close to the 40th anniversary of landing on the moon, and that was one of the definitive universal experiences around the world. Everybody had that experience whether it was on TV, radio or newspaper. There was a moment we all shared. Those are fewer and fewer.
We place pride in saying it’s more human or personal to call our moms than to chat with them on instant messenger. I don’t know why we feel that way, they’re just different. We go the other extremes as well—a handwritten letter is the most personal. Well, that doesn’t feel personal as a phone call to me, but it is supposed to be valuable because it is permanent. Well, what if she permanently archives her instant messenger conversation? These things are artifacts of our moment in history. We are trained to teach that something new is inhumane and impersonal, technical and sterile, and that everything old is warm and analog and expressive; I don’t feel that way. I have emails that I cherish and I value, and I wish that we create technologies that honor that. I don’t want to throw away all my SMS when I get a new phone. I want to save those somewhere.
If done right, these technologies are designed to help us communicate with people we otherwise wouldn’t be able to, people we didn’t know we had something in common with. They can help us discover a commonality. They have been architectured to create shared experiences very well, so we’re losing a lot of our cultural touchstones—something that everybody knows, a song that everybody knows, the words to a video everybody has seen—but they had done a good job of making all of us say, “Oh I saw is this funny YouTube video” and I pass it along, and that is shared experience as much as millions of people sitting around watching the finale of MASH decades ago, or watching a Superbowl. Done right, these technologies are going to bring us together.
The web is a tool for connections; it is what it is designed to be. I think the fact that a lot of people don’t feel that way has been because the first attempts, and a lot of social networks or social software on the web, have been created by people that are bad in building relationships both personally and as architects of communities. But we can fix that. The first decade of the web was pretty bad at that but we’re getting better at making real connections online, and I think when it reaches its potential the web will bind us together in ways that television never could, that will make a phone or a hand written letter seem as rudimentary as they are.
Recirded on: July 17 2009