This article appeared in the February 26, 2001, issue of the Industry Standard.
One of the consolations of the dot-com shakeout is that it provides a much-needed opportunity to take the long view. Now that we know that first movers often turn out to be first losers, the need for speed seems much less pressing than the need for perspective. It’s a good time, in other words, to step back and take a look at the ways the Internet is changing some basic patterns of social behavior.
Which brings me to the strange world of blogs. A blog – the word is a contraction of “Web log” – is a simple online diary that can be created with a free Web-based application called Blogger. The product of Pyra Labs, a ragtag, barely solvent startup in San Francisco, Blogger is the most interesting Internet app since Napster. It’s interesting not because it makes the creation and updating of Web pages easier than ever (although it does), but because it takes online communication down to its simplest and most personal form: paragraphs arranged chronologically and marked with date and time stamps. People, mostly teenagers and college students, use blogs to broadcast to the world moment-by-moment accounts of their lives. And the little app is catching on fast. According to Evan Williams, Pyra’s CEO, 100,000 people have registered to use Blogger since its launch a year ago; in January alone, 20,000 users signed up.
Having spent a couple of days reading blogs, I can report that the vast majority are puerile in the extreme – the random droolings of adolescent minds. But the individual blogs aren’t what make Blogger important; it’s the way the blogs connect with one another. Blogs typically are filled with links to other blogs, and in browsing through them you soon realize that they form the communications infrastructure for tightly knit, often extraordinarily intimate Web communities. People share their lives through their blogs. (Yes, this was always the promise of the Web, but Blogger actually delivers on it.)
The rapid spread of Blogger underscores two crucial facts about the Internet, both with important business ramifications. First, the Net is a plastic medium; new applications can quickly change the way people use it. That was true of Napster, and it’s true of Blogger. And the most revolutionary applications tend to emerge not from commercial organizations but from passionate amateurs – from people more interested in doing something cool than in making money. Although the creators of Napster and Blogger are trying desperately to retrofit business models to their inventions, the real impact of the technologies has been to enable people to do things for free that they used to have to pay to do.
Second, the Internet remains primarily a platform for communication, not commerce. Most people go online to talk, learn and explore, not buy. Just look at usage patterns during the holiday season. According to a Pew Internet Project study of online activities during the holidays, 53 percent of Internet users sent greetings through e-mail, 32 percent sent e-greeting cards, 24 percent gathered information about holiday celebrations, and 14 percent researched religious traditions. Only 24 percent purchased gifts.
The upshot? Unlike traditional media, the Internet provides individuals with unprecedented power to shape what they do, how they do it and whom they do it with. Using Blogger and other community-building apps such as ICQ and Aimster, people will customize the Internet to their own needs and desires, regardless of the economic interests of businesses. Most companies have not come to grips with this. They continue to pursue business models that assume consumers can be herded, and they continue to see those business models fail.
Adapting to the radical malleability of the Internet will become all the more important as time passes. An entire generation is now learning to manipulate the Net in ways that few adults can even imagine. Call it Generation Blog.