From Weblog to Moblog
By Justin Hall, Thu Nov 21 13:15:00 GMT 2002
UPDATED: What happens when weblogs go mobile? Searching reality for friends and information.
First was the distribution of the Web, making worldwide digital publishing available to anyone with an Internet connection. Millions of people made mostly static web pages, introducing themselves to other people, around the world.
Then came the weblog: with the proliferation of site-building tools like Blogger, Movable Type, and Radio, among others, worldwide publishing technology was not only available, it had become easy. Now there’s a rapid and thorough proliferation of these micro-niche news sites – keeping fans and followers up to date on specific topics reported on by empowered personalities. To judge by their popularity and the media written about them, weblogs, or just “blogs,” are the first native media form of the World Wide Web, and a dynamic one at that.
Weblogs evolved as eager Web writers merged personal journals with amateur journalism, liberally sprinkled with links to other like-minded sites. So what might happen when these eager webloggers take their mobile devices into the field, and work on some mobile weblogs? We’re likely to see something that doesn’t look like any weblog that yet exists.
Peer to Peer News
Most of the content that people keep track of and check daily – no matter what – is e-mail, e-mail from friends, family and associates. These people send us links, they recommend movies, they filter the world and exchange stories. Many of them we know, some of them we don’t.
Person-to-person media exchange was embodied by the infamous music-sharing software Napster. Napster was peer-to-peer software (P2P) -- the idea that each computer, or the user behind it, is a ready contributor to the pool of information shared with the others’ computers and people surfing, listening and reading. The Internet is today filled with users and computers using the pipelines of the Internet to share information directly, unsold, unmarketed, often across cultures or hierarchies.
It’s the same with Internet search – anything specific you’re looking for is often best provided by a fan who has searched there before you. Now imagine if those fans had wireless connections and they were updating their news sources, your search terms and your e-mail queue from anywhere they were. Think of it as peer-to-peer news.
This is already happening. At major technology conferences, 802.11b wireless connections are provided or rigged up by visitors, like the co-host of the popular technology uber-blog BoingBoing.net, Cory Doctorow. Today, any conference with a technology bent is likely to be “live-blogged” - reported in real time over these Wi-Fi connections. In one famous story about the power of wireless-enabled blogs from March, Joe Nacchio, CEO of U.S. telecommunications company Qwest, was on stage speaking at the PC Forum technology conference. As he was complaining about difficulties of running a successful company, webloggers in the audience were corresponding over information about Nacchio’s recent extensive sales of Qwest stock. They posted this information, other people in the audience read it, and there was a mob heckling that ensued as people demanded accountability from the speaker.
These people had a framework: an event they shared that pulled them into a common virtual space alongside their real space. This is easy to imagine in designated high-tech locations, like PC Forum or even New York City. A map of 802.11b wireless access points in New York City was recently posted to BoingBoing: judging by the proliferation of red Wi-Fi broadcast dots throughout the isle of Manhattan, it’s conceivable that anything notable happening there could easily be broadcast to the Web in real time.
But how would you know about it, and why would you care?
There’s a Riot Goin’ On
In 1971, Sly and the Family Stone released an album called There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Sly’s riot was a feeling, something in the funk, echoing his own dark dealings with drugs, relationships, and race in America. Today, if someone says “there’s a riot goin’ on” over wireless devices they might attract other protestors.
Recent visitors to Yeouido Park in Seoul might have seen hundreds of policemen armed with long thick sticks, lining up around the perimeter of the grass and the basketball court. All of a sudden, a peaceful broad public park was ringed with armed forces in dark blue suits, guarding against something unknown. Well-dressed park-goers looked upon them strangely and scooted out of the way as the park was secured. What was the threat?
Someone curious with a mobile device might have tuned to a major Korean news agency wireless Web site. If that site could be viewed over a mobile device, they probably wouldn’t have found any news about it, as whatever was anticipated by the police wasn’t “news” yet.
Fortunately, South Korea is leading the world in multimedia phone technology. So this curious person might post a photo from their mobile phone camera of the scene and a query to a public wireless Web site, begging the question, what’s going on here? That entry could be flagged with keywords: “police action” “public space” “korea” and “what is this?” Someone else online knows about a protest planned by the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions arguing against a shortening of the work week, and might post some information.
Now that exchange, a photo of police in the park, and the information on the event, coincide to make a news story. Other posts in the thread might concern past police action in Seoul, other protests by that union, and tips for avoiding arrest in protest situations. Then, after reading it on their mobile phones, other curious weblog-empowered news-hounds in the area might hop over to Yeouido Park to mobile-blog their own report. The news unfolds, as it happens, reported by an unfolding collaboration of on-the-scene observers and people reaching out to resources online.
This technology already exists, at least for people with multimedia J-Phones in Japan, and for people with the new Hiptop mobile devices in the United States: posting photos with captions and categories. It permits a kind of newsmaking by participants working with websurfers that mirrors professional news-gathering work. Most reporters who travel into the field have a network of knowledgeable associates, editors, and researchers with access to libraries. As these materials move online, the potential emerges for anyone to be a freelancer, supported by like-minded researchers working through the Web.
This scenario of discovering information about a pending riot in the park is tantalizing since professional media, especially under repressive regimes, might not report the events for hours to come, if at all. Maybe this protest is too small to be of interest to the broader community served by the newspaper or television station.
But how would anyone find these stories?
Distributing Mobile Weblogs
In his book Smart Mobs, Howard Rheingold points out that individual amateur reporters are not as important as a whole swarming collective of amateurs. Technology journalist Dan Gillmor, one of the Qwest bloggers mentioned above, elaborates: “It'll require new tools to filter ideas; when enough bloggers say ‘this is important’ a message will go to small wireless devices where the owner wants to know what some segment of the blogspace sees as important.”
So weblogs in the future, on our phones, might not exist as an old media analogue: discreet publications, edited by one discreet group of people. Rather they might be something more organic: particular headlines or stories are flagged or read or marked with exclamation points by people listed in our phonebook, important news elected by a related plurality. Smart mobs of reporters, smart mobs of readers.
Dave Winer is known as a man with opinions. As the programmer responsible for the weblogging software Radio Userland, he holds forth on online publishing and Internet software development from his weblog Scripting News. He envisions the distribution of weblogs as liberation: “Professional journalists provide us with a dumbed-down one-size-fits-all set of choices. The world is far more diverse. By distributing the news-gathering tools, at a very low price, technology will do here what it always does so well, route around concentrations of power that are slow to adopt the changes.”
Still it’s not clear that these technologies will necessarily contribute to the decentralization of power and control. Technology that frees words to travel widely can just as easily be used to police those words. Laws might prohibit the free distribution of ideas, the network architecture can screen out certain visitors, and code can be written to bury certain voices. Or a South Korean policeman might just confiscate your phone.
Besides being occasionally significant for a large number of people, most weblogs are a way to keep up on someone. What are they thinking about? What’s the last book they read? When will they be visiting Morocco? On the desktop Internet, these weblogs can run long, with paragraphs and paragraphs of moment-to-moment musings; on a personal portable device this type of content wouldn’t suit most mobile attention spans.
Salon.com is one of the early surviving Web magazines. Managing editor Scott Rosenberg maintains an active weblog, as part of Salon’s recent initiative to explore and host these experiments in personal publishing online. He writes, “I love the Web because it's a typist's medium. Mobile devices are tougher for writers; they're more voice- and IM- [Instant Messenger] oriented, for good reason.”
Or as popular technology weblog Slashdot founder Rob Malda puts it simply in a Sunday morning e-mail, “I think there are new ways of communicating that might arise as these devices become more common.”
Busy technology explorer Joichi Ito has a vision for how evolved mobile weblogs might work. Caught for a five-minute mobile-phone exchange as he was headed for a morning meeting in Tokyo, he excitedly describes the importance of “state.” Currently, instant messaging clients on PCs can describe whether someone is actively typing, or away from their computer. But as Ito points out, “…mobile devices can be more specific about state: I just woke up, I’m on the toilet, I’m with this person.” These small messages about a person’s state might not seem worthy of the nightly news, but they would be important for a small group of friends and family.
Ito observes that if he could control who was able to read what, he might add in information like his blood pressure, or the amount of money in his wallet. This kind of information isn’t simply a series of short text headlines though, it could be an application: “Imagine your blog is not a series of entries, but a template, an appli – showing whether you’re awake, where you are on a map, who you’re with, and including some audio clips.” Add in some location information, links to people you know and people near you, and now mobile weblogs have morphed into a combination of weblog, instant messenger, GPS receiver, book club and business card.
A weblog is a record of travels on the Web, so a mobile phone log (“moblog”?) should be a record of travels in the world. Weblogs reflect our lives at our desks, on our computers, referencing mostly other flat pages, links between blocks of text. But mobile blogs should be far richer, fueled by multimedia, more intimate data and far-flung friends. As we chatter and text away, our phones could record and share the parts we choose: a walking, talking, texting, seeing record of our time around town, corrected and augmented by other mobloggers.
If we can protect our privacy and trust data networks, then we might find that some of our daily activities would be enhanced by sharing them, both with our circle of friends around the Web, and the people nearby with like minds. Each of our moblogs, our mobile information profiles and archives, could search people in the area for compatible data. Think of it as a Web search on the real world. The results would be constant, part of conversation, tracked by your moblog.
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Justin Hall has been writing about digital culture for over a decade now, mostly on his web site Links.net. He splits his time between Japan and the United States, west of the Mississippi.