The Rise of Blogs at Meetings (2002)

It will revolutionize how news is made. It's the rising voice of the heretofore unheard. It enables plain folks or grassroots journalists to replace or correct mainstream media (almost) in real time, and, if wireless, right from the show floor or conference room. In short, according to the most prominent Web site in the field, it's “push-button publishing for the people.”

No, it's not desktop publishing, in case you think you've heard this one before. Nor is it e-mail, news groups, or instant messaging. This time around, “blogs” are the buzz among nerds, pundits, and corporate Web users.

Did You Say Blogs?

The tech-speak contraction stands for “Weblogs,” which are often hastily compiled Web journals and commentaries with hyperlink annotations, by the author (blogger) or by its readers. Free software tools such as “Blogger” ( [2]), the most popular program, allow for instant “blogging” of conference quotes or concert reviews, deep thoughts, or irreverent comments by anybody able to click two screen buttons: “Post” and “Publish.” No programming know-how needed.

San Francisco-based Pyra Labs introduced Blogger software in 1999. Since then, more than 40,000 blogs have sprung up. And that's according to conservative estimates. The Web diaries cover topics ranging from the Middle East conflict to the death of a beloved grandfather. Weblog trailblazers such as wireless industry pundit Alan A. Reiter, publisher of “Radio Weblog” ( [3]), are convinced that the new tool will change the conference landscape. “Conference organizers,” blogs Reiter, “need to see and know about this.”

One indicator that Reiter, president of Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing, may be right: The new wireless network standard 802.11b, often called Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity), has given the proliferation of blogs a boost. Equipped with wireless modems, diarists blog away at industry events, trade shows, and on company Web sites. Bloggers kept their peers posted on events such as the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in Santa Clara, Calif., in May. They clicked and clacked away at their keyboards at the recent Cellular Telecommunication & Internet Association's Wireless 2002 show in Orlando, Fla., and from CeBit in Hannover, Germany, the world's largest computer trade show.

Audience Participation

“The main advantage [of blogging],” says San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor, a seasoned blogger who has tied his Weblog ( [4]) to his paper's Web site, “is that you reach your audience almost in real time.”

Featured speakers better watch out. The journalist frequently blogs from conferences, including Esther Dyson's PC Forum in March. From the wireless-enabled meeting room in Scottsdale, Ariz., Gillmor and fellow blogger Doc Searls, senior editor with the Linux Journal, reported “live” how one of the speakers, Qwest's former CEO, Joe Nacchio, complained about the tough times the telecom industry had fallen on.

Within seconds, an alert blog reader provided both authors with a link to a Yahoo Finance page showing that Nacchio actually had done pretty well, selling a large amount of stock. The columnist, not missing a beat, posted this information to his Weblog, blog-bashing Nacchio and turning the blog readers in the audience against the speaker.

Was the incident an isolated event, or is blogging the newest wrinkle in conference dynamics? Gillmor cautions against rushing to conclusions. “It's still so new,” he says. “I mainly use it to better communicate with my readers.” On the other hand, conference host and pundit Esther Dyson, in her PC Forum reflections distributed by The New York Times Syndicate, welcomed a “parallel channel” for communication, “an open-source-style phenomenon where everyone can add value to the event.”

That channel is open mostly to tech events now. Hardcore bloggers, such as Reiter and Gillmor, frequently post from IT-related conferences. But outside the tech arena, distinct bloggers such as Andrew Sullivan, a columnist for The New Republic, remain the exception. One veteran blogger, Paul Andrews ( [5]), technology correspondent for US News & World Report, has hit the brakes recently. “It's exhausting [to blog at meetings]; you are not receiving the full experience,” he says. “You're almost like a stenographer.”

You're No James Joyce

If the Internet had been around a century ago, Irish author James Joyce might have created Ulysses as a blog. Imagine the novel's hero, Leopold Bloom, schlepping a notebook computer through the pubs of Dublin, wirelessly uploading a stream of impressions, thoughts, and associations — including pub URLs and jpeg files of wife Molly.

The problem with this picture: The average blogger is no James Joyce. And the Web journals of Jane and Joe Schmoe are usually less than riveting, to put it mildly. To uninitiated nonbloggers, even creative, specialized Weblog authors such as Alan A. Reiter can look like witty hypertext pack rats.

But there is more to consider: While neither the promises nor the disappointments of the blogging fad are entirely new, one reliable indicator of whether a grassroots Internet tool is here to stay seems to be how it is used by corporate America. As for Weblogs, consider how San Francisco-based software company Macromedia has adopted the concept. The firm devised a “blog strategy” in which five “community managers” set up Weblogs as a tool for customer retention: Their blogs are dedicated to the company's software, new products, and tips for developers.

“One big advantage of Weblogs are built-in layout and archival capabilities,” says Andrews. “It allows authors to create a circle of reference for a specific project or product, without having to worry too much about style or programming.” In adopting the new tool, says the Mercury News' Gillmor, “Macromedia did a terrific job. More companies should use Weblogs.”

Gerd Meissner ( [6]) is a business journalist and book author (SAP — Inside the Secret Software) in Mountain View, Calif.