Dave part 4: Q&A


Difference from a departmental home page? It’s not different. The two are converging. The technology and user interface are now boxed up in the concept “weblog.”

Sounds a lot like the Sharepoint vision? Dave says, how’s that doing? We have two competing visions, one coming from one company–I don’t know that about it. Does it use open standards? (Some discussion about the question.) Questioner: I think you’re saying publishing is less interesting than sharing information. Is it about standards? Dave: No, not really, I don’t like the standards word very much. It’s about open formats. If I’m using Sharepoint–and here I assume there’s no problem with Sharepoint, I accept it does most everything you’d want to do. I wonder if I had a problem with one thing Sharepoint did, and I asked the Sharepoint team to fix it and they didn’t, then where do I go?

I think competition is good. And I think that Microsoft doesn’t necessary see it this way. I remember back in 1999, when Steve Ballmer and I were in a conference together, I said, “I hope when this is all over that Netscape survives. I think it would be good for you.” And he said, “That’s not the way we do things.” And I think if Netscape had survived–and it did a pretty good job of imploding on itself–it would have been stronger and stronger, and there would have been other companies that would have chased it. And there would have been more choices, and things would have gotten better.

Where are we today? There haven’t been new releases of MSIE in a few years, and there are few bug fixes and barely enough security patches. But we’re increasingly doing business on the Internet. And we’re devoting almost no resources to fixing IE which is the majority browser.

Q: Are blogs working at Harvard? If not, why not? Is it a technology problem or a social problem? It’s a social problem. Or maybe it’s not a problem, maybe the premise was wrong. As you go down the hierarchy the interest in blogging goes up. And vice versa, because the people higher up have their “blog,” it’s called their referreed journal. It’s definitely not about the technology. It’s social issues, and changes like these take time.

You see the same issue at Microsoft. There are a lot of really interesting bloggers here with very little executive oversite, which I think is great.

Q: Let me paint a Sharepoint scenario for you. The first version goes up as specs, and then people revise the specs and upload and so on and so forth, and you have a big tree. How would you do that with blogs? Dave: It doesn’t sound like very blog like. But maybe you could use a blog to do most recent changes or something.

Q: RSS sounds like it’s great for people who care about freshness. What about people who want the most authoritative content? Dave: Well, I think there are three ways of managing and finding information–chronology, which is blogs, search, and taxonomy, which it sounds like it might be Sharepoint. Q: So do I use RSS to find information about the presidential campaigns? Dave: The verb with RSS is to subscribe. You want search. Q: But how do you know which feeds to trust? Dave: It’s not always about trust. Sometimes it’s entertainment. Subscription is the highest form of praise. It’s much stickier, it’s much harder to shake someone once you’ve subscribed. Sometimes your job is to assimilate all these sources and make up your own mind.

Q: You talked about the team blog at Dean not putting up the finishing third. Why was this surprising? Don’t organizations have egos and want to protect themselves? A: It was the smartest thing to do. He said, “We finished third.” It was from the campaign. Reporters were circling, and he just put it out there. But until that point, the blog hadn’t made an investment in presenting a balanced perspective. This was my problem with the Dean campaign. I went to the campaign blog trying to get information to convince me, and they were just giving information to people who had already made up their mind. Q: It’s hard to do that… Dave: But maybe it’s about putting all your conflicts of interest out there so that people understand your tone. Q: There’s a part of corporate culture that says “Bad news travels fastest”–internal to Microsoft. Dave: Maybe you should consider turning that outside. Maybe if we had a presidential candidate who would put the bad news first he might win. Because if you tune into presidential campaigns you hear candidates say “I believe in more jobs. I’m the environmental candidate.” And reporters aren’t asking serious questions that anyone wants answered. That’s not communication. The candidates are just trying to get their soundbites out there. It’s seriously dysfunctional.

Q: Where do you see blogging going as more stuff gets digital? A: Well, I’m a text guy. And I use PhotoShop, I use about three commands. Q: What about voice? A: A year ago I would have said sure. But now I’ve used it and I’m not sure. I work at the Berkman Center with Chris Lydon–having dinner with him and his voice is like having dinner with NPR–and he did a series of interviews with pioneers of blogging. Serious, interesting stuff. But I wouldn’t call that a blog. Q: It’s oral history. A: Yeah, and I’m not saying that because it’s not a blog it’s not good. When I tried to quantify what I meant by a blog, I said “it has an editorial voice.” Q: But what about voice interfaces, would that lower the barrier to entry? A: I think they’re pretty widespread already. Q: But if we have hundreds of millions of customers how do we reach them with blogs? How do we get our customers educated about them? How do we get them interested? A: (Solve their problems?) That’s a pretty heavy trip to lay on a humble piece of software. Word processing didn’t have that trip and it did just fine, growing slowly and steadily. But there’s a way that blogs can influence people–influence percolates in slow and steady ways through our culture. How many reporters are there covering the campaign? A busload for each candidate, Kerry probably has two. How many bloggers are there? A couple million? How can the reporters keep up with that?

Q: [A clarification that Sharepoint can do news items and RSS–it’s not incompatible with blogging.]

Q: We used to say that the Internet would do away with mass media. Now I hear the same things about blogs. A: Look at it this way. Blogs are the promise from 1994, 1995, 1996. It’s not about us vs. mass media. Blogging was happening all during that time slowly and steadily, and when the bubble burst, blogs kept going. Q: But the promise was that the web would allow us to communicate mano a mano, and now it’s gone to a portal and consumer model. A: I agree, and maybe we need to get more mature as bloggers to allow this to happen.

Q: What about enabling private communication and authentication, so that only certain people can read private posts? A: I think you better go to LiveJournal for that. It’s a unique feature and it’s pretty cool. But blogging is publishing and the root of publishing is “public.” And why is LiveJournal not a blog?

Q: What about group blogs? Do you see a need for group blogs? A: No, and I’m a radical about that, a lot of people disagree with me. First of all, there are a lot of ways of combining blogs. I can subscribe to you and you and you and create a group blog. Why did I need you to do it for me? One of the pragmatic problems about group blogs is where should I post? If I have one blog, I post it there. But if I have two, do I push it to both places? And I think that’s confusing as a reader. Which one do I read?

Q: What about blogging in other formats–mobile devices, etc.? A: That’s just like the question about audio and voice. I don’t think I could display a blog on this device and I know I couldn’t write one on it. Maybe it could be done but I’m not an expert.

Q: I subscribe to 200 feeds and I know some people subscribe to 1000 feeds. I can’t see subscribing to many more than those. I’m afraid I’m missing information. A: I don’t see that as a problem–I think that 1000 feeds is ridiculous. How are there those many feeds worth reading? I think it’s a quality problem, not a human scale problem. Q: But what about the issue of people only reading blogs in their own circle? How do you avoid myopia? A: I know what you mean–like the warbloggers. I learned about them from the WSJ, and they were talking about them like there were no other types of blogs. But how do you get around that? Maybe you don’t. But maybe you get systematic about it, you find people who bridge camps, and you send email to Glenn Reynolds, and if you don’t do it too often he points to you. And maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. There are theories out there that because the top three blogs get so many readers, it will be just like TV. But if there are these little galaxies of bloggers, that’s not going to happen. In the monoculture, only the best get to perform. But in galaxies of blogs, everyone gets to sing. Storytelling is part of human nature. In the blog world, we get to tell stories too. And they laugh at us and say how trivial we are. And I think you just have to get past that.

Q: You said LiveJournal isn’t really a blog. I use LiveJournal, and… A: Did I say that? I think that’s the conventional wisdom. Let me reverse that–did I hurt your feelings? Q: But doesn’t the public-private facilitate back and forth between friends? A: It is what it is. I don’t think you need comments–I turned mine off because if I didn’t all my comments would be all flames. Is it the unedited voice of a person? That’s the important thing. Blogs allow you to play in the same space as the big boys.

Q: What’s the difference between blogs and discussion boards? A: Huge difference. On discussion boards, everyone has an equal voice (after the thread starts). And the thing about that is, anyone can flame it out at will. It’s funny because I promote the democratic nature of a blog. And blogs aren’t democratic at all. On my blog what I say goes. It’s a publication. It’s a part of the writing process. When I was on Wired, I got flames for a gender article. And in the next column I wrote about being flamed, and I got mails from journalists saying, “Go look at the letter page of Newsweek and Time and newspapers.” And they were full of flames. So it can be important. But if it affects your writing, maybe you’re better turning off comments and not caring whether people read what you write and just jumping out the airplane without a parachute.

Q: You said blogs are unedited and some people have really badly written blogs. Is there something that can be done to help that? A: You have to learn to write. But on the flip side if I see really polished writing I know there’s no soul there at all.

Q: Do you see a reputation model in blogs based on the actual person rather than their quality of posting? A: It happens. John Perry Barlow started blogging a month ago. He’s what I call a “natural born blogger.”

Q: You said you were going to ask the IE team for some features. What did you ask them? A: Two, reading and writing. I asked for help with the act of subscribing. Right now this is a messy place, it depends on the tool and the aggregator. And there have been attempts to come up with solutions based on standards and they haven’t worked well. It’s a conundrum. Why can’t we teach the browser to subscribe and delegate that action to any other piece of software? That would be fine. On the editing side, if I want to create a new blog post, and I’m looking at something in the browser and I want to blog it that could be dramatically improved. For instance the text editor. It’s based on a technology called “Trident” and it’s better than a standard text box but it could be much better. And then the top ten problems. I’m in the middle of a blog post, and I want to check my email, and I click on mail and lose my blog post. We all learned to deal with this, but this problem could be solved. Another one is the Google toolbar with the Blogger button on it. Blogger came up with a widely supported API, but the button goes straight to Blogger.

Q: Do you have an example of a blog that doesn’t necessarily look like one? I’m thinking about library sites that pump out tips, news, etc. A: It’s hard to think about things like that that don’t look like a blog. Reverse chronology, permalinks, date and time stamps. Do you have an example? I’ve seen things like that behind firewalls, but not out in public.

Q: You talked about how blogging is lowering the threshold for influence. How would you recommend that Microsoft treat these new influentials? A: Great question. Treat them like you would the press. Expect high standards. Maybe we don’t expect high things from the press, but expect the truth, unfiltered voices, don’t expect empty cynicism. This is an opportunity to treat information flow as a new thing. But first of all be respectful. I’ve seen this bug before. The Dean campaign made a big deal in the middle of the campaign of having bloggers on the bus, but it turned out they were all Dean supporters. And you wouldn’t tolerate that from the press. It would have been a smart thing to have bloggers who were Republicans on the bus too. It would have helped with the integrity and the triangulation of the truth.