The endless broadband e/re-volution

If you think the Blogosphere represents an emergent status quo; think again. When Slugger set up nearly four years ago, the Irish blogosphere certainly existed, but it was a thin malnourished shadow of what it has become today. But it is only a mark along a way as the medium of choice moves from the old ‘push’ broadcast mode to the newer ‘pull’ mode of the net. Blogging itself may be history in another four years time. Not disappeared as such, but subsumed into the new architecture of the net. It doesn’t mean the end of broadcasting or papers, but… John Naughton in yesterday’s Observer has some important clues as to where the game is headed.

In thinking about the future, the most useful words are ‘push’ and ‘pull’ – they capture the essence of where we’ve been and where we’re headed. Broadcast TV is a ‘push’ medium: a select band of producers (broadcasters) decide what content is to be created, create it and then push it down analogue or digital channels at audiences which are assumed to consist of essentially passive recipients. The couch potato was, par excellence, a creature of this world.

The web is the opposite of this. It’s a ‘pull’ medium. Nothing comes to you unless you choose it and click on it to pull it down on to your computer. You’re in charge. So the big implication of the switch from push to pull is a radical increase in consumer sovereignty. We saw this early on in e-commerce, because it became easy to compare online prices from the comfort of your own armchair.

Another big change is that it has become much harder to keep secrets. If one of your products has flaws, the chances are that the news will appear somewhere on a blog. Ask the company that makes Kryptonite bicycle locks, or Sony BMG – still licking its wounds from the drubbing it received at the hands of bloggers over the spyware covertly installed by its anti-copying technology. The emergence of a truly sovereign, informed consumer is thus one of the implications of an internet-centric world. The days when companies could assume that the only really demanding customers they would encounter were those who subscribed to Which? are over.

Another implication is that the asymmetry of the old push-media world is being overturned. The underlying assumption of the old broadcast model was that audiences were passive and uncreative. What we’re now discovering is that that passivity may have been more due to the absence of tools and publication opportunities than to intrinsic defects in human nature.

Take blogging – the practice of keeping an online diary. Technorati, a blog-tracking service, currently claims to be monitoring nearly 29 million. New blogs are being created at the rate of about one a second. Many of them are merely vanity publishing with no discernible literary or intellectual merit, but something like 13 million are still being updated three months after their initial creation, and many contain writing and thinking of a very high order.

What the blogging phenomenon suggests is that the traffic in ideas and cultural products isn’t a one-way street – as it was in the old push-media ecology. People have always been thoughtful, articulate and well-informed, but until now few of them ever made it past the gatekeepers who controlled access to publication media. Blogging software and the internet gave them the platform they needed, and they have grasped the opportunity.