Citizen bloggers in New Hampshire?
Wednesday, April 30, 2003 by Dave Winer.
This is an op-ed piece I've written for The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper of Harvard College. I've asked for permission to distribute it via email and to post it on my essay site, and they said yes. Because of space constraints in print, this version is slightly longer.
I find this way of writing awkward because I'm not really a print writer. By writing it on the Web I hope to trick my mind into thinking this is a normal piece. Wish me luck!
As this piece was in process a column appeared in the Washington Post written by Howard Kurtz that almost got the key idea here. He talked about candidate weblogs in 2004 disintermediating professional journalists. I don't believe in that scenario. I believe in citizen journalists informing other citizens, disintermediating both the professional journalists and the professional politicians and their pollsters. Nonetheless, Kurtz got close, and I wanted to get this idea out while it's still fresh -- I wanted the scoop. Read on.
Note to reviewers, this part should not appear in The Crimson.
Hello, my name is Dave Winer. I am a Web writer and programmer, and I write in the style of my medium and profession. I know my style may seem unusual for this publication, but that's as much a part of this piece as its topic, what's going on with Weblogs in democracy and politics and other humanities.
I'm also a newly minted fellow at Berkman Center at Harvard Law School. I am not a lawyer, or as we say on the Web, IANAL. But I work with lawyers. That doesn't make me a bad person. Please don't hate me. Like cholesterol there are good lawyers and bad lawyers. I work with the good ones.
As an expert on weblogs, I'm often asked what they are.
I like to say that there are two definitions, one narrow, one broad. Narrowly, a weblog is a site written by one person or a small number of people, in a personal style, presented chronologically, generally not for pay.
More broadly, a weblog is what a personal website is in the early 21st century. The software used to edit a weblog is both easier and more powerful than personal website software of the 1990s. The innovation in weblog software is that engineers, like myself, have learned how to make writing for the Web easier, while the users have learned more, and therefore are able to do more. In the future both trends should continue. This has been the process of publishing on computers ever since the first CPU crawled on land and said Hello World.
At Berkman our job is to understand and help the Web. In the early days of the Internet much of the innovation happened at the great engineering schools, MIT, Berkeley, Illinois, Utah, Carnegie-Mellon. Now the Internet is entering a new phase, and the action is in the humanities, the liberal arts, business, law, education, journalism, design, medicine, even religion and certainly politics.
My interest, as a software developer, is the Web as a writing environment. The current state of the art in writing on the Web is the phenomenon of Weblogs, which have been written about far and wide, but in many ways are still just getting started.
Where much of what Berkman does is defensive, protecting the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment, in the context of the Internet, I represent the offense. My job is to help people use the Web to exercise rights in clearly non-infringing ways. If the people I help get in trouble with the government, so the theory goes, our country and perhaps the world is in serious trouble.
An example of weblogs at work. In early April, Harvard College dean Harry Lewis published a letter about copyright on the Internet. Shortly thereafter Wendy Seltzer, a fellow at Berkman published a critique of Dean Lewis's policy. Seltzer is an expert on copyright on the Internet, and her opinion, very respectfully stated, while critical of Dean Lewis, was of obvious interest to the community defined by our weblog. So I linked to Wendy's piece, and the Dean's letter, without comment, from the main Berkman weblog.
All this happened very quickly, in hours, and while the University has justifiably expressed an interest in our use of the Harvard name and logo, the comment from Seltzer, and our inclusion of it on the Berkman blog, caused no waves. I find this very gratifying -- weblogs are playing a valuable role in respectful debate among powerful and informed people. The Dean had to do his job, and we had ours. This is scholarly discourse in the age of the Web, it's quick -- and thoughtful. It's everything I hoped it would be when I accepted the fellowship at Berkman.
I think weblogs are a very big idea. In fact I have a bet with Martin Nisenholtz of The New York Times, saying that by 2007 the top stories in world news will break on weblogs. This is not a merely a bet between gentlemen, there's real money on the line. I'm sure I will win.
We're returning to what I call amateur journalism, people writing for the public for the love of writing, without any expectation of financial compensation. This process is fed by the changing economics of the publishing industry which is employing fewer reporters, editors and writers. But the Web has taught us to expect more information, not less, and that's the sea-change that the big publications face -- how to remain relevant in the face of a population that can do for themselves what the BigPubs won't.
One of the best ideas I've heard so far came from Mike Clough, a foreign policy expert I met at Berkman. The idea is to somehow give a weblog to any New Hampshire voter who wants one, and then, much as I'm helping people at Harvard get started, we work together to help the citizens of New Hampshire get started.
Citizen bloggers covering the candidates for US president. Everyone who hears the concept goes Hmm, that might work. More than anything, I want the US presidential election of 2004 to be a real election, to mean something. I wonder if many other citizens feel the same way?
New Hampshire, so close to Cambridge, and with the technology so ripe, and the candidates so willing, it seems we may actually be able to route around the professional press and make something real happen this election cycle.
I'll be visiting Dartmouth College (in New Hampshire) on May 9, and then will return during the summer, perhaps often, to interview candidates, and write about it on my weblog.
We're just getting started with weblogs here at Berkman. We've opened a server, where anyone with a harvard.edu email address can create a free weblog. Our hope is that many people will take us up on this offer, and we can explore the potential of this new medium together.
Toward that end we have regular meetings every Thursday at Berkman, 7PM, see our weblog for details. Every meeting we spend about one hour reviewing the software, I answer questions, take requests, and drill the core stuff every week, so that newbies always learn something, and always feel welcome. Then we spend about a half-hour talking about what we're learning and sharing ideas on how the technology might be better used.