Media Perspective: Web future debate shows the limits of corporate blogging

There are two moments that might represent "the birth of the worldwide web". In 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee invented the idea of links connecting documents on a network, or 1993, and the introduction of the first graphical web browser.

And now, some 19 or 15 years later, it's done. It feels baked, like we know what the web's going to be like from now on.

Obviously it'll get better and ideas such as the Semantic Web will be hugely transformative, but we can roughly imagine how that'll work. Which makes it an ideal time for a book to emerge that discusses the worldwide web as a mature medium: with neither wild and crazy optimism nor run-for-the-hills Luddism.

Such a book is Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. It's out this week, and you really should get yourself a copy.

Mr Shirky points out some of the things that the web has enabled, such as the way that making it ridiculously easy for people to find others, with similar interests, has created new kinds of communities. Or the way in which the web has lowered all kinds of organisational transaction costs so that tiny contributions from lots of people can be aggregated into a significant collective achievement (the development of Linux might be a good example of that).

So far, so Utopian. And all rather marvellous and exciting. But Mr Shirky also talks about some of the limits of these "interactive" technologies: the human limits, not the technological ones.

He's especially good on the promise of "conversational media". A blog is an extraordinarily good way to share and talk with all sorts of people, it's a fantastic corporate communications tool, but, as Mr Shirky writes, there are cognitive limits to blogging.

The technology might allow thousands of people to read and comment on a blog, but, at some point, all that conversation is too much for any one single individual to manage, and blogging turns into a broadcast medium. Which is not an excuse for you all to throw up your hands and abandon your blog plans - they're still hugely valuable ways to talk to your customers. It's just that the idea of a single, centralised corporate blog is probably impractical if you think you'd ever like it to be popular.

The better idea is to learn from Microsoft and allow dozens, or hundreds or thousands, of your people to start blogs, so that all the conversations can be an appropriate size, and your business can talk naturally to as many people who'd like to join in.

It's an exciting, but scary, possibility. It means trusting all your employees to talk on behalf of your business, or it means not being able to keep up with the conversation your customers are having about you.

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