Annual Meeting 2004
• Hubert Burda • Joichi Ito • Loïc Le Meur • Orville H. Schell
Moderator • Jay Rosen
Thursday 22 January
Will Mainstream Media Co-opt Blogs and the Internet?
Blogs – web logs to the uninitiated – are one of the hottest media phenomena of the past few years. By creating Internet sites where individuals can post their thoughts on politics, culture, art, sports, science (or just about any other field of human endeavour) bloggers have attracted the attention of cultural critics and media barons alike. How will this new form evolve in coming years?
Jay Rosen, Chair, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, New York University, USA, compared the rise of blogs to the famous “last mile” of digital cable, which linked millions of homes to highspeed networks and the interactive services they make possible. Blogging, Rosen said, is the “last mile” for publishing – turning consumers of media content into producers of media content. “It's an incredibly radical development, the most exciting I've seen in my career as an intellectual and a critic,” he said.
The growth of blogging (a leading indexing service now tracks over 1.5 million blogs) has created a kind of food chain of information, said Joichi Ito, President and Chief Executive Officer, Neoteny, Japan; Global Leader for Tomorrow 2002. At the top are the “power blogs” – a relatively small elite of well-known and highly influential sites that may attract thousands or even tens of thousands of readers per day. These account for an overwhelming share of all page views, or “hits.” Below them, Ito continued, is a secondary group of “social network” blogs, which often follow certain topics or specific regions. Finally, at the bottom is a vast galaxy of obscure blogs that may only get a few hits a day.
Increasingly, Ito explained, news starts at the bottom of the food chain – with a trend or event that is first noticed by a less-known blog, then amplified by a social network until it comes to the attention of a power blog. From there it may even enter the mainstream mass media. So, while power bloggers get most of the attention, the real vital force of the blogging phenomenon is at the bottom, among those who discover news and originate content. “Everybody understands that it's not the Marshall amp that matters; it's the guitar,” Ito said. Which is why “the tail of the blog distribution is a lot more spiky and interesting than the A list.”
Loïc Le Meur, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Ublog, France; Global Leader for Tomorrow 2002, said blogs have become a vehicle of self-discovery for many writers and artists – some of whom had never before thought of themselves as content producers. Blogs may eventually have the same effect on traditional media, particularly print media, that Napster and other file-sharing services had on the music industry, Le Meur suggested. But the impact could be even greater: “Napster only made it possible to copy music. But a blogger can wake up every day and have a great idea – one that could steal attention from the mainstream press.”
The consequences may not be entirely positive, observed Orville H. Schell, Dean, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, USA. While blogging is infused with the same dynamism that fuelled the early development of the Internet, it also reinforces the trend towards media fragmentation – in which audiences are divided into progressively smaller niche markets. “It's a fracturing of the town square,” Schell said. “While more information is available, there is less space for a common discourse.” Traditional media companies are also watching the rise of blogging with an interested but anxious eye – much as they did the emergence of the Internet a decade ago, noted Hubert Burda, Publisher and Chief Executive Officer, Hubert Burda Media, Germany. While many analysts doubt a profitable business model will ever be found for blogging, Burda disagreed. Most of the media trends predicted at events like the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum have proven to be wrong, he argued. “It's like art – you can't predict it. But if the audience is there, a business model will emerge. I'm sure of it.”
Worries that blogs might undermine the news gathering and filtering role of the mainstream media also are probably overblown, Rosen argued. By converting news consumers into producers, bloggers are simply reinventing the communication techniques of an earlier era, when a learned elite exchanged knowledge and opinion via private correspondence. Technology makes it possible to extend the same methods to a broad audience. “The age of the mass media is just that – an age,” Rosen said. “It doesn't have to last forever.”
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