How a form of grassroots communication led to the likes of YouTube and Facebook, and transformed the media landscape
Say Everything:How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It MattersBy Scott RosenbergCrown; 405 pp.; $26
In late January of 2001, in the depths of the dot-com crash, a San Francisco startup called Pyra Labs ran out of money. Its staff departed. The co-founder of the company, a young Nebraskan named Evan Williams, decided to make a go of it alone. He scraped together $40,000 in new funding and moved Pyra's servers into his apartment. This permitted the company's 100,000 registered customers (and counting) to keep using Pyra's service, Blogger, to publish their online journals, or blogs.
A year later, Blogger had 700,000 subscribers. Whether sharing cookie recipes or commenting on weapons reports from Iraq, those writers were constructing a significant new form of grassroots media. Blogging turned traditional publishing on its head, allowing anyone with a computer and modem (or even a smartphone) to gain a global voice for free. By 2003, Williams was able to sell his business to Google for a lucrative pile of pre-IPO stock. Three years later he and his partners launched yet another tool for global publishing, the micro-blogging phenomenon, Twitter.
Williams' story is just one thread in the narrative of Say Everything, Scott Rosenberg's account of the blogging revolution. Rosenberg, co-founder of the online magazine Salon.com, describes a remarkable chapter in the history of communication. At this point it's hard for some to remember that even in the late '90s most people regarded Web pages as things to read, not places to post and publish. It's an important story, one that leads not only to YouTube, Facebook, and Wikipedia but also to the transformation of corporate and government communications. Rosenberg writes gracefully and appears to have researched thoroughly. His book may be a bit heavy in detail, historical and technical, for a general interest audience. But many bloggers are sure to relish the history of the drama they've stepped into. I certainly learned a lot.
Rosenberg introduces readers to pioneers such as Justin Hall. A Swarthmore College dropout who was itching to share, Hall in 1993 began publishing details of his life and linking to things he was finding online, including bootleg music and porn. He established a cult readership. It quickly became apparent that if Justin Hall could publish his stuff, everyone else could, too.
Could blogging be a business? Entrepreneurs such as Nick Denton, a former Financial Times journalist, would lead the way. Denton hired journalists to post on sites such as Gawker, for gossip aficionados, and tech gadget blog Gizmodo. He established an early model: lots of attitude, frequent posting, strong focus—and entry-level pay. Then came rival Jason Calacanis, who launched the blog network Weblogs (TWX), luring away some of Denton's stars with equity stakes. Enter Arianna Huffington in 2005 with another model: persuading bloggers to labor for free—while boosting their brands—as contributors to her popular Huffington Post.
The blog wars make for fun reading. The impact for society comes from the stream of eyewitness reports and opinions flowing onto Web pages. As customers and employees blog, corporations lose any hope of controlling news as they used to and push instead to influence it. And as we see in the streets of Iran, angry voices carry around the world and construct their own compelling narrative, even when dictators censor the press.
It's easy to focus on stupid or trivial blogs and dismiss the lot of them. But as more people add their voices every day, Rosenberg writes, "saying that 'ninety percent of blogs are crap' begins to feel misanthropically close to saying 'ninety percent of people are crap.' "
He quotes an American Army major, Andrew Olmsted, who left an entry to be posted after his death, which came near Sadiya, Iraq, in January 2008. "The ability to put my thoughts on (virtual) paper and put them where people can read and respond to them has been marvelous," Olmsted wrote, "even if most people haven't agreed with them." Thanks to the technology and media Rosenberg describes, all of us have that same marvelous power to reach out to the rest of the world. It's astonishing how quickly the change has come.