Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Effect of Blogs on Culture

I've been asked to write a column for an MIT alumni publication. Here's my 3rd draft . . . sneak preview for my readers. Comments and suggestions are very welcome as there is much editing to do still.

Blogs As Innovation Tools for Culture

What is a blog? It’s personality. A prosthetic device for your entire being.
- Henry Copeland, founder of Blogads at iBreakfast on 22nd September 2004

This quote brings out the true flavor of most blogs as highly personal, time-stamped slices of how the individual blogger uniquely sees the world.

What’s a blog, you ask? In case you’ve been living in a cave for the past few years, blogs (or web-logs) are the latest Internet communication tool to garner widespread popularity. Essentially, blogging tools, such as, allow anyone who isn’t an expert in HTML code to create and publish frequently updated online journal postings.

So what’s all the hype about? As a Ph.D. student at MIT Sloan and a blogger for about six years now, I’d like to present a wider perspective on the phenomenon of blogs in our culture, rather than recycling the stale, worn-out pronouncements of blogs as the new printing press, the new iteration of the web, and so on ad nauseam. Fundamentally, blogs are part of a larger, on-going trend in society of recognition that true creativity in any area, whether it’s in culture or in technology thrives when the power to innovate is distributed into the hands of the people who will use it, care about it, and consume it. MIT Professor Eric Von Hippel articulates this view most clearly in his book Democratizing Innovation. Those who are starting to grasp this are creating easy to use tools to allow the users to be the entrepreneurs and innovators of content and culture rather than trying to dictate from some top floor boardroom what the final product or service should look like.

Instead of one view of world events syndicated from the AP wire, homogenized to fit a mainstream audience, blogs offer creative ideas along with multiple and varied perspectives on issues and events. The beautiful thing about blogs, especially when teamed with blog aggregators (such as is that you can read just the focused type of content in the colorful style of delivery that suits you. Rather than ‘surfing’, it’s the more satisfying experience of ordering the precise gourmet meal you always wanted. In addition, blogs are interactive since you can speak back via comments for all to see. It’s a shift from mass homogeneous communication in one direction only, to varied niche communication in which specialized interests can find each other and share ideas in both directions. History shows that when widely dispersed individuals with niche interests can connect, relate, and recombine their thoughts in new ways, this is where fresh ideas and imaginative new aspects of culture come into being. Blogs then allow newly recombined ideas and cultural artifacts to rapidly spread around the world.

The ability to create your own multimedia ‘magazine’, filled with content you want to see is the essence of users creating their own products with companies getting out of the way and providing the means to let it happen. This type of tool, combined with ever cheaper computing power allows another, complementary trend. If blogs are a prosthetic device for your personality, then they are a rather crude one at the moment. Soon, however, server space and data storage will be cheap enough to allow large portions of ourselves, and our lives to be captured, via text, audio (e.g. podcasting and Odeo), photos, and video, and shared publicly on the web if we so choose. It’s as though the public commons is growing exponentially to include more of the thoughts that we choose to share.

Thus, blogs are affecting culture by substantially increasing the amount and accessibility of informal, personal knowledge. Blogs are a unique source of time linked recordings of what many, many different people were thinking, informally about a range of topics, at specific moments in time. Whether you’re looking for how a venture capitalist sees the world, wondering how people perceive a new product or service, or curious about the life of an American living in Vietnam, blog search tools can present, chronologically, the thoughts of hundreds of people relevant to your topic at your fingertips.

The MIT Media Lab’s new $100 laptop project is further accelerating the spread of low cost computing around the world. A new startup project that I am involved with called Miranda Stories is creating educational software for these low-cost devices. With the falling cost of information technology, more tools such as blogs that allow for people to innovate and share these innovations become accessible to larger fractions of the world. This will allow new technology, art, and culture to form at an unprecedented rate and it will allow the development of subcultures and the blending of ideas across cultures as never before.

Chuck Eesley is currently a first year doctoral student at the MIT Sloan School of Management specializing in the economics of Technological Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He received his BS from Duke University in 2002. During the past two years he has worked as a research assistant at the Duke University Medical Center and the Center for Health Policy, Law, and Management. He has also worked with and consulted several startups, including current fundraising efforts as co-founder (with Ann McCormick) of Miranda Stories, a startup planning to ride the tide of low-cost computing reaching hundreds of millions of people with high quality, powerful, playful learning for all.