Dan Bricklin's Web Site: www.bricklin.com
What we learn from the Convention blogging
Thoughts from a long-term blogger after two days of the DNC.
I write this Wednesday, after two days of the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Prior to the event, I posted a couple of entries in to my weblog. Now that it's been going on, there is more to say. Here are some personal thoughts from the narrow place where I sit in my home a few miles away.
First, in the blogging tradition, let me give some personal background so you'll understand some of my perspective. I've been using various forms of weblogs to "cover" events for several years. I've done family life-cycle events, like weddings, and public "industry" events, like the Digital Storytelling Festival and Comdex, since 1999. These were all "posted within 12-hours or 24 at most" affairs, not delayed items like my inspiration "Travels With Samantha" from Philip Greenspun. Some examples of my work can be found on the Albums page of this website, including: the 1999 Digital Storytelling Festival, Fall Comdex 1999, the Foreign Policy Association's World Leadership Forum 2000, and PC Forum 2003.
I've learned a lot from doing those and watching my progression over time. Reacting to the Convention Blogging is bringing it into even better focus.
Event blogging is different than normal, daily blogging. In normal blogging, you watch the world go by and pick and choose things you want to comment upon. There is material online to point to and react to. There are ideas that well up and you take the time to write about, but few people may be waiting for them. There are many, many bloggers. Some read other blogs and choose the posts they think others should read. Through popular gateway blogs like some of the well known political blogs, and tools like Blogdex, Daypop, and more, things bubble to the top.
Events are another thing entirely. The time is very condensed and the amount of information is concentrated. If you are "covering" the event, you have to look at it all and provide perspective to a reader who doesn't see all of the context that you do. The event marches on and won't stop for you to take time for thinking and writing. Picking and choosing is harder -- if you stop to blog, you might miss the keystone piece of what's going on.
I started out being the only person "covering" the events I attended on the web. I tried to tell a story, to let you feel like you were there and experienced it as fully as possible. I used pictures (with which I am more skilled than with writing -- I've been doing that since I was a child, including high school yearbook work) to help me communicate.
Short events, like a wedding, are great. You take the pictures, go home and spend an hour or two with the right tools (I was CTO of a company I founded that made such tools), and voila!, you're done. It's hard, but worth it as a "gift" for the people putting on the event. Today, I usually just give them a CD with all my pictures and let them do with those pictures as they please. I rarely have the time to tell the whole story myself.
Long, multi-day events are a killer. The "getting there" part is easy. Your first posts have detail. The first real day you end up staying up late, very late, and do an OK job. By the second or third day, you just can't keep up. The event itself takes up so much time, that doing all the writing and editing and thinking interferes with you being there. The big "think piece" gets written on the plane back or perhaps the next day, but then you've got to get on with your life. Unless it's your job, it's really tough to "cover" an event.
I've adjusted by just publishing pictures, and not even taking the time to research names and spellings. (Compare my 1999 and 2000 albums linked above to my more recent ones.) People like them anyway, and it serves my purposes. That's how I cope.
There's another element coming into play: I'm now not the only person covering events on the web. I don't have to tell you what people said. Heath Row does miraculous real-time transcription. David Weinberger is insightful and funny. AKMA shows the philosophical side. Winer links to items I'd never have seen helping people find the pieces. The pressure is off me to cover the whole thing and I get a niche. I'm known for taking good pictures indoors -- something I've worked at my whole life. Weinberger is insightful for a living and used to write comedy, AKMA teaches at a seminary, etc.
The Convention brings in a new element. There are 15,000 paid professionals covering the event. There are live and edited TV feeds produced by thousands more. These full-time people had time to prepare. They are used to covering such events -- that's what they do for a living year after year. What should the role of the blogger be? Their readers may or may not have seen any of those other reports. How do you integrate that in?
Bloggers who are used to commenting on a day-by-day world, thrust into covering a huge event, need to adjust. Unlike a normal conference or family event, with a single speaker, a single party, and a single hall to schmooze in, a convention has high-power meetings everywhere, media extravaganza presentations with waving signs, and thousands of interesting participants including some you only see on tabloid covers or the evening news and many, many others whose personal stories are gems. And it's something new for almost all of the bloggers.
The Convention Bloggers seem to be going through logical stages in handling all this. The preparation they probably did was arrange for accommodations and equipment. A few worked on the technical aspects of cameras and microphones, but couldn't even prepare for the all-important connectivity to the Internet until the day it started.
The first posts were like any new blog: "This is my first post." "Hello world!" Then the introspective, circular "Wow, I'm blogging in this situation" and then moving out to "That blogger I know is here and blogging, too" and "A news organization I know is here and sitting over there."
Like other event blogs, the "pre-" postings were "how I got here", "what the transportation here is like", and "here's them setting up and here's someone I ran into."
Then we saw something new. The bloggers were news. They were special. The Blogger Breakfast was a curveball. The lights were shined on them. They were under the microscope, not looking through it. They reported what it's like to look back up the microscope and be the specimen. More circular, "what it feels like to be a blogger" stuff. For us other bloggers, this was a treat. We could relate to the writers and appreciate the "report from the front". Others probably saw that as blogger naiveté. Bloggers need to learn to be watched as well as do the watching. The traditional press has learned this (probably overly so). In the future, with more and more bloggers, so no one knows who is blogging nor which may turn out to be significant to the person trying to influence them, the problem may go away.
Coming through, though, with the "Gee, they care about us and treat us special" posts, were blogger observations. Some bloggers, in reporting the breakfast event, reported the questions they themselves asked and the answers they received, getting back into the groove with their own biases and perspectives. There was "Wow, they thought it was worth spending Obama's time with us! But, hmm, is he the real deal? What have I heard from others?"
The rest of Monday seemed to be reporting what they saw, followed by Tuesday morning burn out from covering an event (at least in the several blogs I read). "What should I write about?" seemed to be a question that needed to be answered. "I'm overwhelmed with what's going on, with long stretches of boredom and quick surprises." In the midst of it all, there were more things to go to outside, learning the ropes of covering such an event. There was learning when to use time for blogging activities, when to sleep. What to watch.
Some of the bloggers just fell back into their normal modes. Wonkette had infrequent posts on topics that you'd expect. Dave Winer looked for things to point to and did experiments with audio and stuff. They all were getting distracted by being interviewed while they were trying to do their thing.
By Wednesday morning I could see some things coming together. The Barak Obama story is a great one to follow. He seemed to impress the bloggers at the breakfast, but there was questions about whether he was special because he was the keynote or the keynote because he really was special. We heard from some bloggers about how they (and the press) get preview copies of the speeches. We heard how different news anchors watched (or didn't watch) the stage since they may have already read what was going to be said. Then Matt Gross (experienced at covering political stuff in blogs, I assume), put it all together: Having read the speech, he then reviews how it's delivered and why it went over so well. That was contrasted by blogger Jesse Taylor to Dan Rather's "journal" entry written before the talk, where Rather says how dull things were and discusses the upcoming Obama speech in terms of being from an African American, not what he would say and how he'd say it. Winer and others spoke of boredom on Monday, but only as a shared observation from a person new to the event (who hadn't learned that it provided time to get other things done -- they were in "take it all in" mode).
For me, a stunning moment was this morning when I opened the newspapers (a neighborhood one, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal). The blogs and TV (if it carried it) had emotion. Obama's speech seemed to get to the CNN pundits the night before. The bloggers had lots to say. Even though the speeches happened well before an away baseball game would have ended, there was little of the emotion from the speech, nor even about Teresa Heinz Kerry's talk, in the papers. It was as if they had just read the speeches and decided to mention it along with others in a scripted coverage they had decided upon in advance. Here was news (the keynote really was a keynote) and they turned it (as I saw it with a quick glance) into a dry report. At least the neighborhood paper (more personal, like a blog) ran pictures and stories about local people, including the kid who movingly played the violin the other day.
It seems that the traditional media has turned into distinguishing itself with exclusive stories and reports that are pasteurized with the emotion taken out. Politics is about hope. Hope for a better world through government and its members or despite government or despite big business, or whatever. In any case, it's about conveying (or selling) hope for the future. Hope is emotional, and as Jerome Groopman writes, a very important thing to being human. The press has moved to reporting facts about what happened around the event, on what it "means" (to whom?), and a "delta" difference from expectations (whose?). For many events, you really want to know how it feels. Political conventions today are about transmitting a feeling and the press tries to filter that out, leaving something strange and unnatural. You wonder how the traditional press would cover the Grand Canyon. You know what it's like before you get there, it hasn't changed much, but, oh my, is it emotional when you look out at it. They'd say "the temperature is running 2 degrees lower than normal this year": Factual, unbiased, unhelpful in many cases, helpful in others. They serve a purpose here with the convention, of course, though I find C-SPAN with it's simple gavel-to-gavel coverage just as "unbiased" and helpful as the more sophisticated productions. There's no way bloggers could cover this all. But something is missing without them. Bloggers are allowed (and encouraged) to give you the feelings, too, so they add an important element.
I'm finding that a traditional role of blogging is falling down for me here. Bloggers read each other, and we depend upon them to point and act as a gateway. Here, many of them are too busy working on their own stuff, many of us are only reading them (there's only so much time in the day), and things are moving too fast.
RSS and automated tools are being harnessed to help deal with the huge flow of material, for example with Winer's ConventionBloggers.com (a great service through which I've been doing most of my reading). But that's missing something. Normally, in addition to my favorites list and Google, I use an RSS reader to automatically get me news. But, in advance, I manually chose which feeds to monitor. I know that some of those websites manually select things I'll find of interest -- the writers of those blogs act as the gatekeepers (and they read other gatekeepers, etc.), and I automatically aggregate posts from them and scan them for nuggets with my eyes. The timescale of DayPop and Google are too slow for following an event. (I don't have enough experience with Technorati in such situations to comment.) We need to figure out how to get the right mix of manual and automatic when dealing with huge unfolding events. Conventions are easy in a way, since we know about them in advance. Unexpected huge events (like 9/11 or an earthquake) are going to be even harder.
These are just some of my thoughts at this mid point. With so much coming in, even if just from the Convention Bloggers, I only see a biased small sample. Blogging includes thoughts before we know the final results, and these are some of mine. As usual on the web, put them together with those of others. I wrote it because I feel that it's important for us to look at this event and learn from it for the future of our media and our society.
-Dan Bricklin, 28 July 2004
I've written some more on this topic on my weblog in a post titled "Blogging is working well at the Convention" followed by "Thoughts right after the Convention" right above it.
-Dan Bricklin, 30 July 2004
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