Mark Greene considers how blogging is creating a communication revolution that has profound implications for the Church.
"A million bloggers every day, log on the web to have their say..." Actually, it's 1.2m - 20% more than the million housewives who pick up a can of beans and say... And that number is rising, rising, rising. And it is, as we shall see, both a revolutionary and a heartwarming trend. Over the last three and a half years the number of people writing weblogs has doubled every six months. As of April, when Technorati, the major blog-watching site last posted its results, there were some 43m blogs worldwide, with a new blog being posted at the rate of 56 per minute. Interestingly, Japanese-language sites have the highest percentage of the so-called 'blogosphere' - some 37%, followed by English sites at 31%, Chinese at 15% and the rest a mere 17%. This represents a vast and entirely unprecedented rise in the number of people with the capacity to say whatever it is they wish to say to any webuser on the face of the planet. And that by any estimation is quite a lot of people with something to say. And quite a large potential audience. Indeed, some blogs attract audiences higher than most newspapers. The Daily Kos, an American political site, logs some 20m unique hits each month. At the other end of the scale, blogging is a simple way to tell anyone who might be interested in your life what's happening. Here's photos of the family, and homely anecdotes about the everyday things that happen to ordinary folk: Matthew wrestling a crocodile into submission with no more than his goggles for a weapon; Anna-Marie climbing Everest without oxygen or wearing anything pink: Tomi playing the Albert Hall with Eric Clapton and the Tropical Polar Bears. Between the poles of high traffic, highly public blogs and quietly personal blogs there are ranters on all kinds of topics and ravers about everything from levelling devices for ladders and neglected novelists. Just a browse around the blogosphere is like peeking under stones on the ocean floor - sometimes you discover wonderful treasures, sometimes horrible, slimy, creepy things. Just yesterday on a short little dive I swam into a beautiful image of all the days of a 60 year old's life presented as dots on a powerpoint slide and arranged in columns. How far had I come? How many dots might I have left? Was I happy about how I'd used my dots? Similarly, I decided to have a look at the blogs of a few friends ... to learn a little bit more about their enthusiasms. In one case, I found myself awed by their grasp of technologies I don't begin to fathom. In another, I was simply moved by the beautifully assembled collection of carefully chosen words and pictures and the curiously quiet and meditative mood that the blog created. Blogs then can indeed be wonderful expressions of who we are - an opportunity to communicate, to express oneself, to test ideas, and connect to those people who might be listening and might want to begin a conversation. Although such blogs are unlikely to attract huge traffic, that is not necessarily the point. Not everything is about celebrity and sales and causes celebres - bloggers create their own communities and sometimes it's joy enough and satisfaction indeed to find a kindred spirit. Still, some of those 43m blogs do make a significant impact on the local, national or international scene. Indeed, blogging can be an inexpensive and efficient way to get a point of view across. So at a recent blogger summit in Las Vegas, the democrat Governor of New Mexico said, "I see you guys as agents of advocacy. Of an advocacy that can affect public policy-making at the highest levels. Similarly, Harry Reid, the US Senate Minority Leader, said, "They (bloggers) have the ability to spread the truth like no entities I've dealt with in recent years. We could never have won the battle to stop privatisation of social security without them." If the web had been around in the second world war, Anne Frank would have written a blog - just indeed as others living in war zones and under oppressive regimes are doing today. In this, it's clear that blogging is changing the way the world is communicating and it is shifting, if ever so slightly for now, the dominance of corporate and government media over information and its dissemination. Still, it is sometimes difficult to appreciate just what an extraordinary shift in global communications this represents. Most of the major technological leaps in communication have increased people's access to information - the invention of writing and the use of parchment creating limited access, the invention of the printing press broadening access, the invention of radio and TV similarly enabling small numbers of 'authors' to communicate with tens of millions of people. Similarly, the arrival of the web gave millions of people access to vast amounts of information, and diminished their dependence on libraries and other print sources. However, it was still primarily the preserve of companies and institutions with the money to develop and maintain a website. However, the advent of cheap and inexpensive blog platforms has for the very first time in history given almost any human being with access to a computer the opportunity to communicate globally and instantly. 'They' used to speak to us, now 'we' can speak to anyone.Indeed, the very presence of blogs changes the dynamic of corporate and government communications. Now the people can tell each other what they think, share information, counter product claims, expose corruption, or defend the innocent. And this argue Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, pioneer champions for business blogging and authors of Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers, creates a new dynamic in buyer-seller communications: 'We believe that blogging is not just wise for businesses wishing to be closer to their customers, but essential. We envision a day when companies that don't blog will be held suspect to some degree, with people wondering whether they have something to hide or whether the owners are worried about what the people who work for them have to say.' Blogging they argued, at an address given to Amazon employees, is "the most powerful two-way internet communications tool yet developed" and it has already also become a forum for employees to talk about the businesses they work for. So Scoble, a Microsoft employee, writes his own blog about the company and the business he's in. In Naked Conversations he writes, 'Chances are that if people aren't talking about your company in blogs today, they will be soon. You would be wise to join these conversations, if only to thank those who sing your praises or to correct factual errors. If you ignore the "blogosphere" you won't know what people are saying about you. You can't learn from them, and they won't come to see you as a sincere human who cares about your business and your reputation.' Of course, employee blogs may or may not make any difference to profit today but that does not mean that it will not make any difference to profit tomorrow. Just as many companies print the words 'recycled paper' on corporate publications as a way to flag their green credentials and stave off the displeasure of environmentalists, so the presence of corporate blogs may one day be seen as a sign of the kind of open, dynamic, self-critical company that people will really want to work for and buy products from.The rise of blogging is after all one more manifestation of a world where as John Naughton puts it," It is impossible to keep secrets, where prices and markets are transparent, corporate PR is ineffective and where customers empowered by search technology communicate with one another via channels that companies cannot control." In sum, blogging does what those seers of the networked future wrote in Cluetrain (www.cluetrain.com) back in 1999. It takes business back to its marketplace roots. Selling always used to be about a conversation. "How are you?" "Look at these oranges." "Lovely and juicy." "Where did you get those?" "Over at young Nell's stall." "Good enough for a king." "Funny you should say that..."The Observer's John Naughton puts it this way: 'The internet, by enabling conversations between consumers on a global scale - and potentially between consumers and businesses - will turn the clock back, and make markets more like conversations again.' It restores, as Thomas Petzinger put it, 'the banter of the bazaar.' And this represents a very significant shift in power. Since the advent of mass broadcasting, business communications have been primarily one way, "Business speaks, consumers listen."' Blogs are changing that. Increasingly 'consumers' are speaking. And this combination of technology and customer feedback connects to a wider growth of niche products and markets. Indeed, despite our culture's obsession with the blockbuster culture - mega-celebrities and big hits - the reality is that in almost every market segment the mass-market products have less market share than they did 20 years ago. As Chris Andserson points out in his new book The Long Tail: How endless choice is creating unlimited demand: most of the top 50 bestselling albums were recorded in the 70s and 80s, a No 1 TV show today would be hard-pressed to make the top 10 in 1970, Hollywood revenues are falling even as the population is growing. People are turning from mass markets to niche markets. And the web is having a huge impact on this, giving people the ability to choose books that aren't in bookshops, buy music they won't hear on a radio station and even read writers who don't have columns in Christianity (there's no accounting for taste). This increase in exercising more personal choice resonates with the wider shift in communication dynamics towards greater genuine two-way communication - from texting votes into TV game shows, to asking for audience participation in erstwhile expert-focused programmes like Question Time, to the increase in the use of focus groups by political parties, as they seek to get behind yes/no responses to develop a more nuanced understanding of public opinion. Increasingly, people expect to have their say. And that raises important questions about how the Church chooses to communicate - and our need to combine personal conviction with openness to listen. This applies not only in the way we seek to talk to people who don't know Jesus but also whether we genuinely seek to create space for open communication among those who already do. One of the common criticisms of church culture by Christians is that it is often extremely difficult to voice dissent, explore a contrary point of view, and, more significantly, find a context in which to be emotionally and intellectually honest. Can we create contexts for 'good conversation'? Of course, at its worst, blogging, particularly pseudonymous blogging, can simply be a self-indulgent way to sound off. At its best, however, it can provide an authentic way to express our true humanity and begin a conversation with other like-hearted humans who are seeking truth, life and a way to live it in a distinctively personal, creative way. And it's hard to be anything but enthusiastic about that.Pull quote:If the web had been around in the second world war, Anne Frank would have written a blog 'They' used to speak to us, now 'we' can speak to anyone. Mark Greene is the executive director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.