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Together at Last: Maybe the Best Use for Web Logging Is to Teach Us More About Ourselves

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

What is a web log, really? The best ones are full of ideas, I suppose, but are they lakes or streams or even fountains of thoughts? Is the point of a web log to record ideas or to publish them? Nobody seems to agree, which is as it should be since the medium is so young. That's the way it is with new media, you know. It takes society 30 years, more or less, to absorb a new information technology into daily life. It took about that long to turn movable type into books in the 15th century. Telephones were invented in the 1870s, but did not change our lives until the 1900s. Motion pictures were born in the 1890s, but became an important industry in the 1920s. Television, invented in the mid-1920s, took until the mid-1950s to bind us to our sofas. The PC and the Internet are both today about 30 years old, which means we are finally figuring what they are about. But web logging is only half a dozen years old, so if it seems an odd hobby to some (it certainly does to me), it is simply because the medium is still in flux. That’s just the way it is with information technologies. It takes us quite a while to decide what to do with them.

Radio was invented with the original idea that it would replace telephones and give us wireless communication. That implies two-way communication, yet how many of us own radio transmitters? In fact, the popularization of radio came as a broadcast medium, with powerful transmitters sending the same message�entertainment�to thousands or millions of inexpensive radio receivers. Television was the same way, envisioned at first as a two-way visual communication medium. Early phonographs could record as well as play and were supposed to make recordings that would be sent through the mail, replacing written letters. The magnetic tape cassette was invented by Philips for dictation machines, but we mainly used it to hear music before there were CDs. Telephones went the other direction, since Alexander Graham Bell first envisioned his invention being used to pipe music to remote groups. The point is that all these technologies found their greatest success being used in ways other than were originally expected.

It takes new ideas a long time to catch on�time that is mainly devoted to evolving the idea into something useful. This fact alone dumps most of the responsibility for early technical innovation in the laps of amateurs, who can afford to take the time. Only those who aren’t trying to make money can afford to advance a technology that doesn’t pay, which brings us right back to web logs, which hardly anyone actually writes for a living.

Some people think this column is a web log, but it isn't. For one thing, it predates web logs and I'm hoping will post-date them, too. Google News classifies what I am doing here as a web log even though I predate Google, itself, by more than a decade and don't see my work that way at all. I use too darned many words to be a web log, for one thing, and too darned few links. If I write anything really newsworthy, which I like to think that I do from time to time, the only way Google News will show it is if one of their 4500 REAL news sites mentions me. Otherwise, I don't exist, or more properly I exist only in a blogosphere that I, in turn, refuse to acknowledge. I'm odd that way.

All of this came to mind when Joe Reger came by for lunch this week. Joe writes web logging software used by about 5,000 customers around the world, so he thinks about these things. And Joe thinks web logging will become the way we keep track of our lives. We'll keep our pictures, our thoughts, our schedules, even our work output all set in digital form against a web timeline. Where Joe goes beyond a lot of other thinkers in this space is in his desire to use web logging for more than just keeping track of stuff. Joe hopes to pioneer what essentially comes down to personal data mining. A "Regerized" web log would not only keep track of when you leave for work, but it would analyze past data and estimate how late you'll be or when would be the best time to depart for the quickest commute.

I give credit to Dave Winer of Userland Software for inventing web logging, and I think the idea then was to publish, to share your thoughts with everyone else. But most people's thoughts aren't really worth sharing. Most web logs are little more than lists of annotated bookmarks and the value of those bookmarks can probably be best derived through a web aggregator, in which case people would be writing not to be read but to be counted, which isn't nearly as much fun.

A lot of this comes down to production values, which is a subject those in the web log world tend to ignore because it is to their advantage to do so. There is a lot of bad television, but its packaging is such that we still seem to sit through the shows. Network TV spends perhaps $500,000 on an hour. How much do you spend on each web log entry? No wonder most web logs are so boring.

But Joe Reger wants us to not think so much about the web log publishing model and instead use the technology -- preferably HIS technology -- as a personal freeform database with analytical tools to take the measure of our own lives. Here we've been thinking about web logs as a way of reaching out to the world when they may be as much or even more useful reaching into ourselves.

I think he is onto something. Personal data mining means that I'd be mining my own data, learning about my own little world. If the FBI wanted to do that (they probably do) then I'd be opposed, but personal data mining offers personal payoffs. Imagine if your web log chirped up one day suggesting out of the blue that maybe, just maybe certain trends in the entries were suggesting that you need a vacation or your business is in peril or your kid is abusing drugs or that you probably have cancer. If such knowledge was hidden in your web log data, wouldn't you rather know than not?

In order to do this, of course, your car and your workout monitor and your calendar and everything else you touch will all have to be Regerized, which sounds like both a brand and a business. That's building a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system where the only customer is you. See the rudimentary beginnings of this at Maybe he'll succeed, maybe not, but somebody is going to eventually make this work.

Now for an unusual change of topic: As everyone everywhere knows, this week former U.S. President Ronald Reagan passed away. I hardly ever found myself in agreement with Reagan on any issue at any time, but he is the only U.S. President with whom I ever sat down to dinner, and that one meal told me a lot about the man that is being missed in all the eulogizing. Ronnie Reagan was a very funny guy.

One night in 1978, my friend John Austin, who had covered Governor Reagan for Time magazine, and I met for dinner in San Jose, California. The former governor wasn't even running for President yet, but was in town that day to give a lunch speech. Reagan's plane back to Los Angeles, where Nancy was waiting, didn't leave for several hours, so we kept him company. Over drinks and then dinner, Reagan never once mentioned politics. Instead he told an unending string of Irish jokes. Here is my favorite:

Two Irish ladies were at the wake for their dear friend. "Poor Mollie," said the first woman, looking down at the body, "she had such a hard life. First she married Mike, who gave her five crying children in six years. He beat her and never worked a day in his life. Then Mike up and died, and she married Johnny, who was even worse, giving her seven more children and not a penny of support. He was drunk all the time until he died, too. And now Mollie is gone, worked to death taking care of those 12 kids."

"Well, at least they are together at last," replied the second woman.

"You mean together in Heaven?" asked the first woman. "But is Mollie together with Mike or with Johnny?"

"I was referring to her legs."

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