From our archive : What's wrong with being damned for publishing

| July 19, 2009

It’s funny the way new phrases creep in almost unnoticed, then suddenly are everywhere. ‘Web 2.0’ is a good example. What is it? Well there’s a question, though I don’t quite go along with the view that it’s just a load of hype. What it is, as far as I can see, is an attempt to look at the various bits of software, tools etc that are now around, and give them some sort of coherence (and therefore reason for existence). It’s not a new type of web, it’s just where the web has got to – it’s also a terrific excuse for much chatter on the blogging circuit, and a huge amount of dogmatism.

If I’m dogmatic about anything, it’s that I hate dogmatism. We live in a world of many shades of grey, yet the way to get yourself heard (and respected) is to be black and white about everything. The more opinionated the commentator or magazine or newspaper, the better it is likely to do, which explains the shift from old-fashioned reporters and feature writers to ‘hard-hitting’ columnists . Blogging is another expression of it. You don’t have to do anything dull like interviewing people, checking facts, then checking facts again – you just write what you like. Am I sounding dogmatic? Hope so.

Dogma wags the tale

Back to Web 2.0 related dogma. I found myself pointed by various blogs to an article entitled ‘What is Web 2.0?’, by Tim O’Reilly, one of the originators of the expression. It’s quite interesting, but I got stuck when he talked about “the 90s notion that the web was about publishing, not participation”. This is both dogmatic – he states opinion as fact – and meaningless.

First, how can the web be ‘about’ participation, or indeed publishing? Surely its defining feature is its flexibility – it can be ‘about’ so many things that it makes no sense to dismiss one use in favour of another. I spend my time trying to help organisations keep all potential targets (better call them stakeholders) happy. Take a quoted corporation. It will be (should be) using its site to attract the best job applicants, impress and serve financial analysts, keep its private shareholders happy, stop journalists ringing up more than necessary, market its products or services and give the impression that it is a fluffy, happy, responsible outfit. The length of that sentence shows just what a complex set of tasks that is, but it is one that the web can – alone among communication media – manage.

Read not dead

Second, the implication is that if you use your website for publishing, you are just so 1990s. Why? It is an excellent publishing mechanism and, where appropriate, should be used as such. Indeed, some of the best business sites are those that are produced as though they were magazines, drawing on the techniques that have made people buy and read publications for years.

Look at General Electric’s home page – it will have a striking picture with a linked story, as well as three other stories. There is no point my saying what they are, because they will have changed by the time you read this: GE’s home page is managed like a magazine front cover, with headlines and stories regularly updated to keeping drawing you in. Look at GlaxoSmithKline’s new site: its ‘GSK in focus’ section features are a strong set of articles complete with headlines (‘The white plague’, ‘A purple haze’) designed to intrigue the visitor into reading – just as a magazine should. Several companies now employ journalists to make their site a stimulating read – and a good thing too.

It’s the taking part

Third, you should apparently be using your site for ‘participation’. This is one of the main ideas behind Web 2.0, and it is worth pondering. Rupert Murdoch owns MySpace, which bills itself  “a place for friends” and is one of the hot properties in the Dotcom Boom Part Two. Here, you can create your own area where you can write about yourself, upload pictures and get to meet your friends’ friends. Or try YouTube, where you can post videos for everyone to see (some good headbutting ones recently). The point in both cases is that the site is created not by its owner, but by its users: participation, see?

The idea that the web should be used to build communities is certainly not new – it was a favourite on the conference circuit eight years ago, and there are companies that have succeeded. Look at Simon & Schuster’s site, and particularly at the Discussion Boards. Latest count for the Stephen King board: 401,175 posts. But common or garden corporations have had a tougher time. The Tell Shell forum was a pioneering attempt to get visitors to post their views; Chevron is currently trying to stir up a discussion at Willyoujoinus.com. But neither has gained much momentum, simply because few people feel the same affinity with a multinational as they do with an author.

Can this change? Well, some companies are running blogs, as I described a little while ago, and we can expect more experiments in participation. Customers posting videos showing how they use products? Shareholders debating social responsibility? Um, maybe. But to say that websites are about participation not publishing is not only dogmatic, it is wrong. Leave participation to publishers like Mr Murdoch or Simon & Schuster; if you are just an ordinary company, concentrate on learning to publish. Well.

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