Oct 11, 2005
Blogs: A medium in search of a role
By Koh Buck Song
For The Straits Times
MORE people are becoming agog about blogs. But this frenzied excitement will subside to a new equilibrium sooner than expected.
For instance, last week's conviction of two bloggers in Singapore for posting racist remarks online is just the latest development to knock the wind out of the sails of the blogging euphoria.
This is, indeed, an age in which anyone with access to the Internet can say anything to everyone else on the planet. Newer modes of doing this will no doubt emerge.
But the litmus test will always be: Who will listen? How to gain and sustain a big enough audience?
Much discussion has focused on the reach and 'return on investment' of blogs; that is, how many people visit these sites, and how much influence they actually wield.
I think the more important questions have to do with durability and enduring value - how long they can last, and what special service they can continue to offer.
First, durability. Blogs that make it big depend on other 'content aggregators' to give them that push into fame among the less digitally active segments of the population.
Without key content aggregators in the mainstream media - like this newspaper - it will always be harder to achieve a tipping point in galvanising action.
Conversely, the full deterrent effect of convictions against racist bloggers can be achieved only with the help of the 'traditional' media. This role of the mainstream media, and other communication channels, will remain crucial so long as the digital divide persists, as it looks likely to.
Even in developed countries, the gap between the connected and the rest continues - due to differences in income, education and other socio-economic factors.
But even if such gaps were reduced, a divide would still exist along the lines of interest and inclination. People do not have the time to pay attention to so many things. The result: a more fragmented market.
As competition for attention intensifies, the market becomes even more segmented. Blogs would then need more help to garner attention, from web search engines like Google and newer vehicles.
What I call 'word of mouse' - people spreading awareness of online stuff - is a way to gain popularity independent of mainstream media.
But any following will fade - in short, end up a fad - unless the author can keep churning fresh, engaging material, re-inventing content while retaining some consistency of approach to foster the blog's character. It is a long-haul game of branding, just like in the real world, and demands plenty of time.
Blogs are generating such a buzz now mainly because of their novelty value. But as more blogs are set up, their scarcity value will drop. Like all other modes of communication before, they become victims of their own success.
Remember when websites first came upon the firmament? People thought they would revolutionise the world, so they invested money in dotcoms. We all know what happened after that.
Nowadays, everyone and his mother-in-law has a website, and the game has reverted to figuring out how to 'drive traffic' to something every other player also has.
Now, what about value? Successful blogs today work on one of two main business models: that of Donald Trump or Annabel Chong, the Singaporean girl who moved to the United States and made headlines by breaking a world record in a pornographic act.
Mr Trump's approach - that 'there is no such thing as over-exposure' - succeeds because the author is already famous; that is, what is sought-after is the message, not the medium. Ms Chong's model was to throw caution, clothes and all else to the wind. But where is she now?
The market for attention, like human beings, is driven by three things: money, sex and power. Mr Trump is money; Ms Chong is sex. For me, the best way blogs can contribute to society is to serve as whistle-blowers against any abuse of power.
Here, the frenzy over blogs connects with another current hot topic - corporate governance, or lack thereof, in charity organisations, corporations and even governments.
Launching the Harvard Singapore Foundation last Friday, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong called for more self-discipline and robust self-regulation in the stewardship of non-profit groups.
Blogs may soon become just another marketing channel for the Donald Trumps and Annabel Chongs of this world. But in promoting governance, integrity and fair dealing, a new extent of reach is now available with blogs.
They are already changing the balance of power, and will no doubt send more shivers down the spines of crooks and tyrants alike.