[Digital Nations in the making: Update Page 127 – Blogging].

When I first came across Dave Winer’s postings about blogs on Scripting News in the late 1990s, I was enthused by the idea but couldn’t see the right use for myself. I was just about to launch Webtalk Northwest, an online magazine on ILT and adult education and wanted more flexibilty to deploy linked contributions from others. No sign of wikipedia then! But the price paid was the time taken to commission articles, source images and edit and mark-up text for what in the end was only a twice yearly publication.

Now five months on from taking the plunge and starting this blog, I’ve been thinking it’s time to stand back and take a wider view. I’ve been getting all the benefits of the WordPress platform – simple easy to use templates and html scripting, tagging, immediate uploading, links to my flickr photo gallery, indexing by technorati and other search engines, password support, usage stats etc but it has raised a lot of questions which I didn’t address when writing my Digital Nations in the making book.

Just who is blogging and why? What’s the shape of the blogosphere and what wider changes does blogging represent? And importantly what’s the message for adult education providers and tutors as they look to motivate the socially excluded and hook them into the excitement of learning? Can blogging help them?

I was intrigued to see last month’s New York Times article, Survey of the blogosphere finds 12 million voices. The Pew Internet and American Way of Life Project had done it again. Always an excellent and well-researched source of information, which I’ve quoted extensively in my book, they have come up with some initial answers for some of my questions although they admit it’s a moving target.

The report, Bloggers: A portrait of the Internet’s new storytellers is based on 2005-2006 surveys of 7012 adults and follow up interviews with a sample of 233 bloggers. It shows that while only 8% of 147 million US internet users (IU) are writing blogs, 39% (57 million) are reading them. Bloggers are equally divided between men and women, but blacks and Hispanics, while being only 20% of IU, represent 30% of bloggers.

Not surprisingly perhaps 38% of bloggers are knowledge based professional users compared with the 13% of American adults in this category. Though young people under 30 are identified as the principal blogging age group (54%), 44% of bloggers are between 30-64. These are a key group of people involved in community based adult education provision. And why do they all write their blogs?

Money is certainly not a key reason. Half say it is to express themselves and document personal experience, but significantly between a third and a quarter give more outward looking and socially oriented reasons – to share skills and knowledge, to motivate others, to influence the way that others think.

There is no comparable data for the UK, but there are several sites which track numbers. Duncan Riley in Blog Herald gave a figure in July 2005 of 70 million bloggers worldwide, with 2.5 million in the UK,  but the figures were based upon very generalised calculations. Across the channel the French are even more active according to Newswatch India (July 2006) where 3 million IUs have blogs and 60% of IUs read blogs. The data drawn from different media company sources is not documented.

An excellent source on trends is The State of the Blogosphere Reports from David Sifry, CEO for Technorati, which by July 2006 was tracking 50 million weblogs daily. In his May 2006 report he described the growth and significance of tagging (over 100 million since 2005) and the strength of Chinese and Japanese blogs, which represented over 50% of all postings. In this month’s report he notes they are tracking the creation of over 175,000 new weblogs daily (more than 2 per second) and 1.6 million postings a day!

The Technorati figures show that the blogosphere has been doubling every 180-200 days since July 2004, which would give a figure of 100 million tracked blogs by early 2007. These growth rates are remarkable and reflect new attitudes about ‘publishing’ to the world which democratically oriented technology has made possible and for which there is no precedent.

Blogging is a new cultural phenomenon. It’s impacting too upon mainstream media. Sifry has a list of the top 90 media websites, as measured by bloggers linking to them, which is headed by the New York Times. Eleven of these 90 are blogs, with the fascinating boingboing.net (‘A Directory of Wonderful Things’) the top English language one, clocked in at No 24. Generalising from all this mass of data is not easy, but should still be attempted!

Blogging involves engagement and activity. Bloggers and blog readers are no ‘couch potatoes’. The Google survey (Guardian, 8 March 2006) showing the average Briton spends 164 minutes online every day compared with 148 minutes watching TV was not based upon a representative sample, but the findings certainly reflect a significant trend, which parallels what is happening with blogs.

We need also to look at the context in which blogging takes place. Many individuals may see their blogs as being written primarily for friends and family, but this doesn’t contradict Suw Charman’s statement in her  article The 12 reasons why UK businesses don’t blog that “blogging is about increasing search engine visibility”.

In a web enabled world increasingly people obtain information not via a telephone call, a directory or a CAB visit, but through a search engine because this is quickest. So if you have something to say and want an audience, blogging has become an efficient, cheap and flexible tool for the job. The first movers, those with most to say or who can cross communicate via existing media (journalists, TV presenters, politicians) and bloggers knowledgeable about search technology can turn the tool into a mighty megaphone.

‘The invisible hand on the keyboard’ article in last week’s Economist (5 August 2006, page 67) describes how academic economists have taken to blogging with a vengeance. Newspapers are full of footballers’ blogs, consultants use them to promote their services and untested bands like the Arctic Monkeys can rapidly accumulate support through viral marketing.

All these factors can be applied with equal force for corporate and organisational purposes. but UK companies have not followed the US, where established companies like Microsoft have over 2000 present and former employees blogging and a start up like Zillow builds corporate blogging into its strategy from Day 1. Through its zillowblog, it plans to spread the word, show its human face and involve its readers in the development of its product.

There’s no reason the same principles should not be applied to the post-16 and adult & community education sector, particularly where there are large numbers of staff and tutors. Once started there’s a huge potential here for tutors to encourage their adult learners to publish their work from an ESOL, skills for life, R2L, creative writing or art class etc on their own individual blogs.

I’m all for the comment of Shel Israel, joint author of Naked Conversations (about US corporate blogging): “The revolution is not in the blog, it is in the two-way conversations that empower communities of users more and monolithic organisations less”. We’re still though a long way in the UK from his vision of where people starting new jobs will “get their desks, computers, telephone, email and blog accounts” and be trusted and expected to use these tools for the job. But the informal and post 16 sector could be a great place to start pushing the blogging revolution forwards. It’s ideally positioned so why shouldn’t it be a first mover?