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On surfing naked

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, February 28, 2006

It has been my privilege (and misfortune) to see many “hot” Internet trends come and go over the last few years. Most of them, while initially promising, never lived long enough to make any lasting mark on society, or even on other technologies, and they were soon forgotten by everyone – except of course by their dumbstruck investors.The Internet, largely because of its novelty, has been both aided (commercially) and hindered (socially) by attempts in the media and in business to define “what it all means.” The major problem with this approach is that the Internet, just like any other freeform collection of human interactions, has no actual goals, and very little focus. Local trends may shape the needs of Internet in the short term, but over the long haul it is moved by little else but sociology and psychology. Forgetting this, and forgetting the critical role of the individual, is the first step in creating a soon-to-be failed dot-com, and the next unimportant trend.I bring this up because right now many pundits want to place blogs (and their cousins, like LiveJournal and MySpace) in this category of big-hype, low-impact technologies. And worse, well-meaning parents and educators, having learned of these new social constructs from the media and believing that they understand their purpose and extent, are trying to restrict their sons’ and daughters’ access to these new media without first asking why they were interested in the first place.And actually, I don’t entirely disagree with either group on the underlying point, even though do I have a blog, (and I have no plans to dismantle it even if blogs in general should fall out of favor). I think most of the current attraction is pure hype, and so the entire phenomena, as it is understood in the media, is not worth much long-term attention. Blogs are too hyped and too misunderstood, and there will shortly come a day when the blog-bubble will collapse, around the same time that people realize that there is not really money in blogs or blogging.I look forward to this day because I think that the current emphasis on blogging and on its “moral,” “moneymaking” or “popularity building” potential completely misses the real and significant trend of what blogs are doing, and what they have done, to the Internet and which gives a major hint toward were it may be going.In truth, a blog is nothing more than a publishing tool – an easy to use Web based interface that permits almost effortless personal publishing and community building, without the normal technical knowledge. It has always been possible for a person to create something like a blog on the Internet, but only lately have programmers worked together to make the task trivial.Unfortunately, once blogs took off, their early writers began focusing on areas that called certain kinds of attention to them: foreign policy, politics and news. This is the cause of the blog hype: politicians who were taken unaware and paranoid media companies who wondered if blogs were a threat to their entrenched business model. This initial interest drew more individuals to blogging, but only as a pale clone of the earliest journalist/bloggers, in the hopes of emulating some of that fame. However, these media blogs are only business as usual. They are the direct equivalent of a bricks-and-mortar company that creates a Web site in order to move its business online but which otherwise does not alter its business model.The real power of blogs, and the real future of the Internet, does not lie in these popular media commentaries. It lies in the unseen blogs. There are, at last count, between 30 and 40 million blogs, the vast majority of which are written by teenagers for their immediate friends or for some small, but closely-knit Internet community (such as DeviantART). The younger the blogger, the greater the probability that he or she will share something quite personal, and in many cases, shockingly remarkable in its naked honesty.It is this spiritual nudity, which also takes other forms depending on the artistic taste of the author, that I think hints at the future of the Internet. Blogs are important because they are a sort of vast social group therapy, created by a collection of otherwise uninhibited people who have discovered that, in this case, there may be more to gain from openness than from privacy. What was once confined to a book and read, perhaps, by a really nosy little sister is now spread, with its author’s blessing, to the entire world.And if this trend lasts, if the psychology of the computer screen, which gives both intimacy and great distance and which completely changes what is “public” and what is “personal” takes hold, then the widespread social impact of this trend will dwarf anything a political blog could ever dream of attaining.

Lance Gallop is a 2005 graduate of Notre Dame. Comments should be e-mailed to comments@tidewaterblues.com More of his opinions can be found at www.tidewaterblues.comThe views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.