Celebrating Dave Winer

This morning’s Observer column:

Twenty years ago this week, a software developer in California ushered in a new era in how we communicate. His name is Dave Winer and on 7 October 1994 he published his first blog post. He called it Davenet then, and he’s been writing it most days since then. In the process, he has become one of the internet’s elders, as eminent in his way as Vint Cerf, Dave Clark, Doc Searls, Lawrence Lessig, Dave Weinberger or even Tim Berners-Lee.

When you read his blog, Scripting News – as I have been doing for 20 years – you’ll understand why, because he’s such a rare combination of talents and virtues. He’s technically a very gifted software developer, for example. Many years ago he wrote one of the smartest programs that ever ran on the Apple II, the IBM PC and the first Apple Mac – an outliner called ThinkTank, which changed the way many of us thought about the process of writing. After that, Winer wrote the first proper blogging software, invented podcasting and was one of the developers of RSS, the automated syndication system that constitutes the hidden wiring of the blogosphere. And he’s still innovating, still pushing the envelope, still writing great software.

Technical virtuosity is not what makes Winer one of the world’s great bloggers, however. Equally important is that he is a clear thinker and writer, someone who is politically engaged, holds strong opinions and believes in engaging in discussion with those who disagree with him. And yet the strange thing is that this opinionated, smart guy is also sensitive: he gets hurt when people write disparagingly about him, but he also expresses that hurt in a philosophical way…

Read on


Lovely blog post by Dave Winer.

I’d like to propose a new acronym. TIJABP.

This. Is. Just. A. Blog. Post.

In other words, this is not the US Constitution or the Declaration of Independence.

Or the Treaty of Versailles or even legally binding.

It’s not Hey Jude or Beethoven’s 9th.

Not Catcher In The Rye or Annie Hall.

And it’s definitely not the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. (Yo Mookie!)

It’s just a blog post, so read it that way.

Twas written quickly, by one (busy) person, who then moved on to something else.

Memories to keep

Nice blog post by Terry Teachout about throwing stuff away.

 So it was with no small amount of surprise that I found myself confronted the other day with three grocery sacks full of miscellaneous papers retrieved from an old desk I’d left behind in my previous apartment. I’d completely forgotten the contents of that desk, and though I didn’t expect them to include anything important, I thought I ought to give them a quick sifting just to be sure.

I threw out most of what I found. I saw no reason, for instance, to hang onto a two-inch-thick stack of photocopied pieces I’d written for the New York Daily News during my tenure as its classical music and dance critic, though I did shake my head at the thought of the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve published in the twenty-seven years since my very first concert review appeared in the Kansas City Star. Middle age has its cold consolations, one of which is the knowledge that you’re not nearly as important as you thought you were, or hoped someday to become. I used to save copies of everything I wrote, and for a few years I even kept an up-to-date bibliography of my magazine pieces! Now I marvel at the vanity that once led me to think my every printed utterance worthy of preservation.

Only one of those pieces held my attention for more than the time it took me to pitch it in the nearest wastebasket: a copy of the first piece I wrote forCommentary, a review of James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket published in December of 1985, six months after I moved to New York. I remember how hard I worked on it, and how proud I was to have “cracked” Commentary. Today it sounds hopelessly stiff and earnest, which is why I left it out of the Teachout Reader. What on earth could have possessed Norman Podhoretz to find a place for that immature effort in his book-review section? He told me the first draft was too “knowing,” the best piece of advice any editor has ever given me, and I revised it nervously, hoping to pass muster, never imagining that I would write hundreds more pieces for Commentary, eventually becoming its music critic. Would it have pleased me to know these things back in 1985? Or might it have dulled the tang of my first sale?

I didn’t expect to find a Metropolitan Opera program among my forgotten papers, though no sooner did I look at it than I knew why I’d saved it. I went to the Metropolitan Opera House on the evening of January 5, 1996, fully expecting to review the company premiere of Leos Janacek’s The Makropulos Case for the Daily News. Instead, I ended up writing a front-page story about how one of the singers in the production died on stage, a minute and a half into the first act. The opening scene of The Makropulos Case is set in a law office where Vitek, a clerk, is looking up the files for a suit that has been dragging on for close to a century. To symbolize the tortuous snarl of Gregor v. Prus, designer Anthony Ward turned the entire back wall of the set into a forty-foot-high filing cabinet containing hundreds of drawers. Enter Vitek, played by a character tenor named Richard Versalle. As the curtain rose, he made his entrance, climbed up a tall ladder and pulled a file out of one of the drawers. “Too bad you can only live so long,” he sang in Czech. Then he let go of the ladder and fell mutely to the stage, landing on his back with a terrible crash.

Three thousand people gasped. David Robertson, the conductor, waved the orchestra to a halt and shouted, “Are you all right, Richard?” Versalle didn’t speak or move, and the curtain was quickly lowered. I sat frozen in my aisle seat, stunned by what I had seen. Then I pulled myself together and ran to the press room to find out what had happened. A company spokesman told the rapidly growing band of critics and hangers-on what little he knew: Versalle had been rushed by ambulance to the nearest hospital. We started firing questions at him. How old was Versalle? When did he make his Met debut? Did he have a wife and children? I scribbled the answers (63, 1978, yes) on my program and pushed through the crowd to the nearest pay phone, where I dropped a quarter in the slot, dialed the number of the Daily News city desk, and spoke three words that had never before crossed my lips other than in jest: “Get me rewrite.” Eight years later, I leafed through the program of that unfinished performance, looking at my barely decipherable notes. As souvenirs go, it was a good one, and I decided to keep it.


Terminological inexactitude

I’ve long been struck by the way in which technological terms get corrupted (i.e. abbreviated) in common parlance. Thus “transistor radio” became “transistor”, and “videotape” (or “videocassette”) became “video”. The same thing is now happening to “blog post”. On Sunday I called on a friend who mentioned that he was “writing a blog” about something we were discussing when he clearly mean a blog post. And this morning I find that two eminent bloggers have slipped into the same usage — here and here.

Dearly beloved, I say unto you: The tipping point is near.

Blogger of the Year

Most years, Dave Winer nominates the person who, in his opinion, should be recognised as Blogger of the Year. This year he fingers Richard Stallman as a possible contender for next year. (What? You didn’t know Stallman blogged! Er, neither did I, until Dave told me.) But his Blogger of the Year for now is Seth Godin.

This would be fine except for one thing. For me, most years, Dave Winer is generally Blogger of the Year. He’s the most consistently interesting, perceptive and wise commentator on things that matter to me. Long may he reign.

The Blogosphere at its best — contd.

Last month I wrote about a discussion which showed what a useful part of the public sphere the blogosphere has become. Now comes another example — in this case a calm explication by my colleague Doug Clow of the background to Britain’s Bloomsbury-based New College of the Humanities. The initiative has attracted an extraordinary amount of hostility and ridicule in the newspapers, which leads Doug to observe, mildly, that he is “shocked, shocked to discover that the accounts presented in the mainstream media are not perfectly in accord with the situation as I understand it.”

That’s putting it mildly. Doug then goes on usefully to clarify a number of important points: that NCH is in reality just another organisation preparing students for degrees awarded by the University of London International Programmes; that it isn’t a ‘university’ or even a ‘university college’ because in the UK university status can only be bestowed by the Privy Council (though I guess that that would be forthcoming if the government decided to award it); and that it’s a for-profit company with a charitable arm.

The OpEd firestorm that A.C. Grayling and his fellow-adventurers have generated is interesting because, among other things, it shows how resistant some establishments are to change. The truth is that NCH is not the end of civilisation as we know it, but the first appearance on British shores of a phenomenon that’s an established feature of the US scene, namely an expensive Liberal Arts school mainly aimed at the offspring of the wealthy. I wouldn’t want my own kids to go to it (and not just because of the fees), but there are plenty of parents in London who spend more than £18k a year on lunch, and to whom Grayling College will look like an excellent finishing school for their offspring.

“Software tells Bloggers what readers want”. Oh yeah?

Hmmm… From Technology Review.

Blogging often sounds like a great idea: sharing thoughts and expertise, becoming a part of a community, and taking the first few steps to wider recognition as a writer. But many bloggers quickly get disillusioned.

IBM’s internal records show, for example, that only three percent of the company’s employees have posted to a blog at all. Of those who have, 80 percent have posted only five times or fewer. Many of the people interviewed for the study say they stopped blogging–or never got started–because they didn't think anyone would read their posts.

In an effort to fix this problem, IBM researchers have been experimenting with a tool called Blog Muse, which suggests a topic for a blog post with a ready-made audience.

“We saw this disconnect between readers and writers,” says Werner Geyer, a researcher at IBM’s center for social software in Cambridge who was involved with the work. The writers surveyed often weren't sure how to interest readers, and many of their posts got little to no response. Readers, on the other hand, couldn’t find blogs on the topics they wanted to read about.

So Geyer and his colleagues built a widget to bring these two halves of the problem closer together. Readers use the widget to suggest topics they want to read about, and they can vote in support of existing suggestions. Those suggestions then get sent to possible writers, matching topics to writers by analyzing his social network connections and areas of expertise.

And the result?

The effort didn’t substantially increase the quantity of posts however. The researchers speculate that this is because users who planned to write blog posts anyway simply chose suggested topics rather than coming up with their own.

Er, this post was suggested by nobody.