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The personal journal of technology journalist and conference speaker Randall S. Newton.

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Thursday, March 31, 2005

Thinking About Hyperlinks is Subversive

To prepare for my company’s annual conference (COFES 2005: The Congress on the Future of Engineering Software), I’ve been re-reading the work of our keynote speaker, Dr. David Weinberger. He is best known as co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, a book on business activity in the age of the Internet. I rate it and Kevin Kelly’s New Rules for the New Economy as the two must-read books to come out of the dotcom era. I think they are every bit as relevant today as they were in 2000—perhaps more so, given the maturing of the technology. (Full disclosure: I slept on the floor of Kevin Kelly's houseboat basement apartment for four nights in 1985, but I would recommend his book even if I had never met him.)

Weinberger and his co-authors in The Cluetrain Manifesto didn’t collaborate on a word-by-word basis; each took responsibility for a chapter or two, and then added extra insights to each other’s chapters. Weinberger’s light shins in Chapter 5, The Hyperlinked Organization. Before I talk about Chapter 5, I need to share a bit about the book’s origins. As Weinberger writes in the Preface:

The four of us had never all met but we shared some interests and some friends. Around the turn of 1999, we found ourselves talking about two closely related issues: why the media coverage of the Web was so wrong and why most businesses have their heads shoulder-high up their butts when it came to what the Web is about. … Businesses by and large were worrying about the Web as another way to “build brand,” “move product,” and, most of all, to “gather eyeballs.” Barely a word was heard from either the media or business about why people were in fact moving onto the Web not only in astounding numbers but also with a sense of hope. Where was the discussion of the Web’s promise that’s stirring our spirit? Where was even the most meager recognition that the Web is more than an extension of business as usual?

Out of their conversations came 95 theses the four called the Cluetrain Manifesto. Thesis 7 states, “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”—a key theme of Weinberger’s Chapter 5.

“Conversations subvert hierarchy,” Weinberger writes. “Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy. Being a human being among others subverts hierarchy.

Why is freedom of expression usually the first freedom lost when dictators or totalitarian regimes come to power? Because conversations, by nature, bypass any form of hierarchy. When people want to communicate, they want to do so directly, without need for permission or limits on the subject matter. This explains why blogs are the latest Web-based technology to not only surge in popularity, but to become a vehicle of disruption to the cultural status quo. Where once there was Matt Drudge, there are now hundreds of thousands of new—and often unconventional—sources of information. (Follow this link to a report from the BBC on how China is trying to restrict bloggers; by one estimate 62 have been sent to jail in recent months for talking about the wrong subjects.)

The mainstream media (referred to by bloggers as “MSM”) has new competition. Thousands of new “news” organizations have seemingly sprung up overnight, but these new news organizations are very different than the established MSM. They are as much about conversation as they are about news. Blogs reflect the human desire to communicate directly. Traditional media, by technological, structural necessity, has delivered news from a command-and-control hierarchy. The flat, leaderless hierarchy of the blogosphere is a subversive challenge to the pyramidal hierarchy structure of MSM.

As I write, notice of a new report from the Carnegie Foundation pops into my inbox. (The report comes from one of the many blogs I monitor with RSS technology.) “Abandoning the News” takes a close look at this subversive threat to mainstream news media. Here’s a quote:

There's a dramatic revolution taking place in the news business today and it isn't about TV anchor changes, scandals at storied newspapers or embedded reporters. The future course of the news, including the basic assumptions about how we consume news and information and make decisions in a democratic society are being altered by technology-savvy young people no longer wedded to traditional news outlets or even accessing news in traditional ways. In short, the future of the U.S. news industry is seriously threatened by the seemingly irrevocable move by young people away from traditional sources of news.

There are too many angles to this “hyperlinks are subversive” concept to explore in one blog posting. I’ll return to this theme again soon.


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