HtStW Pop2
Christian Crumlish, multi-site blogger and founder of Salon’s own Radio Free Blogistan, has a new book out called The Power of Many: How the Living Web is Transforming Politics, Business, and Everyday Life. Xian is a charming and engaging writer, and patiently takes the reader through the history of online communication, with the help of an extensive glossary. Building on that base of understanding, he brings the reader up to speed on the state of the art of the many facets of web connectivity: blogs, social software and social networking, instant messaging, newsgroups and discussion groups, wikis, filesharing, chat, community, collaboration and scheduling tools, and people-finders. Although the book is designed for those that are not currently tapping into the online Power of Many, it’s a fun read for us online residents as well, kind of reassuring to know you really sort of understand what the Internet is all about and where it’s going.

But the real value of the book is a series of very important insights about relationships and the technology that attempts to facilitate them, scattered like diamonds throughout the book. I call them Xian’s Principles of Online Connectivity, and although I can’t really do justice to them in one article, here they are:

  1. The Internet is still too hard for most people to use. “There are still multiple, overlapping digital divides. My parents are still not sure what they’re looking at when they’re looking at the monitor of their Apple Macintosh. What to me is naturally a model dialog box is to them just another rectangle among many on a screenful of confusing metaphors.”
  2. Blogs are just the best current disintermediation tool, and other social networking tools will only succeed when they, too, cut out the middleman. Blogs dispense with “the broadcast middleman that has dominated global communication and replacing it with people-to-people communications channels that will yield their own media forms, more collaborative and more granularly nuanced”. Almost all other social networking tools today force us to disclose information in some awkward format, information we’ve already shared in other places, to some host middleman who actually (in the process to trying to get some agency fees) gets in the way. We need new tools that enable social networking unhosted, disintermediated.
  3. All communications and networking is moving to peer-to-peer. Quoting Mary Hodder xian says “this peer-to-peer revolution will extend far beyond music and other media sharing, and actually represents a new paradigm of person-to-person communication and networking, part of the revolution in self-organizing human communities.”
  4. Real communities are only formed when people meet face-to-face to work toward some specific common goal. “Communities are created only when actions are involved, when people rise up from their easy chairs, leave their homes, inconvenience themselves, discover the church basement or the community center, enter a stranger’s home or fight City Hall in the streets.”
  5. Tremendous advantage accrues to anyone who pioneers a new technology successfully. Only a dozen companies have really done this, and they now dominate the desktop and all its extensions. If you want to achieve ‘first mover advantage’ in cyberspace now, your idea is going to have to be so disruptively innovative that it slays one of these giants, otherwise one of the twelve will just “imitate, catch up, and outcompete”. Unless you’re content to be a small niche player, you might be better working for one of them, and leveraging their customer access for your innovation (this latter bit is my opinion, not necessarily xian’s).
  6. Online networking is great for support groups, but dreadful for changing the system, and often detracts from actually getting things done. Quoting danah boyd, xian says that online tools “allow those with the same views to talk with others with the same views”. This is enormously helpful if you want to find others with the same disease or working on the same problem, but in political forums it can lead to groupthink and to the delusion that your message is going beyond the choir. Despite the IEM’s Wisdom of Crowds, for months, that Bush would win, in our progressive echo chambers we were convinced otherwise. And those of us who are Meyers-Briggs introverts have a tendency to mistake ranting and advocating change for actually doing something, to the point online forums of like minds can actually paralyze us from getting up and making change happen.
  7. Information, like ideas, is worth nothing; it’s doing something with it that creates all the value. This is a more prosaic way of saying what McLuhan said with delightful ambiguity: Information is always trying to be free. If you really think you’re going to make money distributing or aggregating information or maintaining databases, it’s time to give your head a shake. The number of paid-subscription newspapers in the world is dropping through the floor, and most of those left are losing money. Most of the millions of brokers and consultants in the world give away information, and are now starting to give away advice as well — they make a living by acting: showing you what to do, or implementing their advice.
  8. Artificial Intelligence doesn’t work in matters of taste. Those services that use AI to tell you “if you liked this book/CD/movie, you’ll probably like this one”, are mis-using complexity theory, and producing nonsense. Personal taste is infinitely variable and contextual, and predictive models just don’t work. Xian jokes “How long do you think it will be before a social network tool tells you ‘people who like this person will also like that person’.”
  9. There is no useful taxonomy of relationships. This might almost be a corollary of #8. Models that show degree of affinity or degrees of separation are endlessly fascinating but fatally flawed. Each of us defines the quality and intensity of relationships differently because relationships are purely subjective and perceptual. Xian quotes Clay Shirky: “Lists of computer-readable definitions of relationships are self-critiquing; Human relations have the additional and curious property of changing the relationship through the very act of labeling, as anyone who has ever said ‘I love you’ can attest.” Any objective, conceptual model misses the whole point. To me, you may be a friend of a friend, but to you, I may just be annoying and presumptuous, an unwanted caller.
  10. Social networking tools are largely redundant for bloggers, but for others they’re essential to establish online presence. Those of us on the blogosphere take the importance of our blogs as networking tools for granted. Xian says Dina Mehta gets it when she says “my blog is my social network”. Those who are blogless — even those who have ordinary, non-conversational websites — need another mechanism to build online networks. While bloggers can shrug off the failure of YASN (‘yet another social network’) tools, for the rest of the 20% of the world who are on this side of the digital divide this failure is important. Bloggers should help find better solutions.

Xian also implies that messaging, publishing and filing are all just moving bits from A to B, and that software should handle them all the same way, simply. But I’ve already harped on that.

He also touches on a point that the transition from online communication to face-to-face or even voice-to-voice communication is terribly jarring, and sometimes doesn’t work despite the best efforts of the conversants. Dilys C suggests we are looking for an online metaphor for the front porch — the place where we hang out and tacitly invite visitors to drop by personally and get to know us better. Our presence or absence on the porch is a signal for whether we are, or are not, receptive at any particular moment to visitors. I’ve put Skype up on my blog but the truth is it’s rarely on because I’m busy. What we need perhaps is a way to post ‘visiting hours’ on Skype — specified times when we’re ‘on the front porch’ and open to calls from people who are online friends but still personal strangers. No that’s not exactly right, what we need is a way to make the Skype logo flash during those ‘visiting hours’ with a picture of us popping up, as if to say “Hey, I’m just sitting here with my glass of wine or cup of coffee, taking a break and watching the world go by, so if you feel like it, and you’re not trying to sell me something, give me a call.”

You can learn more about the book, or order a copy, through Good stuff.

The chart of my blog’s popularity, above, shows how I track its value and the quality of my writing, as well as measuring the success of the blogosphere as a whole (the peaks and valleys seem to be following the same pattern on other blogs I read — the summer doldrums and election fever certainly took their toll on all but the political blogs). Call it vanity if you wish, but I think it’s interesting. I don’t know if blogs are here to stay, but they’re certainly hanging in there. I’d have put a picture of xian at the top of this post if he weren’t so camera-shy. The picture of him on his bookflap is wonderful, but it’s not available online.

This entry was posted in Using Weblogs and Technology. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Mike says:

    Is that RSS feeds scale correct? Or, are you just not counting your bloglines subscribers?Bloglines lists 476 current subscribers; see

  2. xian says:

    i can send you a picture, dave, but i don’t think i own the headshot on the flap.also, in 1, the quotation re my parents should say “modal dialog box” although the typo might be in the book, in which case I will submit a reprint correction!thanks again for this wonderful review and for extracting some very important observations from my pile of anecdotes!

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Anonymous: Wow, you learn something every day. I didn’t know this list existed. I’ve been using Dave Winer’s list at and didn’t realize how incomplete it is. I’ll start using the Bloglines count, thanks. Now I’m wondering if there’s any way to identify everyone who subscribed to your RSS feed, but I don’t think there is. Just when I thought I was getting ahead of the curve ;-)Xian: My typo, not yours, sorry, though ‘model’ works well too.

  4. Tris Hussey says:

    Wow. Great stuff Dave. Here’s the link to my post (trackback isn’t taking on old Blogware).

Comments are closed.