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Connecting With Dan Gillmor: What's Next For the Web


When Dan Gillmor writes, speaks or links, people pay attention. Now the respected San Jose Mercury News tech journalist has a new book, "We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People," and he's giving it away to his fellow Netizens.

Dan Gillmor wrote his first major article about the Internet in 1991. As he recalls, the story sank without a trace. That's not the case with his work today. Gillmor's blog posts and columns for the San Jose Mercury News ripple across the Internet. When one of the most respected technology journalists writes, speaks or links, people pay attention.

That's certainly the case with Gillmor's new book, "We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People." Published by O'Reilly in July under a Creative Commons license that encourages non-commercial re-use, the book is available free on the Internet -- an experiment that could cost the publisher and author some hardback sales but is generating a level of interest few traditionally published books can claim. "We the Media" is being group-translated into Chinese, has been transferred to Lotus Notes and is being audio blogged.

OJR caught up with Gillmor at the Progress & Freedom Foundation's Aspen Summit in late August, where he served on a panel titled "The Future: How Politicians, Policy Wonks, and Ordinary People Use the Web" opposite James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal's Gillmor has an uncanny ability to appear completely focused even during an outdoor lunch interview over blaring music. The interview continued via e-mail and even instant messaging. Here are the edited results:

Online Journalism Review: When did you decide you were going to write a book?

Dan Gillmor: I don't know exactly when I decided, but it seemed like the best thing to do a little over two years ago. I had given a talk -- at a technology conference, actually -- and the title was Journalism 3.0, basically about all of this, and basically realized there was a book there, and that's how it started to coalesce.

OJR: Do you ever look at the number of books about technology and laugh at the idea that the computer was going to kill books?

DG: It still may. It won't kill the book as a form, as a way of expressing something, but the format may change. The dead tree part may go away or some distance away from that. ... I take it for granted that screens and form factors will get good enough some day that it won't be necessary to publish on paper, and you'll get a very, very good experience without the paper.

OJR: You write in a mix of cycles. Twice a week columns, you write whenever you feel the need to for your blogs, and you stop writing whenever you don't feel the need to for your blogs -- which is important because not everybody has figured that out yet, that they can stop when they don't have something to say.

DG: It's a beast that demands to be fed, but you can always say no.

OJR: Writing a long-term project like a book, how does writing in the other cycles affect the book itself? I noticed there are places where you say, by the time you read this there will be new tools, new things will have happened. So how hard is it to let go of something and know that as soon as you let go of it it's permanent?

DG: The book is what it is. If there are more printings or another edition we'll fix the errors and update some of the ideas, but I tried really hard in this to say something that someone could read a year from now and not feel that it was hopelessly out of date. There are anecdotes that are 10 years old in there that felt to me just as timely as anything from May 2004.

The blog, assuming they don't change the url, will be there a year from now. The columns disappear behind the database pay-extra firewall after some period of time, so a lot fewer people will read those. I don't think about that much. If I go back to a posting from a year ago and it seems lame or stupid or out of date, well, that's ok. ... The blog is a snapshot. I would say most blogs are snapshots. There are, however, people who write blogs in a form that I think will be eminently readable and current some time from now, like Jay Rosen. ...

OJR: Are there people with blogs who shouldn't have them?

DG: Of course, but I'm not going to name them. [laughs]

OJR: Some people are happy writing for an audience of one. Some people judge their value by Technorati.

DG: It's a mistake to judge value by inbound links. ... It may be gratifying to have a lot, but it doesn't mean what you're doing is better or more important than someone with no inbound links because if you're writing something that's quite personal for your immediate circle of friends and family, if you have inbound links, that might be a problem. For them, it would be intensely valuable -- probably more valuable than most of the people find my blog, which has a lot of inbound links. [3,021 links from 2,258 sources as of Technorati on Sept. 8, making his blog #45 on the Top 100 Technorati.]

OJR: When were you were first asked to address an international conference?

DG: There was a conference in London called NetMedia, which I'm sorry to say has faded because it was wonderful. I walked into it. They called the Poynter Institute looking for somebody and Bill Mitchell, who I worked with in Detroit and San Jose, said, "I can't go, you should call Gillmor."

OJR: Once you get into it there's a chance you'll be invited to the next thing and the next.

DG: Yes. There are a lot of things I get invited to that I can't do for reasons of time and cost. It's pretty draining to travel like that. I still travel a lot, but last year was really absurd. I won't do that again. ...

OJR: How different is your message in other countries?

DG: It's the same basic message. Some people are ahead of America in some ways, some people are behind in other ways. I pretty much take for granted that it will even out over time and that whatever we think we're doing is interesting will be matched and bettered by other people.

OJR: What's an example of something someone is doing that's much better?

DG: Digital text messaging is barely beginning to take shape in the US but it's extremely old technology, if you're working in Internet time, in other countries. Years ago I remember first seeing teenagers, mostly, at that point, on subway trains in Tokyo reading their phones and sending messages to each other. They were way ahead of us; they still are in some ways. We were ahead on the Web in key ways. Howard Rheingold's book, Smart Mobs, which everybody should read, is amazingly prescient about what was going to happen, a very important book, which had a lot of influence on me. [In the book] I quote him a number of times and I thank him profusely in the credits. Howard's had a major influence on me, and he was someone I talked with a lot when I was doing this, and he gave me a lot of good advice.

OJR: You mentioned Internet time ... Talking to Bob Kahn [Dr. Robert Kahn, introduced at the Aspen Summit as "the father of the Internet"], it really slammed home to me how recent what they did is in real time. 30 years ago you've got Arpanet, very quickly you have the Internet, very quickly you have PCs and then you've got the Web. When did you hop on the timeline as a reporter?

DG: The Internet, I guess, early '90s or at the end of the '80s. I'd been online for years before that and had found great value in that. ... Then it became the Internet and then the Web. The Web really did change the whole thing. I think as a journalist the first time I wrote about the Internet was 1991 when I was in Detroit. At that point, in many respects, the Internet was based in Ann Arbor. A lot of the key people and technology were in Ann Arbor at that point. ... I talked the business editor into letting me write a long piece about the Net. I had an account of the first ISP in Michigan, which was some Michigan graduates who had suddenly realized upon leaving that their Internet access had disappeared, so they bought a used SPARC, I think it was, and realized then they had a lot more capacity than they were using. I started talking to a lot of those. I'd been doing the online thing for a while; I thought it was important. So I wrote this piece -- sank without a trace because it was a little early to talk about this, except a couple of small business folks called up and said, "So tell me how I can get on this thing?"

It was fun. I remember interviewing Al Gore for that story, and he knew what he was talking about. This was not a cue card kind of conversation. He knew more than I did and it was very obvious that that was the case. ... He deserves a lot of credit. Of course, he never did claim to invent the Internet.

OJR: Was that also the first exposure for you of politics and the Internet?

DG: I don't know. Somewhere around there I was writing about privacy relating peripherally to digital information.

OJR: Was there some moment that was sort of an "Aha, this is the next great field of law and regulation"? By great, I don't mean good.

DG: I wasn't nearly that prescient. But I knew, like a lot of people, that there was obviously something interesting here. At one point before Mosaic and the other graphical browsers I did a gopher of journalism resources. I also registered a Detroit Free Press domain without asking. They don't use it any more. Again, to show how non-prescient I was, it didn't occur to me if I could register that there would be some other valuable names to register -- and they were all available at the time.

OJR: In Vermont you covered local government, the Public Service Commission, a lot of things that in many states didn't get attention at all and still don't. Reading the book, in today's environment I can imagine someone who has a passionate interest in the PSC or water rights going to the meetings, then going home and blogging the meetings -- or blogging them from there.

DG: I would love to see that, to see people who take local government, state government stuff, more seriously than we do in the journalism community. We take it seriously, but we don't have the manpower ... There's just not the staff levels for everything. I would love to see dueling bloggers on everything. I think you'd find pretty interesting information.

OJR: Would you be able to trust the information?

DG: To a degree. You learn what you can trust and what you can't. I don't think anyone picking up any publication or going to a site for the first time should automatically trust it. If I'm directed there by Doc Searls I will give it an automatic boost in trust before I start -- not complete trust, but Doc has a lot of credibility with me. That's part of what's emerging as a sort of free-floating reputation system that will help us find the best sites to go to. It would be wonderful if journalism organizations would point to blogs and say, "Don't make any crucial life decisions based on what you read here, check things out, but this looks pretty good." I think you'd find it a good relationship.

OJR: You mentioned something before about as long as the link doesn't change, the url, the blog will be there. A couple of years ago Knight Ridder went through this Internet upheaval and undid a lot of links. Does somebody who sets up a web site have a responsibility to make sure it stays accessible? They wrecked an infrastructure.

DG: That wasn't the view they took. The view they took is they were building a better one. I'm not going to sit here and bad mouth my colleagues, but I made it fairly clear at the time that I wasn't thrilled. While I didn't write a flaming blog posting about it I pointed to ones that said, in sometimes pretty harsh language, this was a mistake. In their defense, they were aware and tried very hard not to break everything, and it came down to resources. It was a question you'd have to ask them on the reasons, but I'm sure it was not done casually. I think, in general, web sites should try to make links permanent. You run the certainty of becoming invisible for a time when you do that and to remove the historical record is unfortunate.

OJR: How do you make it all work for people as you continue to create something that isn't finished?

DG: I don't know that it's necessary in all cases to preserve what's there. It doesn't bother me that some things that were once on the web disappeared. There's a lot of impermanence in everything. It's the first time there's been a medium where it was even theoretically possible to preserve every iteration of everything that's been done, but I'm not so sure that's what we want. We don't preserve all the drafts of books. I certainly did not make public the earliest drafts of my book though I did post chapter drafts after they were past a certain point. I don't want every phone call preserved; I don't want every conversation preserved. On some level, we're heading toward that, which alarms me greatly.

OJR: I've started saving IM strings when I'm doing editing sessions. I used to just let it dissolve, then I realized I couldn't go back the way I can in my email edits so I started saving them. Otherwise, it's ephemeral.

DG: For specific purposes, fine. But if I'm doing an IM with a friend that's casual I consider it a social obligation not to preserve that, and I hope they don't either. If I'm doing an IM interview, of course, I'd preserve it. If it's business related, maybe I will, maybe I won't.

OJR: So you use IM for interviews?

DG: Occasionally, just to ping them and say, "You got a minute?" -- then call them up. We're still figuring that out, too. We treat email like conversation, but IM really is conversation. I would no more tape a personal conversation with a friend than preserve an instant message conversation with a friend. It feels very similar to me. In many cases, it's not appropriate -- even though people on both sides of an IM should be utterly aware it's possible to preserve.

OJR: You're writing about all of the different ways people can use information, can share information, create information. One of the things we're facing as journalists is how does this change the way behave as journalists? How does this change our interaction with people?

DG: People have to establish new kinds of ground rules. I think there's a difference in interviewing somebody who's never been interviewed by a journalist before and a public official. ... Cut them some slack. I won't cut slack to somebody who knows the game. The situation's different. Journalists are now being confronted with things like people posting transcripts of the interview, which I think is fine. We're learning something new.

OJR: Can a smear or a lie ever really be undone online? Given the instantaneous nature of the Internet, especially the blogosphere, how do you move from worry to prevention? How do you get people to think twice before passing along links, stories, quotes? Do citizen reporters bear more responsibility than their fellow Netizens?

DG: I think it can, but not quickly enough in many cases to fully mitigate the damage. Political smears, for example, are ideal for this medium. They get circulated by an amen chorus of true believers, and by the time the truth catches up the election may be over.

I think journalists of whatever stripe need to be much more careful in what we pass along. When something sounds bizarre but comes from a usually reliable source we should probably say it's from a source we tend to trust, but we'll wait for verification before we'll believe it.

But the burden is also on readers/listeners/viewers. They MUST start being more skeptical, and people of whatever political or social persuasion should constantly realize that people are trying to spin them.

OJR: Should professional journalism organizations hosting "citizen" blogs provide any kind of training or does that run the risk of subverting the results?

DG: Not sure training is the best idea. I would ask people to be fair, thorough and accurate. If they do that much, most of the problem will go away.

OJR: 2004 has been the year of the blogger in politics. How would you gauge the actual impact bloggers are having on the political process this year? What kind of role do you expect blogging to play in the final 60 days? Which bloggers are making the most of the Net's potential?

DG: I don't necessarily agree that it's the "year of the blogger" except in the sense that Big Media noticed the phenomenon more overtly than before. But the echo chamber is still apparent to me. It seems likely that the best political bloggers -- such as Josh Marshall on the left and Glenn Reynolds on the right -- are more influential among the already-converted than anyone else. Too bad ... people should read things they aren't likely to agree with.

Regarding the Swift Boat stuff, Fox News and the talk-radio people probably had a lot more to do with the "mainstream" press picking it up than anything the bloggers did.

OJR: On that same theme, enhanced video capabilities and the increase in broadband access have made the Internet fertile ground for political ads equal in quality -- using the term lightly in some cases -- to those shown on TV. Can they have the same kind of influence?

DG: They can if the campaigns use them. Certainly the quality is improving. But grassroots ads will have more influence when bandwidth is more real than it is today. Right now only the absolutely top material makes its way to folks. The JibJab parody was brilliant and got the most play as a result of its quality.

OJR: Also, Internet video ads and other forms of Internet campaigning aren't regulated, making the Internet a kind of free-fire zone compared to television and radio. Do you think we'll see a move towards regulation for Internet electioneering?

DG: I hope not, but some will try. Keep in mind that a lot of the so-called Internet ads seem designed for the purpose of getting "free media" in other forms -- by being covered by the mainstream press.

OJR: You published the book under a Creative Commons license. What kind of response has that provoked?

DG: The response has been uniformly positive, though some people wonder if it's going to cost us sales -- too early to tell. There have been a variety of remixes, including one I heard about last night -- someone put it into Lotus Notes format. That's in addition to PDF, HTML, audio and who knows what else.

OJR: Is this what you expected or did you have any expectations?

DG: It's about what I expected, or hoped for, as far as remixes go. Several folks have congratulated me on walking my talk, which is gratifying.

OJR: Does giving people permission to re-use the book reduce concerns about the copyright being abused?

DG: I suppose it could, but that wasn't part of my motivation.

OJR: What was your motivation?

DG: What I said in the final chapter: "First, I believe in copyright, and want to support it -- but in the right way. In the process of creation, we stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. Locking down heritage means locking out vital innovation, and I don't want to be one of the people who turn reasonable protections into absolute control. Second, I'm wondering what people will do with this book. Consider what happened with Lawrence Lessig's latest, which he and his publisher put under a Creative Commons license. One group of people created an audio version. Someone else turned it into a Wiki. Since one of my goals in writing this book is to encourage experimentation, I'm hoping that people will -- within the boundaries of a 'some rights reserved' license -- use this book to expand the conversation in ways I hadn't imagined."

OJR: You also experimented with the way you wrote the book. What happened after you posted your draft chapters?

DG: I got a lot of feedback. Some was cranky. Some was helpful. And several people were incredibly valuable contributors in the end.

OJR: What's the best or most interesting example of citizen journalism you've come across since the book was published?

DG: Most interesting? Several.  Andrew Orlowski of The Register told me about this, and it sounds fascinating. Also the Northwest Voice.

OJR: What will we be talking about a year from now?

DG: Probably J.D. Lasica's book... ;-) The increasing use of rich media tools, which are getting cheap, by everyday folks.

OJR: You've also had a lot of interest from businesses, PR firms, the Markle Foundation and others. What are they looking for?

DG: How this shift is taking place, and what it means to the process of being better informed and being part of the information process. PR people are way, way ahead of mainstream journalists here, and not for the first time. (not all PR people, but the better-clued ones)

Related Links
Creative Commons license
Dan Gillmor's eJournal
Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig
Lessig's blog
We the Media weblog
We the Media, PDF version by chapter
We the Media, PDF version for PDAs
We the Media, full PDF version
Wired News: We're All Journalists Now

Dan Gillmor
(photo: Elisabeth Fall for O'Reilly Media)