The network is the blog

The self-organizing blogosphere offers a unique way to manage the information deluge

Merriam-Webster set the blogosophere buzzing this week with its announcement that the word “blog” was among the most looked-up words of the year. The curious hordes were likely puzzled, however, by Merriam-Webster’s definition: “a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments and often hyperlinks.”

Is that all? So what?

When I have given similar definitions myself, they have often provoked this kind of reaction. Lately, I’ve realized why. The dictionary definition of “blog” is correct, but it says nothing about the network in which the blog participates.

By way of analogy, consider a dictionary definition of a telephone: “an instrument that converts voice and other sound signals into a form that can be transmitted to remote locations and that receives and reconverts waves into sound signals.” That’s fine if you already know what a telephone network is, but the definition doesn’t work on its own.

Just as telephones are meaningful only when connected to the telephone network, so blogs are meaningful only when connected to the blog network. Both are carriers of human communication, but where the telephone network is essentially fixed -- at least for now, until VoIP softens its structure -- the blog network is malleable and is shaped by our use of it. It’s more like a nervous system than a computer network, and for good reason.

The crush of information we process every day creates a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, we must conserve the scarce resource of attention. On the other hand, we need to become aware of everything that matters. It’s a tricky balancing act, but one that nature’s humblest creatures have adroitly mastered. The real-time visual processing performed by insects, as described by Tom Daniel in his PopTech lecture this fall, is just one example of how efficiently biological systems can crunch data.

We can’t say exactly how the trick is done, but we understand the basics: a network, a message-passing protocol, nodes that aggregate inputs and produce outputs. The blog network shares these architectural properties. Its foundation network is the Web; its protocol is RSS; its nodes are bloggers. These ingredients combine in ways that are not yet widely appreciated.

Consider how my own inputs have evolved over the past five years. At one time, my RSS intake was mostly feeds from conventional published sources, along with a few from individuals. Now it’s the reverse. I subscribe to people more than to publications, and not because I don’t value the information in those publications -- I do, very much -- but rather because, outside of the realms in which I’m closely involved, I can delegate the job of tracking primary sources to people whose interests and inclinations qualify them to do so.

The blog network is made of people. We are the nodes, actively filtering and retransmitting knowledge. Clearly this architecture can help manage the glut of information. More subtly, it can also help ensure that no vital inputs are suppressed because nobody has to rely on a single source. If one of the feeds I monitor doesn’t react to some event in a given domain, another probably will. When they all react, I know it was an especially important event.

The resemblance of this model to the summing of activation potentials in a neural system is more than superficial. Nature knows best.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.