This week BloggerView is with Suw Charman, the blogger of Strange Attractor and Chocolate and Vodka, who I have the pleasure to meet at SHiFT, last September, where she made a presentation entitled “Protecting your Bits: In Defence of Digital Liberties“. On her own words “Suw Charman is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall“. Suw is also an important member of the Open Rights Group, a digital rights advocacy group which aims to raise awareness of digital rights issues, to campaign against bad legislation in Britain and the EU, and to support grass roots activism“. I hope you enjoy her answers, as I did, especially n.Âº 8.
1. When did you start blogging? What were the main reasons that take you start blogging?
Suw Charman (S.C.): I started blogging on Sunday 16 June 2002, but I had a pretty shaky start. I blogged quite enthusiastically for the first two weeks, but that was followed by a long silence punctuated only by a couple of ‘Yes, I’m still here’ posts. It wasn’t until April 2003 that I really settled into a rhythm and started blogging regularly.
My ostensible reason for starting to blog was that I wanted to improve my writing: I had once been a music writer and was thinking about going back into journalism, but felt that my writing skills were a bit rusty. Blogging was a good way to get my confidence back. Looking back, though, there were also a lot of social reasons. I was living on my own and working from home in a town where I knew no one, and blogging gave me a social connection to people whom I felt comfortable
with as my peer group.
2. What were your reasons to christen your blogs as you did?
S.C.: Naming blogs is as hard as naming bands or books, or thinking up a username or IRC nickname. I just thought of the two things I enjoyed the most – chocolate and vodka – and that was that. The strapline – bubbling enthusiasm for $arbitrary_topic – was gifted to me by my friend Richard Eriksson (if memory serves me right!). It just describes my blog perfectly.
Strange Attractor is a term from chaos theory that I rather liked. Simply put, a strange attractor causes patterns to form around it out of the chaos, and I liked that as an analogy for trying to see patterns in chaos of the blogosphere. Of course, now the blog’s about more than that but the name’s still cool.
My portfolio blog’s name seems pretty obvious to me: Blogiculum Vitae. It’s a sort of pun on curriculum vitae: it’s my blogging resumÃ©.
3. Do you have any specific goals or objectives you want to achieve with your blog? What are they?
S.C.: Not Chocolate and Vodka, no. I never have. It’s always been a place for me to just express myself and connect with people.
Of course, with Strange Attractor the story is different. Strange Attractor started off as a blog about blogging in July 2004, and over the years has diversified into a blog about anything vaguely related to social software, the media, or Web 2.0. It was always intended to showcase me as a social software consultant and help raise my profile, and the fact that it was a part of the Corante blogging network was a really useful endorsement.
In January 2006 I invited Kevin Anderson, who was then my boyfriend and is now my fiancÃ©, to blog with me on Strange Attractor. He wrote the BBC’s Blogging Strategy and is now the Guardian’s Blogs Editor, and he revitalised the blog at a time when I was suffering a little burn-out. Both of us see Strange Attractor as a way to bring our ideas to people’s attention and to kick off or participate in conversations about one of our main passions – social media.
The runt of my blogging litter is Blogiculum Vitae, which I started as a way to gather together case studies and other work-related stuff that didn’t fit anywhere else. It’s out of date and needs a lot of TLC, which I hope to give it soon!
4. In your opinion, what role could blogs play in the future, for instance at companies or at schools?
S.C.: Blogs are incredibly versatile, so the question is not ‘what role can they play’, but ‘what problems do you have that a blog could solve?’. Whenever I talk to people who are interested in starting up a blog or wiki, the first thing I do is talk to them about what they do and how they do it. I try to get a feel for where blogs or wikis could be unobtrusively slipped into their working day and how they would help them to achieve more. Social software is not an end in itself, it is a tool to help people achieve their goals. I believe blogs will play a huge role in the future of many businesses, schools, universities – and any other group of people who have some reason to talk to each other.
5. What do you think will be the future of blogs over the next couple of years?
S.C.: We have some significant technological problems to overcome that will otherwise hold back the spread of blogs. Most blogging platforms were built with individual users in mind, and some of the most popular ones simply do not scale. When businesses want to install blogs for their employees, they are not going to want one or two, but hundreds or
thousands. They will also want proper support for integration with standard business systems, and in my experience this is far easier said than done.
Other tools that we are used to using on the web, even things as basic as RSS readers, don’t always function properly in an intranet environment, so much of the shininess we enjoy isn’t available to business users. As more businesses want to use blogs, they are going to find that their plans are defeated by inadequate technology, and that’s going to be an issue.
Despite that, however, I think that we will see a lot more use of blogs and wikis by business, both internally and externally. The blog is going to becomes a common communications tool, a bit like the phone or email. Our challenge is to try to keep our blogger ethics intact – things like honesty, transparency, voice, individuality – and to transfer these ethics to the businesses that use blogs. That way, we might be able to create real positive change and help businesses become, well, nicer.
6. How many feeds do you have on your news aggregator? What news aggregator do you use? Why?
S.C.: I use NetNewsWire, mainly because I like the interface and I’m too lazy to see what else is out there. I like the fact that it caches entries locally so if I’m offline I can still read my feeds – not that that happens too often! I currently have 264 feeds, with 20,957 unread posts. I actually have a folder of about 25 feeds that I read religiously. The rest I should sort through and cull, as I don’t read most of them.
7. What do you think about RSS? What role do you think RSS can play in future, for instance in the relation between government and citizens?
I love RSS! I think it’s a really key tool for making information more readily available. I advise all my clients who regularly publish news or newsletters of any sort to put it all on a blog and let people subscribe to the RSS feed instead. We’re seeing the majority of mainstream media sites, such as The Guardian or the BBC, offering RSS feeds of their headlines, and as home pages such as Netvibes.com become more popular, you’re going to see RSS spread away from the early adopters – us geeks – into the wider population. They won’t necessarily know or care that they’re using RSS, they’ll just be happy that they have an easy way to collate all the information they are interested in.
8. What do you think is the most important thing happening in the Web, now? Why?
S.C.: The democratisation of creation. It’s easier than ever before to be creative, to write and publish, to make and distribute music or video, to take and publish photos, even to make web applications. If you’re in Second Life, you can create your own avatar and have it 3D printed, effectively turning us all into (rudimentary) sculptors without ever having to hold a chisel. This is, I think, going to revolutionise the way that we relate to each other and to the traditional music, movie and publishing industries. Instead of being passive consumers, we’re now all producers, and the media that is most precious to us is the stuff we’ve made, or that records our lives. This is why commercially produced materials are going to have less cultural importance as this revolution matures.
Of course, this huge blossoming of creativity brings its own problems. With so much stuff out there, how will we find the interesting bits? There’s going to be a real need for curation of the web, careful searching and sorting and gathering together of things that have value to the curator. And when I find a curator with taste the same as mine, I’m saved a lot of aimless searching!
9. Beside blogs, do use other social software, like Flickr, Del.icio.us, Digg, LinkedIn, Twitter or any other?
S.C.: I love my blogs, but I also use wikis a lot, from MediaWiki to Socialtext, I probably have log-ins to about a dozen or so wikis. Kevin and I recently set up a Del.icio.us account for Strange Attractor, and I’m also a huge fan of Twitter, which I think is just a stroke of genius. It appeals so strongly to me because it’s basically small talk on the web, which is great for me because I work mainly from home and have only the radio and my computer for company. I also use Basecamp, and am in Flickr, LinkedIn, Last.fm and load of other networks that I’ve forgotten about.
10. Do you think that the European governments are beginning to be aware of the digital rights issues? Are they taking any measures to support grass roots activism?
S.C.: There are a lot of digital rights issues that I wish the European government would think more carefully about and show more respect for. It’s an ongoing battle to educate policy makers across Europe, both at a pan-European and national level, about technology. There are lots of organisations across Europe, like the Open Rights Group in the UK which I helped start, that are working to hook up government and experts, and trying to give the policy makers the information they need to make good policy decisions, but it’s hard going. Frequently, the activist’s voice is drowned out by those in industry, because businesses want to ensure that governmental decisions favour them.
I don’t think any government really support grass roots activism, per se, but I do think that some of them are starting to sit up and taken notice. We are entering into meaningful dialogues with MPs and policy makers, and that’s a very positive step forward. It’s also increasingly easy in the UK to contact your representatives in local, national and European government, via TheyWorkForYou.com. That’s a huge help as elected officials tend to be responsive when their constituents contact them.
So, we’re making progress, but there’s a lot still to be done.
Next week: Euan Semple
BloggerView #1: Rui Carmo
BloggerView #2: Nuno LeitÃ£o
BloggerView #3: Pedro CustÃ³dio
BloggerView #4: Carlos Jorge Andrade
BloggerView #5: Pedro Melo
BloggerView #6: MÃ³nica AndrÃ©
BloggerView #7: AndrÃ© Ribeirinho
BloggerView #8: Beverly Trayner
BloggerView #9: Jose Luis Orihuela
BloggerView #10: Laurent Haug
BloggerView #11: Martin RÃ¶ll
BloggerView #12 Stowe Boyd
BloggerView #13: Stephanie Booth
BloggerView #14 Dannie Jost