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Interview with Robert Scoble

What did I expect when I called Robert Scoble, perhaps the best-known blogger to have become famous for blogging? I wasn’t sure. Maybe someone very Californian. In the bad way.

Anyway, he isn’t. Yes, he’s laid-back and he did use the expression ‘real good’. We only had a short conversation, but I can imagine him being a big hugger. I like that sometimes, though. Anyway, I was disarmed. He seems to be a charming man. Actually, I’ve been really lucky so far, and only a couple of my Web 2.0 interviews have been with people who turned my flesh. Bottom line? You try to knock the scobleizer and you go through me first.

So what got you into blogging?

Back in 2000, I used to work as a conference organiser for a tech company and I was asking all the speakers what the sessions should be about. Quite a lot of them said ‘blogging’. At that point, I had no idea what that meant. *laughs* I went and Googled it, and there seemed to only be about 150-200 blogs out there.

So I had a look, and it was interesting but I didn’t think it was good enough to do a session on – which is so ironic, given that there are entire conferences on the subject now. However, I thought I’d have a go. I was really lucky, after about a week, I was linked by Dave Winer, and that suddenly brought about 3000 readers. From then on, the readership just grew.

And so then you got hired by Microsoft. What was their attitude towards your blogging?

Well, I kind of assumed that they had hired me partly for my blogging. So that gave me the impetus to carry on in the same style. Before I went there, I had criticised the company and advised Steve Ballmer to split it in two. I thought that gave me a go-ahead to carry on in the same way. And so that’s what I did.

What did MS gain from the blog?

It showed that they were listening. Which is so rare. They got a lot of PR out of it, and I suppose that was the main thing. But it also affected the way the rest of the company communicated with users. I used to get technical queries about certain products and I used to just forward them on to tech support. I didn’t know who the people were who were really responsible and neither did any of the users. Nowadays, though, all of the product groups have their own blogs with the product manager in charge, and they’re engaging with customers all the time.

And so for businesses in general, what do they have to gain?

Well, the PR effect is mostly because companies never listen and the blog format creates a vehicle for that. Any kind of listening is a major thing. At the same time, it goes both ways. A blog post can be a lot better than sending out a press release.

On the other hand, companies that hire agencies to do their blogs for them aren’t doing the right thing. South West Airlines have set up a blog, but it seems to be written by their PR company. It isn’t human. You need to get the idea of real human beings behind the posts.

So why have blogs become so popular?

I think we have to start with Google, and the way Google works. Blogs are extremely search-friendly. And blogs also create an environment where linking is natural. If you link to someone, then the chances are that they will link back to you. It’s just human nature – people will return a favour. That affects your Google ranking. Also, journalists are using blogs as a source for stories and so they get good quality inbound links. Word of mouth is important. People just saying ‘have you seen this site?’. Also there are new mechanisms for blogs to gain a lot of traffic. The digg site, for example. People are posting on there, ‘have you seen this site today?’ And it works really well.

Your blogging style is very like a diary. You don’t really do articles, for example.

I just tried to write on my blog in the same way that I talk. I picked up the style from Dave Winer. I just wanted to try to be conversational and talk to the readers on my blog the same way that I would talk to you.

Sometimes you find your audience by accident, though. A lot of people just blog for their family and friends, and if they do that well, then the audience will extend beyond that and it becomes a different thing.

So this blog thing, is it a fashion or here to stay?

Maybe, but it’s hard to know where we’re going. At the moment, I am experimenting with video, and I’ll be doing a video thing later this year. However, what you have to bear in mind is that video is a lot more difficult to consume than blogs. Everyone can write because they were taught that at school, but far fewer people know the grammar of good video, how to tell a story with a camera.

You can’t consume video in the same way, either. I can read maybe a 1000 blogs in an hour or two, but you can’t do the same thing with video. You have to give up after half-an-hour or so.

The thing is, that you can still get a lot of value out of a poor writer. You can scan their post for the good information. The same thing isn’t true of video, you can’t scan it.

That’s what makes me confident about podcasts, in a way. The audio element is so much more important than the visual element. If you remember the reports from Baghdad, when it was getting bombed. The pictures were appalling, but because you could hear all the sound, those videos were very affecting. Also, podcasts are more location-independent. You can listen to a podcast while you’re in your car or while you are exercising.

So what makes for a successful blog?

Well, if I knew that… *we both laugh. There was a note of bitterness in mine*

Write about the stuff that people want to know about. You should spend a little time thinking about that if being successful is your aim.

Link a lot. People will link back to you. It’s human nature. They want to know that they’re being talked about and they will be generous in response.

People who have done it really well. Techcrunch. What they have is compelling graphics alongside really tight writing. That sort of format seems to be working well.

But for someone just starting, I’d advise they read 50 blogs for a couple of weeks. See what really interests you and try to be as good as them.

Any guidelines on posting frequency or length?

I would say that more is generally better. But then that depends on the area that you are in. If you want to be the best trucking blogger, then work out how much the current champion does and do a little better. If that guy posts once a week, then posting twice a week is obviously better. But I would say that most people who blog don’t care about having a big audience. They just want something they can be proud of.

If you are good and interesting then you will get an audience. That might take a little while, but I have known of blogs that have become famous overnight due to just one thing. For example, I search for the word ‘geek’ in blog posts and if I find it, then the likelihood is that I will go and read that post. This world – the blogosphere – is doubling every six months, though. It’s going to always be changing as a consequence of that.

Is blogging part of Web 2.0?

Sort of. The way I see Web 2.0 is that it’s mixing technology and communities together. Someone could reverse engineer digg, for example, and create an identical site on the technical level. But what they wouldn’t have is the community. And that community is what has made digg, in many respects.

Blogging kind of plays into that space. It’s user-created media. But also the communities around blogs are as important as the blogs themselves. When you participate, say by offering a comment, then you become a part owner.

Ian Delaney writes about Web 2.0 in preparation for a book on the subject. His blog is at http://twopointouch.com, where this article originally appears. He also edits a magazine about technology in education.

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