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Saturday, February 15, 2003

Google buys Pyra

Google Buys Pyra: Blogging Goes Big-Time
posted by Dan Gillmor 07:41 PM
permanent link to this item

NOTE: This is a slightly edited version of a special column running in tomorrow's San Jose Mercury News. We're posting it early to get the story out.

Weblogs are going Googling.

Google, which runs the Web's premier search site, has purchased Pyra Labs, a San Francisco company that created some of the earliest technology for writing weblogs, the increasingly popular personal and opinion journals.

The buyout is a huge boost to an enormously diverse genre of online publishing that has begun to change the equations of online news and information. Weblogs are frequently updated, with items appearing in reverse chronological order (the most recent postings appear first). Typically they include links to other pages on the Internet, and the topics range from technology to politics to just about anything you can name. Many weblogs invite feedback through discussion postings, and weblogs often point to other weblogs in an ecosystem of news, opinions and ideas.

"I couldn't be more excited about this," said Evan Williams, founder of Pyra, a company that has had its share of struggles. He wouldn't discuss terms of the deal, which he said was signed on Thursday, when we spoke Saturday. But he did say it gives Pyra the "resources to build on the vision I've been working on for years."

Part of that vision, shared by other blogging pioneers, has been to help democratize the creation and flow of news in a world where giant companies control so much of what most people see, hear and read. Weblogs are also becoming a valuable communication tool for groups of people, and have begun to infiltrate the corporate, university and government spheres.

Just three and a half years old, Pyra's Blogger software has 1.1 million registered users, Williams said. He estimated that about 200,000 of them are actively running weblogs. Pyra charges for some higher-capability services not available in the base configuration, but most of its registered users don't pay.

Google is known best for its search capabilities, but the Pyra buyout isn't the company's first foray into creating or buying Internet content. Two years ago Google bought, a company that had collected and continued to update Usenet "newsgroups," Internet discussion forums. More recently, it created Google News, a site that gauges the collective thoughts of more than 4,000 news sites on the Net.

But now Google will surge to the forefront of what David Krane, the company's director of corporate communications, called "a global self-publishing phenomenon that connects Internet users with dynamic, diverse points of view while also enabling comment and participation."

"We're thrilled about the many synergies and future opportunities between our two companies," he said in a statement on Saturday. He didn't elaborate further on what those synergies and opportunities might be, but said more details would emerge soon. Users of the Blogger software and hosting service won't see any immediate changes, he added.

For Williams and his five co-workers, now Google employees, the immediate impact will be to put their blog-hosting service, called Blog*Spot, on the vast network of server computers Google operates. This will make the service more reliable and robust.

How Google manages the Blogger software and Pyra's hosting service may present some tricky issues. The search side of Google indexes weblogs from all of the major blogging platforms, including Movable Type and Userland Radio. Any hint of proprietary favoritism would meet harsh criticism.

Blogging was moving mainstream even before this buyout. Several weblogs draw a large readership, and bloggers demonstrated their collective power to keep an issue alive even when the traditional media miss the story, as former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott discovered to his dismay late last year.

Major technology companies are seeing the potential. Tripod, the consumer web-publishing unit of Terra Lycos, recently introduced a "Blog Builder" tool. America Online is expected to be on the verge of doing something similar, and no one will be surprised if Yahoo and Microsoft do the same. Are more buyouts of blog toolmakers in the offing?

Developers of blogging software have been finding user-friendly ways to help readers of weblogs and other information find and collect material from a variety of sites. It's in this arena that the Google-Pyra deal may have the most implications.

More than most Web companies, Google has grasped the distributed nature of the online world, and has seen that the real power of cyberspace is in what we create collectively. We are beginning to see that power brought to bear.


9:29:04 PM    comment []


Yesterday we held the second Happening on the topic of Emergent Democracy formed by Joi Ito.  There were 23 participants from Asia, Europe and the US in an 1 1/2 hour event.  This post discusses the modes and means of the Happening, not the topic or content -- with an aim to discover productive patterns of use.

A Happening is an ad hoc multi-modal group event.    Three modes were used actively during the event for different means:

  • Mode 1: Conference Call
    • 17 participants (some elected not to participate because of the cost of international calls)
    • Mean: moderated turn-taking discussion
  • Mode 2: Chat
    • 23 participants
    • Mean: moderating turn-taking for the call
    • Mean: backchannel open discussion
    • Mean: signalling and voting
    • Mean: whispered one-to-one communication
  • Mode 3: Wiki
    • 23 participants
    • Mean: open note-taking
    • Mean: linking to resources
    • Mean: forming creative network action groups
    • Mean: a place for continuity

By using multiple modes of communication simultaneously to foster group collaboration the bandwidth of conversation is increased.  As was the case with Clay Shirky's social software summit that used In-Room Chat as a Social Tool, similar patterns were observed with social software in distributed use.  Clay's central observation, that "under certain conditions, groups can find value in participating in two simultaneous conversation spaces, one real and one virtual" was confirmed by a vote of participants.  In this case, the real conversation space was the conference call and the virtual was chat and wiki. 

The first Happening, which had 7 participants, used the conference call and the wiki as the modes of communication.  This conversation bandwidth was sufficient to be productive and the wiki captured relevant notes and resources.  It also provided continuity for the next Happening, including serving as a launching point for a Topic Exchange that aggregated disparate posts on the topic, and coordinating logistics.

The second Happening scaled out of the limits of a creative network (12) into a social network (12-150) {there is a big assumption here, that conversation patterns can be mapped to relationship patterns}.  With 17 participants it would have been impossible to have an unmoderated call to regulate signal to noise.  The addition of chat as a mode allowed the conversation space to scale.  Joi to moderated turn-taking using "HAND" and "NEXT" signals.  The use of green, yellow and red signal cards embedded in chat provided additional signals for the moderator.  While the call was the primary conversation, chat also provided a useful backchannel that did not rely on moderation and turn-taking.  The moderator would often turn to the content of the chat session to pick up on issues for discussion during the call, particularly when the chat diverged from the call in numbers of messages or topic. 

The use of multiple modes takes some adjustment, in dealing with interruptions, multi-tasking and loci of attention.  Dan pointed out that younger generations who grow up with IM may not have this problem.  My suggestion is that for each participant they are going to have their own balance in how they observe and communicate and they budget their attention from mode 1 to 3 in descending order.  The call is the primary mode and if you miss something in the chat or wiki during the session you can return to it later.

One of the weaknesses of a call or chat by themselves is that conversations are lost when they end.  The use of a wiki lets the conversation continue and gives it focus.  Chat sessions are logged as wiki pages.  Wiki note pages record the points from the call as well as the wiki.  Multiple wiki note pages provide different perspectives on what occured.  And the ability to easily edit wiki pages allow corrections and additions. 

Similarly, blog-based conversations have a tendency to end when they are "below the fold," or off the homepage of a weblog.  This can be offset through categories or metablogs approaches like Topic Exchange that aggregate conversations.  Wiki pages provide persistent focus for conversations.  Often times ad hoc groups form around an issue and gather to communicate.  Talk is cheap and transforming it into action is one of the greatest challenges.  Transforming a social network conversation into a creative network action is best supported by a wiki pledge page for collaboration.  Individuals can easily refactor and organize personal views of creative and social network resources for their own productivity.

Joi rightly determined that Happenings should be kept ad-hoc, when issues discussed by wiki and blog reached an "escape velocity" that required a high bandwidth conversation to advance.  We are also delaying the explicit definition of the ends of this conversation to allow the modes and means to be further explored.  As patterns emerge from this topic and the tools are formed, they could support goals consistent with the topic such as supporting New England style town hall meetings... but it begins with evolving the tools and testing uses.

11:54:36 AM    comment []

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