Storm on the internet

Storm on the internet

New Zealand faces its first 'blogging' election, where online writers aim to influence the result through their opinions. Darren Greenwood talks to bloggers and businesses about the technology's existing use and looks to its potentials in both the political and business arenas.

At the start of the general election campaign, Labour Minister Trevor Mallard accused the National Party of being bankrolled by rich Americans, and the mainstream media reported the allegations. A rebuttal, however, occurred in the "blogosphere" as writers of 'weblogs' or blogs posted links to past newspaper stories of Labour receiving financial backing from an Australian billionaire.

The Sir Humphreys blog (sirhumphreys. went further, linking the business interests in China of Labour's benefactor, the government's desire for a free trade agreement with China, and posted a recent picture of Helen Clark and the billionaire at a public event in Auckland.

Such frustration with the perceived bias of the "MSM", as bloggers call the mainstream press and TV, is fuelling a drive towards partisan, politically aligned blogs, which after flexing their muscles overseas, hope to have some influence on the September 17 poll.

During the US presidential elections, for instance, the blogs reported Dan Rather was incorrect with allegations about George W Bush and forced the news anchor's hasty retirement.

In London, after the July bombings, a blogger reportedly discovered the Islamic extremist links of a young Guardian journalist, which then led to his sacking from the newspaper.

But it is not only political parties checking out what some refer to as the new "upstarts" on the net. Indeed, the growing influence of blogging, particularly as a tool for spreading messages, is leading the technology to spread out of its personal diary and political ghetto and into the business marketing mainstream.

While few business users exist yet in New Zealand, business sees its potential.

Stephan Spencer, founder and manag-ing director of Auckland-based e-marketing company Netconcepts, describes blogging as "one of the hottest trends on the net". There are more than 10 million blogs in the 'blogosphere,' he says, and the technology is "more than a passing fad".

Communities mean cash

"Done well, a corporate blog is an honest conversation with customers, and in that regard, is a way to break down barriers and build relationships with your customers or clients," says Spencer.

Zac Pullen, chairman of the Marketing Association's eMarketing Network, adds such customer engagement "can support the company's growth through honest feedback, referrals and general conversation".

Pullen notes how Idolblog grew out of a passion for the "Idol" programs.

Suddenly, the blog began receiving hundreds of thousands of postings from fans, creating an online community, and with it, the potential to earn advertising dollars.

Auckland-based Regan Cunliffe developed Idolblog from the popular "Idol" TV series and after similar blogs he created for the Sydney Olympics. His blogs have communities of interest, such as Paris Hilton or the Michael Jackson trial, with various articles and commentaries.

"We cover everything with regards to a topic," says Cunliffe.

The sites feature ads from Google, which generates an income based on how many viewers click on a certain ad.

Auckland-based Regan, who runs Optimum Internet, a web hosting and design company, is not making a fortune with his blogs, but claims substantial revenue growth, running ahead of schedule. While his business model differs from others, Regan confirms the benefits of a blog being a two-way conversation with customers, while a simple website is just one-way.

"The use as far as market research is concerned, is fantastic. You can ask customers questions, and get a response without employing a market research company. The customers come to you and that is great for building branding, your reputation, networking and advertising," he adds.

House of Travel launched its blog in June after a series of meetings and an internal design team came up with a mock design. Netconcepts built the site, with content managed by an internet content team.

The blog presently features reports from Australia, and eventually will be inputted directly by the individual bloggers.

"Blogging is a pretty low risk, low cost implementation. The only risk to manage is the style of the blog, the style of your writing and making sure this fits with your company culture and brand," says managing director Chris Paulsen.

"Let's face it, a travel diary is nothing new. All we are doing is using a new application to bring an established tradition up-to-date," adds Paulsen.

Potential pitfalls

However, Deloitte in Australia warns blogs are unregulated mediums where opinions can be taken out of context, plus there are issues of privacy and commercial confidentiality.

They can be good in showing a firm operates with open values, but bad if a staffer dissents from this view, especially if the staffer's comments become associated with the company name. A further risk also comes from permanence of comments in cyberspace, as they remain even if the blog is taken down.

Sydney-based David Redhill, chief marketing officer for Deloitte Australia, recalls the case of Microsoft, whose employee Robert Scoble has a famous blog and wrote "The Corporate Weblog Manifesto".

"Alongside the other watershed issues facing the net - privacy, copyright abuse, viruses, sharing of state secrets, etc, blogs would seem to be harmless. This is not the case if bloggers started sharing corporate strategy, design secrets, or private inform-ation that they could not have been privy to without being a member of the corporation," explains Redhill.

Microsoft, he notes, has internal company policies about its own bloggers, developed by internal panels, to strike the balance between openness, control and consistency.

"I think executives who weblog are between a rock and a hard place," comments Scoble.

"If they say anything interesting, they'll immediately get picked up in the press and their comments will probably be taken out of context. If they give away strategy or product plans, they will help out their competitors. If they talk about their competitors, they'll be welcoming lawsuits. If they give insights into what the business is doing, they could be hit with shareholder lawsuits or other government actions," he warns.

In New Zealand, legal issues were highlighted during the recent celebrity drug taking case when several bloggers had to remove postings from commentators who broke name suppression laws by identifying the alleged offenders.

Connecting with the public

Auckland City councillor Aaron Bhatnagar launched his blog in April 2004 to promote his centre-right thoughts mainly on council matters.

"I saw it as a way of helping to shape debate, as well as feeding news journalists information and commentary through a more accessible and interactive way than standard press releases," he says. He adds journalists from mainstream media sometimes follow up on his stories.

The corporate account manager for Brother International says blogs can present a "new and effective method of disseminating corporate facts and opinion", and claims there were more than 100,000 unique users to his site by mid-August.

MPs are also joining the blogging bandwagon, including ACT leader Rodney Hide, Labour's Tim Barnett and the Greens' Nandor Tanczos Rodney Hide start-ed his blog last April as part of ACT's leadership primary. Hide believes blogs are "a powerful way of making MPs accessible" and the best blogs are "those with an insight on what's happening".

Barnett's Tim Talks began in July as "a marketing tool for the work that I do and issues I promote and as a discipline for me to record views and activities".

The best posts, Barnett says, are those that describe interesting experiences combined with political messages and controversy, such as breakfast with voluntary euthanasia campaigner Lesley Martin and attending the civil union of a lesbian couple.

Barnett backs blogs for being accessible as anyone can be a blogger but warns that is also their downfall. "It is unrestricted, and with no editorial scrutiny they can never have the same authority as the media, who must submit their stories to a large degree of scrutiny of their motivations and their integrity. They also do not command the same resources, expertise and time that major news outlets are able to wield," the MP concludes.

Such issues were raised during a recent "Blogging and Parliament" debate between Labour activist Jordan Carter of the Just Left blog ( and the National Party-supporting David Farrar of Kiwiblog, both of whom work for InternetNZ.

Political posturing

Carter began Just Left in April 2004 to give himself a forum to develop his political ideas. He notes bloggers tend to be right-wing, creating lively debate, but the tone-shift has become more partisan closer to the election, which then hindered debate.

During the campaign, he says, blogs became a way to note the morale and state of mind of various factions, they also became a fairly porous way of working out strategies opponents are testing or intending to test and sometimes, they lead journalists to stories.

Carter further notes blogs may offer faster and more intense debate, but they are less accurate and can degrade the debate (for instance, by anti-gay comments appearing on Tim Barnett's blog). However, blogs make political insiders more accessible and they "reach out to citizens who do not engage with traditional politics".

Blogs have a potential to be "mainstreamed" and made more reliable to help dialogue and discussion and improve our democracy. But there is a skew in gender, race and social class of the bloggers, which makes them less representative of New Zealand, he adds.

David Farrar began Kiwiblog in July 2003 because he enjoyed reading other blogs like NZPundit. The former National Party staffer and current InternetNZ vice president claims 130,000 visits a month for his views on politics and internet issues.

He says people read blogs for more up-to-date news (live blogging of question time). Blogs, he adds, act as a filter to highlight stories of interest. By reading both 'left' and 'right' blogs, readers get exposed to all sides of an issue, he claims, adding there is "distrust of traditional media".

There is a symbiotic, if not parasitic, relationship between blogs and the media, he continues, with media stories being fuel for the blogs and blog stories increasingly making it into the media. A recent example was the alternative billboard designs for political parties created by bloggers that eventually came out in the newspapers.

Blogs in the US are also particularly powerful, particularly after 'Rathergate,' with the White House reportedly employing two staffers to monitor them.

"There is a limit to how much more exponential growth one can have in blog readership, but as many readers come from the 'political elite' of parliament, media and government, blogs will continue to grow as an influence on parliament and politics," Farrar concludes.

Highlighting the partisan nature of blogs are Sir Humphreys and Frogblog.

Sir Humphreys started in March 2005 by the mysteriously-named Antarctic Lemur, who created the Labour Scandals blog, with eight other co-writers who highlight issues they claim are "neglected" by the mainstream media.

Contributors say the use of noms de plume gives them more freedom to be outspoken. The Green Party's Frogblog also hides behind anonymity. Creator Stuart Young (who denies being Frogblog) says the blog aims to "get Green thoughts into general discussion".

The webmaster says it is better to get things noticed in the blogosphere and then picked up by the media rather than issuing a press release. He claims most developments in website design are now coming from the blogs of website designers than through industry conferences and journals.

But blogs are not all political. TVNZ producer Damian Christie says since he started writing Cracker on the Public Address blog (which also features Russell Brown's long-running blog Hard News), his profile helped him get work as a columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Steven Heath, a Sybase systems consultant, produces .NZ news and views, offering a summary of net related issues - one of many 'geek' blogs out there, adding to Aardvark, Slashdot, etc, that are also listed on Kiwiblog.

Still, maintaining a blog has its moments. "For me, the most challenging aspect of blogging is ordering your thoughts and publishing without the safety net of a subeditor. The pressure to get your facts right, and not to make inflammatory statements or accusations is much higher than in the mainstream media because comments - like the blog posts themselves - can be published instantly.

Other bloggers are always on the lookout for sloppy reporting," says former MIS editor Chris Bell. He recently launched the New Zealand Blogging Corporation with Rob O'Neill, deputy editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, and ex-Public Address contributor.

O'Neill says blogs are easy to set up, can be fun, and while they have yet to make the same impact as the overseas blogs, "It only takes one well-timed and appropriate post to create a storm on the internet."

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