Blogger Donald Sensing tells how the Department of Defense has woken up to the idea of blogs as something that can help the war effort. They have hired a PR firm to approach a limited number of bloggers to receive distribution of DOD materials that they may choose to use as the basis for blog posts.

Here is the pitch:

“The Army believes that military blogs are a valuable medium for reaching out to soldiers. To that end, the Army plans to offer you and selected bloggers exclusive editorial content on a few issues you’re likely to be interested in. If you do decide you are interested in receiving this material, whether you choose to write about what we send you is, of course, entirely up to you.”

The full article is here

Concurrently Michael Yon is trying to do something similar using his well known Online Magazine to ask retired military to volunteer as editors for material collected from active duty soldiers to form the basis of a blog.

Here is Yon’s pitch:

“This site gets much traffic from all around the world, from people searching for news from Iraq, making it an ideal place to host stories from deployed forces in harm’s way. Not comments, not those endlessly forwarded unattributed ‘true’ stories that always seem airbrushed, but real stories about the ground situation. In my travels I’ve met many budding writers who are now wearing boots and carrying rifles, and I found their stories so compelling that I want the world to see.

One antidote to the no news but bad news flu would be to let more of these voices be heard. A simple ‘call for stories,’ would probably stuff the inbox with emailed submissions. Having already made my ongoing inability to read email well known on these pages, any information system predicated on my reading emails would clog before it launched. This is where the volunteers come in.

It’s important that the bar be set high when it comes to accuracy. I cannot read every story and vet for accuracy. But what I can do is provide the groundwork to assemble a group of retired military personnel who can read the stories, with their radar for embellishment and operational security set high, and select which submissions to publish. Over time, a more comprehensive and accurate picture of what is happening on the ground can emerge.”

Both projects involve blogs and soldiers but are quite different in that the first is about communicating to the soldiers and the second is about communication from the soldiers to the general public. The two projects also contrast in that they represent very different ways of thinking about the Internet and how it can be used. Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar provides a powerful general explanation of the difference. Raymond’s book – available free on line here and well worth reading – is about two different styles of software development. To grossly simplify, the cathedral style is that used by hierarchically organized companies like Microsoft or IBM. The bazaar style is used by open software development projects like Linux. The former uses tightly held propriety code developed by a well supervised team with assigned roles. It is the tried and true method of engineering that has been used to successfully build battleships, bridges, software, and, well, cathedrals for a long time. The latter style, in apparent defiance of common sense, openly posts source code on the Internet where any interested party can change it any way they want, scrutinize it for bugs, and post suggested fixes. The amazing outcome is that Linux has become serious competition for Microsoft even though its developers are all unpaid volunteers. Raymond’s explanation of this phenomena is convincing. Linux can muster a large number of volunteers world wide who bring very different backgrounds and abilities to the code they review. What has emerged is that those best qualified to spot problems and those with the skills to fix them (usually different people) are ‘found’ by the net – in much the same way that buyers and sellers find each other in a bazaar. Raymond characterized this phenomena as Linus’s law: “Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.”

Obviously the DOD effort follows more the cathedral style and Michael Yon’s the bazaar style. Of the two projects Yon’s is the more complex and risky because quality control and operational security are vital concerns. Yet it could work. Notice that by using the net he proposes to do it with volunteer labor and rely on the bazaar style to not only attract the raw material from soldiers, but also to recruit a team to edit and vet. One thing I should make clear at this point is that I am NOT saying that the cathedral style is bad or that the bazaar style should be preferred. I wouldn’t recommend trying to run an army using only the bazaar style. It is a matter of using the style that best fits the situation. I think the DOD’s effort is worthy and will add diversity and lively opinion to the military information available to soldiers for a very low cost. Remember the DOD is proposing to use unpaid volunteers too. They get that part! On the other hand it doesn’t deviate very much from the cathedral style because it is simply using an alternate source (bloggers) to implement a top down information function within a hierarchic organization. It is also noteworthy that instead of the person with this idea writing a few e-mails to selected bloggers to gauge their reaction a PR firm has been hired for the job. Michael Yon goes straight to the web, spends no money, and calls for volunteers who will get little direct help from him.

Both of these projects are what I would think of as second generation projects. They are self consciously using the web to do something the web has already proved effective at doing. First generation projects just emerge on the web because someone has correctly seen a need and filled it. It can happen quickly too. Michael Yon tells us how he got started:

“One year ago, the gap between the ground reports from Iraq from military friends prompted my travel to Iraq to see for myself just what was happening. The dispatches posted to these pages over the ensuing months were an attempt to bridge that gap.”

In that year Michael’s work has developed a large audience, come to the notice of the Senate and proved moving enough to inspire Bruce Willis to propose making a movie about the ‘Duce Four,’ – the unit that Michael was embedded with in Iraq. Michael Yon’s success isn’t just luck or simply being at the right place at the right time. His writing is appealing and emotionally powerful and because he was a Marine he knows his subject and understands combat. In fact, he took incredible risks and could have lost his life many times over during the past year. All because he saw a discrepancy and ‘decided to see for himself what was happening’. Without the web it would have been a great personal adventure, and perhaps a book if he could have found a publisher. But he had the net and he and his audience found each other in the bazaar style. His approach connected up with an audience that wasn’t being served by the regular media. The net made the connection possible and his qualifications and special skills made it work. In software engineering terms he recognized the bug and then fixed it.

A second example of a first generation bazaar style blog is Bill Roggio’s Fourth Rail – Now blogging at Threatswatch.org. Like Yon, Roggio had served in the military and felt there was a discrepancy between what was being reported and what was happening on the ground. Bill didn’t go to Iraq immediately but instead worked from the publicly available information released by the US military in Iraq and the dispatches from regular reporters in the field. He focused on making sense of the counterinsurgency effort the US military was undertaking along the Tigris and Euphrates in Western Iraq. His strength was his ability to explain the strategy behind the individual battles and incidents being reported. The media saw the effort as a futile game of whack-a-mole – simply chasing the insurgents from town to town. Roggio thought what was going on was both more organized and purposeful. He asserted that the operations were designed to reduce the insurgency’s effectiveness and keep it off balance without trying to hold the many small towns and cities involved. In military parlance he identified this approach as ‘search and destroy’. Using flash presentations which showed the sequence of operations he argued that the sequence was planned and part of a larger strategy. He predicted that once the Iraqi army were trained in sufficient numbers and had been brought to combat readiness they would begin to hold the towns and cities permanently. And indeed once there were sufficient trained Iraqi troops the ongoing offensives became ‘clear and hold’ operations. To those of us who read Bill’s blog regularly his work seemed superior to anything we could find in the MSM because it was predicting what was unfolding in Western Iraq. Bill Roggio demonstrated he had superior military understanding and the ability to write necessary to make sense of the military campaign for those of us who were interested. Again the open, bazaar like quality of the net allowed the person with the right qualifications and talent to find his audience.

In part 2 of this post I’ll explore further the relationship between the established media and bloggers.


6 Responses to “Why Blogs can develop real power quickly”  

  1. 1 Julian

    For someone who doesn’t follow the war in detail but DOES follow the web in detail I found this a very interesting read and I’m looking forward to the next chapter.

    I’m wondering how bloggers will view the DOD’s efforts? I would think people in this day and age would be extremely skeptical of what information was making it down the DOD pipe, vs. what was being excluded. I don’t imagine that the DOD will make the mistake of feeding innaccurate information to bloggers due to the backlash it would create, however; you could say the same thing about why companies would pretend to be real people on blogs, or start their own blogs and act like they’re the real thing. Coca-Cola is doing this right now with it’s ZERO Movement blog http://www.thezeromovement.com/default,10,home.sm;jsessionid=0285ECA842F0D1862B5BD0919C53E301 . It’s a great example of how manipulated everything can become with any type of open communication channel.

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