AOL blogs!

AOL blogs!

: Yes, AOL will blog.

Yesterday, I was one of a privileged council of blogging elders — Meg Hourihan, Nick Denton, Anil Dash, Clay Shirky — invited to see AOL’s new blogging tools, which will be released later this year.

They’ve done a good job.

The demo was going to be off-the-record, but because the opinion grinders in the room didn’t turn the team into mincemeat — reaction started with “this doesn’t suck” (noted as high praise indeed), and quickly elevated to “they have a clue,” and ended with “good job” — and because one of the AOL team blogged it already — the blogag was lifted (and, boy it feels good to get that AOL squishy ball out of my mouth).

: The most impressive feature: You’ll be able to blog from IM (which includes AOL from your phone). That elicited many oohs from the room.

: The smartest feature: They are starting right off publishing every weblog in RSS/XML. That shows that they are paying attention to the world outside fortress AOL. That and the fact that they are eager for Technorati et al to spider their blogs. That and the fact that they invited us outsiders in to give them a critique. They know that to be successful, AOL’s blogs need to be part of the larger blog world.

: Now before we go any farther, allow me a moment to dare to lecture the blogging community: For us to be successful, we also need AOL’s blogs to be part of our world.

I don’t want to hear us get snotty and snippy about AOL’s entry into the blogosphere. I’ve already heard whispers that “AOL will ruin blogging.” But those who think that are not dissing AOL; they are dissing AOL’s millions of members. And that is a mistake.

If we are eager for Iraqis and Iranians to blog, we certainly should be eager for AOLers to blog. The more the better.

There’s no need for concern that this will crowd and clutter the blogging world. You’ll never see Aunt Esther’s cat blog if no one you know ever links to it. That is precisely what makes weblogs a quality- and interest-driven medium. As Clay Shirky and I told them yesterday: It isn’t content until it’s linked.

And you can be sure that there will be blogs of interest that we will see only because AOL made these tools available to its huge audience. That is good.

: AOL has an interesting internal challenge positioning this next to its homepage tool and even its member profiles (which some people use as a quasiblog).

They’ve decided to call the product AOL Journals and thus, position it as a community tool (read: LiveJournal) more than a publishing tool (read: Movable Type). The word “blog” is only part of the subtitle.

That’s wise. Community is what built the AOL empire.

: But AOL — and every other online business — also has a strategic challenge to make sure that they stay ahead of where weblogs are headed. There will be no end of uses for these things.

Weblogging tools are nothing but publishing tools: history’s fastest, easiest, cheapest publishing tools with history’s greatest distribution network.

Today, they are used in one or more of four ways:

> Community: LiveJournal et al let people communicate; my space talks to your space.

> Content: Weblogs like this one, Instapundit, Gawker, Lost Remote, IWantMedia, etc. are just nanopublishing ventures.

> Marketing: Consultants, venture capitalists, law firms, and others use them to show how smart they are. If I had a restaurant, I’d use weblog tools to put up my daily specials.

> Personal space: Very soon, weblogs will be used to organize your stuff and your life. AOL webloggers will certainly use them to publish photos for family and the world to see. I see a family weblog as a way to communicate and stay in sync.

Weblogs will get more and better tools — publishing tools (for video, audio, photos, etc.) and also data tools (such as the amazing Technorati, which facilitates the conversations that weblogs really are).

In short: Soon, everyone will have a weblog because everyone will use weblogging tools of one sort or another to store or share their stuff — whether that stuff is opinions or pictures or school assignments or shopping lists or church calendars (my son just rebuilt our church website around a weblog).

There’s a much, much bigger strategy here. What AOL showed was only the first of many phases that should follow. The same is true for Movable Type and Blogger and (which just converted itself to MT) and any wise ISP, not to mention content companies, commerce companies, and software companies.

: The real point: Ultimately, your content is more valuable than professional content.

Anil and I got excited lecturing these AOL-Time-Warner megolith folks that what they should do is give their bloggers back doors into the otherwise fenced-off content of People et al — as the New York Times is doing with bloggers, allowing them to link directly even to archived stories. That might sound like heresy, treating the expensive People gossip as a commodity. But the truth is — repeat: the truth is — that by creating such a back door, AOL would cleverly be turning its audience into its marketing force: AOL bloggers would be the privileged ones who can show you People content (thus selling AOL subs) and if their readers want to see more, they have to buy the magazine (thus selling magazine subs). Now that is synergy.

You see, the magnet that creates that marketing power is the people’s content. I’ve learned well in my online career that the audience’s content is valuable and the audience is your best marketer if you allow the audience to be the star.

Starting weblogs allows the audience to create content and to market and to create value.

That’s why it’s a big deal that AOL is blogging. They’ve taken a good first step. But it’s just a first step.