Forget the People, I’m Talking to the Building! — Who is the Voice in an Institutional Blog?

Back in grade school, one of the lessons was that “according to the White House” didn’t really mean that the White House was talking, it meant that someone who represented the White House was talking. OK. We were children, and we were being taught the nuances of the language. But, sometimes it seems as if the institutions themselves are doing the talking, or trying to. This gets back to the “soothing, humorless monotone” of corporatespeak described in The Cluetrain Manifesto, versus the idiosyncratic language of human beings.

As the range of “Web 2.0” tools begins to be taken up by practitioners of “Gov 2.0” sometimes it seems that we start describing what we’re doing by the tool we’re using rather than by what we’re actually doing. For example, if I use a screwdriver to pound a nail into a wall, am I screwing the nail in because I happen to be using a screwdriver? In a similar vein, if an institution uses blogging software to create a website, has it created a “blog,” or is it simply a standard website created with blogging software?

This is not to say that institutional blogging isn’t possible. Wikipedia (which itself might be considered a blog) notes that there are “personal blogs” and “corporate blogs,” with external corporate blogs used for marketing, branding or public relations purposes. And, while the list on thenewpr.com highlights the growth of corporate blogs outside the government, as can be seen from the list on USA.gov, institutional blogging withing the US government has also taken off, and the blogs at america.gov is becoming a integral part of opening up the US government to an online conversation with the world.

But, what makes these blogs and not websites?

My sense is that a blog requires a human perspective, where the entries are often written in the first person by a named blogger. The ability to post comments to a blog are a bonus, but first and foremost, a blog, even though it may be institutional, must be seen to be coming from a human being within the institution.

That’s my personal opinion, open for comments. After all this too is a blog.

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Profile Photo Andre Goodfriend

Well, that’s not the specific question. On the initial blog, Macon Phillips identifies himself as one of the contributors. But, the question is more whether a blog needs to be identified with a person at all. Most blogs, even corporate blogs, are in a specific person’s voice. Sometimes there are multiple official posters, each identified on their post. Other times there is only one offical poster. But occasionally the blog is not a first person perspective. Is this really a blog? Or is it just using the “blog” buzz word for a standard website?

Profile Photo Amy Hooker

Andre, another great post. I’ve often told our clients that a blog should sound like the conversations that take place in the hallway and the elevator outside the conference room, not like the formal presentation being delivered inside. It’s that personality–that humility and humanity–that makes blogging and other consumer-generated media so interesting and powerful.

I think that blogs (and for that matter e-mail newsletters, autoresponse emails, etc.) should be associated with a specific person or people, not the institution. People connect with and trust and have empathy for other people, not agencies.

Perhaps the difference is that blogs written without the benefit of a first-person human perspective aren’t as interesting or successful as blogs that allow the author’s personality to shine through without overpowering the information. In my opinion, blogs that don’t identify the author are missing out on a valuable opportunity to truly connect with their readers.

And by the way, I have a dozen copies of The Cluetrain Manifesto ready to hand to clients at a moment’s notice! Even after all of these years, I think Cluetrain is just as relevant as it was when it came out.

Profile Photo Guy Martin

I agree with Amy’s point, and thankfully, so does my employer (CollabNet). We are given reasonably free reign to talk about subjects that we think are valuable to CollabNet’s current & potential customers, as well as those maybe just looking for insight or information. We have two main blogs, one for Subversion, the source control system, and one called OnCollabNet (http://blogs.open.collab.net/oncollabnet) which is where I write my corporate posts (including updates to the work we are helping with on Forge.mil).

What is interesting to me is that we took a ‘multiple voice’ approach in OnCollabNet (our CTO and another community manager also blog there), and I think it works a bit better than disparate blogs for each contributor. Their is a sense of ‘mini-community’ among the blog posters in this case, and I think it helps humanize the effort. I’d like to see more of this (such as what the White House did, but with identified bloggers) in government going forward.