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Ton Zijlstra

This interview is part of the study of blogger networking practices: links to other interviews and some background, links to the results.

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Ton is an independent consultant on KM, learning and social media (at the moment of the interview he works in this role for a bit more than half a year, worked in small KM consulting company before). I interviewed him during his holiday in Canada where he visited several bloggers he knew online.

He started writing his weblog in 2002, after being active at the KnowledgeBoard, online KM community, writing on KM, philosophy, technology development, “on the edge of what I’m doing, reflective writing”. At that moment he was active in KM for about 2 years, still “a newbie in the field”.

He says his professional network exploded as a result of blogging, with 85-90% of his contacts now somehow connected via weblogs. “I have found connections to people that have a shared interest, a shared level of professionalism […] regardless of where they are. ” He talks about lack of connections with like minded people he had at that moment – “In my company I felt as a village idiot at times, as I was the only one at that time with these ideas”. For him “building online network was a real treasure trove”.

He talks about the energy of finding others with similar interests, providing an example of BlogTalk conference in 2003, the first time for many bloggers to meet each other in person – “‘coming home’ may be a strong term, but at least a warm bath’ of social interaction”.

On the connections between online and face-to-face

Ton views his weblog as a “conversation starter”, as a “big neon sign” that invites others. He describes how relations strengthen over time in blog comment conversation – “it’s like they are entering your gravity field, falling towards you”. At the certain moment there might be a feeling that just talking together is not enough and there is a shared need to do something together. For Ton, meeting people in person before being able to work with them is essential; he has to “look in their eye”, to see “the whole person” next to knowing about their shared interests from blogging.

Those meetings in person bring a relation at a new level. He gives an example of meeting Chris Corrigan and how walking in the forest having the same conversations they would have online, creates a deeper level of understanding – “Rereading his postings I now hear his voice, but I also know in what kind of context he wrote it, and this additional information helps you interpret for he means on a deeper level”.

However, he says that the connection between blogging and meeting in person goes both ways – while he makes an effort to meet his blog contacts in person, he also searchers for online traces of people he meets face-to-face first “to get a complete picture”. He adds that this is how he “makes sense of the world around”, that there is no real distinction between online and offline – “the biggest change that happen to me is that whole this online thing is my life”.

On the role of weblogs in the ecosystem of different tools

Ton thinks his weblog plays two important roles. For people, he is already connected to, it’s a place to think aloud and to reflect, to get to deeper exchanges: “when I write my network is imagined audience”. At the same time weblog is a “gravity pull”, “a starting point for new relations”, that may or may not grow as a result of people stumbling upon his posts. He adds that for those relationships that are established via weblog, most of more personal communication happens via other channels (email, Skype, sharing photos, videos).

I ask about the role of different tools when working together with his blog contacts, Ton says that the lines are difficult to draw, but he could often trace that it “started somewhere in a weblog” and then “spilled over to other channels”. He explains that does not chronicle what he does in his weblog since it would involve his colleagues and clients. He adds that he started to feel more free do to so after starting to work for himself (“they are completely my projects, so it says more about me now”) and, although content-wise his work didn’t change much, now he also needs “to be a bit more visible as an individual consultant”.

Ton talks about the “shared space” where interactions with others happen. He says it could be anywhere [online], giving an example of a German blogger whom he first “met” in a comments section of an American weblog. For Ton, keeping up with others’ “online traces” (not only blogs, but also other channels) helps to maintain a relationship via trivial exchanges (e.g. updates on Jaiku, Twitter – “I’m having a coffee”), similar to the type of exchanges with people in a close geographic proximity.

When I ask about differences between comments and conversations across weblogs he refers to the differences in format and length, as well as different types of conversations they enable: “the comments are usually short-lived […], they are immediate responses to the blog post. And a blog conversation spread between weblogs goes on longer. And you can connect it to more things since if you would add links to six different blog posts in your comment it would probably be classified as a spam.” However, he thinks that those different weblog conversations are part f the same process, talking about difficulties of reconstructing paths one follows between comments, people, what they write.

Ton says that his weblog was a starting point for different professional networks (adding that this kept him blogging), but it is also his reputation now, since people can explore the archives to find out more about him. He gives an example of a client worried about Ton having too technology-driven view on the problem who then became reassured it wasn’t so after he read Ton’s weblog. He adds “this is a trustworthy anchor point, because you can’t fake six years worth of blogging”. While he uses a spectrum of other channels to communicate, weblog is still “the core” representing him.

On connections between information and relations to people

Ton says that he uses his social environment as information filter. He is watching two-three hundreds people via their online traces and such monitoring what they are doing and writing gives him a “sense of what’s going on in the world” (he stopped reading newspaper and watching TV). He adds that those interactions are different from those with strangers on the street, as he knows the context behind what people write. He is primarily interested not in specific information, but the patterns in it. Relational context sheds new light on the information being shared, which in turn changes the relations.

Ton suggests that online relationships “do not go away”, the context and the interactions are still “there”, so eventually those become difficult to keep up. He says that he is not afraid to miss reading weblogs – “if they are talking about the important stuff, it still will be there when I return to it, people will keep talking about it and it will come to me via different paths”. He deals with an extendedness of his network by “taking a helicopter view” and then “diving deeper” when he has specific questions.

He adds that “really deep relations do not scale well”, but that the actual number of interactions with those who are very close might be small. “In the beginning you also have to show each other that you are making and effort, to may be seduce each other a bit. Network starts by giving […] and part of it is an attention and empathy; you have to make the effort first.” He tells that after a while it’s different, still an effort, but very different type of interactions. “Even if there is no interaction I still see the connection”. He talks about seeing others coming online with their status updates. “There is no real interaction, but I know that he sees me coming online as well”.