Published on Webdiary - Founded and Inspired by Margo Kingston (/cms)

Webdiary Turns Ten

By Harry Heidelberg
Created 04/07/2010 - 02:59

The fallen Australian PM Tweets his thanks while I Facebook Joe Hockey on my iPad. Toto, we're not in 2000 any more! There wasn't much of a spring this year in Switzerland but summer arrived this week and as McDonalds would say "I'm lovin' it!". I'm also lovin' the fall of Kevin Rudd but am shocked by the brutality of Labor's faceless men. You can't Facebook the factional plotters because they're faceless. Not that I'd want to Facebook Arbib or those otherwise obscure Labor machine men from Victoria and South Australia. If you've never heard of them before they're faceless as far as I'm concerned!

Oh well. Instead I am anticipating fun in a beer garden beside the lake of Zurich shortly as my train speeds its way through the suburbs of Switzerland's largest city.

What was happening ten years ago? Well there are indeed some constants. It was summer, I was living in Switzerland and was fond of beer, technology and politics. My tastes haven't changed much but lots of other things have. I'm in a tunnel now between Thalwil and Zurich passing under the city at high speed. This $700 million tunnel did not exist ten years ago. Then again its development symbolizes is a constant. Swiss have always invested in rail infrastructure. Swiss now trump the Japanese as the world's highest users of rail transport. Zurich main station is now classified as the busiest terminal railway station in Europe.

Oh hang on a minute, the train is now arriving in Zurich and I realize I'm rambling. This is supposed to be about the tenth anniversary of Webdiary, not my pet rail, beer and Swiss obsessions. Webdiarist Marilyn Shepherd was fond of observing that I worked Switzerland into every piece. Oh and I see the late afternoon temperature is 34 degrees here in Zurich. Thirsty weather!

You see Marilyn, I haven't changed one iota.

I'm now pausing to rendezvous for a tete-a-tete and am doing so perched high above Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse, one of Europe’s premier shopping boulevards. There I go again doing the travelogue and not focusing on the topic at hand. By the way, this piece is my virgin piece on Pages for iPad. I highly recommend both iPad and Pages. Disclosure: I own shares in Apple.

Who can remember ten years ago anyway? It was before 9/11, America didn’t have a black president back then and Australia didn't have a woman as Prime Minister. Zurich didn't have a gay mayor and gays weren't allowed to marry in Zurich as they do every weekend now. It was all very old fashioned. Apple wasn't worth more than Microsoft back then. The Internet was entrenched in 2000 but on a more primitive level. There wasn't even YouTube! We all had computers but there was no mobile Internet to speak of. Probably back then the media companies running major metropolitan dailies didn't really quite see how their business model was about to change forever. They all had online versions but they didn't see the threat to their revenue stream. They were still old fashioned. Upstart, eBay was profitable from inception. In 1998 eBay had a couple of hundred million dollars in revenue. They also had a couple of hundred employees. Ten years later they had 16,000 employees and revenues in excess of eight billion dollars a year. This money had to come from somewhere. Money people spent on eBay they weren't spending elsewhere. Rivers of gold were diverted. Disclosure: I once worked for eBay here in Europe and saw what happened during the most dramatic period of expansion for myself. The world was changing in ways it hadn't before. I loved it then on the Internet. I love it now in biotechnology.

Back in those days there were no blogs and of course no Facebook. The online versions of the newspapers were one way. There was no opportunity for interaction for us normal folks. This ability to interact is now taken for granted but back then we were passive recipients wearing muzzles. It was really stupid if you think about it. Then along came Margo Kingston. She changed all that. Margo's pioneering Webdiary started ten years ago in the Sydney Morning Herald. I was one of the first people to write in. I've been told I was the first but I don't think that's quite true. After Webdiary was born I think it took me a day or two to react by writing in. Wow! How exciting it was. Writing to areal journalist in a real newspaper and she was answering me back. It started out so nice but soon changed. Early on I condemned her as a typical leftie and Margo challenged me to explain my beliefs. What were the values of Harry Heidelberg? I explained further and the conversation and debate started. It was exhilarating, infuriating, insightful, intelligent and inspiring. Margo's Webdiary had started.

Margo had zeal and realized quickly she was on to something. Do any of you remember exactly what happened in the Hanson era beyond the clichés and the glib dismissals of what Hanson misrepresented? It was about people not being heard. Margo got this. Why? She came from the sugar city of Mackay. Margo understood regional Queensland and people who would gravitate toward Hansonism. Hansonism represented a disconnect. Australians weren't talking to each other. It seemed to me that Margo’s mission was to build a bridge to get people talking again. Talking and understanding. The idea was that people of different political persuasions could talk with each other. They could debate. Through this we would discover the things that unite us as Australians and the values we share.

Margo had grand ideas. For her it wasn't just enough that for the first time ever readers could publicly interact with journalists. Two way public conversations with journalists? It hadn't been done before. Margo instigated this and immediately saw more. Margo went 180 degrees and immediately turned and said let's do 360! Margo was happy to turn the whole thing on its head and around again! The whole media model. Writing, talent and intellect were set free, previously unknown people developed a profile and a following. Mini giants of the online world were born !Lives were changed! People noticed! If you're younger you may not get the significance of this. This was world Internet and media history and Margo was making it. In 2000 there were no comparable models. Not in the New York Times, not in the Washington Post and nor even in that stupid bloody British rag that you wretched lefties love so much, the Guardian.

In the beginning Webdiary had a good cross section of readers and contributors. Margo soon found that beyond comments, people started contributing opinion pieces. It was part of her 360 degree model of the new media. This was the secret sauce of Webdiary in its heyday. In these early days comments and contributions to Webdiary would be emailed to Margo directly. In 2000blogging had not been popularized. There were no blogs on newspaper websites and popular hosted blog tools such as Typepad and Blogger were yet to be invented. Later in Webdiary, people were able to comment directly via the site and Margo had to moderate and process the huge volume of comments.

I have no doubt there is much research on this but it seems online many people develop larger than life personalities. In most cases they are simply an exaggerated extension of the base personality but through provocation, competition and hyperbole they can become extreme. We saw a lot of this on Webdiary but in the early years it was largely kept in check as Margo had total control and was seen largely as being fair.

Margo continued with her mission to change the media model and at one point raised it on Philip Adams Late Night Live on ABC Radio National. Jack Robertson joined live in the studio and I joined on the line from Switzerland. Jack was dubbed by Adams as being to the left of Lenin and I was dubbed as being to the right of Genghis Kahn, a description I quite fancied.

I later established myself as Harry Heidelberg because I wanted to do a piece on corporate ethics. It was inappropriate for me to do it in my own name. I stuck with that name and became known as the evil rabid right wing Harry, the whipping boy of the communists. Well I have to call them communists because if they considered me hard right, I had to return the compliment. Many of them were essentially communists though. No doubt about that. If you are not pro business you are a communist. And there's a trademark Harry grenade for you. Enjoy.

In 2003 Margo started the idea of book that was later to be published as a bestseller, Not Happy, John! Consistent with her desire to change the media model, Margo wanted some of her Webdiarists to collaborate on this book to be published by Penguin. When I was in Sydney for Christmas in 2003 Margo and the collaborators met at a pub in Newtown. It wasn't dark and stormy. More like mild to warm and mainly sunny with the chance of an afternoon thunderstorm. It was Sydney in December. It was the first time I'd met Margo in person and also Jack Robertson and Antony Lowentsein. There was also a right-wing guy there whose name escapes me because we never heard of him again. All I remember of him is he wore a white t-shirts and was nowhere near as conciliatory and charming as I turned out to be on the evening in question. The debate just before dawn became somewhat melodramatic as pre-dawn debates have a habit of becoming. I was enjoying the entertainment as the white shirted conservative took on Jack. Ant looked on disapprovingly and I nodded approvingly in acknowledgment of Ant's unease. The white shirted guy was thus not destined to be a collaborator.

When I returned to Switzerland, the book writing process was much fun and I used it as an excuse to go to all sorts of exotic places seeing myself as some sort of nineteenth century gent on a grand tour of literary discovery. I remember I wrote absolute rubbish in Venice. It morphed into a glowing tribute to Peter Costello which wasn't really the purpose of the book. It vaguely fitted with the theme of not being happy with John Howard but was by no means a condemnation of the government which he led. I never had an issue with the mechanics of writing but did struggle a bit to write in keeping with the theme of the book. It would have been so much easier if I actually hated John Howard as the other collaborators did. In the end I bought a day ticket and rode around Switzerland and wrote the chapter that was published in Not Happy, John! I said I wasn't happy about a few things including reconciliation, the republic, education, refugees. They are the cliché doctors’ wives issues that some Liberals struggle with even if they are not in fact doctors’ wives. I also added ideas for a better Australian democracy following the Swiss model in a section called Ever More Democratic.

There were all sorts of controversies and mini dramas as Not Happy, John! came together. When I saw the proposed cover of the book I withdrew and said I no longer wanted to be in the book. It was highly disrespectful to the PM and diminished what I thought was the original purpose of the book. I went so far as to design myself eleven alternative covers and titles. Margo understood my dilemma and there were discussions with Penguin. In the end of course the cover most likely to be commercially successful understandably remained despite my objections. Somehow I ended up doing a backflip and still went in the book. It was mainly because of Margo.

Later I was to meet Polly Bush in Melbourne, another classic Webdiarist. We met with Margo at the Melbourne Writers Festival. What a hoot that was. We all had our own style and there's no doubt we were individuals. Polly Bush was a pseudonym and in those days it was fine to write under a pen name. Later in Webdiary history a control fetish developed and those who used pseudonyms were pilloried for “hiding something". It was a nonsense argument as all modern mainstream media blogs know. Look at newspapers now and they practically ask you not to give your real name for comments. Its where opinion ranks higher than identity. Identity is irrelevant. It makes it easier though if the pseudonym is consistent.

In 2005, Margo decided to take Webdiary independent. I lived in Sydney that year and had a fifth anniversary party in my apartment in the heart of Joe Hockey's electorate. The attendees were Green of one sort or another and as we know, Greens voters are the richest so didn't travel far and brought champagne. Champagne socialism at its best. Greens love champagne. I had a non-Webdiarist mate there who worked for an investment bank. He copped a tongue lashing in the wee hours. Bankers are easy targets! Mostly however it was enjoyable. For a very brief period I was the so called CEO of Webdiary. It didn't last long as I was never going to be able to work with people who had views that were so diametrically opposed to my own. I was the only Liberal surrounded by a bunch of rabid lefties. It was untenable from the outset.

After I left I became more trenchant and there were a series of exchanges with the new controllers of the site. For me the writing stopped and I reinvigorated my own blog and again there was some bitter back and forth. Also people feeling they were being cheated by heavy moderation and control by the Webdiary zealots would use my blog as dumping ground for their grievances. Toward the end of 2005, Margo retired from journalism and in the years since the volunteers you see running the site now kept Margo's dream alive. I can't remember exactly what happened but in the winter of 2007, I was in Far North Queensland and reconnected with Margo and Webdiary after an 18 month absence. I think there was a threat about closing it down or something.

Largely though I have been absent from Webdiary since mid-2005. Richard Tonkin recently contacted me and wondered if I'd like to write something for the tenth anniversary of Webdiary. That's why I've written this although I'm not sure how helpful it is.

I think Webdiary is now what it was becoming in the spring of 2005, a group blog for lefties. I don't read it so can't be sure but I doubt anyone with a different view writes much any more.It's of the left, for the left and by the left and largely the folks who run it are happy with that outcome. For me personally I am not interested in any political dialogue at all with people from the left. Been there, done that and it proved precisely nothing. I think some of the more contemptible control freaks have left (as has conveniently our former control freak PM) and it now seems to be more amiable people with a common leftie view of the world.

Margo had a noble dream and got very far in achieving success. It was by her efforts though. The media landscape has moved on. Blogs are old hat and four hundred million people of us Facebook and for me that's mainly about travel, food and other trivia. Largely, I don’t debate on Facebook despite some minor transgressions. The iPad is now out and I am paying to receive the Australian in iPad format. Murdoch says we have to pay for journalism and he's right. I am as interested in politics as ever but have zero interest in debate. I know what I believe and that's how I vote. I certainly want to see the end of this appalling Labor government and a return of responsible government under the Liberals. Why would I write about that on Webdiary though? What's the point? What's the population of Webdiarists who are swinging voters? Who reading this is uncertain of how they will vote at the next election? Bugger all, I would say. No one will learn, no one will change their opinion. It's too narrow now. They would just dismiss my writings as nonsense from the right. In the same way I would dismiss theirs as nonsense from the left.

I remember for a couple of weeks five years ago there was a naive view put about that left and right don't matter anymore. How utterly ridiculous. It matters more than ever. You don't get a mining tax designed to confiscate profits from risk taking under a centre right government. That sort of garbage can only come from the inane, insane, idiotic left. For me left and right is the biggest thing of all time and I have zero patience for the left. None whatsoever.

If Webdiary was about any topic other than politics and current events from the left perspective, I'd have an interest in it. I'd write if I didn't have to engage in dialogue with people I disagree with but what's the point of that?

It made sense when Margo controlled it but not for me now. For me 2010 is the same as 2000. I have the same views now as I did ten years ago. I'm sure most of you do as well. Margo's original goal won't be achieved by Webdiary in its current format. What do you think the average age of contributors is? I'd reckon it's positively ancient. That's ok though. There's nothing wrong with a club for like-minded people. That's the way society is organized. A club for people of opposing views has a limited future. Continue to be birds of a feather. Be that club and enjoy it without the grandiose statements. Grandiosity comes back to bite. Ask Kevin Rudd about the greatest moral issue of our time. Grandiosity infuriates people when it falls short. Actually, I was partial to grandiosity at one point in all of this and also thought we could change the world. All these movements end up like Animal Farm. Webdiary is a case study of Orwell's farmyard work inaction. Four legs good, two legs better and all that stuff. Looks like the pigs are moderating tonight. No chance for cows or sheep.

Margo was the special ingredient who could keep people together for a period. Webdiary keeps the dream alive but it’s a more modest dream now. I don't even know what the future of blogging is. To me it seems to have gone the way of the hula hoop. We all had one at the turn of the century but then got sick of it. It spins around but in the end gets you nowhere. That's blogging. I recently read that blogging is declining rather dramatically and there are millions of blogs sitting out there in suspended animation. People have stopped updating them.

One small regret I have is that blogging was an outlet for writing. I used to enjoy that part of it. Margo fostered writing. It wasn't just about debate. For a time Margo turned the model on its head, she brought in the audience and acted as a mentor for those who could write. To have the grand ambitions she had is why so many of us admire the founder of Webdiary.

This week I had a really challenging session with an executive coach in the Swiss Alps. He was an academic, psychologist and a hard-nosed businessman. What a unique combination. He became curious about me because in my work I am more known for a technical specialization in the finance field that doesn't at all go with the profile of someone who has a passion for writing. This Austrian professor's view is that I am doing myself an enormous disservice by not writing. The writing always goes with my beloved international cultural awareness. I'm bad at most things but have a strange mix in the things I'm better at. Maybe blogs remain as an outlet for writers with no other platform. People like me.

New Matilda finally collapsed recently. New media is old media. Murdoch is getting stronger and Fairfax grows ever weaker. What do I have on my iPad? Reuters, BBC, The Australian and the New York Times. I don't even read the Sydney Morning Herald these days, it's a celebrity gossip rag and they don't do political coverage. They just have that abominable Rudd lover, Hartcher. To me the 21st century looks like the 20th except that the Herald died. I also have Facebook on my iPad It's more interesting for me to get real news from normal sources and to get trivia from Facebook. I'd rather learn that a former colleague from Italy has just bought a skateboard or a friend from Finland is sailing than some diatribe from an old Webdiary nemesis. I don't care about celebrities so I get my trivia fix from Facebook.

What's the best part about Webdiary? It was ground-breaking and for a while it really felt like we could change the world. No one has ever done anything quite like it before or since but it was really Margo who made it unique and had the new ideas. Webdiary is now middle aged. It's relaxed and comfortable. Does anyone want anything different? I don't think so.

Happy Tenth, Webdiary and best of luck for the future. May there be a 20thand a 30th!

Best wishes from an older though not wiser Harry Heidelberg.

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