Communication, Law and Web 2.0: An Interview with Blawger Dennis Kennedy

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Dennis Kennedy is an expert in technology law and legal technology. He is also a legal blogger (“blawger”) and follows emerging web tools closely.

In the following interview we talked about non profit adoption of new technologies and the communicative as well as legal dimensions of blogging, RSS, OPML and wikis. Dennis also shared some thoughts on privacy issues and the upcoming Net Squared conference.

 

Table of Contents:

  • Blogging
  • RSS (“really simple syndication” - content and information feeds)
  • OPML (“Outline Processor Markup Language” - a powerful new way to share information in outline form)
  • Wikis (Websites that anyone can add to or change without technical knowledge)
  • Privacy
  • Conference Thoughts

Blogging

Marshall:
So looking over your blog, I see that you are both prolific and like to link out to other resources online. What roll does blogging play in your practice/ what does it do for you?

Dennis:
I had a website for more than ten years and a blog for almost three years. I'm pleased to be part of the first group of lawyers with websites and also among the early lawyer bloggers.

I've always focused on linking out to good resources. My first website was called "Estate Planning Links." It still exists at http://www.estateplanninglinks.com and is now run by Dennis Toman.

I've always felt that you can help people equally well by providing useful information or an answer to their question with your website or blog, or by pointing them to a useful or helpful resource. They appreciate both things.

Blogging started for me as an experiment in writing. I wanted to try different types of writing and see if the writing would find its own audience. When I started my blog, I had more than publications and was well-known as a writer on legal technology topics.

My blog has never been geared toward generating legal work, but it benefits me by making me visible, giving me a human face and the like....

The benefits are more indirect. The blog leads to interview requests, reprint opportunities, writing and speaking. And, best of all, the world of bloggers is the greatest, most generous network you can be part of....

Marshall:
You are using a Question & Answer format on your blog? What are your thoughts behind that?

Dennis:
The Q & A is an experiment. I became a fan of the Ask Dave Taylor blog, which is done as a Q & A. I liked the idea.

I was also doing a "By Request" feature on my blog and a friend told me that they thought that the posts I did in that format sounded more like me.... I don't know if I'll continue the approach. Sometimes it's hard to think of a title in the form of a question....

Marshall:
I see that you are looking to begin offering blog consulting services. What sorts of things will you be looking to help people with in that? Isn't blogging easy to do?

Dennis:
Most bloggers are trying to figure a way to "monetize" their blogging. I see people doing blog design and the like.

I've always focused on content. I want to help people decide on what type of blogging might work for them, what their goals and whether their ideas are sustainable. I want to take a look at the strategic planning and content approaches for blogs - what works as a practical matter - and then work with people on how to quantify and measure results....

Those who can design, design. Those who can't, look for other ways they can help people.

Marshall:
That sounds great, potentially especially for the non profit sector.

Dennis:
You have to have a sustainable idea that will keep your interest in order to have a long-running blog.

Marshall:
Is that the # 1 question you'd have potential bloggers ask themselves?

Dennis:
In law, and other areas, so many people say that you must have a blog. But you need to have a blog that has something to say. That's much harder than it looks.

I think the #1 question people ask is "what blogging software or service should I use?" Then they try to think up a clever name. Writing the posts should be higher on the list.

Marshall:
lol

RSS

Marshall:
I presume you use RSS in part for this, any tips there in maximizing the efficiency of RSS in support of blog content development?

Dennis:
I love RSS and its potential. I was fascinated with RSS before I started blogging. I've said that blogging is the sideshow and RSS is the main event.

RSS is an alternative channel that makes it easy for your audience to get your content without doing additional work. That in itself is reason enough to explore it. There's a lot going on with RSS. The channel notion is the compelling first step....

RSS in the non-profit sector is especially interesting. You can get your message out to your constituency without fighting your way through the clutter in their email inboxes.

Marshall:
The promo possibilities seem essential, and very low cost to begin. (though so few non profits have done so!) I agree that RSS is amongst the biggest world changers in the field for sure. Any suggestions making the most of RSS for research?

Dennis:
As you aggregate RSS feeds and feed items, you can create tailored, rich information resources that are really useful....

You just need to dig in. Find a newsreader and subscribe to a few hundred feeds and see what new information, ideas and possibility start flowing in front of you without you doing the extra work to find them.

Marshall:
A few hundred feeds! But won't I freak out when I see how many unread items are in my feed reader?

Dennis:
You'll want to find some good sources of feeds that interest you. Almost all blogs have feeds, so you can start subscribing to the feeds of blogs you read and the blogs they recommend. There's also the notion of OPML files which allow you to import someone else's list of feeds as a starting point.

Of course, you'll freak out! But you need to see what's possible. There is some amazing information out that will come to you for free in a newsreader. You'll need to cull that information and manage it, but more is better with feeds....

Marshall:
Are there legal issues that organizations should be aware of if considering resyndication on their site of feeds from elsewhere? Should it be clear from the feed source's Terms of Service page (presuming there is one)?

Dennis:
On the legal side, RSS allows your content such as blog posts to be repurposed very easily. You are pushing them out to the world through RSS, an XML approach that can be used in many ways. You can use free and simple scripts, for example, to subscribe to my RSS feed and have my posts appear on your website, if you wanted.

That's where it gets tricky. Most of us want the biggest audience we can get and are happy to have more eyes looking at what we wrote. But we do care about our stuff appearing without attribution and other people making money off what we've written without permission and without royalties of some kind. You can talk about intellectual property rights and legal issues all day long, but the main issues come down to those very basic points.

Marshall:
So, what should a non profit do? Not repurpose/resyndicate content from off site?

Dennis:
You need to watch for developments and realize that it may take several years for the courts to give us definitive answers. In a way, you really want to treat others the way you'd like to be treated.

Non-profits need to take care and not assume that just because they are non-profits and doing good or educating, that anything that they do is fair use. As a practical matter, I'll probably not go after a high school that posts one of my articles on its website, but I'll still be angry and other people may be more aggressive.

OPML

OPML (Outline Processor Markup Language) is the next level of XML (extended markup language), the language that RSS based on. It can be used for many different kinds of outlining and outline sharing, but is currently best known as a way to transfer groups of RSS feeds together from one place to another. Recent examples of OPML in use include Anne Zelenka’s creation of one subscribable file containing the feeds of 100+ tech blogs written by women and Amy Gahran’s list of women in podcasting.

Marshall:
Do you think the idea of sharing OPML files as resources is going to gain traction?..."reading lists"?

Dennis:
I've been talking with some people about OPML and reading lists, which I think of as self-updating OPML files, or lists of feeds.

Marshall:
How does that work?

Dennis:
I have a number of friends with whom I'd love to shared and combine the lists of feeds we read into a common information resource.

The reading lists are a brand new idea from Dave Winer, the father of RSS. I have not worked with one enough to fully understand it, but my sense for it is that the list self-updates and makes sure that the list is "love." I think of it as a self-updating bookmark or favorites list (you know how we all hate favorites list with dead links), but I believe it has much more value that and far more potential....

One last thought on OPML and reading lists. Imagine some of the most knowledgeable people in your field. Imagine having easy access to the same list of feeds that they read. That's cool.

Marshall:
No, I'm content to talk about OPML almost the whole interview - I think it's fascinating!...

Dennis:
The tech, knowledge and communications aspects of all this do tend to be more interesting than the legal questions, which can be quite theoretical.

One other use that intrigues me that might also make sense in the non-profit sector. I write for a group blog called Between Lawyers (http://www.corante.com/betweenlawyers/) that is part of the Corante network of blogs, which includes some extremely knowledgeable people on a variety of topics. I've talked about coming up with a way that we would all contribute our OPML files, have someone merge them and clean out the duplicates and make the combined OPML available as a benefit of being a Corante blogger. You'd have access to an amazing research and information space created by a fascinating and diverse group.

In the non-profit area I can see both the potential for "research packs" in OPML files with the best resources or, in the event of a disaster or other needs, a freely-available OPML file, perhaps packaged with a free newsreader, that would give people access to a valuable stream of information.

The possibilities are endless. I could imagine an arts group providing an OPML file with RSS feeds from museums, events, schools and other event locations, plus feeds from local artists and other information resources.

Again, remember that the OPML file allows you to seamlessly subscribe to RSS feeds - you are not copying information or doing anything that should raise any intellectual property or other legal issues.

Wikis

Marshall:
Well, I do want to ask you some legal questions since I've got you here, but I hear you when you say these other issues are most interesting....

Shall we switch to wikis for a moment?...

Your predictions for the next year in web tech included that wikis are going to get a lot of traction for legal collaboration in the next year. That sounds like good news for the wiki world, but do lawyers not hold the same suspicions concerning wikis that the general public do? (too new, too untrustworthy, too easy to vandalize)

Dennis:
Wikis. Lawyers tend to be more suspicious about what people might do than the public at large. They tend to focus on all the things that might go wrong.

Think about the Wikipedia. 99.9% of the time it's exactly the type of information resource you need. And, in time, it does tend to self-correct. Lawyers would focus on the .01% where there may be problems and neglect the good parts.

Marshall:
But wikipedia is not all wikis...and there are so many different ways to use a wiki...

Dennis:
Lawyers worry about giving up control of any document. Wikis are threatening to them for that reason. On the other hand, lawyers are more comfortable than any other group with doing multiple drafts and getting things right, especially with several people working together. Wikis suit lawyers well, at least conceptually. I think most lawyers would find them too techie to use them consistently, at least at this point....

Dennis:
I would like to mention that people who are not aware of what bloggers did after the tsunami and the recent hurricanes should look into that. The responses really showed the potential of blogs and RSS to create very human, practical channels of information not available anywhere else.

Marshall:
For sure, I'll add some links to your interview.

Privacy

Marshall:
Do you have any advice on privacy issues that npo's should look into in the web 2.0 world?

Dennis:
Privacy is a complicated issues with many nuances. In the education sector, notice how careful you have to be when putting pictures of school children with names or other identifiers. As big as a fan as I am of the Internet, I fully understand that there are dangers out there.

For the most part, dealing with privacy issues is a straightforward process. The difficulty is identifying and understanding all the ways you might gather or use personally-identifiable information, especially info about children.

Then you move toward creating a privacy policy. The goal of a privacy policy is to be accurate. This surprises people. Your privacy policy does not have to guarantee any level of privacy it just needs to be accurate in what it says that you do with personally-identifiable information. Your liability will come if you handle information in a way that's different than how you describe in your policy.

Where a non-profit can get into difficulty is simply using another privacy policy someone finds on the Internet without checking whether it describes what you do.

Think about this example. Your privacy policy says that you will never share personally-identifiable information with any third party. You decide to outsource the printing of mailing labels and a direct mailing to save money. Guess what? You just shared personally-identifiable information with a third.

Does that mean that the FTC or anyone is like to come after you for violating your privacy policy? Probably not, but you do have legal exposure.

Because non-profits have small budgets for legal bills, it's tempting to to do a little self-help for simple legal documents, but you run some risk.

If someone were to use a wiki-based approach to create legal forms, privacy policies would not be good candidates because they depend on the specific facts of each situation.

Conference Thoughts

Marshall:
Do you have any thoughts on things we should make sure to keep in mind in organizing the Net Squared conference? Any essential elements or super neat ideas come to mind?

Dennis:
The conference idea is so cool. I'd be a bit less concerned about the topics you present and a little more interested in ways that you can get people from the different perspectives together in the same room talking to each other and see what happens when you get them talking.

From the legal perspective, people would benefit from a presentation along the lines of "copyright myths and realities." There are a lot of misconceptions out there.

Marshall:
Is there anyone in particular you'd recommend talking to about giving a presentation like that?

Dennis:
Marshall, in our LexThink conferences, we've experimented and come to love the Open Space approach to conferences. It's an open, self-selecting approach that is fascinating, especially with groups of highly creative people. I'd suggest looking into doing an open session or two. The real value of your conference will be in getting these groups that seldom interacting talking with each other....

Marshall:
I'll pass that phrase along and give it a look myself, the Open Space approach. Sounds like a possible articulation of the kind of "unconference" thing many people are looking for.

Dennis:
It's actually a format that is often associated with the unconference. We've tried to categorize what we are doing with LexThink as a form of unconference.

Marshall:
Ok, well I'm going to let you go, but again I really appreciate all your help.

Dennis:
Thanks. It was fun.

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