Blogging in the plural

Most scholarly treatments of blogging begin with a reference to Rebecca Blood’s (2000) history of the idea of blogging, or draw on a standardized definition like the one offered by Jill Walker (2003), which suggests that a weblog is “a frequently updated website consisting of dated entries arranged in reverse chronological order,” and goes on to note the tendency of weblogs to be unedited, made up of brief entries, authored by an individual, and making extensive use of hyperlinks. The focus here in such definitions is on the epiphenomenal product of the practice of blogging. As Richard Feynman (1968) notes, “You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird.” We learn about the bird by watching what it is doing.

So varied are the behaviors of bloggers that it is a bit surprising that the same term is used to cover them all. When journalists refer to bloggers, they generally are referring to a group of widely-read, politically-motivated editorialists. Others identify bloggers by a representative average, suggesting, for example, that “the typical blog is written by a teenage girl who uses it twice a month to update her friends and classmates on happenings in her life” (Perseus, 2003). But few weblogs focus on day-to-day politics, and talking about an average blogger is as meaningless as talking about an average book author (Lawley, 2003).

If defining blogging in terms of its artifacts (the software and the web document) or the characteristics of its average participant limits us, where may we turn for a definition? There are four themes that seem to form a core set of practices and beliefs among bloggers: the networked nature of communication, the opportunity for engaging in ongoing conversation, easily produced microcontent, and transparency.

There are some weblogs that have audiences akin to a major newspaper or magazine, but most weblogs have few consistent readers. Traditionally, media that is designed for and reaches such a small audience is referred to as “narrowcasting,” but narrowcasting–cable channels that run only game shows or magazines for Smurf collectors–target particular, established niche audiences, and often make content available exclusively to these small audiences. Weblogs in-stead provide content to as narrow or as broad an audience as might encounter and enjoy the site. These audiences may share little in common except for being regular or irregular readers of a particular site. While other media may act to collect audiences and aggregate opinion and attention, weblogs encourage individualized views of the informational world. Nearly a century ago, Simmel (1964) described the tendency of metropolitans to opt to become part of a number of various social circles that may not fully intersect. Weblogs represent the alternative to broadcasting that allows for communication networks to more accurately represent and support these dispersed social networks.

The second hallmark of blogging is that it encourages reciprocal communication. Often commentators have focused on so-called “A-list” weblogs, those who attract the largest number of readers and links, and this has reduced the emphasis on conversation. On the other end, a large number of bloggers might be classified as “mumblers.” The structural equivalent of “lurkers” in other forms of group communication online, mumblers seem to post weblogs to a void, without obvious comments or readers. Even in this case, though, it is clear that one of the motivations for blogging is feedback through comments, links, and other channels. Trackbacks, blogrolls, Technorati tags, and other ways of detecting, measuring, and displaying links help to fulfill this conversational desire.

That blogging content is often accumulated in small segments, and with little commitment of time, represents a third theme. Particularly with the wide availability of free blogging software and hosts, the barriers to entry for blogging are extraordinarily low. While many bloggers invest a significant amount of time in reading and writing within the blogosphere, it is possible to engage this process as little or as much as desired. There is no minimum investment required, and even during a busy day, many bloggers may find the fifteen minutes required to type out a paragraph of commentary.

Finally, weblogs represent a relatively open and unfiltered view of thinking-in-progress. As with each of these themes, it is possible to identify exceptions, but most weblogs are marked by the absence of clear gatekeepers beyond the authors themselves. In one sense, this makes weblogs–even those that are maintained by a group–fairly personal. When companies have attempted to create weblogs written by brand characters or public relations specialists, they have been pilloried by many bloggers. This dedication to transparency has affinities with the open source and free culture movements, and this open process provides others with a model to emulate when they decide to start blogging. This dedication to openness in some cases collides with ex-isting institutionalized business practices that put a premium on secrecy.

These four themes are not unique to blogging. They apply more broadly to systems that support social interaction, including user-editable sites (wikis), tag-driven sites like del.icio.us and Flickr. The community that makes use of weblogs tends to be among the first to take up other social technologies as well. Though it will almost cer-tainly change over time–and the word “blog” may disappear from the vocabulary–these larger themes seem to have taken hold socially and are likely to continue to be influential.

It is not difficult to find antecedents to these overall themes in both the culture of hacking and of scholarship–two cultures that share significant common ground (Himanen, 2001). A decade ago Harrison and Stephen (1996) explained that computer networking was of such interest to academics. It played to long held ideals among scholars that had yet to be realized: “unending and inclusive scholarly conversation; collaborative inquiry limited only by mutual interests; unrestrained access to scholarly resources; independent, decentralized learning; and a timely and universally accessible system for rep-resenting, distributing, and archiving knowledge” (p. 32). Weblogs, while not addressing all of these ideals, have already shown them-selves to be effective in ways that other, centrally-organized efforts at scholarly networking have not.

Works Cited

Blood, Rebecca. “Weblogs: a History and Perspective.” Rebecca’s Pocket, Sept. 7, 2000.

Feynman, Richard. “What is Science?” The Physics Teacher, 7(6), 1968.

Harrison, Teresa M., and Timothy Stephen. “Computer Networking, Communication, and Scholarship.” Computer Networking and Scholarly Communication in the Twenty-First-Century University. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.

Himanen, Pekka. The Hacker Ethic. New York: Random House, 2001.

Lawley, Elizabeth L. Comments during discussion at the Media Ecology Association Annual Conference, Rochester, New York, 2004.

Perseus (2003). “The Blogging Iceberg.”

Simmel, Georg. Conflict and the Web of Group-Affiliations. Trans. Kurt H. Worlff and Reinhard Bendix. New York: Free Press, 1964.

Walker, Jill. “Final Version of Weblog Definition.” jill/txt (June 28, 2003).

[ This is a chunk of stuff that ended up on the "cutting room floor"; part of a chapter for the coming Uses of Blogs book that the editors asked to be excised--or at least substantially reduced. So it ends up in my blog, of course :) ]

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3 Comments

  1. Posted 10/29/2005 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    Thanks for donating this essay-ette, Alex. I am definitely going to borrow “mumblers” to describe some of the people I am studying. I do think you are too hung up on the audience-seeking of bloggers. It is true that they often seek audiences but there are plenty of mumblers who don’t even allow comments or who only want comments from specific others not the wider population… But you do say that all these ‘rules’ admit exceptions!

  2. Posted 10/30/2005 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Yes indeed. Blogging isn’t something that lends itself easily to an elevator pitch. So sad it didn’t make it into your book contribution. Still, can I have an autographed copy? :P

  3. Posted 10/31/2005 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I realized you didn’t make any references to Michael Conniff’s article entitled “Just what is a blog, anyway?” where he give a thorough look at what others say, some working definitions and the changing images of blogs. Read it at http://www.ojr.org/ojr/stories/050929/

4 Trackbacks

  1. [...] Blogging in the plural Excellent re-definition of Blogging. Definitions are hard since blogs are difficult to generalize, so this is a fresh stab at it. Keywords: academia, blogs [...]

  2. By Infomancy » Defining “Blog” on 11/2/2005 at 1:27 pm

    [...] There has been some great meta-blogging over the past couple of days: Alex Halavais – Blogging in the plural 2 Cents Worth – Why do we have to “learn how to blog”? Weblogg-ed – Blogging vs. Journaling [...]

  3. By bgblogging on 11/11/2005 at 10:20 am

    Preparing for Tomorrow’s Talk at Orton

    Tomorrow I venture down to Manchester, Vermont to talk with the Orton Family Foundation about social software, multimedia applications and podcasting. It will be my first WEBEX presentation, and the first time that my audience will be non-techie types …

  4. [...] And read some more: [...]

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