Collaborative web publishing as a technology and a practice



[This is part of a draft of the chapter I’m writing for the International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments, forthcoming from Springer.]

It seems clear that weblogs existed well before they were named. These days, there are nearly as many definitions of weblogs as there are weblogs. Most of these relate to the formal presentational structure of a genre of web pages. Jill Walker’s (2003) definition, for example, notes that:

A weblog, or blog, is a frequently updated website consisting of dated entries arranged in reverse chronological order so the most recent post appears first (see temporal ordering). Typically, weblogs are published by individuals and their style is personal and informal.

While Walker goes on to suggest some of the behaviors and motivations that lead to this formal presentation, as with most weblog definitions, the focus is on the web page itself. Such definitions certainly capture many of the features that are frequently found on weblogs, but by no means are these observable attributes always present or clear.

Rebecca Blood’s (2000) history of weblogs describes what sort of material is usually placed on such pages. The original weblogs, according to Blood, were websites created to keep track of and publicize other pages found on the web. In some ways they resembled public, annotated “bookmark files,” cataloging and identifying websites that the author thought were particularly interesting in one way or another. At least one of these sites also linked to other sites with a similar aim, and this cross-linkage is what would later evolve to become a “blogosphere” of interlinked blogs.

A second type of blogger then emerged, growing rapidly in numbers by 1999, according to Blood. Rather than the outward focus of the public linkers, these weblogs were composed of short diary entries in which authors would make note of their thoughts and experiences, sometimes several times throughout the day. In order to support these new bloggers (and helping to drive the development of blogging) a number of content management systems were developed that aimed to make updating a weblog easier. Naturally, there is no clean line between these two types of blogging; those who primarily provide links often provide reviews of the sites to which they link, and those who publish essays or their short observations often accompany them with linked materials. Rather, these two pure types of blogging help define a spectrum of approaches.

These two ways of identifying weblogs — by their formal organization and by the kinds of content that they contain — may have been adequate during the earliest days of blogging, but as blogging has grown as a phenomenon, it has become clear that part of what makes a weblog is whether and in what ways it is linked to other weblogs. What drove the rise of weblogging was not just a desire to increase the frequency with which personal web pages were updated. When weblogs began to link to one another, bloggers were increasingly able to self-identify as a group, and — potentially, at least — as a community. Weblogs exist chiefly as a part of a larger “blogosphere,” a term that has been employed in various ways (cf. Hiler, 2002) to describe this collective hyperlinked subweb. That is, one of the most important ways of discovering whether a page on the Web is a weblog is whether it links to other weblogs and whether other weblogs link to it. Unlike the earliest examples of weblogs, more recent examples engage in an exchange with some subset of the millions of other weblogs being published.

This focus on the aggregate nature of weblogs begins to indicate that blogs are more than simply a genre of web content, they represent a social practice. Restricting the definition to purely a description of the web sites generated is difficult because it misses so much. The only seemingly vital element of weblogging is a public forum (the World Wide Web) in which bloggers are able to associate and self-assemble into groups. The attraction to weblogging has less to do with the software involved and more to do with the kinds of social groups that emerge from interactions among weblogs and their authors. These practices provide for serendipitous, unstructured learning, as differing perspectives and discourses come into contact with one another.

In our discussion we should include tools that perform similar functions, and provide for similar venues for social interactions. Wikis, for example, are web pages that are easily updated by (usually) any person who encounters them on the Web. While not as familiar as weblogs, the success of projects like Wikipedia — an online collaborative encyclopedia project with nearly a quarter million articles in English alone — has brought collaborative hypertexts like wikis wider recognition. Related systems that allow for the sharing of personal information among networks and friends, often referred to as “social networking systems,” as well as machine-readable forms of weblogs, wikis, and social network information, form a larger information ecology that allows for the traffic of ideas within a community.

While several alternative labels for these technologies have been suggested, all represent some form of collaborative web publishing; that is, all support the addition and editing of relatively short pieces of text, and sometimes other images, audio, and other forms of media, in a way that invites multiple authors to link their ideas together. Of course, while these changes may be small (resulting in what is sometimes referred to as “microcontent”) the impact is often anything but. As the example of Wikipedia above demonstrates, in the aggregate, such efforts can yield a substantial collaborative text. Nonetheless, because the text can be addressed and constructed in very small pieces, it allows for the kinds of communicative give and take that are more often associated with synchronous environments.

It would be a mistake to assume that there is a single culture that pervades the blogosphere to the exclusion of all others. Indeed, the variety of bloggers allows for niche communities of interest that would be far more difficult to maintain without the openness of the blogosphere. Bloggers have inherited a core set of values, common to the early computer hackers, and passed on through earlier virtual environments. Pekka Himanen notes in The Hacker Ethic that hackers’ (and here he means computer enthusiasts) relations to the idea of networking, though present in the 1960s, “received a more conscious formulation in recent years” (2001, p. 86). He traces some of the virtues cultivated by hackers, including passionate engagement in their work, autonomy from government and others, pursuit of social position (sometimes to the exclusion of financial gain), and perhaps most importantly, an active and caring approach to communication on the Net (pp. 139-141; Levy, 2001, lists similar attributes).

These virtues are not difficult to identify within the blogosphere. Mutual aide and open exchange of information are encouraged as norms. Although the commercialization of blogging recently has begun in earnest, many tools remain freely available. The Creative Commons project, an effort to provide a more flexible intellectual property regime to encourage the sharing of information, has enjoyed a warm welcome from many in the blogosphere. Many of those who engage in blogging become interested in extending and changing the tools they use, and this kind of amateur tinkering is at the heart of the hacker ethic. Respect from one’s peers is highly valued. In many ways, the practices of the blogosphere resemble nothing so much as the scholarly exchanges common in academic settings, and the number of professors and students that choose to take up blogging is therefore not particularly surprising.

Given the nature of collaborative web publishing, it is sometimes difficult for non-participants to understand. Of course, all technologies have considerable social components, but a television, for example, has a fairly limited and easily described range of uses. Weblogging is essentially an evolving collective and social practice, and therefore easier lived than described. In what follows, we will examine ways in which the social technologies that drive collaborative web publishing may be effectively leveraged in educational settings.

Citations
Blood, R. (2000). Weblogs: History and perspective. Rebecca’s Pocket. September 7.

Hiler, J. (2002). Blogosphere: The emerging media ecosystem. Microcontent News.

Himanen, P. (2001). The hacker ethic and the spirit of the information age. New York: Random House.

Levy, Levy, S. (2001). Hackers: Heroes of the computer revolution. New York: Penguin.

Walker, J. (2003). Weblog, to appear in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory (in press).

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6 Comments

  1. Posted 3/21/2004 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    all practices are technologies…. you might mean something else…. what binarity are you shooting for? a digital technics perhaps on one side, and a digital practice on the other?

  2. Posted 3/21/2004 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    Jeremy: The question is one of audience. Of course all practices are technologies. But my guess is that the audience reads “technology” as existing outside of social interaction. The idea here is to problematize that a little bit, but for a very generalized model reader, one who is used to the _Wired Magazine_ definition of “technology,” which has little to do with practices. Maybe there is a better way to approach this… (?)

  3. Posted 3/22/2004 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    If you need a historical timeline, see http://usemod.com/cgi-bin/mb.pl?WebLog

  4. Posted 3/25/2004 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Alex,

    One way of looking at technology and social interactions as ‘one’ and not distinctive from each other is through the language and methodology of the actor-network theory. At least it has provided me with such understanding that indeed technologies are social constructs that at the same time affect social structures in which they are imbedded.

    I have bunch of entries on this subject at http://www.kmentor.com/socio-tech-info/archives/cat_actornetwork_theory_methodology.html

    The following entry is nice exchange of information with Jeremy:

    http://www.kmentor.com/socio-tech-info/archives/000072.html


    Mentor

  5. alex
    Posted 3/26/2004 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Mentor: Thanks for the comment. I’ve followed your blog–even give it as an exemplar to students of a research blog–and have followed your encounters with ANT. I am familiar, but not comfortable, with the approach. I teach both social network approaches and structuration theory, but there is an epistemological jump (leap) to get from there to ANT.

    I won’t say I’m trying to avoid theory here (since that’s quite a bit like “avoiding” ideology), but since it’s a lead-in for a fairly practical piece, I’m trying to let the uninitiated know why weblogs might be different from other web publishing. I realize I am representing the relationship between interpersonal relationships and the mediation of an emerging technology in an unproblematic way, but that is really just because I am trying to keep the presentation succinct.

  6. Posted 3/27/2004 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Alex: I concur with you that going from social networks approach and structuration theory to ANT is indeed an epistemological jump.

    However, when it comes to practice and explanatory power, I have found the actor-network language as a powerful tool for explicating in a common framework both the technological and social. Like with any theory, one does not need mention the implicit theory used to guide and inform a particular piece (argument) in the writing itself.

    BTW, I do agree with you that weblog publishing is definitely different that other types of website publishing. :) Just how different are they, and what does that actually tell us about the interplay between the social structures within which weblogs are meaningful and the technology enabling the weblog publishing?

    later,
    Mentor

12 Trackbacks

  1. By Holly's Research Journal on 3/27/2004 at 2:27 pm

    Collaborative web publishing as a technology and a practice
    [This is the first of a multi-part post :) ] It seems clear that weblogs existed well before they were named.

  2. By Mathemagenic on 4/8/2004 at 4:27 pm

    Chapter on weblogs and learning by Alex Halavais
    In case you haven’t seen it yet: Alex Halavais

  3. By Remolino on 4/10/2004 at 9:47 am

    Weblogs as “replacement” educational tech
    Lilia Effimova attire notre attention ce matin sur quatre chapitres d’un livre dont les premières version sont sur le site Web de Alex Alavais afin que l’auteur puisse profiter de nos commentaires avant publication (un bel exemple des nouvelles formes …

  4. By Mario tout de go... on 4/10/2004 at 12:02 pm

    De la “dynamite” !
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  5. By Seb's Open Research on 4/13/2004 at 9:36 am

    Halavais series on weblogs and education
    Alex Halavais has been pushing out a series of texts that make up a chapter in the forthcoming International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments .

  6. By Mario tout de go... on 4/16/2004 at 11:25 am

    De la “dynamite” !
    Clément rapporte le travail extraordinaire de Alex Halevais qui écrit (étape par étape) sur son cybercarnet un chapitre pour un ouvrage à paraître dans le contexte du “International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments”. J’en retiens un extrait pa…

  7. By unmediated on 4/16/2004 at 12:32 pm

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    Alex Halavais has been pushing out a series of texts that make up a chapter in the forthcoming International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments. I’m definitely going to read all of it. * Part 1: Collaborative Web Publishing as a Technology and a…

  8. By teachnology on 4/17/2004 at 7:11 pm

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    From “kairosnews”: Via Albert at Educational Weblogs comes a notice that Alex has posted drafts of the chapter he’s writing for the International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments : Part 1: Collaborative Web Publishing as a Technology and a Practi

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  12. By Mathemagenic on 6/12/2004 at 4:32 pm

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