[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.
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.