Year of the blog Q&A

[Sue Wuetcher, from the campus Reporter asked me to participate in a Q&A about blogging and such. I suspect (hope) that she will end up cutting this down so that it is more concise and makes more sense, but here it is in the uncut version.]

1) 2004 has been called “The Year of the Blog” because blogs have been so influential during the Iraq war, the presidential election and the tsunami disaster. What exactly is a blog? How many people regularly consult blogs and who are they likely to be?

There is no hard-and-fast definition of a blog, but it tends to be a website with some set of common formal characteristics: short entries listed in reverse chronological order, a set of links to other blogs, and often an ability to comment on each item. One would think that as more and more people are interested in blogs that definition would become more stable, but the truth is that the “bloggy” way of doing things is increasingly leaking into other parts of the web, making a definition difficult.

According to a recent Pew study, more than a quarter of Americans who use the internet say they read blogs. That number continues to grow quite rapidly. The number of people who write for blogs grows much more slowly. Just like any kind of writing, it seems not to have a universal appeal.

While there are bloggers across a wide spectrum, the average blogger tends to be slightly skewed toward those who are male, higher income, better educated, more internet experienced, and more urban. Blog readers are also slightly skewed in the same directions, though they tend to be closer to the mainstream American. It is a bit more difficult to know how this translates around the world, though it is clear that there are substantial cultural differences in how blogs are used.

2) Are blogs becoming important because of decreased public trust in world governments or traditional media outlets, or do they complement them?

There is some controversy over this. I suspect it is a little bit of both. The traditional news media have always been better at reporting the facts than they are at making sense of them. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but generally the globalization of media has made that interpretive role even harder. I think blogs satisfy an important need for readers, and exist in a symbiotic relationship with existing news media. I also think that we will see some changes to how news is gathered and delivered because of the influence of this new form of discussing ideas.

Blogging will, I think, tend to make the actions of corporations and governments more transparent. This will introduce new tensions, as organizations that have traditionally relied on obscurity will need to actively reshape what parts of their work is public and what is private.

3) Why do individuals blog in the first place? It’s a lot of work. Do they make money doing this?

Some make a lot of money doing it, and I have predicted that this will be the big story of 2005: who is getting paid by whom to blog. But the vast majority do not and the reasons that they engage in blogging are extremely varied. In some cases, it may replace other kinds of writing: keeping a diary or a research journal, for example. In many cases, it is because it is a way of keeping in touch with family, friends, and colleagues in a public and non-demanding way. It is a more effective, economically viable, and socially acceptable way of espousing one’s own views than, say, publishing pamphlets or speaking on street corners. Many people feel that the greatest advantage of blogging is the ability to meet like-minded people and exchange ideas. It is something like the reason you might hang out at a bar or a coffee house.

But in the end, there are as many reasons to blog as there are bloggers. It is a great mistake to assume that the millions of “bloggers” out there constitute some kind of cohesive whole, or share a common set of goals.

4) What do you see as the future of blogging? Is this a passing trend or the future of communication?

It has become clear that it is the latter. I suspect the word “blog” may not be with us in two or three years, but the practices, processes, and tools that blogging has already spawned will be with us for some time. If you want to know what the future of the internet looks like, look to the bloggers. Their experiments with feeds and agents, multimedia, collaborative taxonomies, wikis and other social software represent the vanguard of the web: what we will all be doing several years hence.

5) What does it mean to “Google” someone? Is it a good idea to “Google” yourself?

“Googling” someone usually means simply finding out what information exists about them on the web, using either the Google search engine or some wider set of tools. Some people, those who already have public personae, or who are information professionals, are probably already aware of what Google reveals about them, and may be actively shaping their signature in cyberspace by creating homepages or the like. Some people, either because they share a very common name or lead relatively private lives, remain fairly anonymous on the web.

But there is a large group of people in the middle who may not realize just how much information about them is available through the web. A Google search may turn up anything from the results of a 5k race to an embarrassing photo from a party. This might not matter, except that new acquaintances, from potential employers to potential dates, are likely to try to find some clues to their identity by making a quick Google inquiry. As we find a greater use of personal publishing technologies, along with things like cameraphones and other ways of moving our offline world online. So it makes sense to take a moment to find out what Google has to say about you.

6) The Internet certainly has changed the way we provide and receive information. Have these technological innovations democratized information?

“Democratization” is a problematical term. They have, at least temporarily, opened up fissures in the structures authority. They provide new opportunities for creating and sharing knowledge. For those who can make effective use of the new networked technologies, they provide new advantages, and create new inequities. I think there are some clear examples of socially beneficial massive collaboration on the web — wikipedia, for example — but it remains to be seen whether these will continue and to what degree traditional institutions will work to both constrain these new technologies and be shaped by them.

7) It seems that everyone is online now, so we can just fire off an email instead of picking up the phone or making a personal visit. Has person-to-person communication become impersonal?

On the contrary. Perhaps it is because I am not a particularly extroverted person, but my social networks are now more extensive and more personal than they could ever have been via telephone. We have evidence that those who engage in email, instant messaging, and other technologies tend to, for example, go out with friends and socialize more often, not less. In other words, these are essentially social technologies, and they encourage rather than replace other forms of social interaction.

I have no doubt that these technologies are changing how we interact, and we should be mindful of the negative impacts that they can have, but also recognize where they benefit society and encourage these uses.

8) What is the role of these new technologies in the academic world?

Many of these new technologies — blogging, wikis, and other social software–provide for new forms of scholarly communication and collaboration. Scholars are already engaged in the process of communicating discoveries and knowledge to a wide audience, and so participating in these networks provides for a new form of public intellectualism, and helps to build bridges from the ivory tower to the wider world. Just as importantly, it extends the kinds of global networks that scholars already have. We have been early adopters of technologies like email and listserves, and just as these support our other, more traditional forms of scholarly communication, new forms of social software will change how we do research and teach. The conference and classroom of the next decade will be different, and I suspect better, because of the changes in networked social technologies.

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  1. By Teaching and Developing Online. on 1/10/2005 at 10:09 am

    Year of the Blog QandA
    Sue Wuetcher, from the campus Reporter asked me to participate in a Q&A about blogging and such. I suspect (hope) that she will end up cutting this down so that it is more concise and makes more sense, but here…

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