The Ontology of Blogging
posted by Greg Lastowka
Dan’s critique of some of the interesting mistakes made by Pajamas Media is dead on, in my opinion. His post also calls attention to the fact that blogs and blogging have qualities that are not always grasped easily — even by businesses heralding the medium. For instance, here’s what PM says about blogs:
Readers unfamiliar with blogs are sometimes puzzled by the concept, thinking that they are mere online “diaries,” where egoists and sentimentalists record their thoughts and feelings. But the phenomenon of blogging is much more than that; it’s the modern equivalent of the Gutenberg revolution, a way of putting not just published material in the hands of the public—but publishing itself.
Sounds wonderful, but I’m going to agree and disagree with them a bit.
I think most of us would agree that the confusion of investors over blogging is in part due to the novelty of blogs. We’re still probably only 5-10 years into blogging (depending on how you define it) and there still isn’t a popular (truly popular) sense of what blogging is all about. Admittedly, the blogosphere is already vast according to Pew surveys (Dan’s census shows how it has permeated the legal academy). However, it’s easy to lose sight of how many people aren’t reading blogs. Many of my friends (who are generally over 30, I should add) don’t read blogs much, and when they do, they don’t see much cause for caring about them. Among those who don’t read blogs, some seem slightly bothered that many people are paying attention to them. Writ large, I suppose that might explain the anti-blogging backlash (evidenced by slams and warnings such as the well-known Doonesbury strip or the Slate post on career-killing blogs).
The curious thing about all of this, I think, is how or why blogging is different in this respect from past Net-based communication technologies. Did those who were early users of email, listservs, USENET, and web pages face a similar backlash? Perhaps, but not to the same degree, I think. There seems to be an interesting anxiety that we have about blogging, and my impression is that it is related to the perception that blogging is less of a functional tool and more of a substantive and productive practice.
For instance, consider that email and the webpage are both novel, Net-based technologies that allow for new forms of social communication. They certainly have transformed social and commercial practices in significant ways. But widespread adoption of these technologies didn’t form the basis for derivative words such as “emailer” and “webpager,” nor was there much of a public backlash (in my opinion) against early adopters of email and web publishing. Perhaps this is because using email or creating a web page can be seen as a one-off activity, whereas being a blogger requires something more — a regular dedication to the use of a communicative technology within a particular social sphere?
But that’s generally true of listserv and USENET participation as well, isn’t it? So why didn’t these forms not create the same buzz/backlash as blogging? I think the answer isn’t only about sheer numbers. I think the explanation is that blogging has now been popularly associated with the authorial creation of a particular form of written product rather than what was seen, in other cases, as “mere” online conversation.
I’ve got two theories about why this is so. The first is about the technical form. The Web-based technology of blog posts occupies the same space — the Web browser frame — as the published web page, where we can find the traditional media dot-coms now residing. Hence, the perception (perhaps untrue) that blogs compete with the media in ways that listservs and USENET do not. The theory here is that because listservs and USENET are based on dissimilar technologies, they should be treated as dissimilar from Web-based media. Second, the expressly authorial nature of most blogs (increasingly a collaborative authorial space, but still an authorial space) differentiates them from the more interpersonal and conversational form of the listserv or USENET, where ownership and control of the information space doesn’t usually correspond with being the dominant voice in that space.
Hence, for technological and formal reasons, blog posting feels closer to publishing than speaking, and the blogger looks more like an author engaged in publishing than a person engaged in online conversation. Congruently with the formal shape, blog posts are generally understood (by both author and reader) as at least a quasi-polished product (intended for a broad audience) more than online conversation — like posts to listservs.
But this can clearly be taken too far, because part of the value that blogs provide (which Dan mentioned) is a certain form of casualness, carelessness (in both good and bad ways), and spontaneity not seen in traditional publishing. Reader participation is also more vital to the enterprise. Both these factors push the ontology of blogs toward conversational speech rather than text as product. Hence, perhaps, the need for bloggers (like Dan did previously) to emphasize to those who would conflate blogs with books that what we’re really exploring is community and conversation (in a way that also seems like publishing).
At its core, though, I think we should realize that we’re creating this ontology of blogs on the fly. The blog is, like email or listservs, a new technology around which new social practices and customs are forming. The most interesting thing about blogging at this moment (for me) is watching this messy evolution being worked out.