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section heading icon     community

This page discusses notions of 'community' and the 'blogosphere'.

It covers -

section marker     introduction

Enthusiasts for blogging, in particular some of the self-described blog evangelists, have echoed past rhetoric about the net as an "online community" of "netizens" -

To be on the Net is to be part of a global community. Netizens are ... people who understand that it takes effort and action on each and everyone's part to make the Net a regenerative and vibrant community and resource.

Blogging has thus been characterised as

a new, personal, and determinedly non-hostile evolution of the electric community.

Those who write, read and comment on blogs have been tagged "the blogosphere", a community that supposedly features a distinct "blogger ethic".

In practice it is debatable whether the 'blogosphere' is a usable concept other than as an indicator of hipness in media reports and as a device for promoting primers or appearances by digerati on the lecture circuit. Would one talk about a community of diary writers, newspaper readers, television viewers or journalists?

In discussing rhetoric about 'online community' we have noted Jonathan Zittrain's acute comment that

"online community" joins "sysop" in the oversize dustbin of trite or hopelessly esoteric, hence generally meaningless, cyberspace vernacular ... it represents something once craved and still invoked (if only as a linguistic placeholder) even as it is believed by all but the most naïve to be laughably beyond reach. Since it's applied to almost anything, it now means vague warm fuzzies and nothing more.

section marker     a blogger ethic?

'Blog evangelist' Rebecca Blood argues that "weblogs aren't just glorified pages of links and rambling personal sites; they are an antidote to mass media" and "are also bringing creative expression to everyday people when they need it most".

In a nice spin on the 'Hacker Ethic' - discussed here - she claims that there is a Blogger Ethic, "fostering real connections based on trust, respect, and creativity".

A Weblog is based entirely on trust. People come because they like to read what you write. If you suddenly began promoting Nokia cell phones on the side, news of it would come out quickly because this is a close-knit community. And that would be a tremendous breach of trust. It would be a scandal in the Weblog community because it goes against our entire ethic.

Supposedly "bloggers don't need to write a novel - or even a complete sentence - to get their point across to a mass audience", the residents of "blogistan" or the "blogosphere".

Insightful US lawyer Martin Schwimmer more tartly observed that "In the future, everyone will be famous to 15 people". Others have quipped that some will be infamous to everyone in the blog echo-chamber, with advertising guru Neil French, resigning from WPP amid claims of "death by blog" after furore over his comments about women in advertising.

Brad Fitzpatrick of LiveJournal argues that online journals are better than email, which places a 'burden' on the author's friends to provide some responses -

With email, even if you say 'Don't Reply' you are kind of expecting them to read it. A journal makes no such demands because 'you're telling everyone' rather than anyone in particular.

Some people (and robots) do provide responses: Gilad Mishne & Natalie Glance's 2006 Leave a Reply: An Analysis of Weblog Comments (PDF) on the basis of a sample of 500 posts claims that the average blog comment is 63 words long.

Paquet claims that "the millions of links present in weblogs form a giant, visible web of affinity" and that "a philosophy of sharing generally prevails in the weblog community", although we suspect the same could be said for the 'community' of newspaper readers or television watchers.

Warblogging - from the same school as warchalking and wardriving - offers an opportunity for the politically engaged to vent their spleen, articulate a cause or foster a community network. At best such blogs have the bite and relevance of a Karl Kraus or an IF Stone. At worst they have the subtlety of a drive-by shooting.

James Crabtree comments that

Blogs Are Like Cocaine - Cocaine makes its users feel overwhelmingly popular, and they get very aggressive about their opinions. It is also addictive. Blogs often have the same effect. Because bloggers are at the centre of their own personal world of communication, it can feel like a rush, and can lead bloggers to be opinionated and extreme.

section marker     a community of bloggers?

Crabtree had earlier explained that

Blogs Are Like An Episode Of Lassie - In an episode of Lassie, the dog always trys to tell people something important. Because Lassie can't speak, being a dog, someone has to interpret what she is saying: "What's that lassie? There are some children stuck in the old mine?" The same is true with a network of Blogs. Because the "blogosphere" has no centre, and no official leaders, it is very difficult for it to express a collective opinion.

For politicians this means becoming able to sense what people are saying online. Concepts of "emergent democracy" as promoted by Joi Ito require institutions and politicians that can act as weather veins for which direction the broad mass of blogging opinion is heading in. But politicians should also recognise that the blogosphere never has a single coherent view, or collective will – it is not a system for formal representation.

Suggesting in The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged that many blogs are "meta-comment by bright young men who never leave their rooms", George Packer commented that

Blog prose is written in headline form to imitate informal speech, with short emphatic sentences and frequent use of boldface and italics. The entries, sometimes updated hourly, are little spasms of assertion, usually too brief for an argument ever to stand a chance of developing layers of meaning or ramifying into qualification and complication. There's a constant sense that someone (almost always the blogger) is winning and someone else is losing. Everything that happens in the blogosphere — every point, rebuttal, gloat, jeer, or "fisk" (dismemberment of a piece of text with close analytical reading) — is a knockout punch. A curious thing about this rarefied world is that bloggers are almost unfailingly contemptuous toward everyone except one another.

Danah Boyd commented that

The tendency of bloggers to talk about blogging is often criticized, yet this practice of self-reflection is precisely what makes blogging a valuable contribution to public discourse. Bloggers are highly critical, questioning creatures. Whatever their subject, they document their observations and examine them inquisitively.

Some unkinder critics have dismissed such assertions as problematical or suggested that the process is akin to an examination of navel lint by other "highly critical, questioning creatures" (albeit in padded rooms of the non-digital variety). Aaron Barlow's Blogging America: The New Public Sphere (Westport: Praeger 2008) was greeted with assertions that blogs are

transforming our cultural landscape, creating, as his title suggests, a new public sphere. For those concerned about the future of democracy, the existence of such a civic space may be our last bulwark against neo-liberalism "disappearing" open discussion.

Graham Lampa's 2004 Imagining the Blogosphere: An Introduction to the Imagined Community of Instant Publishing noted that

For those making a case for the blogosphere as a community, the results of the Perseus study are anything but encouraging. How can a community be said to exist among individuals, the vast majority of whom have never met one another and do not communicate with one another? The easy answer is to declare that the blogging community does not exist, that the blogosphere is not a cohesive group of people who share common goals and values. This answer, however, does not account for the widespread notion of the transnational blogging community or for the persistence of the blogger identity. A clearer answer to the community conundrum lies somewhere between the hype of a new and revolutionary online community and the sobering statistical reality of the Perseus study. In the absence of strong interpersonal links among members of the blogosphere, an alternative explanation for the persistence of community is needed. At the core of the blogosphere lies a minority of active and engaged bloggers who post, comment, and link frequently, creating a kernel of conversational community based on personal networks facilitated by blogging tools and associated technologies. However, for the vast majority of users who blog casually, infrequently, and for the benefit of their real-world friends and family, the blogosphere does not exist in the ethereal, hyperlinked connections that bind blogs to one another; rather, it resides in the mind of the individual blogger as an online imagined community resulting from the shared experience of instant publishing.

It is unclear whether such a community is any more meaningful than the 'community' of those with a shared experience of watching television or reading offline text. Digerati and desperates aside, how many bloggers indeed characterise themselves as part of an "online imagined community" comprising those who have merely placed a few words online?

Other perspectives are provided in works such as 'A Bosom Buddy Afar Brings a Distant Land Near: Are Bloggers a Global Community?' by Norman Su, Yang Wang, Gloria Mark, Tosin Aiyelokun & Tadashi Nakano in Communities and Technologies 2005: Proceedings of the Second Communities and Technologies Conference, Milano 2005 (Springer 2005) edited by Peter van den Besselaar & Giorgio de Michelis.

section marker     an online truthsquad?

As the following pages note, blogging has been acclaimed as the latest "new journalism" and as a mechanism for democratising the media or merely making reporters/proprietors more responsive to the "community".

Some of the more fervent true believers have even characterised the blogosphere as an "online truth squad", although in practice community involvement in life among settlers on the digital frontier often seems to be a matter of indifference or a wild west lynch mob.

Danny Schechter of commented to the NY Times in 2006 that although active participation by media consumers was healthy for democracy and journalism, partisanship was sometimes masked as media criticism -

It's now O.K. to demonize the messenger. This has led to a very uncivil discourse in which it seems to be O.K. to shout down, discredit, delegitimize and denigrate the people who are reporting stories and to pick at their methodology and ascribe motives to them that are often unfair.

Others have suggested that exhaustive dissection of journalists may be fundamentally unfair

blogs have a longer shelf life than most traditional news media articles. A newspaper reporter's original article is likely to disappear from the free Web site after a few days and become inaccessible unless purchased from the newspaper's archives, while the blogger's version of events remains available forever.

An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths (Nashville York: Nelson 2006) by Glenn Reynolds mixes triumphalism about 'the little guys' with zaniness about colonisation of outer space

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when large companies and powerful governments reigned supreme over the little guy. But new technologies are empowering individuals like never before, and the Davids of the world - the amateur journalists, musicians, and small businessmen and women - are suddenly making a huge economic and social impact.

Populism is alive and well in the blogosphere.

Lovink's Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture (London: Routledge 2007) "upgrades worn-out concepts", claiming to develop "a general theory of blogging", with blogs embodying an "incommunicado agenda" and a

nihilist impulse to empty out established meaning structures. Blogs bring on decay of the 20th century broadcast media, and are proud of their in-crowd aspect in which linking, tagging and ranking have become the main drivers.

Alas, not much there about self-indulgence and obscurantism. 'Ethics in Blogging' (PDF) by Andy Koh, Alvin Lim, Ng Ee Soon, Benjamin Detenber & Mark Cenite and 'C.O.B.E: A proposed code of blogging ethics' (here) by Martin Kuhn look on the bright side. Other codes include those of -

  • | here
  • Rebecca Blood | here

Blog entrepreneur Jason Calacanis fashionably dismissed hype about the "blogging revolution" by commenting

The hype comes from unemployed or partially employed marketing professionals and people who never made it as journalists wanting to believe. They want to believe there's going to be this new revolution and their lives are going to be changed.

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version of September 2008
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