Uses of Blogs
Editor: Axel Bruns, Joanne Jacobs
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang, 2006
Review Published: February 2008
The image of the pajama-clad blogger living in their parents' basement while hammering away at the keyboard in between cigarettes, energy drinks, and/or World of Warcraft sessions occupies a central place in the social imaginary coalescing around the digital age. Uses of Blogs, a new volume edited by Axel Bruns and Joanne Jacobs, serves as a useful antidote to this popular impression. As one of the first concerted academic efforts to showcase blogging's impact on public culture, the book succeeds in showing that the uses of blogs have proliferated beyond their early conceptions as private-journalizing or quasi-journalisting.
Bruns and Jacobs have assembled a text that will serve veteran scholars of blogging as well as readers just looking for a foothold in the rapidly shifting blogscape. Uses of Blogs would be an ideal reader for undergraduate courses that explore digital cultures, new media, Web 2.0, or public deliberation in the age of the internet. Some chapters would function well in graduate seminars, as they attempt to break theoretical and conceptual ground on blogging. Beyond the classroom, this collection makes a significant contribution to scholarship on practices in the emerging digital age.
The pluralizing of "uses" in the title cues the central theme of the book: meta-analysis of blogging must become more attuned to situation, audience, and style. As Bruns and Jacobs write, "it makes as little sense to discuss the uses of blogs as it does to discuss, say, the uses of television unless we specify clearly what genres and contexts of use we aim to address" (3). The volume's investigations of corporate dark blogging, fiction blogging, educational blogging, goth blogging, academic blogging, economic blogging (and many more) effectively multiply the typologies by which scholars may categorize and make sense of the broader phenomenon of blogging. To the contributors' credit, it is difficult to think of blogging as a monolithic mode of online communication after finishing Uses of Blogs.
However, the book's multiplication of blog genres occasionally undermines thematic unity across the chapters; readers might find some of the case studies too narrowly focused. In this way, scholarship on blogging mirrors the blogging phenomenon itself: there's something for everyone, but little for everyone together.
The center which holds this collection together is Bruns and Jacobs' fine explication of blogging's short history and influence in the "Introduction." They begin by charting the ways in which blogging has "captured the public imagination" through a number of high profile interventions into public deliberation (1). By now, these interventions are part of blogging lore (despite difficulties in conclusively knitting cause and effect between blogging activity and related shifts in public opinion). Trent Lott, Salam Pax, Howard Dean: these names function as synecdoches for the larger moments where blogging splashed onto the public stage. As a consequence of the actual and perceived influence of bloggers, Bruns and Jacobs argue that the "coverage of 'what the bloggers are saying' has begun to replace the traditional vox-pop interview with the person in the street" (1). This has become especially true in U.S. domestic elections, where bloggers are now perceived as the early early primaries for political candidates because of the perception that they hold disproportionate influence on opinion leaders.
Bruns and Jacobs then slide into explaining how the proliferation of blogging requires scholars to adopt a more nuanced approach:
Bruns and Jacobs write that "the blogosphere, understood as the totality of all blogs and the communicative intercast between them through the linking, commentary, and trackbacks, is perhaps unique in its structure as a distributed, decentered, fluctuating, ad hoc network of individual Websites that interrelate, interact, and (occasionally) intercreate with one another" (5). Bruns and Jacobs apply the term "intercasting" to this process, providing a heuristically valuable alternative to "narrowcasting" which has previously dominated discussions of the internet's impact on public discourse. Intercasting suggests a dissemination of ideas that creates meaning and influence through multiple dialectical exchange. This interplay of ideas facilitated by social networking enables a collaborative ethic that results in novel ways of aggregating and judging information. Bloggers, then, might be usefully considered "produsers" -- both producers and users of content .
There are three sections that organize the remainder of Uses of Blogs. The first section is Blogs in Industries, focusing on the influence of blogging on news production, business, economics, law, and education. The second section is Blogs in Society. This section explores how blogging intersects with social categories like education, gender, disability, culture, and nationality. Section three, Outlook, examines future trends in blogging.
The Blogs in Industries section begins with two chapters on blogging's influence on news production. Axel Bruns' chapter on "The Practice of News Blogging" situates news blogging within broader efforts to theorize "deliberative journalism": "journalism that enables a conversation between different viewpoints without privileging one as being more informed than another, and that aims to develop rather than merely express participants' opinions" (17). Such a conceptualization of news blogging encourages "multiperspectival news" (a term taken from journalism scholar Herbert Gans (2003)). While multiperspectival news might destabilize the high priesthood of capital-J Journalism, the implications of this sea change in news practices are not fully teased out in this chapter. Chapter brevity, a feature of many of the contributions, is an invitation for others to extend analysis -- a lesson that the authors might have gleaned from the very process of blogging.
Jane Singer then jumps into the "are bloggers journalists?" debate in "Journalists and News Bloggers: Complements, Contradictions, and Challenges." Singer's take on the controversy is essentially that journalists inherited Enlightenment ideals of truth and publicity, whereas bloggers have "a more postmodern approach, acknowledging that everyone holds his or her own version of the truth; brought together, those views form a subjective, multi-faceted but cohesive whole" (25). This is an interesting micro-genealogy, though such neat divisions are often complicated by actual practices.
To wit, many bloggers consider themselves as the true legatees of the Enlightenment experience (thus all the claims that the blogosphere is the new coffeehouse and blogging is the new pamphleteering). And while some might like to think that "the wisdom of the crowd" emerging from blogs results in a unified opinion after certain information sees the light, the deeply partisan blogs in the United States, for example, rarely form a "cohesive whole." "Bloggers vs. Journalists" is more a turf war then a conflict with deep intellectual roots -- journalism, after all, is merely a practice, and a blog is simply a publishing platform. Singer appropriately concludes by suggesting that blogging has settled into a complementary symbiosis with traditional media. As in any ecosystem, quick and small species that prove themselves useful eventually find niches unoccupied by lumbering behemoths.
The remainder of Blogs in Industries surveys how blogging is used in different economic sectors: publishing, public relations, corporations, law, and online education. While these chapters might be useful to practitioners of these fields, they hold little general interest except as additional examples of the diversity of blogging practices. Each chapter sounds similar themes: blogging encourages the flow of tacit information (Joanne Jacobs, "Publishing and Blogs"), blogging enables publicly visible conversations that are helpful (Trevor Cook, "Can Blogging Unspin PR?"), blogging invites reader participation (Ian Oi, "Blogging and the Legal Commons"), blogging facilitates social presence (James Farmer, "Blogging to Basics: How Blogs are Bringing Online Education Back from the Brink"). John Quiggin's chapter on "Economic Blogs and Blog Economics" reaches a little farther, though, by suggesting how the nature of blog analysis as a public good encourages reflexive, detailed, and timely analysis of economic data which is often used to negotiate economic dispute (74).
The second section, Blogs in Society, explores the broader social ramifications of blogging. Blogging's real contribution, as these chapters make clear, is in the development of novel ways to generate critical publicity and public solidarity.
Thus, Alexander Halavais argues in "Scholarly Blogging: Towards a Visible College" that scholarly blogs, where academics post work-in-progress and other topical thoughts, are a "way of externalizing thought" (119). This "transparency of blog content draws affinitive hyperlinks and readers who comment, and that ultimately leads to collaboration" and advances the university mission to produce and extend knowledge (120). In another example of terminological innovation, Halavais suggests that blogs excel at pinpointing "specified ignorance," Robert Merton's (1987) term meaning a "new awareness of what is not yet known or understood and a rationale for its being worth the knowing" (119).
Specified ignorance is uniquely brought to light during the process of blogging because, as Jill Walker writes in her chapter on "Blogging from Inside the Ivory Tower," blogs are "about catching fleeting thoughts and making them explicit" (135). In the conversion of private thoughts to public statements, blogs inject additional perspectives into public discussion . It is in this revelation and exchange of specified ignorance(s) that blogging makes a real contribution to what is coded as "political": circulating these fleeting thoughts is a crucial element in preference revelation and opinion-formation. As Mark Bahnisch explains in his contribution "The Political Uses of Blogs," as "attention increasingly focuses on the construction of narratives that reveal new dimensions of the political, the influence of the blogosphere, both in dissemination of political narratives and in an interplay with other political actors, will no doubt grow" (144).
The very idea of "political uses of blogs," however, is not unproblematic, as Melissa Gregg points out in her essay "Posting with Passion: Blogs and the Politics of Gender." Traditional conceptualizations of "the political" have been structured by masculinist bias and consolidated broader social inequities (similar claims could be said about power relations on other axes of oppression.) Consequently, much of women's blogging is unfairly marginalized or ghettoized -- vernacular descriptions often assert that women keep journals while men blog (154-5)! Gregg alludes to the irony that blogs are supposed to be personal -- therein lies their magic -- but when women get personal, their concerns are often depoliticized by dominant stereotypes. By pairing this cultural bias with the structural inequity that stems from an unequal division of labor, Gregg provides a good explanation of why bloggers keep wondering "where are all the female bloggers?" (156).
This chapter on gender and blogging is a gateway to larger issues: does blogging enable historically marginalized groups to access broader public deliberations, or does it simply multiply the point sources of technologically savvy, white, upper-middle class, American males? To its credit, Uses of Blogs confronts these issues head on, with subsequent chapters on disability and blogging (Gerard Goggin and Tim Noonan, "Blogging Disability"), blogging in South Korea (Jaz Hee-Jeong Choi, "Living in Cyworld"), and blogging among United Kingdom goth subcultures (Paul Hodkinson, "Subcultural Blogging?"). Each of these chapters suggests that diversity within blogging is greater than often reported by mainstream media outlets more concerned with what they narrowly deem as "newsworthy" items. But the chapters also show how blogging functions as a site for community building as much as information swapping and argumentation. As Craig Calhoun (2002) has noted, publicity processes encourage debate and discussion, but are also settings "for the development of social solidarity as a matter of choice" (148)
The final section, Outlook, offers parting thoughts. The first two chapters (on integrating richer media into blogs and the legal status of blogging) seem more suited for practitioners then scholars, but the final two chapters offer solid starting points for further research.
These two chapters, "Blogs and the Communications Renaissance," by Joanne Jacobs and Douglas Rushkoff, and "What's Next for Blogging," by co-editor Bruns, explore the implications for a more mature blogosphere. "Blogs and the Communications Renaissance" breaks some interesting ground in academic writing, as it reprints two of Rushkoff's blog posts on blogging, with Jacobs' commentary interspersed. Both chapters suggest that as blogging has gone mainstream, so have mainstream trends been adopted by blogging. Consequently, the three authors warn, the growth of so-called A-list bloggers create echo chambers and artificially limit experimentation with new blog genres (245, 253). A sequel to Uses of Blogs might consider the implications of the normalization of blogging. Has the blogosphere lost impact because of the A-list bloggers? What questions of political economy can be raised given the growth of online advertising? What unique communicative norms have emerged from blogging, and have they been integrated into other online communication practices?
While Uses of Blogs makes serious contributions to the ongoing study of blogging and digital public culture, there are two limitations. First, most contributors to Uses of Blogs are from the United States or Australia. This attention to international context might have been pushed further; both China and Iran, for example, have under-studied but vibrant blogging communities that run parallel to the western intellectual tradition. Of course, books cannot do everything (like book reviews, no matter how far they exceed the word limit) and Uses of Blogs can serve as a starting point for further inquiry on blogging in different trans/national contexts.
The second limitation concerns the general tonality of Uses of Blogs. Almost all of the contributions emphasize blogging's beneficial effects: it is participatory, democratic, transparent, multiperspectival, dialogic, and human. Paraphrasing many of the contributors, bloggers actively produce content rather than passively consume content (a specious dichotomy if there ever was one.) This sort of one-sided theorizing smacks of blog triumphalism (encapsulated in the blogger Andrew Sullivan's early slogan "the revolution will be blogged.") What is lost in cheerleading for blogging is that "every gain is simultaneously a loss," as James Carey (2005) eloquently stated in his argument for pragmatic theories of new media (447).
What else can be said about the losses that blogging produces, in addition to the gains that blogging provides? If blogging is indeed marked most prominently by the processes through which it generates publicity, perhaps future blog scholarship should explore the limitations that are produced by this upsurge in publicity. What are the implications for publicizing one's thoughts in a space where judgment is all-to-quick to be issued? Are there downsides to making one's life increasingly transparent? If publicity created new forms of discipline in the modern age, what are the unique types of discipline that emerge from contemporary accelerated publicity processes? Are there uses of blogs that are anti-participatory, anti-democratic, or anti-dialogic? Uses of Blogs will function as a useful conversation partner in answering these questions as studies of digital cultures continue to proliferate.
Lloyd Bitzer, "Rhetoric and Public Knowledge," in Don Burks (ed.), Rhetoric, Philosophy, and Literature. (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1978).
Axel Bruns, Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production. (New York: Peter Lang, 2005).
Craig Calhoun, "Imagining Solidarity: Cosmopolitanism, Constitutional Patriotism, and the Public Sphere," Public Culture, 14 (1), 2002, 148.
James Carey, "Historical Pragmatism and the Internet," New Media and Society, 7(4), 2005, 447.
Herbert J. Gans, Democracy and the News. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
Robert K. Merton, "Three Fragments from a Sociologist's Notebooks: Establishing the Phenomenon, Specified Ignorance, and Strategic Research Materials," Annual Review of Sociology 13 (1987).
Damien Pfister is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently writing his dissertation on blogging's role in shaping public culture and deliberation. He can be found online at pfisternia.net. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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