Monday, May 02, 2005

The labors of blogging

This past weekend I had the odd experience of participating as an "expert" in a public panel discussion on the "mainstreaming" of weblogs. The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the school of journalism and mass communication which employs me, and my fellow panel discussants included a reporter from the Washington Post, an operative from the Republican National Committee, and a local Internet entrepreneur (and former student of mine). The audience was small but clearly hungry for information and analysis concerning this whole "blog" thing.

What surprised me, among both the panelists' comments and the audience's questions, was the pervasive misperception that "those bloggers" were not only bent on replacing traditional journalism and perhaps even traditional strategic communications (political persuasion, commodity/service advertising, and corporate/non-profit public relations), but were so far succeeding. Over the course of the hour I tried to influence the direction of the discussion by arguing that bloggers today occupied a new and perhaps unique niche in between both the consumption of media and the production of media. In other words, I tried to bring forth the labor aspects of blogging in terms of reading, writing, and citing --the difficult labor necessary for any critical engagement with the media that we as mass communication educators so desperately try to promote.

If my biweekly writing in my own blog has taught me one thing, it is that blogging — in any but the most trivial senses — requires significant human labor. The genius of the blogging revolution over the past five years or so, however, is that the nature and temporality of this labor has changed due to the emergence of a wide range of free commodities and services for "newbie" bloggers. Back in the 1990s, access to the "blogosphere" usually demanded some facility with server software, database design, and web display languages. Even with these skills, setting up a weblog took time. It often necessitated a particular occupationally-related reason for spending the front-end time in setting up a weblog, like membership in an open-source software production community, or entrepreneurial efforts to build credibility in the community of online technology vendors. And maintaining the archives and backups and security of one's postings, especially in the face of regular software and hardware upgrades that "power users" of the web inevitably subject themselves to, presented ongoing administrative labor as well. All of this labor had to occur before a single word of text was written, before a single link to another blog was forged.

The situation changed around 2000, though, with new turnkey blogging services like Blogger and LiveJournal. Now both the up-front labor of setting up a blog and the intermittent administrative labor of adjusting a blog were taken care of automatically (or at least by a centralized group of human experts behind the scenes). Suddenly the labor requirements for blogging were "simply" the daily reading, writing, and linking time required for regular posting. This technological shift provided the potential for the blogosphere to grow from a technological community into a political community; the increasing polarization of a politically-active portion of the citizenry after the 2000 election and the assumption-shattering events of 9/11 provided two big motivations for people to take advantage of this new technological potential.

Since the start of the "warblogs" and "watchblogs" of the post-9/11, post Bush/Cheney era, respectively, the big-name bloggers on the polarized ends of the political spectrum have earned a reputation for being ruthless, outspoken, and mob-like with respect to their relationship with "traditional" media (even as that traditional media continues to grow and refine and profit from its own online presence). But the blogosphere is filled with more than DailyKos and Wonkette. For every flashy, nearly-professional blog out there that receives hundreds of thousands of "hits" per day, there are a slew of more modest, less-trafficked blogs receiving in the tens of hits each day from maybe a dozen or so unique visitors (if they are lucky). Yet to me, these are the sites in the blogosphere which we must analyze in order to gauge the impact of both the new enabling technology and new social expectations of blogging. If neither media noteriety, nor advertising revenue, nor the thought of a large readership motivates these hidden blog authors, then what? What makes them devote such considerable labor to scrutinizing their media consumption, analyzing and cross-referencing the similar labors of their blogging peers, and wrestling with the difficult political-economic-social issues of the day in full view of an already media-saturated public?

I don't have an answer to this question, of course, but I think it is exactly the question we ought to be asking about bloggers today, at this precipitous moment when the already-diverse practice of "blogging" is itself poised to make another technological shift -- with new tools spinning out the audio blogs ("podcasts") from the video blogs and the text blogs, the diary blogs and the punditry blogs from the artistic and literary blogs, the individually-authored blogs from the collectively-authored blogs, the non-profit blogs from the advertising-supported blogs. The vast majority of bloggers who have joined this new hybrid, fragmented process of media consumption and media production in the last five years, don't want to bring down Dan Rather (and couldn't if they tried). But the fruits of their long and consistent labors -- visible trails of the kind of critical media analysis and conversation that all media educators wish they could inculcate in their supposedly-so-media-saavy students -- hold a significance that neither the mainstream media industry nor the celebrity bloggerati have yet acknowledged. The labors of bloggers indicate that, at least for a privileged few who hold the skills and tools to engage in this new media practice, having a diverse, professional, and forthright media available to use as the raw materials of social debate and political action actually matters. The bloggers provide empirical evidence that the investments in "new media journalism," using cyberspace to exceed the boundaries of the space and time of the printed page by posting more detailed analysis, more historical background, and more primary documentation, do not go unappreciated. I think that the best labors of bloggers can be seen as validating, not contradicting, the best labors of journalists. We educators should be so lucky to have a similar community of critical followers.

1 comment:

paulzy said...

"Yet to me, these are the sites in the blogosphere which we must analyze in order to gauge the impact of both the new enabling technology and new social expectations of blogging."

Couldn't agree more. It is these sites that make up the majority of "interconnected small-world networks" that many agree have substantial (and ocassionally subversive) potential.