19 , 2004
| As I write this, another journalist is explaining what
a blog is for the first time. Quite possibly, they are describing
blogging as a trend created by actor Wil Wheaton. Most likely, they're
announcing how blogs have just "hit" the mainstream. Blogging authority
Rebecca Blood has named this repetitive rediscovery of blogging
"Blood's Law of Weblog History." According to Blood, "the year you
discovered weblogs and/or started your own is 'The Year Blogs Exploded'."
While mainstream media and newcomers succumb to Blood's law, many
early adopter bloggers are engaging in critical debates about the
challenges ahead. Namely, whether blogging is really that wild frontier
of digital democracy they had imagined or if it is merely an echo
chamber of privileged and increasingly commercial interests.
Mindjack consulted several established bloggers about how the issues
of equality, privilege, access, and standards are shaping the future
Every day, millions of ordinary people all over the world broadcast
their thoughts, concerns, and feelings in personal and collective
blogs. Once the exclusive territory of traditional media, broadcasting
is possible for anyone with access to the technology. For many bloggers,
this is evidence that digital democracy is already a reality.
"Blogs democratize ideas," writes Wired writer and Boing Boing
contributor Xeni Jardin in her
recent essay "From
lead blocks to weblogs". "Unheard voices become accessible in
a way that wasn't possible before."
Rebecca Blood describes blogging as "participatory media". It's
a means to broadcasting ideas that anyone with access can take part
in. "Bloggers can talk with each other about the world and about
the media--and the bar is now so low that anyone with access to
a computer and an Internet connection can participate," says Blood.
Prentiss Riddle, a self-described
"webmaster-by-day blogger-by-night", believes blogging is an antidote
to passive consumerism. "In general I'm for any trend which turns
people into active producers of culture rather than passive consumers."
Blogger and social networks researcher Danah
Boyd believes blogs "create paradigms for connecting to people,
for understanding our relationships to others and for considering
our own limitations in presenting a public voice."
But the public aren't the only ones interested in blogging. Commercial
interests started lurking long ago and have established themselves
as indispensable to the larger public.
are not communities
In the beginning, blogging was about communities, not companies.
Rebecca Blood remembers the early days when the blogging community
consisted mostly of programmers and web developers. In early spring
of 1999 she created her, now famous, blog Rebecca's
Pocket . A few months later, she observed the first phase of
commercial interest with the arrival of Blogger. And with commercial
interest comes mainstream media. Guess whose story they told?
"I wrote Weblogs:
A History and Perspective partially in frustration with
seeing news story after news story that described a weblog as "a
website that was made with Blogger," laments Blood. "I wanted to
acknowledge both the original community --who had invented the form
without any tools to guide them--and the numerous software designers
who were working on software for that community."
Blood's story is telling of the corporate appropriation of blogging's
form and communities. It's also emblematic of the way corporate-owned
media privileges its interests and also of the importance an alternative
response. Ironically, the very same software companies that co-opted
the form have allowed ever-increasing numbers of non-technologists
Anybody who wants to get their blog-on, can do so with the help
of Blog-City, BlogSpot, Diaryland, LiveJournal, Pitas, TypePad,
Blogger, and Xanga. Microcontent and syndication technologies such
as FOAF, SNS, RSS/ATOM, and WIKI allow bloggers to further define
their context and connections. Mobile technologies provide immediacy
and movement. Increasingly, when we talk about blogging we are talking
But are corporately owned spaces and channels replacing user owned
and operated communities? And what about all those who are on the
outside these channels and spaces? The votes aren't in, so don't
invite David Hasselhoff to the dismantling of the Digital Divide
just yet. The wall between those with access and those without still
looms high over any serious discussion of digital democracy.
A few of the so-called 'bloggerati' have developed their own theories
about inequality, popularity, and power.
of a feather link together
One of the most heavily cited online documents on the topic of
equality and blogging is Clay Shirky's "Power
Laws, web logs, and inequality" . According to Shirky, "power
laws arise in social systems where many people express their preferences
among many options."
In life and online, preference certainly plays a role in producing
hierarchies of popularity and status. But is "preference" simply
a matter of natural selection? What about the role of social, cultural,
economic, and commercial influences? Shirky's "Power Laws" speak
to some but not all of these questions.
Most problematic is Shirky's definition of "preference" as a product
of, largely, merit. In society and in blogging, people like having
their choices validated and authorized by the 'people in the know'.
New bloggers, like junior astronomers, tend to point themselves
at the constellations they've heard most about before exploring
the larger cosmos. Seeing the same link in several blogs has the
same affect as advertising. It influences our perception of options
and guides our choices. For every newcomer who chooses their links
according to a careful consideration of many preferences, there
are millions who will make those choices based on the recommendation
and influence of the choices of more established bloggers.
Shirky acknowledges the role of influence but dismisses its importance
in status-making. "Stars exist not because of some cliquish preference
for one another, but because of the preference of hundreds of others
pointing to them." Shirky also argues that "there is no real A-list".
Yet anyone who has spent even a small amount of time blogging knows
that there are handful of bloggers who are so A-list their names
are synonymous with the form itself (Clay Shirky, for example).
"Cliquish preferences" play a very large role in creating and reinforcing
blogging status. This influence determines by and large who we read
and link to and what information is most heavily circulated. "People
link to people like them," says Danah Boyd. Famous bloggers link
to each other, blog about each other, speak at many of the same
conferences, and endorse each others books.
But before you can be popular you have to exist. And you can't
exist or have a voice if you don't have access. The most critical
debates about inequality in blogging are located in larger discussions
of marginalisation and otherness. Perhaps one of the reasons we
have difficulty in identifying or talking about these, more difficult,
inequalities has a lot to do with who has been doing all the talking:
gets to speak?
Danah Boyd is one of the few A-list bloggers engaged in discussing
the more serious social, cultural, and economic barriers that limit
access to the blogosphere. Some of these barriers are known to us,
others are less visible.
According to Boyd, one of the most obvious barriers is time. "Which
groups of people can take time out of the workday to read/write
in blogs? Which groups have free time after the workday?" she asks.
Boyd argues that our inability to recognize some of the more invisible
issues, like time, is the product of focussing too much on the wrong
issues, like status and money.
"Arguments for blogs being "a great equalizer" rest on the assumption
that money is the only aspect of technology that creates a divide,"
"In addition to time there is the matter of ego and voice," says
Boyd. "Who feels confident about their perspective in a way that
they're willing to announce it to the world? Confidence is not the
same as expertise. Some people are far more confident than they
deserve to be; others are afraid to speak up even though their expressions
are so valuable."
Boyd complicates conventional notions of power as the product of
external forces, illuminating how the internalisation of existing
power relations has a hand in our sense of personal agency. From
this more critical perspective of power, not having a voice is contingent
upon one's sense of entitlement to speak at all.
Mastery of language, technical, or compositional skills are another
set of barriers for those who do not have them. "Those who don't
speak English are rarely heard by those who do," says Boyd. And
what good is it to having entré into the blogging world if one does
not have the requisite skills to participate?
Blogger Crawford Killian, a veteran writing instructor gives out
free writing advice in his blog Writing
for the Web. As a published author, Kilian knows that having
a voice begins with skill. "Good writing is good writing," he says.
"Online writing is subject to the constraints of the medium: slower
reading speeds, greater reader impatience." Blogs like Kilian's
are a valuable resource for emerging voices who need skills to communicate
their ideas to an audience (and it's worth noting that even blogging
superstars like Wil Wheaton have benefited from Kilian's writing
beyond A-lists and echo-chambers
So what can be done to make blogging more inclusive? Boyd suggests
that we "be reflexive; recognize privilege; encourage/listen to
diverse voices." For some bloggers this means avoiding the allure
of the A-list, forgetting about popularity and status, and taking
more creative approaches to linking. It also involves the idea of
rethinking what we mean by quality and merit. Views that challenge,
destabilize, or provoke us can have as much, if not more, merit
than those that merely reinforce what we already believe.
In addition to tuning into different frequencies, we also need
to explore ways to create access for marginalized voices. Detroit
blogger and former gang member, Solomon
"S-Train" Mason says he would love to see "blogging centers"
for inner city street youth.
"Being able to express their views in words would be invaluable
in keeping them away from trouble and making the troubled sane again,"
says Mason. He believes that blogging is a powerful tool for the
"collective changing of flawed mindsets" and that blogs provide
a space for "more frank discussions on race, fear, and ignorance."
Rebecca Blood shares Mason's view that blogs provide a space for
change, particularly for marginalised voices. "Bloggers (particularly
women) can talk anonymously about personal subjects that are normally
taboo. That's a huge cultural shift, and it will surely have ramifications
"Blogs will be partially supplanted by other forms of online media.
As these tools evolve to become more robust content management systems,
people will re-discover ezines and the joys of periodical publishing,
or maybe a whole new form will develop," Blood argues.
Neoteny founder and blogger Joichi
Ito is invested in the idea of a genuine digital democracy where
a diversity of voices can have access and participate. Ito's essay,
Democracy" proposes relevant and concrete strategies for creating
a more equitable digital future.
"We must protect the ability of these tools to be available to
the public by protecting the commons," writes Ito. "We must open
the spectrum and make it available to the people, while resisting
increased control of intellectual property, and the implementation
of architectures that are not inclusive and open. We must work to
provide access to the Net for more people by making the tools and
infrastructure cheaper and easier to use."
Rebecca Blood predicts that "weblogs won't go away." In the future,
Blood believes blogs "will be used for the things they are best
at instead of being the default online publishing form."
Hopefully, what blogs are best at will get even better if we engage
the issues Boyd, Blood, Ito, Mason, and Riddle have articulated.
And while there are still many barriers preventing some voices from
being heard, it appears that those who already have a voice are
working to transform the blogging community into a more equitable
place. Until then, we should stop chasing after echoes and reflections
of ourselves and open up to voices and perspectives that are unfamiliar,
challenging, and new.
McBride is a freelance writer and web content producer.
You can read her weblog at: chandrasutra.typepad.com.