Are Weblogs a passing fad or a revolutionary new form of communication and publishing? That's still an open question, but the presence of blogs in the academic environment makes it more likely that they'll survive and thrive in the long term.
Educational types aren't just using blogs to teach or spread their research. They are turning their research lens on Weblogs themselves, whether the context is within schools of law, journalism, communication or library science. Alex Halavais studied the group dynamic at Slashdot and the way bloggers followed the news. Kaye Trammell studied the political content of celebrity blogs. Jill Walker is studying timestamps on blogs and our modern obsession with time. And Cori Dauber both studies blogs and writes a feisty one.
Though these academic researchers and many others work within different departments at different universities, they are all what I call "blogologists" -- people who are studying the dynamic of blogs and trying to understand how they fit into our society. Not all of their research is related to journalism, because they see blogs as a much larger phenomenon that is changing our modes of communication and group thought. In fact, many of them downplay the effects bloggers have had on the media and discount the idea that bloggers are creating a new New Journalism.
One of the milestones for the nascent field was when blog guru Dave Winer was made a fellow at The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School last year. Winer helped build out a whole blogging section of the Center's site, including an easy way for any Harvard student to start their own blog. He also ran the controversial BloggerCon gathering, asking bloggers to pay $500 to attend last year.
Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow was livid about the cost, saying on his blog: "$500 to spend a weekend listening to people talk about blogging? Sweet Jesus. Give me the bathtub full of ice." Tomorrow believes that blogs are simply tools and compares them to his Wacom drawing tablet.
The blogologists admit that their research is only just beginning. OK, they're not looking for a cure for cancer, but it would be nice to quantify just how much of an effect blogs are having. Trammell, whose doctoral thesis at the University of Florida was on blogs (yes, she's a doctor of blogs), says that there haven't been any breakthrough moments yet for researchers.
"At this point there has been so little published research in the academic journals," she told me via e-mail. "Most of the research that is readily available (Perseus, Pew Internet) is important, but atheoretical. It gives a good pulse of the average blogger, but not much more. I think we are on the cusp of an exciting time where the theoretical research of blogs will begin to emerge. Now that we have explained blogs and understand them, we can start to make predictions and see how blogs fit into theories and compare to other ways of communicating."
As the academic school year is winding down, it seemed like the right time to canvass a few professors who are studying blogs. As with past virtual roundtables, we sent the same questions to people via e-mail. The following is an edited transcript of their e-mailed responses.
Cori Dauber is an associate professor of Communication Studies, and of Peace, War, and Defense, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also a research fellow at the Triangle Institute for Security Studies. Her research expertise focuses on media coverage of war and the military. She maintains the Rantingprofs Weblog.
Alex Halavais is an assistant professor in the School of Informatics at SUNY Buffalo, where he teaches about the social uses of collaborative media. His current research examines the social impact of blogging in public life; its use by professionals, scholars, and activists; its use in personal knowledge management; and its role in the coming age of mass interaction.
Kaye Trammell is an assistant professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Her doctoral dissertation focuses on political messages on nonpolitical blogs. She content-analyzed celebrity blogs, then conducted an online survey to understand reader motivations. She taught online journalism courses at the University of Florida in the College of Journalism and Communications and maintains a blog here.
Jill Walker is an associate professor at the Department of Humanistic Informatics at the University of Bergen in Norway. Her research is on Weblogging, networked literature and electronic art. She's blogged at jill/txt since October 2000.
Online Journalism Review: When did you first discover Weblogs and describe your "A-ha!" moment when you realized they might change social discourse.
Cori Dauber: I'd been reading Andrew Sullivan's blog for quite some time, but started to really pay attention when it was online sources that pushed "Old Media" to cover the Trent Lott story. But the point for me when I realized the potential in blogs was late last summer, when there was a vigorous debate regarding whether or not the mainstream press was providing appropriate balance in its Iraq coverage.
Much of that was fueled by bloggers finding and pulling together stories from very small papers about the return of local soldiers that included those soldiers' impressions of the news coverage, the fact that it didn't represent their experiences. Even five years ago you couldn't have noted that there was a second, coherent, compelling narrative to compete with that in the mainstream media, but now even the smallest circulation papers have Web sites. But it takes bloggers to work the search engines and find those papers and pull all those articles together in a single location.
Alex Halavais: The discovery happened over time -- I'm still not completely sure I know what a blog is! I had updated my own Web site periodically (generally monthly) by hand, from about 1998 on. In a course I was teaching in 1999 at the University of Washington, I realized I didn't want a threaded discussion, I wanted chronologically organized topics with a way to respond, and so I wrote a piece of blogging software that would allow for this interaction. The students -- once they got used to it -- reacted very favorably.
I don't think there has been a single "A-ha!" moment for me. I've written that I think that the events following 9/11 were a kind of social "A-ha," but not a personal one. I think the rise of Slashdot is overlooked as a defining moment in blogging. Many don't even consider it a blog. But a lot of the things we are talking about in terms of social impact happened first on Slashdot. I remain very skeptical about the future of blogging, and yet, at this moment, what surprises me most is that so many people are so into expressing themselves. I still think the appeal of this may be overrated, and I doubt we'll ever see even 10 percent of the world blogging, but it continually excites me when I find yet another person presenting original, well-written ideas.
Kaye Trammell: I discovered Weblogs in August 2002 when I started my doctoral studies at the University of Florida. I had always been interested in interpersonal relationship formation on the Internet and was just amazed by what I found on Wil Wheaton's blog. Here was a celebrity who was honestly baring all -- his trials and tribulations, defeats and depression -- for strangers. What was most interesting to me was that this was not a promotional ploy. He cared about his readers, wrote from his heart, and he really didn't hold anything back. I realized that he had created an environment where he could transcend the label of "TV's Wil Wheaton" and become a daily part of a person's life -- much like a friend. The first six months of reading Wil Wheaton's blog inspired me to think about what could happen on other celebrity blogs as they managed their careers directly with their public.
Jill Walker: I started blogging in Norwegian, partly out of shyness, I think, and partly from a desire to connect locally. At the time I was nearly a year into my Ph.D. research, and blogging was not only a way of writing, it was also a way of breaking the isolation of reading and writing alone in an office. It didn't take long before I'd talked several of my colleagues into starting their own blogs, too -- Lisbeth Klastrup in Copenhagen, Anders Fagerjord in Oslo, Torill Mortensen in Volda -- and I think we all found that blogging allowed us to follow each other's research and keep in touch on a day-to-day basis as we wouldn't have otherwise.
Gradually our networks extended, first through the blogs of people we knew from conferences and then bridging into adjacent fields and to people we hadn't met at all. I switched to English when I found myself annoyed that my Norwegian language blog posts responding to international discussions were, of course, not part of the English-language discussion.
OJR: In your study of blogs, what has been the most surprising data point you've found and why?
Halavais: First, how little impact blogs have on the media environment. Bloggers so much want to see this as a true revolution, and frankly I want to, too. Yet when you work through the timelines and the links, even in some of the most celebrated cases, professional journalists get there first and have the most impact. I have a feeling that this will change, but I hope people won't discount the role blogging has now as a source of public discussion.
Second, how little blog communities link. Many people pay attention to the very small world of blogging that goes on among people who are already some form of public intellectual. Yet there are tens of thousands of other communities, some of them quite small, that remain somewhat removed from view. Many of us are still in the "mass" mindset of the last century and are missing the fact that there are blogospheres, not a single mass of bloggers.The neighborhoods of local experts, the opinion leaders of high school tribes, the conspiracy theorists, the white nationalists, urban activists -- all have interesting neighborhoods of Weblogs. To many of them, the "A-list bloggers," and the related academics, journalists, and lawyers who blog, might as well be on another planet.
Trammell: The crux of my dissertation went beyond basic descriptions of content and reader motivations/effects and concentrated on political discourse. The majority of the people (bloggers and commenters) who made political statements concentrated on the issue, rather than the person they may have attacked. This issue over image is different than what we find in other forms of political communication. In a medium where people are often chastised for navel-gazing and rants, this is somewhat surprising that the quantitative data finds a concentration on the actual facts of the issue and disagreements rather than the person behind them.
For example, an antiwar post that mentioned President Bush would be more likely to discuss why the poster was antiwar (issue attack) then criticizing Bush as a person or leader (image attack). Also, most celebrity blog posts were written when the celebrity was in a negative state of mind (depressed, angry, upset, etc.) -- which leads me to believe they were "pushed over the edge" on a particular issue and then felt compelled to blog about it. Most posts were against the topic that was being discussed rather than posting in support of an issue.
OJR: How has the Weblog format itself changed academic study and communication among academics? Has it helped cross national borders?
Dauber: It most definitely crosses international borders. When I post stories about Canada, my Canadian readers post comments; about Spain, the Spanish. This enriches the experience enormously for everyone, since they can comment on both local media and local politics with a level of sophistication I simply lack.
Halavais: The answer here is all about potential. I can probably cite a dozen examples of cross-discipline, cross-cultural, cross-campus, and global connections that Weblogs have facilitated. When I compare my own academic social network to that of others on my faculty, I find that my connections are far more diverse, and have far less to do with where I went to school and who I have met at conferences. On the other hand, I am the only one in my department and school who blogs regularly. In fact, as far as I know, I am the only professor at SUNY Buffalo, of among something like 1,500, who blogs. Even with such a very limited penetration, I think we are beginning to see the benefits. Once faculty, especially among the younger faculty, begin to accrue clear benefits from their blogging, this may change.
I think, more broadly, Weblogs disrupt existing hierarchies that break down communication among scholars. I don't care, when I read a blog, if the blogger is at a "Research I" school, or if they are on a faculty at all, for that matter. The focus is very much on the ideas. In some ways this feeds into the ideal of a life of the mind and is a pleasant escape from the often constricting actuality of a professor's professional life. It remains to be seen if blogging will be integrated into university institutions, or if they will remain a "third place" for scholars. In some ways, I suspect that the latter is both more likely and more influential.
Trammell: Computer-mediated communication scholarship (in its present form) has been going on since the early 1990s. In recent times, there has been a boom of scholars doing what some call "new technology research." I hate the term "new technology" because it insinuates that something is new when many of the things we study are not. Scholars are still trying to understand what is different, if anything, about blogs than other forms of online communication and what to call it all. I think we are moving from the descriptive "what is it, what does it all mean" phase to get a deeper understanding of how it differs from other online communication.
Presently, I am not aware of any experimental studies, but I imagine that these will start appearing in the next two years as we attempt to actually predict outcomes as a result of exposure to blog content. In regards to cross-national borders, blogs have without a doubt broken down walls and borders between people. The best and most salient example is the buzz that surrounded the Baghdad Blogger, Salam Pax, who blogged the bombing of Iraq. His blog shared not only a vision of the war and what he saw happening outside his door, but it personalized the international event. There are no boundaries in countries that were once cut off. With bloggers, the world and politics become open source where each person can make his or her own mark on it for the betterment of the whole.
Walker: I definitely stay more in touch with blogging colleagues than nonblogging colleagues, and I think that blogging alongside other academics in my field and in adjacent areas is a form of indirect collaboration. We toss ideas around and are aware of each other's thoughts. There's an openness and a willingness to share in blogging, or at least in the blogs I read, that means I know more about many of my fellow bloggers' research than I do about a colleague whose office is down the corridor from me.
Blogging allows me to continuously network internationally, much as academics have always done at conferences. This may be especially important to those of us who work in small fields and outside of major cities. Though I live in Bergen in Norway, my blog cluster includes researchers across Europe as well as in Australia and North America. Crossing between academic disciplines is very valuable, as well.
OJR: Do you consider Weblogs to be a form of journalism? How do they differ from other forms of journalism and media?
Dauber: I really don't consider it a form of journalism. I think there are moments when bloggers take on a reporting function -- clearly the Iraqi bloggers have taken on this role in response to what they see as the failure of Western media. And other bloggers have done so when big events have happened in their areas, particularly when they've felt the need to serve as a corrective to mainstream outlets.
But I think it makes far more sense to think of blogs as a medium that permits citizens to challenge the media monopoly in determining what counts as newsworthy and what the narrative frame for those stories is. We are all media critics now. They've been able to tell us, for decades, which stories count as news and how those stories should be told. Bloggers can say: Wait a minute. What about all these other stories? Why aren't you covering those? And what makes this narrative frame self-evident? Doesn't this one make just as much sense? And why did you leave these details out?
Halavais: The question behind the question here, I suspect, is "What is journalism?" If you consider journalism primarily to be a profession, with an institutionalized set of understandings, codes of conduct, and processes of editing, filtering and presentation, then clearly very few Weblogs are journalism. I'm not suggesting this definition is somehow incorrect. The term "journalism" arose around the time it was becoming a true profession, along with schools of journalism and professional organizations and expectations.
I think that the vast majority of what you find in Weblogs is "gossip." That word is often used pejoratively, though I don't think of it as so. Going back 50 years, we understand that gossip is a way of spreading news that can be very effective in some cases. I think that professional journalism would be in a very bad spot if it had to make do without gossip. Gossip and journalism exist on a continuum, obviously, and both provide for certain audience needs. Surveillance of the global, national, and local environment is only one of those needs, though I suspect it is the most resource intensive to provide for. So far, mainstream mass journalism has cornered the market on surveillance. Most bloggers do not have time to tread a beat and do not have the background to work through sources and ask the right questions.
But I think we are already seeing that mass media have no monopoly on some of the other functions the news serves. As news organizations have become increasingly homogenized and centralized, they have been less able to place news in a local context. Bloggers are able to relate and interpret current events to a particular culture, and connect otherwise dispersed events into a coherent whole. They are also able to convert news into action and discussion in a way that mass journalism is having trouble with.
Trammell: I do not consider bloggers journalists, but feel journalists can be bloggers. At best, bloggers (citizen journalists) can perform random acts of journalism. However, the day-to-day accounts found on blog posts are not journalism in my eyes. Instead, these are biased accounts of what one person believes to be true. There is no fact-checking, no adherence to ethical standards, no other similarity between blogging and journalism beyond the fact that both use words and imagery to tell a story to an audience that may not experience it firsthand. Blogging tells the story through one person's own unique ability to discern the truth whereas journalists are expected to work the long hours and trained to present information without bias.
Walker: Blogging can be many things. It's very dissimilar to traditional journalism in its subjectivity. I'm not accountable to an editor and I can write as much or as little as I please. The genre is so new and so diverse that the possibilities are legion. Personally I find it more useful to think of my own blogging as literary criticism, as research publication, as literature and as personal expression. Many of my posts have something in common with an opinion piece in a newspaper, or with a review, and these are journalistic genres, but I'm still not convinced that journalism is the best or the most obvious lens through which to view blogs.
OJR: Do you believe blogs have changed the political discourse in the United States and abroad, and if so, how and why?
Dauber: Certainly. First, there is a robust dialogue within the blogosphere itself and it's difficult to know how many people engage in that discourse. But it is far more nuanced, layered, detailed, than that in the regular media. It's for the political junkie's political junkie. Surely that discourse doesn't circulate and then stop, but circulates and then enters back into the regular political discourse one way or another.
But more and more I think there it enters back into the discourse of "Old Media." Without a doubt that happens at very specific moments. It happened with the Trent Lott episode and I think there is no doubt that as the frustration on the blogosphere with balance in the Iraq coverage grew, the mainstream media finally had to take that into account, if only to answer it -- and this happened far before the White House began to capitalize on this all by talking about "media filters." But I think there are also glimpses of it in other places. I'm positive that Fox's premier news show, "Special Report with Brit Hume," takes many of the items for its Grapevine feature from what's bubbling up in the blogosphere. So the points of feedback are growing.
Halavais: I think blogs have changed how we think about politics, but I don't know that bloggers have much directly to do with this. I think that the direct impact of blogs, even in Dean's campaign, has been overstated. This is one of those cases where image may mean more than reality. The image of a campaign that was directly answerable to its supporters, and of supporters who had a mechanism to have their voice heard, changed the way people thought about how a campaign should work, I think.
In terms of real impact, though overstated, I do think that there is one. Weblogs offer an opportunity for discussion among passionate people about real policy issues. They have widened this discussion to a group who otherwise might not have had the opportunity to have their voices heard, and -- more importantly -- to have someone respond to them. I think that the use of blogging to help coordinate political action (which is really closer to its role for Dean) will ultimately be far greater than the impact they will have on the voting public.
Just as blogging has opened the door to greater international discussion across borders, I think the potential is there for greater person-to-person diplomacy and international collective political action. So far, activists have effectively used the Web more broadly to mobilize international movements. Many are beginning to use various forms of blogging to retain local control and autonomy while locating and capitalizing on global connections.
Trammell: Changed discourse? No. Opened up new channels for discourse? Sure. There are some people who want to talk politics and others who won't touch it with a ten-foot pole. We see this in our own friendships and I saw it on the celebrity blogs I content-analyzed. I believe it has opened up discourse in that people from countries Americans can't even pronounce are able to tell their stories to a mass and interested audience. When big bloggers like Jeff Jarvis take notice and link to them, then the voice is magnified.
Walker: I'm fascinated by Poul Nyrup Rasmussen's blog. Nyrup Rasmussen used to be the prime minister of Denmark, and he's still an active labor politician. His blog is deeply personal, not so much in the sense of writing about his daily doings as in that he writes about his political beliefs in such an intimate, personal way. He never links, or allows comments, so doesn't use the network as Howard Dean's campaign did; indeed, he doesn't campaign, really, or at least not directly, but he gives such a different image of a politician than the one we're used to from newspapers. It's fascinating.
Perhaps in five years politicians will hire blog writers as well as speech writers, and the blog writers will pen blogs according to current research into what voters want -- personal like Nyrup Rasmussen; networked like Dean; or perhaps in new ways we haven't yet thought of: distant, fiery, strident, argumentative, caring. I'm not sure whether this will be a good thing or not, though the possibility of direct access to a politician, not mediated through journalists and editors and the desk -- that access does seem very appealing to me.
OJR: How do you picture the blogosphere changing over the next few years and beyond?
Dauber: That's an interesting question. They've expanded so far so fast it's hard to tell. One thing that's interesting about blogs is that popularity and credibility don't track with academic or other forms of formal credentialing (indeed, some of the most successful are written by authors who remain anonymous). What makes a blog successful are readers believing that its arguments are compelling and persuasive, and that the writer has integrity -- which the blogger demonstrates through their commitment to providing the links, right there, so that the reader can always easily check that integrity for himself or herself.
The blogosphere moves in "Internet" years, so the time period you're speaking of is a lifetime -- so, who can say? But I can say this much: It's gonna be interesting. And if the mainstream media don't start paying real attention to blogs (and the frustration with the media that fuels them) and stop writing insipid, uniformed and dismissive articles, they will ending up paying the price, one way or the other.
Halavais: Blogging is dead, long live blogging. I suspect that over the next few years we will see a lot of calls suggesting that blogging has died, and I suspect that in a sense they will be right. The act of keeping a "Weblog" as a separate entity will become something of an anachronism. The broader world of collaborative Web publishing will continue to grow and converge with other technologies, including IM and e-mail. Imagine asking someone today if they are an "e-mailer." That question made sense, among a certain group, 15 years ago, when you weren't sure if someone had e-mail or not. I have a feeling that the production of public media -- whether in the form of Weblogs, wikis, collaboratively filtered lifelogs, or some form that I am too shortsighted to predict -- will be the moving force of a new era.
I think we are looking at the penny press of the 21st century, and that just as that technology co-evolved with new structures of industry, culture, and government, the Weblog will usher in a new form of mass interaction, a new way of being. I think we are going to see a lot of innovation in aggregation and collaborative filtering. Already, there is a need. Some of this will be as tame as a move to group blogs (we are already seeing this a lot, I think), and to more "newspaper-y" uses of syndication. I predict that we will see a rise in self-organized writing guidelines. It would be wrong to underestimate the potential of camera phones and moblogging.
It hasn't even come close to a tipping point yet, and I think we are going to see some very interesting outcomes here. What happens when any public incident is surrounded instantly by photographers? When we all are paparazzi? The professional, commercial journalistic enterprise will continue to have a monopoly on some forms of public surveillance for the foreseeable future, but the emergence of camera phones and other forms of wearable technologies will yield an entirely new collective form of public monitoring, and it will be very interesting to see that emerge.