This week in ENG553 we are looking at blogs. It amuses me to see how far I have come regarding this species of internet creature. In my profound naivete, I used to think that blogs were an engine of the internet, only to learn that they are more like the exhaust. When I applied to graduate school in fall 2010, I had to submit a writing sample. I used an assignment I prepared for ENG552 (Composition Studies). This was inspired by the book Keywords in Composition Studies which contains dense treatments of fifty-five of “the most consequential words in the field”(from the back cover). I had to write a treatment of a keyword that did not appear in the 1996 publication and I selected “blog.”
At the time, I thought I was taking a chance at selecting a narrow, fringe concept that I would have to somehow bend to fit the assignment. I quickly discovered how buried I could become under an avalanche of books, journal articles, and online articles. It was a great challenge to try to compress all of that information into a 2-page essay and feel that I could speak authoritatively. I may look back on this essay and feel proud or embarrassed. What is important is that it marked my first serious effort at graduate school writing and, in fact, it played a part in my getting accepted into Arizona State University’s program in English, rhetoric & composition. So, in honor of how far I’ve come and how poetic it is to continue to revisit old trails, I am posting the original essay as submitted.
A blog, otherwise known as a web log, is a regularly updated website that contains dated entries, posted in reverse chronological order, that account for an individual’s (i.e., a blogger’s) activities, experiences, and reflections. Blogs are particular to the internet just as dreams are particular to sleep because they both arise organically from a unique medium and are defined by elements exclusive to that medium. In the case of blogs, the internet allows for equal and free access to online publishing, instantaneous broadcast of content, protocol (i.e., hyperlinks) for integrating and appropriating an unlimited reservoir of content, and the posting of comments by readers. Notwithstanding, it is the content, and the compulsion to stimulate community discourse with that content, which provides the spark of life that generates blogs. The message dictates the medium, just as jazz emerged from formal music. Jazz “[demanded] a different way of playing and listening, just as blogging requires a different mode of writing and reading. Jazz and blogging are intimate, improvisational, and individual—but also inherently collective. And the audience talks over both” (Sullivan).
Blogs reside within a fragmented, virtual region of the internet, known as the blogosphere. In the 1990s, this community was exceedingly small, and the members served as aggregators of the burgeoning World Wide Web. “The original weblogs were link-driven sites… each was a mixture in unique proportions of links, commentary, and personal thoughts and essays” (Blood). By the end of the decade however, the community had mushroomed and then, with advent of blog publishing software, exploded. “Since 2002, the number of blogs has doubled every six months” and it is now estimated that a blog is created every second (Ringmar 19). The blogosphere is expected to host half a billion blogs by 2010 (Barlow 35). Above all, it is the desire for discourse that drives this growth (Lovink xix) and, as such, the blogosphere is best understood as “a conversation, rather than a production” (Sullivan). Bloggers and their readers feed and amplify this conversation cum “discourse community” (Vandenberg quoting John Swales 67) using a variety of blogging tools; i.e., “chat-forums, bulletin boards…’shout boxes'” (Ringmar 18) and engage in various established and emerging blog genres (Ringmar 25). With a tendency towards innovation and convergence, the term blog may eventually fall away (Ringmar 19); however, online discourse communities will continue to grow interdependently as more of our lives are mediated by the internet.
The academy is no stranger in this strange land. Not only were scholars among the first wave of bloggers to exercise the power and potential of the blogosphere, they were also the vanguard of online communities at the dawning of the internet, being among the first to employ e-mail and build newsgroups (Wood 36). As such, blogs constitute a natural progression from these early networks. Academics who blog, effectively broadcast their research, affirm their knowledge, promote their professional interests, and continually dialogue with a robust community of peers, no matter how far flung they may be. Indeed, a number of the more celebrated bloggers are professors (Ringmar 54).
From this vantage, academia understands that imparting literacy is no longer sufficient “as more and more human activities acquire Web-connected aspects” (Barlow xi). Increasingly, all citizens — or Netizens — must also acquire neteracy; specifically, “the ability to negotiate the Internet with relative ease and skill” (Barlow 20). Institutions and instructors therefore have an obligation to promote critical neteracy skills and thereby cultivate in students the capacity to engage in, process, and facilitate the discourse of online communities. In this regard, blogging provides a unique opportunity to the field of composition because writing is the alpha and omega of blogs. Furthermore, blogs are not going away; and this presents a challenge to the field on how best to make use of them (Barlow 29). Answering the call, instructors of English, reading, writing and other disciplines are increasingly looking to the blog as a tool to extend and inform classroom instruction. Blog-driven assignments (e.g., pre-class writing, post-class reflections, peer-evaluations, critical assessment of public posts, etc.) have found their way into the curriculum at every level. In some cases, the instructor’s own blog may be the subject of an assignment.
Whatever the instructional aim, the format and features of blogs present numerous opportunities for writing instruction. As a new form, blogs are evolving and unconventional; their language “is conversational and often it’s irreverent and kick-ass” (Ringmar 18). This can be an effective means to engage timid writing students because the expectation to write in a scholarly voice, i.e., to “invent the university,” is not expected, and typically the effort is not graded for style and grammar but rather on effort. Further, it acknowledges the difficulty writers can have in identifying their writing agenda outside of actual discourse “since it is the discourse with its projects and agendas that determines what writers can and will do” (Bartholomae 609). Ultimately, the student blogger will become “less reflexive and more reflective” and a more confident writer as a result of composing in a low-stakes medium (Blood). Moreover, the interactive, community-driven feature of blogs may provide a means for instructors to reconcile the relationship between writing and learning. As David Jolliffe frames it, “what subject matters do we want [students] to learn about through writing?” The “interdiscursive tensions” that arise can only be addressed by achieving a balance between allowing students to write on what they know versus having a subject handed down to them or, for that matter, some combination of the two. The solution that Jolliffe promotes – a progressive sequence from reflection into inquiry and then interrogation leading to persuasion (Jolliffe 213-214) – is naturally inherent in the iterative dynamic of the blog as played out between a blogger in their dispatches, reactive comments posted by readers, responses by said blogger, and the ensuing conversation of the collective. Andrew Sullivan, in his essay Why I Blog, turns to Montaigne to exemplify this writing process:
“But perhaps the quintessential blogger avant la lettre was Montaigne. His essays were published in three major editions, each one longer and more complex than the previous. A passionate skeptic, Montaigne amended, added to, and amplified the essays for each edition, making them three-dimensional through time… helping the reader see how each rewrite added to or subverted, emphasized or ironized, the version before. Montaigne was living his skepticism, daring to show how a writer evolves, changes his mind, learns new things, shifts perspectives, grows older—and that this, far from being something that needs to be hidden behind a veneer of unchanging authority, can become a virtue…”
Not all of what is to be found in the blogosphere is golden. While it contains enviable examples of articulate and insightful blogs, a significant amount of the overall content may, in fact, be dubious (Sullivan). From a style standpoint, the internet “breaks with many of the conventions of [written] English… [and] has quickly developed its own set of conventions” (Barlow 16). As such, good grammar in this medium can no longer serve as a gauge for effective, valuable writing (Barlow 23); and quality may not necessarily trump quantity. The enormous output of the blogosphere can scarcely be ignored by the field of composition. In her 1994 essay, Anne Ruggles Gere raised concerns that the academy had neglected composition’s extracurriculum; moreover, that it is failing to acknowledge that the extracurriculum “continues to exist or perform cultural work” (Gere 1085). The blogosphere bears this out. Bloggers, like their offline counterparts observed by Gere, are encouraged by the force of what they have to say and the act of expressing it and in “[writing] down their worlds… [they] bear testimony to the fact that writing development occurs outside formal education” (Gere 1082). While some bloggers may be soldiers reporting from the frontlines of war and may not live to see the end of the day, other bloggers blog in their pajamas about the contents of their breakfast plate and go the whole day without leaving their house. “At either extreme, the bloggers put their talent, wit, or off-the-wall perspectives on display, trying to achieve the attention that they, and so many others, crave” (Wood 53). As Gere notes, local writing workshops exist “to build community in order to solve local problems.” So too, bloggers engage the larger community and expose themselves publicly, believing that the act of engaged writing can change their lives and their worlds (Gere 1083). In this regard, one persistent issue associated with blogs is how many of them are not read. “There’s a joke within the blogging community that most blogs have an audience of one” (Quenqua). Blogs on average are not updated often, and many die. “The shores of the internet are littered with blogs which have run aground and been abandoned by their owners” (Ringmar 22). For bloggers who wish to reach the right audience, their blog is akin to a message in a bottle. For readers who are seeking the content and discourse that is meaningful to them, the “right” blog is akin to a needle in a haystack” (Ringmar 24). This dynamic raises another persistent issue associated with blogs: they typically speak only to the converted” (Barlow 62).
Indeed, “most Web communities do not spring from the Web, but from affinities existing in individuals beyond the Web” (Barlow 9) and what brings people in mass to the internet, above all else, is conversation (Lovink xix). One vigorous outcome is “the imaginative and bold ways people have chosen to make their voices and their causes heard using new tools, new technologies, and new social relationships” (Case xi). Because blogs can be broadcast and received all over the world, they fulfill the potential for far-reaching democratization. As such, blogging is “a medium that is cost-effective to maintain so it is not subject to pressures of commercialization; it is free of rigid bureaucracy unlike that within media organizations; and, it is not bound by professional codes of journalism” (Tan & Ibrahim 6). As a result, bloggers hold a unique position in that they are intermediaries of the interconnected community. Often not in positions of power and positioned a level above the non-blogging, but engaged, masses, bloggers serve as a conduit for knowledge and discourse within the community in a way similar to journalists. The journalistic angle may be compromised more often than not because of the personal nature of blogging which does not negate the journalism component but may suggest the need for a new term; perhaps “blogalism” (Tan & Ibrahim 135). As “members of the middle layer [bloggers serve] as knowledge intermediaries, undertaking various social and technological practices to drive the embedding process. These practices included filtering incoming knowledge, feeding it to followers, recycling and recombining ideas, and providing a just-in-time support system. The middle layer can be seen as forming a key part of a knowledge ecosystem, within which patterns of feeding and recycling [occur]” (Cranefield & Young 48).
It has been suggested that “blogs are the proxy of our time” and that they will continue to serve as the building blocks and the currency in the new medium for interlinked, online communities attempting to navigate social change (Lovink xxiii). As such, “if the blogs are changing our culture, it is because of the individual bloggers, not because of the other uses that have been found for the blogs, no matter how fascinating these may prove to be. If nothing else, the blogs are changing our relationships with technology, making them more personal and active than ever before — in the political realm, certainly, but elsewhere as well.” (Barlow x). Worth noting, is that the majority of bloggers are under 30; younger than other internet users and much younger than the general population. Moreover, this digitally active contingent is overrepresented with African Americans and particularly Hispanic Americans, relative to their percentage of the internet-using population (Ringmar 21). In other words, the at-risk and age-appropriate populations that the academy most aims to influence and educate are already online and they will have been blogging before, during, and after their relatively brief stay in the classroom. The question for composition studies is not whether blogs are a legitimate area of inquiry but rather how will the field take an active role in learning from them and also effectively instruct general writing skills instruction with them. Already the wave of community discourse has moved through the utility of the blog and onto shorter, more responsive and more fragmented mediums, such as texting, Facebook, and Twitter. The drive for communicating through composition will not change; however, the mode will change and it will undoubtedly be the subject of continued scholarship.
Barlow, Aaron. Blogging America: The New Public Sphere. Ed. Robin Andersen. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2008. New Directions in Media.
Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” 1985. The Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. 605-630.
Blood, Rebecca. “Weblogs: A History and Perspective.” Rebecca’s Pocket. Rebecca Blood, 7 Sept. 2000. Web. 25 Nov. 2010. <http://www.rebeccablood.net/essays/weblog_history.html>.
Case, Jean. Foreword. Causewired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World. By Tom Watson. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009. xi-xiii.
Cranefield, Jocelyn, and Pak Young. “Embedding Professional Knowledge: The ‘Middle Layer’ in an Online Community Ecosystem.” Computer-Mediated Social Networking. First International Conference, ICCMSN 2008; Dunedin, New Zealand, June 2008; Revised Selected Papers. Ed. Maryam Purvis and Bastin Tony Roy Savarimuthu. Verlag: Springer, 2009. 48-61.
Gere, Anne Ruggles. “Kitchen Tables and Rented Rooms: The Extracurriculum of Composition.” 1994. The Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009. 1081-1096.
Jolliffe, David A. “Discourse, Interdiscursivity, and Composition Instruction.” Reconceiving Writing, Rethinking Writing Instruction. Ed. Joseph Petraglia. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1995. 197-216.
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Quenqua, Douglas. “When the Thrill of Blogging Is Gone…” NYTimes.com. Ed. Arthur Brisbane. The New York Times Company, 7 June 2009. Web. 26 Nov. 2010. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/07/fashion/07blogs.html?_r=3>.
Ringmar, Erik. A Blogger’s Manifesto: Free Speech and Censorship in a Digital World. London: Anthem Press, 2007.
Sullivan, Andrew. “Why I Blog.” The Atlantic Nov. 2008: n. pag. Web. 25 Nov. 2010. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/11/why-i-blog/7060/>.
Tan, Jun-E, and Zawawi Ibrahim. Blogging and Democratization in Malaysia: A New Civil Society in the Making. Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, 2008.
Vandenberg, Peter. “Discourse Community.” Keywords in Composition Studies. Ed. Paul Heilker and Peter Vandenberg. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1996. 67-70.
Wood, Andrew F., and Mattew J. Smith. Online Communication: Linking Technology, Identity, and Culture. Ed. Jennings Bryant and Dolf Zillmann. 2nd ed. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2005. LEA’s Communication Series.