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Perspectives on Blogs

The last day of ICA2006 starts with a panel on Weblogs. The first speaker, Jae Kook Lee, couldn't be here, but there's a video message and a recorded presentation by him instead. The first question is whether the blogosphere is a public sphere - to analyse this, the structural and functional mechanisms of the blogosphere, the contentions surrounding the concept of the public sphere, and the possibiity of the blogosphere as a public sphere need to be examined.

To begin with, the blogosphere is the network of blogs connected by hyperlinks. It enables direct audience participation by posting and searching for relevant information, and has grown exponentially in recent times. The public sphere is a space where informed citizens exchange rational discourse, but there are questions over whether it has ever existed, whether it excludes certain groups, and whether rational discourse is actually functional. Thus, the public sphere is really more an ideal form rather than a reality. But how closely can the blogosphere approximate the public sphere? Yardstick requirements are inclusivity: whether all individuals can participate (and on the Net, there is a low barrier of entry and a minimal cost for participation in the blogosphere, and high interconnectedness); equality for all partricipants: retrieving and disclosing information without revealing their identities, and free expression and exchange of opinions are possible (but elites may dominate exchange in the blogosphere); rationality: the blogophere is a knowledge repository and enables the process of meaning-building (but inappropriate behaviours, production quality, self-segregation tendencies, and skewed distribution of attention in the blogophere are problems); and autonomy from state and economic power: no-one is fully independent, but low barriers mean there is no need for advertising to support blogs, and there is no intervention from state at least in democracies (but publicity is distributed unevenly and some commercial models are emerging).

Ultimately, then, there are both potentials and limits for the blogosphere as a public sphere. Low barriers and interconnectedness are positives, but the skewed structure is a limitation - therefore, the blogosphere is no ideal public sphere, but it nonetheless holds important opportunities.

Questioning Blog Commenting

Omri Ceren is next speaker. He focusses especially on activist blogs, and notes that within the diffused network of the blogosphere two aspects emerge. First, there is a commenting function of the blogosphere, and second, there is the information gathering function. Omri suggests that in the commenting function the less than productive aspects of the blogosphere emerge. The strength of blogs lies in information gathering, not in commenting, he says, but the blogosphere has been described as the form of discussion native to the Web - and political activism as opposition politicises factchecking in order to debunk the political biases of the mainstream media, but possibly introducing its own biases instead.

Omri also notes the skewed nature of the blogosphere on the basis of a power law distribution where some 20% of blogs get the largest amount of traffic. This may be problematic, but it also provides a more effective means of distributing information across the blogosphere, as it provides for clearinghouses for information. This is problematic for commenting, but good for information distribution, then. The commenting function of the blogosphere begins as information gathering (following the old motto 'we can factcheck your ass'), which may lead to 'gotcha' tendencies on the blogosphere. This has twofold effects - the echochamber effect where information is bounced back and forth until it is taken as commonsense; this can lead to 'cocooning' where individual groups do not even realise the existence of opposing views any more. The second effect is the emergence of institutionalised discourse, where ideologically and linguistically isolated communities emerge and begin to be disconnected from one another.

Opposition becomes a form of activism, and this relies on such specialised rhetorical tropes,the echochamber and the cocooning effect. Against this, the information gathering mode of the blogosphere is more productive, Omri suggests - but information for factchecking is conflated with commenting in the blogosphere. Omri notes the recent scandal surrounding The Daily Kos, which has pretensions towards going mainstream: this is a problem because one of the Kos co-founders recently became a politicial consultant, upon which Kos coverage of certain polticians became quite positive. A blogosphere apologist's answer to this would be that the blogosphere will correct itself as people become disenchanted with such bias, but inertia and the echochamber and cocooning effects might preevent this from happening.

Weblogs and War

Donald Matheson now presents on Weblogs and the war in Iraq. He notes the growing use of blogs by journalism, and the role of the invasion of Iraq in this process. The tradition of foreign correspondents reporting from war has been affected by these changes, and there is an emerging network of journalists, bloggers, and other writers on these topics. This is more than a blurring - it is an emphasis on the individual voice of reporters which also works against newsagency hierarchies. A set of polarities can be described here - from the authorised to the unauthorised, polished to raw, objective to subjective, second- to first-hand, dependent to independent, packaged to behind-the-scenes, distanced to connective, top-down to interactive, and lecture to conversation. At the same time, though, blogs work outside of easy dichotomies of the public and the private.

Of course, it must be acknowledged that blogs did not emerge fully formed - there is a history of development which also involves the use of blogs in the aftermacth of 9/11, for example. Bloggers involved in such crises were not entirely sure what they were doing, either - blogs remain an experimentational medium. Journalists involved did not usually see their blogging work as journalism, and were surprised when it was regarded as journalism. Someone like Salam Pax, too, did not want to be held accountable for the information he provided - 'don't like it, don't read it', he wrote.

But after the war people began to reflect on their blogging activities - and this points to the status of blogging in relation to journalism. To begin with, blogs from Iraq were valued by the people who wrote them, as well as by editors and readers, as immediate - both in terms of their update speed, but also in the sense of embodying something less mediated, less formatted than a traditional news story; this also was the sense of the BBC's 'reporters' log' pages which presented more of the personal experience of reporters in Iraq rather than 'official' news reports. This gave them a greater sense of authenticity, and brought these (b)logs closer to the readers. There was a more personal voice here, and this was the case especially also with the blogs from Baghdad by Salam Pax and Riverbend, of course. Christopher Allbritton's move to become a purely blog-based independent journalist was motivated by this, and his aim was specifically to provide a more personal view - which in fact, in an unusual twist for orthodox journalism theory, some of his readers saw as more objective.

Profiling Blog Users

We finish with another prerecorded presentation by Jae Kook Lee. This second study profiles blog users by investigating their reasons for using blogs, their uses and gratifications. This study focussed on students in U.S. universities. Main gratifications were guidance (most of all), sociability, entertainment, surveillance, and convenience/instrumentality. The focus on guidance is surprising, as for other media forms surveillance is more prominent. Blog users are found to be more likely to heavily use text-rich media (newspapers and the Internet) rather than infotainment, and they are more likely to discuss presidential elections, than non-users. Users who cite especially guidance and surveillance as key motivators are more likely to discuss the elections, and to have political bumper stickers on their cars. Of course this study is based on a limited sample and had only a limited response rate of 11%; it was also conducted in the election lead-up, which might mean that focus would have been skewed on election coverage.

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