The Blogging Phenomenon
An Overview and Theoretical Consideration
By James M. Branum
Final Term Paper for
In this paper, I will seek to explore the meaning and significance of the blogging phenomenon. I will begin this exploration by looking at the definition of the term, the origins of the phenomenon, and how individual blogs might be classified. From there, I will look at the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, and finally examine the phenomenon though several theories of Mass Communications.
Part I: Overview of the Blogging Phenomenon
The term "weblog" was first used by Jorn Barger on his Robot Wisdom website in 1997 (Auburn 1999, and Blood 2000) and is now used to describe personal websites that offer "frequently updated observations, news, headlines, commentary, recommended links and/or diary entries, generally organized chronologically." (Werbach 2001) While there are many websites that are frequently updated, "what makes a Weblog a Weblog is that it's organized chronologically and designed for short, frequent updates. In other words, Weblogs represent the online intersection of people and time." (Werbach 2001)
Later, Peter Merholz in early 1999 announced on his website (www.peterme.com) that he was going to adopt the pronunciation "wee-blog" (Blood 2000), which was inevitably shorted to "blog" (Fleishman 2001).
Neither term has been universally adopted by those who author weblogs/blogs. The most common objection to the term "weblog" comes from those who note that the term "web log" was previously used to refer to a file where a server records information about a website's visitors (Katz, et. Al 1999), however there seems to be some reluctance by others in the blogging community to adopt the term "blog" out of concern of recognizing one vendor's product (the popular Blogger web interface) over the others.
While this dispute is unsettled, for the purposes of this paper I will use the term "blog" (lower-case) in the noun form to refer to a website that is typical of the genre, and the word "blogging" in the verb form to refer to the act of authoring a blog. To prevent confusion with the Blogger web interface, I will eschew the commonly used term "blogger" (and use instead "bloggist") to refer to the author of a blog, and will reserve the term in its capitalized form to refer to the popular web-interface.
In a theoretical sense, blogs first appeared with NCSA's "What's New Page" in 1993 and Justin Hall's "Links from the Underground" in 1994, but the phenomenon began in earnest with the advent of David Winer's Scripting News website in April 1997 and Peter Merholz's www.peterme.com website in May 1998. (An Incomplete Annotated… 2001)
It was from these early beginnings that the blogging community began to develop; bloggists compiled lists of other blogs that they found interesting and programmers began to develop tools to mechanize the process of frequently updating blogs. (Blood 2000)
At this point, most blogs were websites that presented links to websites and news articles that the author found interesting, however blogs began to take new shapes as the medium began to gain mass. This process accelerated as the process of blogging became simpler with the advent of web-based tools such as Blogger, Pita, Groksoup, Diaryland, Live Journal and others. (Lasica 2001)
Of these tools, the one that has generated the most users has been Blogger. San Francisco-based Pyra Labs introduced Blogger in 1999, and today has over 150,000 registered users. (About Pyra 1999).
3. Blog taxonomy
The most common classification of blogs is into two categorizations: filter-style and free-style.
Filter-style blogs are similar to that of the early blogs. While there may be occasional comments, the focus of the blog is on linking to sites and/or articles that the author finds worthwhile for his or her readers. (Wang 1999)
Weblogs address several aspects of the terminal information overload we face today.. . There's just too much stuff out there for anyone to read through all of it. Keeping up with breaking news and developments in specific fields of interest has never been more challenging . . . Weblogs let humans serve as filters and amplifiers of content from many sources, and allow users to choose the editors they like. (Werbach 2001)
Filter-style blogs serve the same functions that so-called 'portal sites' serve; they help web viewers to find the material that is worth their time. One bloggist even refers to his site as a "microportal." (Barrett 1999)
The process of "linking, citing, (and) networking" in and between filter-style blogs, commonly referred to as "blogrolling" (Andrews 2001), often results in different blogs linking to the same sites. This common occurrence is praised by some as a means to emphasize the best sites (Barger 1999) and as a viral way of "spreading discrete units of culture" (Pollock 2001 in describing the meme theory) but is also criticized by some main-steam journalists who derisively refer to filter-style blog authors as "linkalists" (Rosenberg 1999 quoting a Wall Street Journal article). One author has even gone so far as to deplore the "unbearable incestuousness of blogging." (Clark 2001).
Free-style blogs on the other hand are focused less on the outside world and more on the internal world of the blog author. (Ozawa 2001) Free-style blogs range in style from traditional diaries (including the common teen angst genre), to daily observations of the world. (Tawa 2001)
While the majority opinion (as best expressed by Werbach 2001) is that Filter-style and Free-style blogs can both be called blogs, the minority opinion would define the term blog narrowly to describe only filter-style blogs, while referring to free-style blogs as being either "diaries," "journals," or "web journals." (Ozawa 2001, and Hardy 2001)
An alternate way to categorize blogs is by subject matter. Subject genres of blogs include (but are by no means limited to):
Finally, one can classify a blog by its form of authorship. Bloggists acting alone compose the vast majority of blogs, but there are some blogs that are collaborative in nature. This collaboration can either be in form of a team of regular writers, or it can be open-source (as in the case of www.indymedia.org, and www.slashdot.com)
4. The status of the Blogging Phenomenon
One of the key questions asked about this new media is, "is it really journalism? And if it is a form of journalism, is it a reinvention of previous media forms or is it a completely new form of media?"
Mark Deuze's article on online journalism (Deuze 2001) classifies blogs as being a form of "new online journalism," in that the blogs tell "stories about experiences online and (offer) readers links with comments to content found while surfing the web."
Michael Ventura of the Austin Chronicle defines journalism like this:
The word "journalism" is founded on "journal," rooted in the French jour meaning "day" and journal meaning "daily." The original English usage of journalist meant: one who keeps a journal, a record of the day. The words "profession" and "professional" are based on "profess." Fundamental to the idea of being a professional is an act of speech and conviction. My dictionary defines profess as "to declare or admit openly." Its first definition of professional is "an open declaration or avowal of a belief or opinion." (Ventura 2001)
According to this definition, a blog would be "a record of the day," making a bloggist a "journalist."
If we accept that blogs are a form of journalism, then what is the impact of this new form of journalism? (Lasica 2001) believes that the grassroots blogging phenomenon is the Internet's answer to the ineptitude of the corporate mainstream media and says that the movement "may sow the seeds for new forms of journalism, public discourse, interactivity and online community." He goes on to say that blogging "represents Ground Zero of the personal Webcasting revolution. Weblogging will drive a powerful new form of amateur journalism as millions of net users - young people especially - take on the role of columnist, reporter, analyst and publisher while fashioning their own personal broadcasting networks."
However, the possibilities presented by this phenomenon should not suggest that blogging will supplant traditional mainstream media sources. While there are notable exceptions (Metafilter's scooping of the initial AP report of the Seattle earthquake of 2001), bloggists do not have the resources to compete directly with the mainstream media in presenting the "late-breaking news." (Walker 2001) Yet, (Walker 2001) notes that the phenomenon's strength comes from being able to report on the "strange and wonderful, or merely strange and stage, things you are likely otherwise to have missed" in the mainstream media.
Bloggists face considerable challenges as journalists, including a lack of recognition of their status. In a recent case, Joe Clark (the author of Nublog) requested an e-mail interview with a manager or engineer at Apple Computer to discuss the OS X operating system. This began a lengthy and increasingly hostile series of emails between Clark and a staffer at Edelman Public Relations Worldwide (Apple's PR firm) that ended with a representative of Apple turning down the request. This provoked Clark to post the entire series of correspondence to his website, which brought Clark a "Cease and Desist" letter from Harry Pforzheimer, Edeleman's Western region President. Clark proceeded to post this letter to his blog as well. (Raphael 2001)
While this case is somewhat unique in the persistence of the bloggist in seeking an interview, it does illustrate the issues of legitimacy that plague the blogging community in their role as journalists.
Yet, despite the problems, there is also a new level of recognition of the bloggist as a journalist in the aftermath of the 9-11 Terrorist Attacks. Thousands of web readers read about the events on blogs such as www.likeanorb.com and www.worldnewyork.org (Tawa 2001) and through their accounts were able to "pierce through the numbing blizzard of information" to see through the eyes of a local, the utter tragedy of what happened. While this personal reporting didn't replace traditional news consumption, it added context (Gilmor 2001) and complexity to it (Denton 2001). In this time of crisis, blogs also served to provide the latest news to millions of readers who were unable to access mainstream media websites when the Internet traffic overloaded the servers of the most popular news websites. (Bedell 2001)
The blogging as a form of journalism presents many challenges but also has several unique strengths. One strength of blogging is that it offers creative freedom to journalists that may not be available in other media.
"For a working journalist, there's no luxury like the luxury of the unedited essay," she says. "I've been an editor longer than I've been a writer, and I know the value that an editor brings to your copy. Even so, there's an enormous freedom in being able to represent yourself precisely as you want to, however sloppily or irrationally or erratically. I don't have an editor to pitch the story to, or a copy editor who decides he's not happy with my syntax…You think, you write it, you put it out to the world." (Lasica 2001 quoting Deborah Branscum)
Other strengths of the medium include the instanteity of publication, interactivity, and the lack of marketing constraints. (Lasica 2001) Blogging also offers websites the sought after "stickiness" that results from frequently updated content. (Asaravala 2000)
Last of all, the blogging phenomenon has great potential through its power to create social cohesion and to elicit support for members of a community. One example is the Damnthepacific.com blog. Damnthepacific.com is a collaboratively free-style blog created by a young man in Australia and a young woman in the United States. The pair uses the blog to tell the story of their on-going romance and ask their readers to contribute money so that the man can purchase an airline ticket to visit the woman in the United States. Amazingly, they have raised over $600 through voluntary contributions. While this example might be considered somewhat superfluous, it does illustrate the power that blogging has to create social cohesion.
Part II: Mass Communication Theories
and the Blogging Phenomenon
Due to the lack of research into the blogging phenomenon, it is difficult to know if any of the existing Mass Communication theories can adequately explain how the phenomenon works. Therefore, this portion of the paper will be primarily a survey of some of the Mass Communication theories that might be workable, with some discussion on how the theories might be modified to be useful in this area of study.
1. Agenda Setting
Agenda Setting is described as "one of the possible ways that the mass media can have an effect on the public. Agenda setting is the idea that the news media, by their display of news, come to determine the issues the public thinks about and talks about." (Severin & Tankard 1988, p. 264)
Agenda setting research stems from the idea that the mass media "may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about." (B. Cohen quoted by Brosius & Wieman 1996)
Agenda setting typically looks at the media as the setters of the agenda, but the phenomenon of the blog poses some interesting questions. Certainly, for a free-style blog, the bloggist can write about anything he or she wishes to write about, but for a filter-style blog the bloggist's agenda is shaped by the sources he or she reads. So, the question at hand is: who does set the agenda? Is it set by the bloggist or is the agenda set by the sources the bloggist reads? Or could it be both?
(Brosius & Wiemann 1996) and others have also raised the idea that Agenda-setting could be understood as a two-step flow, with opinion leaders in the public who serve as "personal mediators between media and personal agendas." (Brosius & Wiemann 1996) This would seem to be an adequate description of the actions of the filter-style bloggist who chooses which stories to link to and what comments to make about those stories. The bloggist is still constrained by the agenda(s) set by the sources he or she reads, but the bloggist is also free to reshape that agenda by choosing which stories to link, and what comments to make about those stories.
(Brosius & Wiemann 1996) have said that when the mainstream media covers an issue, interpersonal communication often reinforces the media messages; however interpersonal communication actually sets the agenda "when the discussions deal with issues that have received little coverage in the media." If the blogging phenomenon were viewed as a form of hybrid between interpersonal and mass communication, then it would seem that the blogging community could define the parameters of discussion on those issues that the mainstream media avoids. One example is the recent popularity of news/opinion blogs from a liberal perspective that serve as an alternative to the discussions of talk radio that tend to be primarily for a conservative audience. As a result such blogs will set the agenda for their readership on certain topics since other media did not assume that role. (Klopfenstein 2001)
The agenda setting process also raises some questions as to the criticisms leveled against filter-style blog authors who "recycle" links posted on other blogs. It would seem like there is a pecking order of sorts in blogs, with certain blogs having a greater credibility, which leads other blogs to copy the links they have listed. In a sense the higher status blogs serve in a kind of agenda-setting function, by functionally deciding what other blogs will talk about. (This will be discussed in more detail under the "Multi-step Flow Theories" heading.)
2. Multi-Step Flow Theories
The Agenda setting process explains to some extent the blogging phenomenon, but not completely. The Agenda setting process only describes the process by which it is determined what issues or topics are discusses, and not what is said about those topics.
The two-step flow theory is one way of examining how communication takes place among interpersonal channels. The two-step flow theory holds that there are some individuals in a social group who influence other individuals. These opinion leaders would receive information from the Mass Media and then pass it on to other individuals. (Lowery & DeFleur 1995, p. 89 and Lazarsfeld 1968)
However, over time criticisms were made of the theory, which led to refinements. These refinements grew into a Multi-step Flow theory (Robinson 1976) and the related Diffusion research. (Rogers 1995)
In the Multi-step theories, understanding the identity of the Opinion Leaders is important. (Katz & Lazarsfeld 1965, p. 225 & Lowery & DeFleur 1995, p. 200-201) have identified three dimensions in the lives of an individual that were related to his or her opinion leadership role: position in life cycle, socioeconomic status, and social contacts. (Robinson 1976) took a slightly different approach when he said that opinion leaders are different than opinion followers "either because of their social position or status or by virtue of their greater interest in the topic at hand."
Using the Robinson definition, bloggists become opinion leaders by being read and linked to by other bloggists; the quantity and quality of linkage to a bloggist's site creates a kind of social status (Clark 2001). This is explained further by (Lasica 2001) who says that a successful blog is one that becomes authoritative by community endorsement. "People link to it, and those links increase the site's authority and raise its profile in as natural a way as possible. So what we have is a marketplace in which we grant authority to those we trust to alter or author our own opinions." (Lasica 2001 quoting Doc Searls)
Opinion leadership in the blogging community can also be created by virtue of a bloggist's greater interest in a particular topic, and especially by their adherence to a highly developed belief system. (Blood 2001 notes that the act of blogging helps a bloggist to know his or her own interests more clearly, and to value one's opinion more.) Such opinion leaders are more likely to "monitor the mass media more closely and more purposefully than non leaders." (Robinson 1976)
Besides the mass media and opinion leaders, there are other participants in the multi-step flow model when applied to the blogging phenomenon. These include less attentive actors (Robinson 1976) and nondiscussants. In one sense, all bloggists are opinion leaders (assuming their blog has readers), but there seems to be a definite hierarchy of opinion leadership in which some bloggists have more credibility and influence than others. (Clark 2001 goes so far as to say that there are now an elite number of blogging "superstars.") Therefore, there is a flow of influence from both bloggists (opinion leaders) to non-bloggists who read blogs (less attentive actors), but also between bloggists (opinion leaders) to other bloggists (opinion leaders. This kind of "opinion sharing" that occurs in a horizontal fashion between opinion leaders themselves is best articulated in Bernard Berelson's 1954 voting study (Robinson 1976 citing Berelson 1954).
This flow of influence can even extend further, when readers of blogs share information with others via other media (email forwards, instant messaging, etc.) or through offline interpersonal communication.
Interestingly enough, this multi-step flow can serve as a self-correction on information that is conveyed online. A recent example was the Kaycee Nicole Swenson hoax. In this case, Swenson used a blog to fabricate a hoax that she was a leukemia patient. While the blogging community at first inadvertently helped publicize the store, it was later other members of the community that raised the questions that finally exposed the hoax. ( Werbach 2001)
3. Other Theories
Gate keeping is a theory that many at first thought would be discarded with the advent of the Information revolution, since there are no physical limits to the amount of information that can be published online. However (Singer 1998) says that the function of journalism as a gatekeeper still exists, but has changed. She says, "people inside the newsroom are modifying their definition of the gate keeper to incorporate notions of both quality control and sense-making. In particular, they see their role as credible interpreters of an unprecedented volume of available information as fundamental to their value - ever their survival - in a new media revolution."
Filter-style blogs in particular serve as gatekeepers. (Werbach 2001) While the previous restraints of space (with print media), and time (with broadcast media) are not applicable online, the new constraint is that of the reader's attention span. This necessitates the role of online journalists to interpret the mass of information to those who do not have the time to follow the information themselves. (This relates to the Multi-step flow theories discussed above.)
The last theory I would like to look at is the "Spiral of Silence." This theory holds that on a controversial issue, people will first determine if they are in the majority or not. If they are in the minority, they will tend to remain silent on the issue. This causes others who also hold a deviant view to remain silent as well. The eventual outcome is that the only voices heard in the end are those of the majority opinion. (Severin & Tankard 1988)
However, this theory may be flawed in that it assumes the effects of the mass media are universal, when in fact the decisions on controversial issues are most often made in the context of interpersonal relationships. (see the prior discussions on the Multi-step Flow Theories) This could best be illustrated if one would assign the values 'X' and 'Y' as being two different points of view on a controversial subject. In this illustration, the majority of the public may have view X, while the community (defined here as the center of interpersonal relationships) of the person in question may hold view Y. In this case, if the person in question holds view Y, then he or she may not feel obliged to remain silent, since that person's point of view is validated by their community.
There is no doubt that the phenomenon of blogging has changed the Internet as we knew it three years ago. While its effects are not as easily seen, as say the advent of graphics on the World Wide Web, it does appear that blogging is reshaping the way we look at journalism and holds the potential of unlocking the previously unrealized promises of egalitarian online publishing opportunities.
Blogs are truly the "pirate radio stations" of the web, (Katz, et.al 1999 quoting Jesse James Garrett), by allowing individuals to create "personal platforms. . . to broadcast their perspectives on current events, the media, our culture, and basically anything else that strikes their fancy from the vast sea of raw material available out there on the web. Some are more topic-focused than others, but all are really built around someone's personal interests. Neither a faceless news-gathering organization nor an impersonal clipping service, a quality weblog is distinguished by the voice of its editor, and that editor's connection with his or her audience."
With this tremendous power, comes a need -- the need for society to understand this phenomenon. Mass Communication scientists have in the past developed theories to understand the media and its influences. While this paper has explored some of these theories, the reality is that it is time for Mass Communication scientists to study this phenomenon, to revise the old theories and/or write new ones.
Until this research takes place, I believe the best way to understand the function the blogging phenomenon is to look at it through the Agenda Setting and Multi-Step Flow theories, with the perspective of seeing the phenomenon as both a form of mass and interpersonal communication.
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