[Feature article] Linkedout: Blogging, equality and the future

My article was originally published in Mindjack Magazine (2004)

April 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 of blogging.

A broadcasting public

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.

Companies 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 to participate.

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 about brands.

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.

Nerds 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: Us.

Who 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,” says Boyd.

“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 entrĂ© 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 tips).

Blogging 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 in time.”

“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, “Emergent 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.