Rettberg: Ch.3 & 4 Overview

Blogs are a free-form type of social software, supporting networks of community and interaction among users.  Bloggers publish their blogs expecting other users will read, although they cannot always be fully aware of who is reading their posts.  However, a blogger’s audience does not have to be large; many blogs are read by a small group of people residing within the same demographic region, while other blogs are internationally known, and thus, have a massive readership and following.

In general, blogs have a vast network of bloggers and a small network of readers.  This is a reversal of traditional mainstream media, in which information is disseminated from a few producers to a vast array of recipients.  This contrast between blogging and mainstream media showcases the shift in the communication model, in which information that was once sent down to receivers in a one-way network now can be distributed evenly among users in a two-way form of communication, in which users function as both senders and receivers.

With blogs, as opposed to other online social networks, such as Facebook and MySpace, communities are typically established through the use of links, blogrolls, and user comments.  Blogs are forms of social media, so the links, blogrolls, and comments assist with the circular dissemination of information. Links help to create community by being signals through which connections among blogs can be traced.  Both general search engines, such as Google, and blog indices, such as Technorati, use these links to highlight connections found in blogs, and can introduce new readers and bloggers to information they otherwise might not have come across.  Take, for instance, a site like StumbleUpon.  On this site, users can search for other sites based on an interest in a particular subject matter. Once the user has tagged his/her interests, StumbleUpon will direct the user to sites that they may find useful, including many blogs.

Links between blogs can also be read by computers, and external services use links to form an exoskeleton for blogs, displaying the invisible connections and links in a visual way.  Links, according to Jill Walker Rettberg, are a form of power.  This concept is based on “the power law,” in which “the blogs that already have power will get more power.”  Search engines count links, and view links as stamps of approval from users.

A lot of social software is based upon social networking theory, which was first delineated by Mark Granovetter using his idea of “weak ties vs. strong ties.”  Weak ties offer a better dissemination of information, often because they introduce new ideas or concepts, than strong ties since a user’s strong ties will often only have access to information that the user already has access to.  Essentially, weak ties bridge social groups, allowing for more connections to be made and for more, or at least a wider variety, of information to be sent out, received, sent back out, and so on.  However, with blogs, links between blogs can show one of two things: 1.) The users know one another personally; and 2.) The users are simply sharing information, and may or may not know one another personally.  Thus, blogging includes a building of trust, which, again, discloses yet another contrast between blogging and traditional mainstream media (a contrast that will be discussed further later in this post*).  The connections between blogs is known as digitally mediated social networks.

There are performance aspects of blogs, which danah boyd calls “publicly articulated relationships.”  In a sense, displaying one’s social network is important on the Web.  In this, boyd argues that online social spaces differ from offline social spaces since in the virtual realm of the Web, there is persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences. If you blog, you are not often a part of a real-time conversation. There is no immediate access to your readers. However, your blog posts have persistence, in that the posts are archived on the Web, and can be accessed at any time. Also, people can find one another a lot easier on the Web than in the actual world. Simple searches for a person in a general search engine can reveal information, such as location, property sales, education, and even their blogs.  Web content can also be altered and duplicated more easily, often at no charge, unlike printing books.  And, as mentioned, when you blog, you blog assuming you have an audience, but not always knowing specifically who makes up your audience.  However, bloggers can insert code that allows them to track readers’ information, including IP addresses, web browsers, and operating systems.  Most serious bloggers check their statistics daily. Also, when blogs link to each other, they send “pings” to the blog owner, letting them know that someone has linked to their blog.  This kind of activity furthers the social networking capabilities of blogging.

The connections among users seem to be more diverse from other social networking communities, such as Facebook.  Facebook allows its uses to define themselves demographically.  While this can be done with blogs, most blogs are either personal diary-like public journals, Web filters, or are topic specific.  Blogs are more easily accessed than profiles are on Facebook.  When you search for other users on Facebook, you can see their names, a profile picture, and their networks, though not much else unless you “Friend” them. Once a user is “Friended,” a fuller profile is able to be viewed.  While actual blog posts are rare on Facebook, there are other social networking tools that are similar to blogs, such as the News Feed, which functions as an automated blog.  The News Feed collects data, like status updates, relationship changes, picture uploads, and all manner of stories collected from your friends’ walls. Aside from the obvious differences between Facebook’s News Feed and blogging, these automated blog posts are created by Facebook rather than by you.

While inhabiting the virtual world of the Web sounds enticing, users should be wary since there is a danger with online social networks is it’s visibility.  With the increased popularity of social networks among teens and college students, parents have become interested in online social networks and what their kids are doing, as well as employers interested in what their employees are writing about.  This has led to a collision of social spheres.  Users should always be conscientious about what they post on the Web.  Documents, even when deleted, tend to stick around, and can be used against the user later down the road.  Blogs and other forms of social media, thus, lead to the question of giving up privacy vs. having a sense of belonging to a virtual community.

In relation to mass media, blogging has become an underdog force for free speech, separated from the powerful commercial interests that increasingly define the ways in which traditional news media shapes and presents our news.  Under the Constitution, we have a freedom of the press; in 1960 Joseph Leibling wrote, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one. But up until recently, only those with the funds to own their own press could publish their ideas. Blogging has changed that. While newspapers and television stations are dependent on advertising dollars from giant corporations and subject to heavy government control, among other factors, individual blogs have no such ties, enabling bloggers to become their own individual press.

For the most part, bloggers-cum-journalists are amateurs.  The legal and ethical standards for blogs’ claims are not as established as those for traditional news media, and most bloggers do not have professional editors and fact-checkers to make sure their words are legitimized in the sameways as newspapers or television stations.  The gulf between blogging and journalism is a large one.  This presents advantages and disadvantages to bloggers.

While many bloggers do not think of themselves as journalists and most of the time do not refer to themselves in that way, many do try to enact some of the legitimizing practices of traditional journalism.  Many bloggers are engaged in “directly quoting sources, fact checking, [and] posting corrections.”  When you consider how many blogs are, for the most part, not even primarily engaged with reporting and commenting on the news but rather personal blogs, bloggers begin to look more respectable in regard to these practices.

Nevertheless, “journalist” is an important distinction with legal implications that have not yet been set in stone.  While more and more bloggers are gaining access to important events through press passes, the group continues to be explored by court cases.  It seems as though instead of forcing bloggers to jump through certain hoops to be considered journalists—hoops such as working for an established newspaper, for instance—journalism itself is changing and expanding to adapt to the advent of blogger-cum-journalists.

*Traditionally, readers only trust the mainstream media for news that is legitimate.  More recently however, many view blogs as more reliable than the traditional mainstream media.  It is generally accepted that the more personal and more open the opinions of a blogger, the more credible s/he becomes.  “Blogs rely on personal authenticity, whereas traditional journalism relies on institutional credibility.”  The danger of fakers is minimized by the blogosphere itself.  Bloggers are inquisitive, curious, and suspicious creatures, and when faced with deception and lies, they can be ruthless.

There are situations in which blogging and traditional media intersect.  Blogs are able to present first-hand reports in honest and honestly subjective ways, which traditional media for the most part are not; may set out to tell stories that would be told by traditional journalists; and practice gatewatching, which resembles gatekeeping, a professional practice that controls which content is released on traditional media.  Bloggers tend to be inexperienced, but generally this lends to their credibility, rather than hindering it.  Many journalists keep blogs as well.

Mainstream media has not hesitated to take the best content from the most popular and relevant blogs to serve their own purposes.  Mainstream media is able to use blogs to draw a bead on their audiences, seeing in more nuanced ways where interests lie in order to shape their content.  Bloggers, on the other hand, are able to enter into discourse in ways not traditionally open to regular people.  If this is becoming a trend, it is clear that in the future, blogs will continue to need mainstream media, and mainstream media might need blogs even more.

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