Imagining the Blogosphere:
An Introduction to the Imagined Community of Instant Publishing
Graham Lampa, Hamline University
“The Blogging Iceberg,” a survey conducted by the Perseus Development
Company (2003), found that two thirds of public weblogs created via centralized
hosting services have not been updated in two months and are considered “abandoned.”
Furthermore, 1.09 million of these have been deemed “one-day wonders”—blogs
that were posted to just once and have not been touched since. The remainder
of the abandoned blogs averaged a lifespan of just four months. Of the 1.4 million
active blogs surveyed, 80.8% contained at least one external link, yet only
9.9% contained a current link to a traditional news source. Taking this data,
Perseus concluded that the blogosphere takes on the form of an iceberg whose
vast bulk floats out of sight and out of mind. Blogs above the waterline—those
which are frequently updated, widely read, and consistently linked—may
represent the conception of blogs in the public mind, but they are not representative
of blogs in general. They instead found that the "typical blog" is
written by "a teenage girl who uses it twice a month to update her friends
and classmates on happenings in her life." These blogs have "nanoaudiences"
comprised of a blogger's friends and family. They are rarely linked to by other
blogs, and they more closely resemble personal diaries rather than the classic
link-commentary mode of blogging.
For those making a case for the blogosphere as a community, the results of
the Perseus study are anything but encouraging. How can a community be said
to exist among individuals, the vast majority of whom have never met one another
and do not communicate with one another? The easy answer is to declare that
the blogging community does not exist, that the blogosphere is not a cohesive
group of people who share common goals and values. This answer, however, does
not account for the widespread notion of the transnational blogging community
or for the persistence of the blogger identity. A clearer answer to the community
conundrum lies somewhere between the hype of a new and revolutionary online
community and the sobering statistical reality of the Perseus study. In the
absence of strong interpersonal links among members of the blogosphere, an alternative
explanation for the persistence of community is needed. At the core of the blogosphere
lies a minority of active and engaged bloggers who post, comment, and link frequently,
creating a kernel of conversational community based on personal networks facilitated
by blogging tools and associated technologies. However, for the vast majority
of users who blog casually, infrequently, and for the benefit of their real-world
friends and family, the blogosphere does not exist in the ethereal, hyperlinked
connections that bind blogs to one another; rather, it resides in the mind of
the individual blogger as an online imagined community resulting from the shared
experience of instant publishing. In order to understand the nature of the blogosphere’s
community as a whole, one must acknowledge the differences between these forms
of blogging as well as the inherent value of each.
To say that the wider blogging community is imagined should not be taken to
mean that its very existence is in doubt; indeed, nearly all communities to
which human beings belong are imagined in some manner or another. In his pivotal
work Imagined Communities (1991), political scientist Benedict Anderson argues
“all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact
(and perhaps even these) are imagined.” Although Anderson concerns himself
with the rise of nationalism and its particular version of the imagined community,
his call to distinguish such communities by “the style in which they are
imagined” is a promising framework for analyzing and describing the features
of any given imagined community. In the case of the blogosphere, the sense of
community is coaxed into existence within the minds of its members in a style
that stems from the instant publishing medium itself to create a discursive,
transnational, online imagined community.
Anderson (1991) credits the daily newspaper with creating the necessary preconditions
for the rise of the modern nation-state; the reading of the morning paper is
a “mass ceremony” during which individuals receive information relevant
to their lives within the national community. More importantly, the reader imagines
that “the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands
(or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity
he has not the slightest notion.” Bloggers consume information in a similarly
ritualistic manner—albeit via computer monitor rather than newsprint.
Clicking from link to link replaces flipping from page to page. However, between
print journalism and instant-publishing lies a number of key differences that
distinguish the style of bloggers’ imagined community. Unlike the profit-driven
enterprise of Anderson’s print-capitalism, the economy of the blogosphere
is driven by the free dissemination of texts produced by unpaid amateurs. This
distinction between the not-for-profit gift economy of the blogosphere and the
market economy of the traditional press has been cited by press critic Jay Rosen
(2003) as the number one indication that weblog-based journalism represents
a substantial shift from the status quo.
The form of journalism found in the blogosphere has the potential to pull power
away from the dominant one-way communication of formal and professional print
and broadcast journalism to a decentralized realm of individual publishers who
not only consume texts but also produce texts that are circulated, reproduced,
and consumed by others. The blogosphere forms an imagined community based on
a new form of amateurized and personalized journalism practiced by persons who
may never meet one another yet can engage in conversation and share a common
identity. This journalism can be considered personal because the output of a
singular blog is closely linked with the personality of its author. Because
it is generally understood that a blog directly represents the intent of the
person who produces it, a blog empowers the writer with greater freedom to provide
colorful, subjective, and political commentary than would be possible within
the framework of a traditional media outlet, which has an economic interest
in maintaining a sense of detached objectivity.
Although the blogosphere may still largely depend upon traditional media sources
for breaking news and for costly investigative reporting, the blogosphere has
been said to form a unique symbiotic relationship, or “ecosystem,”
with the global mediascape (Hiler, 2002). In a number of widely-publicized instances,
such as the 9-11 terrorist attacks and the comments made by Senator Trent Lott
at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday celebration, bloggers have covered
stories in ways that the mainstream media could not or would not. During the
terrorist attacks, blogs were able to provide first-hand, unedited accounts
of ordinary people in New York and Washington that otherwise may have been lost
amid broadcast media’s more pressing coverage of overarching national
security issues (Rainie, Fox, & Madden, 2002). In the case of Lott, it was
bloggers like Joshua Marshall of Talking Points Memo and Atrios of Eschaton
who pointed out the racist nature of his comments and kept the pressure on until
the mainstream media took notice. When Lott eventually resigned his post as
Senate Minority Leader, bloggers were given credit for keeping the story alive
when the traditional media had let it slip through the cracks (Scott, 2004).
These two events not only helped to define bloggers for the public as a kind
of rag-tag group of lone wolf journalists, but also further reinforced the community’s
own sense of purpose, uniqueness, and import.
By facilitating the entrance of laypersons into online discussions regarding
national and international events, issues, and ideas, the process of blogging
has a democratizing effect that can evoke feelings of shared experience. Anderson
(1991) rhetorically asked of the imagined nation of mass consumption of common
news, “what more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined
community can be envisioned?” The answer is clearly the blogosphere, which
simultaneously engages users as both consumers and producers. Whereas the novel
and the newspaper were the two media forms that “provided the technical
means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is
the nation,” it is the instant electronic production and consumption of
texts that has given rise to the blogosphere. Because of the nature of hypertext
and the web, bloggers have the ability to provide their readers with one-click
access to the information upon which they are basing their opinion and analysis
of a given issue. On this point, blogging clearly has the upper hand on print
and broadcast journalism. For forming community, hyperlinks become essential
for creating the central core of the blogosphere. Bloggers have the ability
to publicly debate issues back and forth by directly linking to one another’s
posts as well as news articles that may serve as source material.
At its most developed point, the so-called link-commentary style of blogging
becomes conversational, with the emergent web of connections growing denser
with each additional post. Take the debate over Clay Shirky’s “Power
Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality” (2003) as the paragon of blogging-as-discussion.
Shirky’s essay on the distribution of influence and power in the blogosphere
is still being debated and has followed Tom Coates’ model for discussion
in the community (2003). Within this model, discussion resembles an amateurized
academic citation network, with each new argument referencing the original work
and influential derivative works.
It is among these small, tightly knit bundles of blogs where a kernel of real
interactive community lies; however, this is the point of departure from which
the blogosphere’s wider community must be imagined in the mind of the
individual. The vast majority of bloggers do not link to the works of other
bloggers and debate issues back and forth. Rather, they use their blogs as personal
diaries or to keep in touch with friends and relatives whom they already know
from “meatspace,” or the off-line world (Perseus, 2003). A study
by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that only about 10% of American
bloggers update their sites daily and 60% update their blogs 1-2 times per week
or less (Lenhart, Horrigan, & Fallows, 2004). These results indicate that
the perception of blogging as a rapid-fire back-and-forth exchange actually
only describes a very small minority of the blogosphere, which itself only comprises
about 2-7% of the entire Internet population.
With this new data, a clear separation can be seen in the blogosphere between
an active, highly social core and a large periphery that is disengaged from
that core. It is within this periphery, containing the hundreds of thousands
of “teenage girls” who have been wrongly disparaged as not contributing
anything useful to the web (Orlowski, 2003), that the blogosphere as imagined
community thrives. For those on the periphery, who mainly orient their blogs
to those with whom they already have established relationships, the main force
that keeps them within the blogosphere is the ritual of posting their thoughts
and feelings to the web. This ritual may not be daily, as indicated in both
the Perseus and Pew studies, but it nonetheless defines a certain class of people
who use a shared technology to produce amateur works of writing to be read by
To further understand the structure of this online imagined community, one
must look to the very medium on which it is based and the kinds of communication
to which it lends itself.
The most striking feature of the imagined community of blogging is that it
enables users to both experience a shared base of knowledge and to contribute
directly to that cultural consciousness. It all begins with the basic unit of
“blogdom”—the singular blog, an entity comprised of distinct,
short chunks of information arranged in reverse chronological order. A blog
is also likely to include links to external sites and commenting mechanisms
by which readers can react and respond, and participate in conversation (Blood,
2000). This medium emphasizes currentness (the quality of being current or up-to-date)
by placing the most recent posts at the top of the page. It allows for interaction
in the small scale by giving readers the opportunity to add their own thoughts
to an individual blog. It facilitates interaction in the large scale by promoting
hyperlinking among individual blogs.
With so many people being able to publish so much content for such little investment,
filtering is essential for individuals wanting to make sense of the decentralized
jumble of blogs. Because there are so many thousands of diarist bloggers within
the blogosphere, filters must act to promote stories and posts that represent
the more common interest of the larger community. While a diarist’s account
of her Friday night activities may be of interest to her friends, it is most
likely not relevant to the other hundreds of thousands of bloggers the world
over. Importantly though, as Shirky (2004) notes, filtering in the blogging
community occurs after the act of publishing, guaranteeing that one’s
work is always available for reading even if it is not actually widely read.
The blogosphere filters content more collaboratively and without the same
profit motive of print-capitalism, making it more open to outside voices and
dissenting views. The critical difference between the front-page stories of
newspapers and the top-rated stories on blog indices is that in the blogosphere,
there exists no editorial board with centralized authority to decide what constitutes
news for the greater community—the community itself decides (with the
help of mathematical algorithms and a bit of clever programming). Free of many
of the constraints of Anderson's print capitalism, the blogosphere filters content
more democratically than national media outlets and indeed forms its own unique
mediascape, to borrow a helpful and illustrative term from Arjun Appadurai (1996).
Instead of deciding what will be most profitable to promote, the blogosphere
promotes what its members find to be most interesting by means of both human
and automated processes.
This filtering occurs on the micro level through the work of individual bloggers
who point to posts and news articles they find interesting; it also works on
the macro level through aggregate blog indices like Blogdex, Technorati, Daypop,
and Popdex. The aggregated filtering that occurs in the blogging community is
based both on the perceived value of each discrete bit of information (an individual
blog post) and the authority and exposure of the author (quantified by accumulated
inbound links) within the community (Sifry, 2003b; MIT, 2003). Small-scale filtering
engages bloggers with their readers and other community members; by pointing
one’s audience to other sites (both traditional media outlets and other
blogs) via hyperlink, a blogger simultaneously strengthens the ties that bind
the core of the blogosphere and also reinforces this dominant theme within the
community. Large-scale filtering in the form of news aggregation serves a purpose
more akin to traditional national print journalism—providing community
members with a shared set of world events and issues that further allows individual
bloggers to imagine themselves as part of a greater whole. While most diarist
or small-audience blogs are left out of these types of rankings, at least one
person has taken it upon himself to rework his indexing engine to be more favorable
to newcomers. David Sifry of Technorati produced a new index on his site that
reverses Shirky’s power law to make it work in favor of the under-linked,
providing greater exposure to lesser-known bloggers (Sifry, 2003a). Additional
mechanisms that promote the quality writings of diarist bloggers would serve
to promote that population within the blogosphere. Seeing more of their own
kind of writing represented in the public blogging discourse would perhaps further
enforce their feelings of belonging within the imagined community itself.
Global Audience, Global Access
As the blogosphere continues to grow and new members try to stake their place
on the frontier, issues of access and attention will become increasingly important.
Tools like Blogger and Movable Type have reduced barriers to online participation
and have also removed the inherent authority with which the written word is
imbued. As Shirky (2002) has noted, weblogs destroy the “intrinsic value”
of publishing “because they are a platform for the unlimited reproduction
and distribution of the written word, for a low and fixed cost. No barriers
to entry, no economies of scale, no limits on supply." Because of the financial
investment behind traditional print publishing, the system has served as a preemptive
filter that considers a text’s marketability and profitability as well
as its quality, making it more difficult for certain kinds of ideas to make
it into cultural consciousnesses. Mass amateurization changes all this by enabling
anyone with access to a computer to publish her or his work for the entire world.
Being able to publish globally, however, by no means guarantees a global audience;
the vast majority of bloggers continue to write in abject obscurity, and the
vast majority of global citizens remain offline.
The low-cost appeal of instant publishing promotes a democratic feeling that
permeates the blogosphere, but when one critically considers global Internet
access and usage, it is clear that the community represents a relatively small
number of global elites who have the luxury of time, talent, and expendable
wealth. In this way the blogosphere parallels ancient Athens, with a system
of enlightened democracy that was nonetheless restricted to the wealthy few.
While there are no formal mechanisms barring entry into the blogosphere, the
mere luxury of Internet access remains out of reach for the vast majority of
global citizens. Although many blogging services may be free, the substantial
amount of capital and operating costs needed to simply access the Internet are
insurmountable obstacles to many in the developing world. Global patterns of
information technology usage show that developing countries predictably lag
behind developed countries both in terms of access and sophistication of use
(Chen, Boase, & Wellman, 2002). Additionally, as previously noted, only
2-7% of Internet users have created weblogs, further enforcing the notion that
the blogosphere includes an incredibly tiny proportion of the total global population
(Lenhart, Horrigan, & Fallows, 2004).
Internet access and, subsequently, instant publishing access are not solely
dependent upon individual wealth. In the case of American blogger Kevin Barbieux
of “The Homeless Guy” fame, who is able to blog by going online
at local libraries (Luo, 2003; Barbieux, 2003), national wealth, technological
advancement, and public investment allow him greater access to the Internet
as a homeless man living in the United States than could perhaps be afforded
by a middle-class homeowner in Bangladesh. Adding to this global digital divide
is the dominance of English on the Internet, which is reflected in the blogosphere
as well; English-language blogs outnumber all other blogs three to one (NITLE,
2003). The promising response to Blogger’s introduction of a Portuguese
version of its software for users in Brazil (Rebêlo, 2002) demonstrates
that there exists a demand for instant publishing in non-English contexts. Through
these tailored blogging portals, tens of thousands of Brazilians have entered
the blogosphere and have made Portuguese second only to English in its share
of blogdom (NITLE, 2003). How the community reacts to changing transnational
demographics as the blogosphere continues to incorporate more non-English bloggers
will be an interesting topic of further research.
As the blogosphere grows and adapts to new demographics, the continued coherence
of this online community is dependent upon the strengthening of shared experience
and a fortification of what it means to be a blogger. Though the active core
of the blogosphere has received the most attention for its effects on the global
mediascape, the much larger periphery of diarist bloggers represents a vital
part of this online community. While filtering out the bulk of the diarist’s
content may serve a valuable purpose in producing a cross-section of meaningful
material for Internet users, it must be remembered that those hundreds of thousands
of writers also add value to the blogosphere and should not be marginalized.
The community must begin to find ways to promote the writings of diarist bloggers
in order for their unique style of blogging to be more widely represented, which
would serve to deepen the shared experience of diarist bloggers and subsequently
strengthen the image of community. So far, the blogging community has been able
to scale from a handful of early pioneers to a transnational imagined community
of millions, but further research into the effects of increasing blog ubiquity
on the blogger identity will soon be warranted. For the foreseeable future,
the imagined blogging community created by the mass ceremony of instant publishing
will continue to produce previously unimaginable quantities of indexed, archived,
and hyperlinked material that impacts people’s every day lives.
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