Monday, April 02, 2007

Chapter 1 (Fifth Installment)

I welcome your Peer Review!

First Installment: Introduction

Second Installment: That Which We Call a Blog?

Third Installment: From Blogs to Blog Carnivals and Beyond

Fourth Installment:The Myth of Internet Democracy

The Imagined Communities of Blog Communities

“Blogging is an amazing thing, a low barrier of entry to publishing that gives everyone a voice. But from within the aggregated masses of bloggers something else was emerging. Inside the chaotic cacophony of voices, a pattern was taking shape. More than just taking shape, actually, it seemed to be coming alive. My attention split. I was still focused – obsessed even – with blogs and their potential, but I could not ignore this living network, this ecosystem that seemed to be forming.” –Biz Stone (63)

In describing the blogosphere, many bloggers point to community as one of its most defining features. Referencing the debates and exchanges created through comments left by readers of blog articles and the networks formed through linking and information sharing, bloggers show that weblog communities exist beyond an individual blog’s readership. Blood provides one example of this sensibility in her account of the history of blogging when she states that “a discussion of the history of weblogs is more about a community than a form” (64). This claim to community, however, could be considered suspect, as many of the interactions that occur in blogosphere communities are strictly virtual. Can communities really be created via cyberspace? If so, what types of communities exist? And, what are the effects of such communities – online or offline?

In many ways, the communities that are enabled through online interaction in the blogosphere resemble the “imagined communities” described by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. In this text, Anderson focuses on the rise of the nation state and explains that imagined communities are what enabled this process. Anderson argues that the nation “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (65). It is the ability of individual members of the nation to conceive of their belonging to and participation in a national community that allows the state to come into existence with political and social power in a global context. Like the citizens Anderson discusses, in writing a blog or hosting a blog carnival, bloggers imagine that a readership that will appreciate their efforts exists. While it is possible for bloggers to track the number of visits to their weblogs to some degree by using site meters that monitor website activity, many bloggers continue to participate in the blogosphere despite the fact that they get little confirmation that their blog attracts traffic. These bloggers assume that readers are lurking, or anonymously visiting weblogs without leaving any indication of their presence. This experience of community may seem unique to the internet, but in light of Anderson’s point that, “all communities larger than the primordial village of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” (66), blog communities are clearly more comparable to communities that exist offline than they are different from them. Like Anderson’s offline imagined communities, online imagined communities are facilitated through similar processes, such as print culture, and have similar effects, such as political power.

For Anderson, the rise of print-capitalism is perhaps the most important factor that allowed the modern nation to be imagined. Citing the rise of print culture, Anderson explains that,
Why this transformation [of modes of apprehending the world generally and of concepts of time specifically] should be so important for the birth of the imagined community of the nation can best be seen if we consider the basic structure of two forms of imagining which first flowered in Europe in the eighteenth century: the novel and the newspaper. For these forms provided the technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation (67).

Novels and newspapers, as written representations, and maps and national emblems, as graphic representations, allowed members of a nation to apprehend their simultaneity and contemporaneity. Further, they served as vehicles to convey state ideology that defined the nation to the masses. Similarly, weblogs are a form of new media that facilitate the spread of ideas and ideologies that establish imagined communities. In the way that a newspaper account in the eighteenth century might allow a citizen to feel implicated in a natural disaster effecting residents of the nation’s far-off colony, weblogs allow individuals to feel a sense of collectivity in their experiences despite temporal divides. Individuals who would never meet in the offline world become connected through the networks of communication cyberspace fosters.

An anecdote Wil Wheton includes in his foreword to Stone’s Who Let the Blogs Out? illustrates this phenomenon. Wheaton describes his experience reading the online diary of a young woman who lived in Fullerton, California:
I don’t remember how I came across it [the blog], but I remember being entranced by the three years of her life that were compressed into a few days of reading. I watched her grow from an awkward seventeen-year-old into a confident twenty-year-old. I saw friendships blossom and fall apart, I met boys she was certain she’d marry, and saw them break her heart. I watched her fight and make up with her parents, graduate from high school, and leave for college…and never heard from her again. Maybe she lost interest, or moved her diary to another source, but I felt a loss when this person I’d never (nor had any intention of meeting) fell off my radar. It was as if a TV show that I’d watched for years had suddenly been canceled. I was shocked to discover that I was emotionally invested in someone I’d never met. It was like reality television…except that it was real (68).
While reading this young woman’s blog, Wheaton became “invested” her because of the personal connection reading her writing fostered. Although Wheaton decided not to pursue this individual, many other internet users do attempt to contact the individuals they encounter in cyberspace with whom they feel an affinity. Through this ability to find individuals who share similar experiences and viewpoints, blogs create the foundation for community networks.

Anderson concentrates his evaluation of imagined communities on their relevance to the modern nation, but the creation of imagined communities through print materials is not limited to the conceptualization of organized governments. As Beetham points out in “Periodicals and the New Media: Women and Imagined Communities,”
Though governments and religious authorities continue to control and proscribe how and what gets written and read, whether in print or electronic media, these technologies are difficult to control. They cross boundaries – not just political boundaries but crucially the boundary between the material world and the consciousness of the individual reader (70).

In their boundary crossing, the imagined communities created through new media like weblogs offer a potential space to engage and challenge official ideologies and mainstream sensibilities. Importantly, feminists and other social activists are realizing the facility of new media and are incorporating blogging into their activism. Biz Stone illustrates this perspective in Who Let the Blogs Out?:
Blogs are digital entities sprinkled throughout the vastness of cyberspace, yet they create their own connectedness. The blogosphere is a network of blogs that lives within the World Wide Web – a web within the web – but is more than documents and hyperlinks. Behind it all are many individuals who combine to form an aggregated entity with its own force; it is a new media ecosystem with a complex social culture based on knowledge, entertainment, and the sharing of ideas. In many ways, the blogosphere is fulfilling the original promise of the Internet: a vast, digital democracy of interconnected minds. In addition, through methods of operation inherent in the blogging culture, such as blogrolling, blogging is a naturally occurring social network based on intellectual attraction (71).
The diction Stone employs of “connectedness,” “new media ecosystem,” “complex social culture,” and “digital democracy” not only shows Stone’s belief in blog-based communities, but also highlights his awareness of the potential weblogs present for political action through a “naturally occurring social network based on intellectual attraction” (72). Further, blogs expand social networks across the vastness of cyberspace; unlike offline activism, online activism is restricted to a lesser degree by temporal limitations. Individuals who may have never interacted in the offline world often find each other through blogging and form coalitions. The “digital democracy”(73) that Stone believes in is limited, however, by the digital divide in terms of which individuals are able to have a voice and to be represented online.

As previously discussed, not all individuals have equal access to internet-based technologies. The ramifications of this unequal access is unequal participation and, subsequently, unequal power differentials in terms of who defines and controls cyberspace. For example, Nakaumura points out that “people of color were functionally absent from the Internet at precisely the time when its discourse was acquiring its distinctive contours” (74) Therefore, the hegemonic discourse of cyberspace is implicitly exclusionary. While theorists like Nakamura have made it clear how material embodiments translate into online exclusions, less work has been done in terms of answering how exclusion from online discourse effects the actions that are mobilized through this discursive frame. Beetham succinctly highlights this yet answered question:
We may all be cyborgs now but we are also – as Haraway (75) acknowledges – still embodied creatures whose material circumstances both enable and limit us. Cyberspace may make us all appear as equals but we are still very differently situated in terms of access to power, whether political power, economic power or knowledge power (and these are often related). How does the identity constructed in cyberspace relate to the materialality of the lives of those who play there? How do cyborg societies relate to political movements which seek to redress inequalities of power (76)?
If the digital divide limits participation in online discourse, does it also limit the potential that this discourse has for shaping social activism? What types of identity politicking are taking place in cyberspace? Are “cyborg societies” (77) able to “redress inequalities of power” (78) that originate in embodied inequalities, play out in online abilities, and again cross back into the offline world?

Some of the same bloggers who have overemphasized the internet’s democratic qualities, as previously illustrated, also provide insight into how inequalities can be overcome through discursive moves that subvert hegemonic internet discourses that are produced through mainstream sources, corporate interests, and state sponsorship. For example, Blood asserts that “[m]arginalized voices, dissenting viewpoints, and obscure websites all flourish in the weblog universe” (79). In some ways, such a statement does contradict the claims of internet equality that Blood also makes, but it does not make this observation any less important in terms of the counterhegemonic moves that it highlights. While the blogs that provide spaces for “marginalized voices” (80) and “dissenting viewpoints” (81) may be obscured – and it is important to consider why such occlusions occur – they do, in fact, exist. A scenario provided by Stone illustrates the impact that such cyber-spaces can have:
The future of peer-to-peer file sharing is not music or movies – it’s information. Getting web-enabled cell phones into developing nations and showing people how to use them as a broadcasting tool could be transformative. The self-organizing power of a hyperconnected population is frightening to regimes that are used to the illusion that they have control over the information that citizens receive. When knowledge can spread virally anywhere in the world, we will be getting somewhere. In fact, there are similarities between the spread of information and the spread of disease (82).
In a notably negative metaphoric context, Stone imagines a viral spread of information through a “hyperconnected population” (83) that can challenge the power of currently dominant regimes. In this way, the dissemination of information becomes a subversive site of revolution for groups that have a non-dominant status online or offline. Numerous examples of this type of political power can be seen in American politics; Howard Dean capitalized on blogging in his 2004 short-lived presidential campaign yielding impressive popular support and, in the same election, opponents of John Kerry used blogs to mobilize the so-called swift boat movement.

The political power of blogging is something that feminist activists are taking into consideration in their work. Like the “[w]omen activists [in the growth of the periodical press of the nineteenth century]” who “understood and grasped the opportunities the new press offered to intervene in the political and cultural debates," Beetham argues that the imagined communities of the blogosphere offer a similar potential space for feminists to make social change (84). Tobias provides evidence that such interventions are taking place:
Blogs by women, about women, or presenting women’s issues are growing in numbers. Like most blogs, they vary in subject matter, degree of activity, and target audience. Nonetheless, these blogs share a common purpose – to provide a living forum for women’s issues. From stream of consciousness tirades to well-honed and fact-based political debate, from the hilarious and satirical musings of Wonkette (http://www.wonkette.com/) to the self-described Thoughts of an Average Woman (http://toaaw.typepad.com/toaaw/), feminist rhetoric thrives in the blogosphere (85).
And, Tobias implies, such feminist rhetoric is capable of making a difference in mainstream culture by creating an alternative – and feminist – discourse. Tobias is unclear, however, on the ultimate efficacy of blogging in securing social change:
But it may be too soon to predict the blog’s longevity and ultimate influence in a world where information is increasingly ubiquitous. For now, it’s enough to know that women and those interested in women’s issues are actively contributing to this ever-growing blogosphere of information! (86)
It is important to consider how “women and those interested in women’s issues" (87) and their active contributions are effecting the “ever-growing blogosphere of information” (88) Specifically, questions about how feminism is being articulated online through blogging and blog carnivals and how the communities that form around these articulations operate need to be pursued.

Notes
61. Stone, Who Let the Blogs Out?, 100.
62. Ibid.
63. Stone, Who Let the Blogs Out?, 5.
64. Blood, The Weblog Handbook, 147.
65. Anderson, Imagined Communities, 6.
66. Ibid.
67. Ibid, 24-5.
68. Ibid.
69. Ibid, 24-5.
70. Beetham, “Periodicals and the New Media.”
71. Stone, Who Let the Blogs Out?, 192.
72. Ibid.
73. Ibid.
74. Nakamura, Cybertypes, xi.
75. Here Beetham is referencing Donna Haraway’s Simian, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.
76. Beetham, “Periodicals and the New Media.”
77. Ibid.
78. Ibid.
79. Blood, The Weblog Handbook, 15.
80. Ibid.
81. Ibid.
82. Stone, Who Let the Blogs Out?, 130.
83. Ibid.
84. Beetham, “Periodicals and the New Media.”
85. Tobias, “Blog This! An Introduction to Blogs, Blogging, and the Feminist Blogosphere,” http://www.library.wisc.edu/libraries/WomensStudies/fc/fcblogs1.htm.
86. Ibid.
87. Ibid.
88. Ibid.


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