April 20, 2006
Blogs as Conversations: giving a voice, lending an ear?
In a recent “preliminary” exploration of the concept of conversation in the context of media, Peters (2006) reflected on the concept of a conversation: “We live in an age of conversation. It is one of the unquestioned goods of the moment and a normative ideal of how the media are expected to work in a democracy” (p. 115). This unquestioned good points to a “curious consensus” in the concept of a conversation (p. 116), but this consensus takes virulent form in the discourse around blogs to the point where blogs are frequently defined as being conversations. Scoble and Israel (2006) use the term explicitly throughout their discussions of blogging; Gillmor (2004) speaks of blogs as being part of the larger conversation of journalism; Marlowe (2004) considers blogs to be massive, interlinked conversations; talk of ‘conversational media’ takes blogging as a jumping off point (Gahran, 2006). The term seems to have taken hold, but with technologies such as the telephone and more recently instant messaging, it is opportune to explore what is behind this particular idea of blogs as conversations.
Blogs, short for web logs, describes a type of website that is distinguished by a family of traits that may be present (see Blood, 2002). These most notably include a standardized format with log entries posted in reverse-chronological order, a commitment posting log entries at least weekly, linking to other content that you write about on the web, and a section where readers and enter comments as feedback. Blogs began to appear in the late 1990’s, and became widely reported by 2004 with a series of high-profile challenges to the ‘mass media’ (see, for example, Scoble 2006).
Our choices of metaphors have always played a strong role in shaping our expectations and actions in the world (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). This has been notably true in the case of ‘information technology’, where the trope of the “information highway” for example has led us to understand the internet in a certain light (for example, as something that takes you somewhere else; see Stefik, 1997). It is in this light that the trope of blogs as ‘conversations’ is so interesting. After all, a highway is hardly a place for a conversation; nor for that matter is another of the old metaphors for the internet, the digital library (ibid). Where has this notion of idle conversation come from then, if not just finally a pushing back against the roaring traffic and stern librarians who have silenced it and posited in its place movement and research, respectively? The power of ‘the voice’ has long held sway over other forms of communication and seats of agency, as Ree (1999) has noted in his philosophical history of the voice, and it rarely misses an opportunity to attach itself to a new movement. It was, then, perhaps only a matter of time. Further, in the annals of communication and media study, an emphasis on the primary dyad of the oral versus the literate has bound a whole litany of connotations to oral communication. For example, Ong (1981) noted that primarily oral cultures communicate in a way that is “close to the human lifeworld”, and that their knowledge is re-articulated and evolving rather than sealed and stored.
The concept of the conversation draws from orality, but like Ree’s voice, has proven wily in reinventing itself as needed. As Peters noted, the notion of the conversation has been throughout history a “protean concept” that has changed connotations with the prevailing winds:
Conversation’s definition is elastic and can range from descriptive to normative, from chatter to soulful communion, from the artful dodging of courtly conversation, the bourgeois authenticity of intimacy, to the soul-flights of Platonic or Buberian dialogue and micro-analyses of conversation analysis (Peters, 2006, p. 116).
It is clear that the notion that blogs are ‘conversations’ is not a particularly limiting one to adopt, and may signal as Peters further suggests a Gramscian hegemony: “Conversation steals the prestige of democratic discussion while doing little to make alternative voices heard, but since it does expose other voices, its political meaning is ambivalent” (p. 120). The key question, then, is under what terms are blogs conversations?
This essay teases out three strands of ‘blogs as conversations.’ First, blogs are frequently considered conversations due to the massive interlinking that takes place between blogs. I have titled this aspect blogs as interlinked conversations. Second, as epitomized by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel’s evangelism, blogs are considered conversations because they enable ‘real’, human relationships to replace artificial ones. I have called this aspect blogs as real conversations. Third, as epitomized by Dan Gillmor’s citizen journalism, blogs are conversations because they link citizens and mass media journalists together in a conversation that frames and analyzes news. I have termed this aspect blogs and the larger conversation.
The three epithets of interlinked, real, and larger correspond to three aspects of the trope of conversation that, while often combined, can be usefully distinguished and critiqued separately. Most generally, I suggest that the trope of conversation is strong in the discourse surrounding blogs, and that it is not necessarily a faultless model of communication, especially when it is positioned as the only model.
Blogs and the interlinked conversation
Blogs are frequently described as being conversations by virtue of the interlinking that takes place between blogs. The content of blogs is as much a selection of links to other content on the internet as it is an opinion on an issue. Herring et al (2005), Marlow (2004), and Blood (2002) have all emphasized the links made between blogs in their diverse analyses of blogs.
Short for hyperlinks, the core navigational concept behind hyper-text markup language (HTML) and the world-wide web in general, links have for years enabled an author to go one step beyond “referencing” in his or her website another document, and to directly “link” to that document—provided that it is accessible on the web. Furthermore, one of the familial characteristics that distinguishes blogs from websites is the prominence and pervasiveness of such links in guiding the ‘content’ of the blog, rather than being relegated to a role of ‘navigation’ for a website’s more autonomous content. While the personal website as a form emphasizes the relatively static ‘home page’, encouraging a more whimsical and often spurious use of links to favourite items or puns on the linked word, the blog format features frequently updated ‘entries’ and what Benkler has called the “see for yourself” mode of discussion (Benkler, 2006). Blood (2002) explicitly defined a blog in terms of the links made to other blogs and web content: “I would go so far as to say that if you are not linking to your primary material when you refer to it—especially when in disagreement….you are not keeping a weblog” (p. 18-19). Such a practice of linking provokes characterizations such as Marlowe’s (2004) who called the blogosphere “a massively distributed but completely connected conversation covering every imaginable topic of interest”. Blogs are thus ‘conversations’ because they are constituted of mutual links to other claims and opinions on the web. Because blogs are so interlinked, the reasoning goes, blogs are neither ‘texts’ nor ‘sites’ but conversations, and en masse they form not many conversations but a single, larger conversation.
Herring et. al. (2005) have critically analyzed this interlinked nature of blogs in their quantitative and qualitative study, and their findings dispute the common perception of a massively interlinked blogosphere. They concluded that “a majority of blogs link sparsely or not at all linked to other blogs in the sample, suggesting that the blogosphere is partially interconnected and sporadically conversational” (p. 1). They estimated by one measure that of all the blogs listed on one blog tracker (blo.gs), 42% were “social isolates” with no in-bound or out-bound links (p.10). Considering that several layers of Herring et. al.’s methodology had already biased their sample towards the better-linked blogs, the picture that emerged was not one of pervasive interlinking: “(I)t seems likely that the much-touted textual conversation that all of the blogosphere is supposed to be engaged in involves a minority of blogs…and sporadic activity even among those blogs” (p. 10).
Despite this reality, the fact remains that there are more links in blogs than there are in other types of webpages, let alone more traditional types of media. Furthermore, the A-list blogs that are well-linked and “sporadically conversational” can be said to represent through metonymy the blog form for much popular discourse. For these reasons, it is opportune to investigate more closely some assumptions about blogs as interlinked conversations, keeping in mind the misleading sample being discussed.
Framed as technical achievements in reciprocal media, blogs are the latest in a long line of media technologies enthused about as being more democratic and powerful. Brecht ( 1979) discussed (and experimented with) radio’s capacity to be “a gigantic system of channels…if it were capable not only of transmitting but of receiving, of making the listener not only hear but also speak, not of isolating him but of connecting him” (p. 169). Similarly, Enzensberger (1974) articulated a system of media that empowers citizens, and in differentiating ‘repressive’ and ‘emancipatory’ uses of media, he used concepts similar to those surrounding blogs (Enzensberger, p. 269):
Repressive use of media Emancipatory use of media
Centrally controlled program
One transmitter, many receivers
Immobilization of isolated individuals
Passive consumer behavior
Production by specialists
Control by property owners or bureaucracy Decentralized program
Each receiver a potential transmitter
Mobilization of the masses
Interaction of those involved, feedback
A political learning process
Social control by self-organization
In many ways, the aspects listed under the column “Emancipatory use of media” are evident throughout blog discourse wherever the trope of a conversation is employed. However, it is interesting that for Brecht and Enzensberger, these facets root from a basic change in the technology itself: the abolition of “the technical distinction between receivers and transmitters” (Enzensberger, p. 262).
Both Brecht and Enzensberger articulate views that echo a more conversational type of media by virtue of the ability for the media to engage in both ‘speaking’ and ‘listening’ functions. Whereas blogs materially link to each other in a conversation, Brecht’s radio and Enzensberger’s various media epitomized a proto-linking behaviour by being cast as tools for richer call-and-response communications.
In this light, however, it is worth asking about the relationship between ‘linking’ on the one hand, and speaking/listening on the other hand (or transmitting/receiving, writing/reading, and so on). That is, what exactly does it mean to “link” in the context of creating more equitable and powerful forms of media as was envisioned by Brecht and Enzensberger? Herring et. al. comment only briefly that (not to play on words) the connection between ‘links’ and ‘conversation’ is tenuous, and there is nary more than a nebulous gathering of grumblings to echo this critique elsewhere (see Gahran, 2006; Jennings, 2005). Gahran, for instance, in a blog posting titled “10 Reasons Why Blogs are an Awkward Conversation Tool” (Gahran, 2005) offered a lists of such entries as “comments don’t necessarily = conversations” and “most comments are not responded to”. Comments to Gahran’s post, in turn, were variously supportive and critical (as such, this post ironically constituted what could be considered one of the rare conversational moments referred to by Herring et. al. (2005)). Nonetheless, Gahran’s modest point that the textual characteristics of blogs do not necessarily make an ideal medium of conversation is well founded.
By the conflation of links with the equally technically abstract notion of sending/receiving (or speaking/listening), blogs misleadingly connote a technologically-grounded (and thus determined) version of the commitment to receiving or listening envisaged by Brecht and Enzensberger. “Links” represent a connection between texts, but they are not automatically two-way, as the term “link” might imply in most contexts. Gahran and others worry that—as Herring et. al. found—comments are frequently not left, nor are those that are left often responded to, and outbound links are neither automatically nor even frequently reciprocated in kind with inbound links. Just as with Brecht’s and Enzensberger’s media technologies, people looking to nudge the medium towards democratic ideals must actively encourage greater communicational interplay rather than passively expect, as per Gahran’s critique, that the technology of blogs autonomously exercises some conversational ideal on behalf of its users (the ‘sin’ of technological autonomy; Latour, 1996).
Kunst (2005) in an article titled “Liberation or Control: Disobedient Connections in Contemporary Works” critiqued the ability of digital links to promote freedom of expression. For Kunst, each connection, regardless of its rhetorical function, reinforces and ossifies procedures at the level of the protocol. With respect to blogs, this implies that linking is always a reinforcement of the tacit assumptions about the inherent democracy of blogs, and a reinforcement of blogs as a viable alternative to face-to-face conversations. This critique, similar to Baudrillard’s (1981), will be revisited in the conclusion. Suffice it to say that there is inherent in blogs a capability to create a text that is very responsive to other texts by virtue of linking explicitly to those other texts, but as Herring et. al. (2005) point out, and in contrast to Blood’s (2002) definition of blogs, such behaviour is neither mandatory nor common.
Blogs and the real conversation
Another identifiable sense in which blogs are like conversations is the one epitomized by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, authors of a popular blog and subsequent book called Naked Conversations (2006). They positioned blogs as being conversations in the sense that blogs encourage authentic and casual relationships between people and organizations –relationships that would otherwise be characterized by the more formal, veiled, and manipulative mode of public relations and commercial mass media.
Israel, a former (traditional) public relations executive, and Scoble, an “A-list” blogger who currently blogs on behalf of Microsoft Corp (scobleizer.wordpress.com/) argued that the informality, transparency, parity, and listening that characterize conversations can be fruitfully leveraged in blogs. The title of the book is echoed in a quote from Loic Le Meur of the software company Six Apart: “I am extremely private, and from the very beginning, one of the hardest things to do with the blog was to completely expose myself to the world. It felt a bit like standing naked on a podium at first” (Israel and Scoble, p. 73). The authors quickly add that “(i)t seems to us that his naked conversations are paying off” (ibid). This naked quality is somewhat revolutionary in public relations because blogging circumvents the tightly controlled “press releases” and allows employees to write relatively freely (with considerable limits, however).
At the core of what makes blog postings ‘conversations’ for Scoble and Israel is the notion of being real and of listening. With respect to proper blogging, they state that “one simple rule for doing it right is be real. If you are going to blog, be authentic…(l)et people know who you are and where you are coming from” (p. 149). There is thus a focus on informality and transparency on behalf of the blogger that is continually contrasted throughout their text with the formality and veiled nature of public relations. More importantly still, however, is the notion of listening. Blogging “drives in two directions—outbound and inbound” and this specifically “lets you listen to what people are saying about your product, company, etc…” (p. 44). On a wider scale, this “changes the rules of the game from a one-way monologue to a two-way conversation” (p. 100). By the end of the book, Scoble and Israel conclude:
Ultimately, blogging has ended one era and ignited another. In this new era, companies don’t win just by talking to people. They win by listening to people as well. We call it the Conversational Era. (p. 232)
However, the charm of the trope of ‘listening’—especially to customers—is not new to the early 21st century. Most public relations proclamations that a company, government, or organization is ‘listening’ are justifiably met with skeptical ears, so it is warranted to investigate what it means in Scoble’s and Israel’s context to ‘listen.’
The cases described throughout the book make clearer that listening simply means reading and responding to the feedback that has been written by others in response to your blog, whether that feedback is located on your blog (i.e., in the comments section) or on another person’s blog (i.e. a blog posting that takes as its topic you or your blog posting). Furthermore, for some especially powerful bloggers such as G.M. CEO Bob Lutz, even reading other blogs is not required and an occasional response to a comment is sufficient to prompt an enthusiastic account of ‘listening’ (p. 49-51). This critique does not ignore the radical and exciting development of “Fortune 10” CEO’s typing directly to ‘the public’, but I do seek to specify the notion of ‘listening’ in this context, as I do that of ‘conversations’ in this essay as a whole. In sum, throughout the text, ‘listening’ is a discursive and psychological issue that helps the person being listened to feel as if he or she is engaged with the blog author, rather than being a shift in the decision-making structure per se (p. 12). Simply responding—showing that you care—works quite well for the technology industry and for small entrepreneurs for whom responses with the readers will likely only reveal the hard-working and earnest nature of the people behind the companies. However, ‘PR’ has evolved for a reason, and when there are several competing ‘responses’, it is not clear that the same Darwinian patterns of feigned sincerity will not re-appear in blogs. To be sure, textual responses require reading the excerpts being responded to and giving them at least cursory reflection, which may represent a victory in itself from the perspective of the authors, but listening does not require democratic restructuring of your decision making processes (as ‘listening’ might in a government context)—it requires only some form of typed response. Ironically, then, from the point of view of the visitor to the blog, ‘listening’ is all talk—or rather, all type (although of course it can be much more).
Given that bloggers are “real” and that they “listen”, Scoble and Israel sell the material benefits of blogging. Blogging lets you “find and join the conversation” (p. 44). It is notable that it is the conversation—rather than a conversation—because in proposing blogs as a method to acquire customers, Scoble and Israel shift from speaking about a conversation with people to speaking about the conversation. A conversation implies the interaction between a real person who listens to and converses with people rather than issue press releases, and such a perspective assumes (as is the reality with Scoble) an already-present group of customers for whom the greatest problem is a lack of communication with the company in question. For such already-present gathering, bloggers have the liberty of finding a conversation. On the other hand, as is illustrated by the book’s case studies of successful up-and-coming businesses, the conversation refers to a conversation with specifically those people who will be your customers, in your market, with you near or at the top of a Google search for your product or category. The conversation is invoked in Naked Conversations explicitly in the context of creating a conversation with one’s market. Such a connection was drawn between markets and conversations by the popular web ‘meme’ and subsequent book The Cluetrain Manifesto (Searls et. al., 2000), which stated as the first of its many tenets of the digital age that “markets are conversations” (ibid). With its implications of Adam Smith’s invisible hand rendered to Hayakian perfection via clear channels of digital communication, the ‘markets as conversations’ meme resonated particularly well from among the manifesto’s proclamations. In seductively courting the ‘markets as conversations’ meme, Naked Conversations strips away not only the outer shell of public relations, but stealthily with it the binding undergarments of all structured interactions with the customer under the guise, all the while, of an innocent conversation. If the conversation is a materially profitable interaction with specific goals coupled with minimal personal investment, however, it may no longer be valid to call it a real conversation.
Regardless, Scoble’s and Israel’s argument emphasizes in the new and well developed business cases alike a transformative process inherent in the act of blogging that is unique to the notion of blogging as a real conversation. In reference to ‘Ernie the Attorney’, a lawyer who began a blog, and ‘Bailey’, a church youth leader who began to blog at his church, Scoble and Israel describe the transformative process that changes the bloggers themselves as much as it changes their relationships to their readers. Bailey reports that the transparency of writing a blog has permeated the culture at his church, and that he himself has become “more articulate” and has “learned to listen better to people with opposing views” (p. 71). Likewise, Ernie the Attorney is quoted as saying that beyond affecting his legal practice, blogging “helps me get through life” (p. 87). In this emphasis on process over product and personal development ‘behind the scenes’, Scoble’s and Israel’s notion of blogs are reminiscent of such documentary movements as Canada’s “Challenge for Change” series (Marchessault, 1995). In that case, an emphasis was shifted away from creating a final product of value to encouraging improved communication and organization behind the scenes. In the end, the product was considered to be only a part, and a small part, of the overall goals of the project, which were to help with community activism and self-determination. Naked Conversations evokes such transformations and links them to the more connected, transparent, and authentic style of conversational communication, but these are “additional” benefits to the material gains to be made with blogs.
Blogs and the larger conversation
Dan Gillmor, a proponent of blog-based citizen’s media and author of We The Media (2004), characterized blogs as being like conversations in the sense that a distributed and diversely knowledgeable citizenry of bloggers can help to frame and analyze stories by engaging with each other’s partiality and diversity rather than by attempting to repress those qualities. ‘The news’ is thus seen as both the process and the product of situated citizen journalists and more traditional journalists engaging with a “larger conversation” taking place, in opposition to mainstream journalism’s manic bifurcation of individualistic news-making practices on the one hand, and objective, mass-oriented news “lectures” on the other hand.
Gillmor, a former journalist, stated that “(m)y readers are collectively smarter than me” (Gillmor, 79), and this sentiment, with its overtones of distributed intelligence and open source philosophy, drives his technology-centric version of citizen journalism. Nonetheless, Gillmor described an evolution more than a revolution:
Inviting the audience to contribute isn’t a new phenomenon. After all, we’ve asked readers to write letters to the editor for a long time, and we generally answer the phones when readers call with tips or complaints. In other words, some conversation has always taken place; we just need to have more. (Gillmor, p. 120)
The shift Gillmor described is from a journalistic style of address epitomized by the “lecture” to one epitomized by the “seminar” or “conversation” (p. 132). In discussing his evolving conceptions of journalism, Gillmor wrote that he too was inspired by Cluetrain’s proclamation that markets are conversations: “Journalism is also a conversation, I realized. Cluetrain and its antecedents have become a foundation for my evolving view of the trade” (Gillmor, p. 14). Unlike a technological view of conversation based on linking, and unlike the notion of a ‘real’ conversation between organizations and the public, Gillmor’s conversation emphasizes the value of non-journalists to help frame and analyze the news.
Tomorrow’s news reporting and production will be more of a conversation, or a seminar. The lines will blur between producers and consumers, changing the role of both in ways we’re only beginning to grasp now. The communication network itself will be a medium for everyone to have voice (Gillmor, xiii).
‘Having a voice’ in this context is not to author a linked text, nor to assume an authentic, personable human presence, but rather an opportunity to have your own expertise “matter” in the world. For Gillmor, mass media journalism cannot move quickly enough to match the intelligence offered by today’s citizenry. Whereas the broadcast technology and resulting capital required to communicate distant events once concentrated the voices of journalists/communicators, the many-to-many technology of the web has rendered obsolete the privileged position of journalist. Successful journalism today will harness the many voices that are prepared to speak, and engage and encourage them rather than attempt to compete with them. In 2005, Gillmor started Bayosphere, a citizen’s media hub intended to foster and explore the ‘movement’ (see also Gillmor, 2003). In this context, ‘having a voice’ for Gillmor meant that larger structures of journalism recognized and incorporated the opinions of non-journalists.
Gillmor emphasized, however, that journalistic enclaves are slow to shift from being speakers to being listeners: “I’m still not convinced that Big Media is doing the most important thing: listening” (Gillmor, 2004, p. 237). For Gillmor, ‘listening’ in the context of citizen journalism is not a ‘response’ on a blog form, but it is a procedural change in newsmaking practices from viewing the public as ‘sources’ to viewing them as colleagues. ‘Listening’ thus has political implications among journalists in terms of editorial decision making. Gillmor’s criticism of the Howard Dean online campaign effort is telling of his insistence on actual, political reverberations of his notion of ‘listening.’ The Dean campaign, popularly held up as a sign-of-the-times for internet-based activism, ultimately failed because, Gillmor argued, Dean did not listen in Gillmor’s sense of the term:
A more legitimate criticism of the Dean Internet effort was that it didn’t seem to draw much in the way of policy assistance from the grassroots. Perhaps this was inevitable; after all, candidates are supposed to take stands, and voters then can make decisions about whom to support. But a true conversation between a candidate and his public would involve the candidate genuinely learning from the people. That process wasn’t prominent in the Dean enterprise (Gillmor, 2004, p. 97).
For Gillmor, ‘listening’ is not only a technological or psycho-social act, but it requires a loss of autonomy on behalf of those doing the listening.
A ‘conversation’ for Gillmor is thus always about how newsmaking practices and editorial decisions including news framing and reporting reverberate politically through different groups: citizens, “journalists” and mass media institutions, and the figures and events that make the news (p. 237). The ‘conversation’ is an editorial one about what makes ‘the news,’ and how to integrate situated citizen accounts with larger, mass media accounts, while the news itself is a conversation that can be diversely accessed from among several perspectives.
On a more critical note, however, it has been shown in the context of citizen journalism that in many ways, journalism is notably not like a conversation. From the point of view of the ‘citizen’, it is much more work than a conversation usually is, and it may require the citizen to continue on long after he might feel he has ‘exhausted’ his own interest in the issue. As was the case with Indymedia, and to a certain extent with Gillmor’s own “Bayosphere” project—which never fully fledged and was recently acquired—useful journalism is rare and requires a vigilance (and perhaps a paycheck) not properly evoked by the metaphor of a conversation (Gillmor, 2004; see also Whitney, 2005).
Similarly, from the point of view of a journalist who takes Gillmor at his word and strives to engage citizen journalists into the larger conversation, some ‘members of the conversation’ will be unproductive and even harmful (Whitney, 2005). Under the model of a conversation, the implied resolution is to shuffle away from such people, or to ignore them altogether—perhaps exchanging knowing glances with others ‘in’ the conversation. Saying that editorial decisions are conversations does not solve the fundamental problem of the editor: to manage the various voices who wish to speak into the limiting voice of the text. It is finally unclear what explicit editorial policy—what solution—the metaphor of a ‘conversation’ implies. Most likely, it simply does not imply a solution at all; it implies the lack of need for a solution.
Blogs have much to recommend them as important communication media, especially due to the form’s emphasis on linking directly to other arguments, on encouraging transparent and authentic self-representations, and on integrating diverse voices into one’s world-view. These aspects can be found in the various claims about blogs that, in one way or another, they are like conversations. However, the trope of a conversation does not encompass all that blogs are about in discourse and practice. Some aspects of blogs are ignored by our focus on their conversational aspects, as is the one-way nature of most blogs, the tacit goal of “conversing” only with potential customers, and the problem of encouraging journalists to ‘converse’ in a responsible manner.
Peters (2006) states that “(c)onversation is no more free of history, power, and control than any other form of communication” (p. 125). Returning to the ‘curious consensus’ on the inherent good of a conversation as an all-encompassing trope for social relations, it becomes clear that in fact, in many ways, conversations foster a limiting, hedonistic, and ignorant mode of communication. Conversations are poor models for policy because they always imply “me” being heard, and they only ask that I participate when “I” choose. There is generally no consideration of anyone else but “me”, let alone those whose voices are systematically absent from the conversation.
For all the discourse about listening as a conversational aspect of blogs, at the level of the meta-conversation (Kunst (2005) would say “the protocol”; Baudrillard (1981) would say “the form”), conversations are particularly agnostic with regard to any responsibility of who to include in “the” conversation. As Peters noted, conversations “do little to make alternative voices heard” (p. 120), although they imply the necessary inclusion of other voices. A ‘conversation’ tells us nothing about the conditions in which the conversation emerged, and the whole of the blogosphere has few reminders such as others on the street, the homeless, or the truck drivers passing by, of which people are not in the conversation.
Baudrillard (1981) critiqued Enzensberger’s call for more call-and-response in media on the basis that this mode of communication enabled not true reciprocity, but only a repetition of models of domination (p. 286). There was no real response—no responsibility (ibid). Similarly, blogs-as-conversations engender in bloggers no responsibility outside of a hedonistic and arbitrary series of textual sessions of call-and-perhaps-response.
Only because we have been free to characterize interactions post facto as being “conversations” (or not) has the term not overstayed its welcome. Post facto, any external imposition on a person’s own totalitarian control over what he or she considers a ‘conversation’ (or with whom he or she ought to ‘converse’; or what they ought to converse about; and so on) is likely to undermine its characterization as ‘a conversation.’ Once material forms of media such as blogs began to be characterized as ‘conversations,’ I suspect, the blog as a form has had to find, and will continue to find, ways of developing out of that limiting structure, while it also leverages it to gain popularity.
Such moves towards transcending the trope of conversation are evident on several fronts. Several ‘A-list’ bloggers (including Scoble) have recently opted to moderate or altogether turn off the comments section. While spun as a way of enabling better conversation on the whole by focusing on blog-to-blog dialogue, it could also be interpreted as a move away from the ideals of conversation within a blog. In a move to begin moderating (approving) the comments on his site, Scoble anticipates criticism but justifies his move using not the language of transparency, but that of closed ‘rooms’:
This is a huge change for me. I wanted a free speech area, but after having a week off I realize that I need to make a change. That, I’m sure, will lead to attacks of “censorship” and all that hooey. Too bad. I’m instituting a “family room” rule here. If I don’t like it, it gets deleted and deleted without warning — just the same as if you said something abusive in my family room I’d kick you out of my house. If you don’t like that new rule, there are plenty of other places on the Internet to write your thoughts (Scoble, 2006b).
Unlike a conversation in the truest form, a blog is, after all, a document, a canvas on which to “write” your thoughts as Scoble put it (notably invoking the term “write” as opposed to “express”, “speak”, or “discuss”). It is not a particular style of blog-to-blog interaction (although through metonymy blogs have assumed the connotation of interlinking) but a name for one such material member in an interaction. As such, blogs are also personal property with which their owners may control at will. As the inevitable reality of blogs-as-personal-property reverberates throughout the discourse, the trope of conversations will curtail in favour, perhaps, of a more personalized “living room” analogy that still performs difference from the public ‘mass media’. The ‘information highway’ is a seldom-uttered metaphor in the more recent writings about the internet, and there is no reason to assume that discourse surrounding blogs-as-conversations will prove more tenacious.
Nonetheless, metaphors matter, and the conversations metaphor is currently being leveraged to position blogs as inherently more democratic, transparent, given to listening, and diverse than other forms of mass media. Such claims should be recognized as part of a discourse that ignores as much about blogs as it reveals. The trope of blogs as conversations can neither contain the diverse and shifting natures of blogs nor address our broad communicative needs, both of which extend well beyond conversations.
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