« Backtrackin | Main | Blogging @ Ruins »

Blogging @ MEA

Mission accomplished! Despite what was barely a nap this morning, I managed to scrape myself together and made the drive to Rochester this afternoon for the Media Ecology Association conference. And as promised, I had the pleasure of attending a plenary-quality panel on blogging: Liz Lawley, Alex Halavais, Sébastien Paquet, Clay Shirky, and Jill Walker. And here's my rundown...it's long, and there are places where I'm projecting, I think, but I trust you'll indulge me...

Liz Lawley chaired the panel, and opened with a brief discussion of the definitional problems that weblog research encounters:

  • There's no such thing as an "average" blog, making generalizable conclusions difficult;
  • Most so-called "personal" blogs defy narrow categorization;
  • Most weblogs shift in tone and focus over time, making it difficult to generalize even within a single blog;
  • Many of those writing about them aren't writing them, and research that treats bloggers as "others" often misses crucial aspects.

Liz talked about these as quasi-themes, and while the panelists didn't directly address them per se, it wasn't difficult to see connections among these opening remarks and the talks (e.g., Paquet on narrow centralization, Walker on the MeFi-cation of Straight Outta Compton, etc.).

Alex Halavais spoke first, and took a little more than his fair share of time, I suppose, for a couple of reasons. There were some audience questions for one thing, but in the context of the panel, Alex's talk also provided a nice frame for the other speakers, each of whom (if I recall correctly) referred to some of the points he raised. He began by explaining that he was less interested in what blogs are right now than in what they might become, particularly as they stand to transform the academy. An audience member asked for a baseline definition of a blog, and the 2nd, more unconventional answer Alex offered was to suggest that we should be thinking at the level of community or network rather than individual blogs. I liked that.

The blogging "revolution" has yet to occur in the academy, and if I understood this correctly, Alex introduced a distinction between blogging as a potentially academic activity and blogging as an activity carried on by a handful of academics. I think he implied that to get to the former, we need to start looking more closely at the latter. He presented the results from his recent study of academic bloggers, and then discussed several archetypes for academic bloggers (teacher, memex, public intellectual, institutional critic, & diarist).

He had to zip through the later portion of his talk, but his interest is in the symbiosis of academic conferences and weblogging, seeing both as spaces for both the exchange of ideas as well as the creation & maintenance of our social networks. Both, he argued, provide a gateway or bridge between individual and collective intelligence. He closed on a note of optimism, urging us to get blogging, to experiment, and to learn from our successes and failures.

Next up was Sébastien Paquet, who began by noting two crucial characteristics of weblogs. First, that the basic unit is not the book, article, or even page, but the post. Weblogs are comprised of many small pieces. Second, weblogs allow for informal interaction in wide open spaces [this dovetailed with a point that Liz raised during Alex's talk as well--namely that one of the things that differentiates weblogs from lists or BBs is the openness and the serendipity of contact].

Seb's talk focused on what I would describe as the organizational structure of the academy. The academy, he argued, is optimized for specialists--there are central organizations, journals, presses, programs, etc., and while the threshold for reaching the center is perhaps high, it is not difficult for specialists to locate themselves or to find like minds.

However, this is a problem for those researchers who aren't specialists: issue-oriented researchers who pursue their topic of inquiry across multiple methodologies or disciplines; synthesists who draw on multiple disciplines and put ideas together; boundary spanners who attempt to draw ideas from one field into another; and originals/visionaries, whose ideas simply defy easy categorization within disciplines. For these kinds of thinkers, finding an audience for their work can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Seb contrasted the centralized, high-threshold model of finding one's audience with what weblogs allow a writer. Weblogs can help a researcher generate conversations, even if they begin very small. They allow an audience to develop over time [as opposed, say, to a professional journal that only accepts articles likely to appeal to a majority of its readership...]. And each member of a blog's audience is him or herself a writer with an audience, which allows trust networks to expand, FOAF-style. Finally, the fact that this network carries material traces in the forms of links, comments, trackbacks, et al, allows a researcher to maintain far closer contact with an audience.

He closed with a visualization/mapping of the growth of an individual's audience/network, and finished by reasserting the value that weblogs possess for building collaborative, dialogic networks.

Clay Shirky's talk was called "Weblogs as Universal Solvent," because of the way that they have dissolved language, disciplinary, geographical, and institutional barriers to action and collaboration. He began by identifying three "Deep Forces" that he sees at play in the emergence of weblogs: "Surprised by Simplicity" -- weblogs represented a turn from the colossal bloatware of the late 90s, and allowed the creation of robust, dynamic sites based on a few basic principles and a minimal, technical threshold; "Atomization & Recombination" -- blogs work at the micro-level of the post, and make it possible to combine the atoms in a variety of ways; "Coordination Replaces Organization" -- activity is not "organized" from the top-down, but begun from the bottom and eventually distributed laterally.

Clay identified what he described as a framing problem. Computer-mediated communication provided an umbrella in the 90s, under which was gathered publishing, computer-supported collaborative work, and online communities. But this umbrella didn't account for offline groups, despite the fact that they were practically inseparable from these other elements. Social software as a frame doesn't aspire to the level of generality that CMC did, and it has taken elements of CSCW and both on and offline communities to provide a focal point for research, conversation, collaboration, etc. As recently as two years ago, Googling "social software" would have produced perhaps one out of 10 links that actually led to a site that used the phrase with its current meaning. Nowadays, the top 50 all point to such sites. [an aside: I took Clay to be talking about shifting the terms of discussion from "what" to "how"--that it matters less what social software actually is than how it has allowed the Many2Many crew and others to work together.]

Intervening at the level of a working group rather than theory or philosophy allowed the M2M group to gather together what Clay described as "Heterogenous Literature," materials that included articles that had resonance for the group, RIT courseware, the work coming out of the HP labs, ethnographic observations, etc. Clay had other examples of groups (literally Dream Teams of experts on various topics) emerging out of shared interests and concerns as well, groups that couldn't have happened in any way outside the blogosphere.

He closed by briefly outlining the benefits and drawbacks of this kind of collaborative action. The good? The development of alternative, unofficial theoretical units [think Bill Readings at the end of University in Ruins--this is a connection I may write about over the next day or so] allows action without requiring loads of organization or bureaucracy. Groups can develop across disciplines, and they can gather resonant texts/ideas without having to endorse entire disciplinary structures (Clay called this source-insensitivity). And the end result of this is a new unit of collaboration, one that is extremely flexible and productive.

As of yet, though, the interfaces themselves are still geared towards individuals, and so there's a sense of "parallel play" rather than actual collaboration. Conversations can become diffuse and difficult to track, collect, or reference, which can slow things down. Finally, there are etiquette issues as well--informal conversations, writ public, can sometimes turn into posturing.

Clay's final note was that group blogs are going to become vitally important for the academy over the next 18 months. I don't know if that'll prove to be the case or not, but it's certainly got me thinking (and hoping).

Jill had the final slot, and little time, so her remarks were abbreviated. Although she framed her talk as a story, it was easy to see how she could have tied it into each of the other talks. She focused on two "events" in the blogosphere: 1. The Straight Outta Compton story from Feb/Mar 2002 (boy meets girl, boy kisses girl, boy blogs about girl's lack of kissing skill, girl Googles boy, girl reads blog, girl breaks up with boy, girl tells journalist friend, friend writes story about boy, MetaFilter finds story and turns it into a huge netmeme) and 2. Henry Jenkins' "cockroach" comment in the MIT Technology Review which ended up biting him in the butt.

She didn't have a lot of time to offer exposition, but both stories were examples of the way that weblog audiences can spiral out of control very quickly (from the author's perspective, anyway) as well as the way that the traditional buffers between author and reader simply don't apply to blogs. For me, it was a nice circle back to the definitional problems that Liz raised. As I mentioned to Jill afterwards, I would have liked to give them an extra hour, both so she could have a full slot, and so we could have had some audience interaction.

In all, it was a really good panel. I don't know that there was much that I hadn't heard before, but then, I've been reading their work for the last year, so that's to be expected. Each paper provoked connections for me with stuff I've been thinking about, and that's all I want from a panel. I managed to overcome my painful shy long enough to chat a bit with Jill and Alex, and I got to see a top-notch crew of folk whose work I enjoy. Not bad for an afternoon's work.

(ps. if i've made any egregious errors here in my recap, let me know, and i'll get to fixin')


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Blogging @ MEA:

» Collin Brooke summarizes the MEA panel from Many-to-Many
The panel on weblogs took place this afternoon. Collin Brooke has a faithful write-up on his blog. Thanks Collin!... [Read More]

» Follow-up RIT Blog Panel from All The Things I Wish I Had Said
http://wrt-brooke.syr.edu/mt/mt-tb.cgi/237 [Read More]

» Mission accomplie... par Collin Brooke from Mario tout de go...
Merci à Collin Brooke pour cette mission accomplie... Très intéressante lecture !... [Read More]

» Yet Another Blogging Panel I Wish I'd Attended from the chutry experiment
Collin reports on a panel on blogging chaired by Liz Lawley and featuring Alex Halavais, Jill Walker, Sébastien Paquet, and Clay Shirky. Sounds like a great discussion. Should be useful for my paper on using blogs in the classroom.... [Read More]

» Wish I was there: Weblogs and Cross-Disciplinary Communication panel from Mathemagenic
I should be working on a paper right now, instead of blogging. [Read More]

» blog networks as faculty commons from mamamusings
The past week has been hectic—the combination of japanese, houseguests, and pulling off a wonderful blog panel at MEA took a lot out of me. So blogging has been unsurprisingly light. However, when your houseguest is Jill Walker, and your weekend ... [Read More]

» why do academics blog? from mamamusings
I keep getting asked this question by colleagues here at RIT and elsewhere, and I find myself sending them the same links over and over again. So here’s what I give people who ask me this, in an attempt to clarify the value of blogging to those o... [Read More]

» why do academics blog? from mamamusings
I keep getting asked this question by colleagues here at RIT and elsewhere, and I find myself sending them the same links over and over again. So here’s what I give people who ask me this, in an attempt to clarify the value of blogging to those o... [Read More]

» why do academics blog? from mamamusings
I keep getting asked this question by colleagues here at RIT and elsewhere, and I find myself sending them the same links over and over again. So here’s what I give people who ask me this, in an attempt to clarify the value of blogging to those o... [Read More]


Thanks so much for this *excellent* writeup of the panel! I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to talk with you afterwards.

Yeah, thanks! It's great to have a summary! Good speaking with you, too! :)

Thanks to both of you! I took better notes than I have since my sophomore year in college, I think.

Jill, it was nice to chat with you, too. And Liz, I'm sure we'll have other chances--in fact, I talked briefly with Alex about doing what we could to make more such chances. There are a few other folk locally (Cortland, Clarkson, Syracuse, etc.) I know of (and more I don't, I'm sure) who'd be interested...


Colin--Nice summary, thanks. A point made by Liz that you didn't include that I found very interesting is the shifting focus of blogs. These shifting interests seem another example of more fluid social connections and interaction.