For the Technology Forum, on Blogging

Hugh Blackmer
13 October 2004
(This is a background rumination that emerged over the last few days as I tried to articulate for myself why I'm talking about blogging, and what I should and shouldn't try to include in my part of the program. I may use bits of it, or may talk about quite different issues having to do with the practicalities of blogging at W&L.)

**29 October update: Morgan Stanley Update from the Digital World (26 October 2004) is a fine crystallization of many of the trends and developments I sketched. Its 16 pages are a very worthwhile read.

I've been following out the implications of Web technology --or is it technologies?-- for more than 10 years. From the very first, I thought of the Web as a communication medium, a means to interlink people with common interests, and of myself as a creator. Many thousands of pages later, I'm still eagerly anticipating the Next Thing.

Looking back in the notebooks I've kept to record the process of Web development at W&L, I find a message from John Elrod to Barbara Brown, 19 April 1994, just after he had seen NCSA Mosaic (the forerunner of Netscape and its successors):

This is an amazing program. Bob Akins showed me how it works the other day, and I was dumb struck. He talked about it as belonging in the library, and I could see why right away.

What do you think? A possibility that interests you?

At that point I had been experimenting with Mosaic for a couple of weeks, after seeing a demo of it myself at the National Library of Medicine. In the next year W&L's Web presence emerged (see one version of W&L's Web history for more), and ever since I have continued to explore new frontiers as I encountered them. From the first, I have been as interested in the personal teaching-learning side of Web development as I have been in its implications for the work of libraries.

For many years I've had students in my various classes making log files to trace their progress --I've taught them basic Web page skills, and encouraged them to explore each other's pages. A few have taken to the technology and continued on their own, but for most the Web hasn't turned out to be as exciting and vital a medium as it has been for me. I continue to wrestle with why this is so...

I've been keeping running log files myself for about 8 years, opening a new Web page for each project that came along, and dating entries so that I could reconstruct my own process later on. It was only a couple of years ago, in true Bourgeois Gentilhomme fashion, that I learned that what I'd been doing all along was a sort of blogging, and it wasn't until January of this year that I made any systematic effort to use software designed for the blogosphere, when I installed Movable Type in my own oook.info space.

Meanwhile, across the last two years I have been more and more enmeshed in the world of other people's blogs, but pretty selectively. I've been following several techy-geeky blogs because they carry information that really matters to me --early warning about developments and issues that are central to my work life. For many months those blogs were on my 'Favorites' menu, but sometime last Winter I started using Bloglines --a Web-based manager of RSS (Really Simple Syndication, or Rich Site Summary) feeds, which keeps track of a list if blogs to which I 'subscribe', and allows me to tell at a glance when there are new postings to "my" blogs.

I use the Web as a mental sandbox, a place to sort out what I know and what I think. I'm more than willing to share my process of discovery and refiguration, warts and all, as my work takes me in all sorts of directions, but I'm at least as much concerned to manage my own information universe --to tend an open-ended system that Keeps Found Things Found-- as to distribute it to an unseen audience. Because most of scholarship is searching and finding and integrating and searching further... One may articulate the found in a class or a piece of writing, but the pursuit goes on and on, and piles up more and more. And it is a social pursuit, an exploration of networks of interrelationships of ideas and people. Nobody works in a vacuum, or only for themselves.

I have thought of management of my own information universe as a public process --one that I want to make as accessible as I can, so that others on the same trails will have some encouragement, most especially the students I'm trying to entice into active engagement in the digital world. Occasionally I've run across others who have similar designs (one might say that Wikipedia is an outgrowth of that same impulse). But not as often as I'd like, or as I would have expected. Why? Partly it's the difficulties of doing the management: not everybody thinks it's worthwhile to write Web pages, and until pretty recently there haven't been many Web-based or Web-friendly applications for personal information management.

Blogging fills in some of the missing pieces: for one or several authors, and via a convenient anytime-anyplace Web-based interface, a blog encourages the posting of messages and commentaries with hyperlinks --"diaries" in the sense of cumulative and dated entries. The cycle is completed as blogging software generates an RSS feed for a blog entry, and those who subscribe to the feed are notified that there's something new to read.

Blogs can become conversational spaces, making explicit the network-of-nodes topology always implicit in Internet communication. Perhaps as important is their role in the creation of virtual communities --those who read a blog are participants in interaction even if they never meet, or even communicate indirectly by posting or commenting.

The significant distinctive feature of a blog is that it's a Web location that CHANGES its content as new postings are made. Blogs are updatable Web pages that announce their updated status via harvestable RSS feeds. RSS notification is what turns a blog from a solopsistic indulgence into social software of a remarkable sort: a blog can be a syndicated node in a network of interlinked mentalities.

'Social software' is a relatively recent descriptor for a rapidly-spreading array of applications that facilitate virtual communities of the Web. A closely related technology is exemplified by del.icio.us, a service which facilitates the management and sharing of bookmarks, and provides RSS feeds, so that colleagues can let each other know what they have discovered by tagging Web pages with their own keywords (see mine at del.icio.us/oook --and see extensions/add-ons[!!]). Watching the flux of postings at del.icio.us is a nascent form of shared communication that has (so far as I know) no name yet. I'm tempted to call it "delurking", though that term is already taken...

Can I sum up the place of of blogging in the grand evolution of the Web? Blogs aren't a watershed technology for the Web, but they do serve a role in the quiet revolution of database-linked Web services, which facilitate the escape from collections of static pages (and I have thousands of them...), prone to be lost from view as servers change and their URLs dead-end.

Blogging starts to matter when one thinks of the Web as conversational space, an agora of ideas and pointers and reminders --AND rhetoric and argy-bargy, axes ground and lies told, partial truths, cave canem and Let the Reader Beware.

What's the place in that tumult for pedagogy, for the calm reason and orderly discourse of academic scholarship? Isn't it TRUE that a debased marketplace of opinion and "nobody knows you're a dog" is the very antithesis of the liberal arts classroom?

On good days I think yeah! bring it on! and I'm delighted by the eloquence and variety of the voices in the agora, the expressiveness of my students' postings, the depths of serendipitous wonder that reward my searchings of the Web.

On ordinary days I think that at the very least the Academy must explore the possibilities and potentials of new communication media, because they are REAL and UBIQUITOUS and NOT going away... indeed, they are evolving rapidly.

And on bad days I dispair of colleagues and students alike because they just don't get it and they aren't taking responsibility for their own wetware ...they are complaisant in the face of fundamental change in the landscapes of Information and Knowledge...


Some URLs: bloggery.wlu.edu | Anthropology 230 course blog | how-tos and FAQ | Bloglines "Keep New" examples