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Book Review: Bruns & Jacobs, Uses of Blogs

My review in e-Learning
Volume 6 Number 4 2009
www.wwwords.co.uk/ELEA

PDF here

The Uses of Blogs
A. BRUNS & J. JACOBS, 2007
New York: Peter Lang
267 pages, ISBN 978 0 8204 8124 1, $32.95

The Uses of Blogs is a compilation of 22 chapters that deal with the different ways in which blogs have been utilised. These uses include newsblogging; scholarly, political and educational blogging; blogging as a tool in editing and publishing; fictional, corporate and subcultural blogging, and many more. The number of chapters and the breadth of topics might indicate a massive and somewhat fragmented volume, but this is not the case. The chapters are relatively short – around ten pages each – and the editors have made the important (and often neglected) effort to ensure the individual contributors were aware of the content of each other’s chapters. This, together with boxes in the margins highlighting and explaining important terms appearing in the chapters, gives the book a more unified and discursive feel than typically found in compilations. The book manages to convey an overall impression that resembles the open, spacious and generous feel of the blogosphere (the term itself being one of those first explained in the book, on page 5).

The book is divided into three sections: blogs in industries, blogs in society, and the future of blogging. In the industry section, two chapters, by Axel Bruns and Jane B. Singer respectively, are devoted directly to newsblogging, with a third chapter concentrating on PR and spin. Importantly, blogs have become one of the main tools in circumventing the gatekeepers of mainstream media. As Bruns notes in his chapter, ‘The Practice of Newsblogging’, the traditional tasks of editing, gatekeeping and gatewatching are not simply disappearing because of the emergence of blogging. Rather, these tasks and functions are distributed more widely, resulting in a less hierarchical and much more complicated media landscape. Interestingly, the claim that newsblogging provides a genuinely new outlet for otherwise neglected voices has recently started to receive some confirmation from studies not directly dealing with new media. For instance, in his ethnography of direct action, the anthropologist David Graeber devotes a lot of attention to how the creation of the global justice movement’s ‘own media’ has influenced the direct action of this movement since the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 (see Graeber, 2009). According to Graeber, for the activists, the possibility of getting one’s own story out has been a crucial moral and social moment without which the global justice movement would not exist in the form it does today. Furthermore, the actual uses of blog-aggregating sites like Indymedia.org constitute in Graeber’s analysis one of the focal points in the day-to-day functioning and social interaction of the movement, thus giving their own distinctive twist to the identity, structure and goals of the movement as a whole.

A proliferation of perspectives and voices is one of the benefits to be found among newsblogs, but this same proliferation also contributes to the relative weakening of professional fact-checking and exploration of backgrounds, which has been seen both as a problem and as an opportunity for a culture of reflective uncertainty. Here both Bruns and Singer are cautiously optimistic, trying to strike a balance between the wildest utopias of a full-scale ‘communications renaissance’ (best exemplified in the book by a chapter by Joanne Jacobs and Douglas Rushkoff) and a view seeing only the inevitable decline of hard-won journalistic clarity and integrity. The term ‘produser’ (p. 6), coined by Bruns to describe the simultaneous production and consumption roles of users of collaborative forums, captures this balance in one word. Quite rightly, Bruns and Singer each emphasise not only the complementary but also the symbiotic relationship between blogs and traditional newspapers. Both mediums feed on each other and benefit from cross-pollination. Blogging and digital media certainly bear some of the blame for the recent hardships that newspapers are facing, but at the same time the economic downturn is a much bigger culprit in terms of negative effects on the quality of digital news services and, indeed, of blogging, too.

As noted above, despite the breadth of topics covered within the three sections of this volume, the book manages to present a number of observations on the uses of blogs that can easily be generalised further than the contexts in which they are presented. One example of such an observation with wider purchase is John Quiggin’s description of how monetary motives seem to push out or overshadow other motives for blogging. Quiggin is writing about ‘economic blogs and blog economics’, but the following crystallisation describes blogging in general: ‘Although non- monetary motivations for blogging are diverse, they tend to reinforce each other, or at least tend not to contradict each other. By contrast, market rationality tends to crowd out non-monetary motivations’ (p. 76). This observation is reinforced by two other chapters that deal with blogging environments that are not entirely comfortable with diverse non-monetary motives: blogging inside a corporation, and blogging in academia (or ‘Inside the Ivory Tower’, as Jill Walker puts it in the title of her chapter). In these environments the ethos of blogging encounters friction and limitations that can be overcome, but that at the same time necessitate a more conscious approach from the individual blogger. Fortunately, both Walker on academic blogging and Suw Charman on corporate blogging provide helpful pointers and how-to tips on how blogs can be fruitfully used in these more limited and restricted circumstances. One of the delightful strategies suggested by Charman is called a ‘Trojan Mouse’ (p. 63), meaning a small piece of software or a Web 2.0 application used behind a company firewall and without managerial approval.

Pedagogy and education also receive attention in two chapters. Given the often-repeated fact that the younger generations are generally more at home with tools of new media compared with older generations, it is quite important to pay attention to the kinds of experience presented by Jean Burgess in her article ‘Blogging to Learn, Learning to Blog’. According to Burgess, one should not expect that students are previously familiar with, let alone willing to engage in, social media in their studies: ‘While most undergraduate students these days are very comfortable using computers and the Internet for interpersonal communication (chat, email) and information retrieval (Google), the creative, ‘producerly’ use of technology requires a perspectival shift that presented a significant challenge to many of the students’ (p. 108). The crux is the ‘perspectival shift’. Many students have through their years in the gears of formal education internalised a model of learning where they act as receivers and expect from the teacher – and the system in general – precise information on what needs to be received and remembered and how that reception is going to be controlled in exams or tests. Called the ‘banking model’ of education by Paulo Freire, and discussed by James Farmer in his chapter in this collection (p. 92), this is unfortunately everyday practice in schools around the world. If the students are then presented with the possibility – let alone the demand – to start produsing informational resources, knowledge and cognitive interaction, they face a task that is unfamiliar to the point of feeling unreasonable. The demand is expecting a shift not only in informational practices, but one in sociality and even identity. Again, this seems to be a feature of blogging that transcends the educational context. There are contexts and identities that are structured in ways that are blog-resistant if not blog-repellent. One should be aware of these constraints, and not overstate the universal appeal or ‘naturality’ of blogging.

All in all, the book is a rich and well-edited trove of information that both provokes thought and offers fresh insight into what is happening in the blogosphere. As a teacher working inside higher education, using blogs in teaching and trying to understand their impact, I found this book very valuable and useful. The tone is relaxed and informative. The phenomena taking shape in the blogosphere and discussed in the book are so varied that all but the most dedicated bloggers will find something helpful here in terms of hands-on practical advice. At the same time, the articles together form a prismatic overview of recent developments, prompting a more reflective mode. One may feel sympathy with some of the doubts expressed in the book on the future relevance of blogs. For instance, Jill Walker (p. 128) fears that blogs may go the way of email discussion lists that have often degenerated into channels for conference announcements and random ramblings. Some structure and management of criteria of relevance may be necessary. However, this caution should be based on an understanding of the vitality of pluralism and on a concern for the public sphere. When Bruns & Jacobs evaluate the effects of blogs and collaborative media on the future of culture as a shift from consumption to production, they write: ‘At worst, [the shift] may generate more debate and disagreement, as long-standing values and traditions are questioned’ (p. 7). If this is the worst, then we are in for a treat indeed. As several observers from Nietzsche on have emphasised, it is not at all clear that the goal of public argument and democratic process should be the diminution of disagreement and the disappearance of conflicting views. Quite the contrary. Take, for instance, the definition of ‘deliberative journalism’ as journalism that does not only enable different viewpoints but aims at developing rather than merely expressing participants’ opinions (p. 17). We should not be predisposed to a development that is convergent rather than divergent. Doing that would pre-empt the radical promise of digital tools. More debate and more disagreement might just be the goal of a pluralistic media.

Tere Vadén
University of Tampere, Finland

Reference
Graeber, D. (2009) Direct Action: an ethnography. Edinburgh: AK Press.

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