In this issue, Michael Keren introduces a new topic of discussion into our journal - blogging. As Keren tells us, blogging (or weblogging) originated in the mid-1990s but really took off with the availability of Web authoring tools at the end of that decade - and through its use as an alternative form of reporting in the 9/11 crisis and the recent war in Iraq. Since then, blogging has gained scholarly attention in a number of conferences. For example, in the past two annual conferences of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR), blogging has emerged, along with computer gaming, as one of the fastest growing new topics in this area of our field.
What are we to make of this new communication phenomenon? Inasmuch as the phenomenon is hardly a decade old, perhaps we should be cautious about forwarding any hard and fast judgments about its eventual social shape. And yet this reticence to judge quickly goes against the grain of most past scholarship. Communications-related scholars - sociologists, psychologists, social psychologists, and others - have always had a penchant for judging a new medium first, researching later. The recent appearance of blogging has not altered this trend.
Keren notes that blogging, although still in its infancy, has already been categorically linked with existing frameworks, most of them optimistic. The presence of blogging in both the recent 9/11 crisis and the invasion of Iraq has led some commentators to suggest that blogging amounts to a new form of journalism that is grass roots based and highly interactive. On this basis, some have argued that blogging amounts to a revitalization of what Habermas has referred to as the public sphere - a place where private conversations between citizens can take place and which may eventually orient public political action. But in Habermas' view, the public sphere has long since been compromised by the structures and practices of mass media. Could blogging become a significant force in regenerating this space?
Keren is skeptical about this prognosis. In general, he argues that it is simply too early to make firm projections about the telos of blogging. At the same time, he suggests there is ready evidence that points to an alternative interpretation. Blogging is not only a place where private individuals meet to openly discuss issues in their actual social world, it is also a parallel universe in which outsiders find refuge. For Keren, an apt signifier for the practices within this virtual realm is the metaphor of melancholy, which the author derives from such sources as Merton, Pensky, and Lash. In the literary tradition he points to the figure of the narrator in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground as an appropriate exemplar of the blogger - lonely, disconnected, bored, politically inactive, and ineffectual. Keren associates this nineteenth-century ideal character type with arguably one of the most celebrated bloggers, Jason Kottke.
What follows is a case study of Jason Kottke's weblog over the past five years. What emerges is a picture of Jason as he represents himself within his weblog - and how he is received within his widening cult community. In contrast to the prevailing optimistic interpretations about how the Web will enhance communities of place and communities of practice, the universe of Jason's discourse is profoundly disembodied. As he puts it, blogging enables him to communicate with others "without worrying about all the things introverts worry about when interacting with people; small talk, first impressions, awkward silences, etc. With the web, I can carry on a conversation with a whole group of people and stare down at my shoes at the same time."
Keren reports that Jason regularly identifies himself as a "loser." By this token, should we also identify the reception community surrounding him as a loser cult? Keren produces considerable evidence from the Web archive to suggest that this may indeed be the case. Jason's reception community is fascinated by every aspect of Jason's day-to-day experience: what he happens to be wearing, where he is situated within his apartment, or where he may be moving to. They also hang on every pronouncement their hero makes about banal features in the actual social world. (In one such example Jason ruminates about whether there is a global industry manufacturing the little "take a penny" cups at cash registers.) This is dust bunny chasing at its best.
One is reminded of the Lennon and McCartney line "All the lonely people, where do they all come from?" Although we may still be uncertain as to where they come from, we now have a pretty good idea as to where some of them wind up - blogging. But, we might also inquire, what in the greater scheme of things does all this activity produce? Here Keren describes Jason's notion of the blog-osphere as a complex system comprised of all of the blogging postings. This may remind us of Loet Leydesdorff's discussion of Niklas Luhmann's ideas of complex social systems in one of our recent issues (Vol. 28, No. 3). In a resonant philosophical mode Jason asks, "Is some higher level of structure or intelligence coming out of these 500,000 monkeys at their typewriters?" One imagines this kind of talk would cause Luhmann to roll over in his grave.
I hope Keren's contribution stimulates a lively debate in subsequent issues on blogging in particular - and combines with other topics related to new media at large.