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“After the Blogger as Producer” by Eduardo Navas

Image source: The New Mexico Independent

Written for Interactiva Biennale 2009

The following text was written for Interactiva 09 Biennale, which takes place the month of May and June of 2009.  Other texts written for the biennale can be found at the Interactiva site.

NOTE: I have written a text in which I discuss Twitter in social activism, something which is not included in this text. Please see “After Iran’s Twitter Revolution: Egypt.”

In March of 2005 I wrote “The Blogger as Producer.”[1]  The essay proposed blogging as a potentially critical platform for the online writer.  It was written specifically with a focus on the well-known text, “The Author as Producer,” by Walter Benjamin, who viewed the critical writer active during the 1920’s and 30’s with a promising constructive position in culture. [2]

In 2005 blogging was increasing in popularity, and in my view, some of the elements entertained by Benjamin appeared to resonate in online culture.  During the first half of the twentieth century, Benjamin considered the newspaper an important cultural development that affected literature and writing because newspaper readers attained certain agency as consumers of an increasingly popular medium.  During this time period, the evaluation of letters to editors was important for newspapers to develop a consistent audience.  In 2005, it was the blogosphere that had the media’s attention.  In this time period, people who wrote their opinions on blogs could be evaluated with unprecedented efficiency. [3]

In 2009, media at large, not just newspapers, responds to the commentaries of bloggers.  The most obvious example outside of newspapers is cable news stations.  CNN in particular encourages its viewers to log on to Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter to share comments.  In turn, the news anchors read selected postings and immediately encourage viewers to keep sharing their comments.  Extending this tendency, CNN also has its own video site called ireport, where viewers can upload videos in which they opine on whatever is popular in the news.[4]  All this means that CNN uses social networks as part of their news programs, and it is worth noting that many of these network spaces were not very popular or existed in 2005.  For this reason, we must take a moment to evaluate some of the major developments of networked culture during the last four years.

As we can note with CNN’s use of current social networks, there are several free online resources that encourage people to tell others about personal activities.  MySpace was launched in August 2003,[5] and it immediately went viral. Facebook was launched in February of 2004 initially only at Harvard, but soon it was extended to other ivy-league universities and eventually the public at large in 2006.[6]  Flckr was launched in February 2004 as an online multiplayer gaming project, but eventually it became a social network designed to share photos.[7]  YouTube was launched in February 2005, and became so popular that in February 2006 Google bought it.[8]   Twitter was launched in 2006, but it did not really become popular until 2009.[9]

It is in Twitter where we find a new form of blogging known as micro-blogging.  Micro-blogging consists of short postings.  Twitter limits posts to 140 characters to encourage brief updates among friends and family members.  As it will become clear in this text, micro-blogging is the key element that exposes the current tendencies in social networks as well as the blogosphere.  Brief postings, or twits, as they are popularly called, are in large part possible because of the rising popularity of RSS technology.  This shift as we will learn has actually encouraged people to write less and less, and this tendency has redefined the potential for blogging.

Prior to RSS, people relied mainly on portals and search engines to access information. Google and Yahoo! were privileged sites that offered customizable personal spaces.  igoogle is a specific example, in which users can access news, weather, and other forms of online entertainment.[10]  When blogs were developed, major online portals still had an advantage because people for the most part had to use already established forms of online search to find blog entries.  The blogosphere also relied on links to other blogs offered on the blogs’ sidebars.  In a way, this was reminiscent of the early days of Internet surfing, when people depended on links provided by websites to learn about other websites.

With RSS all of this would change.  RSS goes back to 1997.  The technology was developed by Netscape but was never fully effective due to many technical conflicts.  But once RSS 2.0 was released in 2003 under the supervision of Harvard,[11] the way people accessed information online changed drastically. This is also the time when blogging increased in popularity. Blogs were developed with RSS technology.  Online resources like Technorati, which are search engines specialized to keep track of the blogosphere with the use of RSS, became important information portals. RSS readers like Vienna, became available to function as independent applications on people’s computers,[12] while others, like Feedburner, could be accessed through a web browser.[13]  In either case, online users could add RSS feeds to their reader applications of preference and keep up with subjects of interest.  The radical shift at this moment is that users no longer needed to visit websites to read headlines, although users still would need to click on the feed to access the full feature.  This is true today as well.  But what is even more important to note is that RSS readers were in essence personalized portals, and people did not use search engines in the same way as they did before.  However, search engines did not fall behind and they were quick to offer their own RSS reading service.  Today RSS has become powerful enough so that search engines are willing to buy certain platforms when they become successful ventures; this is why Google bought Feedburner in June, 2007.[14]  Web browsers also responded to this trend and they added RSS features, which at this moment are default options.

Technorati was launched in November 2002,[15] and from the very beginning it was optimized to read the links posted in blog entries.  RSS made searching entries more efficient, which enabled Technorati to hold a niche position in blog searches.  Some competition between Google and Technorati may be at play.  This can be noticed when visiting Technorati’s about page, in which a quote from Time Magazine reads, “If Google is the Web’s reference library, Technorati is becoming its coffee house.”[16]  Depending on how big the blogosphere becomes, Technorati might be more than a coffeehouse in the near future.

Delicious, a web based tagging resource, is another resource that is complementary to the rising popularity of feeds.  Delicious is efficient because it relies on RSS feeds to create bookmarks.  More importantly, a tagging system allows people to access bookmarks according to specific categories.    Once bookmarking and tagging became popular online activities, users’ approach to communication changed: today, online information exchange does not always require actual writing, but simply tags and quotes.  In this respect, Delicious offers the option to highlight part of an article.  This selection is uploaded along with the bookmark and the corresponding tags; or if one writes a comment about the bookmark, it tends to be brief because the comment option is limited to 1000 characters.  This number is enough for a brief commentary, but not for an extensive blog entry. The user, then, is encouraged to write less in order to share more.

To reiterate, RSS feeds privilege headlines, which eventually become the content itself when people are more interested in getting a sense of the flow of information, to then immerse themselves in selected feeds.  In this regard, Text messaging via cell phones also encourages exchange of brief content.  This is connected to online social networks when one is able to update, for example, a Delicious feed via one’s cell phone, or blackberry.[17]

Here is where Twitter comes into play.  Twitter encourages users to update their status directly from their cell phones.  One of the reasons why this appears to be popular is because users do not really need to surf the web to provide content with a bookmark or a tag, but simply write and upload a text message to let people know what they are doing.   Twitter encourages people to talk about themselves, share information about themselves with friends and family or even strangers who may run into the twit during an online search.  The content may not be of great interest to people outside of the user’s social circle, but it is certainly of great value to corporations to data-mine.  Twitter is quite transparent about this when they write in their privacy page:

“Twitter may sell, transfer or otherwise share some or all of its assets, including your personally identifiable information, in connection with a merger, acquisition, reorganization or sale of assets or in the event of bankruptcy. You will have the opportunity to opt out of any such transfer if the new entity’s planned processing of your information differs materially from that set forth in this Privacy Policy.”[18]

While the above statement appears to be fair in terms of how private information may be transferred to another entity, it actually exposes the fact that Twitter’s value is based on the amount of personal information it amasses.  MySpace and Facebook certainly share this element with Twitter, but Twitter has a stripped down approach to social networking: the user knows that the online resource is designed to do one thing really well: “to twit.”  The other resources can offer other feature like video streaming and online chat.  In this sense, Twitter is a good example of the importance of data-mining casual information exchange.  Yet, while data-mining is often linked to venture capital projects, Twitter is transparent about its preoccupation with turning a profit: it candidly admits to not having an actual business model.[19]

So with all this in mind, is the potential of the blogger as producer still relevant?  In 2005 my proposition was rather optimistic, but I did admit that the cultural producer was likely “to get lost in an oubliette of ideologies.”  Such an oubliette is now reinforced with social networking sites that communicate with each other in order to optimize information flow.  Facebook for example, encourages users to embed their Twitter feeds, as well as Last FM music playlists.  (Last FM is another social networking site focused on music selection for potential online sales.)  Even in blog-design-templates one can find pre-set links to Flickr and Twitter.  Online activity has moved from encouraging people to write commentaries or journal entries on blogs to encouraging people to write brief updates on networking sites.  Facebook offers its own blogging service that is designed to encourage users to write for their social network in a way that is for the most part lacking any substance.  More and more people are encouraged to text, or to twit.  Micro-blogging as promoted by Twitter pushes people to become passive consumers who appear to be “active with a relevant voice” in order to provide just enough information for data-miners.  And from this point of view the potential for blogging as a critical practice has given way to blips of texts.  In 2005 I saw the potential for the blogger to give casual writing a rigour that was previously impossible. I wrote:

[…]The type of “literature” of today, that is if we keep in mind Benjamin’s terms, is both “polytechnic” and “specialized;” an odd turn, which became possible because the technology is efficient enough to let people do today more things than it was possible in the past. Professionals are able to write casually on topics that they are experts on; their comments carry some depth at the same time that they are efficient in production. Here, leisure, private life, and work are combined as the blog functions as a type of journal giving each writer certain authority[…][20]

While this type of blogger is still active, she is part of the minority.  Admittedly, I may have been too optimistic to consider the average blogger in 2005 with the potential to develop a critical practice. Cultural critics have always been paradoxical figures often lurking in a privileged liminal space among the elite.  If they are not part of the ruling class, then they are dependent on such class to function.  In this regard, Benjamin’s bourgeois writer who he encouraged to side with the proletariat during the first half of the twentieth century has always struggled to reach people outside of the ruling class with language that such people may not be able to understand.  This is actually the impasse in education that to this day goes unanswered, and which makes the cultural critic, the blogger as producer irrelevant to the average person.

All this leads to the assessement that in 2009 Internet users are no longer encouraged to blog about a subject they know well; instead, people are encouraged to simply tell others in their network what they are up to.  “What are you doing” is the phrase that welcomes users in Twitter, and “What’s on your mind” plays a similar function in Facebook.  On the other hand, Blogging while still popular among people has become a major part of online journalism.  This is no coincidence, when newspapers at the moment are going through a crisis because their print editions are likely to become a thing of the past.[21]  One should not be surprised if the newspaper becomes fully invested in blogging technology.  It has already adopted RSS feeds to make the most of web 2.0 search technology.  Blogging is certainly still important, but it is now going through a stage of professionalization.  This does not mean that an independent person who writes critically will not have the potential to have a large following.  I believe that this is likely to be possible.  But with the current rise of information control flow, this is likely to become the exception rather than the norm.

This is the biggest shift that has taken place in the last four years in networked culture.  Blogs have not gone away, but they are being redefined to become complementary spaces for the rising of social networks.  To tweet may be powerful, but its casualness already shows that it is predisposed for swift assimilation-as soon as Twitter’s CEO Evans Williams figures out a way how.

NOTE: I have written a text in which I discuss Twitter in social activism, something which is not considered in this text. Please see “After Iran’s Twitter Revolution: Egypt.”

1 Eduardo Navas, “The Blogger as Producer,” Netartreview, March, 2005, http://www.netartreview.net/monthly/0305.3.html, accessed April 17, 2009.
2 Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968), 217-251.
3 All of this was covered in the essay, “The Blogger as Producer.”
4 For CNN feeds of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter see Don Lemon and Rick Sanchez on CNN’s website, http://cnn.com. For ireport see, http://www.ireport.com/, accessed April 17, 2009.
5 Trent Lapinsky, “MySpace: The Business of Spam 2.0 (Exhaustive Edition),” Gawker.com, September 11, 2006 http://valleywag.gawker.com/tech/myspace/myspace-the-business-of-spam-20-exhaustive-edition-199924.php, accessed April 17, 2009.
6 Carolyn Abram, “Welcome to Facebook, everyone,” September 26, 2006, http://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=2210227130, accessed April 17, 2009.
7 Jefferson Graham, “Flickr of idea on a gaming project led to photo website,” USA Today, http://www.usatoday.com/tech/products/2006-02-27-flickr_x.htm, accessed on April 17, 2009.
8 Jim Hopkins, “Surprise! There’s a third YouTube co-founder,” USA Today, October 11, 2006, http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2006-10-11-youtube-karim_x.htm, accessed April 17, 2009.
9 “Twitter Reaches 9.3 Million Visitors” PortalIT News, http://news.portalit.net/fullnews_twitter-reaches-9-3-million-visitors_2256.html, accessed April 17, 2009.
10 Igoogle, http://www.google.com/ig, accessed April 17, 2009.
11 “History of RSS,” RSS Specifications, http://www.rss-specifications.com/history-rss.htm, accessed April 17, 2009.
12 Vienna, http://www.vienna-rss.org/vienna2.php, accessed April 17, 2009.
13 Feedburner, http://www.feedburner.com/google, April 17, 2009.
14 Michael Arrington, “$100 Million Payday For Feedburner – This Deal Is Confirmed,” Techcrunch, http://www.techcrunch.com/2007/05/23/100-million-payday-for-feedburner-this-deal-is-confirmed/, accessed April 17, 2009.
15 David Sifry, “Technorati,” Sifry’s Alerts, http://www.sifry.com/alerts/archives/000095.html, accessed April 17, 2009.
16 “Welcome to Technorati,” Technorati, http://technoratimedia.com/about/, accessed April 17, 2009.
17 “Delicious to go,” Delicious Blog, December 9, 2008, http://blog.delicious.com/blog/2008/12/delicious-to-go.html, accessed April 17, 2009.
18 “Twitter Privacy Policy,” Twitter, http://twitter.com/privacy/, accessed April 17, 2009.
19 Rafe Needleman, “Twitter still has no business model, and that’s OK,” ZDNet,  http://news.zdnet.com/2100-9595_22-282477.html, acessed April 17, 2009.
20 Navas.
21 Richard Pérez Peña, “Detroit’s Daily Papers Are Now Not So Daily,” New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/31/business/media/31paper.html?partner=rss&emc=rss, accessed April 17, 2009.

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