A Genre Analysis of the Weblog

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A Genre Analysis of the Weblog


Blogging as Social Action: A Genre Analysis of the Weblog

Carolyn R. Miller and Dawn Shepherd, North Carolina State University

  • “The FBI has been reading my diary,” claimed a high school student in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (Elliston, 2003). In fact, Chapel Hill police in training with an FBI task force had read the student’s weblog. They were investigating a possible security breach in the school’s computer system, and the student’s blog had contained references to “hacking.” The student had told only a few friends about her blog and “didn’t intend for it to reach a wider audience.’It was really personal,'” she said.
  • A blogger from Utah harshly criticized her Mormon upbringing and her job and co-workers online, assuming that her technophobic parents and her boss would never find out. But they did, and “All hell broke loose,” as she put it. She alienated her parents and lost her job. “It was shocking for everyone,” she said; “I was extremely naïve.” (St. John, 2003).
  • Another blogger reports on her friends and her boyfriend, saying, “There’s not a lot I won’t put on there” because “I love to be the center of attention.” This 18-year-old also said that her mother was aware of her blog but did not know how to find it, adding that she relied on security by obscurity (St. John, 2003).
  • In China an intimate blog written by a 25-year-old who also wrote a magazine sex column attracted 10 million daily visitors to the Sina.com server. Her blog initiated a “raging debate” on the internet, and the Chinese censors banned her forthcoming book (Yardley, 2003). Although she defended her right to write about her sex life, the blogger said that she never realized her blog would be read so widely or that it would create such controversy. She quit her job at the magazine and has shut down her blog.

The weblog phenomenon raises a number of rhetorical issues, and for us the incidents summarized above point to one of the more intriguing of these–the peculiar intersection of the public and private that weblogs seem to invite. As David Weinberger has observed, the confessional nature of blogs has redrawn the line between the private and the public dimensions of our lives (2002). Blogs can be both public and intensely personal in possibly contradictory ways. They are addressed to everyone and at the same time to no one. They seem to serve no immediate practical purpose, yet increasing numbers of both writers and readers are devoting increasing amounts of time to them. The blog is a new rhetorical opportunity, made possible by technology that is becoming more available and easier to use, but it was adopted so quickly and widely that it must be serving well established rhetorical needs. Why did blogging catch on so quickly and so widely? What motivates someone to begin–and continue–a blog? What audience(s) do bloggers address? Who actually reads blogs and why? In short, what rhetorical work do blogs perform–and for whom? And how do blogs perform this work? What features and elements make the blog recognizable and functional?

A genre analysis of the blog will begin to answer these questions. When a type of discourse or communicative action acquires a common name within a given context or community, that’s a good sign that it’s functioning as a genre (Miller, 1984). The weblog seems to have acquired this status very quickly, with an increasing amount of attention and commentary in the mainstream press reinforcing its status. As linguist Geoffrey Nunberg observed several years ago, “‘blog’ is clearly a word whose time has come” (2001). But what is it about our time that made this word so useful? Assuming that the blog is a new genre (and many commentators already assume this) how can we understand the kairos that makes this genre possible–and compelling? And how does the blog in turn help construct the kairos? Is there some synergy between this new genre and this particular cultural moment? To answer these questions, we examine blogs available on major hosting sites, blogs that have been the subject of particular attention, and the evaluative criteria used within blogging communities. In our analysis, we characterize the cultural kairos in which blogs arose and developed rhetorical power. We attempt to establish the central tendencies and range of variation of discourse that is identified as blogs and examine their generically recognized substance, form, and rhetorical action. We explore the ancestral genres that offer rhetorical precedents and patterns for blogs. And we speculate about the recurrent rhetorical exigence that has brought together motivations, forms, and audiences to create and sustain the blog as genre.

Genre analysis has become important in understanding the discourse of the disciplines and the workplace, relatively structured arenas of social interaction in which, as Berkenkotter and Huckin note, “Genres are the intellectual scaffolds on which community-based knowledge is constructed” (1995, p. 24). More recently, genre analysis has been applied to the relatively unstructured rhetorical environment of the internet, where constructing knowledge and getting work done aren’t necessarily the driving exigences (Agre, 1998; Bauman, 1999; Crowston and Williams 2000; Shepherd and Watters 1998; Zucchermaglio&Talamo, 2003). detailed studies have examined as genres the home page (Dillon &Gushrowski, 2000), CMC conversations (Erickson 2000), and the blog (Herring, Scheidt, Bonus, & Wright, 2004) 1. Our analysis will take a next step in this direction, offering an interpretive-rhetorical approach that supplements the quantitative research in these other studies. Our aim in this genre analysis of the blog is to explore the emergent culture of the early 21st century–as revealed by the self-organized communities that support blogging, the recurrent rhetorical exigences that arise there, and the rhetorical roles (or “subject positions”) they support and make possible.

The Kairos of the Blog

Recent work on genres has emphasized their dynamic, evolutionary nature. Cases in point include Bazerman’s history of the experimental article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society from 1665-1800, Yates and Orlikowski’s discussion of the emergence and evolution of the memo genre in the 19th and 20th centuries, and Berkenkotter and Huckin’s study of how readers’ search for “news value” has been accommodated in the changing structural conventions of scientific articles in the late 20th century (Bazerman, 1988; Berkenkotter&Huckin, 1995; Yates &Orlikowski, 1′). Schryer’s useful formulation, that genres are “stabilized-for-now or stabilized-enough sites of social and ideological action,” emphasizes that “genres come from somewhere and are transforming into something else” (1″, pp. 204, 208). In 1984, Miller emphasized that because they are rooted in social practices “genres change, evolve, and decay” (1984, p. 163), and as early as 1973, Jamieson argued that because “genres are evolving phenomena,” a Darwinian rather than Platonic perspective should be used in studying them (1973).

A Darwinian approach to genre requires an understanding of what makes a rhetorical action “fitting” within its cultural environment. In other words, we must see genre in relation to kairos, or socially perceived space-time. What Bitzer called a “fitting” response will survive to become recurrent and thus generic if the kairos also recurs, or persists (1978, p. 168). Kairos describes both the sense in which discourse is understood as fitting and timely–the way it observes propriety or decorum–and the way in which it can seize on the unique opportunity of a fleeting moment to create new rhetorical possibility (Miller, 2002). Genres certainly incorporate decorum, even helping to create the decorum of situations, but they are also complex enough–and often flexible enough–to offer resources for innovation. Schryer uses the Bakhtinian term chronotope to emphasize that “every genre expresses space/time relations that reflect current social beliefs regarding the placement and action of human individuals in space and time.” They are thus, she concludes “profoundly ideological” (2002, p. 84, 95). But in order to evolve, genres must also allow for the incorporation of novelty, the accommodation of changed constraints, the tweaking of ideology, which eventually leads to the redefinition of decorum, and the imposition of a new ideology.

If the blog is an evolutionary product, arising from a dynamic, adaptive relationship between discourse and kairos, then if we wish to understand the rhetorical qualities of the blog as genre, we should examine the late 1990s, when the blog originated, as a cultural moment. This cultural context will illuminate the evolutionary forces operating on existing genres, the opportunities available for innovation, the available social roles and relationships, and the possibilities for social action. Because the decade of the 1990s, like any decade, is globally complex and defies comprehensive summary, we necessarily focus our attention on a few salient issues that will help answer our questions about the rhetorical work of weblogs.

In a 1997 article, “Hits and Errors in Everyday Life,” published in Forbes Magazine, the baseball analyst and statistician Bill James discussed the emerging trend of compiling and analyzing an ever-increasing number of baseball statistics. Significantly, James hypothesized that the interest in baseball statistics is generalizable, that people would track statistics on their neighbors if they were available, and those neighbors “would be figures as compelling as Ken Griffey Jr. or Randy Johnson” (2001, par. 20). James was right. Just five years before, in 1′, MTV had launched the first season of The Real World, a show in which seven young people moved into a SoHo apartment together. As the first show to take “regular” people, place them in an artificial living situation, and record their every move, The Real World broke the ground for what would eventually be known as reality television.

Also in 1′, MTV held a town hall debate featuring the Democrat and Republican candidates for president. During that debate, a young woman in the audience asked Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton if he wore boxers or briefs. That he answered the question is characteristic of the Clinton presidency and the 1990s. During the 1′ presidential campaign, Clinton contrasted himself to Washington political insiders and distinguished himself as the candidate who felt America’s pain. From the beginning, he removed barriers between himself and the voting public. Both his family and the family of his running mate Al Gore toured the country on a bus, making scheduled and impromptu stops in hopes of meeting average Americans and sparking grass roots campaign efforts. And in the course of this campaign, as he and his wife Hilary Rodham Clinton appeared on 60 Minutes to address rumors of his infidelity, Clinton stated, “I’ve told the American people more than any other candidate for president. The result of that has been everybody going to my state and spending more time trying to play ‘gotcha.'” (In 1′, Clinton Conceded Marital ‘Wrongdoing’, 1′) This theme would run throughout the Clinton years. While serving as arguably the most prominent public figure in the world, Clinton exposed his private life to scrutiny, eventually being forced to expose more than he wished. What started as a shrewd, but possibly naïve, campaign strategy ended in a scandal that irreparably damaged his presidential legacy, after the public exposure of his intimacies with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in 1997. Lewinsky herself would become an international celebrity overnight, eventually becoming a spokesperson for Jenny Craig weight loss centers and the host of a reality television show called Mr. Personality.

The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal can be seen as a representative anecdote for a significant cultural trend in the 1990’s, the weakening boundary between the public and the private and the expansion of celebrity culture to politics and beyond. American culture became obsessed with both making celebrities into regular people (as with Clinton) and making regular people into celebrities (as with Lewinsky), a trend that has been called the “democratization of celebrity” (Stark, 2003). This destabilization of public and private has been linked by Clay Calvert to our continual surrender of information: as people relinquish control over increasing amounts of personal information, they expect increasing access to information in return (2000). In other words, in a society in which surveillance cameras record every trip to an ATM and Amazon.com tracks the buying practices of its users, people seek to augment the quantity and variety of information available to them, creating a conflict between the rights to privacy and to information. One striking example of the mounting demand for access to the traditionally private lives of others was the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. It seemed that every facet of Diana’s life, including her death during a high-speed attempt to retain some privacy, was public. After her death, what should have been intensely private moments in the Royal Family’s grieving process–attending church services the day after her death, visiting spontaneous memorials–became public spectacle, leading one commentator to note that in certain social settings, “there is a kind of ‘privacy’ which seems to draw its meaning only from being publicized” (Frazer, 2000, par. 94).

The documented desire to catch sight of the intensely private moments of others dates to at least the 11th century, when a man named Tom peeped as a naked Lady Godiva rode her horse through town to persuade her husband to retract a repressive tax. Peeping Tom was, depending on the version of the account, blinded or killed for his voyeurism (Calvert, 2000). Although often associated with sexual gratification, voyeurism more generally strikes us as an unseemly interest in others as curiosities, not as moral equals. More recently, however, the coupling of the pervasiveness of television as a means for news gathering with the insatiability of the public’s desire for information has helped to rehabilitate voyeurism: it has become synonymous with information access and the public’s right to know. Seeing is knowing, not just believing.

By the year 2000, 98% of American households owned a television, according to a Nielsen Media Research survey (cited in Woodard, 2000) and by 1999, over a third of all American households had a computer, and over half of those homes had Internet access. Within two years, half of all households had a computer, and Internet access had increased to 80% of those (Newburger, 2001). In Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy, and Peering in Modern Culture, Calvert characterizes the effects of this media saturation on our relations with information and with each other as “mediated voyeurism.” He defines mediated voyeurism as “the consumption of revealing images of and information about others’ apparently revealed and unguarded lives, often yet not always for purposes of entertainment — , through the means of the mass media and the Internet” (2000, p. 2). Mediated voyeurism traces its origins to the sensationalized tabloid journalism of the late 19th and early 20th century. By faking insanity to be committed to an insane asylum or strapping a camera to an ankle to capture photographs of the execution of a convicted murderer, early tabloid reporters offered their readers glimpses into the lives of others, glimpses that seem more real because they are secret. The conventions of film have been said to make voyeurs of the audience (2000, p.43). Mediated voyeurs are separated temporally and spatially from the object of their interest, connected virtually by a movie screen, a television, or a computer monitor. The potential for possibly dangerous interaction has given way to distanced spectating, to monitoring.

Calvert notes a number of contemporary social forces that promote mediated voyeurism, and three of them are especially meaningful for our purposes. First, there is the pursuit of “truth” in an increasingly media-saturated world; dissatisfaction with the increasing mediation of journalism leads to an interest in information that seem to provide a less mediated and thus more authentic “reality.” . Next, there is the desire for excitement, to see others face a “moment of reckoning” in a talk-show confrontation or a “pulse-pounding” amazing home video; in these moments we may vicariously experience challenges that give meaning to life. Last, there is the need for involvement, the desire to be part of the world around us, even though voyeurism by its very nature can provide only the illusion of involvement. Sella’s experience with Webcams illustrates Calvert’s claims here: “Part of the appeal of logging on to these sites, I began to realize, was that it fulfilled an innate human desire for shared experience. — But the draw was more complex. Given the Net’s vast number of unregulated feeds, there was always the chance that — I’d see something illicit: sex, rage, unfiltered joy — an accidental moment” (2000, p. 102). There’s both a hope for connection, for community, and at the same time a more traditional voyeuristic enjoyment of stealth and the possibility of a glimpse of unguarded authenticity.

Mediated voyeurism became so prevalent in the late 1990s that several varieties developed, including what Calvert identifies as video vérité and the tell-all/show-all voyeurism of the talk show. With a focus on real-life, sometimes contrived, drama, video vérité centers on live, unrehearsed, and unscripted events played out on camera. “Caught on tape” television has been around since Candid Camera in the 1950’s, but it was not until the 1990s that reality TV became a major programming category. Today, Yahoo! TV’s reality programming page lists nearly sixty series, from reality/talent show hybrids, like American Idol, to game/reality show hybrids in which the contestants compete for everything from cash prizes to true love. Regardless of the show’s category, reality shows consistently win their timeslots. Game or talent shows have long been television staples, making ordinary, private people into public figures for the Warholian fifteen minutes, but the recent “reality” emphasis ups the ante. No longer limited to the scant and mundane details revealed to a host during a contestant interview in the traditional game and talent show, contemporary reality programming exposes every facet of these ordinary, private lives to our public gaze: “The new obsession in TV (and on the Internet) is with capturing the rhythms of ordinary life–or, at least, the kinds of intimate human interactions that have previously eluded the camera’s gaze” (Sella, 2000, p. 52).

This confusion of public and private permeated other media in the late 1990s as well. Cell phone ownership increased rapidly from 5.2 million in 1990 to 55 million in 1997 (Eng, 2002). As people sacrifice privacy for the sake of convenience, one need but visit any public place to overhear the intensely personal conversations of total strangers on cell phones. And in the world of book publishing, the personal memoir, which one reviewer has called “reality literature” (Carvajal, 1997), became a growing trend in the mid-1990s, with 200 titles published in 1995 (Atlas, 1996). Four of fifteen top-selling hardbacks in 1997–Angela’s Ashes, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Into Thin Air, and The Man Who Listens to Horses)–were personal memoirs by private people. A fifth–The Perfect Storm–told the story of regular people facing extraordinary circumstances (Bowker, 1998). All five stories inspired motion pictures. One of the most memorable personal memoirs of that year, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (Random House, 1997), about her sexual relationship with her father, tested the boundaries of personal revelations in public and led to reviews that were much more than mixed. Critics found Harrison’s exposure of deeply personal information, as they did memoirs in general, either refreshing or distasteful–“a newly dominant and more authentic literary form” or “a literature of solipsism by writers obsessed with themselves” (Minzesheimer, 1997). James Atlas saw the memoir trend as part of general “culture of confession,” consistent with talk shows and 12-step programs, trauma and therapy, but also part of an “historic American longing to discover who we are” (1996, p. 26). 2

Voyeurism could not have become such a common preoccupation of our times without willing objects. Princess Diana cultivated her relationships with the press, as do most celebrities. Book publishers need a Kathryn Harrison willing to tell her story. Thus, Calvert also discusses the social forces that support mediated voyeurism’s counterpart, mediated exhibitionism. Central to exhibitionism is the social psychology of self-disclosure, which serves four purposes, according to Calvert: self-clarification, social validation, relationship development, and social control, and we can see all of these at work in blogs. The two former purposes function intrinsically, providing heightened understanding of self through communicating with others and confirmation that personal beliefs fit with social norms. The latter two function extrinsically, turning personal information into a commodity and manipulating the opinions of others through calculated revelations. Any one, or all, of these functions, may be a factor in an individual’s willingness to “overshare” (2000, p. 83). In a series of interviews of people who had appeared on television talk shows, Patricia Joyner Priest found multiple motivations for what she calls “television disclosure, the revelation of intimate information broadcast on television.” The majority of the participants surveyed, generally marginalized members of society, offered extrinsic explanations, understanding their appearance on television as an opportunity to instruct and enlighten through the only forum available to them, or simply as a chance to appear on television. Others gave intrinsic reasons, finding therapy or relief in the chance to tell their stories. The culture of self-disclosure continues to spread, creating individuals increasingly comfortable with being put on display: “As TV and the Net enlist more and more people to reveal themselves, the formerly unsavory phenomenon known as exhibitionism is being redefined. It’s being rehabilitated as an adventure. — Perhaps the shifting definition of fame has been leading up to this. — [B]eing placed on exhibition–and coming through it intact–has come to be seen as a perverse achievement” (Sella, 2000, p. 54).

Of course, the medium most indicative of the trends we have been documenting is the Internet. On personal home pages and message boards, in chat rooms and on listservs, and most especially on blogs, people are sharing unprecedented amounts of personal information with total strangers, potentially millions of them. The technology of the internet makes it easier than ever for anyone to be either a voyeur or an exhibitionist–or both. One does not have to seek out a publisher or compete for a slot on a game show. And the inexhaustible stream of enormously diverse and ever-changing information that comes flooding out of the ISP connection can make constant monitoring seem necessary. Both voyeurism and exhibitionism have been morally neutralized and are on their ways to becoming ordinary modes of being, subject positions that are inscribed in our mediated discourse. The cultural moment in which the blog appeared is a kairos that has shifted the boundary between the public and the private and the relationship between mediated and unmediated experience. Sherry Turkle has noted that our immersion in a “culture of simulation” (which includes not only virtual environments but also mediated aspects of contemporary life such as Disneyland, shopping malls, and television) ultimately devalues direct experience, making it seem less compelling and ultimately less real (1997, pp. 235-38). The “reality” movement in the media has seemingly come to replace the reality IRL (In Real Life). As Calvert puts it, “people and things are important or real only if they appear on television” (2000, p. 85). Validation increasingly comes through mediation, that is, from the access and attention and intensification that media provide. The kairos of American popular culture in the late 1990s thus seems a fulfillment of Baudrillard’s 1981 perception that the relations between the real and the simulated have reversed: that rather than representing the real, the simulation constitutes the real (1″).

Defining the blog as genre

Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the blog, most seem to agree that the term weblog was coined by weblog writer Jorn Barger in 1997 (Blood, 2000; Jerz, 2003; Safire, 2002; Turnbull, 2002; Wikipedia, 2003). A search of the Lexis-Nexis database shows the first press mention in 1998, and by 2002 over five hundred articles referencing blogs. It appears that blogs originated as a way to share information of interest. These early blogs had three primary features: they were chronologically organized, contained links to sites of interest on the web, and provided commentary on the links. The early bloggers were Web-savvy individuals, generally designers or programmers working in the technology industry. Not only did they have to be able to locate information on the Web before search engines became as accessible as they are today, but they had to be able to code their own HTML pages. In 1999, a number of blog portals were launched, all offering easy-to-use editing tools that require no coding experience. Since then, the number of blog portals and bloggers has increased dramatically: a 2003 survey found that new blogs on eight popular blog hosting sites increased by more than six hundred percent between 2000 and 2001, with over four million blogs by the time of the survey and 10 million projected by the end of 2004 (Henning, 2003). 3

In order to identify the basic agreements that have coalesced around the blog, we have tried to honor the ethnomethodology of genres, relying to the greatest extent possible on the perceptions of bloggers themselves. We examined numerous individual blogs, of course, but we also paid attention to how bloggers talk about blogs. We noted the criteria they use to evaluate blogs and the ways that blog portals organize and present blogs. We read multiple accounts of the history of blogging and of the activity and purposes of blogging. Our selections from the profusion of material available have been guided by our initial questions about the intersection of the public and private spheres.

There is strong agreement on the central features that make a blog a blog. Most commentators define blogs on the basis of their reverse chronology, frequent updating, and combination of links with personal commentary.4 We discuss these basic features of the blog as genre below in the semiotic terms used by Miller (1984), identifying their generic semantic content, their syntactic or formal features, and their pragmatic value as social action. Syntactic and formal features interact, of course, but there is quite strong agreement about them. It is when bloggers discuss the purpose of the blog, its function and value as social action involving rhetors and audiences, that the nature of the generic blog becomes problematic.

Semantic content or substance

Almost across the board, bloggers seem to agree that content is the most important feature of a blog (Rodzvilla, 2002; The Weblog Review, 2003). The Weblog Review, a blog reviewing site, evaluates three features on a 5-point scale: design, consistency, and content, with the lion’s share of the rating’s weight, 80-90%, dedicated to the blog’s content. Although it is difficult to generalize about the content of blogs because they are so varied, there have been several attempts to classify blogs according to their content. The Weblog Review classifies blogs by grouping them into fourteen content-focused categories: adult, anime, camgirl, computer, entertainment, humor, movies, music, news/links, personal, photography, Spanish/Portugese, teen, and video games. Similarly, the Wikipedia provides a classification based on content, including personal, political, directory, and format-based types of blogs (Wikipedia, 2003). Another classification is offered by Jill Walker, in her contribution to appear in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory: she notes that blogs can vary in their media content, with most blogs primarily textual but others classified into “subgenres” such as photoblogs, videoblogs, and audioblogs (2003). 5

Rebecca Blood’s widely cited blog entry on the history of weblogs offers a classification of blogs into two “styles,” based largely on content: an original filter-style, where the blogger is primarily an editor and annotator of links, and a later, more personal “blog-style” weblog, where bloggers engage in “an outbreak of self-expression” (2000). Other sources confirm this perception of two major types based primarily on a different substantive emphasis: an earlier type that emphasizes information access with links to other sites of interest, and a later type that emphasizes personal, diary-like writing. Herring et al. used these categories and several others to classify the 203 blogs in their random survey, confirming Blood’s claim that the personal type is more common than the filter-type (2004) 6. However, some also point out that “the boundary between the two types of site isn’t that well defined” (Coates, n.d.). And Joe Clark notes that because many leading blogs are by “folks in the Internet biz, their entire lives are online,” meaning that even sets of links “are diaries because life is the Web” (2002).

Walker points out the default expectation for content to be nonfiction, although some blogs are explicitly or implicitly fictional to varying degrees (2003). Moreover, the reverse chronological organization of the blog provides a “sense of immediacy,” according to Blood, a feature that reinforces the impression that the content is true, or real (2000). The strength of this expectation is shown by the outraged reaction to the Kaycee Nicole Cancer Hoax. During a two-year period, a number of bloggers became friends with Kaycee Nicole, an attractive young woman who was battling leukemia. When bloggers who had been following her blog learned that she had lost her battle with cancer but were unable to get information about the funeral arrangements, they became skeptical. Eventually they discovered that Kaycee Nicole was actually a middle-aged mother from the Midwest. In fact, she was the woman they had come to know as Kaycee Nicole’s mother. Using a pseudonym, Debbie Swenson published a blog and created a virtual identity–complete with the photograph of a local high school basketball player. The blogging community was outraged by the fictionalization, considering it an offensive deception. As one blogger writes, “Most people believed that Kaycee was real because no one would attempt such a massive ongoing hoax” (Geitgey, 2002).

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