Share, Share Widely

Technologies for Distributed Creativity

Interview with Axel Bruns (adjusted by Trebor Scholz)
Part of WebCamTalk 1.0 interview series
[3 pages]

Trebor Scholz:
On the one hand weblogs are often criticized as being somewhat narcissistic public diaries, often authored by individual teenagers. But at the same time the blogosphere is increasingly important in political campaigning, education, research, and content management.

Blogs became an outlet for new media research practices. Much of scholarly research appears on weblogs. ‘Edbloggers’ use weblogs for collaborative learning, as personal portfolios, institutional interfaces, personal reflective journaling, peer-to-peer editing, annotated link collections, coursework, and sharing of educational content. The word “weblog” had the highest number of online lookups on Miriam Webster in 2004. Are blogs the social software du jour?

Axel Bruns :
(background sounds of noise minor birds, and rainbow lorikeets)
Yes, and according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project blog readership has shot up by 58% in 2004 alone (see reference). Should this increased public interest over the last year be credited merely to a massive interest in more information about the US elections, or is it due simply to the hype about blogs? We are not sure - but something is happening. The narcissistic teenage use of blogs gets a lot of bad press but it is actually not such a negative thing at all. People have written diaries for centuries: for many folks this form of self-reflection is an important part of their lives, a key practice in developing and maintaining their identity.

So, I do not have a problem with self-involved teenage diaries as such, but I am certainly not arguing that the quality of the writing is always particularly good or especially insightful. Even if this journaling would be all that blogs are good for, they would remain an important outlet for expressing the lived experiences of teens. What weblogs do enable, however, is a significant amount of immediate, ad hoc interaction between individual bloggers. They are in fact a tool for social networking. There is a real interest by people in sharing information and in connecting to each other. This interconnection of people with similar interests, with comparable life stories, does not exist in traditional diary writing. With blogs, individuals who have a particular issue in common can find each other and build ad hoc networks.

The same people who today criticize blogs for being self-absorbed and tedious accounts of everyday life are possibly those who used to criticize the TV generation for being isolated from one another. Such attacks may be little more than knee-jerk reactions to the perceived evils of the next new trend in telecommunications technologies. On balance, I would prefer interaction between possibly self-centered journal writers to non-interaction between couch potatoes- it is a step forward. Suburbanites who are socially challenged may remain so no matter if they act online or off, while blogging offers them a way to connect.

TS: Social book mark tools like and online social fora like flickr are helpful in linking up people with similar affinities. They create linkages between social networks. Both sites link ‘users’ based on topical affinities, creating possibilities for social networks based on a very particular set of interests.

AB: Yes, and they show that there is a profound shift currently underway. People are very interested in creating their own content, sharing their ideas online, putting their lives out there. And everybody has expert knowledge of something — from music and movies to politics and social issues. Of course, putting the information out there does not mean that it will actually be read. There is a tremendous information overload; an enormous number of blogs are never visited. Alexander Halavais did a lot of work about this. He is a big believer in the social power of neighborhood blogs. How many of these millions of blogs are really being looked at or linked to? If you go to a blog you probably looked for it based on a search related to your affinities.

TS: This trend towards the uses of software tools in a site-specific, “situated” way has been much discussed recently. Some recent internet art projects address the needs of a geographically specific group rather than the anywhere and nowhere of the internet (devoid of political agency).

AB: What is interesting about blogs is that they are very scalable. They are useful for collaboration amongst small, geographically co-located groups as well as for distributed team work across a number of dispersed locales. The are useful for facilitating ad hoc interconnection between complete strangers based on shared interests - and sometimes perform all three functions at the same time. This multilayered structure has always been a promise of hypertext-based information structures. There is no longer a mutually exclusive choice between catering for the ‘here’ or for the ‘anywhere and nowhere’ you speak of- it is possible to have both at the same time.

Importantly, too, blogs make it very easy for information to travel across the network, and this is why we speak so frequently of the blogosphere now. Ideas are picked up from one blog and republished on others, so that blogging is not about single weblogs - their strength is in their numbers. I am fascinated by the trend towards blog aggregation, through sites like Daypop and Technorati. Broader trends across the blogosphere emerge: individual words or topics suddenly show up as being in extremely high use, sometimes from one hour to the next. This is a good way to track what currently is on people’s minds. It is less about the individual, local blog, and much more about the travel of information across the networks. Blogs enable this through commentary functions, TrackBack, Really Simple Syndication (RSS), and other technologies. The widespread popularity of blogging will most likely be amplified by the use of RSS feeds on mobile computational devices, such as PDAs and mobile phones, which makes information flows even faster.

For my book Gatewatching: Collaborative Online News Production, I focused on the field of news blogging. Here (as well as in academia) copyright is a key issue: there is so much re-use of articles, of text all over the blogosphere. Information, responses to political events that appear on blogs are often copied from the news feeds of other blogs (i.e. BBC News Online now also offers RSS feeds). What we are moving towards as a result of this constant repurposing of content is not so different from file sharing. A shared file is diffused across the networks. It is becoming hard to identify the author or owner of a piece of content because the files are changed in the process of getting shared across the networks, and they are hosted on a multitude of machines. Information in the blogosphere works in much the same way: it travels in between blogs by way of RSS feeds and commenting. Thereby, it diffuses into the blogosphere, and the originators and owners of this information are now increasingly difficult to track, which naturally raises issues about credibility as a result. In the case of news-related blogging, for example, rather than encountering distinct news reports readers in the blogosphere are more likely to encounter shared themes, memes, dealing with current events that are diffused in many variations across the network.

In areas where intellectual property is important, such as the academic area, this is a real problem. Elsewhere, it is perhaps a moral rather than a purely legal question: the originator of content, the person with the original idea, should always be credited, of course. But in blogging it is quite possible that the site of the original content creator will receive fewer hits than the major blog which spreads the word. There is a need here to engage with content in a morally sound sense which acknowledges the right of the creator to be attributed appropriately, which is very much the way that open source operates as well, and where projects like Creative Commons (CC) also tie in. It is exactly what the CC attribution license requires.

Blogs are a very useful tool for researchers to float their ideas before they are fully formed, to enable others to engage with these ideas, to share them and build upon them. This returns to a more traditional form of research, of academic, scientific work - a collaborative pursuit of knowledge. There is a problem with this in a highly commercialized research environment, of course, where people are unlikely to share their ideas before they have been fully formed (and ultimately, patented). But even if blogs are used only within a specific research team, without being accessible to the wider public, they still provide a useful way of sharing ideas within that group.

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