4Cs: Weblogs as Social Action

I’ve had a much busier conference experience than I did last year, attending a whole lot of presentations and wanting to attend even more. I won’t blog all the ones I go to — sometimes I like to just sit and listen — but I’ll do my best to do justice to the ones I do take notes on. I’ve been trying to ask people for permission to blog their sessions, with — for the most part — success, but I’ll acknowledge when I haven’t been able to ask presenters for permission. As always, it’s great seeing colleagues in the halls and sessions, folks I haven’t seen in a while, and I’m particularly glad to put more faces to names that I’ve known only by their writing.

Anyway: went to the first session of the conference with Lanette Cadle, Daisy Pignetti, and Clancy Ratliff talking about thinking of weblogs as social action. Good stuff, and raised some really interesting questions for me about the different rhetorical and/or pedagogical uses to which weblog writing gets put.

Lanette Cadle began with Jill Walker’s now-canonical definition of the weblog and then described her study focusing on the “personal” weblogs of girls between 15 and 22 at LiveJournal. Sixty-seven percent of the 4.35 million LiveJournalers are female, even though women are historically underrepresented on weblogs. According to Cadle, these women are remediating (to use the term Bolter and Grusin have given a new currency that intersects in problematic ways with how Mike Rose and other scholars use it) the historical genre of the diary: the weblog, Cadle suggests, is the paper diary plus links. The rhetorical activities on these girls’ weblogs include “Daily log[s], vents and raves, links, comments, quizzes, memes, and images,” and in an interesting aside, Cadle distinguished these activities from those of “the information-conveying political weblog.”

Many of these girls’ weblogs are “friends only,” where one must request admission or access, and many girls also write wholly private entries — and these activities raise questions for Cadle about the nature of audience on weblogs. Furthermore, icons are a big thing on LiveJournal, and these small graphical representations of self via reference to interests, hobbies, and the like condense many of composition’s disciplinary interests into rich little nuggets of information (sorry: my term, not Cadle’s): technology use, visual rhetoric, discoursal production of subjectivities, and so on. Cadle argues that these weblogs encourage the habits of writing and reflection, and also contribute to the acceleration and fluidity of identity construction, which struck me as quite fascinating, given the stuff I’ve been looking at with the ancient Romans’ highly public rhetorical production of individual subjectivities. Cadle concluded with an expressed desire to connect her findings more closely to the classroom, a sentiment I’d certainly agree with: this stuff seems so rich, so engaging, but it’s going to take a lot of difficult theoretical and pedagogical work to understand how it might function in the context of our broader practical work.

Doctor Daisy Pignetti’s presentation focused on the Election 2004 Dean and Bush Campaign weblogs. Pignetti notes that many technorhetoricians rely on the Habermasian notion of the public sphere (I was interested to see she left out Habermas’s “bourgeois” qualifier of the term, but more on this later) in their analyses of how weblogs might encourage the rhetorical expression of a democratic multiplicity of perspectives, and acknowledges that such a reliance — and its assertion that “anyone can participate” — may come across as overly idealistic given economic concerns of access to computers. In fact, Pignetti brought up the access issue several times, which seemed to me to be an important acknowledgement that the public sphere she describes is, in fact, a bourgeois institution, although she also remarked that she didn’t want to focus on those issues. Charles Moran has commented on this discursive habit among researchers in computers and composition: acknowledge the issue of access and then move on, perhaps in an apparent shrug that our situation vis-á-vis economics and access with computers seems so deeply problematic as to be potentially unresolvable, and therefore beyond worthwhile discussion. Pignetti then moved on to discuss the Dean campaign weblog, and suggested that its most important function was the comment function. Visitors who commented on the weblog thought of themselves as webloggers, and the campaign in fact listened to commenters and let their comments help shape the course of the campaign. Pignetti contrasted this egalitarian grass-roots quality to the top-down authoritarian approach of the Bush campaign weblog: there were no comments allowed on the Bush weblog, a small blogroll, scant use of links, zero dialogue, with posts that read more like press relearses than anything else. The problem is that we all know what happened: Bush’s authoritarian approach won, and Dean’s egalitarian approach lost. Are we, Pignetti asked, so unaccustomed to egalitarian discourse that we don’t know how to respond to it or what to do with it? Is authoritarian discourse more productive or powerful than the egalitarian discourse that we value so? Pignetti concluded by asking how we might help the Web be a more egalitarian space, offering more access to more people, and how we might use teaching methods that make technology less exclusionary. To which I might ask (with what I hope is curiosity rather than bitterness and sadness rather than cynicism): but if it doesn’t work — then why do it?

Clancy Ratliff’s highly sophisticated presentation, “The Parental is Political: Gender, Punditry, and Weblogs,” interrogated the trope of the curiously absent female weblogger. Ratliff began by suggesting weblogs offer important rhetorical possibilities, including a lessened conformity to the norms of the rhetorical commmunity, heightened opportunity to talk with people who disagree with you, more potential to engage a larger audience, and more inroads to rhetorical influence. An analysis of the demographics of weblogging demonstrates that while there is general gender equality in overall weblogging numbers, women are not typically the top or A-list bloggers, and tend to not get linked as much: but why? Ratliff also rehearsed the gendered-discourse stereotypes that go along with weblogging: men are supposedly the authoritative and agonistic pundits to women’s expressive and sensitive narrators of personal experience, with all the gendered metaphors that go along with those stereotypes and the contention that “women don’t blog about politics.” But, Ratliff counters, the parental concerns in some womens’ weblogs are deeply political. Her example of a “personal” anecdote from BitchPhd that urges deliberative change served as strong evidence that the gendered stereotypes associated with weblogs are certainly not always true, and she concluded by implicitly constructing the women’s weblogs she’s interested in as a form of deliberative rhetoric. Ratliff brought to her presentation the considerable theoretical acumen than anyone who knows her via Culturecat will immediately recognize, coupled to an impressive selection of evidentiary examples and a really skilled deployment of PowerPoint that many presenters (including and especially me) could stand to learn from: good, good stuff.

In the Q&A, I asked some of the same questions I’ve been recently been asking in a broader context about how to characterize the writing we’re asking students to produce: in Aristotelian terms, are these various weblogs best characterized as forensic rhetoric, epideictic, deliberative, or as dialetic? Cadle endorsed the value of the dialectical function of weblogs, while Ratliff noted that epideictic praise and blame are frequent, and Pignetti seemed to concede (I hope I’m not misrepresenting here) that there may be a disconnect between the deliberative rhetoric of campaign weblogs and the writing we’re asking students to produce. The most interesting questions, however, were the ones about the implications of IRB approval and human subject research ethics for looking at public weblogs. I’m concerned that absent parental approval from Cadle’s under-18 subjects, an IRB might give her a hard time, but many in the audience pointed out that weblogs are already out there for all to see, which would seem to invalidate any ethical quibblings. I guess I’m not so sure, and a little uneasy about using institutionally approved discourse to analytically vivisect the writing of an individual who has not offered express consent — which is why I’ve been seeking that consent from the panels on which I’ve been taking notes.

4Cs: Weblogs as Social Action

2 thoughts on “4Cs: Weblogs as Social Action

  • March 22, 2005 at 10:40 am

    Hi Mike
    Thanks so much for your comments and blogging about this so quickly and eloquently. You’re much more of a formal academic than I am and I mean that in a good way!
    As for your take on my session, you’re dead on, particularly about my use of Habermas. I hated that I didn’t talk more seriously about access, but I knew of my time limit and I wanted to get the examples out there first. I’m also not one to speak theoretically in presentations; I’m kind of extemporaneous and anecdotal, which needs to change if i plan on submitting work for publication!
    Perhaps this is why this topic excites and overwhelms me so–there is so much more to write and say about how Dean’s blog was yet still fully wasn’t Habermasian. Naturally, the demographic of people who left comments there were of the economic standing that allowed them to own a computer with either broadband or wireless connections AND have the free time in their lives to attend meetups and voluneteer at headquarters, etc. But I know from talking to people who worked on the campaign that they did make an effort to take computers to the SEIU [workers union] meetings and to African Amer churches so that that demographic could log on and read the blog. Still, the majority of bloggers and commenters was obviously middle-class and white, but at least those voices who felt abandoned by their Democratic party were given a forum rather than restricting dialogue all together like the now defunct Bush blog did.
    It’s also interesting for me to probe further into the concept of creating blog for a political campaign versus one done independently but with a political bent. Which might enact the ideals of a public sphere more accurately?
    I’ve got to get to my teaching but I’d hope that this conversation can continue. I think that might help flesh out the ideas of what we might be able to do to create a more egalitarian space. P.S. I can’t believe someone is more cynical than me! 🙂

  • March 26, 2005 at 2:12 am

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. Your question about framing weblogs in Aristotelian terms was an intriguing one and emphasized how blogs have more than one possible focus in the classroom.

    As far as IRB (called HSRB here) approval goes, they are much more stringent for under 18 projects and it was definitely seen as a project with human subjects rather than texts alone. However, it worked out fine mainly because blogging was described in the application as a normal and natural activity akin to other enriching extracurriculars such as piano lessons or soccer teams. I believe that this was a fair description that contextualizes blogging’s place in these girls’s lives. Also, the fact that these girls have been blogging for as long as three years in some cases also took away some of the “potential harm” aspects.


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