Friday, January 07, 2005

Definitions and manifestos

Andreas Haugstrup Pedersen of questions my lack of enthusiasm about blog definitions, and his post made me realise that I was mixing terms:
I don't know how the minds of all researchers work, but creating definitions with the sole purpose of recieving credit for them is pointless. Definitions are crucial to research, not because you can get recognition, but because definitions are the prerequisite for talking about a concept. If I can't define what a blog is, I can't discuss it, because I can't distinguish it from other forms of communication. Following that, the idea of keeping a definition as open as possible is a bad idea. While a very open definition where a blog or a videoblog can be almost anything might be 100% correct, it'll also be 100% useless.

First I want to address this comment.
Some wide definitions work quite nicely, and lets us discuss objects of research as more than a narrow category. Take the semiotic understanding of "text". It permits just about everything which is created with the purpose of sending some kind of signal to be interpreted as a text. This positions the object of perception as a cultural artifact, and lets it be interpreted according to the context in which it is perceived. It is an extremely wide definition, as it encompasses almost everything made by humans, and according to the logic of Pedersen it should be almost useless. But it isn't, quite contrary.

Sometimes, in order to discuss a phenomenon, we need to delay the process of narrowing it down. If I am to find out what a blog IS, I can't just look at the blogs that adhere to journalistic standards, academic blogs, disaster blogs, travel blogs, personal diary blogs, photo blogs, moblogs, voice blogs, video blogs or what ever. I can't understand the BLOG from either of these narrow categories. I can however learn something about a certain type of blogs, if I make it clear that my study is only about this.

But what made me react originally was not really the idea of a definition, although definitions and manifestos are related.

If there is a bloggers manifesto, declaring what a blog should be, and this is so narrow that any of the above - and several unmentioned - types of blog does not fit, then the manifesto is reducive, and changes a phenomenon that already exists within its own boundaries. It's not a definition (which a manifesto is not, anyway), but a statement of the writer's intent for what blogs ought to be. A definition is descriptive: "This is what I understand this object to be." A manifesto is normative: "This is what this object should be."

When Adrian Miles wrote the vog manifesto, the vogma, he was quite alone with the term. As others found it and realised "hey, this is what I am doing", the term became established and took hold, and the vog developed from Adrian's intent. The blog has some technical features and some intent such as "push-button publishing for the people" - a slogan, but also a type of manifesto. But there were no original rules limiting a blog in for instance genre, content, ethics or graphic expression in that early phase, and the blog developed until it had reached millions of users (and budded into for instance vogs) before the desire for a manifesto or even a definition arose.

The vog was created through the vogma, the blog risks to be reduced by a "blogma". These are two very different situations.

As stated before, I am not all that concerned by such a reduction (if it does take place, that is not a given), as I expect the practice will just find other channels - or not change at all. A reduction will however be a loss to research, as it means a lot of ways to use a blog can be lost to the scholarly eye. I am old enough to remember when comics and paperbacks were not literature, and to know what a struggle it was to put popular media into the Universities. I don't want to participate in creating an academic exclusiveness that excludes the weight-bloggers for instance. Definitions need to exist at several levels, as they have to describe what already exists. Manifestos can be narrow and restrictive, because they describe what we want to see come into being.

But who knows what will come of a bloggers manifesto anyway? Some brilliant mind could do both: contain everything that blogs are at the moment, and point towards some bright and beautiful future. I would love that!


thomas said...

School hasn't started yet, but by reading this I am immediately brought up-to-date on some of the many interesting elements of media science. Academia, here I come!

Even though I'm not half as experienced a blogger as you are (my blog has been on the Net for almost a year compared to your four or five years), but I really share your view on the "blogma" issue. If that someone with the brilliant mind created a manifesto, I think it would lead to two (among many other) things: 1) The heavy-weight academical blogs would probably consolidate their position in the world of blogs, and 2) Some curious, but hesitating new-comers to the 'medium' would probably get scared (or turned off) by a (most likely) strict and narrow manifesto. Maybe they would feel like "this isn't the right medium for my personal thoughts/my photo album/etc." and give it all up (and write a never-to-be-published journal to their nightstand instead)?

Or perhaps they and (many of) the established bloggers would just elegantly avoid the rules?

Ray Davis said...

I've been blogging since 1999, and have seen many a manifesto, some by "brilliant minds", some "academical", some even by me; some of which managed to include some of the work of my peers, and all of which excluded some. A manifesto attempts to sway selected members of a community. By that definition, a manifesto is suspect as a *definition* of the community. (At least until after it's been successful enough to have banished non-addressees from the community.)

Contra, it's perfectly permissable to research something you haven't "defined" in the sense that a chemical compound might be defined. Writing about blogs is anthropology -- writing about a living culture which is presumed to be foreign to the readership -- and it's an arrogant anthropologist who presumes to "explain" (rather than study) their native subjects. Either that or it's criticism, in which case it's an arrogant critic who presumes to sum up the primary source in a sentence fragment. To blog is to experiment within amorphous communal bounds, as writing in any living form or genre is. A living form or genre is part of a living culture, and only dead or artificial languages are presumed perfectly translatable.

If this issue only arose with lexicographers, I'd show a bit more patience. Defining the undefinable is their dirty job, and they have my sympathy. But the eagerness with which many academics -- not including Assoc. Prof. Mortensen -- try to define a subject before they've *studied* it shows an all-too-familiar disrespect.

Torill said...

Thank you thomas and Ray

thomas - I am delighted that you get all happy and primed for questions by reading this. Do me a favour - don't learn to ask deep, important questions in order to become a well-known sports journalist in any of the Norwegian television networks! (Sometimes, watching television hurts for a media teacher, although I have to add, since this is a public site and somebody might think I am not happy about certain somebodies in prominent visible positions in Norwegian broadcasting: I am wonderfully happy for your successes and wave hello every time you are on television and brag about having taught you when ever I have a chance and often you are the reason I watch at all.)

Ray Davis - yes, thank you, well put. I am glad I am not the only person who feels that defining fields before you really know them well enough to describe them exhaustively and understand their function, mechanics, history and development, is dangerous. This of course makes life complicated, as I have no short and ready answers (much to the grief of my students), but at the same time I find popular culture and user strategies and rewards so fascinating, I don't see an end to understanding.

thomas said...

I promise I wont!

Torill said...

Jon Hoem (In Norwegian) comments on Bjørn Stærk's blog manifesto and adds this post to the list of posts he should have read before making that comment.

Perhaps I should have read that Norwegian Blog manifesto too, because Bjørn Stærk does something nice with it. He states that it is his personal plan which others can join if they like, he points out that this is a political statement - not tied to parties, but to communication politics - and he makes his own political bias clear. The people he invites are the people who have an urge to make their political opinions public.

As manifestos go this is one of the nicer ones, as it does not claim to be a goal for all blogs of the world, just invites people to join in on one type of blogging. In that manner it has a lot in common with the vogma.