on distributed presence (and blogrolls)

One of the things I find most interesting about the current proliferation and extensive uptake of various ‘social media’ technologies, from RSS readers, to del.icio.us, facebook and twitter as well as weblogs themselves, is the decentralising effect that these technologies are having the ‘online presence’ of individuals, at the same time as these technologies are being adopted at scale. Put simply, there are more of us online, in more places. But is more really more?

When I first started this blog around four years ago, it was used as a bucket for just about everything I did online – most of which was somehow work-related. These days my day-to-day bookmarks are in one place, my photos in another, lyrical one-liners about the weather and anxious rants about procrastination somewhere else, and personal announcements, birthday greetings and most other online phatic communication somewhere else entirely. If I have the time, headspace and confidence, I blog about my academic work/life here or at the other research blog I share with my colleagues (which is looking slightly neglected at the moment, I’m afraid). And it should hardly need saying, but of course all of that adds up to only a very partial and (sometimes) controlled version of my professional and/or personal identity.

One thing that has struck me lately, is that this hyper-distributed version of online presence, connecting us in different ways to a variety of colleagues, professional, personal, and online acquaintances, and close friends, couldn’t be further from the 1990s personal home page – a one-stop shop that often seemed to incorporate everything from a CV to cat photos, holiday snaps, essays and online diary. It’s important to note that, given the comparative unevenness of internet access, use and participation at the time, the personal home page was a form of cultural production never adopted at anything like the current scale of blogs and SNS profiles.*

At the same time, some discussion of blogrolls has come up at Mel’s blog. I have been thinking about that this morning in terms of the increasingly distributed quality of ‘online presence’, and the uses of social media relative to technological shifts, that I mentioned above.

I have a feeling that blogrolls probably have an important antecedent in a standard element of the personal home page genre – the ‘links’ page, which you could see as a user-led innovation that preceded web directories and sophisticated search engines. These links lists (and, later, webrings) were used to create a neighbourhood of similar, favourite, or somehow relevant webpages – back in the days when it might have seemed feasible to collect links to most of, or even the most relevant, webpages on your chosen topic!

Similarly, I never thought of my own blogroll as any kind of performance of who was ‘in’ or ‘out’ of my social circle – it was a list of blogs that I had found to be of relevance to one or more of the topics I was writing about (new media studies, amateur cultural production, music, cultural studies), or blogs that I particularly enjoyed reading, or, sometimes, that were produced by people I knew. It was one among several methods of creating and contributing to a textual neighbourhood. Implicitly, the act of adding someone’s blog to your own list was a low-key signal to that blog’s author that you were reading them. I think using the blogroll in that way is simply collegial behaviour. But now that there are far too many blogs on any given topic to be accommodated in any one list, the question is what to do about the problem of sheer scale?

Also, these days I access most of the blogs I read via RSS, and catch the traces of their authors’ web browsing via their del.icio.us links or links within individual blog entries, while visiting the actual URLs of individual blogs only rarely, and then mainly to view or contribute comments. I know that 80% or so of my readers do the same; so is anyone actually using anyone else’s blogrolls anymore anyway? Should we ditch the blogroll entirely? I don’t know about that. I’m happy to let mine just sit there in the sidebar, deleting the links that are clearly defunct or too far removed from my current interests, and adding new ones now and then.

Much of what has been most valued about blogs proceeds from the idea that blog authors make the effort to link widely and specifically to other blogs that deal with similar topics or issues. I’m not sure that this interlinking within blog entries is occurring nearly so much as it used to. If I’m right about that (and I’m happy to be corrected) perhaps the lack of a strong explicit interest among bloggers in pursuing the idea of blogging as a networked practice is due to the obsessive characterisation of blogs as a kind of ‘personal publishing’ (or at most ‘journalism’), and the continued reification of ‘authorship’, rather than as a conversational or networked form of cultural production. And in fact, perhaps the technological architectures and relatively stable cultural norms around blogging simply shape it towards individualistic and self-referential forms of textual production. I believe many in the LiveJournal community would agree. In which case, perhaps the increased ‘distribution’ of online presence is a good thing.

In any case, it’s clear that there are continuing struggles and negotiations within every blog, and within discourses about blogging, about the extent to which blogging is a platform that supports the individualistic privileges (and responsibilities) of authorship, and the extent to which it supports the propagation of collective cultural practice and conversation.

*By the way, the Google algorithm makes it almost impossible to find an example of a 1990s personal home page through normal keyword searches, and it’s getting harder, even if you type in a genre-specific phrase like “welcome to my home page”. If you find yourself becoming strangely obsessed by the aesthetics of this forgotten genre, including starry backgrounds and animated ‘under construction’ gifs, then I refer you to the world’s expert on the ‘vernacular web’: Olia Lialina.

Update: I almost forgot – we will be discussing ‘online presence’ for postgrads and early career researchers in media and cultural studies at the next MACS meeting, this Friday the 12th Oct, 2.30-4.00pm, at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies, The University of Queensland.

7 thoughts to “on distributed presence (and blogrolls)”

  1. Jean, thanks for these thoughts. I find it harder to speak about wider trends in blogging and other online practices, which is part of my difficulty in ever being able to answer your provocations about what is happening “at scale”! But I really appreciate the way that both here and in our blogging presentation the other day you reflect on reasons for changes in your own practice over time.

    You know, I still think there is a much wider range of blogging dynamics taking place than that perception of individual author as self-referential lets us access. To me, the idea that an author has that degree of control over the reception of their writing seems as misplaced as the optimism that linking develops a more reciprocal and conversational culture. Surely in many versions of blogging practice linking is as much about distributing or attributing negativity as much as positivity?

    But I do like your notion of textual neighbourhood. I’d love to hear you develop that more. It really helps me think about why proximity in an actual physical location doesn’t necessarily equate to a desire for collegiality, let alone friendship. On which – with no irony of course – I will have more to say on my blog! 🙂

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