Friday, August 11, 2006

Blogging: Kind Of Like Tron, But Not Really

Great post and comments on Tim's blog about blogging culture vs 'established' culture. Which got me to thinking that even though I've just written 17,000 words on that very subject, I still feel like I'm no nearer to understanding what blogging 'is'.

Of course it would be wrong to think that blogging is simply one thing; it's clearly lots of things all at once. It's a new form of communication, a new way of socialising, a new form of media, a new way of establishing and controlling one's own identity.

But the more I think about it, the more I get a nebulous sense that all of these different aspects of blogging have an overarching characteristic: the fact that all this new stuff takes place inside the machine*. The 'machine' being, obviously, the internet. You might think that is stating the bleeding obvious, but I'm not sure that many people have properly grasped the implications of this.

For a start, inside the machine is very different from the physical world. An individual person can be many different people, with many different names and personalities. People socialise with people whom they would never have met in the physical world. People who are nothing but avatars and pseudonyms hold earnest, frank, funny, confessional discussions with each other without knowing, or even wanting to know, 'who' the other people are**. In a way, one's physical-world identity and attributes cease to matter, which I think is nice, but also fairly fucking revolutionary when you think about it.

But I think that what blogging *really* is is representations of people in virtual space. To my mind, my blog isn't something I write and publish, but it's essentially me, or at least my representative in cyberspace. Me, in a different dimension, but definitely me, rather than just something that was created by me. So Patroclus doesn't just write stuff, but also has conversations with people, visits people, entertains people, and so on.

And what's different about that is that not only am I lots of different people inside the machine (Patroclus being one of several), but that everything that I do in here is theoretically visible to everyone. Whereas in the physical world you can have a conversation with someone in private, and those words disappear into the ether and no one knows afterwards what you said, inside the machine those words and conversations are stuck there forever unless you delete them or ask the other person to delete them. As if we're characters in a comic and everything we say is fixed in a speech bubble forever. So I suppose the thing that freaks people like Janet Street-Porter out is that she can *see* us now, whereas before she couldn't. We're in the room with her. Like monsters. Or zombies. And there are millions of us.

And the thing with, say, Tron, or Neuromancer and the other early cyberpunk stuff, is that there weren't very many people inside the machine. The ones that got inside were like pioneers, like the first people on the moon, or the first settlers in the Wild West. It was all kind of individualistic and heroic (which is why women aren't supposed to like cyberpunk), because this is the way computers were, then - they were individual, isolated things, rarely connected to a network, and that's why we still have to put up with the image of the 'internet user' as a sad, sociopathic loner.

By the time you get to, say, Snow Crash, there are more people inside the machine, but they're still kind of marginal, edgy types, and the internet (metaverse) is still a marginal, edgy sort of dangerous underground where right-thinking people fear to enter, and I suppose that's why we still have to put up with this image of the internet as being a lawless place populated by criminals.

But there are millions of us inside the machine, even people who don't wear black vests and mirror shades and consider themselves to be lone outlaw fugitives from the real world. So, in a sense, virtual reality has become real reality. And all of the ground-breaking things about virtual reality - the collapse of space and time, the unimportance of the physical self, the ability to be lots of different people in lots of different places; the whole thing about being essentially a brain in a jar, plugged into a machine...that's what our lives are like every day now.

We try to make sense of blogging by applying real-world analogies (blogging is like the media, blogging is like keeping a diary, etc.) but it so clearly isn't like the real world that if you stop for a second and think about what it's *really* like, it's just totally freaky. But it's lovely to see people adapt to it so quickly and totally, and start to create new rules and mores and codes of conduct, and cultural pursuits (e.g. memes and games and ritual practices that play with - and help us to make sense of - the fabric of the blogosphere itself) in what is essentially a completely different dimension.

Ahh, humans are so great.

* I totally nicked this phrase, and most of these ideas, from this fabulous article in Wired. And this book. And this one. But I'll lay claim to the zombie analogy.

** An idea that's always tickled me is that two people who know each other under a particular name in one online domain (say the blogosphere) may also know each other under different names in a different online domain (say a chat forum), and not know that they are the same people. How Philip K. Dick is that!


Marsha Klein said...

I was queuing to buy Fringe tickets yesterday , when this guy wandered past advertising a show based on 6 real blogs. I has to ask him for a flier (a rare occurrence in Edinburgh at this time of year!) but turned out he hadn't given me one because I had my children with and it's "adults only"! I mean, it's not like they're welded to me all the time or anything... Anyway, I'm going to see the show "Bloggers - Real Internet Diaries" (on Sun 27th August, in case anyone's about) but I was wondering - what is the position re. copyright or ownership of intellectual property where a blog is concerned? I presume he would require permission to use the contents of a blog?

Leighton Cooke said...

Like your zombie analogy. I always wanted to be a zombie.

GreatSheElephant said...

ah - that's what's missing - mirror shades and a black vest

longcat said...

neat analysis lady...



no i thought i'd have something to say about it but i don't right now, but thanks, great post...


Tim Footman said...

"Representations of people in virtual space..."

If Adorno and Baudrillard had a baby, she'd be called Patroclus.

And they'd be arguing all the time over whether she existed.

frangelita said...

This gave me a mild headache. I like it though.

I wear black vests sometimes and would like to wear mirrored sunglasses - outdoors. Don't think I'm any kind of geeky pioneer though, I just think black is flattering if you've got big bazookas.

Heather said...

Marsha I'm not entirely sure how permission was saught for the plays, I do know that the bloggers who wrote it will see no money from the tickets. Our very own Jules of is one of those who has had her blog adapted, so you could always ask her.

Wonderful post Patroclus. I'd been thinking along these lines recently myself. What mkes blogging for me though is the juxtaposition between man and machine, as I've said before for something so reliant, in fact so entwined in technology, it has the most human heart. In the blogosphere people are released from their physical constraints, whether illness or just concern over what to wear today. All that matters is what you think and say.

Your comparison to Snow Crash is brilliant, blogging does offer up a sort of metaverse. It makes me think of Hiro Protagonist, where in the real world he may deliver pizzas for a living, in the metaverse he is someone of importance. This could also be said to be true of many in the blogosphere.

realdoc said...

When trying to explain blogging and why I like reading blogs to the uninitiated I find it incrdibly hard to explain why they are so addictive. I think because the normal barriers are completely absent. I could be conversing with people from different age groups,cultural backgrounds etc and any inbuilt predjudices are bypassed. Not just that though. You progress very quickly to quite deep and personal levels of conversation which may take many months to develop in the 'real' world. I think there is a certain amount of disconnection from our fellow humans in the real world caused by all sorts of irrational fears all that goes out the window in the blogosphere. It's a case of only being able to be completely human within the machine which is weird when you think about it.

First Nations said...

waitaminute, waitaminute, waitaminute, waitaminute, waitaminute, waitaminute, now.

i thought you quit blogging. *backreads*
yeah. definitely. you said that.

*weeps with gratitude*

patroclus said...

I thought I might, FN. My life's a bit all over the place at the moment. But as it turns out, nothing can really keep me away.

Billy said...

Maybe there's actually only 2 people on the internet and we're all variations on them?

Billy said... with the mirror shades, the other with the black vest.

patroclus said...

Bags be the one with the black vest.

realdoc said...

I've now gone and started a blog. Will it take over my life?

patroclus said...

With any luck, realdoc. Nice work!

DavetheF said...

That's really got me thinking, Patro. And what I'm thinking is that the reason people like Janet Streep Porter are down on blogs is because cyberspace has become an ordinary place, with lots of familiar faces and landmarks. Like a virtual town. Just not edgy enough for Janet. And you're right that it makes her uncomfortable to know we are in the room.

One thing I have noticed is that usually the essence of the real flesh person animates the avatar. Obviously not those people who are inventing fictional selves. But usually. The other thing is that the avatar is the best of that person, because there is no obstacle such as nervousness, self-consciousness and so on that thwart our performance in real life. So the communication is virtual, but also very pure.

Billy said...

I've just thought of a better comment.

When I've tried to describe blogs to non-bloggers I've always started off by saying 'they're like diaries on the internet'. But they're not really are they?

Some people's blogs have a definite purpose,Before I started blogging and I was checking out the blogsphere as a lurker, this worried me but eventually I realised that most people write about things that interest them without trying to adhere to a plan.

I was in straight away.

What interests me is when people go 'against the grain' and post something that is really different. You can get a deeper sense of what their personality is like (which of course may or may not be different from their 'real' personality)

Gosh, I've waffled on. Hope there's a point in there somewhere.

Spinsterella said...


I just was going to say; Realdoc, you should get a blog...

and now you have!

hen said...

It reminds me of when we hired and games programmer where I work – when the system started trading a deal out by 100k he said “What’s the big deal? Let’s go home, fix it tomorrow.” I had to explain to him they weren’t points but pounds.

I get the same feeling about blogging – that is real joy and that is real pain and the end of those typed out lines.

It is no revolution. Just a technological evolution changing the how people interact not why they interact.

No different than an horse carrying a love letter or a printed page telling of a distant war, a telephone call informing of the death of a loved one or an email describing the taste of someone’s spunk.

It is all the same in the end.

First Nations said...

i just flashed on the definition of blogging; oh my God.
you must DEAL WITH THIS.

blogging is FOLK ART RADIO.

-folk art television for some of the real techies.

really. think about it. *fans smoke trailing from ears*

patroclus said...

Nice work, FN. In fact the title of my essay thing actually is 'blogging: the new folk culture'.

Hen: The best revolutions take place slowly (I think E.P. Thompson said that). Like the Industrial Revolution, which didn't exactly happen overnight. So I think it probably *is* a revolution from previous modes of communication and social networking, and I don't think it *is* all the same in the end. Those letters and emails and what have you aren't visible to everyone (well, that email was, but that was an exceptional case). and they weren't searchable. They were essentially private, and if we wanted anything public we had to rely on newspapers, radio, telly etc. Now everything is public, and anyone can join in - and when everyone can join in, you get fantastic new ideas and discussions and conversations, just like this one.

Also, if it wasn't for blogging, I wouldn't know anyone who's commented here (apart from you), and that would be very sad. And it still amuses me that the vagaries of blogworld/real-world crossover mean that I've met Tim, who lives in Thailand, but not Billy, who lives around the corner.

These are very interesting times, but we're too close to it, and too adaptable, to really see it. Give it a hundred years or so, and we'll see in retrospect.

Betty said...

Although there are undoubtedly huge numbers of people now becoming bloggers, I think in the non-internet world it's still seen as a really oddball hobby on a level with trainspotting.

When I've tried to explain blogging to friends or family they generally try to humour me as if I'd joined a strange religious cult. Only one of my friends actually bothers to read it regularly as the rest don't have time or aren't very impressed with the content of the blog, which is fair enough. Probably a good thing as it happens, because it makes me a bit less self conscious about what I write.

Most people still can't get their head around the idea of wanting to communicate through blogging and can't see the point of it. I suppose it's not really for everybody.

cello said...

How to resist writing reams on this?

I too love the liberation from demographics and geographics that blogs offer. I would never have had the delight of meeting Patroclus and various other favourites without first making a connection in cyberspace. But they are quite different from forums linked by a subject. So not communities of interest exactly , but perhaps communities of attitude.

One reason they are often more fascinating than live conversations is that you can take some time to think about your comment. It would nice to be able edit or delete too, but that's just being greedy.

The anonymity does allow more candid expression so they can quickly feel very intimate. Despite that, you are not constrained by the normal etiquettes of friendship. You can dump blogs smartish if they become dull and no-one moans if you don't 'pop in' for weeks. Rather the reverse; you get greeted like the Prodigal Son on your return (though fatted calves are tricky in a virtual world).

I occasionally feel guilty that I make contact with a blogger more frequently than, say, with my sister. But the lack of obligation is a relief.

hen said...

I guess my point was that a revolution implies something that completely overhauls or reverses the way people live or behave. Blogging and all of Web 2.0 just facilitate things that were there already – making them cheaper and more wildly available and accessible.

It is important to note that most of the “social networking” spaces are owned by big multinational companies that have their own agenda. Google’s promise “To not be evil” is increasing looking like lip service.

Small independent publications and interactivity have been around since the coffee houses of the 17th century. Admittedly they led to many revolutionary ideas but they were not revolutionary in themselves.

You are right that the social aspect, especially the international angle, is very interesting and pleasant but those things were not impossible before - just harder.

The blogosphere is mostly affluent, well educated, articulate and English speaking.

Which most of the world is not.

Arabella said...

Folk culture?
Perhaps this is why I like blogging. Not because I'm a word-loving shy extrovert but because - I can knit my own Aran jumpers!

patroclus said...

Oo, top debate here. Keep meaning to go back to the thing Heather said about (the ridiculously named) Hiro Protagonist being someone terribly important on the internet but not in the real world. Very good point.

cello: you can delete your comments, but it leaves that dodgy "this comment has been deleted by the author" message. That might change one day. I reckon comment functionality is going to change quite a bit, especially after they become fully searchable.

Hen: Google and News Corp. definitely have some kind of agenda, but do they even know what it is? Google will probably make us pay a subscription or carry ads, like it did once before (incidentally, why does that make it evil - it's a commercial company; it has to make money), and as for Murdoch, well I'm not sure he even knows what his agenda is. At the moment he's selling the MySpace community as an audience to advertisers like Burger King, and getting MySpace users to download trailers of Fox TV programmes and films.

Also, if you've ever played Billy's Big/Small Blog World Game, you'll know that the blogosphere is not mostly English-speaking. There's no way of telling how affluent or educated it is; no one's done any research there. I think it's important not to conflate the blogs you like to read with the blogosphere as a whole.

Arabella: exactly! and there are loads of knitting blogs: Scroobious Scrivener is the resident expert in that domain. I'm arguing in my dissertation that in the blogosphere, people are making and sharing things (art, writing, photography, videos, recipes, games, music, quizzes, knitting patterns, advice, instructions for making things - you name it) and ideas just for the love of doing it, rather than for commercial gain, and that the entertainment industry needs to watch out, because it's gathering momentum very quickly. But then they're already watching out, by attempting to disguise their products as 'authentic' and spontaneous products of the blogosphere like e.g. Sandi Thom.

Crikey, that must have been the longest comment ever.

Tabby Rabbit said...

>>To my mind, my blog isn't something I write and publish, but it's essentially me>>

See, mine wasn't me as I can't express myself in the written word and so would just put up pictures and add a few inane words. So blogging is great if you're able to express yourself through writing and exasperating if you can't - it's just like being in a bar full of people and discovering you're shy.

DavetheF said...

See, I do think bloggers form clusters, just like this one. You sort of attach yourself loosely at first and then get drawn into the conversation and think, well, these are the kind of people whose ideas I am inerested in and -- quite important -- I would be happy to have them over for dinner.

Your point about Tim and Billy illustrates my "neighbourhood" argument. My nextdoor neighbours in Cape Town are people I avoid. This, pathetic as it may seem, is my immediate neighbourhood, while I visit another village to talk about politics (though I have chosen not to blog about it); it's a drop-in sort of thing.

Kirses said...

the reason i read blogs is because it reminds me that there are people like me in the world, and also because i am inherently nosy.
i write one because i enjoy it.

mig bardsley said...

I've tried so often to explain why blogging is really a true experience. And a new concept. And so many people look blank and say they haven't got time for that. Or imply that it's a resort for sad types who don't have a life.
Reading this post (and the comments) made me want to grab all my dismissive friends and say look, read this! Thanks Patroclus. Brilliant.