September 20, 2008

Towards a taxonomy of blogs

THE WEB Posted: 11-09-2008

Before we criticise bloggers, let’s define our terms, writes MARGARET SIMONS

SOMETIMES language can obscure as much as it reveals, particularly when the world changes faster than our ability to create new vocabulary.

I think we have reached this situation with “blogging.” Never the most beautiful sound, the word “blog” is now manifestly inadequate to allow us to talk in sensible ways about the many different things that are happening in internet based publication by individuals and groups.

We need new words. To draw an analogy, both Hello and The Monthly are magazines, but knowing that is hardly enough to decide whether or not you might be interested in reading them. For that we need more information, and more differentiation.

I think the need for new vocabulary is becoming urgent. Last month I took part in many anguished discussions in various forums in the wake of the redundancy announcements at Fairfax, and all the resulting worry about the future of serious journalism in this country. The question was asked – is blogging one of the hopes of the future?

As speakers variously scoffed at the idea or spoke hopefully, it dawned on me that we were not necessarily talking about the same phenomena. Some blogs offer hope for a new kind of journalism. Some don’t, because they are doing a different kind of thing – things which may in themselves be valuable.

I am going to make an attempt to invent some new words for different kinds of blog, in the hope that readers will dive in, add and improve. Where possible, I have tried to adapt the terminology of the past, including that which accompanied the invention of the printing press. I think historical resonances can be helpful in illuminating what is going on in new media, as well as reminding us that this is not the first time that technological innovation has changed almost everything about how we communicate. Certain human needs persist. The means of satisfying them alters.

So, here goes:

Pamphleteering Blogs. These are the sites where an individual or, more commonly these days, groups of individuals argue a case or push a cause. Usually they are responding to facts reported in the mainstream media or occasionally on other blogs. The pamphleteering function is older than the printing press. Before literacy there was the Speakers’ Corner, where those pushing their views would be heckled, harassed and sometimes pelted with fruit and worse. The printing press took the rotten tomatoes out of the business. The internet brings back the interaction, but now we call the tomato-throwers “trolls.” The printing press also meant that only some views got published. The internet has taken out much of that filtering process. I would suggest that on the Australian scene, Larvatus Prodeo, Catalaxy, and Andrew Norton’s blog blog are examples of pamphleteering, although all three also act as digests and, very occasionally, news blogs.

The Digest Blog. These act primarily as guides and summaries to things you can access elsewhere, either in the mainstream media or on other blogs. Sometimes they include commentary as well. I think the digest function of blogs is becoming less important, because social networking sites are overtaking the function. In the future it may well be that what we read, listen to and view will be determined primarily by what our online social network pushes our way. Most pamphleteering blogs also perform a digest function by using hotlinks, but I would suggest that apparent Advocacy Blogs (see below for definition) such as the FairGoFairfax site established by the journalists’ union in recent weeks are, although ostensibly about advocacy of a cause, serving more as a digest and portal to mainstream media articles on the topic of journalism and redundancies. The same could be said about the rival Fairfax management site Just the Facts. Although theoretically opposed to each other, both sites tend to link to the same articles.

The Advocacy Blog. Perhaps this is a subset of pamphleteering, but I am putting it in a separate category because these blogs tend to be run by established advocacy groups or commercial organisations rather than by individuals, and concern themselves with a single topic, whereas the pamphleteering sites cover many different issues. Examples of advocacy blogs include Telstra’s exercise in corporate spin and politicians’ blogs, such as this one.

The Popular Mechanics Blog. Okay, I really need some help with the terminology here. The idea I am trying to capture is that there is now a large and diverse set of often uniquely valuable blogs that offer training and advice in specialist fields, serving the same function as magazines such as Popular Mechanics. Being a gardener, I am particularly aware of blogs that tell me how to get better cabbages or deal with earwigs. Here is a list of some of them. My husband is a photographer, and his favourite site at the moment is Strobist, which is full of detailed information and quite wacky but clever hints on how to light photographic subjects without spending a fortune of special equipment. Like most of the really good Popular Mechanics type blogs, Strobist earns money from advertising and is on the way to becoming a sustainable business. The depth and quality of the information available on the best of these blogs surpasses anything available in specialist magazines.

The Exhibition Blog. I could have called these blogs “vanity publishing”, but I don’t like the pejorative overtones. These are blogs maintained by writers, craftspeople, artists and artisans of many kinds in which they bring their creations to a wider audience, and sometimes discuss their methods and thought processes. Take, for example, the many blogs on quilting, such as AroundtheWorldIn20Quilts, which is a collaboration between quilters in the Netherlands, the United States, Britain and Australia. Sometimes Exhibition Blogs also serve as Diary Blogs (see below).

The Gatewatcher Blog. Often closely related to the Pamphleteers yet serving, I would suggest, the separate function of allowing specialists, experts and others with particular knowledge of public events to watch and hold to account the “gatekeepers” of traditional media. The best known example in Australia is surely Possum Comitatus, whose role in shaming the Australian newspaper in the lead-up to the last election has been widely commented on, including by me. The American journalism academic Jay Rosen and others are experimenting with a mixture of gatewatching and crowdsourcing in their Beat Blogging project, in which the kinds of people who would normally be a journalist’s sources are encouraged to interact with the reporters on line, with the aim of improving the journalism. I can’t think of an old-media technology term for the gatewatching blogs. Perhaps it is a new function, in which case, three cheers.

The Diary. As old as the hills, but now it is public – or partly so. This is the kind of blog people are usually referring to when they claim that most blogging is “rubbish.” What they mean is that they are not interested in it. Nobody says they have to be. The many Diary Blogs are intended for the friends and family of individuals. They contain news, photos and information of a largely personal kind. Often they read as self-indulgent, but since when were diaries anything else? That doesn’t mean that they aren’t valuable and important to those who keep them. The Diary Blog is, I suspect, in decline because of the rise of social networking sites, which allow the dissemination of this kind of information among geographically dispersed “friends,” without the need to make it available to all.

The Advertisement. Nothing new here. A close relative to the Advocacy Blog, but sometimes less honest. Companies are paying established bloggers undisclosed kickbacks to boost their products, as well as establishing their own blogs to do the same.

The News Blog. This one is in its infancy in Australia, though arguably Crikey grew from a news blog, founded by Stephen Mayne, who is now having another go with the Mayne Report. Both of Mayne’s enterprises relied largely on email, which perhaps takes them out of the category “blogs.” Or perhaps not. Advocacy, Gatewatching and Pamphleteering Blogs can also report news, but tend to so incidentally and intermittently. News blogs in the United States are of course better established, and have been used to cover and even break some very important stories indeed. Salam Pax, the Baghdad blogger, is another example. Another variant is the hyperlocal news site, in which news specific to an area is reported in depth. In the United States some of these sites have become sustainable businesses employing reporters as well as making use of user contributed content. It may well be that when asking whether blogging can make a useful contribution to journalism, we need to think about niche and speciality, rather than sticking with old notions that the only journalism that really matters is mass media reporting. The local is a natural “speciality,” but it is not the only one.

I wouldn’t pretend for a second that the above taxonomy of blogs is exhaustive or final. But I hope I have demonstrated that when commentators sneer at blogs and ridicule any suggestion that they could be a useful and important adjunct, or even replacement, for aspects of the mainstream media, they would do well to define their terms.

Blogs do some things very well indeed. Some of the things they do are old functions in new clothes, and some of the things they do are new.

I suspect that in a decade, the word “blog” will no longer be widely used. Instead we will have a whole lot of new words to reflect the diversity of individual publishing on the World Wide Web. •

Margaret Simons’s latest book, The Content Makers: Understanding the Media in Australia, is published by Penguin.

Photo: Adrian Matthiassen/


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