The blogosphere and its problems: Web 2.0 undermining civic Webspaces
First Monday

The blogosphere and its problems: Web 2.0 undermining civic Webspaces by Alexander Halavais



Abstract
Blogging is often seen as a proto-Web 2.0 technology and in many ways set the stage for the kinds of applications that followed. But the “blogosphere” also represented a conversational medium that allowed for civic discourse rarely encountered in the fragmented Web 2.0 that followed. Blogospheres were open, distributed, and relatively non-commercial, particularly in their earliest form, and provided civic Webspaces in which people could gather, discuss, and change their social organization. Today’s Web 2.0, while retaining some of the formal elements of blogospheres is more centralized, monopolistic, and commodified. Web 2.0 lost the civic nature of blogospheres, while retaining the formal social and technological structures; and recovering those civic Webspaces should remain at the center of critique of Web 2.0.

Contents

Introduction
Blogging and blogospheres
What a blogosphere’s good for
Small pieces, tightly bound
Conclusion: Openspace gardening

 


 

Introduction

Blogging is barely present in Tim O’Reilly’s 2005 description of Web 2.0. Rather than noting the important ways in which bloggers fomented the changes that O’Reilly describes — adopting and adapting syndication (RSS), image hosting (Flickr), and folksonomies (Delicious), among others — blogs are listed as merely the Web 2.0 version of personal homepages. In fact, the culture and practices that made up blogospheres represent not only the value (interactive, participatory, modular) that was initially seen as representing “Web 2.0” but a promise for a civic Web that may yet be recovered. Although blogospheres have faded from their hyperbolic peak, they still represents a model of the social Web worth appraising and reviving, and one that presents an alternative to the commercialized, centralized vision of Web 2.0.

Blogospheres marked the emergence of a set of prototypical civic Webspaces, spaces that have gradually faded in the face of new forms of commercially controlled social media platforms. These blogospheres are moribund. This article aims to understand why that is, why we should care, and what we might do about it. We begin with definitions, both of blogging and blogospheres. These definitions are necessarily provisional; understanding what is meant here by a “blogosphere” is essential to the argument that follows. That argument is that while the superficial functions of blogs remain, much of the culture, shared understanding, and spirit of blogging have put down roots in other “Web 2.0” platforms only rarely and with great difficulty. Because of the ephemeral nature of blogospheres their slow death passed largely unnoticed — at least outside of those blogospheres themselves, where it has been endlessly memorialized.

To understand the current shifts in how the Web is used, who uses it, and who is used by it, we need to mark and understand the loss of blogospheres. With that loss comes the loss of much of what was trumpeted as the revolution of social media. We may not be able to recover blogospheres, but there are ways we can reclaim the social functions that they served.

 

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Blogging and blogospheres

Blogs have resisted definition, in part because the technologies and practices that make up blogging evolve so rapidly. The most useful way to define a “blog” is as a constituent part of the blogosphere. This definition foregrounds the social and networked nature of the practices of blogging, rather than any particular piece of software technology or formal facets of the Web sites themselves. This pushes the more difficult task of definition to “blogospheres” which need to be explained as more than just “the totality of blogs” to avoid tautology. But before moving on to defining blogospheres as the most essential part of blogging, we should revisit the more commonly accepted definitions.

Genre-based definitions, including Jill Walker Rettberg’s (2003) widely cited version, which indicates that a blog is “a frequently updated website consisting of dated entries arranged in reverse chronological order so that the reader sees the most recent post first” consider features of the writing, rather than any particular set of technologies, to be decisive. Rettberg goes on to suggest that the writing is typically informal and personal, the readers tend to engage with the writing over time, and that blog entries often link to other materials on the Web. A more recent discussion of that definition appears in Rettberg’s 2014 book Blogging, where she notes that blogging has adapted to the social media ecosystem, and that “a lot of people enjoy blogging on more limited services like Tumblr and Pinterest. Even Facebook is a kind of blogging” [1]. (It is perhaps telling that the word “blogosphere” appears in the book only 28 times, while “Facebook” appears 124 times.) At some point, however, the definition becomes so broad that it seems to encompass any kind of online expression. Perhaps blogging, as an activity, is little more than, as Dave Winer (2007) suggested, “the unedited voice of a person.”

If this traditional view of blogging is our definition, blogs are not so much dead as ground up and sprinkled liberally across the Web. There are indications that the number of people who write on individual blogs, or who read them, is dwindling. The Pew Internet and American Life project found that half as many teens were blogging in 2010 as had been in 2006, though many older people continued to blog and most people did “blog-like things” on the newly emerging platforms (Zickuhr, 2010). Formal elements that make up blogging — from time-stamped entries, to threaded comments, to syndication, to content tagging, to shared memes — are found on the microblogging sites like Twitter and on social networking sites like Facebook and on pinboards like Pinterest and across the wide range of platforms that make a claim to being in some sense “social.”

Likewise, the sites for today’s newspapers and other news organizations are often indistinguishable from blogs, and many of the features that defined blogs are found in places as varied as product reviews, academic articles, and recipes. One measure suggests that more than a quarter of the dynamic Web is now driven by the blogging software WordPress (Ewer, 2015). It is used to manage many corporate homepages and shopping sites, among others. By this accounting, blogging has never been healthier. Perhaps the only claim that might be made is that blogs are no longer distinct from what makes up the rest of the Web. So, while it may be that the influence of blogging, as it once was defined, is on the wane, the “DNA” of blogging has spread across the Web, by this reckoning (Kottke, 2013).

While many of the features and some of the activities that blogs supported now permeate the social Web, what happened between blogs did not manage to survive the evolution of the Web quite as well. The “blogosphere,” as it came to be known, was as much about the configuration and interaction among bloggers as it was about any given site [2]. The blog was individual, but blogospheres were social, and blogging was inherently a social activity. Popular accounts of blogs, particularly in the early days, saw the practice as especially self-centered, and there is evidence that this view was not entirely off the mark for many bloggers who failed to connect significantly within blogospheres (Herring, et al., 2005). But the reciprocal, conversational element of blogging is what made for blogopheres: clustered, interlinked sites that engaged in ongoing discourse (Halavais, 2005). Although most frequently used in the singular, indicating that an individual blogger was in conversation with the universe of other bloggers, in practice there were many blogospheres: clusters of relatively densely connected blogs that were nonetheless part of larger conversations outside the blogospheres they lived in. Throughout this paper I refer to blogospheres in the plural to emphasize the degree to which they were networked, rather than mass, phenomena.

The connections between blogs within and across these blogospheres could happen in several ways. Bloggers might link to one another’s articles to continue commenting on them on their own blogs. This could result in “trackback” links that reciprocated the hyperlink and made it bi-directional. They might also comment on posts on others’ blogs, leaving a link back to their own. Or the blogger might maintain a “blogroll”: a sidebar listing of other blogs worth reading. Or the linkages might be less visible, with users following one another’s RSS feeds. The ties that loosely connected blogospheres could be both convoluted and occur in multiple spaces (Efimova and de Moor, 2005). These linkages describe spaces that are fairly dense, connected by common interest, geography (Lin, et al., 2007), or other social relationship. The political blogosphere in the United States seemed to divide along political party lines, forming two lightly bridged clusters (Adamic and Glance, 2005). But the technological ways in which these discussions were mediated was less important the configuration. Like the Internet itself, blogospheres were constituted through shared understanding of protocols, owned by no one. This consensual arrangement of discussion allowed for control of one’s own space, but continued voluntary engagement with others.

The word “blogosphere” quickly gained popularity in the early 2000s, one term among others used to refer to greater collections of blogs and the conversation that occurred among them. William Safire noted the emergence of the term as early as the middle of 2002 in his column in the New York Times, but it had been used for some time among bloggers. Most track its use to an off-handed comment on a blog at the end of 1999 (Graham, 1999). While Rebecca Blood’s early history of blogging, published in 2000, does not mention the “blogosphere” by name, she does provide some indication of how blogs were becoming more than just individual diaries or commonplace books hosted on the Web. She noted that an early directory of blogs (Eatonweb) rapidly became overwhelmed by the number of new entries. She concludes that what seemed like a community forming around filtering the Web was quickly becoming overwhelmed as people rushed to create their own blogs.

 

Articles mentioning the word blogosphere in newspapers
 
Figure 1: Articles mentioning the word “blogosphere” in newspapers in LexisNexis Academic, by quarter (red), and frequency of the search term according to Google Trends (blue).

 

As shown in Figure 1, the use of the term in newspaper articles peaked at the end of the 2000s. Most often, the term was used as a sort of place where discussion happened; for example: “Of course, the blogosphere can also be a rough place for fragile egos” (Paul, 2005). Sometimes this space was further restricted: the “Thai blogosphere,” or the “political blogosphere,” for example. Occasionally it was used metonymically, as one might use “the public”; for example, “The blogosphere did not exactly greet these plans — whose possibility was previously explored in the Hollywood trade publications last year — rapturously” (Itzkoff, 2010). But the term has survived in newspapers longer than in other venues. As the Google searches (as revealed by Google Trends, and indicated by the blue line in Figure 1) show, the number of searches has continually dropped since Google started recording such trends. It is hardly surprising that when researchers investigate blogospheres today, they find very little in the way of interconnections and conversations (e.g., Todeva and Keskinova, 2014). One could easily assume that the search frequency has fallen merely because the term was already part of everyday speech, but given the shifts toward comments (often managed by a third-party platform, like Discus or Facebook), and tweets, and away from blog entries commenting on other blog entries, it seems far more likely that blogospheres were already slipping away by the end of the 2000s.

Charting the death of blogs and blogospheres is something of a cottage industry. As early as 2006, a journalist writing for FT Magazine, referred to blogging as a “somewhat flaccid dirigible” that was unlikely to gain any further altitude (Himler, 2006). Jodi Dean (2010), in her book Blog theory, rejects the narrative of the death of blogging, and the idea of blogospheres all together. She frames her discussion of blogging around the rise of corporate blogs and sees the frequency of use of Facebook and other platforms as an “ever-intensifying expansion” of blogging practices [3]. While there can be no doubt that there are continuities between the social Web built up around blogging and the Web 2.0 that came after, what this misses that that the essence of blogospheres was civic, not commercial.

But this popular labelling of what happened within blogospheres misses much of the complexity of what occurred within them. By providing a space of interaction that allowed for easy connection, a system that was voluntary, and easily understood by those participating, blogospheres provided a space for participation and deliberation that was not widely available at the time, and has not been replicated by the platforms that are currently far more popular.

 

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What a blogosphere’s good for

There are many reasons we lost blogospheres, but chief among them was a lack of appreciation for the value they provided. There are several ways we could look at the role of blogospheres as a technology for building civic Webspaces. They served as a popular counterweights and watchdogs for the traditional institutions of public information and influence. But, more broadly, they provided spaces in which citizens could engage their interest and reach consensus with interested peers. While not an ideal public sphere, a blogosphere provided a new and relatively distinct space for citizens to engage one another politically and culturally.

“Mainstream media,” present mainly in the forms of television and newspaper journalism, was faced with decentralized forces that challenged overarching narratives of the news agenda. This was particularly true when it came to political coverage. Coverage of presidential campaigns had been growing more uniform across newspapers for several presidential electoral cycles leading up to the 2004 election (Halavais, 2007), but the decentralized network of political blogospheres disrupted news cycles, added a distributed network of interested citizens who could challenge the news agenda, and — as in the case of “Rathergate” — raised questions about stories presented (Woan, 2008).

This role of watchdogs for the watchdogs could be overemphasized. On the other end of the spectrum, blogospheres made visible the kinds of multi-step flows described half a century earlier by Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955). There is very little evidence of blogs taking over the journalistic function, but by surrounding and interpreting the news, they helped to shape that function. Their influence on public conversation was complex, and both drew on professional journalism as a source, ready to challenge those sources (Reese, et al., 2007). Although its potential went further, by drawing on a long history of personal journalism and rolling back some of the effects of corporate journalism of the late twentieth century (Gillmor, 2004), in practice it moved discussion of the news and the events of the day from the kitchen table to a distributed and relatively less homogenous space. This process of identifying and amplifying particular information streaming from a wide range of sources — a process Bruns (2005) refers to as “gatewatching” — shifted the ways in which journalism related to the public agenda, and to how the public assessed the news of the day.

The effect on existing institutions extended to political campaigns themselves, and blogging forced presidential campaigns to respond to the decentralizing pressure of blogospheres — if they wanted to succeed [4]. It is difficult to underestimate the effect of Howard Dean on the future of presidential campaigning in the United States. While his bid for the White House was ultimately unsuccessful, by engaging an online audience, and blogospheres in particular, Dean created a movement that could draw not just attention, but dollars. The opportunities for candidates that fail to conform to the conservative expectations of party elites, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders, owe a great deal to the “netroots” movement closely associated with the Dean campaign. While the agenda was reshaped in part by the “A-list” political bloggers, who continue to attract significant readerships, the ability to gather together large numbers of loosely affiliated bloggers helped to energize the voting public and raise funds from a much larger and more diverse group of supporters.

But the effects of blogospheres on existing media and political institutions underestimate the broader potential of conversation online. Naturally, there has been significant discussion, and some disagreement as to what sort of “sphere” a blogosphere is. Generally, there is some consensus that discussion among the citizenry is essential to the functioning of democracy. The appropriate nature of these discussions and who should be involved remains a continuing debate. Particularly well represented are arguments over the degree to which networked media generally, and blogs in particular, might adhere to models of the public sphere described by Habermas and others. Generally, these have examined the nature of discourse supported by these systems, rather than on the structure or outcomes of that interaction, recapitulating what some have considered Habermas’ own narrow focus on rational discourse. Democratic participation is messy enough to provide space for both rational and less-rational discourses [5]. While Habermas argues that modernity has imposed constraints not addressed by his work, Habermas draws heavily on an argument John Dewey (1984) makes in The public and its problems, that discussion is not (despite critiques from his contemporaries) somehow divorced from the activities that make up democratic participation more broadly:

From the standpoint of the individual, it consists of having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs and in participating according to need in the values which the groups sustain. From the standpoint of the groups, it demands liberation of the potentialities of members of a group in harmony with the interests and goods which are common. Since every individual is a member of many groups, this specification cannot be fulfilled except when different groups interact flexibly and fully in connection with other groups. [6]

Of course, Dewey also presents an argument (refined by Habermas) about the nature of the discourse itself. But among the factors that lead to sensationalism and other less-than-effective forms of communication are the affordances of the technologies that support this communication. By providing a space that is both relatively easily accessible by any interested speaker, and provides a bridge between private and public discourse, blogospheres represents a revolution in public discussion [7].

It seems that the only consensus on this front is what kind of sphere the blogosphere is not. Cass Sunstein (2008) argues that it is neither the marketplace of information Hayek describes nor the public discursive sphere described by Habermas. But the fact that it may not fit these ideals says little about how it relates to the wider space of civic discourse. For Dewey, there was the danger that entertainment could have a narcotizing effect, leading to the dissolution of politically-motivated publics. But given that even non-politically oriented blogs often contained political postings, it seems that a blogosphere meets the objectives Dewey set out. And until the migration to platform-based Web 2.0 expression, it also managed to be a discussion that was relatively immune to the influence of entrenched and moneyed interests.

Blogs are far from the only way to effect an online conversation, and for this reason they are often listed as part of a long serialization of online technologies that can provide this — blogs, forums, e-mail lists, wikis, social networks — seemingly with the presumption that these are similar enough that distinctions need not be drawn. But as Stromer-Galley and Wichowski (2011) note, the design of the space in which discussion takes place matters a great deal. Clumping together spaces with more or less synchronicity, reciprocity, or capacity for various kinds of media makes little sense. Likewise, ignoring who controls access to the space, and under what conditions, makes broad assessments regarding “online” deliberations meaningless. Constraints matter.

Some of the technological affordances and the genre expectations found in blogospheres made them different from the other elements on that list, and more suited to democratic discourse (Woodly, 2008). While some have argued that the blog represents a highly individualistic way of expressing oneself — a diary made public — it has more in common with the pamphleteering that is associated with Enlightenment ideals of community discussion. Bloggers certainly present an individual voice and opinion, but do so in the hope of attracting and convincing an audience of peers that the author’s message is compelling and correct.

One of the major criticisms of blogospheres was that they allowed people to shape their own restrictive publics, and set up an echo chamber of self-congratulatory posts (Gilbert, et al., 2009). However, the question is one of degree. It is true that the networked nature of society continues on a centuries-long path of allowing individuals to select their social circle rather than being forced into communities based on geography, family, or class. This process began with urbanization and has continued through the “etherealization” of networked publics. Nonetheless, the public and open nature of blogging ensures that these kinds of echo chambers remain challenged at the periphery. In particular, discourse among bloggers differs significantly from the kinds of insular discussions that can happen on closed platforms; the discussion forums for right-wing racist groups, for example (Halavais, 2010). Fragmentation itself provides spaces for contestation that remain poorly understood and require further study (Dahlberg, 2007). Ultimately, the question should not be whether blogospheres encouraged echo chambers, but rather how these compare to the filtering that occurs in other areas of people’s lives, online and off.

Several years before blogospheres emerged, Harrison and Stephen (1996) described the elements of computer networking that made it so appealing to academics: “unending and inclusive scholarly conversation; collaborative inquiry limited only by mutual interests; unrestrained access to scholarly resources; independent, decentralized learning; and a timely and universally accessible system for representing, distributing, and archiving knowledge” [8]. These ideals found their greatest expression in the blogosphere, and those values were extended beyond the scholarly community to the broader citizenry. Although some of these elements found their way to Web 2.0 platforms, much of the blogosphere’s independence and decentralization was lost.

 

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Small pieces, tightly bound

Blogging is a part of Web 2.0 much in the same way a cow is part of a Big Mac. When people talk about Web 2.0, blogospheres are often lumped in with a range of other services and practices. But blogging predates the Web 2.0 era and in many ways gave birth to it. Blogging forms a kind of distributed consciousness for the Web; like wikis it manages to draw people together into open discussion and provides a valuable mechanism for aggregating ideas. That value was one worthy of exploiting: because of the blogosphere’s dynamism and rich interconnection, it provided an unparalleled accumulation of attention. This could be measured in part by the ways in which blogs could become highly ranked in search engine results. This in turn meant that they became highly sought-after properties for advertisers. Blogospheres represented a new way of organizing thought, and for O’Reilly (2005), the rise of blogging was “not just a competition between sites, but a competition between business models.”

Central to O’Reilly’s conception of Web 2.0 was that “users add value.” The key was to extract that value without killing the goose that laid the golden egg. He acknowledged the elements of blogging that pulled this distributed architecture together. The combination of permalinks (links that could be relied upon to reach a given blog update) and RSS feeds balanced the static and dynamic elements of a blogosphere and acted as a kind of glue. This open set of standards allowed anyone to participate without having to use any particular piece of software or platform. As a result, you could use RSS to syndicate news about package deliveries or current weather as easily as you could your latest blog posts. This kind of open structure for linked data is really an extension of the architecture of the Internet itself; its strength is in its openness and in shared protocols. And as a result, blogospheres became something of a lattice on which you could layer the applications of Web 2.0 — a kind of social superglue.

The idea of the panoply of Web 2.0 technologies acting as a kind of social glue is widespread (e.g., Kamel Boulos and Wheeler, 2007). But blogospheres took on this role to a much greater extent than any single platform-based service, precisely because it could easily draw together disparate social platforms. This ability to draw together not just technical pieces of the Web, but the social elements that they are infused with — the pulling together of pieces of people’s public and private lives — provided a space for sociality. Essential to what was making the Web social in the early 2000s, according to David Weinberger (2002), was that it “takes traditional command and control structures and busts them up into many small pieces that then loosely join themselves” [9]. The emergence of open protocols for engagement let that happen, and blogospheres were the outcome. The result was a bit of a mess, but one that seemed to hold together, without anyone directly controlling the outcome.

By 2006, many bloggers were writing not within their own Webspace, but on a hosted blog server, with LiveJournal, MySpace, Blogger, and Xanga being among the most popular (Lenhart and Fox, 2006). About 12 million Americans were blogging at the time, with most concentrating on producing and reading text rather than images, sound, or video. The shift from self-hosted blogs to blogs hosted by servers was subtle and had little effect on how blogospheres worked, for the most part. Sites like Blogger, and eventually WordPress.com (which provided free hosting for the WordPress software), provided functions largely similar to those found on self-hosted blogs. Users could change the look and add at least some functionality not originally present. Even MySpace spawned some young developers who learned to develop themes for the site (Debenham, 2010).

The move to hosted blogging platforms made sense from the perspective of many users and represented an obvious step in the evolution of the blogosphere. The earliest blogs (including the author’s) were created from scratch — there was no blogging software that was easily available for use. These gave way to free software that could be installed on a Web host — systems like Movable Type and WordPress. But even these required some comfort with Web hosting technology to download, install, and set up. Hosted systems like Blogger (which boasted “Push-Button Publishing for the People”) allowed the user to set up a new blog in a matter of seconds. Given that there were few companies making money by selling blogging software or services, competition was largely based on ease of use and feature sets, and blogging platforms won out in that process.

As did specialized platforms. Blogging platforms were slow to provide broad support for different media forms, and particularly when it came to video, access to fairly specialized content delivery networks was essential. As a result, sites that provided easy hosting of images, audio, and video arose. While Flickr provided its own social networking on the site itself, a significant part of its appeal was the ability to host images that could then be embedded elsewhere. This pattern of embedding media made up a large part of the early social Web, and blogospheres represented the structure that linked together these pieces. It is difficult to imagine there would have been a Web 2.0 without a set of bloggers to use it. Certainly, today, it is easy to think of YouTube (and its vloggers) or Flickr’s amateur photographers without any recourse to blogs. These content-sharing platforms thrived, however, in part because bloggers were able to use them to embed media in their blogs. Likewise, social networking systems, collaborative tagging infrastructures, and user-generated content sites seem to do well enough without a blogosphere today, but many owed their early popularity to use by bloggers. Over time, these services hosted their own interactions, and blogging itself became a hosted service — yet another “sharing platform.”

This shift to “sharing” is emblematic of Web 2.0: users of Facebook are encouraged to “share their world” with networks of “friends.” As Nicholas John (2013) suggests, this notion of sharing tends to “paper over the commercial aspects” of these platforms’ operations. Blogs provided a kind of personal space on the Web, an outgrowth of the original “homepages.” If you wanted to find out about a person and what they were thinking or doing, the blog is where you would go. The final evolution away from the blog itself is likely Medium, where long-form blogging goes to be linked to from various other platforms, or to be found in the results of a search engine. The idea that you might visit a blog that someone periodically updates (or have those updates “pushed” to you via RSS or an e-mail message), seems quaint, even when that was the norm less than a decade ago. The author on Medium has virtually disappeared, and instead we share our content on this monolithic repository — what seems like it must be a final stroke of centralization (Meyer, 2015a).

Of course, it is not just the commercial aspects of these platforms that are problematic. Having centralized forms of control of discourse means that voices can be shut out of discussions, either by direct intervention or by softer forms of attention shaping. In the case of direct censorship, such controls are often undertaken in collaboration with state actors: by 2012 both Blogger and Twitter were filtering posts on a per-country basis, in order to censor posts that were not deemed appropriate in local contexts (Kravets, 2012). More recently Twitter (2016) trumpeted its role in “combatting violent extremism,” and noted that it had shut down more than 125,000 accounts since the middle of 2015 for “threatening or promoting terrorist acts.” Naturally, this kind of censorship is possible without the central control of a large-scale platform, but the centralization of control makes such efforts far easier, and it makes “routing around” such censorship far more difficult by making non-platformed discussion a kind of outlaw space.

In a recent essay Jason Cranford Teague (2016) argues that the increased atomization of social communication online, especially among youth, means that we are becoming increasingly less connected: “Now, kids use a combination of Tumblr, SMS, MMS, iMessage, KIK, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, Slack, Skype, FaceTime, and dozens of other instant messaging, audio, and video systems, few of which, if any, can talk to each other.” The problem is not technological: the major contribution of blogospheres was the recognition that open systems can talk to one another, and we have good examples of how open standards and federalized services can promote better outcomes for Web citizens. The problem is that this does not fit a business model.

Money wants hits

By 2008, Nicholas Carr had declared the blogosphere dead. Its death, he argued, had been foretold by the end of another amateur era, that of early radio broadcasters. That model — the commercialization of radio broadcasting in the United States by industry and government — is one that Robert McChesney (1996) turned to well before there was a blogosphere. The process, however, of technologies beginning at the periphery and then being established around business models that shape them is manifest in many cases, and especially those involving networked communication. It would have been foolhardy to assume that blogospheres would take any other route.

This shift away from the amateur, as Trebor Scholz (2008) has described, was echoed in the changing definition of Web 2.0. Tim O’;Reilly eventually came to suggest that Web 2.0 was about infrastructure: ways of building value from users’ “shared” content. The term was never really defined, but it seemed to collect a set of design patterns that were in service of a set of business models. Of course, it would be wrong to assume that blogospheres were somehow completely separate from commercial concerns or that the rise of profitable social media platforms make them immediately suspect. The reality represents a complex interpenetration of private and public spheres, along with commercial and non-commercial logics, that form hybrid spaces (Papacharissi, 2014). However, early blogs often lacked not just advertising, but a clear business model. Bloggers shared much more with the ideas of free culture that had given rise to other forms of open and free development on the Internet (Halavais, 2012).

By the latter half of the 2000s, that feeling of a free space had evaporated, and many bloggers (at least in the United States; Kobayashi, 2011) were motivated to blog for financial and professional reasons. The business model that now drove blogging, and especially the new forms of platform-based social interaction, was tied closely to economies of attention. If you could produce viral content, you could sell either your own goods, or — via advertising — the goods of others. There can be no question that attention was scarce on early blogospheres as well, and that bloggers sought the attention of their peers. But the introduction of monetary rewards increased the need to attract attention at any cost. Some of the most successful bloggers not only came to rely on those hits, but were professionalized: brought in as salaried bloggers for news organizations or the new multi-author blogs that had become their own form of commercial media (Drum, 2015).

In most cases, though, individual bloggers were profiting far less than the platforms that hosted them. Platforms that could attract users (both creators and consumers) to their sites had the opportunity to siphon attention from each, serving ads alongside material that would entice them into the site. Stickiness was paramount — social ties and fear of missing out drew users into social networking sites. Outward links, while not explicitly discouraged, were increasingly the exception rather than the norm. Gradually, the things that made blogospheres tick — linkages, reciprocity, open standards, embedding and federation — were eroded in favor of walled gardens. When the aim is to “go viral,” and to collect on the attention, the give and take of conversations take a back seat.

It is not only the commercialization of platforms that restricts their civic potential, of course. As Jessica Beyer (2014) notes, platforms that may have no particular commercial impetus still shape the discourse they support, based on the political or cultural ideals of their creators and administrators; even if a site has no explicit commercial aim, its “format has its owners’ beliefs coded into it on multiple levels” [10]. That’s true also of a blog that is owned by the publisher, but many rightly described blogging as different not just from journalism but from publishing on other platforms because the blogger had no editor to restrict what was said. There is some irony, then, that discussion among early bloggers was often more civil than that which occurred on various platforms. Anil Dash (2011) suggested a number of ways platforms could help to encourage more civil discourse, but prefaced his remarks by indicating how generally supportive those who interacted on his own blog were. The lack of external censors did not reduce discourse to a Hobbesian shouting match — at least not all the time. Part of this, he suggested, was that for those seeking to create viral material in order to spur short-term revenue, sensationalism is something to be embraced. Certainly these platforms restricted materials that were considered too extreme, but too often it seems like such restrictions seek to maximize users in the immediate term rather than relying on broader community-driven management of content to foster better conversations.

One way to untangle, to some degree, this kind of designer-orientation is to involve the user more directly in the development of the platform. One might see at least a part of the development of Twitter being driven by platform innovation and workarounds by the users (Halavais, 2013), but in practice there can be little doubt that the owners of the platform determine not only how Twitter functions, but who can use that data and under what conditions. Likewise, the cyclical outcry from Facebook users when the interface is changed suggests that it is not the user base that is driving design (Sanchez, 2009). Contrast this with the development of free/open source software. While there are certainly users of such systems that have little or no effect on how they are constructed or revised over time, there are a significant number of users who participate in some way — ranging from reporting bugs to creating new features — in the production of the software itself. Some blog-related software, including two of the most popular Web content management systems, WordPress and Drupal, adhere to this model. But more importantly, bloggers during the “golden age” of the blogosphere did not fit the title of “user” very neatly. Unlike the user of Facebook, bloggers were directly involved in the co-construction and co-configuration of the blogosphere.

Today’s blogger, who may be posting something to their Tumblr or writing a long-form post for Medium, has fewer choices to make. This reduces some of the barriers to getting ideas out to the public, making it unnecessary for an author to make decisions about design, interface, or connection to the rest of the Web, but does so at a cost. Even platform-based blogging systems that do not directly benefit from advertising want to lock users into the platform and have them come back for more. Stock market valuations of social media companies that may have no significant revenue streams at all are often based on the amount of time at attention they have (or might) attract from a fickle group of users. Ironically, newspaper sites initially avoided links off-site but have gradually come to use hyperlinks more frequently (Jankowski and van Selm, 2000; Steensen, 2011). At the same time Web 2.0 platforms have sought increased control. It is not enough to federalize your identity through Facebook, allowing the company to track your activities off-site, the platform does not even want you to leave to read newspaper articles, if they can avoid it. A new program delivers newspaper articles from within the Facebook interface, increasing the speed with which the articles load, and incidentally ensuring users remain within the bounds of the platform (Meyer, 2015b).

The platforms seek not only to restrict users moving away from the site, but want to keep hold of their data as well. Certainly, there have been efforts to open up the data that users contribute to platforms, including a proposed “Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web” (Smarr, et al., 2007), and such a right has found its way into discussions of data protection in the European Union (Bapat, 2013). In practice, however, there is no significant revenue advantage for most platforms to federate or otherwise open up the data on their systems. The microblogging platform Twitter serves as an excellent example here. Although users can access the data on their site programmatically, over time Twitter has put significant restrictions on when and how that can happen, and the process of getting at that data can be prohibitively expensive. This is particularly true for researchers and others who seek the data for reasons other than profit, and for the users who created the content in the first place (Puschmann and Burgess, 2013). There can be little doubt that the millions of tweets that flood into Twitter are a valuable resource, and they have become a valuable commodity. But this push to corral data in order to sell it, or to sell the attention it garners, leads away from a Web that is diverse, distributed, and modular.

At the peak of the blogosphere, Dan Gillmor (2004) was concerned by what he saw as major threats to the future of free journalism:

Open systems are central to any future of a free (as in freedom) flow of information. Yet the forces of central control — governments and big businesses, especially the copyright cartel — are pushing harder and harder to clamp down on our networks. To preserve their business models, which are increasingly outmoded in a digital age, they would restrict innovation and, ultimately, the kinds of creativity on which they founded their own businesses. The danger in this is massive, but the public remains all too oblivious, in part because Big Media has failed to cover the story properly. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. [11]

Gillmor remained hopeful that such efforts would ultimately fail in the face of public pressure. Tim O’Reilly (2005) likewise saw the beginnings of platforms asserting control over the conversation that happened locally, and trying to make sure that users did not stray. His example, at the time, was the difficulty Amazon had of keeping reviews on their own site. He likewise felt that the public would rally around efforts to maintain the openness of the data they were producing:

Much as the rise of proprietary software led to the Free Software movement, we expect the rise of proprietary databases to result in a Free Data movement within the next decade. One can see early signs of this countervailing trend in open data projects such as Wikipedia, the Creative Commons, and in software projects like Greasemonkey, which allow users to take control of how data is displayed on their computer.

But that public pressure has been slow in coming. There have been efforts to resist changes in intellectual property law, but few have abandoned Facebook and other Web 2.0 platforms (i.e., “Web 2.0 suicide”; Stieger, et al., 2013), even when they recognize the problems such systems cause. The social ties that bind us to these platforms are too strong. But that does not mean alternatives are impossible, if we have the technological means and the social will to fight for them.

 

++++++++++

Conclusion: Openspace gardening

In 2006, Yochai Benkler wrote:

[I]f we were to step back and look at the entire phenomenon of Web-based publication from a bird’s-eye view, we would see that the architecture of the World Wide Web, in particular the persistence of personal Web pages and blogs and their self-contained, technical independence of each other, give the Web as a whole the characteristics of modularity and variable but fine-grained granularity. [12]

What a difference a decade makes. While blogospheres had their own issues of inequality and the rise of A-list blogs made blogging less and less about conversation, it has been the closest we have come to a distributed civic Webspace (Miconi, 2012). It is beyond reviving. That does not mean, however, that we must settle for the continuing push toward centralization and commodification of social computing — the real outcome of Web 2.0 regardless of its initial intent. There are steps that can lead to revitalizing that space, including producing tools that are better options and helping to lead the way toward their use. While most Web 2.0 services are not exactly walled gardens — they invite new users and provide some tentative exits — they also tend not to play well with others. What can we do to create a social Web filled with community gardens, open to easy access and departure? Doing so requires work in terms of credible alternative architectures, providing lifelines to those in existing megaliths, and changing the culture of Web engagement.

Some have attempted to produce their own, better platforms to do battle with the existing (and dominant) providers. These are sometimes intended simply to wrest control of a market by introducing different features; Google’s ultimately doomed “Google+” site (Gonzalez, et al., 2013), for example, attempted to move the social networking space away from the dominant Facebook and Twitter to a new service hosted by a different large Internet company. Ello (2016) was created as a Twitter alternative (because, as one of its “about” pages explains “2014 is not 2004, and the world has changed”), with promises that it would remain a Public Benefit Corporation, protect users’ privacy, and not advertise. While this might suggest a strategy for avoiding some of the issue of previous platforms, it remains a centralized point of control (and failure) for social communication. Moreover, it remains content-fragmented, providing only microblogging services. What is needed is distribution and diversity, not just in terms of the systems being used but the content they can support.

Other alternative social networks — including the Diaspora project, Lorea, and Synereo — have recognized the dangers of centralized services and have been created with federalization or distribution built in from the outset (van der Velden, 2012). Rather than a central (and centrally owned) system, these provide for the creation of nodes that can then interact with other nodes hosted elsewhere, sharing data while providing local control. Leveraging open software, and open protocols, provides something that is structurally similar to the personally-run blog of the early blogosphere. Blogs were, from the start, moldable pieces of technology, open to be repurposed in myriad ways, even without changing the underlying software, but also open to alterations and extensions of the software itself [13]. Neither of these options is available to the user of Facebook, but a Diaspora user can see — and with technical knowhow change — how the software works. So far, however, these systems have had modest success in attracting users. Network effects leave users clinging to Facebook and Twitter, and switching costs are high.

But switching over entirely is not the only option. Blogospheres were notable in part because they were designed for browsing, for moving from one place to another without a specific aim. James Fallows noted in 2002 that the Web remained unfiltered and filled with surprises; that the feeling was “;similar to that of going through library stacks — if there were no dust and you could instantly zoom from floor to floor.” Indeed, early group blogs like Slashdot, Metafilter, Kuro5hin, or Fark could quickly bring crowds to relatively undiscovered parts of the Web. Recovering that serendipity requires building pathways out of Facebook and Twitter, using some of the same techniques and technologies that brought users there in the first place.

Such control does not require absolute separation from corporately controlled or state-regulated infrastructure. Just as community gardens are not the antithesis of privately-controlled spaces, but rather a space that helps to renegotiate the relationships between state, non-state and corporate actors, alternatives to the social media oligarchs need not require tipping at windmills [14]. Although there have been efforts to create mesh-based alternatives to the existing Internet (Frangoudis, et al., 2011), blogospheres demonstrate that it is entirely possible to build spaces for civil discourse “riding on the back of the privatized infrastructure,” to use Dahlberg’s (2001) phrase. It may require that users challenge both technological and legal constraints on their data. Zimmer (2008) suggests that critical technological tools may be created to help wrest control over automatic processes. But beyond this, they may open up connections outside of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and the like by creating peer-based connections that help to decentralize control.

Teachers at all levels have an important role to play here. The most obvious way is in building a critical literacy among their students. That includes recognition that critical making — by students and by teachers — can make significant differences. The future of the Web as we know it requires tinkering at the grassroots (Berners-Lee, 2010). Educators helped to build the blogosphere, and they have also led the way onto platforms like Twitter and Facebook. In many universities, courses are taught from within Facebook or students are encouraged to tweet. When teachers make these choices, they should think beyond ease-of-use and meeting students where they are, and consider what messages they send when they choose their means of communicating and collaborating. Are there more liberating alternatives?

If Web 2.0 continues along its current trajectory, we can expect platforms to continue to consolidate and users to continue to lose the ability to control their content, their privacy, and their liberty. At the very least, a robust new civic Webspace, like the blogosphere, “actively shaping the flow of media” (Jenkins, 2004) would tip the locus of control back a little from large corporations and governments and toward citizens. Scholars can play an important role here, by identifying the ways in which technological and organizational choices affect democratic participation and participatory culture more broadly. Remember the blogosphere! End of article

 

About the author

Alexander Halavais is an associate professor of social technologies in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Arizona State University, where he researches ways in which social media change the nature of scholarship and learning, and allow for new forms of collaboration and self-government. His blog lives (if barely) at http://alex.halavais.net.
E-mail: theprof [at] asu [dot] edu

 

Notes

1. Rettberg, 2014, p. 5.

2. Bowman and Willis, 2003, p. 23.

3. Dean, 2010, p. 35.

4. Stromer-Galley, 2014, p. 74.

5. Papacharissi, 2014, pp. 25–26.

6. Dewey, 1984, pp. 327–328.

7. Coleman and Blumer, 2009, pp. 86–89.

8. Harrison and Stephen, 1996, p. 32.

9. Weinberger, 2002, p. 23.

10. Beyer, 2014, p. 130.

11. Gillmor, 2004, p. 238.

12. Benkler, 2006, p. 103.

13. Zittrain, 2008, p. 95.

14. Arora, 2014, pp. 84–89.

 

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Editorial history

Received 27 May 2016; accepted 28 May 2016.


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“The blogosphere and its problems: Web 2.0 undermining civic Webspaces” by Alexander Halavais is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The blogosphere and its problems: Web 2.0 undermining civic Webspaces
by Alexander Halavais.
First Monday, Volume 21, Number 6 - 6 June 2016
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6788/5518
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v21i6.6788





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