Between Form and Function: History and Identity in the Blogosphere
Johnson, Laurie, Cultural Studies Review
'Blogs are fast becoming' is an apt start to any essay on the blogosphere, since blogs have indeed been fast becoming a good many things in recent years. In their attempt to survey the uses toward which blogs were being deployed less than a decade after the first blog went live, Axel Bruns and Joanne Jacobs noted in 2006 the incredibly diverse ways in which blogs had come to serve purposes beyond the intentions of individual bloggers: alternative news source that is seriously challenging mainstream media; powerful marketing tool for big businesses; essential election campaign strategy; and so on.1 Indeed, Bruns has elsewhere coined the term 'produsage' as a replacement for 'production' in coming to grips with the challenge of how to think of the process by which individuals can participate in blog culture when blogs appear to have become so readily co-opted by an industrial production model.2 'Produsage' thus names the activities of those 'communities which engage in the collaborative creation and extension of information and knowledge.'3 This concept of 'produsage' represents an elegant solution to the problem of establishing a robust conceptual framework for understanding a phenomenon that has gone viral, in a cultural sense. The growth of the blogosphere has been such that even Technorati have ceased to offer reliable data on the numbers of blogs currently available, but estimates put the number of active blogs in 2010 in excess of 200 million.4 This is from an on-line format that has been with us for little more than a decade. In a 2008 summary of the state of play in blog research, Geert Lovink observed that researching an object that is 'in a state of hyper-growth and permanent transformation' is nigh on impossible, but a theory of blogging can go beyond types of blogs or the vagaries of individual blogging practices to consider the field as an overarching process of 'massification'.5 The question to which this essay will be addressed is this: whither individual identity in a cultural field defined by such massification? The formation of a general theory of blogging, as in the task to which Lovink has previously set himself, demands quite rightly that the thing itself 'cannot be separated from its output',6 meaning the blogosphere is understood as the sum of its many parts. To seek to understand identity formation in the blogosphere, conversely, we would need to view the equation from the other side: to apprehend each and indeed every part in its relation to the larger sum.
The issue of identity has never been far from the concerns of internet researchers. Sherry Turkle claimed in her 1995 book, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, that the internet marked a shift from protean self- construction to a 'saturated self,' undercutting a stable external reference point- ethnic, national, social-for identity formation.7 Others, like Howard Rheingold, envisaged a somewhat more utopian potential for the emergence of vital virtual communities that would supplant the geographically bounded communities offline.8 It was characteristic of these earlier studies to maintain a distinction between on- line and off-line worlds; that is, between computer-mediated communication and the face-to-face varieties of interaction. Communications researchers have only begun to break free from this paradigm in recent years,9 but cultural historians and cultural studies researchers have long been eager to complicate the divide by exploring the ways in which the internet as a cultural formation reflects, intersects with, or disengages from other cultural and social formations. In relation to questions of identity, Daniel Punday and Lisa Nakamura, for example, were at the forefront of investigating the possibility for internet activity to reinforce ethnic identity, albeit at the risk of reinforcing ethnic stereotypes.10 Katherine Hayles and others examined issues of sexual identity on the internet, particularly in view of much of the hype over virtual sex and teledildonics. …