<$BlogRSDUrl$>

Monday, December 08, 2003

Blurring the Borders of Rhetoric and Hypertextuality in Weblogs, I



The founders of automated computing systems considered hypertext a basic component of the efficient navigation of massive information systems. Hypertext, most simply, is the presentation of information in a non-linear form. Conceptually, hypertext is a method of thought that could be applied to a variety of media; practically, though, hypertext is still confined to the electronic realm. As hypertext use is expanding with the growing World Wide Web, it is gaining universal acceptance as a usable electronic medium with a dramatic effect on the experiences of reading and writing.

In the past five years, electronic writing has also been revolutionized by the advent of weblogs. As a new form of writing that opens web publishing to a general writing public, weblogs have popularized freedom of expression with the same speed that Napster popularized free music. By distorting the boundaries between the reader and writer, the fixed and non-fixed text, and the spatial and sequential relation between the text and other texts, hypertext is dramatically changing the experience of reading and writing in weblogs.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF HYPERTEXTUAL THOUGHT

Theodor Nelson and Vannevar Bush

In the 1960's, system developer Theodor Nelson coined the term "hypertext," applying it to the non-linear form of writing that has now become most closely associated with the linking and branching writing styles of the World Wide Web. In a 1996 radio interview cited by author Claire Harrison in her article, Hypertext Links: Whither Thou Goest and Why, Nelson describes his motivation behind his passion for developing hypertext,

'I had done a great deal of writing as a youth, and re-writing, and the intricacy of taking ideas and sentences and trying to arrange them into coherent, sensible, structures of thought struck me as a particularly intricate and complex task, and I particularly minded having to take thoughts which were not intrinsically sequential and somehow put them in a row because print as it appears on the paper, or in handwriting, is sequential. There was always something wrong with that because you were trying to take these thoughts which had a structure, shall we say, a spatial structure all their own, and put them into linear form. Then the reader had to take this linear structure and recompose his or her picture of the overall content, once again placed in this non-sequential structure...you had to take these two additional steps of deconstructing some thoughts into linear sequence, and then reconstructing them. Why couldn't that all be bypassed by having a nonsequential structure of thought which you presented directly? That was the hypothesis - well the hyperthesis really - of hypertext, that you could save both the writer's time and the reader's time and effort in putting together and understanding what was being presented.' (11/15/02)

Today, we most closely associate hypertext with Internet hyperlinks, which often appear on web pages as text or images. When users click on a linked element, they are propelled to a different location on the Internet--either within that page, or to a different page altogether.

However, the concept of hypertext derives from a more humble paradigm first imagined in the 1930's by Vannevar Bush. Bush was an inventor who presented his vision of electronic writing in his essay As We May Think, published in 1945 by the Atlantic Monthly. In an effort to predict the future of automation in information storage systems, Bush imagined a theoretical analog data storage machine, the "Memex," which he described as a specialized high-tech desk equipped with projection screens, buttons, levers, and a keyboard. This digital desk would store an individual's "books, records, and communications," and would be "mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility" (Bush 11/11/03). Each Memex would contain a type of personal database, which was operated by individuals using a screen installed on the face of the desk to store, access, and view the records, books, and articles that they had stored in the machine's database. As they saved files to the database, users could add personal commentary and link individual files to other intellectually corrolative files.

Bush referred to this linking as "associative indexing," and called it the "essential feature" of the Memex (11/11/03). Bush imagined that each indexed item functioned on two levels: first, as a member of the larger work for which it was originally constructed, and second, as a singular entity that functioned under the constructs of an individual purpose and context. Readers and writers filter information within both of these contexts, and subconsciously, they develop connections between the larger works and the singular entities that emerge from larger works.

In the physical form, Bush calls these singular entities "items," and they are comparable, in this instance, to what we now know as "files." The Memex would allow users to physically tie the two items together by creating an information "trail" in which any such item "may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another" item. This trail is created as a user sifts through information on the Memex, permanently joining associative items together with a single keystroke. At any time thereafter, when a user is viewing one of these connected items, the user can immediately view the connected item simply by pressing a key (Bush 11/11/03).

For example, a philosopher using the Memex to analyze the ethical evaluations of Immanuel Kant might subconsciously recall a specific detail of Jeremy Bentham's account of Utilitarianism. Wishing to utilize the detail, the philosopher could retrieve the item on Bentham from the Memex database. Anticipating a similar association in the future, the philosopher could then link the item on Kant with the item on Bentham. Thereafter, the items would be joined. Associative indexing would allow the philosopher to easily recall his pattern of thought and access Utilitarian theory when analyzing Kantian principles in the future. Bush states, "It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book." He continues by pointing out, "It is more than this, for any items can be joined into numerous trails," giving users the opportunity to physically connect associative ideas from many different sources within a single network of text (11/11/03). Although the Memex was never actually constructed, Bush's vision bore the foundations of the elements and the ideology of modern hypertext. This revolutionary vision, though, was not realized until Theodor Nelson adopted it thirty years later.

Graphic User Interfaces

Hypertext is now a convention of graphic user interfaces, including Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintosh, and Unix operating systems. Unix and mainframe computers originally operated with a simple character display that required users to memorize and type in text commands to order to access controls, options, and data files. These systems also required advanced technical training that was not available to most people. Before computers could become a consumer good, programmers needed to simplify their use.

According to Yale Professor Howard Gilbert, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center first implemented a graphic system that allowed users to perform basic operations using iconic symbols and a mouse. Utilizing Xerox's machine, Steve Jobs, of Apple, created the first affordable desktop machine that was designed solely for use with the graphic user interface--the Macintosh. These new machines were technologically powerful because they were self-contained: their hardware, system, and applications were designed and sold together. They were economically powerful because they were the first computers marketed to consumers, rather than technicians. Soon after, Microsoft, who designed software to run on the Macintosh operating system, created its own graphic interface operating system, called Windows. Windows was layered on top of existing hardware designed by other companies, and supported applications designed for DOS (Gilbert 11/30/03).

The advent of these graphic user interfaces pre-empted the development of hypertext. Icons, which were used as symbols representing system functions, allowed associative selection--users clicked an icon with the expectation that a corresponding command would be completed. If a user wanted to delete a file from the desktop, the user would drag the file icon to the trash icon. The command would then be executed in the system's code: the file would be removed from the desktop, and deleted when the trash was emptied. By helping users develop the thought patterns necessary for hyperlinking, the intuitive process of iconic association in the graphic user interface opened the door for the intuitive process of textual association in hypertext.

The Internet has become perhaps the most important hpertextual medium. Anyone who has viewed a webpage or surfed the Internet has probably unconsciously encountered some form of hypertext and used it proficiently. Hypertext has become such a strong convention of electronic text that its distinctive textual characteristics are often overlooked by casual users.

THE RHETORIC OF HYPERTEXT

Hypertext has two main rhetorical functions. First, it serves as background information that supports the reading's primary message, and second, it helps retain users in order to drive them further into a text.

Supplying Background Information

Information gathered from using hyperlinks should be considered a form of background information that enriches the message itself. The distinct message of hypertext varies with each occurrence, but this role remains constant. According to computer engineer and hypertext expert George Landow, hypertext functions to "make explicit, though not necessarily intrusive, the linked materials that an educated reader perceives surrounding" the links (35). Author S. Pajares Tosca explains, "'Links don't interrupt the flow of meaning...they enliven it'" (Harrison 11/15/02). Information encountered as a result of linking should help mold the reader's interpretation and understanding of the text, but it should not dominate the reading.

For example, readers who encounter terms that they do not understand in printed text are often compelled to look up the definition of the term in the dictionary. However, in electronic text, the author who anticipates the possibility that a reader might not understand a term can simply link to the definition, thereby providing the definition of that term in the text. The definition, then, becomes a part of the text for those users who activate the link. Many links also refer readers to the resources that the author used to construct a work. In addition to a "Works Cited" list following an article, authors of electronic text can link directly to the reference within the body of the text itself, giving readers an opportunity to view the reference material immediately. This reference material then becomes part of the reader's unique reading experience. By following intelligibly placed links, users are exposed to products, services, and information that they did not necessarily begin searching for. They understand primary messages more clearly, with a better comprehension of the message's purpose, background, and perspective.

Retaining User Attention

The most distinct difference between hypertext and printed text is the borderless nature of hypertextual boundaries. Hypertext is non-linear. Users can enter and exit electronic text at any time, yet they still expect hypertext to provide a seamless reading experience. As readers use hypertext to move through electronic texts, the reading experience becomes tailored to the reader's individual path, making the reader the center, or focus, of the reading. Furthermore, by placing the reader at the center of the reading, hypertext transforms the traditional roles of readership and authorship as it blurs the static boundaries that exist between the two in electronic text.

Secondly, links retain user attention by supplying new outlets for engagement and new opportunities for investigation. Due to the commercial nature of the Internet, web designers are constantly fighting for consumer (user) attention. They attempt to attract a larger audience by experimenting with new technologies in design, graphics, and multimedia. However, as Harrison points out, retaining user attention with linking "is the oldest, most conventional, and most stable Web tool." Websites, she continues, use internal links to create a "stickiness" that retains users and drives them farther into a site (5). By providing links, web designers encourage users to explore and familiarize themselves with the depths of a site, as well as facilitating them with the appropriate background information to identify the author's message.

RECONFIGURING HYPERTEXTUAL BOUNDARIES

Reading Non-Linear Texts

Electronic texts exist on two levels. They exist, first, as a part of the collective text in which they were originally written. For instance, an electronic book might be made up of four chapters. Each chapter, written as a linear component of the book, was meant to transmit the message of the collective work. However, electronic texts also exist as an infinite number of individual texts. Each of these texts are linked intricately to another to create a vast network of interconnected texts. The same four-chapter electronic book might be linked to in fifty different places by authors who are not referencing the entire book, but only a single sentence of a single page. References that exist only as footnotes in other texts can directly reference the source, giving readers the instant opportunity to make the referenced material part of their readings. Texts become part of an infinite number of readings of an infinite amount of material.

Figure 1.


Figure 1. The four chapters of the book
transmit the book's primary message.

Figure 2.


Figure 2. The four chapters of the book function as a network of interconnected texts.

Since texts can be so easily disassociated from the larger work for which they were originally created, each text exists on an equal plane, and the confines of textual hierarchy are removed to create a non-linear reading experience. Landow points out that these linked texts "have no primary axis of organization," or, more simply have no center (36). To create an individual reading from a non-linear reading experience, he claims, "We must abandon conceptual systems founded upon ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity and replace them with ones of multi-linearity, nodes, links, and networks" (2). Authors must begin to think of electronic texts as non-linear, non-fixed, and non-hierarchical. Unlike print media, where most text is read with a certain degree of sequence and linearity, many users of electronic text will only view one tiny piece of the whole text at a time. Landow claims that hypertext removes the linear characteristic of print, terminating the idea of a "fixed unitary text." It causes "passages of text that had followed one another in an apparently inevitable seamless linear progression" to "fracture, break apart, assume individual identities" (65).

The non-linear shape of the Internet is more representative of the 3-dimensional shape of ideas than the linear, fixed, shape of printed text. Using Bush's process of gathering numerous, separate physical items to form a trail, printed text and hypertext take on two completely different shapes. In printed text, the publication is the center. Publications can be lined up on end, expanding the linear form of ideas infinitely, but the words still remain fixed and linear. Touching one set of words cannot physically transport the reader into the reading of another text. Authors of printed text cannot use other texts to expand on the reading of theirs by giving readers direct access to the information; that information would need to be accessed from another text.

On the other hand, if one built a non-linear model of the World Wide Web, included every page and connected every link, every page would, by some relationship, be connected to every other page. The texts become "points in space that contain all other points;" there is not one point where the model begins and not one point where the model ends (Landow 36-37). The web, here, functions as the "publication" for which a beginning, middle, and end cannot possibly be defined. This associative reading process reflects our associative thinking process. Just as one thought leads to the next without minding the confines barring the intertextuality of thought, one text leads to the next without minding the confines barring intertextuality on the page.

Figure 3



Figure 4



Figure 3 and 4.
The non-linear shape of the Internet reflects the non-linear shape of human thought

Reading Borderless Texts

Due to the non-linearity of electronic text, readers have the opportunity to enter and exit the text freely. This ability creates a text that bends to meet the interests of the readers, rather than one that forces readers to conform to the author's writing of the text. When converting printed text to electronic text, Landow suggests that there are three questions authors should consider: 1) Where does the reader enter the text? 2) Where does the reader leave the text? 3) Where are the borders of the text? (50). In printed text, these questions have definite answers. A reader enters the text when he opens the publication; a reader leaves the text when he closes the publication; the borders of the text are confined to the printed publication. The casual wandering of the mind, although part of that reader's experience, is confined to the mind of a single reader and is not part of the author's intended reading.

Hypertext, though, seems to function as a guided tour for one's wandering mind. The author is anticipating and facilitating the questions and answers that arise as one reads. Even footnotes, endnotes, and reference pages only suggest the resources of ideas. Unless the publication is annotated, these resources cannot be accessed immediately; even when a publication is annotated, the sources and critical theories have sources that are not included, which are therefore not immediately accessible. One would need to physically track down the contributing texts from a different source, such as the library or a search engine. Hypertext, though, offers its sources as part of the reading. Readers who follow links from citations have immediate access to the reading of contributing materials. Additionally, hypertext captures contributing sources more effectively than printed text. The origins of ideas that are often overlooked in printed text are cited more commonly in electronic text since authors of electronic text can cite sources so readily by linking. The linearity helps confine the reader's reading to the borders of the original text. When dealing with electronic text, though, these questions of textual borders become limitless, undefined, and completely unanswerable. The existence of the "undefined text" derives from the non-linearity of electronic text, and its inherently absent "center."

Recentering the Reading

The reader defines the beginning, end, and center of a text, taking the ideas put forth in the reading of an individual text, and including it in the reading of a different, yet connected, individual text. The Internet's arbitrary, non-linear reading environment disassociates text from its original contextualizing material, thus requiring electronic text to function more powerfully on an individual level than printed text. Landow points out that "removing the linearity of print...frees the individual passages from one ordering principle--sequence--and threatens to transform the text into chaos," posing a new challenge for authors publishing electronic text (65). Readers of electronic text should be able to float from passage to passage with the seamless ease and usability as printed text, despite its disjunctive nature. For example, a user might begin a reading with the article, Ted Nelson and Xanadu from the scientific journal, The Electronic Labyrinth (10/12/03). While reading the article, the reader encounters a linked familiar name, Vannevar Bush, that s/he would like to learn more about. Instead of consulting an unrelated text from a source such as the library, as the reader would be obliged to do if using a printed text, the reader can simply click on the linked words for the author's explanation. It is important to note that this "explanation" is not written by the author; rather, it is the background information the reader can use to understand the author's intent. By following the link, the reader is led to a short biography, which includes a linked word, Memex. The reader clicks on the link, and is then presented with a short description of Vannevar Bush's vision of the Memex. After reading about the Memex, the reader simply clicks on a link back to the original text, Ted Nelson, and is returned immediately and effortlessly to the original text. This reader has just incorporated three separate texts into the reading of one article.

Figure 5.


Figure 5. Three separate texts are incorporated into the reading of
Ted Nelson and Xanadu

This user's reading, however, is likely different than that of another user, who, from Ted Nelson and Xanadu skips over the link to Vannevar Bush, and instead accesses one to "Hypertext." From this text, the user clicks on "graphic user interface," and continues on a different reading that may or may not lead back to the original article.

Readings of electronic text are not easily repeated and they are rarely duplicated. Because they can be accessed at different points, electronic texts do not have true beginnings and endings, or, as author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang says, even "clear narrative threads" running throughout (5). Landow describes hypertext as an "infinitely recenterable system whose provisional point of focus depends on the reader" (36). Printed works are static, stable, and isolated; electronic texts are interconnected, indefinite, "atomized and integrated, exchanging their autonomy and organic whole for the postmodern connectedness" of the Internet (Pang 7).

In the interconnectedness of electronic texts, there is no center. The center becomes what the reader makes it because the reader creates the provisional point of focus in the text. The reader, therefore, becomes the center of the text.

Redefining Roles

The creation and dissemination of hypertext transforms the roles of author and reader. When authors create hypertext, they lose "basic controls" over the edges and borders of their texts, as readers choose their own reading paths and make connections from those outlets. According to Landow, the paths that readers choose define how users understand the text and the writer's message (57-64). Bodner and Chignell noted in 1999, "The role of the author was to create the hypertext and the role of the user/reader was to browse through it" (cited in Harrison 11/15/02). Harrison states that readers were then "faced with the task of understanding the author's mental model of the hypertext documents" and navigating through it. In the World Wide Web, "[a]uthors establish the relationship potential of linking by choosing to expand on an existing item of information by adding a connection to another item of information. Users, on the other hand, establish the relationship actuality of linking by choosing to follow the link and examine the relationship created between the items of information" (11/15/02). By granting users this navigational freedom, authors are giving up control of their text, and users are freely assuming the authorial role for the reading of that text. Some web pages, networks, and browsers allow users to annotate and add comments and criticism, thereby altering the text not only for their own reading, but for future, public readings as well. Pang describes this "give-and-take between readers and authors" as highly consequential, stating that the reader's ability to navigate, annotate, and link, constitutes a body of work that is:

unstable and ever-changing: it is constantly growing, acquiring new texts that are connected by an evolving network of links. Because hypertext "offers the reader and writer the same environment," the two actors are no longer as far apart as they used to be. While "print literacy was... organized in the service of a dominant author, a god-like figure who was normally male," hypertext "gives to readers the power that once had been the prerogative of the author." Readers who can post their own works are no longer passive recipients of received wisdom, but more like critics and co-authors. The dominance of writers over literary culture disappears: they no longer specify the beginnings and ends of their works, no longer stand above criticism by readers, and may not even be identifiable as the creators of a specific text. (9/30/03)

Users are guided through a text by their own interests. They follow linking paths that seem most interesting and logical to their own rhetorical purposes, and bypass those that seem least useful. According to Harrison, the linking path that a "reader chooses to follow becomes more important than the original work. Authors cannot define what a reader will encounter, but can only offer possibilities to be accepted or rejected. It is the reader who chooses what path to take, and whether even to take the same path twice" ( 11/15/02).

Each reader will take a different path through an electronic text, branching off in different places, entering and exiting in different places, making each reading of the text slightly different from those that have come before. Readers actively choose the provisional point of focus for each individual text. This focus changes as the reader's interests shift, develop, and connect with other ideas they have encountered. As users move through electronic text, Harrison claims they "bring to a text their own ideas, beliefs, and knowledge that affect not only the path they choose to take through a hypertext, but also their understanding of the semantic relationship created by linkages." She continues, describing the semantics of hypertext as a social and cultural "phenomenon, based on the ideologies of the particular communities...from which they emerge." The connections that we choose to make, and the branches that we choose to follow, are "characteristic of our society and our place in it: our age, gender, economic class, affiliation groups, family traditions, cultures, and subcultures." These ideological connections "work to create, enhance, and restrict users' access to information [as] different views of semantic relationships...impose different hypertext link structures on the same source documents." Essentially, no hypertext, "whether static or dynamic, explicit or implicit, and strongly or weakly authored" can be separated from the "subjectivity of human choice" ( 11/15/02).

Readers' choices are driven by the social, economic, and political forces over which the author has no control. Though readers' choices for reading printed text may be influenced by many of the same factors, they cannot shape the text itself as they can with electronic texts. The backgrounds and perspectives of readers influence the reading of the text; however, building a background and perspective as they make their way through a printed text does not. The non-linearity of electronic text offers a unique opportunity for readers to enter and exit at will, recenter each text as they follow hyperlinks, and construct a unique reading of the text each time they encounter it.


Blurring the Borders of Rhetoric and Hypertextuality in Weblogs, II



THE SHORT HISTORY OF WEBLOGS

Individual Authorship on the Web

One of the foremost problems in early Internet publishing was that it required knowledge of computing systems, and a computer language. Although the Internet claimed to revolutionize communication by offering every person the opportunity to freely exercise the rights to publication, publishing information to the Internet was limited to those who could program the information into a web page's HTML code, the language that prescribes the appearance of web pages. Since learning HTML code is a tedious task that requires time and training to master, those who might have been inclined to learn the ins and outs of web publishing, had it been simple, were discouraged from using the new medium. Those individuals who did publish to the web were often members of academia who mastered the new technology in their spare time, and technology experts who were familiar with the technology. The remainder of web writing was distributed between the mass media companies, who, for the most part, took what had already been written for the printed page, and transferred it onto a computer screen.

The World Wide Web claimed to be accessible to everyone, yet people without specialized training in web design could not easily publish to the Internet. These technological difficulties barred the Internet from fulfilling its prophetic place in the lives of readers and writers: it seemed that the technology of the World Wide Web, which promised to bring a new, broader range of communication possibilities to everyone, had limited its free expression to the expertise of the technologically, academically, and economically elite, leaving the Internet fairly void of individual authorship.

Increased Usability

However, a new genre of electronic writing was born in 1997 that greatly increased the accessibility of Internet publishing. As a skewed combination of email, chat rooms, news sites, and personal web pages, weblogs (often shortened to "blogs") were created as what influential weblog author (often shortened to "blogger") Rebecca Blood calls "link-driven sites," with a "mixture in unique proportion of links, commentary, and personal thoughts and essays" (10/01/03). Weblogs are typically unique personal web pages that use dated entries to record and store frequent page updates. Although there is indecision as to exactly who created the very first weblog, Dave Winer's "DaveNet," (www.DaveNet.com) created in 1997, is generally considered the first successful, frequently updated, and widely read weblog; however, the term "weblog" wasn’t coined until 1999, when early blogger Jorn Barger (www.RobotWisdom.com) shortened the term "We-blog" to simply "Weblog."

Weblog authors began their struggle to construct a structural sense of blog communities by reading, integrating, and promoting other weblogs within their own writings. For two years, the weblog community was contained to a small faction of Internet users. Weblogs were still being published in the same manner as other web pages, requiring knowledge of both HTML coding and the small blogging community. In fact, in 1999, two years after their birth, only 23 known weblogs existed. However, the release of free blogging services such as Pitas (www.pitas.com) and Blogger (www.blogger.com) that same year, propelled weblogs into a new realm of usability, finally bypassing the primary problem of web development--training. These free blogging services required no knowledge of HTML code or web design, provided quick, easy instructions that bypassed many of the difficulties with web language and programming, and allowed users to begin writing immediately.

In a single keystroke, users could publish their writing in a professional-looking manner without uploading files, switching screens, or writing HTML code. Scholars, students, and the average individual were finally able to start writing for the Internet at will, sharing opinions and experiences in a free, open forum. Free blogging services, which have gained immense popularity since their introduction, provide each user with a personal account that functions as an individual database. Each service has a short sign-up process that requests basic personal information, such as the user's name and email address, and information on the type of weblog the user wishes to maintain. Account holders can then choose the weblog design from a list of templates, which are previously designed web pages that can be used as a generic rubric for any weblog. If users wish, they can easily alter the template code to personalize links, colors, and spacing with minimal knowledge of HTML. Users are given an empty window in which they compose and edit text much like they would in a word processor. When an entry is finished, the user simply clicks a button, and the text is instantly displayed on the Web.

Weblog homepages generally have a title, a short description, and at least one recent entry. The entry is usually dated at the top, with some sort of heading that functions as that entry's title, a block of text that incorporates one or two annotated links or a journal entry, and a navigation bar featuring an Archives section and a Links section. Many weblogs have beautiful, professionally-designed templates, while some consist only of a white background with plain black text. There is no concrete definition of what constitutes a weblog; the only real requirement is the dated entry.

Writing Without Regulation

Weblogs offer a unique opportunity for individuals to communicate without regulation. One of the greatest features of blogging is the lack of editorial regulations, which gives writers unparalleled freedom in publishing. Bloggers are often compared to journalists, and blog entries are often compared to editorial columns. However, there are many differences between journalists and bloggers, and columns and blogs. Foremost, journalists are obligated to abide by certain standards in their writing. Journalist Dave Winer points out that journalists are often forced to write "over-simplified articles that tell a partial truth," or to "compromis[e] the truth because of the economics or inefficiencies of the process" that journalists are a part of (11/15/03). Bloggers do not need editor or publisher approval before publication, which frees them from many of the economic constraints that drive publications produced in mass media. Unlike traditional journalists, bloggers are free to publish any ideas without recourse from an angry boss. Scott Rosenberg, managing editor for Salon, compared the difference in blogging and journalistic editorial practices in a forum at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism. "Part of what attracts people to blogging is, no one can tell me what to write," he said. "Part of what journalists uphold as part of their tradition is that more than one set of eyes reviews materials before [they are] released to the public" (11/15/03). Many Bloggers find this lack of editorial interference refreshing, taking advantage of the fact that they are publishing their own material without gaining permission from an editor.

The voice of bloggers is also different, more relaxed, and less formal than that of traditional journalists. J.D. Lasica, Senior Editor of the USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review, stated at the UC forum, "The more a weblog reads like a traditional newspaper article, the less interesting and relevant it is." He continues by stating that readers can detect when a blogger is "afraid to cross the line and take chances" because the blogger’s voice grows "institutional and formal." Columnist Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News agreed, stating, "what I write for the weblog is even less formal than what I write for the paper" (Lasica 11/15/03). This vocal freedom often translates into sarcasm, or humor, yet undeniably, this narrative voice helps weblog authors define their blogs’ personalities in an electronic forum.

In addition to their non-traditional voice, weblogs allow people to write about any subject they choose. Many blogs focus on issues in politics, education, and technology. Others focus on common areas of interest such as science, economics, aging, disease, unemployment, cars, art, design, cooking, and architecture. There are also international blogs, which are continuing to appear in nearly every language, internationalizing the blogging movement. Although bloggers has always focused more acutely on certain subjects, specialty blogs, which focus on a certain subject with which author has intimate expertise, have begun to emerge, gaining respect in electronic research circles. Lasica calls these specialty bloggers "niche experts," because they offer expertise in a certain field. Essentially, these bloggers are more reliable than second-hand news reports because they live a subject "day in and day out" (11/15/03). By contributing first-hand expertise to an information system dominated by secondary sources, these amateur writers are helping change the way people get their news.

To illustrate the unrestrained explosion of weblogs, Perseus Development Corp. conducted a usage survey on the eight leading blogging services. Analyzing 3,634 randomly selected blogs, the survey reported 4.12 billion existing blogs as of 2003. According to survey results, blogs generally attract a younger age group of writers (92% of blogs are hosted by people under 30, and most of these are created by teenagers), but are divided reasonably equally between the sexes (56% of blogs are hosted by females). The survey, however, also shows that most blogs are dormant. Bloggers have abandoned, either permanently or temporarily, a staggering 2.72 million blogs (66%), 1.09 million of which only contained entries from one day (Perseus 11/30/03).

However, these numbers don’t indicate that blogging is actually losing popularity. It is important to consider that many bloggers actually have three or four development blogs, only one of which they maintain on a regular basis. As the phenomenon grows, many people are being introduced to blogging each day. Perhaps people are starting blogs before they are really ready to commit to maintaining them. Moreover, the results do not reflect the blogs kept on individual servers (i.e., URL’s that do not include an extension like ".blogspot" in their addresses). Since these blogs are often kept by more serious bloggers, the results are somewhat skewed without them. In all actuality, the survey merely shows that the number of reported blogs is not actually representative of the number of active blogs; though, the development of 1.4 million active blogs in fewer than five years is astounding.

In spite of the survey results, there is no denying the blog's newfound popularity. With the exponential influx of weblogs, and the diverse insights and first-hand opinions that they offer, one resolution is undeniable: For every interest, there is a blog, and for every blog, there is another blog being born.

The Weblog Form

Although weblogs are broadly defined as web pages with entries that are time and date-stamped, weblog entries usually conform to one of two popular shapes: link-heavy, news blogs, or online weblog journals. Early, link-heavy blogs were, for the most part, a method of sharing links. They usually contained entries that consisted of one or two hyperlinks, the blogger's commentary on the link's content, and a place for other bloggers to make comments about the entry. These early blogs often focused on what Blood calls "the dissemination and interpretation of the news." By linking to news articles from "lesser-known sources" that might be otherwise overlooked by the "typical web user," weblog authors supply "additional facts, alternative views, and thoughtful commentary" that is often unavailable from large news sources (10/01/03). See Appendix A.

As blogging became more popular, many weblogs shifted from the original, link-heavy forms that dominated early blogs, to a free-form on-line journal where authors have begun to write more freely and frequently. Many blog entries now contain no links at all, as the new generation of bloggers share "notes about the weekend, [or] a quick reflection on some subject or another" (Blood 10/01/03). Many bloggers write bi-daily in these journals, which serve as more of an “Update-in-the-life-of…,” than a source for news. See Appendix B.

Although weblog journals have gained immense popularity over the past four years, the original link-heavy style is still respected by many current weblogs. The Perseus survey shows that roughly only 10% of blogs now link to traditional news sources, but that 80% of blogs link to external sources (11/30/03). This may seem to suggest that linking to news is no longer a notable blogging characteristic; however, this perspective fails to consider the blogger’s tendency to disseminate news that is not so heavily trafficked, and is therefore be less likely to be found in a traditional news source.

Many bloggers combine the two blogging styles, committing themselves to neither form. They continue to search for, link to, and comment on the news, as well as maintain a daily journal. The function of hyperlinks is important in both types of blogs. Bloggers' personal perspectives on news and information are reflected in not only their commentaries on the information itself, but also in their references to other blogs, which in turn increase traffic within the small weblog community. These weblog journals usually convey the author’s personality by linking to Internet sources that identify some of the author's interests, such as favorite bands, favorite weblogs, and favorite TV shows. These links are necessary because they help readers, who often establish blog loyalties quickly and categorically, understand the author’s likes and dislikes, political agenda, and social identity. The blogger can ideally attract those readers with similar interests, which will increase the blog's readership. Regardless of the blog's style, hypertext is a common characteristic of weblogs. By providing readers with pertinent links, authors skillfully communicate their interests and their experiences to blog readers, who need to access both.

THE RHETORIC OF WEBLOGS

Like most websites, the primary rhetorical purpose of weblogs is to convince readers that the message is valuable. Harrison states that since "the Web compels users to constantly weigh rhetorical claims from different websites…websites are in fierce rhetorical competition not only to attract users, but also to keep their attention" (11/15/02). Weblogs use hypertext as a rhetorical method to convince readers of their value. Internal links and external links serve as a background message that aids in the development and understanding of the primary message, and help retain user attention.

Internal Linking

Weblogs feature two types of internal links: those that link internally to pages within the individual weblog itself, and those that link within the weblog community. Hypertext that links within the text of an individual weblog is usually an Archive. In an attempt to condense the length of a weblog screen and allow for more convenient search capabilities, nearly all weblogs provide links to archived pages. Weblog archives are past weblog entries, usually organized by date or subject, that have been compressed. They can be accessed from a list located on the navigation bar. Archives help organize the information on the site by removing old entries from the homepage. Readers are only confronted with 5-10 homepage entries upon arrival at the blog, making the page short enough to navigate and search easily. The shortened home page is less intimidating and offers a higher degree of readability since it does not overload users with the author's bi-daily ramblings from the past 250 days. To access old entries, users can conveniently and comfortably search through archived pages, which are accessed through links, for an interesting story or article that has been removed from the home page. This form of internal linking allows users to choose which part of the weblog they want to explore, and which to bypass.

Archives are effective hypertext. They provide the necessary background information to contextualize weblogs, identify their authorship, and attract potential readership. Archives offer valuable information as to the history of the weblog, and the history of the blogger. When more archives are accessed, more supporting information will be learned about the life of the author and the life of the weblog. Since readers are buying the author, not the author's magazine, readers must be able to grasp important traits such as the author’s personality, sense of humor, or political associations. Winer points out that authors writing for mass media publications have an advantage in that their publication makes them credible. He states that bloggers “flow their ideas and opinions to people who only know the writer by name, not by brand” (11/15/03). However, the archived blog entries provide readers with a conventional opportunity to identify with authors. This identification helps successful bloggers regain much of their lost credibility by identifying and developing a relationship with their readers.

Archives are also rhetorically effective hypertext because they help retain appropriate readership. The weblog archives can either invite the user’s attention, driving users farther into the site and enhancing opportunities for increasing traffic, or cause users to keep searching for a weblog that is more attuned users’ personal interests. Readers who access archived entries that they do not enjoy or cannot relate to will probably leave the blog and plan to never return. However, if the archives succeed in persuading readers that the weblog is credible, meaningful, and valuable, readers will likely return to the blog, and perhaps even refer other readers to the blog. By driving readers further into the weblog, archives are a rhetorically effective means for helping to retain readership.
Weblogs also use internal linking to direct traffic to other weblogs.

Unlike commercial and organizational sites that compete constantly for consumer dollars and loyalties, weblog authors have no vested commercial interests in the successes of their sites. For the most part, bloggers earn little or no money for maintaining their blogs, and there are no malicious intentions embedded in the fiber of weblog authorship. Bloggers primarily write blogs to help disseminate ideas and opinions, and have succeeded only by connecting to create weblog communities. The successful weblog is transformed from its own, individual website, to a tiny part of a much larger community.

Though each blog is written individually, a weblog’s community cannot be divorced from the individual weblog. Entire websites are devoted to listing only weblogs (e.g., www.weblogs.com). These sites lead to expanding blog communities by directing readers to new blogs. Bloggers who refers readers several different weblogs are also expanding the community. Since weblog authors often return a reference favor, linking to those sites that link to theirs, these bloggers are likely to have their blogs listed on other weblogs. This reciprocal linking relationship increases community growth, yet restricts some of that growth to the blog-o-sphere. The communities themselves should be considered part of the blog’s internal structure, since they were crucial to the success of weblog writing. These communities were activated when the first weblogs were published in 1997 as authors tried to promote the new medium, and they have continued to remain an active, important part of the blog-o-sphere (i.e., the blogging universe). A weblog community, created when bloggers link to similar or interesting weblogs, is completely informal, unfinished, and borderless, yet crucial to a successful weblog. Blood states that from the beginning, as communities grew, “[c]ults of personality sprung up as new blogs appeared, certain names appearing over and over in daily entries or listed in the obligatory sidebar of 'other weblogs'… [B]loggers position themselves in this community, referencing and reacting to those blogs they read most, their sidebar an affirmation of the tribe to which they wish to belong” (10/01/03). The key for weblog survival actually derives from this “obligatory sidebar of other weblogs.” They are a necessary element of a complete weblog, primarily because weblogs would have failed miserably if not for these unique communities built around them.

Figure 6.


Figure 6. Weblogs further the message of the community,
while weblog entries further the message of the weblog.

Much like the interconnected nature of electronic text, the weblog community functions as a single structure that consists of smaller constituents. Although each blog is written individually, weblogs build a web of internal links within the community. Although the weblogs that a blogger links to are not necessarily written by the individual blogger, the links usually promote ideas that the blogger might want to expand on, comment on, and disseminate. A list of “Other blogs” is an integral part of a weblog—it indicates as much about the author as any other internal or external link on the page. The user considers the types of community blogs and uses that information to decide whether that weblog is credible, meaningful, and valuable. If a user enjoys the blog community, that user is not only likely to return to those blogs, but should also be more persuaded to return to the entry weblog. In this way, the diligent blogger will not only benefit by creating a successful community blog, but will work to fit in to a blogger community with which he identifies. This reciprocal relationship helps both the blog and the community expand.

External Linking

Weblog authors provide ample opportunities for users to link outside of the primary text, but do intend for readers to return. These external links are usually found within the body of the blog's posts, where bloggers link to news articles and commercial sites for which they offer personal commentary and off-hand observations. These external links can also be found in a Links section. A blogger's observations, which are usually still in the primitive stages of development, slowly construct the blog’s personality, by identifying its social group, political affiliations, and general opinions. In many blogs, external links are necessary in establishing these positions. If a blogger wants to comment on a news article s/he read that morning, but cannot link to it, readers cannot access the article, and the commentary becomes useless. External links are crucial to establishing a successful blog’s credibility, meaning, and value.

RECONFIGURING HYPERTEXTUAL BOUNDARIES IN WEBLOGS

Reading Weblogs Non-Linearly

As in other forms of electronic text, weblog boundaries are borderless, undefined, and limitless. Weblog text functions as two separate entities. First, each weblog can be considered a collective work that consists of hundreds of entries. These entries combine to create the rhetoric of the entire weblog, yet function individually on the World Wide Web as separate, interconnected blocks of text. Readers may enter the homepage or an archived page of a weblog by linking out of another text. By entering this page of the weblog, the reader has, temporarily, made this portion of this weblog the new center of the reading. If, perhaps, the reader found this link while reading a favorite weblog, the reader probably expects many of the same rudimentary elements (such as political ideals, social identity, and writing style) to be present in both weblogs. In this case, the reader might spend a considerable amount of time exploring the blog, reading archived entries and looking for a sense of the blog's structure and background, hopeful that it is one to which s/he would like to return. Here, the reader is attempting to analyze the blog as a function of the collective work. If the reader likes the blog, s/he might follow a couple of its more interesting internal and external links, spending time examining the opinions and attitudes of the blogger. Here, the reader is influenced by the blogging community’s rhetoric. By associating this blog as a part of the community with which the blogger is already familiar, the reader is more likely to spend time reading archives and evaluating the blog.

Suppose, though, that the reader is a blogger who is searching for a new weblog to include in his/her daily reading routine. If the reader found the blog on a list of "popular blogs," s/he probably has no real expectations of compatibility with either the blog or the blog’s "personality." In this case, the reader probably scans the blog much more quickly, taking less time to consider old entries and ascertain to the blog’s personality. If the reader’s attention is not immediately captured by the blog, s/he will probably wander away, most likely using the browser’s "back" button to return to the previous page. The fact that the reader was not referred to the blog by a familiar community changed the reader’s perceptions of the blog.

Reading an entire weblog linearly would not only be overwhelming, but incredibly difficult. Due to the amount of text contained on each weblog, each entry must function individually, conveying its individual message in a variety of reading contexts. To be rhetorically effective, each weblog entry must convince readers that the weblog is interesting, credible, and valuable. The non-linear system of decentering hypertext allows readers to coast from entry to entry, building up or breaking down ethos with the readability of each new entry. Although the fragmented passages of text structure the weblog, writers often utilize navigation bars, archives, and "About Me" pages to organize the blog more carefully. As a whole, these pieces help build the blog’s personality, attitude, and structure. However, these pieces of information are often accessed individually at various times, in arbitrary contexts, and must function rhetorically in both whole and fragmented context.

Decentering the Weblog Reading

The blog becomes the provisional center for an active user. As users experiment with the different lists of archives, jumping from week to week and entry to entry, they scan for interesting entries and ideas, taking in only bits and pieces from different time periods of the blog's life. Interesting passages of text either effectively capture a reader's attention, or drive the reader away. If a reader is turned-off by an author's comments, that reader is not likely to seek out and access further information. Rhetorically, authors try to target their audience by marketing the blogs to their most promising readers and establishing themselves in a suitable blog community. Switching between from entry to entry using hypertext, readers create their own weblog reading, and become the reading’s focus, or center. Readers choose the path by which they access and bypass text, with little regard for authorial intention, making not the author’s message the center, but their own reading paths. The reading’s point of focus is constantly changing as readers pursue infinite paths through the blog and the blog community.

Redefining Roles in Weblogs

Weblogs offer readers the unique opportunity to become writers by enabling them to take unique paths through the text, as well as giving them the opportunity to become part of the message itself. Blood calls for a redefinition of the weblog audience, defining an audience as "passive," and a public as "participatory," stating that electronic text needs "a definition of media that is public in its orientation" (10/01/02). As with other types of hypertext, blog readers choose their paths through material, creating their own individual readings as they surf. Their construction of the blogs, and the blog communities, are each different; in the most basic sense, readers are the authors of their weblog readings.

On a much greater level, though, blogs offer unique opportunities for readers to become writers. Conversations often develop between weblogs. Bloggers often bounce information and ideas off of one another, using their own blogs to comment on and link to information that they found on a different blog. This cross-blog discourse is integral to the success of blogs. Blood describes the discoursive value of such conversations in the early stages of blog development: "Full-blown conversations were carried on between three or five blogs, each referencing the other in their agreement of rebuttal of the other’s positions. Cults of personality sprung up as new blogs appeared, certain names appearing over and over in daily entries" (10/01/02).

A reader who comments on a blog entry found in a different weblog, becomes an author (of sorts) of the blog entry s/he is commenting on. By commenting on the material, and then linking to the source of that material, the reader (now blogger) is incorporating the reading of the source material with his material. For readers of his material and the source material, his blog entry becomes part of the reading of the source material. In the most basic reflexive conversational sense, he is now part author of the reading of the original blog.

Additionally, blogs often allow readers to make comments on the blogs themselves. Most weblogs include a "Comments" link after each entry. Although these comments boxes have many styles and forms, they have the same rhetorical effect--they give readers the opportunity to write on the blog. Many readers comment on the blogger’s ideas, often posing counter-arguments, commending the blogger on an appreciated message, or asking the blogger to clarify a certain point. These comments boxes are extremely popular and they continue to increase the interactivity of the blogging experience. They blur the boundaries between reader and writer, creating a sophisticated web of role reversal in the weblog environment.

Hypertext has dramatically changed modern reading and writing. It uses the most human-like thought structure ever conceived to rhetorically draw in and captivate audiences with transient, borderless texts. Authors are finally free to effortlessly provide readers with important information with the simple click of a button, and readers are able to let their minds roam more freely during the reading process. Vannevar Bush would be impressed with how far his vision has evolved, and how well the human mind has adapted to this revolutionary technology.

With hypertext, linearity is no longer a binding constraint on the human reading process. People are allowed to decide, judge, and access information without the restraining borders and limits that are inescapable in printed text. Conforming to the rhetoric of hypertext, the blog’s boundaries between linearity and non-linearity, the provisional point of focus, and reader and writer are blurred. The weblog joins hypertext in its revolutionary change in the experience reading and writing of text.



This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?


Weblog Commenting by HaloScan.com