Optimistic predictions spawned during the Web’s euphoric boom phase that ordinary citizens would now have a virtual printing press for personal civic engagement have been tempered recently by a growing recognition of the disjunction between the Web’s technical potentials and its rhetorical actualities (Killoran). While the technical potentials promise vigorous democratic engagement by ordinary citizen publishers, the rhetorical actualities of civic engagement do not emerge from a discursive vacuum but rather from a legacy of discursive action propagated through genres. In looking to the Web for civic engagement by citizen publishers, it would thus behoove us to look at the emerging Web genres available for adoption by ordinary citizens.
My paper contrasts the two primary genres that have been popularized for personal Web publishing: the personal homepage and the Weblog. Below, I illustrate how the personal homepage has not developed a reputation for civic engagement, whereas the Weblog thrives on such a reputation. I explain this divergence by drawing on Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope to point out how the different chronotopes underlying these two genres support different discursive actions.
Genres and Chronotopes
First, to underscore the importance of genres, let’s recall a point made by Carolyn Miller in her seminal article “Genres as Social Action.” Social action, such as the action of civic engagement, is rooted not just in the private motivations of individuals, such as disparate individual Web publishers, but in “the typical joint rhetorical actions available at any given point in history and culture” (158) through the discursive model of genres.
To determine the kinds of social action enabled at this point in the Web’s history and culture by different Web genres, one key variable to examine is what Bakhtin characterizes as a genre’s chronotope, its “time-space” background. The chronotopic background “provides the ground essential for the showing-forth, the representability of events” (250) in the foreground. Certain chronotopic backgrounds will better sustain certain kinds of discursive events, and hence chronotopes are not just neutral background features of genres but are axiological (Schryer), orienting genres’ potential social engagement.
The ethereal domain of the Web offers an especially fertile ground for the construction of chronotopes, as dominant representations of time and space have yet to consolidate themselves among the innovative genres shaping the new medium. Below, we look in turn at two distinct genres of personal Web publishing, the personal homepage and the Weblog, to examine how their different chronotopes have positioned them differently as, respectively, potential distractions from or potential facilitators of civic engagement.
Personal Homepage Genre
The personal homepage was the first of the two genres to emerge and seemed to hit its peak of fashionability in the mid-1990s. While the uniqueness of individual personal homepages frustrates our grasp of any potentially generic homepage archetype, one nevertheless senses the genre most commonly by its autobiographical nucleus, exhibiting its author by representing his or her background and home life, family and genealogy, education and career, and especially personal and professional interests.
Because everyone has such autobiographical material, everyone could, in principle, become a personal homepage publisher—seemingly a boon for the Web’s potential for participatory democracy. The scale of the undertaking, however, may discourage potential publishers. In a 1997 survey of 110 personal homepage publishers, I found that most envisioned their homepage to be an on-going project, with several explaining that their homepage development was a labor-intensive product of their own development. As such a finding suggests, the long-term horizon of the project would prompt representations that are perceived to be equally long-term, such that the previous season’s work would still be relevant in the current season and next season and would thereby not have to be scrapped. Many also explained that their homepage development was a product of their access to viable content, which in many cases meant personal information, since that was what they knew best. Such an autobiographical core for the genre posits a chronotope that can sustain the representability of personal events and information that endure over time, such as one’s family and genealogy, education and career, and so forth. Such potential topical diversity also posits a chronotope that can support equally diverse, though inward-looking, virtual spaces accompanied by interconnecting navigation. The resulting site architecture may be intricate enough to orient the site toward equilibrium, unresponsive to changes in current events that would in turn compel the labor of architectural redesign or navigational rewiring. Instead, the personal homepage chronotope more readily sustains events and information marked not by their mutability but by their durability, and hence gives the personal homepage a conservative orientation.
The personal homepage’s conservative orientation raises the possibility that the genre may lack viability with its fast-changing, outward-looking, new media environment. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, has observed how the personal homepage has evolved in a way that was unanticipated in his earlier vision of the Web’s potential for personal and family domains: “[T]he personal home page is . . . not really home. They may call it a home page, but it’s more like the gnome in somebody’s front yard than the home itself” (“Tim Berners-Lee”). Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the gnome suggests a homepage posture that is immobile, perhaps a consequence of hitherto private citizens awkwardly envisioning their long-term public posture on an overwhelming world-wide stage and responding with a bit of stage-fright. As such, the stance taken on the personal homepage may be more defensive and less engaged than the corresponding stances taken within the home itself or within the local community. The gnome-genre models the act of publishing on the Web as one of safe self-representation, not of dynamic civic engagement.
The second popular genre of personal Web publishing is the Weblog (from a blending of Web log), also know within the Web’s counter-culture as a blog (a diminutive of Weblog). A Weblog typically consists of a series of brief text-only postings or annotated links to other Web sites, organized in reverse chronological order.
While personal homepages emerged and gained popularity in the mid-1990s, blogs only emerged in the late 1990s. Rebecca Blood, doyenne of the blog community and author and editor of two forthcoming books about blogs, points out that, as of early 1999, the then nascent bloggers community was composed of only 23 known bloggers. Later that year, the genre had gained enough of a profile that Chicago Tribune journalist Julia Keller could characterize the growing community of bloggers as “relentlessly verbal, fiendishly well-read, usually subversive folks who relish tying together the shoelaces of the stiffly homogenized corporate world. . . .” Three years later, in early 2002, blogs were estimated to number over half a million (Manjoo) and their collective “intellectual cyberspace” had received its own fashionable designation: blogosphere, derived in part from the root logos (Quick).
The genre’s booming popularity has been bolstered by the facilitative role of technologies such as Blogger, which offer interfaces that automate the formatting and posting of log updates. Technology journalist Neil McIntosh credits Blogger for rescuing personal Web publishing from the decay of the personal homepage, a genre which offers “little more than a CV and pet pictures,” is now recognized only for its “dormancy” (“A Tale”):
A few years ago, home pages were almost universally dull, because creating them was a fiddle that made it just too tempting to post and forget. Most became sleepy relics. Then came Blogger and, suddenly, it was easy to create a dynamic, constantly changing website. The creative talents of people who otherwise couldn't be bothered with web authoring were set loose. (“The Seven Wonders”)In contrast with that fading novelty of personal homepages, the thriving phenomenon of blogging has receiving coverage in such prominent mainstream media as The New York Times, Time Magazine, and The Times.
Blogs constitute what Salon columnist Scott Rosenberg describes as “a new and fertile niche in the Web’s information ecology.” In contrast with the longer, static set pieces typical of many Web sites, this niche favors a guerilla-like style of Web publishing marked by brief but frequent postings, and in contrast with the appearance of objectivity aspired to by much Web data and information, this niche brandishes authors’ own openly subjective perspectives. “Blogs express opinion,” writes Judith Shulevitz in The New York Times. “They’re one-person pundit shows, replete with the stridency and looniness usually edited off TV.” She contrasts the genre favorably with other journalism genres: compared with traditional journalism, blogs evince “greater looseness of spirit; openness to more points of view; a more conversational tone; and a compulsive honesty. . . .” Technology journalist Henry Jenkins likewise contrasts the new genre with other, more familiar genres: “Blogs are . . . more dynamic than older-style home pages, more permanent than posts to a Net discussion list. They are more private and personal than traditional journalism, more public than diaries.”
Recognition of such distinction from other genres, and in particular from more established, settled Web sites or homepages, accrues in part from the distinctiveness of the designation Weblogs and its hipper truncated form blogs. Credit for the usage Weblog apparently goes to Jorn Barger, a blogger who introduced the term in late 1997 with his “Robot Wisdom Weblog” (Barger). Weblogs, a designation akin to such computer usages as server logs, http logs, usage logs, and log files (Barger), and also reminiscent of such traditional pre-Web genres as ships’ logs, originally took root in the nomadic, wanderlust behavior of surfing. The genesis of the discourse emerging out of such activity is unclear, having been traced to the practice of e-mailing family and friends about interesting Web sites (Outing), or to the 1994 emergence of online diarists (Tweney). Such discourses tend to be as frequent and short as the variable activities they represent, and likewise the typical blog entry is often only a fleeting comment and link to a just-read article on another Web site.
Such discursive behavior underscores how the genre is based on a chronotope that values immediacy, with the time horizon typically no more enduring than that of a daily newspaper. Like newspapers, blog entries are normally dated and thereby highlight both their currency with the day’s events and also their much shorter shelf life. Unlike the permanence posited by the personal homepage, which preserves the past in the form of old photos, genealogical trees, and résumés, the past in a blog, exemplified by older postings that get pushed down the page with each new update and that eventually get archived, quickly fades from view and from relevance; the top screen of a blog orients readers to its currency, its most recent posting. Unlike the elaborate architectures and page displays of Web sites or Web homes, which, as their designations metaphorically suggest, invoke virtual spaces fortified with the Web’s visual and multimodal decor, blogs favor the plainer but quicker text-only contributions laid out in a one-dimensional linear sequence.
Because of (1) their collaborative ethos, and (2) their generic kinship with short, verbal genres that ordinary people are already skilled with, blogs provide ordinary people with a viable genre well suited to encourage their civic engagement.
First, because of their collaborative ethos, blogs are a genre better suited than personal homepages to encourage widespread civic participation. Unlike corporate journalistic discourses, which tend to be one-directional, blogs tend to be read zealously by other bloggers and interlinked with related blogs, thereby promoting responsive models of social relations that nurture publishers’ and readers’ personal commitment to each other. Technology journalist John Ellis explains that by maintaining such a network of contacts, bloggers can draw on the labor of others for new, publishable items. He thereby draws a distinction between blogs and mainstream media by the different attitudes and assumptions creators hold toward their readers: unlike mainstream journalists, “bloggers assume that their readers are as smart as they are, if not smarter.” Indeed, some blogs thrive on e-mailed submissions from devoted readers, such as the long-running memepool blog (www.memepool.com).
Second, because of their generic kinship with such short, verbal genres as e-mail postings and conversational turns, blogs, in contrast with personal homepages, are a genre better suited to pick up on the longer-established and more fertile literacies of their authors and are thereby better able to sustain the kinds of distinctive niche contributions that ordinary people can best offer the Web. Again unlike personal homepages, blogs’ means of production, which draw not on the Web’s multimedia resources but on frequency and brevity, accommodate the genre to the daily work and leisure schedules of ordinary people, and thereby offer ordinary people a democratically accessible way to participate in Web publishing. Such a fast-growing discursive practice illustrates how social action can be enabled by the leadership of a genre, which models, for a new class of media producers, how to “mediat[e] private intentions and [the] social exigence” of their new civic forum by “connecting the private with the public” (Miller 163). In a forum that otherwise shares many similarities with impersonal mass media, blogs, more so than personal homepages, create visibility for individuals’ distinctive Web role alongside the Web presences of the traditional, mainstream media. Rebecca Blood sees in the genre “the power . . . to transform both writers and readers from ‘audience’ to ‘public’ and from ‘consumer’ to ‘creator’,” thereby offering agency to a media class hitherto cast as passive.
To sum up, we’ve looked at personal Web publishing and observed that, while individuals have publish on the Web on their own behalf since its inception a decade ago, the private intentions of myriad individuals alone cannot explain the past trends and future promise of personal Web-mediated civic engagement. It is not just a new medium per se that encourages our meaningful participation and, more pointedly, our civic engagement, but rather a meaningful way, a discursive way, to participate in that medium.
Over the past decade, two different genres of personal Web publishing have experienced different histories and offer different promise for popular participation. These genres posit different chronotopes, which in turn sustain different discursive actions. The axiological orientation of the personal homepage chronotope, because of its long-term view of the publishers’ subjecthood and its elaborate virtual architecture, is the more conservative, whereas the axiological orientation of the blog, because of its responsiveness to current events and its simple, forward-looking spatial configuration, is the more radical. In the new media environment favoring currency and enabling easy contact among publishers, it is, of these two genres, the blog that can better sustain a more distinctive, more socially responsive means of civic engagement.
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