Blogging and culture of comments

As I’m writing a paper  “Blogging for the Classroom” with Marc Kürsten and Bruce Spear (to come out this summer), I’m casting my net wider to catch any recently hatched butterflies on the topic.

After becoming aware of a recent article by a doyen of German new media scholarship (yes, this may be an oxymoron), Rolf Schulmeister, I found Michael Kerres’ comment on Schulmeister complete with follow-up comments from a number of people engaged in the German (academic) blogging scene. Most notably, the original article discusses a number of small case studies and is very interesting to read.

While I enjoyed both the original article and the discourse following it, I couldn’t help noticing a number of issues.

In my recent teaching of students both via blog and by virtue of blogs (the students earn all their credits based on their blogging, evaluated with the help of a rubric – an indispensable tool), I could observe the creation of the culture of comments in vitro – via aggregation in netvibes where all student blogs (apart from the group project blogs) are registered,  I can follow the development of posts and comments (both of which were obligatory during the course) on a week-by-week basis.

Monitoring the results, I realised something that I had already felt and known through the coaching on blog writing and presentation, which the students receive routinely and continuously: you cannot judge blogs only by their content (as if they were text-only) but you must also evaluate the quality of the blog as a visual medium meant to navigate within the blog and within a much larger space, the wider blogosphere.

This is a severe limitation of the discussion by Schulmeister et al, who look at blogs and comments from the point of view of Habermas’ theory of communication: criteria of “best blogging” (including the writing style and the blog design not so much in aesthetic but functional terms) are not applied at all. There is no sign that the authors are even aware of them.

To read up on this, check out Bruce Spear’s “Writerly Advice” column, also developed during and for a graduate level course: in my view this is one of the deepest and at the same time, by virtue of the author’s own writing abilities, most useful and practical descriptions of “best practice blogging” at a level way beyond the typical “how to blog” tutorials available en masse on the web.

As Uwe Hesse and Christian Spannagel have remarked on Kerres’ blog, the claims of Schulmeister’s article may also be limited because it limits itself to the German blogosphere. Any investigation of this particular scene cannot easily be generalised to the entire system, the intensely global blogosphere. And this doesn’t even include critique of the limited technological vision implicit in the article – which brings me to the, for me, most interesting evolutionary aspects of blogging:

successful networking on the net, building and nurturing communities at the core of a culture, rarely only uses a blog as its only element. Perhaps this is less known in Germany where many academics still seem proud of not having a twitter account. To take a look at a booming cultural landscape – not academic as much as artistic and commercial, beyond the borders of “Heimat”, see the ArtsJournal blogworld and the BBC WorldService “OverToYou” blog – or at a lower level of sophistication (still in beta test) Fictionaut for writers – both starting points and feedback hubs of global dialogue. What we can witness here and in many other virtual places is an amalgamation of real and virtual publication and exchange.

The blog, or rather: the blogs, are at the heart of the feedback loop that informs mass-scale content creation but they’re not, they’re never alone.

An evolutionary chain 2000-2010 could look like this: web site -> one-author blog -> multi-author blog -> multiple-multi-author-blogs-with-multimedia. The killer question for me is how this evolution will shake out. (If I may venture a guess: virtual worlds will make a surprise entry.)

The examples discussed in the article by Schulmeister refer to a single element but claim validity for the entire system using a theory (Habermas), which I personally think is great but which is not suited to evaluate culture or cultural development. A mix of Bateson, Flusser, with a dash of Erickson and a little von Förster thrown in for innovation, are better suited, I think.

The global communication, having gone viral, is no longer just a dialogue taking place on dialogue-based infrastructure.

Not to be misunderstood: I think it is absolutely great that Schulmeister wrote this article and I appreciated the debate on Kerres’ site – I learnt a lot from being exposed to their thoughts. So – thank you!

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