Free Speech

Free Speech

A weblog’s value probably depends quite a bit on the richness of the project the writer takes on and the vigor, intelligence, playfullness, honesty, clarity, openness, and imagination with which it is pursued. Without those values, our subjects are rough puppets dancing to crude tunes played by vain and indifferent musicians. (You dance to my tune)

Blogging is work. Despite its relative ease of use, it’s still a challenge because of all of the reasons and shifts we talk about in this community almost every day. We don’t have time. We don’t all like the transparency that blogs create. Early adoption is a risk. And on and on. But there’s nothing different here than with any other new technology or process. (EduBlogs as “Slow Motion Distributed Car Wreck”)

Writing students and teachers alike need to come to terms with the myth that free speech is protected as a right that can be exercised without fear of retaliation. Indeed, our speech is only protected by our government from the government itself. The government does not protect us from each other when we speak freely. Thus, free speech is not a given for the speaker or writer: it is more a process that begins in the knowledge that its use, its exercise, might bring harm to the user; at the same time, the exercise of free speech in the face of possible harm asserts the value of such exercise and works to promote that value universally. (Michael Kleine, Toward an Ethics of Teaching Writing in a Hazardous Context—The American University, JAC 12.2— 1992).

I found the last article, co-authored by my thesis chair, while searching for an article of his I always wanted to read: “The Rhetoric of I Am an Alcoholic” from RSQ 17:2. Oh well, I guess that one will mean I’ll actually have to go to the library. It is an article about the rhetoric of twelve-step programs written by a man who did go through it. Unlike most articles, it uses principles from discourse analysis to show how the program actually works.

Update: the excellent girlfriend saved me the trip. She had the article in her files. Though it might seem like an odd article to seek out (unless you are grappling with alcoholism), it actually isn’t. It’s about the power of saying things. Michael says it best, near the end of the article:

I am thinking, of course, of the community of you and me—you as readers and me as writer. By writing I am an alcoholic into the discourse of this community (a community that will exist only by virtue of your reading and my writing), I have not only published my declaration, and thus made it somehow indelible, but I have also increased the urgency of my commitment to future sobriety; if I “slip” and get drunk before this text is printed, is read, then the particular identification I achieve in writing this text as it is read, the speech acts I intend, and the discourse between you and me will be invalidated. Thus, by writing I am an alcoholic, I have declared it more deeply, and committed myself to sobriety more sincerely. (163)

The article was written in 1987; Michael hasn’t slipped. He has been an inspiration to me that I won’t soon forget. Not because I have any substance abuse problems (other than cigarettes), but because he has helped teach me about the power of words.

Quest / Romance

Quest / Romance

It’s amazing how much the definition of “what a blog is” has shifted. Will R. started something while I was busy doing other stuff, and his latest post on the topic really encapsulates the way I felt about the activity of blogging soon after I started:

But I’ve never in my life written the way I write in this Weblog. And frankly, I don’t know that I’ve learned as much from any other type of activity as I have from this type. And I learn when I’m doing just what I’m doing now (sweat on brow.) I’m not journaling. I’m not just linking. I’m attempting to synthesize a lot of disparate ideas from a varitey of sources into a few coherent sentences that I can publish for an audience and wait (hope?) for its response to push my thinking further. That’s the essence of blogging to me, and I can’t do it without a Weblog. That’s the distinction. That’s what tells me this is different. And that’s what makes me think so hard about the effects that blogging, not just using a blog, might have in a classroom.

Dennis commented briefly about it, and it reminded me a lot of how the whole link-post-comment argument unfolded around two years ago. Early adopters didn’t believe that the whole “metacognitive” aspect that the newer people (like me) enjoyed was productive for blogging as a genre. That was writing, not blogging according to their definition. Blogging required links. Now, the terms seem to have come full circle. However, Will’s contentious assertions about blogging seem to be software driven. Instead of linking to other sites (commentary on the web), the distinction promoted is raised another level—blogging is commenting on other people’s commentary. The model is conversational. I’m not sure I agree.

I also started thinking about the Webquest learning model. It reminded me of the assertion that Harold Bloom made about romanticism. Romanticism was the internalization of medieval quest romance. Instead of searching the countryside for a fair maiden, the quest was to know oneself. The quest turned inward. Given the latest take on “web quests” it seems that we want to get away from looking at how writing tools change a person, and move back to the middle ages and look at it as a quest for knowledge outside ourselves. I’m not sure that this change is all that productive.

Myself, I find that if I spend too much time commenting and conversing about other people’s posts, I have less time to really develop my own thoughts. There needs to be some kind of balance, I think. I think it has to do with the size of the community involved. What was once a small community is now huge; it is too exhausting to keep up on it all. Staying “local” has its advantages. For one thing, it allows you to maintain a better sense of your own identity, and it keeps you from changing to suit a peculiar audience construct. I really want to think locally, at this point, rather than globally. Thinking globally is too draining on my tiny intellectual resources.



One of the assertions made by Gunther Kress at his C’s lecture was that website authors have no concept of what their audience’s needs are. He compared this to book authorship, where a writer has a fairly clear idea of what their audience is looking for. The availability of multiple pathways to navigate information is what, in Kress’s view, what makes the Internet different—a concession (or feature) targeted at maximal communication.

Jocalo contested that in a recent entry, and I (conditionally) agree. For now, at least, a web site author has a limited idea of a regular audience (as revealed by referrer logs), of a target audience (a fiction the author maintains in their own head of who the would like to read their site), and a wildcard audience made up of search engine referrals. In some respects, the audience constructed through attention to referrer logs is the most useful— that is, if the writer is concerned with maintaining that audience. It was a big shock to me to figure out a few years ago that some really smart people occasionally read my blog. It made me temper both my language and my silliness a little (but not that much).

I think that newsfeeds, for all their advantages for information gatherers, have shifted that landscape substantially. Now, many people visit through bloglines and other such services, denying me the pleasure of seeing what sites they actually come from. Most of my blogroll was built by paying attention to referrers, and that source of information is rapidly disappearing. Eventually, Kress’s observation might be proved correct—though the “fictional” audience will never completely disappear. Part of the construction of this fictional audience is an anticipation of their reading habits. Why bother to link to something if you don’t think that a portion of your audience will visit it? What does this do to the traditional (now old fashioned) view of blogs as link sites? Lamenting the fact that people do not often read deeply on the web (as I sometimes do, for example with my recent link to Hermann Krone— which I suspect that almost no one visited), Jocalo asked some pointed questions:

Does that mean that most readers quickly scan what they can see in their screen, and if the topic doesn’t grab their interest, they move on to the next site? Or is hypertext reading a process that many of us still don’t do routinely?

I suspect that the former rhetorical question is probably more deeply implicated. I wrote a post about pornography, which has great mass appeal, and referenced it to an obscure 19th century photographer. The degree of audience interest in pornography is greater, and as a result the link to the essay on pornography is more likely to be visited, and to spread. It’s the nature of the crowd, I suspect, not really a matter of hypertext literacy. The point of hypertext is that an audience always has a choice. Reading a hypertext beyond the core screen is always an option, not a given. The reader and writer have a greater freedom, at the expense of a loss of control and knowledge of their audience.

The dark side of this relates to a bit of dialogue which stood out watching Goldmember this morning. Austin Powers says: “Ah yes, the Internet has revolutionized the way we receive information.” To demonstrate this, he plays an online video of a monkey sticking a finger up its butt, sniffing it, and falling out of a tree. I suspect that when all we have to go on are tools like Technorati to provide a citation index, the richness of the referral landscape will be diminished.



Rifling through the long to-do list I’m trying to whittle away at, some major questions won’t go away. It sometimes seems like the Internet is split between tool-monkeys and content-monkeys. They don’t talk much, and when they do it is disastrous. The disconnect seems to me to hinge on the question of whether people use the tools they create, or if they just like to talk about them—pretty much the same issue that Richard blogged about a while ago, only perhaps oddly inverted. It is odd to participate on a listserv about blogging where participants can’t be bothered to read each other’s blogs.

Actually, I understand this. To be “committed” to blogging as a form, or as a tool, a person has to actually use it. Most academics in my discipline are actually practicing “fence-sitting,” where they adopt the technology in a limited way to do traditional things (see Richard’s post). They are also nervous about yet one more thing they are “supposed” to read. Few people actually read blogs; mostly they skim them. It is that aspect that is not talked about much, though a few papers recently (exactly which ones escapes me for the moment) do talk about this issue. They “graze”— to use the same sort of metaphor put forward by Ton and the latest Pew Internet report (no time to link the citations just now).

However, the attention-inundated content-monkey cannot immediately stop producing content in order to pick-up the latest tool-monkey’s tools. A good example (and what brought on this silly outburst) is discovering that John Logie has posted his notes to his presentation at the C’s IP caucus (on April 1, no less). He has a regular blogger based site. No RSS, no pinging, no way to move this paper to the top of the stack for a moment. Progressive ideas; retrograde technologies. The speed at which the web landscape is transformed is astounding, and yet, people who actually want to produce content don’t have the time to constantly change their tools. I am more sympathetic to this issue, than people who claim to be “into blogging” who don’t bother to actually read blogs, or write in them. They just want to theorize about the latest tools.

It seems to me that there are two types of intimidation involved in becoming an active blogger—one is the question of audience (Who would want to read me? How can I find people that I want to read?). The other is the question of technology—I want to write, not be a techno-geek who cultivates a specific “feed” for every category of uncategorical thought that I have.

I think that the comparison of blogs as “flows” compared to the wiki model of “stocks” seems pretty apt. A wiki is an investment; a blog is a thoughtspace. I wish people didn’t have so much difficulty going with the flow.



I’ve been thinking more about the genre model of blogs as journals. While it is a comfortable metaphor (when compared with oxymetaphors like cyberspace or blogosphere), it really doesn’t work. Letters are closer, because they have a more abstract time-constituent. Letters are read based on priorities: the newest letter isn’t always read first. A person reads a letter from a friend much more quickly than one reads a letter from a bill collector, and a letter from a bill collector before one reads an advertisement. But time is still a factor, because old letters never garner much attention. You have to be in a rather twisted mood to sit around reading old letters.

Journals are modeled on the book. They run in a linear order, and the newest information is found in the back. When one is completed, it is filed away, perhaps in a stack of old journals. Letters end up in stacks a lot quicker. Journals are more task oriented, even if the only task in mind is to finish that particular journal. Letters don’t really end. They kick around for a while, waiting for us to answer them. Their only commercial print analogue would probably be the broadsheet. If there is a sale we want to visit, or a show we’d like to see, broadsheet fliers stick around until we either decide not to act on them, or the event passes and they become mute. Fliers and broadsheets aren’t linear. They are lateral, often spreading to cover every shelf or building (if they’re pasted) in sight— so we feel compelled to colate them in stacks.

Unbound, the letter (or flier) does not have a natural order. But we collect them in stacks (and not necessarily chronological ones). To peruse them, we don’t turn the stack over and start at the bottom (at least I don’t!). It’s been a long time (twenty years or more) since I did any computer programming, but I seem to recall that computers work the same way. Things are pushed on to the stack, read from the stack without being moved, or popped off the stack into a different register. Last in is first off. Data at the bottom is overwritten if too much data goes on top. But as long as an item resides in the stack, you can at least point to it.

I think that blogs are more like stacks than journals. We don’t usually visit the bottom, unless some pointer (usually a search query or link) shows up in a referrer log. Though they are chronological (newest on top rather than at the back), their chronological nature is not nearly as important as their access pattern. The latest is read first, and the stack we choose to read first depends on its relevance (or social connection) to us.


Tending the Garden

I woke up yesterday thinking about Internet metaphors again. I picked up a copy of The Power of Metaphor in the Age of Electronic Media by Raymond Gozzi Jr. at the C’s conference and noticed that a core metaphor he writes about is the “information superhighway.” The book was published in 1999, but already that metaphor seems hopelessly dated. Gozzi is skeptical about “cyberspace” as well, since electronic communication is in most ways the opposite of space. He proposes instead “cyberfiber” to suggest that the Internet is a cord that is fragile and might be cut at any point, disrupting the transfer of information. I can’t say that I like that much better. It sounds too much like a new kind of breakfast cereal.

As Dennis and I discussed at the conference, these suggestions are conduit metaphors, which technical communications has held in disfavor for many years. Channels of communication are never transparent carriers of meaning— they have their own resonances and amplifications, as well as damping features and attenuations. When I woke up, I was thinking about garden metaphors instead. The idyllic pre-lapsarian Internet constructs that abound among early theorists (and recent adopters) are downright Panglossian. It is unlikely that the Internet is “the best of all possible worlds.” However, though it is still spatial, the garden metaphor represents an interesting twist on the problem. Especially considered in the light of the history of gardening.

Across the 18th century, gardens were often geometrically ordered and precise. At the onset of romanticism, gardens tended to favor a sort of cultivated wildness. Though cultivated, they moved away from precise form in favor of an emulation of natural habitat. Though illusory, the garden represented a nostalgic space constructed to recapture wilderness amidst the sprawl of cities. Even in these spaces, though, weeds were discouraged. I think of the problems with spamming as so many weeds to be plucked from a cultivated wilderness.

What might be more appropriate is a rainforest metaphor, where biodiversity is celebrated. But then, there is always the problem of weeds. To keep the garden metaphor alive, I suppose we need to get behind the mule.

Pin your ear to the wisdom post
Pin your eye to the line
Never let the weeds get higher
Than the garden
Always keep a sapphire in your mind
Always keep a diamond in your mind

Full of it

Full of It

Charlie responded to my observation-in-passing regarding the more focused nature of listservs, and though it seems tiresome to continually echo agreements—I agree with his corollary points:

I think we need to remember that a listserv can do more than keep a conversation focused, that it can act as a backchannel mechanism for blog conversations, a space where educators who are not going to follow all the conversations in the blogs can participate.

I suspect that part of the low adoption rate for blogging among academics is tied to Ton’s explication of the traditional model of information overload (referenced in my previous post). They feel they don’t have the energy to graze blog conversations. They prefer a focused, task-oriented, approach. Blogging became a great outlet for me because I am not good at task-oriented thinking (witness the fact that I’m blogging when I should be working right now). I wander a lot, and am generally full of it (I leave the ambiguous pronoun reference at the mercy of your imagination).

Writing for a listserv, I always get the feeling that I am taking up people’s precious time. Writing on my blog, I really don’t care about that at all. If the signal-to-noise ratio is too skewed for them, a reader can always just skim or ignore what I’m saying. Or, better still, just not visit. I control this space. Listservs resist that sort of control—though there all always booming voices that step up to attempt control of them. I think its because people differ over the amount of control they desire, different venues attract different people. It’s not just topic focus, but control that is at issue. An unmoderated listserv is subject to all sorts of slings and arrows that a blog is not.

Charlie’s point regarding the “intimidation factor” of blogs is also well cast. But, as most literature-geeks would realize, the same thing is true of any form of discourse. A poet can’t immediately know all poetry, or a novelist all novels. I suspect that because blogging is perhaps more of a medium than a genre, people are more reluctant to just dive in and swim both ways, as literature people are wont to do. Unlike television or radio though, there is no convenient way to just drop in and surf the channels of blog discourse. Using “popularity” as a measure of what is significant would give a novice a really skewed perspective on just what blogging is—making them all the more intimidated.

I have never visited the sites of most “A list” bloggers. I just write in my own space (somewhat excessively by some accounts) and visit those friends, and friends of friends, that catch my attention at that moment. I seldom feel that overloaded by what everyone else has to say—merely by what I’d like to say—because like I said, I’m generally full of it.



It is amazing how much mirroring is going on. One thing I was thinking about this morning was the sheer “information overload” of the things I was involved in this week. Because my interest in blogging is a bit peripheral to my core interests, I did not attend every session on blogs or wikis at C’s. However, in the SIG on Friday I was able to talk to people who did attend or present in these other sessions. One common feature was the problem of audience. In composition, only a small minority really uses blogs either personally or in the classroom. So discussions are rapidly skewed with questions like: “What is a blog?” “How are blogs different from discussion forums?” etc.

So, when the same situation appeared at the SIG, Barclay made a very bold gesture: he split the room in half. Half of the panel clustered with the newbies. The other half of the room got together to discuss future proposals that we might make to the conference. It was the most energizing part of the conference for me. I nearly exploded with ideas when I found myself talking to experienced people, most of whom I had not met before, about central issues in blogging/electronic discourse. We exchanged e-mail addresses, and Charlie from Kairosnews set up a listserv. Email me if you’re a compositionist who missed this session (or the C’s conference) and want in. I’ll give you the details.

We debated whether to set up a blog or a listserv, and I argued staunchly for the listserv. The reason is one of signal to noise—mostly, the listserv is for arranging panels for next years conference with participants from geographically separated institutions, not for general blog discussion. It’s the “gated-community” aspect of listservs that helps keep conversations focused. Blogging always has an indeterminate audience, and this makes things wander. Often, that’s a good thing. Other times, it is not.

Today, reading Lilia, I found a mirroring of some conversations we had at the conference. She quoted a reviewer’s comments on her paper:

I am missing the fact of information overloading and what weblogs can do against this.

Maybe it is possible to insert a pro/cons of discussion boards versus weblogs, cause the discussion board technology is very spread in companies.

The same issues came up at our conference. Scott talked about using bloglines to track student blogs (cutting down on the overload which any teacher who uses blogs as experienced). Matt Barton suggested that forums are entirely adequate for the sort of things we’ve been doing with our classroom blogs; he prefers the wiki approach. My main complaint is the extra effort required to track them. For example, since Matt doesn’t have a conventional blog, it will be much more difficult to keep up with his work—wikis are far more labor-intensive in terms of keeping up with the latest information for grazing.

Ton’s comment to Lilia’s post linked to his explication of a different way of looking at the problem of information overload. However, when it comes to composition teachers, this would be a tough sell. I agree with most of Ton’s points, though tools make it easier to “harvest” more directly pertinent information. I think this is the area where blogs excel, and wikis fall short.

I love this stuff so much, and it is terrible that I really must let most of it go because of my other work. I hope to return to it soon though!


Publishing or Conversation?

It’s an old topic to be sure, but I wanted to make myself a note about an interesting thread which developed on Mathemagenic. Lilia wrote:

Conversations are different from publishing, they require listening to others, require investment of attention and energy. My morning check is my way to find out who is talking to me and what they are saying. I don’t do it to find our how famous I am, this is just a very human thirst for a feedback and my respect to those who spend time answering my questions, finding flaws in my arguments or developing my ideas in new directions…

So, coming to my original question. I guess some of our conversations die because we do not spend enough energy listening and replying back. In this respect weblog conversations are not much different from all other conversations.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I don’t think the distinction is that strong. Writers must pay attention to their market audiences. If you want to publish articles or stories, it requires an investment of attention and energy to the history of the publication: what do they like to publish? Then you have to rhetorically direct yourself to match their style and interests. It isn’t just a matter of sitting in solitude waiting for a landmark idea to perk up, which a publisher just leaps upon instantly to publish for the edification of the world.

Writers are also sensitive to their reviews. Often, you have to scan a lot of publications to even locate mentions of your work. The web makes this easier to do, but that doesn’t mean that writers were not doing this all along. This distinction between weblog publishing and publishing in general just doesn’t seem all that significant, at least if the writers in question are interested in improving their craft. Web writing makes it easier than ever to become a better writer, at least in my experience/opinion. Of course it can get better still, though, with improved software.

Lilia’s post generated a few comments, and one observation in passing from Stephen Downes really nailed the problem of “attention” quite well:

I am always fascinated by responses like, “I don’t have time.” There is always time; what we do with time is, every minute, a decision. When someone says, “I don’t have time,” they mean, “I had something more important to do.” But what? Each decision tells a story.

The problem with keeping up with online publishing is a matter of investment vs. return. I constantly find great ideas to think about, links to sources I wasn’t aware of, and just plain entertaining personalities. That’s why I invest a certain amount of time into it. However, I am shy about the constant pursuit of conversation because it takes away the time I have to do things such as finish my thesis, teach my classes, and pay attention to people in the real world.

That’s why I cannot adopt the concept that “conversation” alone is a good reason to invest this much time in blogging. Conversation is great when you have the leisure time to expend. What I get from reading and publishing a blog goes far beyond that. I learn from myself every time I write; I learn from others every time I read. When others take time to respond to things I written, I learn from that too. But I don’t always have the time to pursue or contribute to conversations.

Topical Blogging

Topical Blogging

I’ve been resisting being lumped into a coherent blogosphere (Ack! The first time I’ve used that bastard word). I’ve also resisted the urge to consider my blog as topical, though people who have read me a while will know that I focus on matters of word and image, that is when I’m really blogging rather than avoiding writing what I really should be writing. You can always tell when someone is really avoiding—they start metablogging.

But a post from Simon Willison made me think. From the standpoint of coherent information technologies, topical blogging is best. It allows people to locate information they can use quickly. However, this could be death to the concept of a blog as a “friendly” space. You don’t choose your friends based on what they know. You choose them because of common attitudes, attitudes that are hard to quantify. My blogroll is a mess. It’s always been that way. I like it. Simon Willison was on there because I was teaching a class in web writing, and he was a good way to keep up on interesting technology sites that I could use for the class. My interest was topical, not personal. Many blogs are on my blogroll for that reason, nothing more. It isn’t a vote of confidence, or a gesture of friendship, or anything of the sort.

Other blogs are there merely because I like the way that the people think. It doesn’t have anything to do with common interests. Blogs come and go on my blogroll unceremoniously, because my attention shifts. Blogrolls are a convenience for me, not a networking device—though there are several groups of “nodes” there that I feel strongly connected with. They are, in a profound way, friends. But I seldom make it explicit who the friends are, where the fascinations lie, or where the interest is purely topical. Topical would be really be convenient. But then, logging onto my own blog would be more like opening an encyclopedia rather than thinking.

My thinking is usually chaotic and unstructured. So is my blogroll. So is my site. It is a service to me, not anyone else. I’m okay with other people visiting, but I’ve never felt it important to seduce anyone into visiting with by brilliance and easily accessible insights. No, this place is rather wrinkled and messy. Just like me.

You also know that you’re really avoiding your thesis when the house gets clean. It’s pretty scary around here.