Disrecognized Space

agressi sunt mare tenebrarum, quid in eo esset exploraturi

Publishing on the web: Everybody’s talking at the same time

All the news is bad
Is there any other kind?
And everybody’s talking at the same time. (Waits, 2011).

The rise of Web 2.0 and its collaborative, participative nature has changed publishing on the Web from something resembling traditional publishing and its presentation of static texts, into a space more closely resembling a public meeting place with its numerous voices. This change has also, in turn, led to traditional media making a similar transformation. These changes will be examined with specific reference to blogs and Twitter, and the ways these platforms can assist as well as confuse the conversation with a particular emphasis on Web 2.0’s emphasis on attention (and how to gain it).

The internet has allowed anyone connected to it to publish and make available across the distributed network anything of interest to them. Initially, this new form of publication closely resembled traditional forms: documents were static and distributed on a one to many basis. The author published these documents for delivery, generally, to an unknown audience.

The advent of Web 2.0, however, has altered this distribution model from a one-to-many to a many-to-many model. Documents are no longer static but have become nodes of active discussion and commenting, tweeting and retweeting, ‘likes’ and (in the case of Wikipedia, for example) communal publications that are never fixed. Cormode and Krishnamurthy (2008) note that, with Web 2.0, users have moved beyond simply consuming content to everyone being a potential creator of content, and that sites now present content not from a single authority but often from multiple sources. Lunenfeld (2011, p.37) describes web productions as being in a state of ‘unfinish’: instead of just consuming, the emphasis has now moved dramatically to production. Lunenfeld argues that this, in turn, will lead to new forms of aestheticism and engagement with content.

This new model has not simply changed publishing, but transformed it. Just how many people are publishing on the web is difficult to determine. Looking at blogging and Twitter alone, there may be 152 million blogs (Pingdom, 2011) and there are at least 200 million accounts with Twitter (Bennett, 2011). Not all of these are active, but it still represents an overwhelming amount of information vying for attention. Writing on the web resembles a crowded marketplace with countless vendors all calling for attention as opposed to a public forum where one person speaks and others listen. Lucas Taylor (ABC, 2011a) recently commented how much of the publishing on the web is not as intentional as creating a statement but rather a method of voicing an opinion, akin to ‘singing in the shower’. That much of the publishing on the internet (and especially commenters’ responses) is made anonymously or pseudonymously can lead to a lack of accountability (Wood & Smith, 2005, p.64) and the subsequent removal of normal social pressures.

A number of these issues are apparent from the publishing exercises for this unit, and have led me to consider a number of them and their significance both within a networked world, and to me personally. There are now numerous ways to publish on the web, and two will be examined specifically here: blogging (still popular, but something that can be considered a ‘mature’ publication medium) and Twitter (as an example of one of the newer forms).

Blogging had been praised as the universalizing of speech on the internet, but it still conforms to the rule of most of the attention being paid to a few individuals. Wired columnist Clive Thompson (ABC, 2011b) has commented that most web publishing is “a massive amount of mundane nonsense and a small amount of interesting stuff” with only a small percentage of people promoting the interesting stuff, while the majority become ‘circulators’. It is also blurring the boundary between traditional journalism and web publishing. Technorati’s 2011 State of the Blogosphere survey (based on an internet survey of Technorati bloggers so some caution must be exercised extrapolating these results to wider groups) found that 24% of respondents are employed within traditional media (StateOfTheBlogosphere, 2011a). When asked why they blogged, the highest ranking responses (excluding professional bloggers who primarily aim to make money or increase their clients) were about expressing opinions: sharing ‘expertise and experiences’ or ‘speak my mind’ (StateOfTheBlogosphere, 2011b).

Blogging in itself demonstrates how web publishing is part of societal transformation and not just a different technology for doing the same thing. Rettberg (2008, p.7) observes how blogging is removing the Habermasian distinction between public and private spaces since most blogs are, to a large extent, a form of private diary yet they are publicly published and interaction with readers is one of their defining characteristics. Fuchs (2008, p.127) distinguishes Web 2.0 from Web 1.0 by contrasting Web 2.0 as being about active communication. He notes that, while many-to-many communication can be viewed in a cyberutopian sense as creating a new, better form of participatory democracy, there is no guarantee of this (2008, p.133). The technology and tools are neutral: they can be used to advance democracy, or to promote fundamentalism. These many voices speaking at once are not equal: attention is a significant factor and established actors are more favoured in the hierarchy than marginal actors (2008, p.135). Shirky (2003) sees this as both inevitable and fair, in the sense that the decision to heavily favour some bloggers over the majority of voices is made by ‘distributed approval’. Nonetheless, the fact is that marginal voices, while they may have a means of expression on the web, often remain marginal. Habermas (2006, p.419), while discussing mass media in general, makes the point that mediated communication in the public sphere is not flat, but a stratified hierarchy where ‘capital’ still remains important. In the instance of web publishing, capital equates to a number of things (including resources and organizations) but primarily attention since, without attention, communication cannot happen.

As Cross (2011, p.39) notes there are no qualifications to become a blogger. Increasingly, free blogs have more professional tools, and high quality layouts. With such ease of entry, and so many voices, gaining attention becomes harder and harder. Cross (2011, p. 45) states one of the top ways is to create a controversy. Moe (2010, p.696) looks at some of these issues, including the ‘Babel critique’ whereby, if everyone speaks at once, too many voices leads to “noise, confusion, fragmentation of discourse, and, pontentially, political polarization”. While he notes not everyone agrees with this, attention and how it is distributed is still seen as a primary filter. He also comments (2010, p. 698) that much of the publishing on the web is ‘rubbish’, and successful blogs have taken on aspects of traditional journalism (such as regular posts and discourse based in dominant ideas).

These issues of having something to say, saying it uniquely and attracting an audience are all points that I have considered during this unit. While blogs are easy to create and the technology makes it simple to link them into ‘digital identities’, that identity still requires definition. What aspects should it portray? What should it reveal? What should it conceal? In what way does this identity need to be on the web? As an introvert, I find much of this confronting.

From my own experience, and from other students’ blogs, feedback was minimal from visitors. Some of this, I feel, is from the need to write from a unique perspective, but there also remains the problem of how to gain attention. If the intention is only to address known people, or a business clientele, that is probably easier to achieve and manage, but to reach beyond that becomes increasingly difficult.

Having something to say is important, but I see much that is published on the web seems to be tending towards one partisan view or another. It seems that strongly held opinion, rather than fact or civil discourse, is becoming more important (not that such discourse has disappeared, but that it is harder to find). I wonder how far this trend can go, and whether there will be an eventual swing back? Certainly, some of the calls for anonymity to be removed would indicate that others are also concerned about this.

Twitter, more recently, is proclaimed the new force for social democratization and revolution but here again a few voices dominate the discourse. In the context of television viewing, Wohn and Na (2011) discuss how Twitter serves as a method of reinforcing and creating group memberships. Marwick and boyd (2010, p.119) further elucidate the multiple reasons for using Twitter (communicating with fans, sending messages to ‘friends’, and so on). They summarise this as ‘self-conscious commodification’. Of course, a commodity requires some means of valuation, and a consumer for that value. Again, on the web, that value relates to attention (or, on Twitter, followers and retweets).

I had not used Twitter prior to this unit and still find using it to its best purpose difficult. Like most of the other students, my tweets and retweets generated no interest or activity at all (indeed, I lost three of my four – random – followers while undertaking the exercise). Again I feel that, like blogging, having an established network, however small, to start with would probably help as well as what ‘self’ is speaking (writing). How businesslike should I be? How personal? How frequent? Is Twitter, in fact, something that I want to continue to use? Or am I just adding to the noise of the internet?

Twitter, as a newer medium, is also still discovering what it can be used for (or, more correctly, users are doing this) but I’m not sure there is a use for me. Of course, as other students have indicated, there is no requirement to use every publishing platform and these are probably better selected in a focused manner towards presenting a coherent and individual self.

Traditional media, faced with the popularity of participative media, has also been forced to change more and more into a source of opinion rather than news. De Keyser and Sehl (2011) note how traditional media have, reluctantly, added participatory tools into their websites, largely because of the ready availability and exposure of citizen journalists who are not part of their organizations, nor who have disappeared by being ignored. While the authors specifically address sites in Germany and Flanders, the same blurring of boundaries between traditional and participatory media can be seen in Australia in sites such as the ABC’s Pool (http://pool.abc.net.au/).

The changes created by internet publishing are not, of course, all negative. Voices that once may have been unheard or marginalized have the opportunity to speak out directly and, possibly, rise above the noise of the mass. The Conversation, for example, allows academics and researchers to directly communicate with the public, with the aim of being “an independent source of information, analysis and commentary” (Who we are, n.d.).

These changes to the internet have transformed it from what was previously often seen as a vast ‘library’ of information – something to be passively consumed – into something more closely resembling a crowded and noisy marketplace. Traditional authority in publishing, anchored in such factors as qualifications, research, references, primary sources and data, is very much under threat. In its place authority is now perceived in terms of popularity and emotion.
Spry (2011) uses the analogy of a crowded party: too many voices and you are either drowned out or forced to become louder yourself. In an online context, ‘loudness’ equates to ‘upping the rhetorical ante’ by becoming more outrageous. This is where opinion becomes more important than actual content, and emotion drives the online discourse.

Publishing on the web is different from traditional publishing: attention spans are shorter, for one thing. Nonetheless, the tools and technology have matured remarkably. What this unit has shown me is that the cultural aspects of publishing are perhaps more important. Not what am I saying, but ‘who’ am I saying. Not where I am saying it, but how do I get engagement so that my writing becomes not a statement, but a conversation.

What will happen to the nature of publishing, both online and offline, is difficult to predict since the contestation between the two is still in a state of flux. Such predictions are likely to lead to claims similar to how Second Life will change the world (such as made by CompuMentor (2006)) – something which has singularly failed to happen. What is certain, though, is that change will continue to happen, and that the popularity and significance of web publishing is not going to diminish. The nature of participative publishing through freely available tools has destabilized traditional media. It will be interesting to see which trends continue, which wither, whether the increasing polarization of viewpoints on the internet becomes stronger or not, and what new platforms and methods have not even yet been thought of.

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