Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Blogosphere Isn't Broken: It Never Existed in the First Place


photo by Blue Plover
If you ever see or hear me use the word blogosphere again, please throw ice cream in my face or something.


Because there really is no such thing as the or a blogosphere, and using the word perpetuates the myth and compounds the problems.

If you follow many writing blogs, you've probably notices a lot of hub-bub this week.  From responses to negative reviews, organized punking of supposed trolls, and controversies over  bogfests -- it seems that a great number of blogging writers this week have expressed their sadness and frustration with the blogosphere.  Some find it too given to a mob mentality.  Some find it too cliquish.  Some find it shallow.  Some find it cruel.

But the truth is that the blogosphere does not exist.  From a practical perspective, blogs are not contained or bounded in any way.  They are linked to one another, but they are also cross-linked with Facebook, Flickr, Panroa, YouTube, CNN -- everything else on the internet.    Sure, there are trends among similar blogs, but that's not surprising.  Bloggers with similar interests are going to show trends.  A trend is (essentially)  a coincidence of membership, not a delimiter of membership.  By using the word blogosphere we create the false impression of a bounded space, like a message board, a BBS, or an old-school AOL / CompuServe / Prodigy community.  It's nothing like that.

But more importantly, people refer to the blogosphere as if it were a community.  From an anthropological perspective, I'm here to tell you, it's not.  Not really.

Now, hold on.  Don't misunderstand.

I'm a huge believer in the power of social media and virtual relationships.  Skype let me talk to my brother-in-law on Christmas, even though he's at war overseas.  One of my oldest friends is someone I met on-line and have never met in person.  My wife and I, while most of our relationship developed face-to-face, had several important conversations in our relationship -- both serious and flirtatious -- through AIM.  Through Twitter and this blog, I have met several people that I consider great friends.  And, yes, through them, I am part of circles of friendship.

So don't think I'm saying something I'm not.

On-line relationships, both personal and professional, can be very helpful.  Very beneficial.  Very satisfying.  And very, very real.

But that does not mean that a bunch of blogs constitute a community.

In social science, an articulation is a point of contact.  There are several people with whom I have articulations on multiple blogs.  It's kind of lack having class with a lot of the same kids.  You can form relationship with some of those people -- though, in many cases, they are context-dependent relationships, and if you take away the context (the classes or the blogs), you also take away the relationships.

A community, though, is a social group, and there's more to a social group than points of articulation.  There's no simple definition of a community -- or of a social group -- but for the sake of ease I'm going to focus on aspect: in a community, the different people and their different relationships, serve different functions and perform different roles for one another, contributing as a sum to each member's overall life and well-being (or lack thereof).

Blogs aren't like that.  They cover a limited scope of interest, and impact a small piece of life.  Most people play pretty much the same role.  And everyone except the blog host/s occupy the same structure.  At it's worst, interconnected writing blogs are a a club.  At it's best, a peer group.

Anyone who has been a teenager knows that peer groups can be great, but they're not the same a community.

There's a last point to be made, too.  Blogs are not bloggers.  Just as you do not know a celebrity because of her performance, or an author because of his writing, or a band because of their songs, you do not know a blogger because of her blog.  You can learn about the blogger.  You may even use the blog as a launching point for further development of a relationship, in which you do know the blogger.  But knowing someone's blog really well, is not the same as knowing them.  I may get along with you great when you invite me to share a meal around your fire, but when you put the fire out and walk away, you feel no further relationship obligation to me.  My relationship is with your food and your fire, not with you.

Here's the point of all this:

Many of us expect too much out of blogs and out of bloggers.

1. Blogs are not part of a closed or even a defined system.

2. Blogs are not a community.

3. Having a relationship with a blog does not give you a relationship with the blogger.

If you want relationships with people you meet through blogs, that's awesome.  I am all in favor of using blogs as launching pads for meaningful professional and personal relationships.    But if you don't take the time to make a one-on-one relationship, you don't really have a relationship.  There's no social role or function to create the relationship like there is in a community.  The only way to create relationships is to seek them out, build them, and nurture them.  One on one.



  1. And there I was, all warm and fuzzy about the community...but you do have great valid points.

    In fact, I've thought of many of these same things. Unless we do make the effort, we really don't know one another at all. There's a fantastic cartoon someone did and I used it in a class I taught about internet safety. In short: online, no one knows you're a dog. And it's true. We could all be creeps!

    I feel fortunate enough to have become friends with some of my fellow bloggers. We 'talk' through emails quite often, send each other our work, seek and give advice too personal for the general public....etc.

    You're right! Though I still like the idea of a community. Is there a substitute we can have?

    And really? Controversies over blogfests? Sigh...

  2. Although I agree with your statement: "you do not know a blogger because of her blog", I refuse to think about the relationship issue. I just can't.

    I'm personally horrible with relationships in real life. There is probably no one in the world (except my husband) that would consider me a GOOD friend because I'm so private. I don't ring people back when they call, I don't communicate with people unless it's a necessity. And it's sad.

    I feel the online community has allowed me to step outside my comfort zone. I know they don't know the real me. They don't know what I look like or even my real name but if I didn't have the community, I would be a very, very alone.

    *sigh* I'm probably just saying this because I lost a dear critique buddy. I never met him in person or knew his family but I'm incredibly sad he died.

  3. @TWC - I've made some great friends via blogging, as well. And you can certainly think of there being a community if you want. I just know that for a lot of people that sets up some false expectations and leads to some huge drama.

    And, yes, there's been controversy over blogfests. A couple of times that I'm aware of it. I won't bother with details, but it usually starts with someone voicing a complaint or a criticism of a blogfest, then one group of people getting very defensive about the blogfest and another spewing obscene hatred at the bloggers engaging in the blogfest.

    Unfortunately, I think our approaching our own blogs and those we knew as if they were a viable social group leads to some of that drama. Just like treating our peer groups like something they weren't lead to a lot of our high school drama.

  4. @Clarissa - First and last, I am really sorry for your loss, and I'm even sorrier if you took my words to in any way minimize that value and importance of on-line friendships. There are several folks I've only known online for whom I could mourn more greatly than many others I've known in person. I definitely get that, and I feel terrible that I wasn't strong enough on those points.

    I also think there's something to be said for the effect of the one-line stage on allow those of us who are socially challenged to flex our relational muscles and get out there and express ourselves. I have another blog post in the works that is sort of about that.

    But I think blogs give us a space to talk about a common interest, get to know one another's personality at some level, and then find among the masses some new friends.

    A blog is a lot like a mixer party. You may see a bunch of friends at a mixer. You may even meet some new friends, who become very close to you. You may only go to the mixer for those relationships.

    But that doesn't mean the mixer itself is a viable social group. It means the mixer is a platform that affords you the opportunity to form viable social connections from you may, in turn, create a social group.

    That doesn't mean you think of every person at the mixer as part of your group.

    And, unfortunately, I think a lot of us assume that every writer with a blog is part of our group.

  5. I hereby swear that from this paragraph on I will do my level best never to use the word 'blogosphere' again, or any substitution in lieu thereof.


    This is a great post, Nevets, and I admit to being one guilty of thinking a blog is more than it is. (Maybe it's because I never went to public highschool so I didn't have the experience to compare it to...)

    I really found this out the hard way when I had two surgeries back to back recently and had to be away from my blog for a month (as you know and as I've blogged, I've had fifteen surgeries in the past 22 months.)

    Do you know how many of my 'friends', all the 'hugs and air kisses' people that I'd met in the near-year before actually even dropped an email or FB message to see if I was still alive? Probably about a dozen, by the second surgery. You were one of them, one of the very first of them actually (and you'd done it for prior surgeries too) and I consider myself damn lucky to know you and each and every one of those people who would have noticed if I fell off the edge.

    Some sent emails that said "Don't you dare answer this, go back to resting, just know I care." Some got together and collected snail mail cards and gave them to someone who knew how to get them to me. Some sent wicked cool coffee mugs :~D

    My point is- you are right, this post is stellar, and I thank you for hitting the 'reset' button on my personal expectations.

    Thank you for this.


  6. I think I see what you're saying. A blog is like a seat on a bus. The bus isn't a community. But you can form a relationship with someone you ride with every day. It can be a "how about them Knicks" type of relationship, or a real friendship, but the bus doesn't define it.

    I think "blogsphere" is as good a shorthand as any for people who blog about similar subjects. Publishing blogosphere, political blogosphere, Floaty-pen-collectors blogosphere. They're going to have certain things in common, and certain memes will appear, even if everybody's not all buddy-buddy, one for all and all for one.

    But I did not know it was supposed to be broken. Obviously I missed that meme. Is it the floaty-pen people? I send my condolences. :-)

  7. @Bru - You're welcome, I'm glad it helped. And I think it's important to understand that it covers more than those of us like you and me (since I have to check my own similar expectation on a daily basis). But I'll leave it at that for now.

    Ironcially, I think I met you through Elana's great blogging experiment or something like that.

  8. @Anne - The bus analogy is great! Thanks for sharing that.

    I know what you're saying about the term blogosphere. That said, I think there are very few instances in which I believe it's a good idea to short-hand it that way, simply because when you short-hand something it does carry certain implications.

    It was interesting to me to have a conversation last year with a friend I've met through blogging about writing. We were trading comments about what we were seeing going on in the writing blogosphere. Only then did we realize that we were looking at two entirely different collections of blogs as if they were the writing blogosphere. We only had a couple in common, and so our entire views of what represented the common trends and memes among blogging writers were quite different.

    And, yes, it's those Floaty-pen people. Bunch of crazies.


  9. I wasn't in any way offended.

    I think the reason that online relationships work for me is that the feelings I feel as a writer, those in my real life don't relate to. Hell, I live in a country where I don't speak the language of most. Whereas, the writing community online (where ever they are in the world) can relate to the feelings and experiences I go through.

  10. I maybe 75% percent agree with this. I do think it has some traits of a community, but for the most part, yeah... knowing a person's blog isn't knowing them... but blogging does make you feel a part of something... it has groups of people who share the same passions... there are things I blog about, that I'd never share with anyone in my real life... in that sense, My blogging friends are special... and I really do enjoy reading what's going on with certain people... not everyone, but some people I really do feel connected to.

  11. There is another point to make on this- whether you think "blogoshere" is right to use or even community- one thing everyone can walk away with that is helpful in real life- is the support many of the writing bloggers give each other- in that is where I think it does portray a community- even in the smallest amount.
    I personally don't mind using either words- its a word that is not set in stone, but I agree it has expectations that some people shouldn't have. I don't have those expectations, but I have found true value in supporting someone elses efforts and I find courage when someone else supports mine- because in person- in my own people community at home- that doesn't exist quite as well as it does in the blog world.

  12. @Clarissa - Yes! Blogs and other on-line interactions can be fantastic oases. No question about it.

    @Austin - I definitely didn't mean to imply that none of us care about any of the people whose blogs we read. I myself care a great deal about many of the people whose blogs I follow.

    @Summer - Yes! Thank you so much for making this point. I am in know trying to devalue blogs, just suggesting that many of us could benefit from re-framing how we think about and approach them, that's all. Writing blogs have been very educational for me, and have helped me connect with a lot of writers that I wouldn't otherwise be able to.

    Where I live, the job I work, and my active circle of friends, I too would be pretty much in a desert for writing support (outside my wife and immediate family). There's no question, that I value and treasure writing blogs and many, many of the people I've come to know through them.

  13. A timely post Nevets. Very good points. Still, I'll keep my blogfest links as "community events" (lol)

    We do need a reality check once in a while however. I worry sometimes about how involved I've become in the blogs, and a step back is good for the ego.


  14. I'm actually really enjoying this conversation.

    I understand what you're saying, Nevets. My expectations are very different with "blog buddies" than they are with real life friends. Sometimes I find myself wondering if any of my blog-based friendships are real -- after all, many of us won't ever meet in real life.

    But does it matter? Friendship comes in all shapes and sizes, and so long as we keep our expectations in check, that's perfectly okay (mind you, I learned this the hard way). The friends I've made through blogging have all been cultivated one by one, just the way they would be in real life.

    I do feel a sense of community at times; however, that isn't what draws me to blogging. I simply like knowing I'm not alone in my journey, and that there are like-minded people who really GET what I'm going through. It's a unique kind of a support I don't think I could find anywhere else.

  15. @Donna - Every once in a while even an archaeologist can say something timely. ;)

    @Jennifer - I think the support and encouragement from writing blogs is phenomenal. It's like the biggest support group in the world sometimes. Kind of like a peer group with fewer jerks in it.

    And I, for one, have come to think that the difference between in-person friendships and on-line friendships can be very small. It does depend on the people. But there are few friends who know me as well, or about whom I care as much as someone I met online something like ten years ago. Our friendship has moved between different online formats and zones. We would like to meet in person sometime, but our relationship does not require it.

  16. An interesting conversation. However....if you invite me over for a fireside meal, any relationship I would feel would be with you, not with the fire. Or the food.

  17. Nevets- I don't know where you remember meeting me but I remember that I first noticed you because of your comments at Lit Lab! :~) Which I only found out about because...

    I read a comment Anne R. Allen made on a post at Pimp My Novel.

    I signed up for Twitter, and she was I think the first person I 'followed'.

    She tweeted a link to the Lab.

    That, as they say, is history! Without those I may never have met you, Michelle, Domey, Anne Gallagher...the list goes on (so thanks again Anne (Allen!)


  18. Great post, Nevets (although I'm totally unware of all these problems you refer to!). I do worry however about people thinking they have "relationships" with people they have never really met. There should be a separate word for internet (facebook/twitter/blogging or whatever)social alliances. I'm not saying these are not important, but they are unlikely to become (for me, anyway) b relationships in the fullest sense. How can they?

  19. Thanks, Bru! That's fascinating. I met a lot of people through LitLab, too. And I found them through Nathan Bransford's blog. He's sort of the hub of my quadrant of the blogiverse. Can I say blogiverse?

  20. @Yvonne - As would mine, I promise you, but that can lead to some frustrating expectations, I think.

    @Bru - I'd seen you on the LitLab, but I think my first click over to your blog was during some kind of event, and I think it was the GBE. Sure glad I did! :-D

    @Frances - You're very right, and the definition-monkey in me wants us to coin a term for those relationships. But the anthropologist in me know that most people would just re-translate. The peril of knowing everything in terms what you knew before is that you can't help but confuse yourself.

    @Anne - hahaha Blogiverse, admittedly, does seem to lack some of the implications. :)

    The hub of my branching out into writing blogs was probably Flashy Fiction, which I hit by clicking through from Suzanne Young's blog, which I don't actually follow, but which I had stumbled on through Google searching for writing blogs.

    I hit the Lit Lab because of an e-mail from B. Nagel, passing on the Genre Wars contest info. And I met B at Flashy Fiction. So it all comes together.

  21. Great post! Interesting and fresh and honest take on it, too. I think you're 100%% right, but I love the word "blogosphere" - what am I supposed to call this place I visit every day if not the blogosphere? :(

  22. Cool post! Some valid points there. Rather than a community, I see blogs as something like a conference, or a speed-dating arena, somewhere I can meet awesome people I could choose to develop more meaningful relationships with. Whatever you call it, blogs and social media are great ways to network with like-minded people. On the flip side, hidden behind their username, some people can say or do things on the Internet they would never do in person, like succumbing to mob mentality, or conducting witch hunts. I for one know I am definitely more talkative online than I am in real life!

    @Michelle: I prefer the word 'blogiverse', as it suggests a huge space with limitless possibilities. ;)

  23. @Michelle - Thanks! And you're a writer; you can use whatever word you like, or make a new word...

    The myth of the blogosphere is that it is a single place. You visit multiple blogs, and each one is it's own place, even if there are interconnections. My house and my friend's house in another city aren't in a neighborhood, just because they're connected and I visit them each each day. :)

    @JC - Thank! And I like both your analogies. Writing blogs really do remind me of the professional conference I go to once a year for my straight job. Tons of support, not sure what I'd do with out it, but not the same as a community.

    Blogiverse does seem to work better, because it implies vastness and diversity, as well as the cold open and the challenges that come with it.


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