Saturday, April 01, 2006

Academic view of Blogs

Betteke van Ruler (pictured), Professor of Communication and Organization at the Amsterdam School of Communications Research, offered Philip Young some insights after the Stuttgart Symposium. It is a most enlightening observation and I offer my take on her views:

van Ruler: The Weblog conference was a quite new thing for me. At the one hand weblogs are nothing more than just another means of communication; at the other hand they are a totally new form of communication, and will, as such, change communication. The research that was presented seems to me rather idealistic, and also oriented at the wrong questions.

David Phillips: Web logs are a means of communication but I think the bigger issues is the significance of interactivity and so, in this sense, we should also look at wiki's and other forms of social communication. It is only at that point that we can see the extent to which communication (and social interaction) is changed.

van Ruler: Although many talk about the wealth of interactivity possibilities of weblogs and that kind of new communication means, blogging is most of all for people who want to express themselves and develop their own identity through blogging, much more than to develop a conversation.

David Phillips: I will be convinced when the research comes available. There is an element of vanity publishing (an irritant when using a blog for serious debate) and, so far we are seeing an early stage in interactive media. I think it offers an easy introduction now and that it will be much more complex and more demanding of interactivity later.

van Ruler: Those weblogs that do aim at “conversation” generate most of all comments, and mostly in the form of “one-liners”, at least as direct reactions. My question is what this has to do with conversation / dialogue as we understand that in real life situations? It would be interesting to compare face to face conversations with these conversations. These new interactivities might generate conversation as we used to understand it, but probably only through the intervention of journalists or through conversations in other, real life communities.

David Phillips: There is this 'one-liner' element but also copy and paste communication. With bloggers copying content and adding to it on their own blogs(
sometimes with tools like these).
So there is a variation on the process of communication. The same can be said for SMS communication. In wiki's the 'conversation' is much longer between the participants so this may be that there is a genre difference.

van Ruler: The usability of weblogs might still be in its infant state, but we have to try to understand already in this stage what will happen when blogging becomes more normal, especially what it might mean for public sphere(s).

David Phillips: I could not agree more. The research investment is pathetic in the UK and i hope will be better elsewhere.

van Ruler: That brings me to my third comment, and that is that it would be very interesting to find out under what conditions weblogs create social action, more than just comments of individuals.

David Phillips: I agree. In the same way, it would be interesting to be able to see how other media like newspapers and television create social action. Certainly the experience of media relations evaluation would indicate there is an element of change inherent in media coverage but most of that is the nature of contexting that the media provides rather than actual cause and effect. Certainly we have anecdotal evidence of people commenting that they have bought goods and services after blog referrals. The research needs to be done.

van Ruler: The research at this conference was rather media and media reach oriented. We need studies that are oriented at its consequences. Let me give you an example from my own country: the daily national newspaper, Volkskrant, started a weblog community and webloggers are invited to create their own front pages. They hold totally different selection criteria and this could very well lead to what McLuhan has called a “global village”: we are connected to each other all over the world, but the public discourse has the quality of small village discussions, gossip and small talk, rather egocentric, ethnocentric and emotional.

David Phillips: Here I detect a rather traditional social scientist. If Professor van Ruler was to examine the social structure built round 'material values', one suspects that the picture would be different. It would have, one expects a 'small village' atmosphere but the boundary of the village is the subject matter. We find that people often have several blogs and interactions with other communities through them. So 'Village' is probably right but it is early yet to say with certainty if egocentric, ethnocentric and emotional is an outsiders view of passion, common interest and involvemnet at a subject/interest level among equals.

van Ruler: Some weblog trendsetters are talking about a whole new community building possibility, but for me it looks very much the same as what people thought when television was invented. They thought that TV would be used to learn more, to look further than one’s own backyard. TV, however, is mostly used for Big Brother, IDOLS and for fiction.

David Phillips: I am not quite happy with this and the selection of
Big Brother is helpful. It was the discovery that people watched Big Brother AND the web sites AND used their cell phone SMS at the same time that helped us understand how people could be spending so much time on-line. The interactive media and the web have changed television watching habits as well. What we see is a difference in the way people watch (lean back) and blog/search/SMS (lean forward) at the same time that becomes interesting. Yes there will be passive observers but we already have evidence of combined communication habits and, as a consequence a raft of people trying to exploit the opportunity (does this include the PR world?).

van Ruler: Finally, in my country (The Netherlands), many CEOs, politician and celebrities have weblogs, and most of them use these weblogs very strategically, to show a certain identity and to lure others into their aims. This has the looks of a hidden agenda, because they all store it is very personal stories, as the format of a weblog prescribes. What will that do to trust, democracy and other “big things” in our society?

David Phillips: This is why the Public Relations industry has to learn to understand what these media really mean. The 'dead tree' fixation is going away but we need more research, more practical advice and more PR teaching universities taking this media seriously.