Notes on Miller's "Blogging as Social Action" Wednesday, October 26 1:20 AM
American culture became obsessed with both making celebrities into regular people (as with Clinton) and making regular people into celebrities (as with Lewinsky), a trend that has been called the "democratization of celebrity" (Stark, 2003). This destabilization of public and private has been linked by Clay Calvert to our continual surrender of information: as people relinquish control over increasing amounts of personal information, they expect increasing access to information in return (2000).
Calvert notes a number of contemporary social forces that promote mediated voyeurism, and three of them are especially meaningful for our purposes. First, there is the pursuit of "truth" in an increasingly media-saturated world; dissatisfaction with the increasing mediation of journalism leads to an interest in information that seem to provide a less mediated and thus more authentic "reality." Next, there is the desire for excitement, to see others face a "moment of reckoning" in a talk-show confrontation or a "pulse-pounding" amazing home video; in these moments we may vicariously experience challenges that give meaning to life. Last, there is the need for involvement, the desire to be part of the world around us, even though voyeurism by its very nature can provide only the illusion of involvement.
And in the world of book publishing, the personal memoir, which one reviewer has called "reality literature" (Carvajal, 1997), became a growing trend in the mid-1990s, with 200 titles published in 1995 (Atlas, 1996).
Central to exhibitionism is the social psychology of self-disclosure, which serves four purposes, according to Calvert: self-clarification, social validation, relationship development, and social control, and we can see all of these at work in blogs. The two former purposes function intrinsically, providing heightened understanding of self through communicating with others and confirmation that personal beliefs fit with social norms. The latter two function extrinsically, turning personal information into a commodity and manipulating the opinions of others through calculated revelations. Any one, or all, of these functions, may be a factor in an individual's willingness to "overshare" (2000, p. 83).
The cultural moment in which the blog appeared is a kairos that has shifted the boundary between the public and the private and the relationship between mediated and unmediated experience.
We discuss these basic features of the blog as genre below in the semiotic terms used by Miller (1984), identifying their generic semantic content, their syntactic or formal features, and their pragmatic value as social action.
Moreover, the reverse chronological organization of the blog provides a "sense of immediacy," according to Blood, a feature that reinforces the impression that the content is true, or real (2000).
The "reality" offered by blogs is thus a thoroughly perspectival reality, anchored in the personality of the blogger. And although this reality it [sic] may seem to be "immediate," (that is, un-mediated), it is, of course, highly mediated.
The reverse chronology and time-stamping of posts create an "expectation of updates." We should also note that the [sic] semantic immediacy noted above is represented formally by the use of the present tense in the dated entries, as in diaries.
The Perseus report concludes that these widely read and frequently updated blogs are "the tip of a very deep iceberg" and are not characteristic of the iceberg as a whole.
Thus, we must ask whether we should define a genre by an ideal or by the mean, by expectation or by experience. This question is related to the question of whether we can tell the difference between a successful and a less successful instantiation of a genre. That celebrity bloggers, or what Clark calls "A-list bloggers," are widely read is one way of defining them as successful; another way is that everyone else wants to be like them, and everyone else wants to be noticed by (i.e., blogged by) them [...]
We might note now that characterization by statistical means represents a linguistic approach to genre, in contrast to a rhetorical approach, which is more interested in expectations, motivations, and terms of success.
Disclosure, however, should not be understood as the simple unveiling of a pre-existent or perdurable self, but rather as a constitutive effort. The self that is "disclosed" is a construction, possibly an experimental one, which takes shape as a particular rhetorical subject-position. In a blog, that construction is an ongoing event, the self being disclosed a continual achievement.
[...] self expression serves the intrinsic self-disclosure functions of both self clarification and self validation, enhancing self awareness and confirming already-held beliefs. The blogger is her own audience, her own public, her own beneficiary.
Relationship development and social control are primarily external, directed outward, functions that use self-disclosure to build connections with others or to manipulate their opinions. These second two dimensions of blog disclosure support the second omnipresent theme, community building. Even as they serve to clarify and validate the self, blogs are also intended to be read.
[...] most bloggers address what Henning calls "nanoaudiences" (2003) There's a frequently expressed tension between the desire to be noticed by large numbers of readers and the desire to be valued by a few loyal fans [...]
Blood notes that bloggers "position themselves" in the community of bloggers, indicating through their links "the tribe to which they wish to belong" (2000). Both linking and commentary create the hierarchy that structures the social world of blogs, leading to the A-list celebrities and the thousands of others, as well as to multiple complexly linked micro-communities. Clark calls the blogosphere a "culture of upward mobility" based in the desire for recognition and approval (2002).
Is what is truly novel in the blog the ability to address simultaneously these dual yet mutually reinforcing purposes, to engage in self-expression in order to build community and to build community in order to cultivate the self? Does the normalization of the subject-positions of the voyeur and the exhibitionist catalyze this new form of rhetorical action?
Blogs appeared, and then multiplied exponentially, when technology made it evolutionarily possible to combine features from a set of antecedent genres that in other circumstances might never have produced any common progeny: the diary, the clipping service, the broadside, the anthology, the commonplace book, the ship's log. We might see the blog as a complex rhetorical hybrid (or mongrel), with genetic imprints from all these prior genres.
Mallon goes further to make the general social-constructionist claim that "Writing-for-self does not exist in any real sense... Ultimately all discourse is intended for an audience other than the self who is doing the writing" (1984, p. 66). Elbow disagrees, maintaining that in several nontrivial senses writing can be "private" and the self can constitute a sufficient audience (1999). Like the diary, the blog is a phenomenon that illustrates this debate, without resolving it.
The blog reveals something about the configuration of the subject in the kairos that we have described a kairos of mediated voyeurism, widely dispersed but relentless celebrity, unsettled boundaries between public and private, and new technology that disseminates these challenges beyond capital and corporations to individuals. The blogging subject engages in self-disclosure, and as we noted earlier the blog works to bind together in a recognizable rhetorical form the four functions of self-disclosure: self-clarification, social validation, relationship development, and social control. Combined with its focused and repeated effort, the blog's public disclosure — its exhibitionism — yields an intensification of the self, a reflexive elaboration of identity.
The subject selects, displays, and comments upon the mediated reality of the internet, becoming thereby a validated part of that reality and defining for itself and for others its own nature — or rather a rhetorical version of "its own nature."
Bloggers, however, seem less interested in role playing than in locating, or constructing, for themselves and for others, an identity that they can understand as unitary, as "real." The blog thus seems to us to be a counter-movement to postmodern destabilization, a "backward motion toward the source," as Robert Frost put it.