Blogging by Jill Walker Rettberg

by Stevie on November 16, 2010

The concise title to this short book, Blogging, says it all. Here Rettberg describes the basics of blogging and attempts to categorize and properly define blogs, provides an interesting history of the Internet and the development of the weblog, delves into some of the controversies that the dramatic rise of social media have caused and gives some straightforward advice for making your blog better than ever.

another kind of social network, this time at the Green Festival in San Francisco

another kind of social network, this time at the Green Festival in San Francisco

Right off the bat, she distinguishes between three main kinds of blogs: personal blogs, filter blogs and topic-driven blogs. Simply, the personal is sort of a diary style blog; filter blogs provide short comments but mainly links to other interesting blogs; and topic-driven ones, like weirdcombinations, are exactly what you’d expect. Of course, there’s a lot of overlap. This should have been obvious to me, yet somehow, I’d never really thought about distinguishing blogs in that way. Maybe I haven’t been paying enough attention to blogs that are not topic-driven? Sorry to all of you other bloggers that I’ve been ignoring! I’ll try to do better!!!

Rettberg has much to say about what she calls the post-Gutenberg era, or the time after the dominance of traditional print media which began when the printing press was developed in the West four hundred years ago. Challenging social critics who see video games and television as the decline of culture, she argues that these complex media actually improve cognitive functioning. Blogging then represents increased engagement in the world via active reading and writing. That makes sense. Certainly I find that I notice things a lot more and that my writing has improved since we started this blog. Heguiberto is the same.

There are fascinating chapters on blogs as narrative, bloggers as journalists, blogs and business, as well as blogs as communities. These resonate with me. I’m endlessly curious about what decadent dessert Heavenly Housewife is gorging herself with each day. I wonder about Joumana’s kitchen in Lebanon. I can’t wait to read what the Voorhees and Sosnowys have been sipping in Washington State. And with my newest blog-infatuation, I thrill to read whatever wild thing James Bloomer is explaining at Big Dumb Object. I’ve never met any of these people, but by reading their blogs, their comments and those of others, and finally, by making comments of my own, I feel somehow connected to them in a really cool way. Of course, things can sometimes go very wrong.

Rettberg gives a poignant example of a woman who had a personal blog in which she detailed her and her friends’ experiences at Burning Man and with drug use. Later this woman became a schoolteacher. Her pupils read the blog and questioned her about this. That’s awkward. In another example, a blogger got fired after making some unfavorable remarks in a blog about her job. The same thing happened in the recent movie, The Social Network, when the Mark Zuckerberg character trashed his girlfriend on his blog and permanently damaged their relationship. The take-home message here: be careful about what you write as it may come back to haunt you later.

Another choice piece of advice has to do with increasing your blog’s connectivity and traffic:

The main advice is simply to engage with your readers. Visit other blogs that are about the same topic as yours, and leave comments there—and link to interesting posts on their blogs. Some recommend more intense strategies, such as emailing new commentators and thanking them for reading your blog. Others have daily targets: visit five new blogs a day and leave comments on them. Link to three new blogs each week.

It all sounds good, though it is a lot of work. I do want people to read our blog. But I feel funny trying to promote it. Recently we changed our “about” page in an attempt to better define weirdcombinations. Though we’re topic-driven, we’re focused on several not-always-related topics. Does that cause problems for potential readers, or for search engines? Do I really care?

The answer to the last seems to be both “yes” and “no.” I was never especially popular growing up—sort of a shy nerdy type. In my twenties I broke out of that shell but I’m far from the super-social, life-of-the-party kind of guy. But I’m fine with that. Yet I look at these other beautiful, well-trafficked blogs with a mixture of awe and envy. It is almost like they’re the high school star quarterback or head cheerleader equivalent in the blogosphere; and I’m fifteen again, with bad clothes, severe acne and a cheap blond perm. That bothers me and I want to snap out of it.


By cognitive surplus, Clay Shirky refers to a vast resource of all the potential free time everyone enjoys while not at work or sleeping. Traditionally in the West, he posits that television has “deflect[ed]” these largely unstructured hours but with the rise of social media, new and exciting things have been happening. Instead of watching endless re-runs of “I Love Lucy” or “Dynasty,” some of us, at least, have been sharing on Facebook, Twitter, in blogs or e-mails and through other interactive forms of computer-based exchange. With this book, Shirky aims to describe and then explore the meaning of this new kind of mass communication.

what are you doing with your cognitive surplus?

what are you doing with your cognitive surplus?

The book raises some intriguing questions about social media. I’m still pondering the one that seems most relevant to me: Why do people work for free? It is so obvious yet I’d never even considered the idea before. Facebook, e-mail and commenting on other peoples’ blogs take a lot of time and certainly is work. What are we getting out of it? Well, Shirky has some pretty interesting answers that he derives from a series of psychological studies which he describes in detail. Essentially it all boils down to: we enjoy ourselves while doing it.

Another exciting question has to do with the relationship between amateur social media producers and professionals. If there are hundreds of restaurant reviews for any particular place that you might consider dining in, all written by people who have been before, does it really matter what a single professional restaurant critic thinks any more? Maybe not. And that’s where social media has the potential to overturn old ways of thinking and organizing the world. Do we still need wine critics or interior decorators or psychoanalysts any longer? Wow!

Finally, an especially controversial topic that takes up a significant part of this short and enjoyable book: How do you create and define value? Let’s face it, a lot of the stuff on the internet is junk, spam, porn or boring. What makes something really worthwhile? Shirky has some answers for that which moves this book beyond the boundaries of being merely an analysis of social media and human nature into a whole new philosophical realm. Early in the text he asserts a basic assumption:

The cognitive surplus, newly forged from previously disconnected islands of time and talent, is just raw material. To get any value out of it, we have to make it mean or do things.

Of course, my immediate response to that passage was, “Why?” Isn’t it enough just to have fun? Well, apparently not for Starky.

He divides the concept of “value” into four somewhat overlapping parts: personal, communal, public and civic. An example of the first might be when you upload your vacation pictures from Disneyland on Facebook for your friends to see. “Communal” might be a group with a shared interest. In the book, he writes about Harry Potter fan fiction websites. “Public” has to do with on-line activities that are helpful to people generally and “civic” has to do with things that actually change the real world around us in some presumably positive way. He offers numerous examples of social media activities for all categories though clearly more highly values “public” and “civic” over the first two.

I think that is so typical of an academic writer, don’t you? Creating something new and Earth-changing must be as incredibly satisfying as it is rare. Really, most stuff is maintenance. Usually teachers teach students, lawyers practice law, physicians treat patients, plumbers fix leaks and chefs cook food. It is not very often that something genuinely new comes along in any field of human endeavor. So why not give to these every-day communal and personal activities the respect that they deserve? Even in academic research, most of it makes incremental progress in human knowledge, if any at all. A value system that diminishes the wonder, bounty and satisfaction of the routine job-well-done is flawed. Moreover, even if you agree with his perspective, Shirky never addresses the much tougher question of what kinds of civic change are valuable, and to whom. I’ll admit that’s a huge topic, perhaps for another book?

There are lots of other complex areas in social media that don’t get fully fleshed out in this work. For example, the role of advertising and government regulation are obviously relevant here but not a lot is said about them systematically. I also question the case-based approach favored by the author. It is difficult to make generalizations about all of social media with a detailed analysis of only a few dozen compelling examples.

That said, I truly liked this book. It is fun to think about familiar things in new ways and now I fell more energized in my blogging, e-mailing etc. after reading it. I’m even re-contemplating joining Facebook. Shirky is affiliated with the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program. So he’s a professional on social media. It seems ironic that I feel more confident after having an expert, who seems to believe that amateur producers might one day eliminate the need for the professional, tell me what I’m doing with my cognitive surplus is worthwhile. Old habits die hard.

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