My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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blogging is trapped in a metaphor

I’ve been trying to sit with some of my frustrations about sociable technologies lately. I’ve been trying to work through them in order to understand why Liz’s frustration with blogging research resonates and why i start twitching every time people put together panels that pit blogs against “big” journalism. I wanted to let go of my boiling anger over the fact that YASNS do not look like “real” social networks.

I realized that all of these concerns come from a common root. Sociable technologies are all built on metaphors. They are often an attempt to model a set of practices already known in everyday life. Yet, as models, the technologies are not the same as the metaphors on which they are based. The result is an entirely new form that encourages entirely new practices.

Metaphors are not new in the technological world. Email’s metaphor was built into its naming. Yet, today, when we talk about email, we can draw on the metaphor of mail, but we all know that email is something entirely different. It is a fundamentally new communication system, not simply an electronic form of its predecessor.

My frustration with academics, press and conference organizers exists because the primary way to handle these new technologies is to address them in metaphoric terms. This perspective comes from a distanced vantage point.

What is special (and magnificently more frustrating) about blogs is that they stem from many metaphors, including newspapers/magazines, journals/diaries, and log notebooks. No wonder people are up in arms screaming that it’s not like a newspaper, it’s like a diary! or vice versa. They’re both right and wrong. If you’re stuck in a metaphoric understanding of blogging, the conflicting metaphors are problematic and discount your approach to the system.

Now that most people are on email, it is rare to have to explain that form. But when people were starting up, it was confusing. My grandparents thought that i couldn’t write because my emails were strewn with spelling errors, lacked capitalization and were often fragments. Nowadays, they get it because they get that email is different than letters.

With blogging and YASNS, people haven’t “gotten it” yet. Even many of the people creating these technologies still think that they’re building out the metaphors. Of course, if they stay trapped in the metaphor, they’re doomed to failure. It is crucial to understand that YASNS and blogs are different than their metaphoric precursors.

This is precisely why it’s bloody hard to study/discuss these technologies without being a practitioner. Distance is valuable as a researcher, but it’s also limiting. You need to engage with the culture at a deep level in order to study it. Because digital technology cultures are so peculiar, you need to be involved at an intimate level. Being a lurker is just not the same. It is the practice of engaging with these technologies that makes you able to move beyond the metaphor.

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28 comments to blogging is trapped in a metaphor

  • I think you’re right about the problems with metaphorical ways to look at new technologies. Except maybe on one point: viz. metaphors are not only very powerfull tools (e.g. in the sciences), they’re also flexible in the sense that the way they’re understood is not fixed – their meaning is dynamic.

    In this context it means that we use a metaphor for describing what social software is, and as we gain insight (e.g. through practice, I fully agree on that point) our understanding of the metaphor evolves likewise.

    So I don’t think we really have to move beyond existing metaphors, we merely have to adjust the way we understand those metaphors. E.g. email is like traditional mail, but only in so far as our practice of email – as it is now – allows them to be similar.

    Hope this is not that much off topic.

    On metaphors and the dynamics of their meaning:

    Isabel D’Hanis. A logical approach to the analysis of metaphors. In Lorenzo┬áMagnani and Pizzi [LMP02], pages 21-37.

    Isabel D’Hanis. The use of metaphors in scientific development: A logical approach. Logique et Analyse, 173-175:215-235, 2001. appeared 2003.

  • Much of the problem has to do with our focus on the functionality of the new technology, innovation or medium, from which we derive a metaphor based on the analogous function. In asserting that “the medium is the message,” Marshall McLuhan would have us probe the effect or changes in interpersonal (or intra-societal/-cultural) dynamics as a source of the metaphor. Metaphors are transformative agents rather than comparative agents.

  • Metaphors as constraint

    They can provide useful points of entry for understanding, but unless shrugged off after the initial entry they can be constraining because consciously and subconsciously we try to match our behaviors with the metaphor.

  • stefanos

    what is a lurker?

    and i am confused on how to gage/measure engagement.

    sorry for the prior long posts: i am planning my own blog but learning from the metabloggers such as yourself.

    I guess the blog is like the radio show metaphor: each person gets their time: writers get more than the readers. the blog host edits/focuses, set the tempo for the blogs overall theme: which starts with the internal “diary” of blogger. this leads to a purpose for the technology…{OK shut up stef}

    stef

  • stefanos

    Mark:

    The internal diary of the self can be visual, verbal, or musical. The emotions of being touch upon the medium’s transformation into language.

    Expression!!!!!

    But it is a comparametric perspective that assists the process of transformation: either by perception, or by analysis by machine that stimulates the nervous system into comparison of what makes one perception similar or disimilar.

    There is a process towards transformation that involves comparison which stimulates a synthesis into a representation of that emotion. This is where the language of invention needs to be highlighted as the main force of future self determination: within the architecture of one, there will be the solitude to collect from the “global village” the functional tools that will cloth us and maintain our personal borders.

    Yes, persons can be injured by the media: whether its the mass propaganda of corporations and or states, or the individual propaganda of hateful expression. Marginalization can be cold and misanthropic. The goal is to find the social software construct that cloths the individual against the erosive elements of individuality stolen: man/woman lost in the machine. We cannot exist without socialization, or we will be ill.

    Functionality is key to self configuration: Destiny {ta pepromena phigin athinato [one cannot escape ones fate, antigone]} is the stuggle of dealing with the paradox of the transformation being intricately bound in the process of comparison and reliance of metaphor as a language that is constantly changing.

  • Bloggning och metaforer

    danah boyd om bloggning – och annan “social teknologi” – och metaforer: blogging is trapped in a metaphor Sociable technologies are all built on metaphors. They are often an attempt to model a set of practices already known in everyday…

  • blogging is an idiom. you can only come to understand it through acculturation, but once you get it, you get it. without that participatory exposure, you’re stuck trying to understand it merely through (insufficient) metaphors, since that’s how we naturally try to cope with new things.

    alan cooper’s got a great piece from 1995 called The Myth of Metaphor that rings well with this post.
    http://www.cooper.com/articles/art_myth_of_metaphor.htm

  • The Danger of Metaphors

    An article by Danah Boyd about the shortcomings of analysing pieces of software as metaphors for more traditional things in acrophenia rang bells with me. Some of the features and processes of our online University are explained as metaphors for…

  • tony

    It’s like studying the apes-you have to get involved with them to understand them. Otherwise ,it’s just legend and hearsay. Gorillas are dangerous,attack humans,eats people,etc(of course not true but 19th century beliefs). Does a similiar heisenberg principle factor in though,that’s my question.Does an expert alter the blogging,etc? If a novice such as myself looks to old “hands” for guidance and copies the style,mannerisms,is that the natural environment teaching me or an artificial one?is it the most effective methods that survive or the most habitual?

  • danah boyd on social technologies and metaphor

    danah, who is speaking on one of the BlogOn panels, has written an excellent piece (but then they are always excellent) about how “blogging is trapped in a metaphor.” Sociable technologies are all built on metaphors. They are often an…

  • Ms.Feverish

    Great Post, danah. You neatly and succinctly describe some of my exact frustrations over YASN and blogs, and the academic papers I’ve tried (not very successfully) to write about them. thanks for clarifying these issues.

  • danah boyd on social technologies and metaphor

    danah, who is speaking on one of the BlogOn panels, has written an excellent piece (but then they are always excellent) about how “blogging is trapped in a metaphor.” Sociable technologies are all built on metaphors. They are often an…

  • Jeph

    I completely agree. I would add, tho’, that technologies can be used differently by different people, at different times and in different places. It may be possible to understand some fundamental aspects of these technologies through their use, but your ability to generalize may be stunted by a lack of engagement with others outside of your own social arena. I guess the trick is to know what things can be generalized and what things can not. Or, the alternative is to argue that nothing is generalizable.

  • Metaphors

    Here’s an interesting discussion of blogging (and research into blogging), and whether the metaphor is holding it back.

  • One concern I have about the role of metaphors around both blogs and YASNS is that we tool makers / technologists / early adopters exploit (e.g., market to) the misunderstandings of those more removed. And, through that, we can start to box our own exploration to match the metaphors we use for exploitation.

    I think there is a dynamic between the desire to exploit a kind-of progression out of what people know (e.g., AM radio to FM radio) and the desire towards revolutionary change in perspective (e.g., AM radio to TV).

    Generally, the business associated with these tools / technologies tends to promote evolution over revolution. And, I wonder if, at this point, the cultural momentum around these tool / technologies is getting more and more tied to this typical business in all but the more fringe cases.

  • Metaphors

    Here’s an interesting discussion of blogging (and research into blogging), and whether the metaphor is holding it back.

  • Patrick – metaphors are always powerful; that doesn’t mean that their not problematic. Even in the scope of visualization, you can often lose the real point when you try to ground it too deeply in a metaphor. Even with viz tools, there’s a huge difference in understanding when you’re familiar with the data and when you’re not.

    Mark – thanks for that reference!

    Stefanos – a lurker is one who watches but does not participate. Think mailing list folks who never write.

    Scott – thanks for The Myth of Metaphor

    Jeph – i’ve never believed that a generalization is possible, but i do believe that it is possible to map a terrain of use. Of course, those models work in my head but i never know how to express them.

    Jay – Amen.

    [PS: sorry that it took me so long to respond.]

  • as my rapper friend raps…
    you cannot read about it
    you must be about it
    overmodeling the metaphor is like communist
    central planning. humans aren’t advanced
    enough to build dynamic complex systems that
    scale through forethought. the best approach
    is to plant the seeds of mechanisms and see
    what grows. the mechanism in blogs is to
    communicate some information and give it
    a timestamp and link to relevant information.
    The mechanism enables the layer of metaphors
    above it. The metaphors that survive are
    the best life forms in the ecosphere of
    conciousness where the mechanisms constitute
    the dna equivalent. A metaphor for
    metaphor survival.

  • New media contain old media, and are always explained metaphorically in terms of old media. The large number of metaphors related to blogging reflects an accumulation of old media landing in this single new form.

    To put the most positive spin on it, the breakdown of metaphor is a sign of new understanding. It will be interesting to see how the terminology changes over the next three years to reflect this – I doubt we’ll be talking about blogs in the same way in five years.

    Still, the mix of metaphors has been as aspect of the net for a while – ten years ago people were “surfing” for “pages” via “the information superhighway.” The subjective sense of innovation in new media can be a bit like the tendency of each generation to believe it was the first to invent good sex.

    ========

    What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms — in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. — Nietzsche

  • Describing new ideas

    Danah Boyd says blogging is trapped in a metaphor: My frustration with academics, press and conference organizers exists because the primary way to handle these new technologies is to address them in metaphoric terms. This perspective comes from a dist…

  • Describing new ideas

    Danah Boyd says blogging is trapped in a metaphor: My frustration with academics, press and conference organizers exists because the primary way to handle these new technologies is to address them in metaphoric terms. This perspective comes from a dist…

  • Describing new ideas

    Danah Boyd says blogging is trapped in a metaphor: My frustration with academics, press and conference organizers exists because the primary way to handle these new technologies is to address them in metaphoric terms. This perspective comes from a dist…

  • A menagerie of micro-rants about blogging

    This was going to be a comment on a post at Read/Write Web on analyzing Bloglines statistics, but it was getting way too long, and, in part, I thought it might make for a better post than a comment.
    You can’t trust statistics
    There are decent nu…

  • Demeaning bloggers: the NYTimes is running scared

    Blogging has terrified mainstream media for a while now. Journalists want to know if blogs are going to degrade their profession, open up new possibilities or otherwise challenge their authority. This also means that whenever the press writes about blo…

  • Demeaning bloggers: the NYTimes is running scared (danah boyd)

    Blogging has terrified mainstream media for a while now. Journalists want to know if blogs are going to degrade their profession, open up new possibilities or otherwise challenge their authority. This also means that whenever the press writes about blo…

  • Demeaning bloggers: the NYTimes is running scared

    Blogging has terrified mainstream media for a while now. Journalists want to know if blogs are going to degrade their profession, open up new possibilities or otherwise challenge their authority. This also means that whenever the press writes about blo…

  • Run, D.N.C.: Blog This Way!

    nice article by danah boyd over at Salon in response to a NYTimes article about bloggers getting credentialed press passes to the DNC (note that this article will expire behind the NYTimes costwalls soon. i am with doc searls – let’s tear down the w…

  • The Danger of Metaphors

    An article by Danah Boyd about the shortcomings of analysing pieces of software as metaphors for more traditional things in acrophenia rang bells with me. Some of the features and processes of our online University are explained as metaphors for a ‘Rea…