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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Broken Metaphors: Blogging as Liminal Practice

For my performance studies class, i wrote a paper on blogging that i have morphed into a submission for the Media Ecology Conference. It is a draft paper, but i figured it would be fruitful to put it up here for anyone who wishes to tear it apart.

Broken Metaphors: Blogging as Liminal Practice

Be warned that this is definitely an academic paper meant for an academic audience and may contain scary academic words. There’s a lot that i’m missing here, but i still think that this paper has some value and i would love feedback from anyone who wishes to spend the time reading it.

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13 comments to Broken Metaphors: Blogging as Liminal Practice

  • Very nice paper. Do you read Henry Copeland’s blog (http://weblog.blogads.com/)? He writes a lot about various aspects of blogging and links to everything anyone writes about it.

    What do you think about blogs that do not allow comments? Group blogs? Blog Alliances? Forums?

    Most people first typed a word online on campaign blogs during Democratic primaries. They have a very different idea what blogging is: much more communal and less personal.

    Check these:
    http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/smoke-signals-blogs-and-future-of.html

    http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/why-edwards-blog-was-better-than-dean.html

    http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/2004/08/deanomania.html

  • Dan O'Huiginn

    “may contain scary academic words”

    Quite the opposite. It’s extremely well written. Which set me thinking…

    Most of the academic papers I’ve read that are written by bloggers have been much more readable than other academic writing. Why is that? Explanations I’ve come up with so far (and tests for them):

    * it’s just chance that I’ve come across several bloggers who also write clear papers. There is no wider pattern.

    * the papers aren’t better written, they just seem like it because they’re written by people I like and tend to agree with (test: how readable are papers by bloggers you don’t like?)

    * papers are easier to digest if you’ve already seen half the content turn up in the blog (test: how readable are papers on topics that haven’t been blogged by the authors)

    * papers are easier to write if you’ve already churned out many of your rough ideas in blog form, and read comments and other feedback.

    * academics who write well (correlated with them enjoying writing?) are more likely to become bloggers than those for whom writing is a difficult chore (test: how readable are papers written by bloggers before they started blogging?)

    * writing for non-academic audiences trains people to explain themselves more clearly. If so, you might expect academics who also write in other contexts (novels, letters, op-ed pieces) to also write more clearly. Presumably there is an existing literature on this somewhere.

    * There is a blog writing style which gets carried over into academic papers. That would make them easier for bloggers to read, but not for non-bloggers to read. (test: do people who don’t read blogs find papers by bloggers easier or harder to read?)

    What do you all think? Do bloggers write better papers, or am I just seeing nice bloggers’ papers through rose-tinted spectacles? What other possible explanations have I missed? What work is being done on this?

  • First off, I just found your blog recently and I just wanted to say that I really enjoy it.

    Now, to the paper. Overall, I think you’re right. There is definitely something here. It seems like it could be a fruitful avenue for research. Here are my thoughts:

    Focus on practice/performance rather than content
    ————————–
    I think this is one of your strongest points. There’s been a lot of good work trying to focus social scientists, especially those studying technology, on the practices and actions of people rather than abstract goals and cognitive models (i.e. Dourish, etc.). You make a strong case for the applicability of that perspective to blogging. Beyond that, not much else to say other than I look forward to hearing more.

    Metaphors:
    —————–
    In the end, I’m left with the feeling that you are totally against using metaphors to discuss blogging. However, at some points you seem to feel that they are just inadequate for capturing all aspects of blogging. Are they really all bad? Or, is it just the ones that are traditionally used? The whole time I just kept thinking of Lakoff. Humans use metaphors. Period. Of course, they aren’t always adequate. In fact, they ignore specificities by definition. But they are fundamental to the way we understand the world. If your real beef is that the metaphors we use are inadequate, are there better ones to use?

    This is really quite a sticky issue and it raises some big questions, especially for researchers. As humans who will inevitabley use metaphors, how do researchers evaluate which metaphors are the right ones? Does it depend on what you’re talking about? If so, why was Nardi wrong to use the diary metaphor if that was the aspect of blogging she was talking about? If we’re not to use metaphors (which seems impossible), how do we talk about phenomena, especially new phenomena like blogging?

  • Fabulous! And there’s so much more to say.

    It’s really hard to write about things that are only just coming into being and aren’t obvious even though we are living in their midst. Great job!

    And I find myself in this kind of conversation a lot lately trying to get a handle on what it is we are doing. How we flirt with the feeling of blogging/reading as addiction, or how we find ourselves trusting only subjectivity. Or how we feel like our identity-boundaries are blurring a little depending on who we’re reading and who reads us.

    Meanwhile– I am procrastinating on my paper. Back to work!

  • Interesting! I think the paper would be much stronger if you defined what sense of “liminal spatiality” you are using, and specifically what the performative aspects of this liminality are. Without any mention of the liminal threshold, it is difficult to understand what is at stake…

    Tangentially, I also recall reading a paper once on diaries as “public” performances. Can’t remember the title or author (sorry!) but the point was that diaries are often enough written with the expectation that they will be “accidentally” read. There is also the matter of edited diaries like Go Ask Alice, that posthumously put private thoughts up for public consumption in an attempt to offer particular forms of gendered morality. What happens when bloggers “lose control” of their performances?

  • It’s good to know there’s a “liminal” to go with “subliminal” 🙂
    More seriously, it seems that you are at a unique position in time to do this type of research. It doesn’t seem like it will be long before blogging is no longer liminal to the mainstream.

  • Danah – I confess I was expecting you to discuss the imperative of constantly renewed content — renewed and yet preserved — as a definative component of blogs, and metaphorically determinative. It seems to me that this is the blessing and the curse of blogging, every day is a new day, with a new opportunity to create our blogdentity, or re-create it. And in the relationships between those efforts over time, we create a pattern that is less and less in our control and, it’s possible, reveals our self. Can you imagine yourself without a blog? that would be an amputation of a sort, wouldn’t it?

    The folding of time that is possible with a blog — your archives go back to September of 97… and each entry is equally present, equally accessible, equally a part of your blog; yet as the wheel of time rolls, we expect fresh entries, new facets, growth, change, revelation, experimentation… evidence of life, of vitality.

    And if my blog is a new, previously undiscovered part of my body, my identity, it is a curiously mercurical one, changing with each post and instantly ossifying with each change. It’s the blessing and the curse of blogging. To renew and validate ourselves, and record the unfolding journey.

    thanks for the thoughtful writing.

  • Btw: i’m in awe of these rocking comments and am going to think for a bit for responding. But OMG y’all rock.

  • To the comment above that noticed that many bloggers write better than academics… since I have a foot in both I figured I would state the obvious.

    Many academics really do not like writing–they do it because they have to get hired, promoted and raises. Many academics only write when needed and infrequently at that (notice I said many, not all).

    Many bloggers write everyday. They love to write. They desire to write. Oftentimes when they are away from their blog they may even be thinking about what they will write when they return. This is passion of the deepest order and makes for ‘hot’ writing that is much different from the cold, disspassionate style of many academics.

    Some bloggers also generally write in many styles, to many audiences, and develop very strong senses of rhetorical positioning/audience awareness.

  • Hi danah,
    So I’ve been writing about metaphors in design as you know (we communicated recently). I read through your interesting paper and like tpodd have a couple of metaphor comments.

    Firstly, that blogging is still evolving and for many still an ‘abstract’ concept so metaphors are useful to understand it. For those who have been blogging and really know it, it’s probably not long before the BLOG METAPHOR will come into use in reference to understand other things. But this will only happen when enough people blog and understand it.

    Secondly, I like the different metaphors that you pointed out have been used for blogging. I agree, as you say, that “Just as defining email in terms of postal mail fails to capture many aspects of email, defining blogging in metaphorical terms fails to capture its essence.”

    Yet we don’t just use a ‘postal mail’ metaphor for email. Neither should we expect a single metaphor to represent all that blogging is – it does not directly correlate, as you point out, to any of the other activities, journalling, journalism or push-button publishing for example.

    Yet for any complex, multi-dimensional (to use a metaphor) concept one metaphor is rarely going to be sufficient to capture all it is. As Lakoff points out we have something like 20 or so metaphors for love and each of these help capture a different part of it. We cannot say what love is as a definition that uses only one as it is all of these. Just as we cannot expect a single metaphor to capture blogging as it is many things. Metaphors hide and highlight in their nature, and we need all of them.

    Metaphor is ‘flawed’ as it does limit us to understanding things through what we can experience. But I look forward to the BLOG METAPHOR appearing in the not too distant future as blogs continue to reach more…

    Thanks! +Jono

  • stefanos pantagis

    is there such a thing as a meta metaphor?

    why would i bring that up? well there is sort of metacommunication with oral speach (ie tone of voice, hand motion cultural anthropology stuff), but i think there is a sort of blogger etiquitte that is evolving that is not obvious to non bloggers.

    I guess it has to do with space. There sort of is a different way of looking at space, like its not cool to do certain things on a person space, but ok to do on your space: but this does not seem completly intuitive.

    Maybe intuitive is different to different generations, and thus, metaphors are percieved differently? Does the self become a metaphor?

    These thoughts come to me after google searching, and google scholar searching Goffman:

    An important link may be made between Goffman and Durkheim may be made in an inquiry into the concept of “spontaneity.” In The Presentation of Self, the importance of spontaneity emerges as an aspect of the performance, as the actor seeks to create a front that does not appear to be contrived. Spontaneity allows for the realization of the “true” self, an idealized type of interaction that allows the individual to realize a desired face. In The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim describes a macrosociological model of spontaneity, a “finely articulated organisation in which each social value…is appreciated at its true worth” (313). Durkheim, though primarily concerned with labor, describes a type of social interaction that, like Goffman’s model, reaffirms the existing social environment through the notion of “truth.” Each individual is bound to the contemporary social organization, while attempting to realize a sense of freedom in expressing truth.

    Thought this spontaneously as I discussed blogging with a patient who happened to be a writer. We spoke about her memoirs and how they are sort of in the first person, but also how they are also contextualized in the form of the 3rd person narrator. We spoke and realized we where speaking as narrators within the writers archived conversation: or writen memory that becomes collective.

    A story, and a representation to a reading public.

    Blogging sort of changes this very human need to create literature: so hence, blogging is both an artform, and is becomming popular cause it fulfills the human need to communicate things about the self, and also, the ability to learn about other selves in the context of being within a group.

    Blogging also captures human movements that have always been there, so it is a new type of communication used by a species that is defined by its ability to communicate.

    Opinion and individuality are strongly intertwined by blogging: there is something narcisitic about it. As with traditional writing, the inner voice represents a mirror of ones soul. Multiple voices requires a sort of play acting. We sort of do this in both oral speach, when we are relaying stories, and events. Journalists do this as well when we get quotes, images or video.

    Its all about language: there is orality represented in text and image which to older generations, seems counter intuitive. Just give a text message machine to a 95 year old: but the idea of radio as text…words removed from image, we find that things begin to make more sense to an elderly participant.

    Our experiences are also being influenced by this notion of real time. We see everything within the context of the panopticon: we also are able to google surf the self. For example, we have a particular event, like the RNC. We have the news surrounding it, and now, we are also having blogged opinions. We can find the opinions with surfing blogs. Each blogged opinion becomes like a vote.

    With ancient poetry, or religion, we went from the memory of song and epic, to written verse. We needed metre to remember epics like the iliad.

    Now we have an archived memory of well distributed thoughts and actions. We become actors mindful of a projected self. We all become famous not for 15 minutes as warhol predicted, but in real time as much as we can take it before we implode into the need for inner sactuary and privacy. Perhaps this is where the spiritual sense of being human remains as a completly unanticipated spiritscape.

  • stef

    i guess anything to be completely understood has to be experienced, which goes beyond metaphorical.

    so it comes down to perception and cognition and how we form language.

    what we are stimulated with will influence our perception and how we describe it, and what metaphors we choose.

    So when we use an image as a metaphor, or text, we are using different parts of the brains.

    Already, danah had delineated differences in perception that is gender related.

    So a herd, or a group, requires different perspectives for the health of the group to create and be. Metaphors are used to describe experiences, but are not the actual experiences.

    Now we are wired, and form groups; some are very stable, and constant, while others are more transient. We participate in different groups simultanously in real time as Barry Wellman describes, towards glocalization. Success in such a world requires a how to learning and metaphor is important towards developing ones own experience; whether its about blogging, or anything else that is coming down the pipe line.

    So metaphor represents a continuum, or a method towards approaching experience. Without metaphor, one sort of just jumps into an experience without knowing, exposing one self to risks. Some persons enjoy this, and this too is part of learning and being.

    Metaphors are coming into being faster and language is streched to describe the multifaceted world that is changing in real time. Think of how long slang takes to enter and become part of our communication. think of the word, Yo. or the word, cool, or the word wayout, or spoof. these words are slang as blogging was. Now they are creeping into the language, no longer slang, but as important standards to understand and create new metaphors. So if we compare current world with that of the 1200, knowledge, and the number of metaphors needed to be in the world, are expanding, and creating semantic reordering of our language.

  • stef

    I think more is needed to identify what “liminal” means.

    also the blogger audience and its size is reflective of blog control and is like crowd control. if the space is a private space, how does one control the audience. in a movie house, one needs to set limits on size of audience in terms of fire codes.

    but this too is a metaphor.

    Audience expectation would be really combersome if medical records where in a blog format; the patients would have very different demands from the institution…..

    I am beginning to understand the stresses of blogging and maintaining “coporality” and “space”.

    Not easy balancing this stuff with blogging.

    stef