Blogtalk Downunder
   May 19-22, Sydney

Blogtalk Downunder

Mathieu O’Neil - Weblogs and Authority

Mathieu O’Neil


Weblogs and Authority

[Read the complete paper (.rtf)]


The promise of the mass use of the internet was that it would create a participatory political culture, where ‘netizens’ practised many kinds of liberating grassroots activities. Indeed, the Internet is often described as a horizontal and open structure which resists any kind of hierarchical organisation: a network, goes the argument, is by definition devoid of a centre, and hence of a central authority. This vision of the Internet and of blogspace as anarchic or heterarchic systems fails to account for a basic fact: if social networks have migrated online, it is logical to assume that the processes of differentiation, hierarchisation and control which, by all accounts, structure offline human interactions, have also done so.

In this paper, I analyse authoritative statements and actions in blogspace. According to the social network analytical model, power and authority on networks derive from centrality or ‘prominence’, the density of ties to other more or less centrally located individuals. Sites such as Technorati make success statistically measurable, by identifying the most authoritative blogs (those that are most linked to). Social network researchers assert that the apparently highly unequal distribution of links on the web and in blogspace constitutes a ‘power law’ distribution model: deterministic network forces are said to favour early entrants on the blog market; linking patterns are portrayed as inherently conservative, constraining new entrants and leading to the reinforcement of authoritative actors. The ‘power law’ takes on the immutable qualities of natural phenomena which cannot be questioned.

These analyses, which focus on network morphology and mechanisms, suffer from an inadequate conceptualization of human agency and culture, as well as from a tendency to consider online networks as isolated from offline social structures. What processes of differentiation and exclusion structure the social dynamics of blogspace? The antagonism between issue-based blogs and personal journals (epitomized by LiveJournal) reveals oppositions as to how authority is produced and reproduced, as well as diverging conceptions of virtual space. The relatively open space of issue-blogs is based on ‘quality’, where authoritative statements form the basis of the bartering of prestigious links, and of mainstream media recognition. The relatively closed space of LiveJournal is based on ‘intimacy’, where authoritative actions (such as the inclusions and inclusions of other users into journals) constitute the subtext of many conversations. Could the scorn poured on LiveJournal by issue-bloggers be attributed to gender (LiveJournal is predominantly peopled by females whilst the influential political blog subgroup – for example – is predominantly male)? Another explanation would relate to the relationship of actors to authority. Blogging signifies the extension of networking and linking, but also that of controlling and excluding; however the second part of the equation is not usually acknowledged in issue-based blogspace. LiveJournal reveals what lies behind blogging’s ‘participatory’ and ‘democratic’ rhetoric, and must, accordingly, be ostracized.

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