Blogtalk Downunder
   May 19-22, Sydney

Blogtalk Downunder

Dr Chris Chesher - Blogs and the crisis of authorship

Dr Chris Chesher is the Director of Arts Informatics, University of Sydney. His research analyses cultural changes associated with new media technologies such as computer games, blogs, new media art, broadband content production and databases. His undergraduate and postgraduate teaching in Arts Informatics critically explores the intersections of the humanities and social sciences with information and communication technologies. He has published articles in online journal including CTheory, CultureMachine and Cultronix, Convergence and Media International Australia. He is currently co-authoring a book Understanding the Internet: language, technology, media and power. He is a facilitator of the Australasian critical Internet studies network fibreculture.

Blogs and the crisis of authorship

Chris Chesher
chris.chesher [at] arts.usyd.edu.au

Arts Informatics Program,
School of English, Art History, Film and Media
University of Sydney

Abstract

The uptake of blogs proves that reports of the death of the author are greatly exaggerated. The Author is alive and well, and has a blog.

In the speculative era of cyberculture criticism in the early 1990s, many authors claimed electronic text would destabilise the institution of authorship (Poster 2001; Landow 1994; Bolter 2001). They argued changes of material form of writing would decrease the power of the author. They connected this claim with critics such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault who had questioned conventional assumptions about authorship, and speculated on the possibilities of texts without authors. While the claims of these electronic writing advocates were contested theoretically (Grusin 1994), the popularity of blogs empirically demonstrates the persistence of authorship, and how progress often works backwards.

Authorship is so familiar it’s almost invisible, and so flexible it cannot be defined. Certain elements of a text attribute it to a source: an author’s name on the book cover, a newspaper by-line, or the author information in a blog. The Author emerged in the West alongside a range of economic, technological, social, political and legal changes associated with the rise of individualism, capitalism, rationalism, democracy and rule of law. Authorship functions as a boundary abstraction that connects each of these discourses. It gives authors the legal protection of copyright, economic connections with the printing and publishing industries and provides the key field to locate books on the shelves of booksellers and libraries. In silent reading, it provides a persona for the reader to imagines, completing a text’s meaning. Canons of authors provide symbolic figures whose names become shorthand for concepts and stories. The convention of reading a text with reference to its author is ingrained, even if this institution is only 500 years old. Blogs have succeeded because they are less innovative than other online forms.

Far from dissolving authorship, blogs perpetuate, coexist with, and transform it. Authorship re-emerges in proportion to the distance that a text moves from its context. Specific features of blogs allow them to invoke Foucault’s author-function more effectively than static personal home pages: the inverted narrative structure of the archive, the consistent voice, the time stamp that positions posts in a reference to a temporality shared with readers. However, the practices associated with blogs also do transform authorship. The reader’s capacity to give feedback through comments compensates for the conversational mode of writing. Many blogs’s authority comes from positions outside institutions.

Blogs gravitated towards two discourses that reflect the conventional split between public and private domains: the political polemic blog, and the confessional diary. Media events that brought certain blogs into the public sphere in 2003 and 2004 followed standard scripts for each side of this split. The role of political blogs in discrediting Dan Rather’s report on Bush’s war record was generally celebrated as evidence that blogs were legitimate players in the public domain. On the other hand, the most high profile personal diaries were those that presented narratives of transgressive sexuality: Muzimei in China, the London Callgirl in the UK, and Washingtonienne in the US. By contrast with the political bloggers, these authors who brought the private sphere to the public were subject to a moralistic collective tribunal.

Blogs and the crisis of authorship

Without a doubt, 2004 was the breakthrough year for blogs. If my consumption of various media so far this year is any indication, journalists at traditional media organizations must now be having regular meetings to decide which one of them will create the “blog story” for the current deadline cycle. Whereas television network journalists used to interview actual people regularly, we now see anchors cutting over to correspondents staring at computer screens as props representing the expertise of the collective “blogosphere.” Chad Dickerson

While the coverage of blogs in traditional media not been universally enthusiastic, this particular new media form seems to be treated more seriously than many other online writing practices. Blogs have authority. Journalists have pointed to the role of blogs in providing different perspectives on the invasion of Iraq, particularly with the blog of Salam Pax. Blogs are perceived as having played a key role in rapidly discrediting Dan Rather’s report on President Bush’s war service. Blogs have been identified as a legitimate tool in business. Certainly blog writing and reading has grown dramatically over the past two years: from 500, 000 in 2003 to eight million by the end of 2004 (McGann 2004).

In this paper I want to examine how blogs came to be perceived as valuable and desirable, and examine the significance of the resurrection of authorship for figures such as Salam Pax (Dear Raed — the Baghdad Blogger), Muzimei (the Chinese Sex Blogger) and Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit), as well as in the absence of authorship in the anonymous Belle du Jour: Diary of a London Call Girl. These blogs achieved readerships that extended well beyond personal or subcultural circles, and developed substantial public profiles through coverage in the mainstream media. Many of these blogs entered into the conventional economy of authorship by being published as books.

My initial hypothesis is that blog texts follow the model of conventional authorship more faithfully than other online forms. In the terms of Foucault’s famous essay ‘What is an author?’ blogs can invoke the author-function (1977) more effectively than static personal home pages, wikis or discussion forums. The combination of features and conventions supported by blog software and followed by blog writers invests these sites with a certain cultural capital that conventional flat home pages lack. Because blogs have a single owner owner, they speak with a consistent and identifiable voice. Over time (and by reading the archive) readers get a sense of a consistent identity that is the source of this text. The structure of blogs as a series of posts over time allows them to be read as emergent narratives. Blogs almost immediately established their own canon: from even early in the development of the ‘blogosphere’, a group of blogs called the ‘A-List’ had many more readers than others. Authorship is most strongly reasserted when a blog is taken up by the mainstream media.

The reappearance of authorship in blogs seems to refute, or at least complicate, the predictions of theorists of electronic writing in the 1990s such as George Landow, Richard Lanham and Mark Poster who celebrated the liberating potentials of textual non-linearity and the possibility of escaping the autocracy of print authorship. Landow (1991) argued that hypertext embodied in technology the Derridean project of challenging the valorisation and privileging of text: logocentrism. He claimed that hypertext’s non-linear and multivocal structures would decentre the author and break down the hierarchies of knowledge and power. Lanham saw electronic writing as heralding a new more democratic era in which the static and restricted world of books gives way to the richness and dynamism of electronic culture. Poster’s more qualified argument claimed that the rise of digital electronic communication brought in a new era — a new mode of information that would transform culture and reconfigure authorship (1990).
These strong claims about hypertext’s liberating potential were well critiqued at the time. For example, Richard Grusin’s essay ‘What is an Electronic Author? Theory and the Technological Fallacy’ points to misreadings of Derrida and Barthes by both Landow and Poster. He argues that these theories operate under a technological fallacy by positioning the features of technologies as leading directly and inevitably to particular social changes.

the characterization of electronic writing as unstable, ephemeral, or dematerialized needs to be carefully reconsidered. Following the lead of Latour’s analysis of technoscience in action, I would suggest that to understand what is new and different about electronic authorship, we need to look at the way in which the network of inscriptions that constitute electronic writing circulates within a heterogeneous social space of cultural, linguistic, and technoscientific practices. (Grusin 1994 :483)

The early theorists of electronic writing were only speculating about the future of electronic writing, or at best extrapolating from early experimental hypertext systems. A decade later, when networked electronic writing has become widespread as a social practice, it is already clear that most of the predictions about the social changes that would come from electronic writing have not been borne out. The dominant vehicles for electronic publishing are as centralised and controlled by commercial interests as traditional print media. Many of the most visited websites and online services are controlled by media conglomerates that pre-existed the Internet. Particularly since the tech-wreck of 2000, a small number of companies dominate the web. Vigorous enforcement of intellectual property law and content regulation in many jurisdictions is restricting online activities. Even the blog, among the most demotic of Internet forms, might be considered to be regressing to conventions that electronic writing should have escaped: a resurrection of the monovocal author, a linear narrative structure and the domination of a new elite. To understand these apparently developments, this paper will answer Grusin’s call for attention to the imbrication of electronic writing in wider ‘cultural, linguistic and technoscientific practices’.

The magical power of authorship

Authorship is a cultural convention so familiar that it is almost invisible. Readers habitually interpret texts using their knowledge about who wrote them. However, as recent literary theory and cultural criticism has shown, our usual assumptions about authorship mask some complex questions about knowledge and identity. Authorship is conventional rather than natural. It is in the nature of writing, as opposed to speech, that readers encounter texts beyond the living presence of the author. Where face-to-face statements are (supposedly) guaranteed by the presence of the speaker, and remain open to question, adaptation and justification, writing needs other modes of authorisation. Printed documents, which will have many readers who lack knowledge of context, need even more developed strategies for being readable by a heterogeneous audience.

Many of the conventions that developed for print media address the problem of not immediately knowing who is speaking. Certain elements of a text attribute that text to a source: an author’s name on the book cover, a newspaper by-line, or the author information in a blog. These powerful marks are metacommunication: information about information (Bateson 1972). Metacommunication establishes the relationship between the parties during an event of communication — in this case, the reader and the absent author. It sets a context for the remainder of the text. When a reader is equipped with this information about who is speaking, the author’s voice usually seems quite natural. However, this everyday experience is actually something of a metaphysical ritual. Readers complete what is missing from the communication with their imagination, informed by their prior knowledge of the author’s work, reputation, critical reception, and biography. This is the necessary magic of authorship.

Underneath the magic, material forces helped establish and expand the institution of authorship. With rise of printing after the 1500s, the bound book become the basic unit of production for the printing press — a saleable, portable, durable, readable and collectable commodity. The production processes and economics of mass production and marketing of books helped secure the author as a key cultural authority figure. Print works could be carefully revised and checked for internal consistency and logical coherence, so that books expressed knowledge with superhuman precision and logical elaborateness. However, this bookish culture with the author at the centre took some time to develop, with struggles between the interests of authors and the printing guilds that controlled the production (Johns 1998). Copyright laws assigned legal protection to the products of the author’s labour, and assured its economic value.

With the rise of books, knowledge shifted from being shared throughout a community towards being centred on the individual creativity of the ‘man of letters’ — the author (Eisenstein 1993: 101). Books presented artificially cohesive, bordered, authorised and stable units of knowledge.These changes were associated with dramatic changes in ‘psychodynamics’ towards ways of thinking that are more open to new ideas, but also more exclusive, elitist and closed than oral cultures (Ong 1988).

The cultural magic of authorship was embellished, enhanced and transformed by Romanticism. The author was attributed the mysterious power of individual genius — an exclusive and superior capacity to produce original knowledge. However, authorship did not follow any simple template. Rather, a proliferation of discourses developed many different images of the author. The voice in a text could purport to present a direct manifestation of the author’s intentions and thoughts, or merely be a channel for a truth summoned from some force outside — artistic inspiration, spiritual calling or scientific objectivity. Authorship became a literary obsession for both the Romantics and the Moderns: celebrating, questioning or erasing the author. Where Coleridge declares the poet as a genius who almost unconsciously summons up powerful prose, Borges plays with the paradoxes around the impossibility of originality or true representation (Bennett 2005).

Over time, for better or worse, the author’s name came to be to most powerful brand for knowledge. This convention participates in regimes of domination. Authorship marks gender, age and nationality, worldview and ideology. The author’s name transcends the proper name of a living person to become, in some cases a signifier for an entire field of knowledge and field of practice.

…unlike a proper name, which moves from the interior of a discourse to the real person outside who produced it, the name of the author remains at the contours of texts—separating one from the other, defining their form, and characterising their modes of discourse. It points to the existence of certain groups of discourses and refers to the status of this discourse within society and culture. (Foucault 1977: 123)

In spite of challenges from feminist, post-colonialist and other critics, authors’ names remain some of the most powerful nodal points that differentiates social and political fields, and defines identity positions. Darwin is the persona that divides evolutionists from creationists; Marxist traditions identify various relationships with the figure of Marx; and the lineage following Freud is twistier still. Many disciplines are defined by a range of relationships with a particular canon of authors: literary studies (which is the site of contestation for many of the hypertext theorists), Philosophy, Political Science and so on. Paradoxically, even arguments that authorship is in decline had to be made through claims to authorship.

Authorship is a powerful, flexible, but exclusive cultural resource. It authorises texts by associating them with singular ephemeral public images of identity. It is a powerful boundary abstraction that connects and defines modern social fields: legal, professional, aesthetic, political, economic and intellectual. As I have shown, it operates differently in each field, but works as a mediator and crossover point in mutualistic (and agonistic) social ecologies. Far from dissolving authorship, as hypertext theorists predicted, blogs perpetuate, coexist with, and transform it.

Blogs and authorship

The reappearance of authorship in blogs is complex and inconsistent. In many cases, a blog’s title is far more prominent than the author’s name, particularly when a blog is created by a group of people rather than an individual (for example, BoingBoing). Many other blogs are anonymous or use pseudonyms. However, in spite of these differences and inconsistencies, blogs are almost always attributed to ‘authors’ or ‘owners’ in some way. Authorship remains the dominant paradigm for giving texts location and authority, particularly as texts are extracted further from their context. Readers expect to attribute a text to an imagined writer. Lawyers expect a subject who owns the copyright (even where these rights have been waived or qualified by Creative Commons licences). Journalists seek sources or central figures for an effective story. The features of blogs play into these conventions and expectations.

The hosting service ‘Blogger’, for example, which is often credited with driving the blogging craze, supports a number of different ways a user’s identity is defined. All users must specify a username (identifying the author to the system), an email address (facilitating correspondence), a display name (used to sign blog posts), and optional First Name and Last Name fields. Privacy options establish whether or not a user’s ‘real name’ will be displayed, or their ‘profile’ shared. These intricate distinctions built into the software offer blog writers a range of ways to mobilise the author-function. These fields function as powerful metacommunicative cues that establish the author persona: either with the ‘hot’ presence of detailed biographical information and images in a profile, or through the mysterious and cool absence of such cues (McLuhan 1964). With these features, blogs integrate authorship cues and inter-linking operations into the infrastructure more completely than personal home pages. The automatic date-stamp gives a sense that each post comes from an objectively calculated moment in time. The title on each post allows readers to scan pages quickly, and imposes some order on the content.

Writers working with the altered forms of authorship in blogs respond to the very different material conditions of these texts. Blogs are not books. Books are produced, distributed, promoted and sold through commercial publishers. Blogs are usually created by an individual (or small group), openly accessible (often explicitly without copyright) and cheaply electronically distributed. Blogs operate with a different temporal order. Books have a date of publication that stamps the entire contents with a year. Blogs read as inverted emergent episodic narratives. Book texts are carefully organised, formally expressed, complete and internally consistent. Blogs are first drafts, conversational, familiar and fragmentary. Blogs even support immediate dialogue with readers through comments. If authorship inheres in blogs, it is usually does not connect the same social fields as print authorship.

Blogs are a demotic form of popular culture, with very low financial and technical barriers to production, distribution and consumption. The content management functions of blogs opened up web authorship to a much wider group of people — those without skills or interest in web design. Blogs imposed visual consistency and relative transparency of navigation in comparison with sites composed as flat web pages with user-defined links. It took significantly less effort to maintain sites. Perhaps most importantly, blogs introduced a new nonsense word for this cultural form. Blogs moved metaphorically out of the domestic space and into the public sphere.

You might expect that the openness of blogs would make them more meritocratic as a cultural form. Quality and relevance should drive popularity, rather than the interests of a small oligopoly of media owners. However, the patterns of blog readership follow disappointingly similar trends towards monopoly, well out of proportion to differences in quality of the writing or the content. Only twenty blogs attract over a million page views. [source?] Blog popularity is very uneven. Many have observed that links to blogs follow the typical power law distributions (Shirky 2003) so that fewer than 20% of bloggers get more than 80% of the link traffic.

Blogs have also gravitated towards two different but related traditions of authorship: the public political and private confessional discourses. Biz Stone (2004) identifies three general categories of blogs: technology, politics and diary. However, technology blogs are closely associated with the context in which blogs emerged: distributed communities engaged in developing innovations in Internet technologies and applications. The other two — politics and diaries —invoke longer traditions in writing practice. All cultural forms require some source of investment, whether that is capital or something less objective. Diary blogs (like homepages before them) are often invested with personal meanings, and used as a resource for experimenting with identity. Political blogs are invested with a commitment to political ideas and programs.

Political blogs participate in the tradition of public political debate — following practices such as pamphleteering, newspaper editorials, political campaigns and manifestos. In this discourse, the name of a speaker marks a position in relation to an ideological framework and policy program. The significance of these categories is apparent in the listings of conservative and liberal blogs (particularly in the US) on portal and award sites. Political blog sites typically express strong partisan opinions, directed towards a particular constituency (even if it purports to aspire to convince those outside this group).

Blogs became anointed with public significance through events in which they impacted on the public sphere. Among the most notorious incidents followed an edition of 60 Minutes in September 2004, in which Dan Rather claimed to have uncovered records exposing the military record of President G.W. Bush. Immediately after the program, blogs such as Powerline and Little Green footballs posted analyses that discredited these documents as forgeries. These stories helped open up a dialogue between high profile blogs and journalists, and became symbolic of the potential credibility and significance of blogs.

The perceived legitimacy of many political blogs came from their position outside mainstream institutions. Blogs across the political spectrum use their outsider’s position to establish an authority that comes from lack of association with perceived vested interests in mainstream politics and media. Blogs from ZNet on the left to Instapundit on the right play on popular suspicion of the mainstream media (MSM). Paradoxically, their authority came from not having a position of authority. However, some have claimed that some blogs have been set up to exploit this outsider position and seeding stories that would otherwise not be run in the mainstream media.

The diary blog, on the other hand, traces its history to modes of writing associated with the private sphere — interpersonal correspondence, personal diaries, confessional storytelling and (the most public form) autobiography. Certain rhetorical features in the performance of blog writing accentuate the sense of presence: colloquial and ‘spoken’ language, descriptions of domestic settings, references to common experiences of daily life, media events and popular cultural texts. Where political blogs are inflected with the masculine values of personal assertiveness, rationality and competition, diary blogs are associated with more feminine values of sharing, gossip and self-reflection.

Blog authorship is somewhat different from the previous model of giving an individual an online presence: the personal homepage. While the weblog still carries a metaphorical residue of Romanticism in inferring that the blog author is somehow present in the text (Milne 2003), it abandons the spatial metaphor and recognises online texts as a form of writing. Most ‘homepages’ created in the late 1990s have fallen into disrepair. As web design became professionalised, personal pages increasingly stood out as being of amateurish construction. They often had unconventional and inconsistent layout and navigation. People found it impossible to keep their home tidy and fresh.

Most personal sites are a minor form of authorship without any expectation of immediate financial gain. While blogs are theoretically accessible to anyone on the Internet, most get limited traffic. They effectively operate as a mode of interpersonal communication: a more public alternative to email. In these cases, most readers already know the writer, and understand the context of the text. This is a young medium used mainly by the young: some estimates say that over 90% of blogs are written by people under thirty (McGann 2004). Blogs are not a genre, but a medium in formation.

There are some diary blog sites that have achieved a public profile through their overtly sexual content: Muzimei’s Love Letters Left in China, Belle de Jour: Diary of a London Call Girl in the UK, and Jessica Cutler’s Washingtonienne in the US. Even though these blogs emerged from three different continents, as phenomena they are remarkable similar. Each presented hyperbolic narratives of transgressive sexuality, which would usually not be in the respectable press. Because they were expressed in a new medium, these texts become news, and had licence to enter into circulation as legitimate public curiosities. The economies of exhibitionism and voyeurism thrive on a general scarcity of open discourse on sexuality. The other enters the public sphere through a ritualistic exposure of the private domain. Once in the public domain, these figures become the centre of a public spectacle, and subject to a ceremonial trial, with detractors, defenders and denigrators weighing in to the debate.

The ‘sex blog’ by LiLi (whose pseudonym waas Muzimei) is the story of the brazen journalist in a conservative country who reveals that she has slept with dozens of men, including an encounter with a famous rock star. The anonymous London call girl writing Belle de Jour: Diary of a London Call Girl, gives an account of her day-to-day encounters with clients — featuring details that only someone working in that industry could know. Media speculation continues over the identity of the call girl. Jessica Cutler was the employee of a Washington DC Republican Senator. She posted to her blog the Washingtonienne stories of sexual encounters. She gets fired for it, but winds up with a publishing deal, and a reputation.

In the context of these exposé blogs, authorship is not a source of authority, but of public spectacle. While this notoriety converted into publishing deals for each of these authors, this model of authorship was very different. In some senses, these events provide a rare opportunity for ethical discourse on activities in the private sphere, but the bulk of the reactions reaffirm conventional attitudes to gender and sexuality.

Re-invoking the author-function

In this paper I have argued that the compositional conventions and technical features of blogs articulate authorship more effectively than home pages, discussion forums and other modes of electronic writing. It is difficult to generalise about authorship. Blogs demonstrate that part of its long-term strength as an institution is its adaptability. They reinvent and reaffirm authorship as the dominant paradigm for the metacommunication associated with written texts. The synchronous inverted narrative structure maintains consistent of voice and visual presentation with events marked location, giving a sense of actual space and real time. The dialogue with readers through comments compensates for the lack of careful editing and conversational style. As a text travels further from its context, the author looms larger. Therefore, blog authorship is most prominent outside the blogosphere — in the culture that is still trying to comprehend new media.

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