Glen is a PhD student and his research examines contemporary modified-car culture. He has been described in the media as a “former self-confessed hoon.”
The Evental Potential of Blogs
Something of a blogging ‘noob,’ blogs really only came to my attention during the recent 2004 US Presidential Election. The various roles of blogs and bloggers in the election was one of the positive things to come out of this otherwise dire historical episode. What seems to be confused is the impact (if any) of blogs and bloggers on the election. In the specific case of the US Presidential Election, this paper shall argue that the impact of blogs and bloggers on the outcome of the election is only indirect. Blogs allow for immediate, that is, ‘real-time’ social commentary across networks of distributed competencies and this impacted on the production of the television news-based ‘media-event’ of the election. It is possible to witness that blogs, and other forms of New Media in general, have demonstrated they can play a specific role in the modulation of Old Media’s production of a ‘media-event’. This paper has two goals. The first argument shall attempt to locate the role of blogs in relation to the emergence of the media-event of the recent 2004 US Presidential Election. It shall be argued that blogging practice interupts the temporal series of news-media production by Old Media and that it also creates a short-circuit in the feed-back loop between the producers and consumers of the media-event. The second argument is more speculative and stems from the first but places the role of blogging in a much larger and banal context. I use the ‘diagram’ of blogging practice in relation to the 2004 US Presidential Election media-event to think about the relation of blogs and the modulation of everyday events.
The Use of Blogs in the Election
For those immersed in the blogosphere or working as scholars of blogging, the role of blogs in the US presidential election is not really ‘new’ news. I want to shift the focus slightly from many of the comments I have read on blogs and elsewhere that seem to set blogging and ‘Old Media’ up in an antagonistic relation. I want to do this be focusing on the role of blogs in modulating the media-event of the election. However, before I do it is necessary to place blogs in a broader election context and very briefly stake the three main roles blogs were used in the election:
1) They were used by some presidential candidates as mechanisms for fundraising and as a form of communication with the electorate and supporters.
2) They were used by supporters of particular candidates or parties in an unofficial capacity.
3) They were also used by political and media commentators in what has been described as a ‘fact-checking’ capacity for claims and stories produced by the traditional broadcast media.(Coggins n.p.)
Official blogs and other forms of online presence certainly affected the nature of the election as a historical event. Brian Faler in an article for The Washington Post on the role of blogs in the Democratic Presidential Candidates race for selection suggests that:
Less passive than Web sites, less private than e-mail, blogs help build a sense of community among supporters, according to campaign aides and outside experts. They give supporters a chance to find and talk to one another. To suggest ideas for the campaign. To express and discuss their opinions. To read more about their candidates than any single newspaper would ever publish. Even, occasionally, to work as an in-house focus group, giving the campaign their opinions on projects. (Faler A04)
It is clear that not all blogs are equal, for even though the Bush-Cheney campaign installed a blog it was criticized for being “a series of tacked-together press releases made to look like a weblog” (“George W. Bush Weblog Launches” qtd.in Rice 9). The nature of discussion and public input on the different Presidential campaign blogs might also reflect broader political ideologies. Cameron Barrett, ex-consultant for the Kerry online campaign, has noted:
Not having these [blog] tools is a mistake. As a Democratic candidate, Kerry’s web site must reflect the ideals of the Democratic Party: democracy, debate, dissent and free speech, among others. Any medium where you are limiting the ability to speak out and disagree with the provider of the information is an un-democratic medium. (qtd.in Willis par. 6)
Or from the Democratic National Committee blog (called “Kicking Ass”):
One of the most common complaints about politicians and political parties is that there’s no real communication between those of us in Washington and the rest of America. We put out press releases, email newsletters, fundraising appeals, form letters and advertisements. You write letters, volunteer, and donate. But where’s the frank, one-on-one communication? Blogs make that possible. On Kicking Ass, you’re going to meet real people at the DNC and hear our real thoughts. And we’re going to listen to you. (Democratic National Committee n.p.)
As well as serving as a forum for discussion, blogs for some Presidential Candidates also served as an avenue for fund raising. Internet-fundraising was pioneered by Democratic Presidential Candidate and Governor Howard Dean on his ‘Blog for America’ site which allowed his campaign to raise millions of “grass-roots dollars”(Ulbrich par. 4). Dean’s political action group, Democracy for America, originally had a goal of $250,000 that was represented on the site as a baseball bat that would fill with donations. They managed to raise half a million US dollars in one day, and go on to raise $1.275 million dollars in 3 months (Democracy for America n.p.).
The Media-Event of the Election
Besides the function of blogs to serve as forums for discussion or additional avenues for fund raising activities, they also interrupted in the production and emergence of the ‘media-event’ of the election. The concept of the media-event emerged in the work of Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz on broadcast rituals that captivate large populations, sometimes entire populations and sometimes the world. The media-event is defined by:
1) The technologies of mediation and the role of the media, mainly broadcast television, to transmit the events;
2) They interrupt the daily routine of broadcasting and its status as an event that is not everyday;
3) Their non-media or ‘historical’ origin. (5)
4) The process of negotiation that legitimatizes the media-event. The negotiation is between organisers of the (historical) event, producers of the media-event and the audience of the media-event. (9-14)
In one straightforward sense, the event of the Election Day is clearly a media-event as outlined by Dayan and Katz. For a banal example, I stayed awake all night until the late hours of the morning watching the spectacle of the 2004 Presidential election unfold on CNN while I was in Sweden. Staying up late was actually part of my routine, but watching CNN for about 14 hours straight certainly was not. However, the conception of the Election Day event as a media-event becomes problematic if the preceding media coverage and events are taken into account.
The period of a media-event’s becoming is crucial in the circuit of feedback between organisers of the event, producers of the media-event and the audience of the media-event and participants of the event. For example, Dayan and Katz argue that the televised Presidential debates are media-events. Yariv Tsfati (2003) has investigated the relation between media coverage of debates and the audience’s understanding of who won the debates. He argues there is a clear relation between news coverage that nominates a candidate as a winner and the effect of this nomination on the audience’s understanding of who won or lost the debate (77-79). As the 2004 Presidential election debates demonstrated however, whoever wins the debates leading up to Election Day does not necessarily indicate who will win on Election Day. Tsfati’s research at least indicates that the media event produced of the historical event is important for understanding the impact of the historical event.
Dayan and Katz discuss the emergence of the media in terms of recognition on the part of an audience of an event’s importance. They note the role of broadcasters in the production of an event as a media-event: “These events are preplanned, announced and advertised in advance. […] There is an active period of looking forward, abetted by the promotional activity of the broadcasters” (7). Later they add, “[t]he interruption [of the media-event], when it comes, has been deliberately advertised and rehearsed. […] It comes as not a complete surprise […] but as something long anticipated and looked forward to, like a holiday” (12). Much more needs to be said about the way these events emerge and become media events. Even though Dayan and Katz argue that the media-event must be “well rehearsed and well advertised rather than being spontaneous,” (169) the process of political momentum building for an election day, including other events that are media-events in their own right, such as the debates, and what can only be described as the total media coverage of this momentum building, is of a different magnitude to most other media-events.
If the media-event is something that is “long anticipated” what needs to be interrogated is the sense of anticipation produced and the role of the media in the production of this anticipation. Brian Massumi argues that anticipation “extends the actual moment beyond itself, superposing one moment upon the next” (“Parables of the Virtual” 91). The crucial difference between an election and any other form of media-event is that the audience for an election media-event, in a very real way, participants in the historical event being broadcast. The total media coverage of candidates in the period preceding an election, which for the challenger can be over a year, feeds into the construction of the election day, not only on the level of the media-event, but the historical event that is broadcast. Until now the institionalized forms of knowledge production that constitute ‘Old Media’ have had a hegemonic grip over the selection, production and distribution of the live broadcasting of history as media-events (Barone, 2004). The question then, what is the specific role of blogging that modulated the becoming of the Election Day media-event?
Bloggers Modulating the Media-Event
In the face of bellicose commentary on Old Media by pundits of New Media on the topic of the supposed superiority of New Media, I want to suggest that the role of bloggers in the selection and therefore initial construction of media-events is severely limited. The plane of immanence of the presidential election media-event remained Old Media, that is, the institutional nature of Old Media bestows legitimacy upon their practices of knowledge production. Bloggers do have an impact on the constitution and modulation of the media-event of the election, but it seems it is mainly through inter-media network relations. For example, one journalist commented that blogs “may not be doing much to sway undecided voters, but analysts say they strongly impact the media, campaign consultants and activists” (Jesdanun par. 3). I shall now expand on this idea further in the context of the ‘fact-checking’ carried out by bloggers.
The ‘masses’ get their news from the institutionalized Old media sources which produce a cyclic rhythm of media production. The temporal dimension of news production has a mostly 24 hour cycle. New media sources interrupt this 24 hour temporal series. The apparatus of knowledge production within media institutions is attacked by a little feedback loop setup between part of the one-to-many of mass media transmission with the one-to-a-few-of-the-many of blogging and New Media in general. My argument locates the blogosphere within the media apparatus, but on the reception side of the ‘media event’ of the election. Blogs literally short-circuited the production of the media event of the election. Natalie Glance and Lada Adamic make a similar argument in their excellent paper on the roll of blogs in the election:
Weblogs may be read by only a minority of Americans, but their influence extends beyond their readership through their interaction with national mainstream media. (2)
The little feedback loop between Old and New Media has incredible speed. The now classic example of this is the way blogger’s disrupted the narrative constitution of the event produced by the traditional broadcast media in the story about George Bush’s National Guard service. Within 14 hours bloggers, led by frontpage.com, powerlineblog.com and littlegreenfootballs.com had brought into suspicion the basis for the news story, some documents relating to George Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service. One of the effects of the immediacy of blogs and their networked interconnectivity with Old Media means that a news story no longer merely breaks. Now, the multiple news stories that constitute a media-event are dashed against a thousand bloggers and have the potential to actually shatter, thus depotentializing the effect of the news story in relation to the becoming of the election media-event.
The role of bloggers in modulating the event’s becoming was almost as important as the role of Old Media. What we would see from the traditional media institutions is reportage on the historical event producing the media-event which enables and frames discussion. Arguably what is produced by bloggers is discussion that enables and frames the event. The Election Day event is seemingly a perfect example of modern day social events that Paul Patton describes:
While social events have always been constituted in part by the manner in which they were represented or described, the speed of modern telecommunications has undoubtedly accelerated the feedback loop between decisions, their perceived consequences and the public reactions to those perceived consequences. It is not plausible to claim that events are reducible to their representations, but it is equally implausible to claim that events and their representations are entirely distinct from one another. (Patton: par. 9)
The temporality of social events – such as the Election Day event – is not reducible to the temporality of the historical events which they envelope (Patton: par. 18; Deleuze). Patton argues that
One reason for drawing such a distinction emerges when we consider the paradoxes involved in identifying, in historical time, the precise moment at which events occur. Suppose we take a time before the event and a time after: the infinite divisibility of the series of moments implies that there are two converging series on either side of the event, but no point at which these series meet. (par. 16)
The temporality of blogging is in sync with the rhythm of the event’s becoming. Blogger time and the time of institutionalized media are rarely in sync, so that instead of the event forming ‘naturally’ it is ‘prematurely’ modulated (’premature’ and ‘natural’ in the temporal series of Old Media).
Intervening in an Excess of Meaning
Bloggers intervened in the production of the media-event in another way. There are many other events during the campaigning period leading up to Election Day that can be understood as relating to the media-event of Election Day even though they may not qualify as media-events in themselves. From a newsletter produced and distributed by the US Department of State:
In the past media coverage of presidential candidates restricted itself mostly to candidates’ official duties and activities. Now candidates invite reporters to experience the daily life of the campaign trail, personalizing the candidates to a greater degree than before. Interviews with candidates in their homes or in the studio, and televised dinners with the candidates and local families provide the public information about the issues and candidates in a more personal manner. (1-2)
The election is a perfect example of Marc Augé’s (“Non-Places” 26-40) notion that one of the tendencies of the contemporary, what he calls ‘supermodernity’, is defined by an excess of meaning. The excess is produced by the technological contraction of space, the acceleration of historical time and the individualization of mediated historical referents. Augé argues that the historical event produces an excess of meaning itself, but when coupled with the acceleration or excess of historical events, the cultural landscape is saturated in a double excess of meaning. The meaning saturated landscape is over-coded with referents that target individuals. This is clearly evident during media coverage of the US election period where every action and speech made by candidates has the potential for newsworthiness (excess of meaning), which is then broadcast in real-time across global networks of media transmission (accelerated historical time and contraction of space), and is designed to ‘connect’ with individuals in the voting population.
Writing on the history of blogging Rebecca Blood has observed that the “original weblogs were link-driven sites. Each was a mixture in unique proportions of links, commentary, and personal thoughts and essays” (par. 5). Bloggers had to have the same skills as web designers, but with the introduction of the Blogger software and user interface the terrain of blogging. Blood argues that the Blogger’s software “free-form interface combined with absolute ease of use which has, in my opinion, done more to impel the shift from the filter-style weblog to journal-style blog than any other factor” (par. 16).
The distributed networks of blogging allows for a multiplicity of partial accounts that ‘make’ sense of an excess of meaning that does not rely on the centralized institutions of the Old Media. Sense is expressed collectively across a number of producers and the relation between which is determined by the extent of self-organizing networks. The networked production of meaning involves the necessary transmission or translation of sense across the surface of these networks. As Brian Massumi has argued, in the context of the NFL and coverage of the Super Bowl Sunday sporting event, “media transmission is the becoming of the event” (“Parables of the Virtual” 81).
When a denotation of a state of affairs is re-inscribed on paper or web-page the event is modulated and sense is translated. The hyperlinked blog post is a strange combination of expression and translation of sense. What I suggest needs to be isolated are the morphogenetic movements of the event that are solidified in the blog post and blog archive. The blog post is a project of meaning that does not necessarily have spatio-temporal boundaries. It certainly has limits, both technological and discursive, but the expression of sense does not have a necessarily defined duration. Like any online user, a blogger could click on to the nonsensical infinity of hyperlinks that defines the internet and the expression of sense would continue to modulate. Literally, the blogger would surf the wave of sense produced. Hence giving substance to the phrase ‘surfing the net.’
The reverse is also true. What is the reverse? Blogging practice translates the sense of any number of expressions by dragging the event into the blog post and, via the specific individualizing temporality of blogging practice, continually sutures meaning into a dislocated and networked narrative. In other words, bloggers actualise the virtuality of the phatasmological reality of cyberspace in concrete ways. Or, again, sense is “exactly the boundary between propositions and things” (Deleuze 22) and blogging practice stretches that boundary across self-organizing networks through stitching a patchwork fold of sense. Blogging practice is thus the repeated synthesis of disparate sources filtered through the blogger’s everyday politico-discursive apparatus.
Resuscitating Meaning and the (non)Hyper-Linked Other
I am slightly underawed by the spectacularisation of blogs as having (too) much radical import or democratic potential. I have argued that they have not replaced the institutional and ideological functions of Old Media, but have interjected through attempts to modulate the (sometimes very long) becoming of a media-event. However, other than traditional understandings of the production of information institutionally tempered as ‘news’, blogging practice has the potential to interject in the excess of meaning produced within the never ending series of historical events. That is, the capacity for blogging to serve as a social-technical apparatus that can modulate the becoming of the media-event may indicate the capacity of blogs to modulate events on a different scale, but with the same diagrammatic machinic capacity demonstrated during the 2004 US Presidential Campaign period. Even if the audience is only yourself, the ability to synthesize the disparate events of your everyday life and the world in which you live may be profound. As Blood has noticed from the experience of starting up her own blog:
First, I discovered my own interests. I thought I knew what I was interested in, but after linking stories for a few months I could see that I was much more interested in science, archaeology, and issues of injustice than I had realized. More importantly, I began to value more highly my own point of view. In composing my link text every day I carefully considered my own opinions and ideas, and I began to feel that my perspective was unique and important. (par. 20)
The two ways I have argued that blogs intervened in the becoming of the Election media-event can be abstracted to understand everyday blogging practice. The real-time temporalities of blogging and networked distribution of the synthesis of sense allow individuals to organise meaning in individual ways. Rather than relying on institutionalised temporalities and the resultant rhythms, blogging allows for at least the possibility of the production of other temporal series that do not rely on necessarily consumer based rhythms of Old media. The rapid pace of events which are external to the lives of most individuals and yet are transmitted through the media in individualising ways produces an excess of meaning. The networked organisation of meaning is in large part determined by the linking practice of bloggers.
The problem still remains of the role of blogging within the dystopic vision of the internet such as outlined by the paranoid Virilio-machine in an article entitled “Cyberspace: Alarm!”:
Together with the build-up of information superhighways we are facing a new phenomenon: loss of orientation. […] The specific negative aspect of these information superhighways is precisely this loss of orientation regarding alterity (the other), this disturbance in the relationship with the other and with the world. It is obvious that this loss of orientation, this non-situation, is going to usher a deep crisis which will affect society and hence, democracy. (par. 5, 6)
This is reinforced by Glance and Adamic’s work that traced the hyperlinking practice of bloggers between blogs or sources from different political positions. The links between liberal and conservative blogs were very few relative to the links between sites of similar political positions (Glance and Adamic 8-10). Jodi Dean has made a similar argument about the depoliticising effects of New Media in general. She draws on Slavoj Zizek’s work on the concept of the zero-institution:
A zero institution is an empty signifier. It has no determinate meaning but instead signifies the presence of meaning. It is an institution with no positive function – all it does is signify institutionality as such (as opposed to chaos, for example). […] [T]he Internet has emerged as the zero institution of communicative capitalism. It enables myriad constituencies to understand themselves as part of the same global structure even as they radically disagree, fail to co-link, and inhabit fragmented and disconnected network spaces. (67)
If we are currently in an era defined by an excess of meaning – particularly in periods of media saturation exemplified by the 2004 US presidential election – then blogging practice can be understood as a socio-technical apparatus that has been seemingly tailor-made to accommodate the very human requirement for the dissemination of meaning (cf. Augé “Anthropology for Contemporaneous Worlds”). The distributed networks of blogging have the potential to counter-effectuate the loss of orientation in an era defined by an excess of meaning. Brian Massumi argues that “[m]eaning is the contraction of difference and repetition in a self-expiring expression” (“User’s Guide” 20), this is evidenced by the rhythms of Old media, which produce self-expiring newsworthiness. Massumi then goes on to state: “Power is the resuscitation of meaning” (20). I want to suggest this is a very useful way to think about blogging practice beyond debates over their political import. The evental potential of blogs is that, within individual non-institutional temporalities, they are a real-time resuscitation of meaning. However, blogging does not necessarily transcend already existing ideological constructs or political positions and, to the detriment of democracy, can provide the perfect context for ignoring relations of alterity. Or, to put it another way, blogging does allow for the production of an ‘orientation’ in the world, but one that is essentially self-referential.
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