Yes We Can (Blog)! Blogs as a Field for Academic Research
The HCA Graduate Blog is launching its first post! To celebrate this occasion and yet remain dedicated to our research focus on this platform, we have decided to have a look at how blogs feature in our academic work. All four of the blog’s founding members are going to give you a short insight into why the ‘blogosphere’ might be an interesting area for research.
As one focus of my dissertation is inequality in the US, recent social movements have regularly fascinated me and have led to a special interest in political communication in the new digital age (Rauscher, 2018). Rising inequality in its many forms seems to be at the heart of many of recent political clashes. The US has witnessed a number of protest movements in recent years, and it seems as if social unrest has become ubiquitous in today’s America. May it be the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, the #Metoo movement, or recently right-leaning street protests, all of them have one thing in common: They make use of social media extensively. It has become crucial for all political actors to ‘win’ social media. The New York Times recently wrote Who’s winning the Social Media Midterms? (Roose, Collins 2018) and wrote about which political actor is garnering most social media attention and interaction. Social media has become one of the main vehicles to create and foster political activism and to rally supporters. And one of the go-to outlets for many of these activists have been political blogs!
In the US, the mainstream media has been under pressure for a while, especially with conservatives rejecting most of them as being politically liberal rather than neutral. Therefore, they have created their own outlets, for example political blogs. In the US they have become one of the most relied upon sources for information, although the party-affiliation is often all too clear. The purpose is not to inform an open audience neutrally, but rather to feed a political clientele with what they want to hear. For political protest, this is rather crucial for its structure: “obtaining legitimacy is complex but also central to the question of why movements matter“. (Laschever, 2017, S. : 359) Eulalie Laschever comments on political blogs taking into account the Occupy Wall Street Movement and the Tea Party:
Partisan media outlets, like political blogs, are vital certifying agents because movements can use them to test their message with a sympathetic audience […], mobilize members […], and elevate their cause to the national agenda […]. Blogs change the game for movements by increasing their ability to secure and control message dissemination.(Laschever 2017, 360)
Mainstream media is often out of the picture when it comes to spreading a message and mobilizing supporters. They only take notice when the protests are already organized or if the protest turns violent or disruptive. Blogs then still face the task to actually explain their message and inform the public about their arguments (Laschever 2017, 362f.).
Generally, blogs remain a vital part of today’s political communication even though many other outlets such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat have gained greater attention. Blogs remain important because they deliver more in-depth messages of ongoing political activism. Together with the scope of other instant communication platforms they remain a powerful tool of communication in today’s globally connected digital world.
In my dissertation project, I look at contemporary populists’ anti-authority rhetoric in the United States. This includes, among others, anti-mainstream media rhetoric which, paradoxically, is often spread via new media platforms such as blogs. At the same time, a vast number of blogs critically deal with populism to provide insights into the topic from different angles.
American populists have always attempted to use their respective media environment to their advantage. Starting with the People’s Party in the 1890s, the country saw different waves of populist leaders and movements of left and right taking advantage of the media environment to spread their message. The People’s Party used pamphlets and newspapers in the late 1800s (Priester 2007, 85), in the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin preached in his weekly radio show (Priester 2007, 108), and George Wallace used mass media in the 1960s and 1970s to create his public image (Smith 2003, 177).
More recent movements, such as the Tea Party, have utilized the advantages provided by new media to reach their audiences. Via social media platforms and blogs, populists avoid traditional media gatekeepers to directly talk to ‘the people.’
Contemporary populists often utilize the power of new media to attack mainstream media. Populism is based on a Manichean vision of society, placing an in-group (‘us’) against an out-group (‘them’). In this world view, mainstream media outlets are frequently portrayed as the out-group, as part of the corrupt elite. One example for anti-media rhetoric are President Trump’s attacks on Twitter:
Framing mainstream media as the enemy and enhancing antagonisms like ‘us’ versus ‘them’ appeals to the American public’s increasing distrust of elites. New research found that the anti-media rhetoric and news framing actually has the potential to shape audience’s perception of news media (Schulz 2018). Thus, new media outlets provide a platform to not only negatively frame mainstream media, but also to influence audience’s attitudes.
However, populist blogs as well as blogs dealing with populism from different angles can encourage political participation. Many scholars have argued for populism’s potential to act as corrective for democracies by raising issues that have been previously overlooked, thus mobilizing citizens (cf. Judis 2016, Mudde 2012, Taggart 2000).
Populist blogs often understand ‘populist’ as ‘by the people.’ In the case of ThePopulist.Buzz, the authors provided a platform for the exchange of ideas to rethink the “Democratic Party, built around a progressive, populist platform, with a reinvigorated grassroots base” (Dreyfuss and Sawicky 2017). In addition to that, a vast number of blogs critically deal with populism. Examples include the Political Observatory on Populism (POP), where “Populism is investigated in all his forms” (POP 2018), and the project Countering Populism and Political Disaffection with its aim of collecting and discussing strategies to counter right-wing populism (Progressives Zentrum e.V. 2018). Therefore, blogs can help to spread a message and mobilize audiences, thus potentially increasing political participation.
Over the last two decades, the literary world has undergone a number of significant transformations, many of which are the product of technological innovations and unfold in what could be called a “digital literary sphere” (Murray 2018, 9). Among these dramatic changes, the emergence of blogs does not seem like a pivotal factor, but a closer look at the history of blogging about literature reveals that it has been—and to some extent still is—intertwined with a number of recent developments in the contemporary literary field.
Book blogs were initially conceived as the spare-time project of passionate bibliophiles, some of them already professionally involved with the literary world, most, however, merely avid amateur readers and writers. Just like elsewhere in the blogosphere, these ‘lit-blogs’ of the first-generation (sites like MobyLives, Bookslut, and The Elegant Variation), were hailed for their democratic potential: the utopian prospect of an unlimited space of literary debate where any book could be addressed and every voice would be heard. As blogging gained popularity and astonished writers who had never been reviewed before saw their works draw attention from bloggers (Paul 2005), it must have appeared to some that blogs might become a serious rival to mainstream outlets of literary criticism.
Needless to say, established literary institutions were more critical of these developments. In its 2007 Decivilizing Process issue the avant-garde magazine n+1 published a polemic titled “The Blog Reflex,” which denounced blogging as the outgrowth of a fast-paced, attention-craving online culture without the ability and the ambition to engage in serious literary criticism:
The need for speed encourages, as a willed style, the intemperate, the unconsidered, the undigested. (Not for nothing is the word blog evocative of vomit.) […] Lit-bloggers are the avant-garde of 21st-century publicity. They represent a perfection of the outsourcing ethos of contemporary capitalism. […] So why should publishers pay publicists and advertise in book supplements when a community of native agents exist [sic] who will perform the same service for nothing and with an aura of indie cred?(The Editors [Roth & Gessen] 2007)
The blogosphere reacted promptly and accused n+1 of overgeneralization and elitist territorialism (Hallberg 2007)—a response that was to be expected given countless blogs all over the web that produced thorough criticism and delivered perceptive analyses of social, political, and economic factors shaping the literary world themselves. Still, n+1 was not entirely wrong to question the supposed independence and non-profit ethos of bloggers. The distribution of advance copies and giveaways for readers had long been established as a way of advertising by publishers and affiliate marketing programs launched by online bookstores opened up new opportunities for a commercialization of blogs (Thompson 2012, 253).
In the rapidly changing digital world, however, the blogosphere has since also come under pressure from another internet phenomenon. The growing popularity of social networks which incorporated analogous features has caused many users to turn their interest towards the microblogging services of Twitter and Facebook (Kopytoff 2011). Some lit-blogs have been able to find their niche, particularly in the realms of genre fiction, where they still act as important tastemakers. But the lion’s share of amateur criticism now thrives on Goodreads, where the sheer mass of reviews is processed with complex algorithms to build a network-based system of “social curation” that users rely on for book recommendations (English 2016).
On the other end of the spectrum, a number of blogs has managed to professionalize their own variant of the literary review essay: Sites like The Millions or The New Inquiry, which started out as co-authored blogs have developed into highly prolific digital enterprises with editorial boards and staff writers that are nowadays hard to distinguish from traditional media outlets. In their wake, the web has seen an upsurge in the numbers of so-called “New Internet Little Magazines” (e.g., Electric Literature or The Los Angeles Review of Books) which can be considered an “extension of the bloggers’ project” in terms of appropriating their style and genre-friendly pluralism (Kindley 2018, 354-5). Also, traditional print magazines and publishing houses have by now launched their own platforms for distribution and monetization of content from mere clickbait (e.g., on Signature, a blog run by Penguin Random House) to a blend of serious criticism, literary journalism, and interviews (e.g., on the blogs of The Paris Review or The New Yorker).
As of 2018, the heyday of traditional literary blogs indeed seems to be over, but that should not prevent academic researchers from building an interest in them. After all, their offspring appear to be here to stay and “[t]he archives will remain up until the apocalypse comes” (Crispin 2016), providing an attractive and largely unexplored field for those interested in the digital dissemination of literary trends and the formation of literary institutions.
The routine way for me as a linguist to approach a blog is, in a first step, descriptive. A blog is a genre, or a category of text, and can be classified along certain parameters, such as register, style and function. Formal features of a text can even be measured quantitatively (Biber 1992), and the patterns of these features determine different genres. For blog authors and blog readers, however, such aspects of the blog as genre seem, frankly, irrelevant at first. Besides being defined by a certain diverse set of features, genres are, more importantly, “cultural products and social forms of communication, conditioned by their time and social setting” (Jucker and Taavitsainen 2013: 147). It is the perspective of language as a meaning-making resource which creates social spaces for communication in different settings and configurations underlying Jucker and Taavitsainen’s definition that provides a meaningful account of the blog as a specialized text type—everchanging, located at the interface between public and private, formal and informal. Blogs create and live off engaging discourse communities and facilitate a creative use of multisemiotic resources, such as a music video, hyperlinks to online news articles, images to illustrate or support an argument—or a tweet:
I use Social Media not because I like to, but because it is the only way to fight a VERY dishonest and unfair “press,” now often referred to as Fake News Media. Phony and non-existent “sources” are being used more often than ever. Many stories & reports a pure fiction!(Trump 2017b)
Twitter, in the linguistic term of a genre, is a microblog, i.e., an easy-access online platform that enables users to transmit short, spontaneous messages to a virtual (mass) audience. In the tweet above, Trump’s metacommentary on his preferred mode of communication via of social media as a way to avoid media gatekeepers points to the social and cultural dimensions of (micro)blogging as it echoes a dominant sentiment of our time. There has been a shift in the way (or where) politics is made, which can be traced back to a shift in authority over news production and consumption. This shift is the result of a complex set of changes in society, culture, politics, and economy, but is also closely linked to digitization and technological advances. Genres are “dynamic cultural schemata used to organise knowledge and experience through language. They change over time in response to their users’ sociocultural need” (Taavitsainen 2001: 129). In the same way, blogs tend to our current sociocultural need to choose the most trustworthy news sources, to set the political and social agenda by making our individual voices heard, especially in the currents of ‘fake news’, masses of traditional and ‘alternative’ news sites, populist movements and counter-movements (see Maren’s and Natalie’s contributions in this post). The (micro)blog genre serves as a modern vehicle of democratic participation.
At the same time, viewing genre as “a socially ratified way of using language in connection with a particular type of social activity” (Fairclough 1995: 14.), sheds new light on Trump’s underdog success. Breaking with genre-conventions, i.e., the type of genre employed by politicians to communicate publicly as well as the register and style used in political communicative genres, have served Trump’s image of the unpresidential president. Cursing, name-calling, disregard of codes of presidential conduct, using (besides Twitter) Instagram and Reddit as a virtual megaphone to the people—Trump’s strategic play with communication channels and their respective genre(s) effectively substantiate his politics of disruption.
The scholars bird’s eye perspective on all kinds of genres and their interplay, including blogs and microblogs, is my default perspective as a linguistics PhD researcher. Describing linguistic forms and analyzing them in their micro- and macro-social contexts is, however, only one aspect of research. As a researcher with a critical perspective (‘critical’ in the sense of Critical Discourse Studies, see Wodak and Meyer 2016), a major part of research is making it known, bridging the gap between research and society. Writing in the blog genre challenges my own academic thinking, encouraging me to write closer to my own experience while remaining critical and continuing to engage with the society that I explore academically, but am also part of.
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