Monday, October 8, 2012

Le Blogue est mort, vive le Blogue!

My main research interest is blogging.
This doesn't mean I'm blind to anything else. You cannot understand the 'ecosystem' internet by looking only at one tool, just as you cannot understand language learning by studying only vocabulary acquisition. Still, blogging is my main interest, and whenever I study other tools, I have, in the back of my mind, questions like "How does this relate to blogging? How is this different from blogging? Could this be learned through blogging?"
Now, blogging is really old-school. I mean really, really old-school. Pre-web 2.0: I like to call it web 1.5. When I read older research, especially on blogging by teenagers, it's a bit like reading reports on ancient Mayan culture. "Wow, this is how people used to do Facebook before Facebook!" Blogging is still alive and kicking, there are active blogging communities from the professional to the hobbyist, on everything from home-schooling to university management. Anybody interested in knitting super-cute stuffed animals? Language learning as a form of extreme sports? Vegan mountaineering? Don't worry, there will be a small but active blogging community on this topic.
At the same time, when I look at the statistics on blogging in Germany, I can see clearly that few teens blog, and even though there are plenty of German blogs, the actual percentage of the population that blogs is fairly low. Honestly, blogging in the sense of "writing a blog" (as opposed to just reading blogs) is a niche activity. A large, active, happy niche, but a niche nonetheless. Let's do the "Mom-test". Ask yourself: "Does my Mom do ####" and "Does my Mom know what #### is?". My Mom's on Facebook, but I doubt she'd recognize a blog if it showed up at her doorstep unannounced. Chances are, your Mom isn't that different. (Or your Dad, or Grandpa, or younger sister...)
So, why do I study a technology that is, some people may claim, past its prime? How do I justify studying it? Why not Facebook? Why not potentially post-Facebook tools?
There are a number of reasons.

First: The hype cycle isn't always your friend.

Hype cycles are FUUUUN! But when you're at the height of the hype cycle, research is often tricky. When I read older literature on blogs, this is often quite visible, especially in the unbounded optimism many of these articles have in the power of blogging. The later stages of the hype cycle mean that people will have more experience with a tool in different settings, also meaning that there will be more reports about negative aspects of that tool as well. We must not ignore the bleeding edge of technological development (lots of cool stuff happening there!), but we shouldn't, as (a) discipline(s), obsess about this (But feel free to obsess about it as much as you like as an individual or individual researcher!).

Second: Principles are more important than tools.

The more changes, the more stays the same. We don't re-invent learning or social interaction by introducing a new tool. In the end, the introduction of writing, book printing, the internet may have changed many details about how we learn and how we interact, but we're still humans and we still have pretty much the same brain, the same social needs as we used to have. Learning with tool-so-and-so may be different in many ways from learning with tool-this-and-that, but many things will be similar.

Third: Knowledge management and learning to the forefront.

I'm not interested in blogs as technology. I'm interested in how we learn about language, about content, in the process of blogging, viewed both as acts of writing and as a form of social interaction. Of course, we write on Facebook, we interact on Facebook. And I guarantee that there's plenty of learning going on as well. But if you're interested in contrasts between formal, nonformal, informal learning processes, you'll have trouble finding examples of all three on Facebook. There are attempts to use social networks in formal learning context, but they are still fairly rare and I have the impression that they are often a bit... forced. When you look at blogs, you have the whole bandwidth of blogging, from just-for-fun or to-keep-in-touch-with-friends to sharing-what-I've-learned-about-cake-decorating or documenting-my-trip-around-the-world. There's students documenting their learning inside and outside of class. There are be blogs by elementary school students and by university graduates. A wonderful wealth of data!

Fourth: Hello baby!

Blogs have influenced many other tools. When you try to understand blogging as genre(s), people will often talk about the "ancestral genres"* of blogging. You can turn this around, too, and talk about the "offspring genres" or the "sibling genres" of blogging. Putting text out there quickly and easily. Reporting about current events or ideas, ordered in reverse chronological order. Adding meta-information to short texts. This isn't specific to blogging anymore, it's also something that you find in many other forms of CMC, from microblogging to use of social networks.

In short: Studying blogging doesn't make you a super-cool researchers (unless you've been one right from the start), but it doesn't mean you're a museum piece either :-) For me, studying blogging is a way to understand blogging - and learning through writing online more generally.
*McNeill, Laurie: Brave new genre, or generic colonialism? Debates over ancestry in Internet diaries, Genres in the internet: issues in the theory of genre, John Benjamins, 143–161, Eds: Stein, Janet Giltrow, and Dieter, 2009

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So Long, and Thanks for All the Ghoti.