Let’s start with this seemingly simple question: Who blogs in society? What disciplines and professions are blogging as social groups?
To begin with, it is very difficult in the present day—if not impossible—to ascertain which professionals are blogging most, if in fact they are doing so as a part of their professional culture, or blogging about their profession itself. For this reason it’s also difficult to draw any conclusions about how architecture compares, not to mention how to distinguish such traditional professionals from bloggers that just blog as a profession in and of itself. What are they all blogging about? For what audiences? And who actually reads them? These questions would make an interesting long-term project to research for some people, like the Pew Center. That said, anecdotal evidence seems to indicate a remarkable presence of legal blogs, as well as a visible presence of influential, online special interest law projects (i.e. Electronic Frontier Foundation, Digitaldemocracy, the Berkman Center).
This might not come as a surprise, although it seems weird to hear, no? Those who dispense standard legal wisdom are also throwing that common sense to the wind, the web being the evidence flynet that it is, right? But upon second thought it makes sense. As Pew Internet research has confirmed, people spending most time online tend to be affluent (with salaries above 75K) and digitally-connected, awash in a fog of networked devices.
It seems that we are aware of the so-called digital-divide. We decry it, and even design against it. Nevertheless, many agree without question that online rights and personal identity should be a natural focus of thinking. Meanwhile, lawyers can use this logic to augment their disciplinary power. An influential slice of the digerati assume that there is a universal interest in abstract issues of privacy and digital rights. This common-place framing of the social problem is foundational even to the establishment of an everyday agreement of how you’re supposed to blog, starting with the very design and structure of blog pages and platforms. This also sets up an unwritten set of conventions that bloggers informally follow, perhaps indicating through sheer apathy to class and economic issues that blogging as a profession, or professions that blog, are a different thing than working.
The image above shows a micro-analysis of a snip of Boing Boing’s blog as the ur-blog: Highlighted portions indicate conventional blog devices. They also call attention to the ways in which “working” is camouflaged by blogs and is translated into a series of socio-communal actions and personalized rights. Related to this, we also have contradictions, such as the one between “trademark” and “defeat censorware”, which imagines somehow a utopia with private rights but without censorship. (For larger image, more examples, and discussion see the slideshow; image captured on March 29, 2009).
Continuing on…In other words, the more you have to log on, the more likely you are an educated professional of a certain income bracket or with certain cultural capital, and the more you’re likely to engage—as consumer or producer—with blogs. Privacy and rights have been heavily discussed in recent years, and yet labor time (as a blogger or a content contributor on social networking sites like Facebook, which are private content providers), or labor rights (as online producers), are not problematized much at all. If there is such a thing right now as a unifying consciousness of a blogger, it is one along the lines of being digital consumers with consumer right demands—not workers.*∞
Now, on the other hand, a glance at some of the most powerful blog platforms and social sharing sites (i.e. wordpress, blogger, technorati, delicious) can give us an idea of what content people are tagging online. What emerges often is a picture that shows professional identities and professional or academic categories becoming less important. For example, ‘medicine’ is no longer a privileged discipline (see image below, taken from wordpress.com on March 29, 2009; digitally altered to highlight tags). Web filtering seems to have less use for it than, say, ‘health,’ which emerges in its stead to cross disciplinary boundaries and interest areas. This lends the impression that the web democratizes content and spans the general public, the news media, and the professionals as equal agents in an even field, above wages. (Is there a coincidence in this phenomenon preceding one of the most massive periods of wage devaluation ever for journalists and other knowledge workers?)
However, not everyone tags content. Tagging—the practice of cataloging online content in a publicly visible way—is a cousin to blogging. Both inevitably fall into specialized communities that socially privilege them more than other communities. One might reasonably assume that tech professionals (programmers, web designers, entrepreneurs) spend the most time blogging and cataloging content that is of interest to them, and a quick skim of delicious can bear this out. But then I would argue, that far from being a distorted metric of web culture, the amplification and dissemination of web literature through practices like blogging and tagging can then have an active, dialectical role in shaping the overall perception and culture of the web (architecture culture among it); a culture that slants more heavily to ideologies of innovation, progress, techno-fetishism, green salvation, and open-source—all these often refracted through a lens of masculinity.
In this light, the question is, then, how authority is established on the web, and does it really dissolve and reconfigure itself along with the seemingly disappearing boundaries? My tentative, unscientific conclusion to this is that while disciplines do get reconfigured—some of their members fading out into off-line irrelevance, perhaps—traditional disciplinary categories can gain traction and entrenchment as they adapt the dominant practices of the web as badges of authority, but all the while leaving powerful ideologies of the web alone, including malformed concepts of plurality, democracy, and the web as aspatial or post-geographical. Architecture talk on the web, of course, is not any different here and criticism has unfortunately not stepped in to respond. In addition, I have a crude suspicion that a fascination with informal architecture, an identifiable strain in architecture blogging (i.e. airoots), has been due to an unfortunate parallelism made by bloggers between representations of the web (as somehow free from state control) and slums.‡
Let’s close in on architecture for the sake of brevity. Let me talk for a moment about the most popular blogs in architecture. I think it’s important to remember that maybe to an extent, more than anything before them, blogs seem to achieve their buoyancy not from some baptismal light shone upon them by institutions of power, at least not always, and do achieve it from their virtual and real-life networks. As the popular wisdom goes, they achieve prominence through popular citation, organically rising to the top of the cumulus. Nonetheless, architecture blogging, probably like any other discipline online, also has a pyramidal structure that can greatly accelerate the vetting process from above to below—both online (as in Archinect’s school blog project; better postings are often selected for the news feed) as well as in real events like Postopolis, or from communities where the important architecture-related bloggers meet the Pantheon of West Coast digerati.
My own cursory count puts among others Inhabitat, the green-savvy, “future forward design for the world you inhabit” at the top of that heap. Also most influential is, of course—I think many of you know this—Geoff Manaugh’s laudable bldgblog: “architectural conjecture :: urban speculation :: landscape futures”. In addition to those, Dezeen, Interactive Architecture, Pruned, DailyDose, and MoCoLoco, a “modern and contemporary design blog,” seem to coalesce at the top of many lists. And then we have the one-and-only, Architecture for Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair, who seems to pop up everywhere. More than a blogger, he epitomizes the digitally-enhanced professional. Of course Archinect is pretty difficult to compare, as it is a network of websites under the tutelage of Paul Petrunia, that includes its news log (which is like saying an old school blog), the spaceinvading image “tumblelog”, and the school blog project. (Full disclosure: I’ve been the chief editor at Archinect and continue to be informally affiliated). And finally, you then have the utmost popular—though not exclusively architectural—Worldchanging, Treehugger, Curbed, and Gothamist blogs, which actually pay salaries at least to some of their bloggers, I believe. All these websites can be approximately ten to up to eight-hundred times more popular—I estimate—than blogs produced by academic types like us with academic-looking commentary, or with student projects.
The high quality of these top blogs is notable, and we can see that their meaning has found its way to smaller critical ventures, as with varnelis and htcexperiments debating fictional architecture through bldgblog, or my own recent interest in informality. It’s proof of the influence of these blogs. But what we haven’t come to relate into our discussion is how these class-A bloggers establish a networked presence that sustains and nourishes their perch at the top of the pyramid—and do so at the basic level by constantly laboring (for free) in digital mines like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Archinect commentary boards, and incessantly tapping on their phones with their various online networks.
What I think is interesting is not how much more popular the popular blogs are, though I think the numbers are quite staggering, if they are anywhere close to correct. But what I think is important is that, alongside the limits of digital rights talk, I don’t feel that we have developed anything remotely like a critical consciousness toward the spatial relations of power on the web, let alone figured out some way of carving a space for academic work that can be either independent or critical of those relations, and begin to spatialize it on and off line, like the Berkman Center does.§ Nor have we begun to articulate in a serious way a critique of the ideologies of the dominant strains in the blogosphere and perhaps it is because we’re still caught in a fantasy of evenness cutting across the web, still stuck in the shadow of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth (see Turner, 2006).
Just to give you one sample tweet from a fellow blogger who writes for both a national publication online and his own sustainability blog: “one last point. news orgs: assume you are part of a news ecosystem. People draw info from their own unruly mob of sources.” I disagree with such notions of an “unruly mob”. It’s a rule-bound mob. What’s worse is that we continually miss the opportunity to actively investigate these rules, as both social and spatial, especially as they course from the web into social life and back. One can already imagine a day when some will look back and still see an idealized Agora that never existed.
What might be needed now is an architectural imagination that can problematize the cartographies and ideologies of the web, showing that far from the boundary-less stew—an ideal, conflict-less space—they are bordered, spatialized, and conflicting in particular ways, probably along some lines of labor mobility and flexibility. “Elsewhere Mapping” has been done, now what about the simple ‘where’? Does architecture have something to contribute beyond the green proselytizing, the fetishism of informal architecture, the datamining, and the spectacular forms of dezeen?
How would we begin this project? Well, in a way, as much as I admire my friends that throw Postopolis, there’s something about it that doesn’t seem to jive for me. As a space of encounters it replicates the privileged space of the blogosphere (which, as I discussed above, is in itself hidden by an informal communalism). In a way, they curate an eternal present. They do it extremely well. But if one wanted to investigate some of the “hidden” spaces of the web, and start to investigate our little-understood lack of spatial rights, we might actually begin by inviting bloggers from dead architecture blogs and ask them to talk about their own history. Why did they stop? What are the limits of blogging as it currently stands? In other words, we can begin to develop a critical memory in a space that does not (seem to) forget anything.
*On the point of multiple forms of labor , see Terranova, 2003: “It is about specific forms of production (Web design, multimedia production, digital services, and so on), but is also about forms of labor we do not immediately recognize as such: chat, real-life stories, mailing lists, amateur newsletters, and so on. These types of cultural and technical labor are not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause-and-effect fashion; that is, they have not developed simply as an answer to the economic needs of capital. However, they have developed in relation to the expansion of the cultural industries and are part of a process of economic experimentation with the creation of monetary value out of knowledge/culture/affect.”
∞ For more examples of the discourse of blogger rights, speech protection, and consumer rights see EFF’s Blogger Rights or the Center for Digital Democracy’s project on Digital Marketing, Privacy & the Public Interest. This digitally-altered image shows the selectivity of rights discourse (accessed on the EFF website on April 5, 2009).
‡ An example: “The Net Generation in particular recognizes itself in the story of this self-developing city, which is powered by the collective intelligence and individual aspirations of hundreds of thousands of people.” From: “Taking the Slum Out of Dharavi” in airoots, February 21, 2009. Accessed on April 12, 2009.
§ On this subject, see Jo Guldi’s “Reinventing the Academic Journal: First, Take Down Your Website” on inscape, February 7, 2009 (Last accessed on April 12, 2009). Guldi explains how the academy could begin to spatialize itself on line as a kind of endowed (I assume) curator of the glut of online content, but so far journals have approached the web with some trepidation.
This work was presented at the MIT HTC Forum on April 7, 2009, as part of “Blogitecture: Architecture on the Internet”, with Kazys Varnelis and the author, (and moderated by Mark Jarzombek). Audio slide show available on Vimeo thanks to Kazys Varnelis. New modifications and edits for clarity have been introduced in this version.
The title of this talk and post comes from typical spam that I receive multiple times a day, but also relates to the subject matter at hand.
- Janet Abrams and Peter Hall, Editors. 2006. Else/Where: Mapping; New Cartologies of Networks and Territories. University of Minnesota Design Institute.
- Javier Arbona. 2009. “Revisit the Known World”, javierest. February 23.
- Jo Guldi. 2009. “The Age of Digital Citation”. unimaginable inscape. April 8. link
- _____. 2009. “Reinventing the Academic Journal”. unimaginable inscape. February 7. link
- Mary Madden, Sydney Jones. 2008. “Networked Workers”. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Washington, DC: September 24. link
- Tiziana Terranova. 2003. “Free Labour: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy”. electronic book review. 6/20. link
- Fred Turner. 2006. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. link
• More sources consulted for this project are bookmarked at: http://delicious.com/javierarbona/for-mit
My thanks go to Anne R. Kenney, Cornell University’s Carl A. Kroch University Librarian, for our enlightening (and fortuitous) conversation about digital archives and her knowledge of law profession blogs, as we rode on a bus from New York city to Ithaca, on March 21, 2009. Plataforma Arquitectura’s David Basulto, aka Tricky, was also a very generous email interlocutor as I thought out this talk, and thanks to Cristobal García for putting us (back) in touch.
Kazys Varnelis, although technically a co-presenter in this instance, was also a wonderful collaborator in the research leading up to the panel. Amber Frid-Jimenez dropped on me a number of very interesting articles after the talk which I still have to digest further. And last but certainly not least, at MIT, many thanks to Mark Jarzombek, Rebecca Uchill, Sarah Katz, and Kate Brearly for putting this event together and coordinating.