Searching for a cluster, part 1

Mark Bernstein noted that the “Scandinavian-flavored Hypertext Weblog Cluster”, which he thinks used to be “one of the best places in the world to read about new developments in new media”, is breaking up. The bloggers who were active in the cluster don’t respond to each other’s ideas the way they used to. He used the opportunity to call for analysis of the weblog cluster concept, and got an answer from one of the “declustered”. Jill points to a research paper outlining an approach to the study of weblog communities and clusters.

Partly inspired by that discussion, and by Jay Rosen’s comment to my intention with this blog, I’m trying to identify other Norwegian/Scandinavian/North European blogs that concentrate on the same topics as me – broadly defined as journalism, weblogs and the media, with the emphasis on consequences for journalism, and written in English. Starting at home, the first search for a cluster of this type in Norway doesn’t yield too many results. There are definitely blogs that often touch on journalism-related topics, such as Bjørn Stærk blog, Jon Hoem’s Diablog and Anders Fagerjord’s Surftrail. But none of them focus primarily on journalism and blogs. I’m quite disappointed that none (forgive me if I’ve overlooked any) of our many good to brilliant media studies professors have taken up blogging (apart from those in the mentioned “new media” cluster). Jay Rosen’s example shows what a powerful tool it can be, especially for those labouring in media studies departments: Here’s a possibility to reach a wider audience than those reading scientific papers, without having to compromise on detail or style to get published in the media, and here’s a chance to establish a critical dialogue with the very same people that are the object of study – media professionals, readers, viewers.

My superficial search for a cluster produced something else, though – a clear impression that the Norwegian blogosphere is growing. A substantial number of new blogs have been started, quite a few with a political focus. That’s good, because in Norway the news website reader’s forums seem to have had the upper hand over the weblog genre until now, with some really unhealthy consequences – and that’s a subject I’ll return to.

In part 2, I’ll check out our Scandinavian neighbours’ journalism/blog-cluster tendencies.

Signs of the times

At Harvard’s Berkman Center interesting people are this weekend discussing if “wired citizens are changing politics”. The conference briefing materials offers a working hypothesis about the internet’s effect on politics, a part of it being the well-known point of an “empowerment of the individual”:

“Citizens adopt a more active relationship with information – not just passively accepting what is fed through the broadcast medium, but rather engaging with it and recreating it in intriguing, creative ways. The result might be a more energized citizenry and “semiotic democracy” – the “recoding” and “reworking” of cultural meaning.”

This could with small changes have been lifted from a 1980’s textbook on media theory (and maybe it was). At least in the anglo-nordic academic media studies departments, theories of semiotics/semiology have had an important position during the last couple of decades. That they now reappear in the hyperinfluential Harvard cyberlaw context (Lessig et al) is a funny twist of intellectual history. A main concept of the semiotic tradition, especially in the British Cultural Studies version, is that texts (such as tv programmes) can be understood or decoded in different ways depending on the reader’s/viewer’s personal and social background and competence. So people will always “recode” and “rework” whatever texts or images that are presented to them. What could be very interesting, though, is to examine what happens when people recode and rework those cultural meanings in the public or semipublic sphere of blogs, forums and other internet genres. Therein lies of course the dream of the democratizing effect of the internet. Right now we seem to have a mountain of empirical evidence, a never-ending cacophony of recoding going on every second, but very little original theory to make sense of it with.

The new media auteur

From the museum of the future: The merged megapower of Google and Amazon takes over for good. Googlezon creates EPIC, a virtual real-time global editor and interface. The New York Times goes offline in 2014 and becomes a newsletter for the elite and the elderly. That last part sounds like v. 2.0 of dotcom era predictions about the death of newspapers. But this simple, but clever 8-minute flash movie summarizes many of the last few years’ media developments and projects them into the future. The moment when it moves from cool to sublime is when it reaches the present, leaves history behind and changes to prediction mode. The web buzz about this mock Museum of Media History production is of course due exactly to its originality: Had someone published a transcript, it might have started a couple of discussion threads here and there; because of the flash film format it became a phenomenon (and in no time, as one of the auteurs notes). Originality will still get you somewhere. Actually, today creativity and originality can get you somewhere extremely fast. And by 2014, EPIC or not, who knows what kind of creativity will be needed just to get noticed. Connectedness, blogging and P2P may be tearing down the production value of “old media” as we know it, but all the noise will produce a phenomenal demand for originality. Related to this, auteurs Sloan and Thompson are onto something with the NYT newsletter idea. In an essay in Swedish journal Axess published in October (not online), Nicklas Lundblad explores what will happen to that most prestigious of newspaper genres, the leading article, in the age of blogs. He comments on daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet’s political editor PJ Linder’s “leader blog”, an attempt at using the blog genre to renew the editorial writer’s role. But what will inevitably happen when the usually anonymous editorial writer blogs, is that he steps down from the ultimate authority of the ivory tower and gets his shoes dirty in the great messy web conversation. Lundblad supports the bold experiment, but points to a possible future trend among writers: The need to reassert authority by retreating from that mess: “The result can also be that a new generation of editorial writers enters the stage, with a newfound aristocratic silence as their weapon – writers who refuse to write in other media than printed newspapers; they may choose to write only with long intervals and in elevated style to signal their special value” (my translation). That’s definitely a strategy that some may use to distinguish themselves – hence the New York Times appearing as elite newsletter in 2014 or whenever. Conceiving EPICs is another.