Macro/Micro Weblogging

If I were to tweet this commentary, you’d get this:

blogging, tweeting, texting oh my: I visited the Web 2.0 zoo and all I brought you back was melodramatic self-indulgence and two sore thumbs.

Go ahead and count the characters; all 140 are there like a 21st Century Haiku homage to a 20th Century classic. Actually, the lions, tigers, bears takes me back to a fateful childhood trip to the Toledo Zoo where I lost my boyish wonder of the world and developed a lifelong phobia of lightning and loud noises.  Wait, there’s the melodrama kicking in.

Anyway, I will outline my short-lived career as a blogger and my somewhat longer and more interesting stint as a Tweeter and textrovert.  I will offer the perspective of one who has been fairly skeptical of said technologies (and for the most part, I remain so).  Before I do so, I’ll provide a bit more self-disclosure as to why I chose this path and where it took me.

Where I Started

Although I love technology, a couple of children and a busy life keep me from playing too long with anything that doesn’t help pay the bills, challenge my thinking, and/or help me write term papers.  I initially chose blogging because the thought instantly brought out the inner Doogie Howser in me.  In fact, as a young lad I started my own e-journal on my parent’s Apple IIe in 1991 (and if I could find something that could read a 5.25” floppy disc, I could tell you all the titillating details of a 10 year-old’s life).  If that digital evidence were available, that would make me the first official blogger by over 3 years — minus the “web” part, of course.  But what we’ll see is that blogging takes discipline, stamina, good ideas, and an audience; all of which are in short supply for me right now.  There’s also some deeper issues afoot, and I’ll try to flesh those out as we go along.

Then entered Twitter.  I intended just to play around with Twitter and see what all the rave was about so that I could confirm for myself that it was just a frivolous fad for the young, bored, and self-interested.  Without giving everything away, let’s just say that I’ve Tweeted and checked Twitter more times during the writing of this intro than I’d like to admit.  I’ll try to explain why this is although like many observers of Twitter, it’s somewhat of an ineffable mystery to me.  I’m sure it says something about my inner self and human nature in general, and I’ll try to get there.

Finally, I’ll discuss my brief and unintended foray into the wonderful world of texting.  To fully appreciate this little foray, you’d have to understand that up until last month, the last thing I would have expected to find myself doing was clumsily jamming my thumbs into a phone (you know, something used for audibly talking to other human beings) just to send a frivolous, glib text remark to a friend.  That’s what rich teenagers do when they want to send naughty pictures to someone they don’t have the guts to just ask out on a legitimate date.  Well, color me wrong because my name is Andy and I text.  I’m still not too proud of it.  I’ll reluctantly try to explain what this means as well.

Before we delve into my experience, lets look a little deeper at what it is I actually played with.

A Web – Log

A blog (a contraction of the term weblog) is a type of website, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video. Entries are commonly displayed in reverse-chronological order. ~ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blogging)

Internet lore attributes Justin Hall as one of the very first bloggers – his site eventually taking on the imaginative name of “Justin’s Links”.  Justin launched his site in 1994, but it was not until January of 1996 that he began making daily diary-like entries on the site.  Of the daily posts, Justin remarks, “Some days, before I go to bed, I think about my day, and how it meshed with my life, and I write a little about what learned me.” (links.net/daze)  He also notes in retrospect that, “When I started writing I wanted to find a place for myself in the world.” (links.net Jan. 26, 2009)  From there, the likes of David Winer’s Scripting News and Jerry Pournelle’s writings brought blogging to the older and more established demographic.  John Barger apparently coined the term weblog in 1997 and the world of blogging was off and running.  In 1999, Pyra Labs launched Blogger (later acquired by Google) and blogging was brought to the masses.  Now we have a Blogosphere and we’ll probably have a Blogogalaxie or something by the time I finish this paper.  For a more complete history of blogging, feel free to Google the “old fashioned” way.

Before I move on, I have one observation I’d like to share regarding blogging.  I am particularly struck by Justin Hall’s original “vision” for his blogging.  He began writing on the web to “find a place in the world”.  If you read his writings, it’s easy to see that Justin found a catharsis and a release and a childlike joy out of writing the seemingly mundane musings about his days.  To me, this stands somewhat in contrast to the highly commercialized world of contemporary blogging.  This innocent attempt at self-expression and self-finding has given way to a new genre of journalism, a new corporate marketing scheme, and a new way to do politics.  Back in 2002, Kurt Anderson of Slate Magazine was waxing poetic about the wonders of free discourse afforded by blogging and the Amateur Spirit it embodies.  In the article, Anderson expresses his love for, “the beauty of the informal, this-isn’t-what-I-do-for-a-living feel of blogland.”  Well, if things keeping going the way they are, there may be more people making a living off blogging than in the print news business.  Although a recent Pew survey of American bloggers revealed that the majority of bloggers surveyed (37%) cite “my life and experiences” as the source for their blogs, that is far from my experience.  While the majority of bloggers I read may think that they’re writing about their life and experiences, it may be more accurate to say that they’re writing about that which will bring more eye balls to their site and subsequently more ad dollars in their or their employer’s coffers.  My take is that capitalism has blogging in it’s clutches, wresting control of the medium from the proletariat for ever.  Perhaps this is why Justin Hall has recently questioned, “I’m not sure the world overall seems happier now than it did when I first encountered the web.”

Anyway, sorry to go all Marxist, let’s move on to my experiences as a fledgling blogger.

Where I Went: Blogging

“So I will immerse myself in the writing of a blog, about myself, for myself, for credit in a class… which all benefits humanity me.” ~ Journal, 2.4.09

As I mentioned, I began my career as a blogger with a healthy dose of skepticism.  As you can see from the above quote, clear direction and guidance for the project was lacking from the get go.  With that said, I was actually pretty excited about my first blog post entitled “The Ghost of Jimi“.  At the time, I really felt like this post reflected all that was good and pure about blogging.  It was born out of a mundane phenomenon in my life which provided a spring board for me to express my thoughts and feelings in a way that really felt like a release for me.  At that point, I didn’t care if anyone was going to read the post.  I was flexing my inner Doogie Howser and it felt pretty good.  Just like Justin Hall said over a decade earlier, this blogging thing was helping me to express myself in a new way and find out a bit more about how I fit in this wide world.  It was glorious.  I can still hear Jimi’s guitar gently weeping as I triumphantly hammered the last keystroke to publish my first “hello world”.

Then I came down off my camp high and reality began to hit: “Self-indulgence is fun, but it takes at least two to tango… and no one is reading what I’m writing” (2.18.09)  I asked the question of whether I was really an author if I had no audience and had no audience in mind.  Was I really yearning for social presence or not?  Did I purely see my blog as a free form of self expression or was I looking for and expecting more (did I really want companionship?).  I obviously was looking for a little of the latter and I said as much in my journal: “I’m already sick of blogging (after one post) because it’s just a conversation with myself.  I want the reassurance from others that what I am saying has some worth” (2.18.09).  This desire led me down a very interesting road, one that ended in my blogging career being cut short by mental injury.  I initially struggled with how to move forward: “I really struggle with this because I’m not a big fan of putting myself out there.  I’m very self-conscious about this.  Will friends and family say, ‘what a self-focused wierdo, get over yourself’ or will they think that what I’m writing isn’t accurate to who I am?” (4.18.09)  But being the trooper that I am, I forged ahead into the quagmire.

With that, I slogged through my next long and rambling post entitled “Obsession“.  I truly obsessed over this one envisioning a highly critical and highly intellectual audience out there ready to pounce on my words.  Somewhere in the process, I turned the corner from being the carefree, Justin Hall-like, new-aged man joyfully expressing himself to a brooding and serious blogger feeling the need to entertain some imaginary audience that would determine the worth of his words.  I tried to be clever.  I tried to be deep.  I tried to sound smarter and more cultured than I am.  That’s the thing: I tried.  And in one fell swoop, I sapped all of the innocence and fun self-expression out of my blog. From there, my blog was basically DOA although I wasn’t quite ready to wave the white flag.

I made one last gasp with “Bombasity“.  I thought perhaps it could be the best of both worlds.  It kind of came out of some mundane part of my day, and I tried to have fun with it, take it a little less seriously.  Yet somewhere in there I again started to get cutsy and snarky and clever; three things that really aren’t me.  I again began writing for some psychotic imaginary audience that I knew I could never appease (sounds more like I’m the one that needs professional help).  So that was pretty much it.  I wrote the journal entries entitled “Blogging is Hard” and “Is Blogging Harder/Different for Introvert?” and I hung up my blogging shoes.  I think the latter post really raises an important question as to whether being an introvert affects the amount of energy one is willing to devote to blogging.  I’ll discuss this further at the end this paper. Anyway, my move away from blogging was also was precipitated by my unexpected fling with the the web 2.0 soup du jour: Twitter.

Twitter

http://gigaom.com

Twitter (or Twttr as it was originally called) was born out of the podcasting company Odeo, Inc. in March 2006.  Twitter was originally intended to almost exclusively be interfaced via the mobile phone SMS network. Being tied to the 160 character limit of the SMS network, Twitter limited all communications to 140 so as to leave room for naming tags.  Although SMS is now involved in a minority of Tweets, Twitter has chosen to retain the 140 character limit.   As has been mentioned, many have had trouble identifying exactly what Twitter is and exactly why it’s so popular.  In his recent post aptly named “What the Heck is Twitter?”, Farhad Manjoo valiantly attempts to color Twitter as a cross between Google and Facebook, but largely comes up with more questions than answers.   Jon Stewart recently investigated Twitter and was less than impressed. Regardless of what it actually is, Twitter has grown exponentially in the past two years (700% in 2008).  Twitter.com got over 14 million unique American visitors in March of 2009, which was over a 75% increase from the previous month.   With all that incredible growth has come the obligatory losses of service and other technical difficulties (giving rise rise of the now infamous “Fail Whale”).

http://www.yiyinglu.com/sc/illustration

The main idea for Twitter was hatched when one of the original designers, Jack Dorsey, had the idea to create a social networking application which would allow him to easily and efficiently communicate with his friends while he was out at parties.  Jack’s wildly simple idea was to,  “have a dispatch service that connects us on our phones using text”.  Thus, Twitter began as a way for a close knit group of software engineers to “follow” each other and stay connected via 140 character SMS messages on their cell phones.  Accordingly, one early adopter gave Twitter its first nickname: FriendStalker.  Another engineer provided perhaps one of the greatest understatements in Twitter history with his 38th tweet: “oh this is going to be addictive“. In capturing the essence of Twitter’s early chutzpa, Jack contributed one of Twitter’s most famous sayings: “One could change the world with one hundred and forty characters.”  Yet it was not until the release of Twitter’s full API (and the myriad of applications that spawned around it) that Jack’s words would begin to become reality.

OK, so enough with the pregame.  It’s time to see what happened when I jumped head first into the micro blogging worlds.

Where I Went: Twitter

“I’ve been following a few people for week and I’m bored to tears.  As an aside, Lance Armstrong is a serial twit Twitter user and the more I follow, the less I admire one of my athletic heros… boo Twitter.  Anyway, I’ll probably add a few comments here and there about my use of this social networking app as well.” ~ 2.4.09

“I couldn’t commit to this being my whole project [Twitter] because I doubt my ability to keep up with it.” ~ 2.4.09

As you can see, I approached Twitter with the same amount of pessimism as I did blogging.  Although simple and easy to get up and running, the web interface for Twitter didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.  I knew that this would be a short-lived affair with Twitter if I were going to have to log into the web site every time I wanted to tweet or follow someone.  I can barely convince myself that it’s worth the two clicks and ten seconds it takes to get into Facebook.  Perhaps I’m just lazier than your average bear, but I thought Twitter was different, created for the twitchy, busy, and highly distractable creatures (like myself) that continue to populate the social landscape with increasing regularity.  Well, being the Twitter n00b that I am, I was unaware of the myriad of apps out there designed to make your tweeting experience as painless and enjoyable as possible.  So I chose the Mac Dashboard widget Twidget and I was off and running.  My life would soon start to be changed 140 characters at a time.

Still, my love affair with Twitter started slowly and clumsily.  Out of my entire Gmail address book, Twitter found 5 people I could possibly follow with only 3 of them being active accounts.  Two of these people were classmates playing with Twitter for the same reason I was so that didn’t initially bode well for the chances of Twitter revolutionizing my social universe.  Yet, said classmates and myself began tweeting back and forth during classes (certainly not in 956, thoughLaughing).  This was actually kind of fun.  If I found myself dozing, I could snap my finger down on F12 and see what my bored compadres were doing.  We also tweeted back and forth as we all were writing a term paper.  It honestly felt nice to commiserate with each other and laugh a bit.  Of the experience, I wrote a very brief journal entry entitled “Misery Loves Company“.  During this time, one classmate tweeted that due to term-paper-cognitive-overload, she absentmindedly put something in the freezer that was meant for the microwave. We had a good Twitter chuckle about that one, and I think everyone felt better, felt like they weren’t alone in their pain, felt like they were together (i.e. some significant level of social presence and copresence was experienced (Biocca, Harms, & Burgoon, 2003)).  It all kind of took me back to the glory days of high school football and the times we would all laugh at the big lineman who always puked after doing sprints.  Or maybe that’s a flawed albeit humorous analogy.

Yet I don’t think that these heartwarming little interactions would have kept me on Twitter forever and this is where the versatility of Twitter came in.  I read a small handful of web news sites every day (CNN.com, NYtimes.com, Digg.com, SI.com, Slashdot.org, Google News, etc).  I’ve tried to use an RSS reader to get all of my news before, but I’ve just never found a solution that I like.  I heard that most news outlets are now providing updates and links via Twitter.  So I started following some of them, and I actually kind of liked that.  Again, in a moment of boredom, I could plunk down on F12 and see the latest news tweets.   As opposed to actually having to go to the sites and then sift through the links (usually with titles no longer than 20 oro 25 characters), I usually found that the 140 character summaries of the stories were sufficient for me to decide whether I really wanted to read the story.  These tweets also provided the freshest links of the day.  For example, I often visit CNN.com multiple times a day, but it’s hard to figure out if there have been any new article published in the sections that I am interested in.  Although it doesn’t always catch everything, Twitter kind of does this for me and shows me the newest stories.  I’m always down with something doing work for me.

A final unexpected feature of Twitter is its ability to double as a punching bag (and my apologies to at least one of my colleagues who’s husband may now lose his job because of the Chrysler bankruptcy).  Two days in a row, MS Office 2008 decided to, “inexplicably send an important file to the nether regions of Mt. Rainier” (4.14.09).  Now, if Bill Gates or a member of the Mactopia team were in the room with me at the time, it’s likely I would have punched them in their nether regions, but being alone, I turned to Twitter.  I sent the above tweet and then went on my way, somewhat more mentally stable and less homicidal than before I sent the tweet — score another for Twitter.  A classmate responded to my tweet and I felt even better — talk about group therapy.  Apparently I’m not the first one to discover Twitter’s cathartic benefits. An article posted on CNN.com today talked about how slighted drivers are turning to Twitter instead of flipping the bird.  Oh, and regarding the second tweet I just posted above, I’m still waiting for my intestines to feel better, but it appears that Twitter has yet to develop antiviral drugs.

Textroverts Rule!

And just for a bonus round, I’ll briefly outline my weekend fling with texting on my phone.  As I said earlier, texting was just about the last thing I ever thought I would find myself doing.  I certainly didn’t intend to engage in it for this project, but nonetheless, texting besieged me on a trip to Denver in April.  Of the experience, I wrote an extensive entry in my journal entitled, “Texting is… SWEET! Textroverts Rule“.  I won’t go into it much here, but needless to say, I as surprised by my affinity to texting as I was with Twitter: “sprinkle in a few texts and viola, 10th grade all over again and new connection between two introverted relatives: priceless.”  (Hopefully that whets your appetite to read the whole entry.)

What Did I Learn?

So what did I learn from all of this?  I intended to immerse myself in the world of blogging — that I did.  Along the way, I unintentionally ended up in the “microblogging” realm of Twitter and SMS.  As I’ve mentioned, this was an entirely unexpected turn of events.

So why Twitter instead of traditional “macroblogging”?  What’s the real difference?  I’m still wrestling with this question, and I’ll try to back into the answer.  Being the proud introvert that I am, anything that involves putting myself out there or drawing attention to myself is draining.  So it’s not a surprise that blogging tended to suck the life out of me — at least during this project.  Like Goffman (1959) said years ago, I felt very much like an actor working hard to present a certain side of myself that I thought those imaginary blog readers would like to hear.  As well, like Goffman said, I felt as if I really could not control how others would perceive this presentation of self.  I think this is a recipe to drive a self-conscious introvert like myself a bit mad.  I try really hard to do my little dance and present myself in a certain way and in the end, I can’t account for for the myriad of ways others will perceive me.  I honestly try to think through all the ways one might be perceiving my writing and I tinker with the wording over and over and over again (this paper being no different).  I did an incredible amount of edits to each of my three blog posts, and I’m still not happy with them.  What’s more, I don’t have all the cues and tools at my disposal to express myself like I could in a F2F encounter (Wallace, 1999).  What a futile and exhausting exercise.  In addition to all of that, I began to feel the need to interact with my readers, yet I didn’t want to invite some of my friends and family to read the posts because I was afraid that they would say, “that’s not Andy, who’s he trying to be — some hot shot blogger?”  I think this probably happens to a lot of introverts.  They get caught in the in-between, between really being able to express their true selves and worrying that the effort will all be for naught when the audience takes you for a fraud or doesn’t take it the way you meant it.  Some have put themselves out there, gotten burned, and never again come out from behind the curtain to do their own unique and beautiful dance.  Or maybe I’m just a whole lot more insecure (and melodramatic) than your average guy.

All of this still doesn’t explain why I gravitated away from macroblogging and toward Twitter.  Wouldn’t I be just as self-conscious about my Tweets?  Wouldn’t that drain me?  One explanation I came up with was the low cost of entry, exit, and maintenance of Twitter as opposed to blogging (at least for me and the way I approached things).  Like Dimitri Williams (2006) and others have observed in online communities, if the costs of entry and exit are low, “we should expect to see people make connections and linkages where they might not otherwise” (p. 611).   I really didn’t have a problem entering into an online community, but blogging just seemed so ambiguous.  It felt like I was starting something new and then had to invite people to the grand opening.  Twitter seemed to have lubricated the social entry for me — I was just renting a room in an enormous co-op.  With Twitter, I didn’t have to do a whole lot of choosing as to how I would present myself to the community.  I basically picked a profile picture and started following a couple of friends.  I saw my blog as much more of a central representation of self.  I was sort of inviting people into my living room whereas with Twitter I just felt like another face in the sea of twitterers.  With blogging, I felt like I had to find a “voice”, but Twitter didn’t really give me enough space to worry about that.  Thus, with Twitter I began to make new connections because it was easy to do so and it didn’t feel like I was projecting much of my self in the process.  The worst thing that I really worried about with Twitter was that in following somebody, I was indicating that I actually used this fad of a technology called Twitter.

That still doesn’t totally explain why I feel less self-conscious about my Twitter use.  Yes, I think about what I’m projecting in a tweet, but it’s such a short message, seems to get lost quickly in the sea of tweets out there, and can’t be edited once I send it.  Yes, tweets say something about me, but even if I send a really stupid tweet, I don’t have to look at it forever and I can’t go back and change it anyway.  Twitter feels like a rock concert and blogging feels more like poetry hour at the trendy jazz club.  You can shout really stupid things at a rock concert and most of it will get lost in the loud music and green smoke.  Blow it with a lame autobiographical poem at the jazz club and it might be the last time you get invited.

Another more tertiary thing that Twitter has going for it is its multiple uses — the Swiss Army Knife of web 2.0.  With Twitter I can vent, interact with friends, sit on the sidelines and just read quick updates, and get my news (just to name a few).   Like I said, I think I might have quit Twitter if I hadn’t begun to use it to supplant multiple other web interfaces I had traditionally used.  Along those lines, Twitter is a twitchy, distractable person’s dream.  That’s weird for me to say, because just 5 years ago, I wouldn’t have used those word to describe myself.  Five years ago I didn’t have a laptop or the Internet at home, and I rarely spent much time reading anything off of the Internet (even though I worked in IT support at the time).  This is where I think technology is changing me.  As my life has gotten more complicated, faster streams of information and the illusion of a more efficient life has become much more appealing.  Thus, one-by-one, I’ve been jumping on the Web 2.0 bandwagon in search of that which will help me to do everything faster and more efficiently.  So now I live off of my laptop and drink a heck of a lot more coffee — two integral ingredients if one is to harness the full potential of Twitter.

Where Do I Go from Here?

I don’t know.  Writing this paper has actually begun to change my mind a bit about blogging.  I’ve enjoyed writing this much more than almost anything else in higher ed.  I feel like for the most part this is the real me and it hasn’t been as arduous of a process to get there.  I’ve always been one of those slow-to-warm-up personality types and maybe I’m getting more comfortable with my imaginary audience and this medium.  That reminds me of a true story from my childhood.  When I was a little kid (like 6 or 7), my parents used to invite their friends over to watch me break dance to Cyndi Lauper — true story.  Now if you first met me, would you ever dream that was me?  No, people who first meet me think I’m quiet, shy, and “intellectual” when in all actuality, I’m a nerdy goof ball with a decent sense of humor.

All in all, I like to write and I’ll probably play around with this blogging thing a bit more.  I now have more confidence in my ability to be myself and enjoy the opportunity to put myself out there on the world’s stage (sarcasm intended).

And if you need a laugh, watch this video about Twitter that a classmate sent me .

REFERENCES:

Biocca, F., Harms, C., & Burgoon, J. (2003).Towards a more robust theory and measure of social presence: Review and suggested criteria.Presence: Teleoperators and virtual environments, 12(5), 456-480.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday.

Williams, D. (2006). On and off the ‘net: Scales for social capital in an online era. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(2), article 11.

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