On Whose Authority? An Introduction

According to Technorati, the foremost directory for blogs, there are more than 109 million blogs, or “frequently modified web pages in which dated entries are listed in reverse chronological sequence” to be found online. (Scott, Quain) From PostSecret to the lolcat to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, blogs have become tools to not only offer critical cultural commentary on American society and the larger world, they bring questions about the role of the author to the forefront of the discussion of online media. What relevance or importance does an author of a blog have, and how is it established or gained?

Unlike normal websites where the content and design have the spotlight and are created to project a unifying message, in a blog, the author generally carries the most importance, as it is there interests, their biases, and their motivations that drive the need to blog about their perspective on the world. There is no need for them to have a unifying message of any kind, which makes navigating the world of blogs a chaotic venture. However, successful blogs to find a message to center themselves on.

A cautious web user, disinclined to trust anything that can’t be found at a library, may pointedly ask what business a person has posting on a blog. Who is the author and what makes the person an expert or gives them credibility in an arena on the web where there are no rules or few conditions of entry, where any person can start a blog? Whom do they address? What ax do they have to grind?

Much of the confusion with blogs has to do with how an author approaches designing and adding posts to their blog. According to K. R. Cohen, “The difficulty here is due to the fact that blogs sit irregularly between familiar modes of address, never quite addressing a person (dialogue), never quite addressing a crowd (speech, public address,), never quite speaking to oneself (diary, monologue, soliloquy)—and no one struggles more with this ambiguity than bloggers themselves.” It’s no surprise that blogs are thus held with more suspicion than other online content, such as content from reputable news sources and other forms of authority on the internet. Ironically, it’s the same venerable sources of authority who are starting blogs on their sites, particularly those that originate in print media, to stay solvent in an era of increasingly slim ad profit margins and the inevitable speed that other blogs beat these sources to the next big story.

At first glance, there is this dichotomy of established media sources seeking relevance versus the average user turning into an expert who has a blog who is garnering thousands of unique page views a day, and is making a tidy profit on the side. However, most blogs aren’t money machines and are maintained and run for very different purposes. Bloggers have a myriad of reasons for blogging, from educating the visitor to defending their decisions or the decisions of others, offering critical commentary on an issue, or giving voices to those who can’t.

It is difficult to make broad-brush remarks about the never of blogs since their strength lies in their incredible diversity. Even formats of blogs aren’t always standard text posts—some blogging sites have a maximum word limit of 125 characters for posts and other blogs have voice posts or videos (vlogs) instead of text entries. It is with this diversity in mind, that I will examine several case studies of different blogs, how they operate, why they are popular, and who the authors are.

Methods

For each of the case studies, several statistics have been gathered about each blog, including:

With whom it is affiliated: Any affiliations generally suggest a blog belongs to a network or is owned by a parent company that has an impact on how it markets itself.

When it was launched: The older a blog is, roughly speaking, the more prestige it has and the more trustworthy it is. It speaks of the longevity of the author and the audience the blog caters to. (The vast number of dead blogs in cyberspace indicate how easy it is for an author, and then an audience, to lose interest.) Generally speaking, blogs only grew a wider foothold in cyberspace in 2002, but interest exploded with the growth of early social networks such as Match.com and Friendster.com, as more users sought to establish a wider presence online.

Who the authors are: Authors may have different motivations for starting and running plogs, and bench on their previous experience to lay claim to expertise, may affiliate themselves with certain agendas, or choose to remain anonymous, suggesting the message is more important than the author.

Number of Google links: Google is the world’s most popular web search engine and is a good indicator on how popular a blog is by counting the number of websites that link to a particular URL. However, splog and other less ethical blogs will have skewed results since they manipulate Google rankings by abusing the meta tags and inserting thousands of keyboards that have no relevance to the blog’s content. Google “punishes” such websites by sending their URLs to the bottom of the search results.

Its Technorati rating: Technorati is the closest to a truly useful and universal blog directory online, as it focuses on how often a blog has new content, who cites the blog, and what blogs link to the blog. The more a blog has of all the above variables, the higher it ranks in Technorati and the more authority it gains.

What software it’s run on:
Most blogs are run on Content Management Systems (CMS), website software that allows for a user to quickly order file large amounts of information into different categories. Many CMS-based blogs are extensible, which allows for users to grow and modify the capacities of their website. Most CMSs are based on open-source platforms, meaning that anyone can download and modify its source code for free, but sometimes offered ad-supported or paid versions of their software to host people’s blogs. Examples include LiveJournal.com and WordPress.com.

Works Cited

Cohen, K. R. “A Welcome for Blogs.” Continuum: Journal of Media & Culture Studies. 1 June 2006. 164-165.
Scott, Craig R. and Qian, Hua. “Anonynomity and Self-Discolsure on Weblogs.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 2007.

PostSecret

VitalsPostSecret

URL: http://www.postsecret.com
Affiliations n/a
Launched: January 2004
Author(s): Various and anonymous, and run by Frank Warren
Google Links: 28,000
Technorati Rating: 1,460 /1362nd most popular blog
Run On: BlogSpot.com

Coolest dreamsWhat started as an art project four years ago, when Frank Warren distributed 3,000 blank postcards in his neighborhood, asking recipients to write their secrets on the back and mail it back to him, has turned into an internet phenomenon, PostSecret. Every week, he gets thousands of postcards, covered in secrets, mailed to him. Every Sunday, he posts ten on the PostSecret blog without editorial comment. This model was successful enough to garner Frank Warren international press coverage and links from other blogs.

Wikipedia, ever current on online phenomena long before they hit mainstream press, offers a timeline for PostSecret’s growth and Franks’s experimentation with the blogging format. In June 2007, he enabled comments, but within two weeks, had disabled the feature. However, what Frank did begin to do was post emailed responses he had gotten to some of the postcards, some expressing support and empathy, and others that were vaguely threatening. One example is an email that was posted, indicating that someone out there knew the sender of a postcard that exposed a years-long affair. The stakes are as high as the submitters choose to make them.

Yellow TapeWhy PostSecret is so popular has much to do with how Frank uses the blog. He distances himself from the content of the postcards, acting as a medium for transmission of secrets than an arbiter of right and wrong. The lack of interactivity between the visitor and the site creates a space for contemplation, making the visitor a viewer and voyeur, to read postcards free from distraction. There are also no archives that one can access, but this hasn’t prevented postcards from disseminating over hundreds of websites and blogs.

Frank’s motives are outlined in a short video clip on his page, but in essence, he does it to offer relief to those who may not be brave enough to confront their own fears. However, these good and noble intentions didn’t prevent PostSecret from being taken offline in September 2007 when BlogSpot mistakenly categorized the blog as a spam blog, or splog. It was quickly reinstated.

In the words of one poignant postcard, “I have no secrets left to write. I’ve read them all here.” PostSecret is wildly popular, spawning several books, because we have the ability to empathize and we treasure the thought that the unadulterated truth can be found in cyberspace.

Lifehacker

Vitals

Lifehacker

URL: http://www.lifehacker.com (Australian version here)

Affiliations: Part of the Gawker Media network
Launched: January 2005
Author(s): Various, listed on masthead
Google Links: 78,000
Technorati Rating: 16,800 / 6th most popular blog
Run On: Not identified, probably proprietary

Lifehacker is a bookmarked favorite for cubicle dwellers with geeky tendencies everywhere. Every day, over a dozen new posts are made on simplifying life using technology. Lifehacker lives up to its motto to “Don’t live to geek; geek to live.” The idea that you can “hack” life, much in the way a coder may introduce a “hack” to solve a problem in a computer script has its appeal, and the traffic Lifehacker generates proves it. Although Lifehacker’s posts tend to be about open-source software or free or cheap ways to get things done, it is a commercial blog.

Much like other blogs found on the Gawker Media network, totaling 14, Lifehacker fills a niche that has a loyal and dedicated following. The parent company, according to estimates by an article in New York magazine, is that Gawker may be breaking the $2 million dollar mark, thanks to lower operating costs and credibility with advertisers. Lifehacker has gained credibility through its longevity as well as the previous expertise the editors and authors bring to the blog.

The blog is designed to give lots of different options to advertisers on where they could advertise on the page (between posts or skyscraper ads, for example). Much of the material for posts is sourced from other blogs or online publications, and like any courteous blog, Lifehacker gives a prominent link to these websites. Their tone is genial and colloquial, and break complicated geek-talk down into simple steps so that the material is accessible even to the biggest Luddite. Lifehacker also frequently creates top-ten lists and recommends certain products or services. However, they have a strict rule that they never recommend a product or service that they haven’t tested themselves.

Lifehacker also encourages user interaction through a comments feature and an email address for visitors to send tips to, and then Lifehacker often uses these comments and leads to generate more content. This cycle of feedback helps Lifehacker retain and gain more users.

Lifehacker makes it simple for a user to educate herself and expand her technical know-how, and that it a winning formula when the advertising becomes secondary to the useful content the blog’s editors and author generate. That’s how blogging should be.

I Can Has Cheezburger

Vitals

lolcatlogo.pngURL: http://icanhascheezburger.com
Affiliations: n/a
Launched: January 2007
Author(s): Pet Holdings, Inc.
Google Links: 75,000
Technorati Rating: ca. 12,700 / 10th most popular blog
Run On: WordPress.com

Messing with perceptions

The I Can Has Cheezburger blog chronicles the explosive growth of a certain internet image macro, usually depicting a cat (or in some variations, other cute creatures) in a funny situation with chatspeak overlaid onto the image. The roots of the lolcat (or “laugh out loud” cat) macro isn’t traceable to a single author, as it has perpetuated itself over and over again onto hundreds of different websites in the last few years.

 

Dumbledore is gay?This blog’s importance in the context of the larger blogosphere is minimal, but its great popularity suggests it has struck a chord with the internet-surfing public. Its democratic model of allowing anyone to create a lolcat and distribute it to friends, usually without attribution, is attractive to the average web user with access to cuddly creature pictures and wanting to offer their take on a silly situation. Naturally, some lolcats inevitably make pop culture references, anthropomorphicizing the newsworthiness or significance of a cultural item.

Although there are many blogs that post lolcat pictures, I Can Has Cheezburger is the most popular one. Its success lies in the exclusivity of its content, posting only lolcat and related pictures. The website strives to be as user-oriented as possible, soliciting lolcat submissions from visitors and enabling visitors to rate each picture, and bookmark and share the images through social applications such as Digg.

Alien invasionThe editors and authors of the website are not readily identifiable, as the images become the forefront of the discussion and the reason that people visit the blog. Since there are no stakes except whether a lolcat picture is truly funny or not, voted in numbers of cheezburgers by the site’s visitors, there is no need or requirement for the editors, or the creators of the lolcat pictures to have any special expertise. To make the process even more democratic, there is a lolcat image generator anyone can use to create their own piece of viral internet culture.

The near-universal appeal of cats, silly captions, and the chance to induce a chuckle in another web user with a little Photoshop magic explains why I Can Has Cheezburger is so popular. Some people like comis strips, others lolcats.

The Sandbox

Vitals

The SandboxURL: http://gocomics.typepad.com/the_sandbox/

Affiliations: Part of Slate.com
Launched: November 2006
Author(s): Various, edited by David Stanford
Google Links: 1,000
Technorati Rating: 130 / 48,362th most popular blog
Run On: TypePad.com

For members of the combined armed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the surrounding operating theater, the War on Terror unleashes incredibly strong emotions. When $10 AT&T phone cards home don’t cut it, some soldiers take to their laptops and blog about their experiences online. Anger, wonder, grief, terror, and frustration, and sometimes joy, all find their ways into these military blogs or “milblogs.” When the War on Terror started in late 2001, it would herald the first time where soldiers used blogs on a large scale to write home about life on the front.

Often, the urge for soldiers who want to write these blogs is to simply unload. Often, soldiers, especially Americans, don’t have a strong support network when they go home, where they can talk about their experiences in a group or to a counselor, so they may choose to reach out and connect with other soldiers and their experiences through blogging. The decentralized nature of blogs makes it difficult to compare experiences, which is why Milblogging.com was created to unite these blogs.

One blog that deserves particular notice is The Sandbox, a blog on Slate.com, a publication known to grapple with the difficult questions that more mainstream publications ignore. The Sandbox is a “a clean, lightly-edited debriefing environment where all correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted.” Here, soldiers can submit their tales to David Stanford, who has worked as Duty Officer for Doonesbury Town Hall for 12 years. He is a highly decorated editor, working in both fiction and nonfiction, and on The Sandbox, he lightly edits soldiers’ entries for clarity. He is less an editor on who decides what is published that aligns with a publication’s political leanings, and more of a facilitator for the continuing discussion of the effects the war has on soldiers, their families, and the locals.

Each post from the front lists a name, the posting date, duty station, hometown, and milblog URL if they have their own. Often, the names aren’t full legal names. Some soldiers portray the situation in Afghanistan or Iraq in a bad light that may have repercussions on their jobs if a superior officer learns about their attitudes. In the American armed forces, as well as other armed forces, a façade of unity and purpose has to be maintained, and some senior military planners fear that milblogs, which depict a boots-on-ground perspective on the war, will crack that façade many governments who are attempting to justify their involvement in the war as noble and good.

However, it’s not surprising that in 2006, the Pentagon has ruled that all blogs must be first checked out by a senior officer before the soldier can blog on it, to ensure that no sensitive information, such as troop movements, may end up on the internet for insurgents to use against troops. There’s a lot more at stake than a soldier’s right to freedom of speech, and that concern relating to security can’t be ignored.

However, the more suspicious among the blogging community may believe that this is a thin lie to cover the Pentagon’s need to shut down any dissent they find within their own ranks. Ironically, the large majority of milblogs are usually written to counteract negative media stories of soldiers, but most stay away from politics, in deference to the idea that the military is an apolitical organization administered by civilians. For an example of how one Australian service member had to contend with his own superiors forcing him to disable his blog, and the implications it had for the blog’s fans and for potential spammers, can be found here.

The Sandbox offers a glimpse into the lives of dozens of soldiers that chose to serve their country, and how they adapt, allowing those on the home front to better understand the pressures that their loved ones have on the front lines of the War in Terror.

Flying Spaghetti Monster

Vitals

FSM BigURL: http://www.venganza.org/
Affiliations: n/a
Launched: August 2005
Author(s): Various, run by Bobby Henderson
Google Links: 4,500
Technorati Rating: 1,679 / 996th most popular blog
Run On: WordPress

The Flying Spaghetti Monster is the god in a parody religion created by physics students Bobby Henderson in 2005. Infuriated by the Kansas State Board of Education, which was seriously considering instating the mandatory teaching of “intelligent design” theory in science classrooms, Bobby Henderson sent a letter explaining that if they wanted to have ID taught, they should have Flying Spaghetti Monsterism taught too, as it was just a valid of a theory of how life began. (To learn more about the tenets of FSMism, click here.)

What began as a joke fueled by anger in 2005 snowballed into something bigger online, as more blogs began to link to Verganza.org and pick up the story. Soon, more people began to visit and call themselves Pastafarian. A quick search on Facebook reveals that thousands of people have listed “Pastafarian” as their religious orientation. Today, the FSM blog keeps abreast of the latest science and creationist-related news, written in an irreverent tone. News in the FSM community, particularly the plight of Pastafarians standing up for their religion, is also highlighted.

FSMHowever, there is more than just a blog here. There are discussion forums and live chat, and a range of other pages about the FSM. However, the blog represents the public face of FSM, which has gained a cult-like following among students in particular.

The stakes in this debate between the role of religion in school classrooms in the United States are high to the educators, non-Christians, and others concerned with the erosion of the separation of church and state in the US. Naturally, the creationist/intelligent design groups also feel that their children’s faith is threatened by the lack of consideration of a more fantastical explanation for the beginnings of life. But Verganaza.org tackles this religious versus secular debate in a completely novel manner that manages to appease the science-minded who have a sense of humor and completely knock the traditional creationists off their rockers.

The beauty of this website is how it continually evolved from just a blog to a full-fledged community where the words of others, such as in the hate mail they publish, or the last issue of National Geographic, build a tongue-in-cheek case for worshipping spaghetti.

Tying It All Together

The openness of blogs allows for the silly to reside alongside the profound. However, what brings thousands of readers to the most successful of blogs aren’t usually dependent on how many degrees the author has, but rather how successful the blog maintainer is in allowing for other voices to shine through. A blog isn’t necessarily narcissistic; good ones are rarely about the humdrum aspects of life no one else would want to read about. Instead, blogs and their maintainers strive to facilitate a conversation, or in the case of I Can Has Cheezburger and PostSecret, grow a sense of connection between people.

What all these blogs have in common in similar colloquial language, informal and engaging, choosing to engage with the reader in a place between the formality of work and play at home and beyond. The usefulness of information or seriousness of purpose doesn’t always outweigh humor, which suggests that milblogs may be absorbed with the same frequency and urgency as PostSecret postcards are. Although Lifehacker is the most popular blog from the case studies, it is only two places ahead in the popularity listing, according to Technorati, of I Can Has Cheezburger.

Authority comes with longevity and the rabidness of one’s readers. When PostSecret went down several times in early 2007, other blogs were abuzz with theories on why PostSecret went dark. Often, the most successful blogs leak into the real world through books. PostSecret has four books and counting, the FSM had His gospel put into print in early 2007, The Sandbox recently published the first collection of soldier’s blog posts, and Lifehacker’s book of the same name will be re-released this year.

Another common thread found on all of these blogs is respect for the author. The Sandbox makes it a point to vigorously defend the First Amendment Rights of any soldier who had their work published on the site. PostSecret has experimented with more interactivity for the site, but chose to keep the classic no-comment policy intact, instead creating a separate space on a different website for PostSecret fans to mingle. However, the anonymity of the postcards and those who sent them has always been sacred. Authors or content creators are always credited and given space to preach their message.

The only true test of relevance these blogs have is whether they will be in operation not a year from now, but five years from now. The internet is a volatile atmosphere for do-it-yourself projects, but conversely easy to gain people’s trust and attention. However, it is just as easy to start a blog as it is to abandon it. That’s a conversation ended, but there are millions of other conversations out there, all important, some frivolous, vying for your ear.