1. Why bother with blogs?

The new landscape of the religion blogosphere
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1.1 What a blog is

The word “weblog” is said to have been coined by Jorn Barger on December 17, 1997, in the name of his Robot Wisdom Weblog, essentially an ongoing collection of links to items of interest on the Web (Blood 2000). Within two years, people began shortening the word to “blog.” Thanks to Blogger.com, an easy-to-use publishing platform launched in the summer of 1999, the term stuck. That year also saw the release of two other major blogging systems, WordPress and LiveJournal.

Soon, blogs began to absorb the energetic discussions about practically everything that had already been taking place elsewhere on the Internet—on Usenet, listservs, and bulletin boards, as well as through commercial services like CompuServe and America Online. The customizable look and user-friendliness of the new blogging platforms attracted the growing online population.

Today, blogs have come a long way from Barger’s collection of links. They are diverse, despite sharing a general family resemblance. They typically consist of a series of posts, listed with the most recent at the top, written by one or more authors. Many bloggers post each day; others do so more occasionally. Images—as well as audio and video—are often embedded in posts. Readers can usually submit comments, which appear in chronological order at the bottom of a given post. For this reason, blogs have been heralded, along with wikis and social-networking sites, as the harbingers of the interactive, user-generated culture of Web 2.0 (O’Reilly 2005).

Links to other websites and blogs, in addition to quotations and commentary, continue to be the lifeblood of the blogosphere. For many bloggers, the motivation to write and publish comes from the conversations that ensue, both in the user comments on their own posts and in the responses posted elsewhere by other bloggers.

Using traffic-analysis software like Site Meter and Google Analytics, bloggers can gather data about their readers and see which other sites are linking to theirs. Social hierarchies naturally emerge; popular bloggers have the power to drive large numbers of readers to the sites they link to, which means that they can effectively make or break the readerships of smaller blogs.

Blogging is an open-ended medium that lends itself to a variety of genres and styles. Some bloggers write long, literary essays, while others stick to short, rapid-fire fragments. Some posts read like informal—even “snarky”—diary entries, while others make pretense to objectivity. Some rely on the authority of their particular authors, while others draw from the collective wisdom of a community. One way or another, every successful blog comes to cultivate a character all its own.

The technology of blogging has changed over the years, and it continues to do so today. Easy-to-use blogging platforms were the first watershed, making blogging accessible to anyone with something to say and an Internet connection. In recent years, two developments, often working in tandem, have continued to guide the development of the blogosphere: syndication feeds and social-networking sites.

Syndication feeds, through protocols such as RSS and Atom, allow readers to keep track of many blogs at once. Rather than having to go to each blog one at a time, users can view (in a program called a feed reader) a condensed list of new posts from all the blogs to which they subscribe. From there, they can choose which posts they want to see in full on the blog itself. The experience of checking a feed reader contributes to the sense that there is a collective blogosphere rather than simply an assortment of isolated blogs—a customized blogosphere, that is, populated by the sites one chooses to follow.

While syndication feeds are most common among bloggers themselves and advanced Internet users, social-networking sites have reached far wider audiences. The two most relevant for the English-speaking blogosphere are Facebook and Twitter. Increasingly, bloggers use these services to deliver content to their readers and even to create new kinds of content, such as the 140-character-or-fewer “tweets” that Twitter users exchange. Just as chat and messaging through Facebook has begun to challenge the ubiquity of email, social-networking sites are likely to bring about substantial changes in the ways and means of blogging, if not its eventual transformation into something else entirely.

The blogosphere, in any case, is a moving target.

1.2 Why blogs matter

Only a decade since the rise of the first user-friendly blog platforms, the blogosphere has become one of the eminent spaces for serious public discourse in the online world. Increasingly, leading intellectuals—such as Richard Posner and Stanley Fish—have added blogging to their media repertoires. More significantly, blogs have created a new kind of public intellectual in the mold of Andrew Sullivan, Juan Cole, or Michelle Malkin. They thrive on quick opinions, a minute-to-minute news cycle, and public exchanges with one another. Still, there is heated debate about whether blogs can provide a level of discourse comparable to that of traditional print media. The likely answer is no; what they offer is something quite different.

Assessments of the blogosphere have taken on new urgency amidst an ongoing pattern of closings and cutbacks across the mainstream publishing industry. “The newspaper is dead,” announced the lead of a January, 2009 New Yorker article by Jill Lepore. “You can read all about it online, blog by blog, where the digital gloom over the death of an industry often veils, if thinly, a pallid glee.” Major city newspapers, including the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer have stopped the presses for good, and print circulation among those that remain continues to decline. While newspapers attract online readers to their websites in large numbers, they have yet to develop a business model by which digital content alone can support high quality news-gathering. The Huffington Post, essentially an enormous group blog, is positioning itself to take the papers’ place, even though it lacks anything like the well-defined editorial policies or the foreign bureaus of a traditional newspaper (see Waldman 2009). We are, without doubt, in the middle of a dramatic turning point in the business of media and, by extension, the exchange of ideas in the public square.

The growing influence of blogs has been indisputable at least since the much-touted role of Talking Points Memo in bringing about Trent Lott’s resignation as Senate Majority Leader in 2002. In 2004, a phalanx of mainly conservative bloggers caused a stir over Dan Rather’s report on President Bush’s Vietnam War record that led to the anchor’s retirement. By the 2008 presidential election, it was conventional wisdom that blogs had become key arbiters of political discourse, and major candidates were sure to have campaign blogs of their own.

The informality and lack of oversight that characterizes much of the blogosphere takes its toll on readers’ trust. According to a Pew study from 2005, only 20% of Americans considered news blogs to be “mostly facts”—low, certainly, though in fact twice the level of trust registered for talk radio (Rainie 2005, Baron 2008). Consequently, blogs have become parasitic on the mainstream press, using it both as a source of fodder for commentary and as a legitimizing imprimatur. Kathy Gill (2004) observes that people’s sense of a blog’s influence is still very much determined by whether it attracts the attention of more traditional outlets. But the relationship, she points out, is becoming ever more circular: “After the print reporter wraps the story and it hits the Web, it’s time for the bloggers to check out the facts, the spin. It’s a system, an ecosystem.”

Meanwhile, the mainstream press is coming to look more like the blogosphere. Old-guard newspapers and magazines now host blogs by reporters and columnists on their websites. Though such organizations have long resisted providing links to their competitors’ content—which is precisely how blog networks ordinarily function—NBC and The New York Times have begun doing so (Stelter 2008). They have also started treating the blogosphere as a kind of farm team for more conventional pedestals, as in the case of Ross Douthat’s recent transition from blogging for The Atlantic’s website to writing for The New York Times op-ed page. (The blog portal Technorati reports that 20% of the bloggers it surveyed have been invited to write for print media because of their blog, and 17% have received invitations for broadcast media.) While blogs have not replaced traditional media, they have already begun to transform it as they become more and more mainstream themselves.

As in politics and news media, the use of blogs has exploded in the realm of religious life. Religious communities, leaders, and individual practitioners use blogs to trade insights and build networks, and even as platforms for religious experiences (Cheong et al. 2008). Beliefnet, launched in 1999 and now owned by Fox Digital Media, has made its cluster of religion blogs on politics, inspiration, entertainment, and culture into a profitable enterprise. In 2008, it began to draw competition from Patheos, a site dedicated to providing expert information about religion to the general public, as well as blogs, user forums, and timely debates. The Revealer and GetReligion, both conceived in 2003, have provided critical commentary on how the mainstream press discusses religion, and major newspapers and broadcasters have cited their influence. During recent years, blogs like Talk to Action and Street Prophets have played a part in fostering the new, “progressive” religious left that helped Democrats find a religious vocabulary leading up to the 2008 election. More academic blogs like The Immanent Frame, Religion in American History, and The Prosblogion are already loci for new kinds of virtual scholarly exchanges.

Because of their ease of publication and use, blogs have changed the shape of public discourse in society as a whole and around religious questions in particular. They adjust the bar for entry, making dissemination to a great many readers possible for those who previously couldn’t. Blogs also alter the content of that discourse, often privileging the immediate over the reflective and opinion over original research. Nevertheless, blogging is a powerful and flexible medium, one uniquely suited to providing the space for vibrant, diverse, and productive discussions about religion.

1.3 Making a public sphere

What kind of community is forming in the blogosphere and, in turn, what kind of discourse—what kind of public sphere—emerges from it?

Douglas Rushkoff (2005) has argued that the blogosphere, among other components of contemporary publishing and technological culture, are moving us increasingly toward an “authorship society.” While, before, the vast majority simply consumed content produced by a tiny minority, more and more people are now creating and publishing the raw material of culture. If this characterization is correct, it amounts to a radical shift—and a radically democratizing one—in the constitution of the public sphere. But one should be careful about jumping to optimistic conclusions too quickly. For one thing, precisely what makes blogs so vibrant and diverse also makes the blogosphere difficult to mark out and measure. Naomi S. Baron (2008) conveys a sense of why this is the case:

I’ve created four or five blogs for my classes over the past few years. When the course is over, the blog remains, floating like space junk—but in cyberspace. Am I a blogger? Not really, but I have several blogs in my name. Do I read blogs? Sometimes, but mostly when they turn up in web searches. If a survey asked me whether I write or read blogs, and how many blogs I have, I could at best confound the data.

According to recent statistics from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 33% of Internet users say they currently read blogs, and 42% say that they ever have (Smith 2008). Given the variation in people’s understanding of the terms and technology of the Internet, however, these numbers likely don’t account for many people who come across and read blogs through web searches without necessarily knowing that what they’re looking at is a blog. Other metrics, cited by Technorati in its 2008 “State of the Blogosphere” report, place the number of blog readers at 41%, 50%, and 77% of Internet users.

Blog authors are far fewer. Pew reports that 12% of Internet users say they ever blog, and only 5% do so on a typical day. Technorati corroborates the 12% figure and provides some more detail about who the bloggers are. Around two-thirds are male, and 70% have college degrees. Compared to the general Internet population, they are more likely to be male, less likely to be married, and more likely to be employed full-time. Though blogging has sometimes been hailed as a great leveler, a voice for the previously voiceless, this is evidence that its adopters trend toward the demographics of the establishment.

The consequences of these changes for public discourse on serious issues are only beginning to unfold. There is much excitement when blogs and social networks enable dissidents to reach audiences in countries that make a policy of curtailing free speech (China and Iran are exemplary cases in this regard). On the other hand, it usually isn’t long before officials catch up by restricting access to the offending sites or pressuring them to conform. Even where free expression is ostensibly protected, as in the United States, blog readers can limit the breadth of perspectives they’re exposed to by following only those blogs with which they already agree (Sunstein 2001; 2007). There is strong evidence, in fact, that leading bloggers tend to link to those who share their own political viewpoints (Hargittai et al. 2008). Some bloggers even explicitly limit the range of discussion on their blogs, promising to remove comments that call into question certain foundational assumptions.

In an analysis of the blogosphere that draws on Jürgen Habermas’ model of the public sphere, Andrew Baoill (2004) points to significant stumbling blocks that the blogosphere poses for genuinely open, egalitarian discussion. Blogs don’t form a universal conversation in which all are welcome; instead, they gather in clusters of more-or-less overlapping conversations, governed, more or less centrally, by their particular barons. Anyone can start a blog, but few will be widely read. While it may be true that blogging can reach beyond some of the limitations of older media, it certainly raises problems of its own as well.

The new landscape of the religion blogosphere
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