Saturday, May 15, 2004

Masons, Polynesians, and Bloggers: Applying social organization to bibliographic objectives

NOTE: the following are some preliminary remarks that I prepared for a presentation delivered at the Connections 2004 Conference on May 15 in Toronto


I’m here to talk about a relatively recent information phenomenon: blogging. The activity of blogging has received a lot of attention recently in the media. For those of you who don’t know, blogging—or web logging—is the activity of posting messages to the World Wide Web in a journaling like fashion. Blogs may be updated daily or even hourly, and others may update their blogs relatively rarely. There are a variety of reasons why people blog but what I’m really here to talk about is blogging’s relevance for a library and information science community. Specifically, I’m going to make a case that blogging more resembles oral communication than literal chirographic communication and that the communal and performative nature of blogging is an important example of sense-making. As a rhetorical trope, I’m going to compare the practices of modern bloggers to those of mediaeval masons. Finally, to bring this talk back to a firm LIS basis, I’ll make a short argument of how blogging could possibly be relevant to something like classification theory.

What is blogging

Blogs seem to be increasing in popularity. Anyone who listens to CBC in the morning will have heard a panel discussion about blogging this week on the morning program Sounds Like Canada (Rogers, 2004). Social commentary of blogs has also emerged in staunch literary sources like the New York Times (Nussbaum, 2004) while simultaneously receiving glowing accolades from popular business magazines such as Fast Company (McGregor, 2004). The Harvard Business Review even recently featured a case study on the business applications of blogging (Suitt, 2003).

As I mentioned, blogging is basically electronic journaling (Gallagher, 2000). There are any number of reasons why people blog. In a recent manuscript, Bonnie Nardi and some coauthors articulated five different motivations for blogging: documenting the author’s life, providing commentary and opinions, expressing deeply felt emotions, working out ideas, and forming and maintaining communities (Nardi, Schiano, Gumbrecht, & Swartz, 2004). This notion of community has also appeared in the writing of others. Recent articles have claimed that blogs could be a manifestation of some electronic Habermasian public sphere (Keren, 2004; Mortensen & Walker, 2002), a position echoed by Lawrence Lessing in his most recent book: Free Culture (Lessig, 2004).

What interests me, however, is the organizational power of blogs. As an electronic and “producerly” (Fiske, 1989) media, blogs are often replete with offsite links to other web pages and many blogs support rich discussion threads related to particular posts. Indeed, it’s these discussions that have led people to their public sphere hypothesis. Blog postings, however, are often personal and only in the discussion and cross-linking of various blogs does the significance of particular topics begin to emerge. As Torill Mortensen and Jill Walker note: “Blogs are a way to trace the flight of thought rather than the chain of thought” (Mortensen & Walker, 2002). This sort of communal interaction to produce some sort of cultural meaning seems much more at home in an earlier age than in the positivist realm of the 21st century.

What about masons

By now, I’m sure you’re starting to wonder how masons factor into this story of blogging. In my interpretation, the production of meaning created by blogs is similar to how cathedrals were produced during the medieaval era. I see some disbelieving faces but I’m going to ask you to consider how cathedrals were actually built. Masons used no formal drawings, they had no formal training, and engineering rigour didn’t exist. It’s hard for many of us to understand how a structure like Aachen Cathedral could emerge without any documentation. So how did these incredible structures emerge?

The sociologist and historian of science and technology David Turnbull has studied the practices of the mediaeval masons and maintains that documents weren’t necessary for the construction of these magnificent edifices. There is prima facie support for this statement given that so many cathedrals remain standing and they were all built in an era when documentary practices were necessarily primitive given the lack of things like literacy, numeracy, and—frankly—paper for cheaply producing drawings.

Instead, Turbull (2000) maintains that what was required for building these cathedrals was a means of transmitting knowledge. Given the lack of what we would now recognize as formal communication mechanisms, the mediaeval masons relied on different processes. According to Turnbull, they used: talk, tradition, and templates. Basically, “talk” describes the process of talking through problems, “tradition” encompasses the intensive apprenticeship required by master masons, and “templates” refers to various geometric devices that enabled the masons to design and build without detailed knowledge of engineering principles. Templates served as a way of incorporating or “black boxing” the tacit skills of earlier generations of masons. This triad of talk, tradition, and templates will shortly become quite important to our discussion.

How is this important to LIS?

I’m going to return to blogs for a second and address why they’re important to LIS. First, blogging is an organic and emerging documentary practice. Second, while blogs often impart order to collections of web pages, they do this without any sort of order being established a priori. Third, blogs often shape people’s browsing behaviour and—given the number of links contained in a typical blog—they can have a dramatic effect on search engine ranking algorithms such as Google’s PageRank. And fourth, blogs seem to conform to Turnbull’s requirements for non-literary knowledge transmission: talk, tradition, and templates.

Again, I see some doubting faces. You’re probably asking how blogs can possibly be non-literary when they are inherently written media. Let’s consider what blogs are: Basically, they are a loosely structured interchange of ideas in a particular community. The communications theorist Walter Ong would probably consider blogs an example of “secondary orality.” Ong maintained that formal literary documents removed discussion or commentary: “Once a letterpress forme is closed, locked up, or a photolithographic plate is made, and the sheet printed, the text does not accommodate changes.” (Ong, 1982 pg. 132) Ong classified newer media such as the telephone and television as definitive of “secondary orality” because dialog about the meanings conveyed by these media remained open. With blogs, meanings are always open and people are generally invited to contribute to the dialog or create derivative dialog in their own blogs.

The second aspect—tradition—is a firm part of blogging culture. There are various communities of bloggers that self identify through the use of cross-linking. These communities are then engaged in a process of communal sense-making. The popular blog “slashdot”, for example, has a strong technology focus and supports a community of self-identified “nerds”. In the discussion lists of slashdot we see groups of like-minded individuals discussing issues such as the merits of various computer chips or the implications of changes in legislation. This sort of community seems evident in LIS accounts of sense-making and information behaviour such as Elfreda Chatman’s Theory of Normative Behaviour (Chatman, 2000; Pendleton & Chatman, 1998) or Paul Solomon’s work on organizational sense-making (Solomon, 1997).

The final element of Turnbull’s discussion—templates—is evident in the format and genre of blogs. The style of blogging evolves for each particular community and the discussions of the community inherently have an effect on the process of blogging. Given the commercial interest and tech-centred nature of blogging, these processes and styles become reified in the affordances of new blogging tools.

So what does this leave us with? We have a new communication medium that seems to borrow its tenets from a pre-literary paradigm. In particular, the medium seems to be about a type of communal sense-making.

How do we operationalize?

How do we operationalize these concepts for LIS. I want to throw out one possible application: cataloguing grey literature. Grey literature and ephemera often pose a challenge for classification. We may be forced to create a new classification scheme or perhaps extend an existing classification system. I recently read an article, for example, that demonstrated how LCSH could be extended to the classification of baseball cards (Seeman, 2002). I wonder, however, if the importance of baseball cards stem from their year and location of publication. The significance of a particular card my lie elsewhere. But how do we determine that elsewhere?

Blogs are all about elsewhere. They are a running log of sense-making about particular ephemera. As an example, the blog postings linking to recent photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq may reveal the societal significance of the photos in a far better way than the copyright information possibly could. With blogging’s focus on talk, tradition, and templates, we can possibly begin to look beyond the document for meaning and instead focus on the meaning imparted by the community.


Of course, the meaning imparted by blogs is messy. But so are cathedrals. As noted by Turnbull, mediaeval cathedrals are often patchwork quilts of different architectural styles and approaches. On the net, however, cathedrals are imposing and magnificent edifices. To understand the intricacies of a particular cathedral one has to understand the actors who produced it.

Turnbull gives us one last image that I want to share. In addition to masons he describes the Polynesian explorers who managed to navigate across the entire Pacific ocean without the benefit of what we would recognize as a map. Instead, there culture was devoted to an ongoing process of sense-making that used talk, tradition, and templates to accomplish the goal of trans-Pacific navigation.

Blogging represents a similar and very modern process of sense-making. Perhaps we can learn some lessons from the practices of medieaval masons and Polynesian explorers and apply some of these lessons to our modern LIS practices.


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Gallagher, D. F. (2000, December 28). Invasion of the 'blog' : A parallel web of personal journals. New York Times, p. G11.
Keren, M. (2004). Blogging and the Politics of Melancholy. Canadian Journal of Communication, 29(1).
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