This is a piece from the current version of final chapter of my dissertation where I discuss blogging across various boundaries. It draws heavily on the conceptual categories from the work of Etienne Wenger on communities of practice (Communities of practice: Learning, meaning and identity, 1998) and on the discussion with CPsquare members about those.
While blogging might provide a window onto practices of the blogger, on a surface weblog is just an artefact: text, links and bits of other media. In this post I reflect on the ways blogging helps to cross boundaries through information exchange and non-personal connections, using the concept of boundary object as a starting point. This concept was introduced by Susan Leigh Star (Star & Griesemer, 1989; Star, 1989), who used it to describe how practices of different social worlds are coordinated:
Boundary objects are both plastic enough to adapt to local needs and constraints of the several parties employing them, yet robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. They are weakly structured in common use, and become strongly structured in individual-site use. They may be abstract or concrete. They have different meanings in different social worlds but their structure is common enough to more than one world to make them recognizable means of translation. The creation and management of boundary objects is key in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting social worlds. (Star & Griesemer, 1989, p. 393)
My original interest in using the concept of boundary objects in respect to blogging comes from the term itself (weblog is an object that works across various boundaries), so my treatment of it deviates from the way it is usually used. I use it to refer to an object at a boundary of different perspectives that include those of an individual, rather than to an object at an intersection between social worlds (Star & Griesemer, 1989) or communities of practice (Wenger, 1998). In addition, boundary objects are defined through their use for coordinating different perspectives (for example, this point is emphasised by Wenger, 1998, pp. 107-108), while in the case of blogging coordination between perspectives is often an accidental side-effect, rather than intentional.
Those differences might warrant the need to introduce an alternative terminology, however I leave it for further work and focus on parallels between boundary objects and weblogs: artefacts-based connections between different perspectives that do not require personal engagement and characteristics that enable those connections.
Contrasting the role of boundary objects in crossing boundaries between communities of practice with brokering, Wenger emphasises that artefact-based connections “can transcend the spatiotemporal limitations inherent in participation” (Wenger, p. 110), since artefacts can travel easier than people, however, uprooted from specific practices, artefacts are also a source of ambiguity and misinterpretation. Studies, presented in my dissertation show that weblogs have a potential to connect different perspectives without requiring personal engagement. For example, readers of my weblog pick up bits of the research relevant for them; KM bloggers use weblogs to establish information relations next to those of more personal nature. The Microsoft case provides a view on how far information can travel via weblogs, as well as an idea of challenges of misinterpretation it can bring.
Based on the different types of boundary objects described by Star (Star & Griesemer, 1989; Star, 1989), Wenger proposes a number of characteristics “enabling artefacts to act as boundary objects” (Wenger, 2001, 107):
1) Modularity: each perspective can attend to one specific portion of the boundary object (e.g., a newspaper is a heterogeneous collection of articles that has something for each reader).
2) Abstraction: all perspectives are served at once by deletion of features that are specific for each perspective (e.g., a map abstracts from the terrain only certain features, such as distance and elevation).
3) Accommodation: the boundary object lends itself to various activities (e.g., the office building can accommodate the various practices of its tenants, its caretakers, its owners, and so forth).
4) Standardization: the information contained in a boundary object is in a prespecified form so that each constituency knows how to deal with it locally (for example, a questionnaire that specified how to provide some information by answering certain questions).
Those characteristics are useful to view what enables weblogs to serve as connectors across various perspectives.
Modularity and standardisation are inherent to weblogs: blogging is about bits of microcontent (weblog posts), connected within and across weblogs by standardised structure and protocols. When finding a new weblog, those familiar with the medium, know how to deal with it (e.g. distinguish specific posts and their metadata, browse through the archives or subscribe to the updates). Specific weblog posts, accompanied by permalinks, can be accessed without the rest of the weblog. This allows information presented in a weblog to travel far outside of the original contexts where it was created.
The potential of a weblog to accommodate various activities is not immediately obvious: on a surface it is an instrument for low-threshold publishing that allows reaching broad audiences without pushing information to them. However, the results of the studies presented in my dissertation suggest that it may also support conversations with self and interactions with specific others (more on publishing vs. interaction, conversations with self and conversations with others).
A combination of those three modes supports accommodation for various practices of different constituencies. An individual blogger might use weblog for a conversation with self – articulating thoughts and feelings, organising own digital bits or reflecting on the traces left over time in retrospect. Publishing makes one’s weblog traces exposed, so others can learn from them without necessarily engaging directly with the blogger. On the other hand, weblogs could be also used for interaction and engaging in-depth, allowing to build relations and trust and to develop ideas in dialogue with one’s contacts.
Finally, since multiple perspectives are served at once, weblogs also exhibit a degree of abstraction, for example, when specific details of one’s work or personal situation is omitted to make possible sharing the essence in public and knowing that the author himself or those “who know” can read between the lines to reconstruct missing details. Abstraction also makes information presented in a weblog accessible and relevant to broader and varied audiences, while also increasing a chance for misinterpretation.
In sum, while not necessarily fully fitting in a definition of a boundary objects, weblogs exhibit characteristics that make them effective in establishing artefact-based connections across boundaries of different social world.