It feels strange now, almost at the end of my PhD work, to come back to the themes and topics from the beginning of it. Like a few weeks ago, when the post by Jack Vinson brought back the metaphor of a weblog as a front porch from the discussions in 2004.
I’ve been playing with city-related metaphors for a long time, heavily inspired by the book by Danish architect Jan Gehl “Life between buildings“. Now I tie together multiple fragments of it in a final chapter of my dissertation, using it to explain the ‘front porch’ nature of blogging and its impact for emergent social processes. Below is a piece from the current draft…
As the findings of this dissertation illustrate, blogging supports creating relations with unknown and unexpected others, often across various boundaries. It starts from being present as a blogger, finding and observing others; then possibly engaging in an interaction that might grow into a relation. In his study of social activities in urban places Jan Gehl (2001) describes relations in similar way starting from “see and hear contacts” that might eventually grow into a closer relation. In analysing the conditions for those contacts and for emergent interaction in public spaces in a city he stresses the importance of edge zones:
At the edge of the forest or near the façade, one is less exposed than if one is out in the middle of a space. One is not in the way of anyone or anything. One can see, but not be seen too much, and the personal territory is reduced to a semicircle in front of the individual. When one’s back is protected, others can approach only frontally, making it easy to keep watch and to react, for example, by means of a forbidding facial expression in the event of undesired invasion of personal territory.
The edge zone offers a number of obvious practical and psychological advantages as a place to linger. Additionally, the area along the façade is the obvious outdoor staying area for the residents and functions of the surrounding buildings. It is relatively easy to move a function out of the house to the zone along the façade. The most natural place to linger is the doorstep, from which it is possible to go farther out into the space or remain standing. Both physically and psychologically it is easier to remain standing than to move out into the space. One can always move farther later on, if desired (Gehl, 2001, pp. 151-152).
Weblogs are similar to the edge zones in cities. As a personal space in public a weblog provides a unique opportunity for combining the characteristics of both – being in control and feeling protected in one’s own space (Gumbrecht, 2004) and being exposed to others and open for a communication.
Drawing parallels between blogging and social life in cities allows identifying several conditions for emergent social activities in a case of weblogs. One, mentioned above, is personal control and safety, providing an opportunity to “linger” comfortably in public. Other conditions include: a legitimate reason to be in public, an opportunity to see and be seen, and switching between inward- and outward-oriented activities.
Edge zones often provide one with a legitimate reason to be in public as long as one wants to without necessarily doing anything ‘social’ – for example, having a coffee or reading a book in a front garden of one’s house. In this context Jan Gehl also talks about “excursions as excuses” (2001, pp. 117-119), describing a number of observations indicating that some activity meaningful for a person appears to be a pretext or an occasion for social contact:
Among the requirements that are satisfied, in part, in public spaces are the need for contact, the need for knowledge, and the need for stimulation. These belong to the group of psychological needs. Satisfying these is seldom as goal-oriented and deliberate as with the more basic physical needs, such as eating, drinking, sleeping and so on. For example, adults seldom go to town with the expressed intention of satisfying the need for stimulation or the need for contact. Regardless of the true purpose may be, one goes out for a plausible, rational reason – to shop, to take a walk, to get some fresh air, to buy a paper, to wash the car, and so forth (Gehl, 2001, p. 117).
Blogging can support various personal activities that do not require interaction. One can always think of a weblog in terms of conversations with self or publishing: blogging as “writing for myself”, “publishing to the world” or “learning from others” provides an excuse to linger in public.
Being in public in a city implies that one has an opportunity to see what’s going on and to be seen, without a necessity to interact. In a case of weblogs “seeing” is reading, made more efficient by news aggregators and various notification services that allow bloggers to keep track of interesting things happening. Writing a weblog makes its author present in a blogosphere and visible to others. This visibility provides an opportunity for low-intensity contacts, exposure and lurking that do not require the commitment and effort of an interaction, but create starting points for more intensive engagement.
Finally, to be able to engage with others further one needs an opportunity to switch easily between inward- and outward-oriented activities, those personally meaningful and those engaging others, for example, by stopping to talk with a friend met on a street. With weblogs it is about switching modes: what started as publishing or conversation with self can turn into an interaction when others comment or link to a weblog post. As a conversation in a middle of a street, interacting via weblogs is not the most convenient way to talk, however, it is spontaneous and easy to move in a more appropriate space if there is a need for it or to stop if one is in a hurry.
As an edge zone as weblog provides a personal space in public. Although there is the pressure of social norms and perceived expectations of one’s audience, the personal nature of blogging means that there is still more freedom in what to write and how to do it than in many other online spaces, which are often guided by topical focus or reinforced group practices. Blogging can also be more open-ended and less focused on an interaction with specific others, for example, writing email with ‘an interesting idea that you might be able to comment on’ to all acquaintances would be rude, while a weblog provides a natural space for it. However, at the same time weblog is a form of communication aimed at others – like being in public reveals one’s personality through exposing appearance and actions, writing a weblog exposes the author’s values and way of thinking through the style of writing and choices about content.