Weblog as place

In the Ecotone bi-weekly topic for August 15, 2003, "WeblogAsPlace," Coup de Vent from London and the North poses the rather foundational question, "Is your weblog a place in itself? In her response to the prompt, Rana from Notes from an Eclectic Mind recounts regularly being corrected by a former professor every time she spoke of the Internet as a "place." Several Ecotone writers come to her support by testifying to what Fred calls the sense of "placeness" they have experienced in their blogs (Comment).

Fezoca from The Chatterbox explains how her blogs have literarily become a room in her house:

After been writing daily on this weblog for almost three years, I could say that it has become a place. Not only a metaphorical or virtual place, but a real physical space. I feel like this weblog is an extra room in my house - the one with the funky pink wallpaper - where I go every morning, or sometimes in the afternoon or night, and jot down my thoughts.

"Weblog as Place" (August 15, 2003)

Similarly, Rana's blog has become part of the woodwork of her private life:

What began as a drawing board for the book I’ve been talking about writing for years quickly evolved into an alternate dimension, a private public space vital to my days. I now feel that I live my private life in a bedroom, two closets, a bath, and a blog.

"Weblog as Place," (August 15, 2003)

The contradictory notion of "public private space" suggests the way these imagined spaces become places not through individual expression alone but through the interaction with other bloggers. Numenius suggests as much when he asks:

Is there something special about weblogs that make them possess more of a sense of place than other online fora? Place has always been an important metaphor for the Web -- witness the use of "home page" and "web site" -- and perhaps the combination of the graphic design elements of the Web and the prominence weblogs give to the individual writer's voice enables a strong sense of place. And a weblog is happiest when other people stop by -- it is always reaching towards community.

"A Place In Cyberspace" (August 15, 2003)

This "reaching toward community" is evident in the way Beth describes her sense of proximity to other bloggers despite physical distance:

My blog feels so much like a "place" that I sometimes feel if I looked around the corner, the commentators would be gathered for dinner! I think the reason we are all a little perplexed by this is simply that this way of interacting - using our minds but not our physical presence - is so new.

Comment on "Blogs as Place," Panchromatica (August 27, 2003)

While Beth imagines her readers gathered for dinner, Pica similarly views her blog as a site of hospitality, a place where fellow bloggers might join her for tea:

I write this with a cast on my left leg, on a laptop (which is conveniently on my lap), looking out the back window to oleander bushes which despite the increasing heat are still miraculously blooming. The space makes it seem as though these fifteen (or more) people are in the room with me. The weblog seems to be an extension of my living room. It is always in need of some tidying, but hey, everyone's welcome anytime. The kettle's on the stove. I'd get it for you if I could get up...

What is more, these interactions often spill out into other places, further blurring the boundaries between blog and life. As Rana describes it, "I began to litter my sentences in 'real life' conversations with references to what other bloggers were writing about on their sites. Like taking out a room in [a] crazy apartment building, I started to get to know the neighbors" ("Weblog as Place").

The references to "the kettle on the stove" and starting to "get to know the neighbors" exemplifies the rhetorical act of place-making that Nicholas Burbules examines in his article "The Web as a Rhetorical Place." For Burbules, the web is a "rhetorical place" rather than a "rhetorical space" because a place is "a socially or subjectively meaningful space." In his formulation, this place has 1) "navigational and the semantic elements" such as an "objective, locational dimension: people can look for a place, find it, move within it" and a 2) "semantic dimension: it means something important to a person or group of people, and this latter dimension may or may not be communicable to others." (78) In his mind, space "does not capture the distinctive way in which users try to make the Web familiar, to make it their space--to make it a place." By contrast, "calling the Web a rhetorical place suggests...that it is where users come to find and make meanings, individual and collectively " (78).

The experience of a blog as a rhetorical place is not unique to place bloggers; what's unique is the way this rhetorical place is designed to foster a deeper sense of place. We begin to see this in the way place bloggers highlight the physical locations of their blogging:

This weblog is located in downtown Davis, California, USA. My visitors come from different places and are familiar with different languages and cultures. They stop by for a couple of minutes and get entertained by what they find here. They can talk to me while visiting or only pass through in silence - with a smile on their faces, though - for that I guarantee!

"Weblog as Place" (August 15, 2003)

Though Fezoca provides a geographic location for blog, she gives no indication that the visitors she mentions are dropping by in the flesh. In doing so, she articulates what appears to be a deliberately ambiguous relationship between where she tends to be blogging from (not the literal location of the server hosting her blog) and those she interacts with in her blog.

For place bloggers, this impulse to highlight the physical location where one writes from is significant. As Fred puts it in Fragments from Floyd:

Fragments from Floyd comes every day from a literal address-- the same desk in the same green valley of Southwest Virginia. Many blogs' political or technological opinions and fact-streams have no bearing to their location of origin-- which may even change from day to day now that road-posting and hand-held blogging is possible. Other weblogs, fewer in number, could be thought of as "where-blogs". For these bloggers, place is central.

"Where-Blogs and Place" (August 15, 2003)

While Fred affirms the nature of blogs as rhetorical places that allow communities of interest to transcend geography, here he makes it clear that "where-blogs" are intimately tied to the physical places where bloggers reside. Blogs may be rhetorical places without any particular connection to physical places, but "where-blogs" deliberately call attention to the physical aspects of place.

Other Ecotone bloggers draw attention to both the physicality of place and the the material conditions of blogging technology itself. In one post, Chris from Bowen Island Journal exhorts the reader:

Look very closely at these words. If you lean into your monitor you will see that they flicker a little. Peer even closer and you see that each letter is made up of little squares. Take a magnifying glass to the screen and you notice that there is space between the pixels.

This weblog is about a place, but it lives everywhere. At the moment it lives right in front of you, little more than light shining in your eyes. Reading it may invoke a feeling of being here on Bowen Island, but it is not Bowen Island itself. It lives only on your monitor. Once I publish the words, they reside as tiny 1s and 0s on a server in Vancouver. When you reach them via a URL they fly at the speed of light to where you live and they embed themselves in your context.

August 15, 2003

While Chris acknowledges significance of our "mental landscapes" in how we experience places, he hesitant to speak of weblogs as places:

But are weblogs places in themselves? I don't believe so. Come to Bowen, swim with me in the phosphorescence on a late summer evening with crickets and nighthawks chirping away and you will know what it is like to be consumed by place. The next click you make will take you away from this weblog, but it's not that easy in real life. When we are in place, we are rooted. We cannot leave without some part of us remaining behind, stretched out behind us, eventually catching up to where we now find ourselves. But with this weblog, perhaps with any weblog, we skim the surface, reside in the moment perhaps even try to peer into the depths.

August 15, 2003

Similarly, Chris from Creek Running North prefers to make a clear distinction between the physical places he writes about and the representations of these places he creates:

Put it this way: There's about a ten-inch section of one of my shelves that's filled with nature writing from Nebraska and Kansas: Swallow Summer, The Last Prairie, PrairyErth. But my shelf is not a prairie. Last night I watched a rerun of the documentary Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner wryly grinning into the camera to narrate the Owens Valley War. But the television contains neither Reisner nor the Valley: both are dead, more or less.

I write in this weblog about place, when I'm not writing about me and my relationship with myself as I see it. But Pinole Creek does not at any point along its length flow through this Pinole Creek weblog: you are less likely to hear treefrogs in this blog than you are to taste salt by touching tongue to blue ink on a map of the bay.

"Maps and territories" (August 18, 2005)

What both seem to be reacting against is the early utopian rhetoric of the web which promoted increasing virtualization as an inherent good and which viewed the web as new kind of place that would allow us to transcend our bodies and make geographic distance irrelevant. Online places are not meant to be compensatory mechanisms to make up for the fact that we no longer invest in local brick-and-morter communities. As Stephen Dohena-Farina argues, “The continual virtualization of community reveals that geophysical community is dying. As we invest ourselves in the simulation, the simulated phenomena disappear” (27).

What the Ecotone discussion reveals is not an intractable disagreement over the nature of place blogging, but rather an affirmation that place is both rhetorical and physical in nature and it makes little sense to imagine it any other way. We cannot experience physical environments without mediation, whether ideological or technological, and yet the materiality of place undergirds and impinges upon even the most virtual of experiences. Those who are comfortable speaking of their blog as a place remind us of rhetorical qualities of place; those who feel less comfortable with the notion of "weblog as place" do so to emphasis the inescapable materiality of place. Both perspectives are vital to the health of place blogging.

Teaching the Tensions

Place bloggers, then, are not interested in virtuality for its own sake and they do not confuse their blog with the physical places they inhabit. Because a place blog is not itself a substitute for the place it represents, its job is not to keep people there; it is only rhetorically successful if it convinces readers to leave it. Place bloggers hope you will return, but only after engaging with places first-hand.

Maria from Alembic describes the way reading other place blogs have allowed her to experience places in deeper ways:

Before my trip to Pittsburgh, PA, and London, England, of this year, I haven’t been on a plane since 1996. Nor have I taken a vacation, except to drive, with my family, to Jackson, Wyoming. It wasn’t a fear of flying that stopped me so much as a combination of both claustrophobia on the planes, and agoraphobia when it came to visiting new cities.

As I started to read more blogs, I found myself drawn into the worlds of other people. Day in and day out I followed them, as some followed me, I suppose. It wasn’t long before the worlds they described in their blogs became almost as familiar to me as my own. Is it any wonder then that when it came to going to Pittsburgh or London, I didn’t feel as if I were leaving the familiar outlines of my home? Quite the opposite; I could hardly wait to see the landscape -- the shapes and colors of the place -- that was not so much backdrop, as an other character in their daily narratives.

However, in a later post Maria describes the way place blogging can sometimes create a conflict between the time one spends in front of the computer writing and the time one spends exploring actual places:

Once I migrated my blog to Movable Type and people started to stop by, and I, in turn, started to travel farther in the worlds of blogs, my walks in my physical neighborhood became less frequent and I spent a lot less time in my garden, or even caring about it. My focus shifted to worlds that came to me first in words only. At first, it was intoxicating to find out about the state of certain flowers in some other blogger’s garden in Vermont, for example–even as my own rose bushes, just out of view of my office, began to fail. To know where in London one can have good Lebanese food, to take another example, made me feel, somehow, a bit more worldly–or rather, a bit more as if my neighborhood just got bigger, even as I was eating leftovers from my fridge because I didn’t have the time to go exploring restaurants or grocery stores within a wider circle of my physical neighborhood..

"Impalpable Habitations" (May 24, 2004).

This is the dilemma that all place bloggers struggle with, but it can be a productive tension if it serves to make the technology more visible to those who use it.

In his essay "Writing Home: Composition, Campus Ecology, and Webbed Environments," Bradley Monsma examines the pedagogical benefits of designing place-based assignments that use web-based writing technologies. By having his students write about the physical space of the university from an ecological perspective, Monsma hoped his course design would encourage students "to pay careful attention to the nature of an urban place and to use language to begin to articulate not only their own relationships to that place but also those of the entire ecological community" (282). Faced with pressure from the university administration to integrate the use of laptops into his course, Monsma chose to combine the ecological focus of the assignment with a technological one by having student publish their final research projects as web pages available to the public.

However, as he found ways to integrate web-based technologies into his course, he also attempted to "to introduce a counterdiscourse" into his teaching:

Was it Max Frisch who warned that 'Technology is the knack of so arranging the world that we don't have to experience it? I wanted to make sure my students could consider the experiential and epistemological consequences of their new tools. I wanted to balance, or at least contrast, their experience of the instantaneous, global characteristics of online information with local knowledge of ecological interdependencies that often become apparent only through patient attention to a particular place. (282)

With the advent of weblogs as an easy mechanism for self-publishing, place blogging offers a means for accentuating the contrast Monsma describes by encouraging a rhetorical rhythm between place and the web. Since place blogging remediates such genres as field notes and nature writing, students could be documenting their engagement with university environs throughout their process of fieldwork and observation instead of using the web simply as publishing mechanism for the final product. In this way, the role of technology in mediating perception could be part of the ongoing discussion of how local knowledge is both created and shared.

In this way, using place blogging in the writing classroom offers opportunities to cultivate a healthy tension between the experience of place and the experience of technology that encourages more critical engagement with both. This approach lends itself to a more precise notion of “critical,” one that draws on the pedagogy of sustainability outlined by Derek Owens in his books, Composition and Sustainability. In this view, it’s not enough simply to orient ourselves to new technologies and changing environments; rather, we must also wrestle with the long-term implications of current ways of being in the world. Thus, critical orientation involves cultivating a productive tension between kairos and chronos, between the tyrannical timeliness of technology and the broader prospects for a sustainable future (Orr 72). To this end, using place blogs in the classroom would aim to foster a deeper sense of place while at the same time encouraging students to question the technologies that mediate that sense of place in increasingly complex ways.

© Copyright Tim Lindgren