Comment culture

Prof. Schulmeister’s new German paper “Views on the comment culture of weblogs” has caused considerable discussion (see here or here for more).

He finds that the hope for a comment culture, the reflective element of participative learning, has not yet been fulfilled, and that weblogs are rather monological and only few threads are emerging.

He reports three studies, two by his students (about history blogs and corporate blogs) and one of his own (about his edu colleagues’ blogs). This part contains quantitative and qualitative analysis of the weblogs. I tried to extract the central statements from the lengthy “conclusions” section and translated them (unprofessionally).

“The hope of higher education pedagogy must lie in the comment culture, the reflective element of participative learning,

“Weblog could possibly be of outstanding relevance”, but for the time being, this remains a hope.

Weblogs are a “rather monological form of expression”, only few threads are emerging.

With the most bloggers, the frequency of contributions is too low to be truly present, the kind of contributions is usually very miscellaneous or follows a schema (see Ebner and Robes). With many, the share of own knowledge is low, they are referencing external sources and disseminating secondary knowledge.

The other weblogs of this sample, however, do not contain a topic that is discussed for a longer time or repeatedly (some of the Geschichtsblog do) but offer a kaleidoscope of constantly varying topics. What remains is — to use the title of Baumgartner’s blog — “thought splints” being offered in the blogs.

“one is reading the thought snippets of the like-minded in weblogs and one rarely takes the time for the voluminous originals and the demanding monographs. What is emerging in this way, are not scholarly schools of thought as anciently, and not genuine disourse circles, either, but citation cartels.” “[Quoting himself].

“”Commented link lists are channeling the attention” … The same is intended implicitly by blogrolls, trackbacks, pingbacks, and tweetbacs, they are channeling the attention or “splinting” the reader’s attention. Since there are very many of them one may suspect that they are distracting the attention from carefully reading and may provoke hypertext-analogical jump behaviour.

Already in quantitative respect, the comments are meagre, the 554 posts received 533 comments,

Predominantly, the comments are rather short, usually too short for a real argumentation.

the kind of comments raises little hope for discourses and a genuine comment culture. They fulfill social functions, give positive feedback, congratulate, affirm, and encourage.

Weblogs exist predominantly for the communique of one’s own voice.”

I would note that the average number of comments does not reveal one of the major benefits of blog reactions: The selection which posts found a resonance and which did not, and by whom, and what aspects were selected, provides valuable insight for the author. Similarly, the mentioned social functions (give positive feedback, congratulate, affirm, and encourage) do contribute to the substantial, topical discourse by their selection.

Another point is that reactions among blogs are not limited to explicit comments. Often, the initial post is already a reaction to another contribution. And If the discourse is continued in another blog, this is not always reflected by trackbacks or pingbacks, due to spam fighting.

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2 Responses to Comment culture

  1. roy williams says:

    I agree, but I would perhaps go further: I think Schulmeister misses the point again and againt.

    As you point out, the blog itself is often a comment or a response. I am writing this here, but it is typical of the kind of response I would write in my own blog – and in fact it is likely to find its way into one of my blogs ( wikis.

    What really struck me in the recent blog/forum research, right at the end, in the final draft, was Alm’s formulation of blogs as interactive spaces with ‘asymmetrical communication rights’: i.e. only the blogger has rights to continue the train of thought, or divert from it, in the next blog post. The reader/commentator does not have these ‘change of direction’ rights, their rights are restricted to ‘add on’ rights. That is so important in academic discourse – particularly in face-2-face modes, or in proxy face-2-face modes (i.e. forums), because it is one of the crucial points of articulation of power in academic discourse, and a basic building block of ‘turn-taking’ analysis in conversational analysis in linguistics.

    In my previous life as a discourse analyst (a la Foucault) this would always be my focus – the way particular modes of discourse articulate power, and create and maintain affordances for particular people /groups/ discourse communities to exercise power. In this case, Alm’s “protected-spaces-blogs” provide a space into which you can retreat, where you can exercise control over turn-taking and agenda-setting. So maybe there is a much more nuanced point to be made in the blogs/forums research, namely that there is a continuum (and some resonance) between bloggers as ‘refugees from the forums’ (which is a response to two extraordinary ‘events’ in CCK08) on the one hand and bloggers as ‘masters of their own discursive space’, (which is an ordinary part of blog-discourse)on the other hand.

    This is one of the key affordances of web 2.0: it is a discourse in which the ‘contestation’ and (even aggressive) deconstruction of modernist and post-modernist discourse is replaced by just ignoring the hegemonic discourses of Schulmeister’s sequential arguments, and getting on with networked interaction instead. That is just the kind of response that is guaranteed to infuriate an old style school-meister!

    But this is not really (as Schulmeister seems to think) a challenge to argumentation and science per se, or even a circumvention of formal argumentation and science, its just another route to arrive at knowledge, some of which will, eventually, end up being codified in formal ‘scientific’ knowledge, and some of which will continue to circulate as informal (or ante-formal) knowledge. This is certainly true of what I do – I write emails, responses like this one, copy them into blogs, etc, all as ‘thoughts in progress’ within the spaces of my own ‘asymmetric communication rights’ (and I might also post them in some bazaar-ish free-for-all forums), and at a later stage I go and ‘mine’ all of this, and use some of it to write formal academic papers. (I wrote a paper along these lines in JKM a year or two ago, on the Epistemology of Knowledge, using the concept of ‘ante-formal’ knowledge). This relates directly to what you call ‘in-between’ techniques, or what could be called liminal spaces – spaces in which thresholds can be crossed.

    So I think what also irks the schulmeister is the fact that web 2.0 violates the hegemonic circulation rights that formal scientific genres, registers, professors, and cartels have exercised for so long over intellectual conversation.

    When he objects to the ‘non-threaded’ nature of blogs, it looks like he is using ‘threaded’ as a proxy for ‘formalised-scientific’. But this misses the point too, as there is a third element to the hegemony that is being circumvented by the new kids on the block, playing new games: namely, that one of the key characteristics (and requirements) of formal-scientific discourse is that it is the basis for intellectual ‘currency’, which means that it has to obey the rules of exchange value, (or metasemiotics, in my terms), i.e. that it is decontextualised, and only engages the top 1 or 2 centimeters of the brain, to the exclusion of context, emotion, bodily and social embeddedness, etc. It is entirely possible, as the inclusion of poems and image-metaphors in CCK09 demonstrated, to broaden intellectual engagement beyond the restrictions of cognitivist discourse.

    And there is a fourth hegemony, if you follow my argument, namely the hegemony of not only internal formalization (within a scientific argument) but also the formalization between arguments, or blogs or forum posts, (the weak ties)which possibly overlaps with the point about rights of circulation.

    The internet offers radically new affordances for the production and exchange of intellectual debate, news, and much else besides (see Knor-Cetina’s work), and in particular, it offers affordances for a peer-to-peer community of inquiry which, I think, invigorates the best traditions of the university.

  2. x28 says:

    Roy, many thanks for this great analysis that takes the discourse so much further!

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