Bloggers: Some Formal Definitions

The word “blogger” gets thrown around quite a bit these days, with shape-shifting definitions. Having studied this over the past year, I thought it best to leave out four senses of a definition. (Note: The definitions have been updated with clearer names from the original post twelve days ago.)

i) In the vernacular sense: Any person who expresses themselves via online media. The term has been stretched to mean not just writers of blogs, but people who post comments on other blogs, photobloggers, show up at blogger dinners uninvited, etc. This has superseded the 1990’s contractions of netizen (“habitual user of the Internet”) or hacktivist (“Hacktivism is the fusion of hacking and activism; politics and technology.”) which had more narrow appeal.

ii) In the conventional sense: Any person who follows the conventions of blogging by keeping and updating a weblog or “blog” (WordNet) In its leanest definition a blog is a regularly-updated website that organizes the content in reverse-chronological order. Thus this excludes Internet users who contribute to Wikipedia (“Wikipedians”), the Free Republic (“Freepers”), the DailyKos (“Kossacks”), web-based bulletin boards, newsgroups, the comments to a blog, email lists (all “posters”).

iii) The independent sense of the term: Any person who meets the conventional definition and also self-publishes it (by themselves or with a group). This means that the writer also has ultimate control over the contents and the appearance of comments on their site, whether or not they ever exercise it. The control may be pre- or post-publication. Thus this excludes people who contribute a blog for a larger website.

iv) The ordinary sense of the term: Someone meeting the conventional sense of the term, but is more well-known as a blogger than they are as any other occupational description. This would thus exclude ringers who owe their public notoriety to journalism, business, etc. Granted, this may be subjective, but it is a distinction people make.

Usage

The vast majority of the millions of bloggers meet the tight definition. Nonetheless, the vernacular definition is often used in conversations and published accounts to talk about the actions, rights, or other aspects of the group. The well-known factum of bloggers– that they “broke the 60 Minutes Memo Forgeries story”– this is true to the vernacular definition, since the initial public doubt of it came via “Freepers” on the Free Republic, and the heavy lifting of analysis came from a typography expert who posted his report on his web page. What the role of the conventional bloggers was to promote and nurture the initial doubt into a fuller story. Similarly, as I researched, the outing of Jeff Gannon came from a collection of bloggers (vernacular) — yet the bulk of the initial research came from Media Matters (vernacular, if that) and the DailyKos (vernacular/conventional). One of the leaders of the DK effort, Brian Keeler, told me in an interview that he didn’t really see himself as a blogger. In another well-known case, “Apple sues bloggers” this is again where the vernacular definition was used, and not the conventional. (see an expert’s explanation of this).

I have identified several values that seemed to be shared by bloggers and are amplified in theoretical discussions about blogging, which may explain why some people (such as me, and Brian) choose not to associate with the term “blogger.”

In addition, some of the independent bloggers have viewed the suspicion those that only blog in the conventional sense– that is, bloggers who blog for newspapers, television networks, and other “mainstream” or “corporate” media, or even on websites for companies and political candidates. These are perhaps trivial differences, but it could have a meaningful difference in terms of a corrections policy, in terms of what content is or is not featured. (Also search Google for “not a real blog” for examples: 642 at today’s count– this also brings up dissents about whether the attributes of comments, hyperlinks, a “social network”, the “individual voice” are Germaine.)

I added the ordinary sense after reading a post by Robert Cox, head of the Media Bloggers Association. Bob felt that media critics like Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post err in referring to certain media personalities as bloggers, even though blogging may not be the only thing or the best-known thing that they do. I am not sure whether Bob has referred this matter to the MBA, but it’s a sentiment that a number of ordinary bloggers share vis-a-vis the latter-day “ringers” who appear on TV to speak as “bloggers.”

Ramifications

Any one of these may be very useful if a legal definition of a blogger were needed.

Within the strict definition of bloggers, there may be different archetypes based on intent. I have suggested five archetypes. Those that want to be considered journalists (or “doing journalism”) may want to articulate their relationship with their readers, and in turn be recognized with privileges normally accorded to journalists.

A useful distinction could have helped in the recent Cahill decision in the Delaware Supreme Court, which I analyzed earlier this week. This is the background: the Independent Newspaper company runs community news sites in four states. Up until recently, they had provided a public guestbook format to their communities, and erroneously called them blogs (they changed over to web-based forums). In one Delaware community, a city councilor had posted had used his real name; others had used aliases and made dubious accusations at the city councilor and his wife. The couple filed a defamation suit, which would have required the ISP to produce the accounts of the anonymous posters. Last week the Supreme Court ruled against him, in part because “blogs and chat rooms tend to be vehicles for the expression of opinions; by their very nature, they are not a source of facts or data upon which a reasonable person would rely.”

In the ruling, the court called it a “blog” though correctly identified the actors as “posters.” Many reviewers of the decision called it a victory for “bloggers” (vernacular definition). They also stressed the doctrine of online/offline equivalency, which has been a popular doctrine among blogger-advocates. But this shouldn’t be assumed. Not all offline media are equivalent to each other, and neither are all online media or actors. The poster to a blog is not the same as the writer of it, which may not be the same as the publisher of it. “Publisher” has different meanings in the online world, since the publisher may or may not pre-approve the postings.

In everyday use, it is acceptable to be fuzzy with definitions. But in fields like journalism, academics, and law, it is critical to let the audience know which definition is to be used in given contexts.

Note, October 26th: When I originally authored this 12 days ago, I suggested three senses of the definition: loose/strict/tight. I had sent this to Dan Gillmor for feedback; When I originally authored this 12 days ago, I suggested three senses of the definition: loose/strict/tight. I had sent this to Dan Gillmor for feedback; he posted a link that sent a majority of the 650+ readers here, and a few people cited these senses. But after considering these terms over the last week, I realized the definitions were too slippery and unrelated to the meanings. I regret the confusion– but that’s what constructive media is about.

If this post was helpful then please share it and help others too. ;)

Recent Content