FEATURE: The Blogger as Producer
BY: Eduardo Navas
The weblog, or blog as it is now commonly called, is a recent cultural manifestation of what Walter Benjamin saw developing during the early half of the twentieth century with the popularization of printed media. Benjamin noticed that more and more people started to become “collaborators” in his own time through the rise of the newspaper, when editors created new columns according to the trendy tastes of their readers. These spaces were for the reader to feel in touch with her culture, and in this sense the reader became a type of author. Benjamin saw the reader redefining the literary text; his example is the Russian press:
Here Benjamin observes a new development in writing, a major change in literature, to be more exact, which is the reader attaining an influence in what is published for her; and he claims that when such shift happens, literature moves from “specialized to polytechnic education;” that is, the work loses some of its depth in order to attain an efficiency in production. If one is to think of literature from this point on, Benjamin entertains, one must also include newspaper publishing as well.
Today, blogs follow the evolution of the newspaper writer, the newspaper reader, and the rise of the collaborator. Blogs have pushed the idea of the collaborator (as Benjamin saw it) in unexpected ways. For instance, because blogs function on a network (the Web which runs on the Internet), these are able to perform as platforms for not only feedback on printed media that is newspapers and magazines (which now also have online version of their publications), but also as places where to simply exchange ideas with other writers. Communities of bloggers (this is the name given to those who write on weblogs) flourished beginning around 1997;2 and recently, blogs have become an important part of the World Wide Web’s infrastructure.
Following Benjamin’s criticism, one has to admit that this type of online publishing must also be included as part of the history of Literature, if one expects to understand what Literature is today. But some questions arise with this latest manifestation: how does this type of online publishing relate to culture today as opposed to Benjamin’s time? What is the actual cultural agency that blogging has today vs. the early days of the newspaper, when the reader mainly had influence as an active audience? And most importantly, what does it mean to be a “contributor” in the age of the Internet and the World Wide Web?
A brief answer to these questions is to consider the blogger a reader and writer, a hybrid producer/consumer who does not necessarily share the critical meta-narratives of Walter Benjamin (that of the bourgeois writer on the left who sides with the proletariat). In short, the active Benjaminian reader has reinvented herself as an online weblog writer. The blogger who now functions as a checkpoint for the newspaper journalist usually is not a person with an average education. As John Stiler explains, a person who has the time to blog, especially on a specific subject with authority, holds an advance degree, often in direct relation to the blogging subject.3 This reader turned author, then, does not fit the type of newspaper reader Benjamin referred to. This reader/author, this blogger, is usually an academic of some sort, or a professional who holds some authority in a specific field. A question that arises when one realizes this is why would anyone bother to make her thoughts public on a daily basis? What does she get out of it if there is no money involved?
Richard Barbrook explains that the Internet has been largely built on the gift economy.4 Barbrook connects this term to the 1960s’ situationists and their interpretation of the Potlatch: the tradition of gift giving in Polynesia. He explains that open source, as an online practice closely resembles the act of giving away gifts. Barbrook also connects this practice to the academic field, where researchers often share information and ideas through conferences and academic journals. There is no direct money exchange involved in this aspect of the practice, but what the members do get is public recognition that can lead to tenure jobs in major research institutions. Many of the early pioneers in Internet and Web development were academics, or at least were individuals interested in research (hackers), which means that they were decently educated. This also means that they were willing to collaborate without direct monetary rewards for their labor, as long as they got public recognition for their contributions. This is one of the reasons why open source is so popular on the Internet. A good example of open source used by a corporation is Netscape, who survived its competition with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer by releasing its code to the online community. 5 This meant that anyone could download the source code of the Netscape browser and try to improve it. If such changes were accepted then the developer got public recognition, which lead to legitimacy on many levels, both, academically as well as online, with hacking and/or research communities. Another example is Linux, an operating system that is free online which has become a major competitor of Microsoft’s Windows.6 In short, open source promotes collaboration and is a major driving force on the web. This type of activity relies on the gift economy infrastructure, in that one must have a social bond with others, which is supported by the act of giving (contributing), leading to trust that makes them reliable members of a community. This is essential for people who interact via networks, like the Internet.
There are many types of blogs that function with diverse purposes; that the open source tradition is a major influence in their reasoning for sharing information is undeniable, and while bloggers may not get direct monetary rewards, they do get recognition much in the same way as open source contributors do. Bloggers also see themselves as collaborators as they comment on already published material as well as on material published by fellow bloggers. In this way Benjamin’s idea of the collaborator is extended, as the online reader is ready to write at the same time she reads new material. The boundaries of write/reader become blurry.
In less than a hundred
years the reader went from a passive participant with agency to a more
active “collaborator” (a blogger).
The media, which includes the newspaper in our times, now not only
considers its popularity according to the reception of the readers,
but also, thanks to blogging, looks at the readers for possible stories.
Bloggers can function also as check points for reliability of the story
once it is published and this process then can even lead to a new story,
as Stiler explains.7 What is interesting
about blogging is that it is always about archiving information that
refers to other archives of information. In this way the type of “literature” of
today, that is if we keep in mind Benjamin’s terms, is both “polytechnic” and “specialized;” an
odd turn, which became possible because the technology is efficient
enough to let people do today more things than it was possible in the
past. Professionals are able to write casually on topics that they
are experts on; their comments carry some depth at the same time that
they are efficient in production. Here, leisure, private life, and
work are combined as the blog functions as a type of journal giving
each writer certain authority, while also demanding that they spend
time they would otherwise use to entertain themselves writing about
topics of their choice.
People like Barbrook consider the Internet an arena where both capitalism and the gift economy, which he strategically connects with what he calls anacho-communism, are actually working together.8 He claims that both political camps function simultaneously by compromising and sharing resources. He explains:
This would be the case for many bloggers as well.
Benjamin’s demand of the author as producer to side with the proletariat, then, may still stand but only if one is willing to admit that such position has now become diversified into many interests in culture. This may not be possible for people who see the world moving in a specific historical course leading to an inevitable culmination of a truly egalitarian culture. But even they have to admit that a strong pluralism is at play all around the globe. This is apparent in the fact that the once universal struggle of the worker, which resonated throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America, has lost its urgency as a metanarrative. It is the ever-changing plurality that the author as producer must be wary of but also embrace, and this is the reason for a constant reinvestment in culture: the arena where, regardless of late postmodernist cynicism, meaning can still be questioned; this is a time when theories are extended through theory, and metas are referenced through meta.
So Benjamin’s demand is still there; but it appears it has taken on many shapes and forms that make it possible for the producer to get lost in an oubliette of ideologies.
Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” Reflections
(New York: Schocken, 1978), 225.