Monday, May 23, 2005

Graffiti is OK - BlogTalk DownUnder 2005

I parked my van right out front of the CMYC at Rushcutters Bay on Friday evening. Sunshine and I had a lovely dinner over in Surrey Hills and returned to the van and slept peacefully. The next morning we awoke surrounded in cars and early morning joggers - lucky we found the park when we did! We got dressed and strolled accross the park to have a pricey breakfast on the savings afforded by sleeping in the van. Sunshine then left for the markets and I returned to the CMYC to attend the final day of BlogTalk DownUnder.

Saturday's BlogTalk was more focused on Blogging in Education. I had already read the papers of the speakers I wanted to hear, but was pleasantly surprised by those I had not. Mark Bernstein kicked off the day with a very thought provoking presentation designed in part as a response to Steven Downes' dismissal of the 'Long Tail' at Northern Voice. Mark talked about how important the small players are in the blogosphere, and argued that that valuable ecology of writers that exist in the long tail is at threat if we don't find a way to recognise their value and sustain their existence.

Image sourced from the BlogTalk Downunder Flickr Album

Mark then went on to challenge the value of the comment feature in most blogs these days. He pointed out that comments make it is easy to hijack and even destroy blogs and people's motivation to keep blogs. Mark proposed a return to the original form of blogging, where authors commented on each other through their own blogs thereby respecting the space of their colleagues.

Many in the audience refuted this idea of Mark's, arguing that comments have had a largely positive contribution to blogging. Mark responded to each challenge but I felt that the audience was misunderstanding him. I think Mark perhaps emphasised the liability in comments too much, and thus distracted the audience’s ability to fully comprehend what he was saying. I felt that it is not so much because of the liability in comments that comments should be turned off, but because the network is strengthened if an ethic of commenting is practiced in the true monologue style of blogging (commenting on blogs at your own blog). Discussion blogs have their place of course, and as some in the audience pointed out, are in fact the central value to the blog, but for the most part preserving the monologue space of blogs encourages more cross referencing and therefore a stronger network that in turn strengthens the long tail of the blogosphere. I felt that Mark's contentious point was an interesting ethical concern with commenting that has significant possitive techical results when applied in a world of blogging. It is certainly something I will think more about when next I consider commenting on a blog.

The rest of the day went by with a collection of interesting but over all pretty unremarkable presentations. Due to a cancellation of Lisa Wise’s promising paper, Zenon Chaczko from UTS Engineering was brought forward to speak about his students’ use of blogging in their education. I found it interesting that Zenon appeared to be encouraging student use of blogs before the academic staff in his faculty were even using blogs in their own work. I could be wrong of course, but when I queried him on this I’m pretty sure he answered that not many staff have an interest or time to use blogs in their own work.

Ian MacColl from University of Qeensland got up after Zenon to talk about his group using blogging in undergraduate design studios. Ian spoke about the difficulties he has had using Moveable Type (MT) as the central tool to enable blogging for his students, and is currently adopting a new local server solution. I queried him on his use of local server solutions, given that there are a number of quality web based solutions for blogging that are free and relatively easy to use. I added that given that the technology is still evolving, perhaps the problems he has had with MT have less to do with the choice in local solution, but more with the decision to go with a local solution rather than a web based solution that offers more flexibility in the future. Ian acknowledged the validity of my point in question, but added that the University wanted control over the content and format of blogging for various reasons to do with service and support, as well as privacy and security.

Another in the audience asked Ian whether the student blogs that the university was hosting would still be available years after the student has completed their studies. I think the direction of this question off the back of mine goes right to the core of the problem with university administered blogging, or online education for that matter. Ian seemed to feel that his university did not have the capacity to keep all student blogs active after their studies, which indicates to me that the university’s commitment to a student and their life of learning has not been thought through. Perhaps the university in question is not interested in their student’s learning for life, and perhaps this is something that other university’s can think more about in competition with each other.

But with Ian’s answer to the question of hosting time periods, I go back to my question. If the free services available on the Internet can service bloggers and their content from all over the world (for ever I’d assume), surely a university electing to offer local services that replicate the www experience could offer more than just hosting for the short term life of a paid enrolment?

On the matter of university ICT management and the ongoing misunderstanding it has with the Internet, I wish I had of caught Lisa Wise’s presentation of a paper entitled Blogs Versus Discussion Forums… in which she uses a statistical analysis of Learning Management System (LMS) style discussion forums as a case to argue that Blogging is more pedagogically sound. She describes how blogging uptake is resisted by staff at her university due in part by experiences with university provided solutions, which promote themselves and are generally accepted as being easy to use and simple to manage. However Lisa argues that LMS are not what they seem and contribute to not only a technological lock in, but a cultural and teacher practice lock in as well.

Gavin Sade from Queensland University of Technology also spoke about his student’s use of weblogs but with the notable difference being that he permitted students to set their own weblogs and not require them to use a centralised local solution. Gavin alluded to some problems with his decentralised approach but unfortunately did not expand on them too much.

Katie Cavanagh from Flinders University gave a very impressive presentation to finish my day off with a high level of inspiration and motivation. Poor Katie had to get through most of her time with out a visual aid as her Mac did not interface with the projector. But her passion and insight came through so much that a visual aid was not required.

Katie spoke to some of Mark Bernstein’s points about the long tail of blogging and the need to find and record the rare snippets of quality out in the blogosphere and use them to showcase the immense impact that blogging can have on people’s thinking. Katie spoke about ‘breaking the ring’ which describes how when one good blog is found, it is usually linked to a small number of other blogs of similar style, quality or interest area, and hence forms the ring. It is finding that initial blog in that ring that is the persistent difficulty, hence when it is found, the ring is broken. Katie wants there to be a group of scholars who’s task it is is to find those rings and write about them, thereby bringing the quality from out of the tail for more to see.

With Mark and Katie’s presentations beginning and ending my day at BlogTalk, and with all that fell between, I left the CMYC with the feeling that Blogging is still very much a subculture whose simple format and relatable traditions pits it in a steep ideological battle with ‘the’ establishment. While it is easy to feel safe and even to enjoy celebrity status as a blogger at the moment, when one steps out from the warm embrace of fellow bloggers you quickly realise that (especially here in Australia) blogging is hardly known of, let alone properly appreciated, and certainly not valued. Only just now are we beginning to see Australian mainstream journalists react to blogging in the same misguided and poorly thought out ways that their North American colleagues did a year or so ago, and continue to do so today. Only recently are we in education adopting blogging as an educational tool, but insisting that it be administered locally and not be too open to the www. Are these signs of blogging being properly appreciated and valued by our establishments?

I think it is because as much as we like to think technology is offering us great opportunities, and as much as we might think it is giving us great things, the huge paradigm shift that is required in ‘the’ establishments, and the inability of the collective human consciousness to adapt quickly enough to new technology is what threatens the promise of blogging most of all. The need to appreciate and value the network of the people’s blogging integrity and over all contribution in the long tail is something that I suspect is beyond the capabilities of our conservative tradition in education, and public communications more generally. The more I look around at my blogging colleagues, the more I recognise traits in them that are similar to the traits of persistent subcultures that passed before with great promise.

What I think I’m making is an analogy between blogging and other forms of DIY media. In particular zine making and stencil graffiti. For these forms of media and communication to fulfil their promise to democracy they need to be appreciated fully in the format that they originate, and not reinterpreted into the established and more acceptable formats that will essentially de-democratise them. For blogging to succeed, we need a public that says graffiti in the streets is not just OK, but valuable and essential. We need a public that would sooner buy a zine than a magazine and swap and trade them the way the format was intended. Somehow I don’t see such a concept of public coming – but I hope I’m wrong.

Image sourced from the BlogTalk Downunder Flickr Album

Sebastian Fiedler was unfortunately the last speaker for the day at BlogTalk. I say unfortunately because I think the audience was too preoccupied with the day’s end and social drinks to fully appreciate what he was trying to say (I was anyway). He was speaking about open source economies and the impact they may be having on our sectors. For me, it is here that the hope lies for a public that recognises, appreciates, and values blogging and other forms of DIY media. It is in the success of open source and the requirement it puts on sharing that just may tip the dominant public view over and make way for the free and open thinking needed to appreciate and value DIY cultures. I think this because I think open source is working its way into all areas of our economy, using our ever increasing reliance on software as a vien to spread its consciousness. I hope Sebastian’s paper comes on line soon, because I missed a lot of it while standing at the door waiting for a quick get-away.

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Eleonor said...

This entry was pretty insightful about the problems we do face in our universities here in Australia. Like you I wish that there would be a way of creating an ongoing community that studied at the university. How exciting would that be! I know there's a program where I can keep in touch with the university through the Alumni & Graduates Services Unit, but the most frequent form of communication would be via email and that's very limiting. The university encourages students to share our progress, success and achievement with them and the graduate community. I've yet to join up with this but I doubt it's a community online. I'll keep you posted on what it is in the end.

Michael said...

Thanks Leigh... excellent summary (and thoughts) for someone who wasn't able to go!

Alan said...

Nice summary (and I had a nice time trolling your previous posts).

FYI, all the links in the post are toasted- they all go to so maybe there are osme missing pieces of your hyperlink tags.

Leigh Blackall said...

just adding a link to Mark Bernstein's comment on this post for my record.