The Blogging Genre: Identity, Anonymity, and Consistency—Why We Blog

Christina Harview's picture
Recently, a new genre has been receiving the attention of internet users: the weblog. Using blogs, we can filter out the facts of our offline world and develop a new online external identity. This paper will discuss the nature, use-value, and appeal of this online external identity, discuss the importance of the consistency of the external self-both online and offline, review the relevance of the unverified information in blogs, and talk about how anonymity affects the way we perceive our own identity. Additionally, I hope to shed some light on the blog as an emerging genre and talk about what the blog's worldwide success reveals about human nature and psychology (and vice versa).

 

The Blog

The blog is generally understood to be a webpage that is frequently updated with posts listed in reverse chronological order. Yet, Rebecca Blood makes an interesting statement in her introduction to the book We've Got Blog: "The web invented weblogs, but they are still being defined by the people who make them" (Blood xi). And indeed; with exceptions popping up wildly and others following suit, the genre that is the blog is far from clear-cut.

The evolution of the blog is moving so fast in part because the generators of the blogs (bloggers) are so large in number. Three years ago, a report stated that by the end of 2004, 7% of the United States' adult population who use the internet claimed to have created a blog at some point (Rainie 1). That represents more than 7 million people in the U.S. alone. Add millions more from population growth and exponential internet usage to the millions of other users throughout the world and you will have an idea as to the enormous creative base that is molding the definition of the blog.

If we had to trace the genealogy of the weblog back to its origin, we would probably find ourselves at the website of Dave Winer: Scripting News. Having started in April, 1997, this website is the longest-running blog on the internet and has an archive of every post ever made-starting with its very first which is comprised of a few scattered words and several now-broken links. The story of the blog between then and now is history that has developed so quickly that we can't keep track of it all.

Why has the blogging genre become so popular so quickly? The interwoven world of the blog as well as the blogosphere that accompanies it has long since grown to proportions that could not be expected. Did the blog ‘spark' emerge at just the right time to set ablaze an internet revolution, or were we humans always susceptible to be drawn in by social concepts such as the blog?

What is it that drives people to create and write in a blog? There must be some basis for the initial appeal that draws millions of people to create a blog. And, once they have created a blog, what causes them to continue updating it? There must be some benefit from such behavior that reinforces their intention to continue writing; what is it and why is it so compelling?

Here, in these pages, I intend to try to answer a few of these questions and more. As I follow the complex trail of the nature of a weblog, I repeatedly run into one seemingly innocent concept: identity. It soon became clear that were I to ensure a successful uptake of any of my ideas, I would have to start from the very beginning. Not the beginning of the weblog itself, but the beginning of humanness; the beginning of what makes us who we are (for ourselves and for others). It is within this concept of personal and social identity that the key to the infectious nature of the weblog resides. And so, we begin.

 

Identity

Upon much thought, I have broken the identity down into several comprehensive parts. I will proceed, henceforth, to deconstruct the human identity and define the parts in order to communicate where the power of the blog lies. A line between the internal and external self is drawn with shaky hands. Oh dear, what have I done now? I am already backing myself into a corner by trying to separate the two; for they are, by nature, inexorably intertwined. The external self provides a glimpse into the workings of the internal self and the internal self defines the parameters of the external self. Okay, so how can I separate them without splitting some traits that belong in both? One way to get around this is by looking at each side independently of the other and by allowing characteristics to fall into both categories if necessary. By preventing the definition of either from being mutually exclusive, we can solve the problem of defining them independently.

I will define the ‘internal self' as a person's integrity. I am not referring to integrity as a moral standing or as the quality of a person's character. Instead, I define it philosophically with reference to a person's complete life story; it is their past and present, their inner thoughts, their dreams, hopes, emotions, and expectations. This definition implies the uniqueness of every individual's life, personhood, and morality. Integrity is constantly being changed throughout an individual's life; new experiences and emotions shape and mold his/her integrity. It is a person's realm of character and individuality that defines the internal world of a person. Additionally, the characteristics of our internal selves leak out to the external world and help form part of what we and others see as the ‘external self.' The identity of the blogger's internal self can only be fully understood by the blogger whose identity is in question. Only we have the ability to know the identity of our own internal selves.

I will define the ‘external self' to be a person's personality, temperament, and traits as exhibited to others. When I say ‘exhibited,' I do not mean to imply that the person is always consciously exhibiting the traits. Much of the external self is unconscious expression of the internal self. Without a doubt, the external self is largely composed of elements from the internal self. However, it is important to note that the external self has elements that lie outside the realm of the internal self.

This is more easily understood when I divide the identity of the external self into two parts: the explicit personal identity and the implicit social identity. The explicit personal identity is defined as the identity that is explicitly declared-truthfully or not-in the writings of the blogger (who the blogger says they are). The implicit social identity is defined by the blogger's interactions with others (the blogger's relationships with others). Overall, the identity of the external self is partially controlled by the way the blogger portrays him/herself and the way others interact with the blogger, but the social identity of a blogger's external self as defined by society varies depending on which member of the society you ask (for example: you can think that Tim is very nice and I can think that he is rude-we define his identity differently).

 

External Consistency

Interestingly, the external self adopts a certain level of consistency that does not appear to be as strong in the internal self (although I truly have only my own internal self with which to gauge the situation). The socially visible external self certainly evolves, changes, matures, and stabilizes over time; it goes past the brain development stages and on until the day we die. Yet, the rate at which the external self changes is slow and the range in which it evolves is narrow when compared to the internal self. As for my internal self, it seems natural for ideas and thoughts in my mind to flail about, for ambitions to change course suddenly but surely, for desires to dance about like the wind before extinguishing completely. I can love and hate the same person within five seconds and I can live out a ridiculous fantasy as I daydream on a midsummer's night. Yet, on the outside, it is important that we consistently appear to others as ‘ourselves.'

While we are allowed a little social wiggle room with respect to our external selves, there are borders that we often will not cross. It is here that the strength of the implicit social identity is seen. It is also interesting that the force which binds us to consistency in our external selves is expected to be stronger in others. In other words, I can easily imagine my own external self changing and can accept it happening in the future, but it seems to me that the same change in others would be difficult for me to grasp. For example, a woman's identity may change quite a bit (internally and externally) over a few years of marriage, but she may find it difficult to cope with the fact that her husband's identity has too. I could see myself becoming more extroverted, but would find it difficult to accept if an introverted friend became extroverted. I think that it is partially this realization of a double standard that makes the constancy of the external self far more important than the constancy of the internal self. Maybe although a personal external identity change seems reasonable to us, we are worried that others in our social environment would not be able to cope, as we would not for others.

Yet, there seem to be other reasons why the constancy of our external self is important. For one thing, it is sometimes the case that a great deal of time, effort, and self-control has been put into constructing our external identity (be it online or offline), manipulating the labels and expectations that others have for us, and developing relationships with others. Good friends have a mutual obligation to each other not to change too drastically from the person that the other became friends with. It seems reasonable to assume that the longer two people have been friends (and the more effort that was put into the friendship), the stronger the understanding becomes and the more stable the expectations for the other person become. In the same way, weathered bloggers have often, over time, developed a specific and unique external identity as well as a community of readers/responders that has very specific expectations with regard to the blogger. An implied understanding is present between bloggers and readers for a certain level of consistency on the blogger's part. People go to Crooks and Liars because they expect to see political posts and comments common to the blogger John Amato's literary voice, personality, and opinions. Were he to scrap all of that and begin to write abstractly about art in his favorite local gallery, he would probably loose a great deal of his readers; their expectations of the blog would not have been met.

Everything I have brought up so far regarding consistency of the external identity has been relevant to both the online and the offline world. Why is consistency in the offline world sometimes so much more important than consistency in the online world? Consistency in real life (the offline world) is necessary because everything in the present is a product of tangible growth and development from the past. If a person chooses to discontinue the consistency of their external self and act outside of the expectations of society, he/she would have to deal with the consequences in the real world. The time and effort of the past would be for nothing and the person would have to start from the beginning all over again. Although this is a choice that we could all make, very few people dare make it. The blogging identity (innately external) is instead usually abstract in nature and thus requires a different degree of responsibility. Where we really have only one offline identity, the guise of the internet allows several identities online and we can leave many of them at the click of a mouse without any repercussions whatsoever. There are exceptions to this, however, that blur the separation between online and offline. Community blogs such as i-neighbors are made to strengthen the communication ties among neighbors in real life communities. Blogs such as this could create tangible consequences in the real world.

 

Unverified Information

Now that I have defined the internal and external selves and talked about the benefit of consistency in the external identity, I can begin to talk about one of the main issues that arises with the blogger's construction of the external self. With all of the information published in the millions of blogs on the internet, the reliability of the information contained in the blogs is completely unknown. Using blogs, people construct an online identity that may contain reconstructions, projections, and even lies about their offline external self. Thus, we are presented with the problem of massive amounts of unverified information regarding the true identities of bloggers.

Because much of the personal information in the real world is filtered out by the environment of the internet, much of the information in blogs will remain unconfirmed. Albert Mehrabian pointed out in the 70's that communication is broken down into three unequal parts: body language, tone of voice, and words (which account for 55%, 38%, and 7% of communication, respectively). According to Mehrabian's breakdown of communication, the use of the internet automatically filters out 93% of the information that we would normally be transmitting during face-to-face communication!

However, in a true Derridian sense, using language to communicate will always merely be a form of representation of the truth. There will always be more to convey than what can be represented-that does not necessarily mean that all communication is a lie. Another important distinction is the line between lie and truth, mask and veil; fiction is merely an expression of the creators for whatever purposes they see fit-it is when it is presented as truth that it becomes a lie. So, on which side of the line do blogging identities stand? To answer this, we must first consider how an identity is presented online; to assume truth in all blogging would be to condemn it all to deceit and to assume lies in all blogging would be to demean the sense of trust that exists within some blogging communities. So, can we sift out the veils from the masks and, more importantly, should we?

Indeed, readers of blogs do not expect the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But, a certain level of credulity is important to the extent that charlatans are in low demand. The online blogging identity thus presents itself with a dilemma that is inescapable; the nature of words prevents us from communicating the complete truth, and the nature of a lie assumes intent by the writer to deceive. Yet, how can an author tell a lie if the reader does not expect truth? Does the categorization of a lie depend on the writer's intent or the reader's expectation? Honestly, it cannot depend on either without a certain level of sophistication with regard to the genre from both the reader and the writer. A writer of a biography should know that the readers expect truth and fact from the biographer's version of his memories. Yet, if the writer honestly does not know what the readers expect of the genre, or if he/she thought that the readers expected fiction, he/she could not be called a liar if false information was inserted. At the same time, if the readers do not know what is expected of a genre (for example, if a new genre has emerged), the writer cannot be accused of lying-for no set expectation for the genre has yet been made and it is up to the writer to form that expectation.

So then, where does blogging lie on this spectrum of reader's expectations? Many genres are already generally categorized along the lie-truth expectation spectrum (fantasy, autobiography, academic), but some still occupy a grey area and can easily move in either direction (theatre, poetry). Although readers certainly do not expect the full truth, they also do not expect a complete lie, either. Surely blogging does not yet have a defined reader's expectation. Thus, the genre of the blog seems to exist between fact and fiction-destined to wander between the two until the creators of the blogs take it elsewhere.

If the words of the blog are neither truth nor lie, what does that tell us about the identities that the bloggers have constructed for themselves? The purpose of the identities is blurred by this incomplete distinction; for, is there any use-value in something that is neither fact nor fiction? The bloggers must say yes because that middle ground is the place where their online identity resides. And indeed, to shrug them off as useless would be to disregard their effect; we as readers can be inspired by the words written in blogs (whether they are veiled representations, masked falsities, or vivid exaggerations of the blogger's own truth). Unless you know the blogger personally, it is nearly impossible to make distinctions between online true personas and online false personas. Yet, the use-value of either should not be underestimated. When thinking about the use-value of a constructed identity, remember a lie can inspire and incite just as much as any truth.

Although I have introduced the insecure information and unfounded statements that comprise a blog as problematic issues that we have yet to solve, they can be quite the contrary. This lack of an ability to confirm or deny information in a blog can actually be used to the blogger's advantage. The level of perceived anonymity on the internet has turned personal blogging (and the blogging identity that comes with it) into a genre that turned many away because it is not seen as having a factual basis. Yet at the same time, it has drawn countless others to create a blog and add themselves to the blogosphere; there are some people who want to be, verified or not, an anonymous one among the many.

 

Anonymity

Computer mediated communication has made it much easier for people to feel as though their identity is secret. Anonymity is a state in which a person is unidentifiable. On the internet, one can be visually (no picture provided) or discursively (no source provided) anonymous. Anonymity as it relates to projected identity can be achieved by limiting the amount of truthful information that is revealed on the internet. This can be done by omission of information or by deception in provided information (the mask that akeefe refers to). Ultimately, the lack of visual information allows bloggers to manipulate their own impressions by selectively self-presenting their external identity. I will not discuss the extent to which the internet is anonymous. What I am most interested in is the effect of perceived anonymity on the constancy of the external self, so I will proceed from there.

Psychologists have studied the effects of anonymity extensively because an interesting transformation to the human psyche seems to appear when someone feels as though they are anonymous. Coined the ‘deindividuating effect,' people who believe they are anonymous undergo what appears to be a loss of personal identity as an individual and the formation of a social identity where accountability is believed to belong to a group. The deindividuating effect has been studied for its relevance to the better-known concept of a ‘mob mentality.' Even with relation to online behavior, one study has attributed anti-social behaviors (Davis 3) to feelings of anonymity. Anonymity in general has also been found to foster group norm violations (Jessup, Connolly, and Galegher 315). Psychologically, when blame appears to be absent or spread out among a large group, people feel as though the consequences of their actions are minimal. This leads them to act more like their internal selves because there is no perceived audience to their real (offline) external self.

Thinking about anonymity with relation to blogging brings me consistently back to the concept of self disclosure. One study concluded that 70% of weblogs are treated as a personal journal by the author (Herring, Scheidt, Bonus, and Wright 6). In other words, the author's personal thoughts and feelings concerning their offline world are being recorded in the blog. Self disclosure, if discovered by the wrong party, can invite rejection and socially awkward situations. Because of this, a blogger is more likely to disclose information to a stranger who has no way of getting the information to the offline friends, family, or coworkers of the blogger and is thus unlikely to have an impact on the bloggers offline life. The perception of anonymity can act as a safety net that helps to further prevent self disclosure from affecting the offline external self from being negatively impacted.

Even with the impression of anonymity, one study showed that almost 47% of bloggers were worried that their offline life would be somehow be affected by the things written on their online blog (Qian & Scott 1439). The Qian study also revealed some interesting things about the target audience; when a blog audience is online only, identifying information is scarce and the blog is more likely to serve as an emotional outlet. Although it was given only a passing glance in the study, this finding has very interesting implications with relation to the connection between the internal and external selves on the internet. In fact, it suggests that the more anonymous and safe from detection the external self is perceived to be, the more the internal self is revealed.

 

Why We Blog

A few years ago, the number of blogs in existence exceeded the worldwide number of people infected with HIV-even though HIV had a head start of more than 15 years (Global HIV/AIDS 1). Why has the blog spread so quickly over the internet? We can begin to answer that question by considering the status of the internal self with relation to the external self. The internal self-mercurial, imaginative, and ambitious-is left to dream about things that are outside of the social realm of the external self. We cannot become pirates, switch sexes on a whim, or act too far out of character without disrupting the delicate balance that we have set up for ourselves in the physical world. However, the internet provides a means for us to realize (at least abstractly) our deepest dreams, wishes, and fantasies. As we have seen when developing our thoughts about anonymity, it is by assuming a new external (albeit online) identity that some people can feel safe disclosing internal emotions. The benefits of this disclosure are purely emotional. Blogging can then take the form of an emotional catharsis, a way to deepen one's self understanding and knowledge, and a way to increase one's private self-consciousness (the self-reflectiveness and internal state of self awareness).

In addition to fulfilling the dreams of the internal self and acting as a way to release pent up thoughts and emotions, the creation and maintenance of a blog can lead to the development of a person's implicit social identity. Creating an online identity and forming relationships with other bloggers can help the blogger feel as though they are part of a social community and that they have a social existence. One notable difference I should point out is that on the internet where friends lists are compiled and often visible on the blog's front page, the implicit social identity in the offline world can seem a bit more explicit. As social beings, humans have a natural need for acceptance by a group. Additionally, seeking reassurance is a common personality trait that involves seeking out others' verification of one's own self worth. It is truly a human psychological characteristic to search for consensus among the group rather than be satisfied with one's own opinion. Nonetheless, the ability to belong to an interactive community not only draws new bloggers in, but keeps current bloggers satisfied with their blogging habits.

In addition, blogging is also a way to increase the skills of information handling and transmittance. Psychologically, we have a need for acquiring and providing information. Because the blog, with its posts and comments as responses, simulates textual dialogue, bloggers learn to retrieve the important information and-as Freadman would say-ensure a proper uptake from readers as they learn the most appropriate way to transmit information to others. Psychologically, many people have a need to transmit information to others; those people would find great benefit in the formation and upkeep of a blog.

Yet, another question stands unanswered. Did the genre of the blog emerge so suddenly due to good timing, or were we always susceptible to this highly virulent strain of internet genre? Well, I don't know too much about 1996 or what social/economic factors may have caused the blog to spread like a wildfire, but it seems to me that given the means, blogging would have spread just as quickly in almost any past century. Human psychology sets us up to be susceptible to the blog. The blog allows for the actualization of our internal self's dreams and fantasies, provides the means for an anonymous emotional catharsis, and allows for the formation of relationships and the development of our implicit social identity. The entire process of creating a blog and keeping it up is both self-rewarding and self-improving. Thus, it seems clear that the blogging genre is and will continue to be a popular form of internet writing for many years to come. In fact, it may never grow old until it is superseded by some new form of internet genre that somehow does all this and more. But for now, the blog has nothing to worry about in terms of competition.

 

 


Works Cited

Blood, Rebecca. "Introduction." 2002. We've Got Blog. Ed. John Rodzvilla. Cambridge: Persecus Publishing, 2002. ix-xiii.

Davis, J. P. "The experience of ‘bad' behavior in online social spaces: A survey of online users." 2002. 14 May 2008. <http://research.microsoft.com/scg/papers/Bad%20Behavior%20survey.pdf>

Global HIV/AIDS estimates, end of 2007. 14 May 2008. Worldwide HIV/AIDS Statistics. 15 May 2008 <http://www.avert.org/worldstats.htm>

Herring, S. C., Scheidt, L. A., Bonus, S., & Wright, E. "Bridging the gap: A genre analysis of weblogs." Proceedings of the 37th Annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS'04) (2004): Los Alamitos: IEEE Press. 12 May 2008. <http://www.blogninja.com/DDGDD04.doc>

Jessup, L. M., Connolly, T., & Galegher, J. "The effects of anonymity on GDSS group process with an idea-generating task." MIS Quarterly 14 (1990): 312-21.

Qian, H. & Scott, C. "Anonymity and Self-Disclosure on Weblogs." Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12 (2007): 1428-51.

Rainie, L. The state of blogging. 2005. Pew Internet & American Life Project. 10 May 2008 <http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_blogging_data.pdf>

Comments

Jane's picture

Excellent researh work!

Just wanted to appreciate the scholarly research and the great presentation. I do accept your views. The topic could be a great choice for a full-fledged doctoral research for literature students!

Anne Dalke's picture

Knowing Ourselves/Blogging Ourselves

Christina--

You have several fellow-travelers here, in the realm of exploration that is the world of the on-line persona; see esp. Hannah Mueller on Crossing the Intersections of Nature and Technology and akeefe on Unmasking the Mask (the Interaction Between Blogging and Performance). Rich explorations here, in all directions.

I find your own particular line of inquiry--searching for the archeology of our compulsion to blog in our age-old fascination with identity--a very productive one. The distinctions between internal and external self (not to mention the division between implicit and explicit social self) are useful ones.

So now here come the questions your analysis has provoked for me:

Do you really think that we "have the ability to know our own internal selves"? (I often think that I know myself much less well than I understand others' behavior...)

WHY do you think that, while flailing about ourselves, we nonetheless expect a certain level of consistency in others' behavior?

WHY do you think that, the longer two people are friends, the more stable their expectations for one another's behavior can be (rather than the converse: the more leeway and latitude we allow our oldest friends)?

Isn't there a conflict between what you call the "deindividuating effect" (in which accountability is given to the group) and the tendency of anonymity in general to "foster group norm violations"?

Whenever you make a large general claim (say, that "it is truly a human psychological characteristic to search for consensus among the group") I find myself wanting to claim the opposite (in this case, that it is a universal human characteristic to want to differentiate ourselves, to set ourselves apart as unique, to resist consensus). Similarly, when you say that "psychologically, many people have a need to transmit information to others," I say that many of us have as deep a need to keep secrets....

Finally: your catalogue of why we are susceptible to the blog--that it allows us to actualize our dreams, provides the means for anonymous emotional catharsis, and allows us to form relationships--makes me want to hear more about how you understand the relationship beween these three things. For example: does actualizing our dreams help or hinder us from forming relationships? Ditto emotional catharsis....

Christina Harview's picture

Heres something else

Heres something else interesting that isn't really relevant to the topic and has no real backing, but the concept was intreaguing to me:

I would like to talk about the concept of the creation of the blogging identity with relation to the creation of any form of art. Although a tricky definition in itself, art can be defined as the skilled crafting, execution, or agency that is put into creating something. I will not set up an argument for the blog as an art form, for that belongs elsewhere, but I will outline a parallel set of meanings that exist between the artist or blogger and art or blog that may help to clarify why the blogger may feel a sense of obligation to the consistency of his blogging identity. Like the blogger creates a blog, an artist creates art using time, effort, and skill. Likewise, a sense of accomplishment is often felt once the art/blog reaches a certain point. Thus, the emotion that artists would feel if they were to destroy a piece of their art may parallel the emotion that bloggers would feel were they to destroy their online identity by breaking away from the faithful consistency they have followed for so long.

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