A Vision For Media Rich Blogging

Original Citation:
Miles, Adrian. “A Vision for Genuine Rich Media Blogging.” Uses of Blogs. Eds. Axel Bruns and Joanne Jacobs. New York: Peter Lang. 213-22.

A Vision for Genuine Rich Media Blogging

Blogs are a rich, diverse and quintessentially disparate medium expressing the internet as a network of noise, connection, communication and difference. Latterly these qualities have been evident with the appearance of traditional time based media, principally audio and video, in blogs and their more recent corollaries pod and video ‘casting’. The incorporation of audiovisual media within blogs has seen the development of substantial new blogging genres and also has the potential to generate new genres of audiovisual content and associated technologies. The key problem confronting the successful incorporation of audio and video into blogging practice revolves around how those qualities that make a blog a blog can become part of time based media, versus the appropriation of blogs as merely distribution or publishing ‘engines’ for audio and video files.

There are, as this anthology indicates, many ways in which blogs can be defined and theorised. The contribution I wish to make to this discussion is to identify blogs with those formal features of blog Content Management Systems (CMS) that can be seen as a material response to the ‘affordances’ of networked writing. Affordance is a term popularised by the industrial designer Donald Norman and refers to a user’s perception of what can be done with an object. In the case of blogs the generic (and hegemonic) form in which blog software has developed ‘affords’ such things as the writing of individual posts that have a heading, date and time stamp, the automatic attribution of authorship, optional provision of comments, category and date archiving, and the automatic provision of a permanent URL at the level of individual entries. As such blogs have also accepted much of the affordances of hypertext, evidenced in the manner in which their basic unit of construction is the post, which is essentially a small chunked hypertextual node. This node is able to be read and understood on its own — you generally do not to read an entire blog to understand a single entry — and by virtue of its permalink can be interwoven hypertextually with other nodes, whether in the same or other blogs hardly matters. Another series of affordances are realised as a consequence of the networked nature of blogging (though of course the hypertextual and networked nature of blogging means that these two key attributes are deeply intertwingled) and this is evident in how blogs generically contain blogrolls, trackback, RSS, permalinks, and also the increasingly common provision of links to third party blogosphere, folksonomy or social software sites such as technorati, blogstreet, flickr, del.icio.us and blogshares.

In general, these generic attributes can be understood as a consequence of blogs as a networked hypertextual writing activity, where such a practice has been instantiated in the material technological affordances of specific CMS’s. These tools make certain sorts of writing, particularly a writing that is beyond or outside of writing narrowly conceived as my words on my screen, possible and form the foundation of blogging as a medium. In addition blogging also expresses many of those qualities that were originally attributed to hypertext more generally. For example they are multivocal, multilinear and have moved past print to produce complex intertwingled docuverses of interconnecting fragments.

Many of these qualities are also utilised in audio and video blogging, however, it is also apparent that much of what can be characterised as the basic affordances of blogs are lost, or ignored, in audio and video blogging practice. To illustrate this we can perhaps use the recent and explosive development of audio blogging. The ability to embed audio in a web page (as opposed to making an audio file available for download and playing in a separate player) has been available since 1996 when Apple first released a browser plugin that supported QuickTime. However, it was the development of podcasting clients in 2004 that seeded the rapid and exponential rise of audio enabled blogs. These clients, in exactly the same way that RSS aggregators facilitated the rise of RSS as a major distribution form (in fact pod and video cast clients are essentially RSS aggregators that support media enclosures) enabled users to subscribe to RSS feeds that contained audio enclosures. These enclosures are pointers within a RSS feed that locate media objects, for example an audio file, and download this in the background. In the case of podcasting, as the eponymous title indicates, the best clients automatically synchronise these audio files into Apple’s iTunes library and automatically place them onto the users portable mp3 player to listen to at their leisure. With the rise of the video iPod, exactly the same can now be done for video files.

RSS feeds, which have driven the success of pod and videocasting, are generally automatically produced by blog CMS’s, and where they are not several third party services are available to produce appropriate RSS feeds. It is these feeds that users subscribe to, and in this manner audio and video files are distributed to clients. This aspect of pod and videocasting clearly takes advantages of blogs as distributed personal publication and distribution technologies, and has successfully appropriated a lightweight protocol (RSS) to provide the infrastructure to develop an alternative distribution regime. This is impressive, and has lead to a rise of ‘prosumer’ commentary, particularly in podcasting, where the best content is, as with blogging more generally, on a par with any commentary heard on public radio, with of course the corresponding observation that the worst content is, frankly, deplorable — this is after all the up and down side of any distributed and accessible networked technology that allows individuals to become media producers and distributors. This content, and here I include audio and video blogging, is as diverse in style, content, presentation and technical excellence as writing is in text based blogging. It includes pieces produced to professional or near broadcast standards, through to what can be generously described as naive media works. However, while this diversity of content and style is a feature that audio and video blogging shares with traditional blogging, this is by and large all that the majority of content being produced and distributed in this manner achieves. In other words most of the qualities that makes a blog a blog have been translated into content but the specific networked and hypertextual affordances of blogging, have been elided. This is, of course, why the suffix casting has been so successful and intuitive for those undertaking these activities as it is, by and large, a practice that looks more to old media models than the affordances and possibilities already realised and provided in what is now the canonical model of text blogging.

I would like to critique in more detail aspects of existing practice, before proceeding to a discussion of other possibilities and futures. As a video blogger I certainly don’t believe that the revolution has yet happened, in spite of the runaway success of podcasting and the rapidly pursuing videocasting. To date, the major achievements of both these media rich forms of blogging is best celebrated and understood in the light of existing media institutions and traditional mass media. As with traditional text based blogging, it was not that long ago that to have a publication with an international audience would require very substantial capital outlays. Even if self publishing the cost of printing, distribution, advertising, and of course any editorial and writing costs, are potentially enormous and so have always effectively been a barrier to entry. This is, of course, one of the reasons why in capitalist economies mass media developed — audience must be maximised to generate a return on this capital outlay. The Web has of course changed this dramatically, so that anyone could write and distribute their work for negligible costs internationally. Blogs have taken this a step further than the traditional (and former) web homepage by allowing any individual to become a site publisher, rather than merely the author of individual pages. Exactly the same constraints, though with even greater capital costs, confronted those wishing to broadcast video (television) and audio (radio). In virtually every country access to spectrum is state controlled and licences for access are extraordinarily expensive, and this is before you have paid for a studio, on–air talent, the necessary audiovisual equipment, and so on. Audio and video blogging are a minor revolution from this point of view as, just as with text blogging, the cost of entry is minimal, to the point of being trivial for those in first world nations with disposable income. This includes the technologies required, where the majority of these author–producer–directors use domestic audiovisual technologies and commonly free audio and video editing software that comes included with their PC operating systems.

It is this ease of access to publishing, combined with the ease of distribution via a blog CMS, particularly with the rise of enclosures in RSS, that offers the first major contribution of audio and video blogging to media culture. This has seen the rise of ‘citizen journalism’ and alternative media, for example. However, alternative in this context needs to be strongly recognised as alternative to mainstream mass media, and certainly does not extend to alternative or other conceptions of audio and televisual media per se — the material forms of audio and video distributed and published via blogs remains resolutely conservative in its conception of what audio and video actually is as a material practice and object. Furthermore, it is possible to critique much of the recent commentary around these alternative media practices (much of it appearing within blogs) in terms of a particular North American (more specifically United States) experience of mass media which is marked by its homogeneity and commercial imperatives — most of the rest of the world has the experience of state run media institutions which generally support significantly more cultural and aesthetic diversity than mainstream US media, and do not rely (and regularly don’t even include) any form of advertising. In addition, the long tail notwithstanding, most of the rhetoric about alternative media practices, remembering that alternative means alternative to mass media, participates in an economy of audience maximisation that is very similar to that which occupies mass media — after all, if you are attempting or claiming to offer other voices to that of the dominant media institutions the effectiveness of this alternative does appear to be premised on confusing influence with audience scale.

This does mean that audio and video blogging is a media practice that sits in an interesting and potentially productive tension with existing audiovisual media institutions. It currently favours individual production versus existing capital and time intensive industrial production models, supports a diversity of voices, and is comfortable with a range of genres and production standards. However, as those familiar with the histories of film, video, and sound will appreciate, such a list offers little, if anything, that distinguishes audio and video blogging from existing practice — there is a strong and established tradition in each of these media that recognises and supports an extremely diverse range of genres, production standards and the legitimacy of self defined creative constraints. What remains novel in the audio and video blogging model is only the range and ease of distribution.

This is not the case with text blogging, and this difference must be made clear to see how constrained existing audio and video blogging is as a blog based practice. Blogs do considerably more than provide ease of publication and distribution for a diversity of voices. For example, as indicated, they support and have lead to the development of emergent communities of practice through the provision of blogrolls, trackbacks and similar services. These products of good blogging should not be thought of as adjuncts or supplements to blogging, but are integral to blogging as a different writing practice, a writing that has recognised the network as an immanent site of intensive connections. Blogs are about these relations between parts, it is absurd to think of there being a single blog (whereas it is trivial to conceive of their being one book, in fact many religions are premised on such an assumption) precisely because a blog is determined by its relation to other blogs, whether individual posts or entire blogs. If you publish your blog in print, i.e. make it a book, then it is no longer a blog, its ‘blogness’ is broken. In the case of audio and video blogging it is the presence of audio and video files that defines it as an audio or video blog. However, it is possible to remove the audio and video from the context of the blog and to publish it in other media and for there to be no intrinsic change, or loss, to the material. Currently you can place the video content of your videoblog onto DVD and project it in a gallery or cinema, and it is for all intents and purposes the same content as appears in the videoblog. Exactly the same applies to audio content. This is why podcasting can be successful — there is nothing intrinsic in the media file that necessarily relates it to its ‘blogness’ and so it survives this translation with ease. In fact, it is conceivable and trivial to imagine a television show for broadcast along the lines of “Australia’s best videoblogs”, and similarly a radio show based on “Australia’s funniest podcasts”. It is possible to conceive of an alternative audio and video blogging practice in the same way that text blogging is an alternative media form to the book and print. This alternative steps past the reductive consideration of content as that which constitutes and defines audio and video blogging and recognises that it is the formal material properties and affordances of the network as distributed and interlinked that have been fundamental to the development and construction of blogging as a different writing practice. The problem for audio and video blogging then becomes one of how these media artefacts may weave amongst and interlink this network.

We have seen that pod and video blogging share some of the qualities of text blogging through its multiple genres, voices and, for want of a better term, production standards. The work ranges from the genuinely naïve, passing through wannabe broadcast quality through to a deliberately low bit networked aesthetic. However, lets consider some of the elements missing from audio and video blogging in relation to blogging more generally to see how it could be different — after all it is supposed to be audio and video blogging and not merely audio and video on demand or via syndication!

Currently audio and video content in blogs is unable to be used in the ways that we take for granted with text, and more specifically is unable to manage most of the now ordinary tasks of posts in a blog. For example, within any contemporary web browser or RSS reader I can click and drag over text in any blog entry, from any blog, and then copy this text using the software’s generic edit–copy command. This text can then be pasted elsewhere and so it is technically trivial for me to quote and so comment upon or otherwise engage with, someone else’s writing. If I listen to audio or view video in my browser or RSS client, there is no similarly trivial manner in which I can select some audio or video to then paste into my audio or video entry. If I open the audio or video file in a specific player application, for example QuickTime Player Pro, I can copy and paste someone else’s content into my own, as I have always been able to do with text, however to do this I need to know considerably more about HTML, the web, and file formats than is required for any other user simply wishing to copy and paste what they find in a text blog. Why is this the case? Why, for example, does the QuickTime plugin not allow the user to nominate a passage of audio or video and copy and paste it directly from the browser’s Edit menu — this is exactly what you can do using QuickTime Player Pro outside of the browser, and presumably would be trivial to implement.

In addition, the simple ability to edit and paste audio and video from within your browser or RSS client (after all this is where we do our blog reading) points out a further anomaly in relation to audio and video in blogs. If I do quote your text in my blog post, and follow the usual citational protocols of linking to the source of the quote in its individual entry, then your blog will know that I have written about that entry via the use of trackback. This is not the case with audio and video, so even if I were to open your audio file in QuickTime Player, make a selection, copy and paste this into my blog audio post and publish this there is no equivalent to trackback supported so your audio file will never know that it has been quoted. This is not merely a technical question, after all an architecture as sophisticated as QuickTime (which can read XML, supports the dynamic editing of text tracks and largely has all the functionality required to allow the types of intermovie communication to support some time based equivalent to trackback) can already do this, and so its lack is more appropriately a theoretical, critical or ideological question where the absence of these functions, indeed the largely complete disregard of these as possibilities within the audio and video blogging communities, demonstrates the extent to which audio and video blogging as a practice looks backwards to existing media for its methods rather than towards the possibilities of blogging.

This simple example of quoting is useful to foreground the manner in which the key aspects of audio and video blogging is only the presence of audio and video and these are in fact ignorant of the network and its affordances. This is evidenced not only in the simple problem of quotation, but is also evident in the rise of syndication as a major component of audio and video blogging so that the media files are routinely viewed or used with a dramatic loss of their networked and blogged contexts. In other words title of the entry, date of the entry, the presence of comments or trackbacks, descriptive or associated text in the blog entry that accompanies the audio or video, links within that text, and so on, are gone. The media file remains utterly mute in relation to the network, and so remains firmly embedded within the paradigms of audio and video traditionally conceived. It is possible using existing technologies to include links within audio and video where these links can be time based and so only present during relevant periods of the entry, and in the case of video, or audio with a simple image track (for example a still image) they can also be located on parts of the image just like a traditional imagemap. Once again the problem is not technical, QuickTime has these affordances, but the tools to easily link from and to parts of time based media in the manner established by text blogs falls outside of the paradigms by which time based media is understood. In this manner the existing uses of audio and video in blogs is much closer to print and the book than the hypertextual fluidity of text within any common garden variety blog. Once you have published your audio or video blog entry (regardless of the efforts to produce it) it becomes a closed and whole object that is deaf to the network that it ostensibly participates within.

What it might mean for audio and video media to be porous to the network? To allow quotation, interlinking and to develop a media which is as permeable and granular as networked text? These questions cannot be answered until we have tools that enable this to happen as easily as it can be for text. The narratives that could then be sung remain to be discovered. Blogs are the first online popular media to have recognised that relations between parts are an immanent quality to a properly networked practice, and while audio and video remains closed to the network audio and video blogging can be little more than audio and video in a blog, rather than audio and video blogging. Until this event occurs, the moment which in retrospect makes it obvious why audio and video ought to be plastic and permeable, the culture of the media star remains uncontested and central to audio and video blogging which accounts for why much of this content mimetically mirrors the direct address forms popularised by mass popular media. This paucity of invention mistakes style for new paradigms and with the rise of mobile non–networked devices there is every opportunity for TV and radio to kill the yet to be born video blogging star.

References

Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. Hillsdale (N.J.): Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991.

Landow, George P. Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Miles, Adrian. “Media Rich Versus Rich Media (or Why Video in a Blog Is Not the Same as a Video Blog).” Blogtalk Downunder. http://incsub.org/blogtalk/?page_id=74 Sydney, 2005. Accessed November 4, 2005.

Miles, Adrian. “BlogTalk Prototype 1.” Vlog 3.0. http://hypertext.rmit.edu.au/vlog/archives/2005/04/22/blogtalk-prototype-;1/ April 22, 2005. Accessed November 4, 2005.

Miles, Adrian. “BlogTalk Prototype 3 (Small).” Vlog 3.0. http://hypertext.rmit.edu.au/vlog/archives/2005/05/04/blogtalk-prototype-3-small/ May 4, 2005. Accessed November 4, 2005.

Nelson, Theodor Holm. Literary Machines 91.1: The Report on, and of, Project Xanadu Concerning Word Processing, Electronic Publishing, Hypertext, Thinkertoys, Tomorrow’s Intellectual Revolution, and Certain Other Topics Including Knowledge, Education and Freedom. Sausalito: Mindful Press, 1992.

Norman, Donald A. The Design of Everyday Things. London: MIT Press, 1988.

Simmons, Jen. “Citizen Journalism.” Multimedia.05. http://teaching.jensimmons.com/multimedia/2005/10/citizen-journalism.htm October 14, 2005. Accessed November 4, 2005.

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video blogging, et al.