There Is No Cat

Hollering into the void since 2002

Sunday, July 20, 2003

No Sidewalks in Blogistan

It seems like everything I read these days has some relevance to some thoughts I've been having regarding community and blogs.

While participating in this weekend's archeological expedition through the piles of books in our house, I came across David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise. I normally think of Brooks as that unctuous jerk who disagrees with Mark Shields on the Jim Lehrer Newshour, so I hadn't read the book, which was a gift, but I was bored today and needed a break, and it looked more promising than some of the other items I was excavating, so I started reading. It was much better than I expected. I'll probably write more about the book in a later post.

In the chapter of the book dealing with business life, Brooks examines a 1961 book by Jane Jacobs called The Death and Life of Great American Cities. As described by Brooks, the book is a screed against then-current urban planning theory that prescribed tearing down neighborhoods and replacing them with endless rows of sanitized apartment buildings and parks, presumably what we would think of as "projects". Jacobs compares the monotony of such social engineering projects with the vibrancy of a living neighborhood. There are certain things that are present in living neighborhoods in the city, such as delis, tailors, hardware stores, etc. These shops are the backbone of a neighborhood, providing a structure around which a community can grow. One shopkeeper kept keys for the people in the neighborhood; another trades gossip. Of such structure are built bonds, and of such bonds are built community.

Kathryn Cramer had some recent posts about the importance of sidewalks to neighborhoods. She made a compelling case that sidewalks provide crucial infrastructure for forming community:

What is the impact of the lack of sidewalks on a neighborhood? It removes most of the social supports for both mothers and children. Know any teenaged baby sitters? I don't. Want someone to play with? Mom will make a few phone calls and see what she can set up for Tuesday of next week. And it gets scary when there's an actual emergency if you don't know anyone nearby. I've shovelled snow with pneumonia because I didn't know what else to do. I've taken an infant along when I went to the emergency room, since there was nothing else I could do. Neighborhoods without sidewalks are stripped of a lot of basic supports for family life because people do not know one another and do not regularly interact.

A neighborhood without sidewalks lacks an important component of structure that appears to be necessary to the formation of community.

In my recent post about the upcoming entrance to Blogistan of AOL Journals, I compared the natures of Usenet and Blogistan. Briefly, blogs are person-centered and anarchic, while Usenet is topic- and subject-centered with a well-defined hierarchy (and only anarchic within that hierarchy, more-or-less). There's a great deal of bits expended talking about the blog community, but the more I read, the less convinced I am that blogs are a great tool for forming communities. The anarchic and atomic nature of blogs lacks sufficient structure for easily forming communities. I described Blogistan as an archipelago in my previous post, and I think the analogy is a good one. The vast majority of bloggers are isolated, with a relatively small number of visitors; indeed, this applies to the web in general. Comments are few and far between; the blogger who can post something that generates dozens of comments is a rare bird. The lack of classification makes it difficult to discern communities where they may exist.

Blogrolls are one of the few widespread mechanisms for drawing links between blogs, and tools like Technorati are interesting for exposing those links. But Technorati is just as much an island as any other web site. I doubt most bloggers even know it exists. There was an attempt to provide a standard mechanism for defining what blogs are on a blogroll with Dave Winer's OPML format, but when I look at my logs, I see very few hits to my OPML file, which is exposed in the standard way as a META tag on this site. I don't see many tools that take advantage of OPML in a systematic way, and even if they did, they would be islands just like Techorati. OPML might have provided sidewalks for Blogistan, but sadly, has not lived up to its promise in this regard.

Probably the most important component of communities is the opportunity for conversation. But conversations between people using their blogs tend to work roughly as well as conversations between people on two adjacent islands. Even with megaphones, it's not an easy experience. I think it's a testament to the pervasiveness of the human desire to create community that there's any sense of community in Blogistan or on the web as a whole. But in general, I think the web is a lousy way to build community. The structure required to support vibrant communities doesn't exist. The design of the web doesn't lend itself to the building of communities in the way some other net-based tools do.

I've been on the net for a little over sixteen years now, and with other computer-based communications tools such as BBSes and CompuServe even before that. Years ago, I spent a lot of time on Usenet; I even met the woman who is now my wife there in 1990. I spent quite a bit of time on IRC in recent years. IRC is probably the most conversationally-based tool I've come across, and one of the best if not the best I've used in creating a sense of community. I've made a lot of friends on the net, many of whom I have visited in their homes and many of whom have visited me in my home. But none of that activity has come from people I've met via the web.

I don't intend to demean the friendships I've made via the web. I value them, and consider them important. I sincerely appreciate and enjoy the regulars who visit and comment here, some of whom I've engaged in conversation via e-mail as well (another reasonably good tool for community building). But it's difficult to sustain an extended conversation on the web in the way it is on Usenet or IRC or mailing lists. Most of the people I've visited after establishing friendships via other tools are people who were here on the net when the net was a very different beast. Plus, my life is very different than it used to be; I have a wife now, I'm more settled, and I travel less. So I can't say that I've controlled for all factors in this experiment. Still, there's something nagging at the back of my brain about breathless claims that blogs are building community.

Back when I was active on Usenet, every month there were readership figures posted that you could look at. I don't know if they still do that. One thing that was fascinating was that the number of people reading a given newsfroup hugely exceeded the number of people participating in the group. You would have maybe 1% of the readers who would actually post and participate at best. The vast majority were lurkers who read and never or rarely posted. So a group like one I participated in might have 30,000 readers back in 1990, but only a couple hundred posters, and maybe a few dozen who posted frequently. If community is built around conversation but lurkers outnumber participants by orders of magnitude, the number of visitors required to generated sustainable conversations (the critical mass, if you will) is far larger than what an average blog will generate. And it seems to me that the way the web works and the way people use the web make it likely that the ratio of lurkers to participants is higher than it was on Usenet. The lack of sidewalks in Blogistan makes the formation of community very difficult here.

Posted at 9:54 PM

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio


There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

Sylvester (the Dorito Fiend), who died at Thanksgiving, 2000.


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