(Meme)X Marks the Spot:
Theorizing Metablogging via "Meme" and "Conduit"

This paper examines metablogging in terms of Dawkins's concept of the "meme" and Reddy's critique of the "conduit" metaphor for communication. By "metablogging" I mean the ranking, ordering, filtering, introspection and interaction associated with the weblog genre.

The "meme" is a discrete bit of cultural information (such as an advertising jingle, an observed fact, or the unspoken rules of elevator etiquette) that inhabits a brain. Dawkins describes a meme as behaving as if it "wants" to spread to other brains. The "conduit metaphor" refers to the language of containment and transfer found in English words referring to communication; Reddy argues that the prevalence of these words makes it difficult for us to conceive of communication as anything other than the transfer of information through conduits.

The language of metablogging uses metaphors that emphasize communality and proximity, and thus offers an alternative to the social risks Reddy associates with the conduit metaphor. The associative principle of the "link" is central to the hypothetical information processing machine that Vannevar Bush calls the "Memex", [1] as well as to hypertext theory; but in practice, the linking of electronic documents according to an architecture emulating individual mental associations has not been widely and democratically implemented until the emergence of the weblog phenomenon.

This paper unpacks the conduit meme and examines metablogging through metaphors of communality and proximity.

Table of Contents

  1. Background: Memes and Conduits
  2. The Blog: A Lively New Web Genre
  3. Terminology in Blogging Metadiscourse
    1. Unpacking the Conduit Meme
    2. The Evil Magic of the Conduit Metaphor
  4. The Ergodic Tool
  5. Database Culture
  6. Metaphor, Language and Genetics
  7. Emergence in the Blogosphere
  8. Thinking As We May Blog
  9. (In)Conclusion: Hybrid Cultures, Clumsy Interfaces

1. Background: Memes and Conduits ^

To biologist Richard Dawkins, a "meme" is a bit of cultural information that exists in the brain. Successful memes spread from brain to brain, through any means available to humans (speech, writing, independent observation, etc.). Since our attention span and memories are limited, only the most successful memes survive. The term "meme" is meant to echo "gene" -- a bit of biological information that propagates by spreading from parent to offspring. Dawkins carefully introduces the idea of meme agency as a scholarly metaphor to explain our own apparent powerlessness when memes seem to inhabit our brains against our will (as may be the case with an annoying song).

The "conduit metaphor" refers to a collection of terms that linguist Michael J. Reddy observes embedded in English speakers' words for communication: we "put" ideas "into" words, read things "into" texts, and "get" something "out of" a lecture. Reddy observes two major implementations of the conduit metaphor. In the first, the communicator assembles ideas into a package (a sentence, a gesture), which is then transmitted to the receiver, who extracts the meaning. In the second, the communicator releases a flood of thoughts, words and ideas, which may or may not be picked up by an audience, but are nevertheless "out there." When weblogs are considered as vehicles for tracing the spread of memes, the conduit metaphor seems to fit logically into weblogging culture. With terms of dimensional volume (such as "cyberspace" and "blogosphere") or containment ("bottleneck" and "archive," the latter from the Greek for "public office"), these metaphors form what Dawkins calls a related meme-complex: separate ideas that reinforce each other and are found together so often that their association seems natural.

2. The Blog: A Lively New Web Genre ^

According to Siemens, a weblog is "a format consistent... personalized, community-linked, social, interactive, democratic new model built on the unique attributes of the Internet." Variations of the "What is a Weblog?" meme are legion, but worth consulting for its historical value is a December 1997 Usenet announcement (cross-posted to several groups) in which Jørn Barger called attention to an activity he had observed elsewhere:

"Lively New Webpage"

After talking a lot about Frontier and Scripting News (www.scripting.com), I decided to start my own webpage logging the best stuff I find as I surf, on a daily basis: <URL:http://www.mcs.net/~jorn/html/weblog.html>

This will cover any and everything that interests me, from net culture to politics to literature etc.

Barger articulates the characteristics of a genre influenced by Dave Winer's Scripting News website, which builds upon the "log" (though logs have not historically been sorted in reverse chronological order). While Internet users have been maintaining lists of links of various sorts since before the invention of the World Wide Web, Barger's public announcement and his unapologetically subjective selection criteria invite others to respond in kind, thus presenting the weblog itself as a meme. While Barger's "Robot Wisdom" features neither date stamps nor permalinks, these dual indexing methods are part of most definitions of the genre. Less important are the density of links, the size or frequency of entries, the tone, the point of view, and the presence of explicitly personal content. Such details do of course become more significant when describing overlapping weblog subclasses (knowledge blog or k-blog, edublog, blawg, etc.) and their permeable fringes. At their root, however, weblogs share characteristics of online diaries, personal home pages, electronic bulletin boards, and annotated bibliographies. [2]

My own "Jerz's Literacy Weblog" has been classified as a "research blog," [3] even though I think of it as a tool for establishing and recalling associations (or, as Bush would say, "trails") between documents. As I contemplate my own blogging activity, I often recall Professor Charles Kinbote, the protagonist in Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire. Kinbote compulsively catalogues every minute detail, not in his own life, as a blogger might, but rather that of poet John Shade, the subject of Kinbote's literary research. Spying through the window of Shade's study, Kinbote catalogues exactly when Shade composes each line of poetry, indexing the composition process against what is happening in Shade's life at the time. In keeping a weblog, I am both my own Kinbote and my own Shade; in public, as each thought and association appears in my blog, I peer over my own shoulder at my work, and in the process occasionally catch glimpses of myself.

3. Terminology in Blogging Metadiscourse ^

A subtitle attached to an online article by media scholar Henry Jenkins referred to webloggers as cockroaches that survived the dot-com apocalypse; the resulting blogger-led backlash was severe enough to motivate Jenkins to ask his editor to remove the offending language -- something that Jenkins, not being the webmaster, could not do himself. According to Mortensen and Walker, "Trying to sustain the academic distance built into our traditional scholarly or popularising forms of publication can result in a greater loss of control than participating fully in these new forms of communication and conversation" (264). The immediacy and intensity of communication that occurs within the Blogosphere is reflected in the emotionally and organically charged terms associated with weblogging.

The eponymous term "fisk" refers originally to the activity of bloggers offering a systematic and usually disdainful rebuttal of an article by left-leaning British journalist Robert Fisk, but the term has generalized. While bloggers typically comment on a new article by posting a link and possibly a brief excerpt, followed by commentary, the fisker typically begins by copying the target text and pasting it to his or her own weblog, and then inserting rebuttals into the local copy. Like a virus invading a healthy cell, the critic literally inhabits the targeted text, using the original author's structure as a vehicle for an alternative viewpoint. Because the target text is fixed in space and time, it cannot respond to the critic's frequent interruptions, and therefore the original author can easily be forced into the "ignoramus" role in a one-sided Socratic dialogue. Earlier terms for similar activities, such as "flame" and "rant," both seem to emphasize the expression of emotions emanating from an enraged reader toward the original writer; a flame, in particular, invites a response from the target. But a "fisk" seems to emphasize a consciously persuasive act which presumes the presence and involvement of third-party readers. A fisking combines the intellectual material of both the fisker and the fiskee in a manner more outwardly-focused and more consciously persuasive than a flame or a rant (even if the fisk is typically no less ad hominem). [4]

Just as the "fisk" describes the intermingling of the critic and target's thoughts, other blogging terms such as "link love" and its assorted extensions ("link slut," "link whore") emphasize proximity and intercourse (in both the general and sexualized sense). Blog A bestows "link love" on blog B by creating a hyperlink that encourages readers to visit blog B. By extension, a "slut" links promiscuously rather than selectively, and a "whore" links not out of genuine feeling but rather to secure personal gain. [5]

3.1 Unpacking the "Conduit" Meme ^

A different, less organic set of cyberspace terms such as "filtering," "streaming," and "aggregating" stem from the conduit metaphor (though, as Reddy notes, a certain mental effort is required in order to see these terms as metaphors). If one considers language, and indeed all of human culture, as the means by which memes transfer themselves, then the metaphor "conduit" is a "meme" that perpetuates itself not only in our language, but also in our communications technology (witness the "push" fad of a few years ago, or the rise of spam today), which continues to develop in ways that sustain the conduit metaphor. This core metaphor persists also in the typical lay definition of what technical writers and journalists are said to do: they are perceived to de-code the technical knowledge of scientists, politicians, engineers and lawyers, translate it into simpler language, and repackage the knowledge for a different audience. The knowledge-transference metaphor ignores the constructive nature of communication, on both the sender's and receiver's part. "In terms of the conduit metaphor," Reddy observes, "what requires an explanation is failure to communicate. Success appears to be automatic" (295). In the inevitable event that an attempt at communication fails, the conduit metaphor conditions us to blame the sender.

3.2 The Evil Magic of the Conduit Metaphor ^

To prepare readers for his critique of the conduit metaphor, Reddy introduces a "parable" about a group of individuals, each of whom lives in a separate ecosystem shaped like a pie slice. These individuals can communicate with each other only via a machine at the center of the pie; this machine delivers slips of paper from one slice to the next. A person who lives in a pie slice with a woody environment invents a rake, and communicates the discovery by dropping a sketch of it into the machine. A person living in a rocky environment picks up the sketch, but does not see a useful rake, but instead sees a poorly designed rock pick. To a person living in a swamp, the same drawing appears to represent a defective muck-hoe, and so forth. Each receiver modifies the blueprint and returns it to the inventor of the rake. After multiple revisions, everyone gradually learns not only about the object being discussed, but also the environments where rakes or picks or hoes might be useful. The increasingly developed mental models shape each subsequent version of the blueprint used by the people to construct each version of the tool they are discussing. This, Reddy feels, is a more accurate communication theory than the ubiquitous conduit metaphor. Metaphors of containment and transference condition us to believe that communication is automatic -- that the machine actually transmits the rake, rather than a set of instructions to help the receiver build it. To emphasize the role the English language plays in conditioning us to ignore this problem, Reddy introduces the metaphor of an evil magician.

At the very moment we have finally mastered the blueprints and finished the arduous task of assembling the object described on the paper, this evil magician zaps us -- causing us to forget about the blueprint and our completed labor, and leaving us convinced that the sender of the blueprint has instead actually sent the object we have constructed. Reddy considered himself radical in 1979 for challenging the conduit metaphor, and noted the awkward artificiality of a discourse that consciously supports an alternative he called the toolmaker paradigm: "Instead of walking into a classroom and asking, 'Did you get anything out of that article?', I have to say, 'Were you able to construct anything of interest...?'" (298-299). Of course, that is precisely the language that dominates contemporary literary and cultural criticism -- and notably the new historicism Nabokov lampooned via the arduous obsession of Prof. Kinbote.

4. The Ergodic Tool ^

Reddy identifies the story of the evil magician as a "parable," which is, like Dawkins's concept of meme agency, not to be taken literally. "Parable" is also a spatial metaphor -- one of proximity and interface (parabole "application," from para "alongside" and bole "throwing") rather than containment and transference. A hypertext reader, when faced with an interface that is potentially far more complex and inherently more variable than (for instance) a printed table of contents, must deal with the consequences of numerous decisions and revisions in order to make a document work. Hypermedia theorists are conscious of the cognitive demands that juxtaposition places on the user, but so are bibliophiles of the Birkerts school. In Electric Language, Heim writes: "A month in hyper-space can scatter the brain. Traditional books offer readers respite from hyperactivity. The book's definitive, closed, linear argument lets mind and sensibility enjoy moments of inner harmony. Linear text offers the kind of contemplative thinking that goes beneath the surface" (xvi).

For Aarseth, the constant demand for effort is a defining characteristic of computer-mediated texts; he defines cybertext as a machine for the production of varied texts, and thus is consistent with the toolmaker paradigm. Of web browsing, he observes that "[d]uring waiting periods, the act of communication itself -- bits traveling through the network -- becomes the message" (206). But because a web page loads a piece at a time, "it reminds the user of its existence -- not only because the user is forced to wait but also because she is forced to witness how the message is being constructed over time" (207). The nature of the WWW, as a fluid and writerly medium, calls the receiver's attention to time and the act of construction -- the very two things pushed out of our consciousness by the conduit metaphor.

5. Database Culture ^

Vannevar Bush's Memex is a hypothetical document storage and retrieval system, first envisioned in the late 1930s and described in a popular 1945 essay "As We May Think." The user would be able to add original content into the system, but would build upon a pre-loaded library of general reference materials. Bush calculates that making a copy of an encyclopedia would cost just five cents -- but he refers only to the microfilming, not the cost of researching, editing, writing, typesetting, etc. Because the Memex depends upon content the researcher has already deemed important enough to purchase, it is most useful as a tool for recalling that which the user already knows, rather than a tool for identifying new information. To fault the Memex for this design feature is (as Nyce and Kahn note) to miss an important point: the very idea of a database that is not institutional but personal, tailored to the specific, evolving needs of an individual researcher, was one of the most noteworthy innovations in Bush's vision (57). In The Language of New Media, Manovich calls the narrative paradigms of old media and the database paradigms of new media mutually exclusive organizational schemas, each "claim[ing] an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world" (225). In his terms, the human desire to interpret our environment leads us from reality, to media, to data, and then to database. [6] The concept of the Internet as a database invites obvious comparisons with Bush's Memex (some perhaps too obvious), but the two systems provide a convenient cultural context for a discussion of thought as constructed through blogs.

6. Metaphor, Language and Genetics ^

Before Operation Iraqi Freedom, blog-tracking websites such as Blogdex and DayPop were full of links to harmless, silly personality profiles with titles like "What Simpsons Character Are You?" and "What Member of the ‘Village People’ Are You"? While these self-discovery activities returned in force once the immediacy of the war faded, in Spring and Summer of 2003, the Blogosphere increasingly focused its collective attention on international affairs. The journalist's idealized objectivity serves a particular public function, but so too does the unabashed subjectivity of the weblogger. An openly opinionated blogger who links to an opposing view may, according to the ethos of the Blogosphere, be acting in a more democratic and honest manner than a journalist who attempts (perhaps ineffectively) to conceal bias, or who withholds links to primary sources or competing news coverage, and thus makes the reader more dependent upon the news product.

James Lileks, a newspaper columnist and a blogger known for his blistering fisks, offered a striking observation that combines metaphor, language, and genetics as he contemplates television coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom:

Perhaps [the] most accurate metaphor for this war occurs whenever the news runs a feed from an Arabic language station. Our crawl runs in one direction; theirs runs in the other. You almost expect the crawls to twine like DNA and start fighting - and in that case, the English language would lose. Arabic is so spiky. However lovely the poetic sentiments might be, it still looks like knives and swords to me. <http://www.lileks.com/bleats/archive/03/0403/033103.html>

While weblogs are not metamagical counterspells to free us automatically from constraints of the conduit metaphor, blogs make visible the work that goes into the construction of complex thoughts. Consider John Bono's "silent fisking" of a news report sympathetic to the 600 suspected Taliban and Al-Queda members held at Camp X-Ray as part of the U.S. military investigation into the September 11, 2001 attacks. After the sentence "For 167 of the 168 hours in a week their world is a cramped 8ft x 6ft 8in cell," Bono places a photograph of three tiny human figures falling through space, at increasing distances from one of the World Trade Center towers. The contrast between the cramped cell and the fatal trajectory (three dots that when joined form a parabola) assaults the viewer's emotions and undercuts the target text, which stupidly continues invoking the reader's sympathies for the suspected terrorists. Reddy's interest in communication metaphors is not literary or ephemeral, but social; through his own illustrative para bole, he suggests that better metaphors would lead to better communication and a better world: "A society of near-perfect communicators, though it would no doubt still face conflicts of interest, might well be able to avoid many of the destructive, divisive effects of those inevitable conflicts" (284).

The author of traditional prose generally assumes that only the most motivated reader will bother to trudge to the library to look up a reference, but the linking culture of the Blogosphere naturally favors those off-site sources with easily-accessible archives. The reader of a blog post is accordingly invited, encouraged, or expected to consult the off-site text. As Dan Reynolds of Instapundit puts it, "I link, you decide." [7] But just as in traditional prose we can use the passive voice or subordinate conjunctions to downplay a particular point of view, experienced hypertext authors quickly learn that every link is not the same, and users of most hypertexts cannot alter or add to the author's links. For Manovich, "Before we would look at an image and mentally follow our own private associations to other images.... [Now] the computer user is asked to follow the mental trajectory of the new media designer" (61). Creators of linear media also try to lead readers towards a particular conclusion, so the tyranny of the hypertext designer's medium is not without precedent. Yet bloggers need not be designers -- the conventions of blogging, while not fixed, are well-established and more easily knowable than those of programming, graphic design, and human-computer interface. The stable, easily-knowable form of the weblog permits hypertext authors who are not interested in visual layout or graphic design per se to participate in and influence the practice of networked authorship.

7. Emergence in the Blogosphere ^

The relative status and health of a blog, or the popularity of any item linked to by a blog, can be quantified through the parsing of data provided by Google's "PageRank," Movable Type's "TrackBacks" and Technorati's "Link Cosmos." These online services are more than conduits for making visible the chains of values encoded by authors into their annotations; they are also tools with which we may construct meanings from the database. When properly tuned by their creators and properly understood by their users, they encourage specialists and non-specialists to participate meaningfully in a new intellectual culture.

Johnson notes that in complex systems such as ant colonies and cities, where the individual components of the group are relatively simple and only loosely connected, complex behavior emerges in such a way that the system appears to behave as if it has a master plan -- even though no single component of the system "knows" or "decides" the rules. The process of emergence is evolutionary; that is, those groups comprising individual members whose behavior both the individual and the society will tend to thrive; those groups that form according to different rules will die out. Likewise, a culture in which bloggers habitually read and link to other blogs is good for the both each individual blog and the whole community of bloggers. Mortensen and Walker tellingly observe that "home page" remains a noun, but "blog" quickly became a verb (250).

8. Thinking As We May Blog ^

I have introduced hundreds of college students to online publishing -- mostly through web page authorship, but more recently through blogging. [8] For a first assignment I typically ask my newbies to post a few sentences about themselves, and then ask them to create a link to another online document. The response of many beginning authors is additive. Thus, the student who had written "I am a freshman at the University of Wisconsin -- Eau Claire," when asked to "add a link," would typically append a new sentence such as "You can visit the home page at www.uwec.edu." Such behavior is consistent with the way many of my students have apparently learned to write in high school -- they add ever more embellishment, insert more modifiers, summarize chapters in greater detail, and add longer quotes in order to produce the required number of words. Strategies for using links to layer additional complex meanings on top of existing words come later, as in a sentence like, "Two more weeks of hell and I will be free!" The word "hell" might be a link to the university home page, and the word "free" might be a link to a website selling Spring Break excursions.

In the terse, playful inline linking style often found on Metafilter, the on-site text is the setup, and the texts found on the other end of a link deliver the punch line. A Metafilter post depends heavily on the reader's ability to access the off-site source; thus, "MeFi" authors typically rely on a colony of parallel links, any one of which, by itself, is sufficient to get the point across. For instance, when a user nicknamed "yoyology" writes, "The debate rages on. Do Chihuahuas cure asthma?" each word links to a different off-site text, and the sentence is a codex binding them together, and inviting comparison, analysis, and synthesis from community members. Yet another way to shade the value of a hyperlink is to use affirming, meaning-laden keywords to link to a supporting view (e.g. a modifier like "convincing" or a phrase like "Nielsen's latest article") and dismissive or meaning-free words ("drivel" or "this") to link to the opposition. The ability to recognize the rhetoric of hyperlinks is an important component of web literacy. The culture of blogging expects its members to take responsibility for their own statements, to apologize for statements that are proven false, to link generously but thoughtfully, and so forth. While these virtues are not universally practiced in the Blogosphere, the hyperlink in a weblog is less tyrannical and more negotiable than it appears in Manovich's assessment.

Angela Lewis is an IT trainer who positions herself somewhere between the cynicism of Sven Birkerts and the delusion of those who "believe in the promise of hypertext being some type of yellow brick road to the rainbow of educational riches." She finds the form-oriented approach towards teaching information literacy (which asks students to create hypertext in order to understand cyberspace) "a completely ridiculous notion." Noting that "we all cannot be Web designers," she suggests that "[m]ost readers will be 'browsers' or at most 'users,'" and notes the lack of empirical data supporting the hypothesis (meme?) that students who can author web pages are more critical of online information. But in focusing on the information technology needs of "[m]ost readers," she begs the question, revealing her allegiance to the old media model, with its wall of separation between author/producer and reader/consumer. In fact, reading is only one of several models for interaction with new media environments; we are also, at various times, "downloaders" or "foragers" or even "fiskers." Even allowing for rhetorical hyperbole, when she writes "It's like saying you can’t possibly shop for a medical doctor unless you did two years of biology," she goes too far. Such a statement might have been more true in the early 90s, when hypertext was (for all its liberating and democratizing promise) largely utilized by theorists or computer scientists using proprietary commercial products; but today, nearly ubiquitous web-authoring tools have simplified the process of hypertext authorship to the point that beginners can grasp the basics of hypertext authorship in one or two hours. While effective and expert web authorship requires attention to layout and navigation details that add another very complex layer to the composition process, the presence of many default templates from which the digital novice may choose mitigates the effect of the packaging and layout issues that distract and concern Lewis.

9. (In)Conclusion: Hybrid Cultures, Clumsy Interfaces ^

In her study of the printing press, Eisenstein notes that during medieval times "even ‘book’ learning was governed by reliance on the spoken word -- producing a hybrid half-oral, half-literate culture that has no precise counterpart today" (11). Eisenstein wrote in 1979, when the democratization of the personal computer was just beginning to affect mainstream culture. Weblogs emulate the rhythms and diction of oral discourse, but also the accessibility of the index and the permanence of the archive. The Blogosphere is an emerging environment with fuzzy borders, and bloggers inhabit a hybrid culture. Those who are immersed in the genre see the weblog as Bush saw the Memex -- as a tool built to function "as we may think."

The Blogosphere is an emergent system. Within that system, each weblog "wants" to expand to fill the Blogosphere, but it can only do so by attracting and holding the attention of other bloggers -- just as a meme "wants" to inhabit brains. A blog is not merely a text to be read, it is an annotated stream, each post a potential conversation, each entry a call awaiting a response: if that response is not link love, then a little fisking will do.

But, as Reddy has shown us, our metaphors arise from our environment and affect the way we think; this is the source of the difficulty he describes in the uncritical acceptance of the conduit meme. Even when the interface is uncluttered and the database is working smoothly, a web novice faces a challenging task when asked to follow complex discussions unfolding in reverse-chronological order and spanning multiple sites. The streak of mysticism in Vannevar Bush's own professional activities led him (briefly) to the scientific examination of ESP, which he saw as a means of bypassing altogether the clumsiness of machine interfaces. Bush's recognition that the fantastic theoretical device he envisioned was not an end in itself reminds us that weblog, for all their promise and vivacity, are just another clumsy human-to-human interface, like language and war.

End Notes ^

[1] The memex, according to Bush, would be a desk-like object, inside which was a mechanism that would permit a researcher to browse through, and add to, a capacious stack of microfilm. A researcher could leave one interesting page displayed in one screen, while continuing to browse in the other screen. Upon finding an interesting connection between two pages, the researcher could push a button that added the ID of the second page to an invisible area of the first page, thereby linking the pages together in a trail. For a consideration of blogging and Vannevar Bush, see Jerz, "On the Trail of the Memex."

[2] For more on the short history of the genre, see Winer's "The History of Weblogs," Barger's "Weblog Resources FAQ," Blood's "Weblogs: A history and perspective," and Walker's encyclopedia definition of the term.

[4] For links to primary documents on this subject, see Jerz, "Fisking" <jerz.setonhill.edu/weblog/permalink/1190>.

[5] See Kennedy for links to sample instances of these terms appearing in weblogs, as well as a feminist reaction to the gender assumptions associated with these words <http://www.netwomen.ca/Blog/2003_09_01_archive.html>.

[6] Manovich refers freely to the conduit, but in a subordinate role.

[7] A search of Google on 22 May 2003 found 11 instances of "I link, you decide" on Instapundit, all of them dating from early 2003. The phrase also appeared about 20 times on other websites.

[8] See "New Media Journalism @ Seton Hill University," <blogs.setonhill.edu/nmj>.

Works Cited ^

Appendix: Original Abstract ^

Below is the abstract that I originally posted to this site, 23 Mar 2003.

I plan to examine the language bloggers use to describe their activities, in terms of the "meme" (or some variant, such as the virulent persistence of the "blogging urge") and the "conduit" (as embodied by metablogging tools such as Blogdex, or concepts such as "trackbacks"). If time permits, I would also like to examine the language journalists use when describing bloggers.

Because Vannevar Bush described his hypothetical document-association tool "memex" as a means for linking pages from disparate sources, the memex is frequently invoked in histories of hypertext; yet Bush also sees his memex as a means for a new kind of intellectual activity -- the free exchange of complex, annotated association schemas (what Bush called "trails"). Before the development of weblogs, hypertext as experienced by the vast majority of non-specialists (that is, those who are not professional hypertext theorists or web designers) only crudely implemented the "writerly" potential of electronic text. If bloggers can be seen as building their own trails of annotated links, then metablogging implements a crucial, interactive element of Bush’s vision.

I will examine this premise in terms of Dawkins’s "meme" (a free-floating bit of cultural knowledge) and Reddy’s "conduit metaphor" (the means by which language transmits knowledge from person to person). According to Humphrey, "memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell." Reddy, a linguist, draws upon the metaphors people actually use when talking about knowledge, and observes two major implementations of a conduit metaphor. In the first, the communicator assembles ideas into a package (a sentence, a gesture), which is then transmitted to the audience, extracted, and interpreted. In the second, the communicator releases a flood of thoughts, words and ideas, which may or may not be picked up by an audience, but are nevertheless "out there".

While blogging does not encourage the kind of careful, studied reflection traditionally associated with the construction of monolithic knowledge, blogging culture involves a system of checks and balances, relying upon ready access to full text versions of cited sources and full access to archives, in order to keep bloggers intellectually honest with one another. While bloggers may be non-experts at programming or hypertext theory, they often become experts at blogging their subject of choice (even when that subject is intensely personal), and thus participate in the exchange of annotated links that Vannevar Bush imagined would be a vast boon to the professional’s intellectual life. In such an environment, blogging permits non-programmers to experience, with much greater ease, the power of hypertext authorship.

Category Tags