Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Weblog Business Strategies 2003 XI

Matthew Berk: Digital Self-Fashioning

Matthew Berk is a senior analyst for Jupiter Research. He focuses on infrastructure and operations, which includes coverage of content management and site technologies and operations. Here is a rough transcript of his comments:

Yesterday I had the post-snack crowd, and this morning I have the post-sleep crowd. Today I'm going to try to take you through some thinking I've been doing. If it seems rough, it's because it's thinking. This is a roughly open forum and experimental, so we'll give it a try.

What the heck is content? That's a question I always ask. These are pretty big questions: How do people represent themselves online? What is the nature of content? How do communities arise out of connected content? "Community" is an idea we borrow from the off-line context. I've stolen the term "self-fashioning," and I'll tell you from where in a minute.

Community is a borrowed metaphor. We meet face to face. We form groups. Online, it looks sort of different. I want to optimize for the medium. I took a press call for movie sites, and it was a really odd press call. I said, this is all about ticket sales, right? And they said, no, they don't care about ticket sales. It's all about paid content. Maybe personals are the same way. You can form a two-person community and then take it offline. Personals sites are communities of many that pair down to two in the end. Those are paid content sites as well.

What I cover at Jupiter is content management, so that's my lens. I don't want to focus on people meeting people. I've dug through the academic literature, and there are two ways people can represent themselves online. One is anthropomorphic. Bodies are transported and reconstituted in the virtual world. The second metaphor is the network as a virtual place. The network is an extension of place. Community transforms online, and it's an extension of place. That opens up the opportunity for people to form so-called communities.

These two things are crossed with two other axis. They're kind of political. There's freedom of the self, freedom from the physical, freedom from the constraints of the self. Then there's alienation of the self, people who reconstitute themselves online. The more you use it as a mediator, the more you rely on it. Literally this room, 80% of the people are mediating this experience. Usually I cling to the podium and hide behind it. Looking out into the audience, it's kind of nice to cling to the laptop.

I mentioned that I stole these concepts about self-fashioning. More or less I got them from Michel Foucault. He calls them technologies of the self. And he thought about ways in which in social situations, people are produced by collections of documents. Today the evidence that we leave behind is much richer than what we might have left behind 50 years ago. I also ripped off self-fashioning from Stephen Greenblatt, who does work on the Renaissance. He says that we defined what it means to be a person. Hamlet is a man who fashions himself out of a very peculiar cloth, but a lot of people argue that Hamlet is one of the first self-fashioned men. The state and the church and all of the social institutions all contribute to develop that self. It's kind of a reciprocal formation of what it means to be a person.

I wanted to take this and import it online. If the online self is content, what is content? Our technology has gotten very good at storing and moving date. We don't believe that's content. When we wax poetic, we say that content is the human-legible destiny of data and information resources. It becomes content when it becomes legible to a person. Most of the time when we look at content management systems, they forget that content is meaningful to people and they abstract it to data. There's lots of talk about structured content and unstructured content. All content has structure, whether that structure is internal to that content or external. The other thing to fold this third thing back on the firrst is that content has some sort of action potential. It can enrich or cement ties between people and perhaps put them at risk.

There's a lot of rhetoric out in the field about managing content just because it's content. If it's not meaningful to you, why would you want to manage it? I call these rules, but they're very loose because I'm still thinking about it. On the Internet, people constitute themselves as assemblies of content. On AOL, everyone has a screen name. Those have become very rich profiles. On the network, a person is content. No. 2, content is intrinsically structured. The greater the depth of structure, the greater the nature of interrelatedness and the greater the action potential. This action potential is derived from the richness and structure of the content. No. 3, content is always plural. People always have more than one profile, more than one screen name. They also have multiple Web sites. Eventually, people will have multiple blogs.

Now I want to come back and think about community. For me, online you have a content management application that takes advantage of the fact that people are representing themselves in a certain way. Look at the power of something like Classmates.com. They are applications where people go to share content.

We finally come back to blogs. Blogs are a new technology of the self. They are a new way for people to create themselves in content. I like blogs because they're very pure. This purity takes two form. There ain't no markup. Or the markup comes last. What matters is that you're producing entries. You're in the act of producing text of some kind. Let's think about the activity. This is self-expression.

When you think about Web sites, I'm still trying to figure out why people blog instead of making Web sites. Blogs have conventions, but they have few metaphors. They don't have any metaphorical hangovers. There's also a great tension between people expressing themselves online and communities. Technorati is now keyword searchable. There will be links between blogs. Blogs aren't anything without references to other blogs. Underneath it all, you have a standard for syndication. Your content is now portable, transposable. This tool is by definition networked.

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