C&W 2004: Paper on Place Blogging

I presented the following paper at the Computers
and Writing 2004
conference in Honolulu,
Hawaii, June 10-13, 2003. This is a first run at writing about place blogging,
so all the standard caveats apply: it’s not very polished, it’s meant to be
delivered orally rather than read, etc. But I would like to make it available
for anyone who’s interested.

Blogging Place: Ecotone and the Rhetoric of Place-Based Weblogs

Almost exactly a year ago, a handful of bloggers got together to create a wiki
they called Ecotone: Writing about Place. The site’s expressed purpose
was to create a community who shared an interest in writing intentionally and
regularly about the experience of place.

"The Ecotone wiki is intended as a portal for
those who are interested in learning and writing about place. It came about
as a meeting spot for a number of webloggers who write extensively about place
in their own blogs and were wishing to work more collaboratively, as well
as raise awareness to this genre of weblogs."

In reflecting on his two years of blogging, Fred from Fragments of Floyd, a
founding member of Ecotone, describes his experience this way:

Fragments
of Floyd

– May 20, 2004

"I marvel at how things have turned
out–and are still turning–since May of 2002. What seemed at the time like
an ending and a featureless void for a future has morphed wonderfully into
so many opportunities for exploration and creation and discovery. I could
never have imagined. Two years ago I began to see myself not so much by what
I do for a living as where it is that I do my living. I began to chronicle
the extraordinary things in an ordinary life, frankly, because I did not know
what else to do.

Now, I can’t conceive of not having this journal and my reader-friends, some
whom I have never heard from but know you are there visiting Goose Creek from
time to time. And the best part–and the intended end of all this, insomuch
as there were intentions–through the blog…I am meeting people locally
and getting involved in what I used to call "real" community. Now,
I don’t make such a hard-edged distinction, because what happens via the weblog
is also real and is real community."

Like many bloggers, Fred has found a medium to facilitate a daily
writing practice that documents his personal experiences and connects this writing
with an online community of interested readers. But Fred also makes clear that
this blog has a particular theme that grows out of a particular rhetorical exigency–“Two
years ago I began to see myself not so much by what I do for a living as where
it is that I do my living.” This concern with whereness reflects the unique
qualities of place blogging, a genre of online writing that takes as one of
its central concerns the relationship between identity and place.

However, as you can see by Fred’s post, this is no simple relationship.
He seems to blur the distinctions between the metaphorical and literal geographies
(What does it mean for these people who are “visiting Good Creek from
time to time”), and he testifies to the way his blogging is connecting
him to actual communities, even as he is quick to resist any easy binary between
his “real” community and his online community. Fred seems to suggest
that his practice of writing online helps connect him not only to a group of
online writers but also to the physical places that shape him.

As if to respond to this criticism, place blogging appears to wrestles, at
least implicitly, with the question, “In what ways can the web connect
us with actual places rather than disconnect us?” While place blogging
shares many similarities with blogging in general, I will argue in this paper
that it also has particular qualities that set it apart as a distinct genre.
By writing regularly and attentively about their experiences of place, place
bloggers construct a unique discursive space in which to explore the increasingly
complex relationship between life online and life in places. By taking presenting
a selection of Ecotone posts, I’d like to offer a quick walking tour of
place blogging and points out a few things it can teach us both about technology
and place in the context of writing instruction.


I want to start with an excerpt from one of the Feathers of Hope blog co-authored
by a couple of the Ecotone founders. Numenius reflects on these issues, specifically
the division between the “modern spatial technologies” he often
works with as a geographer and the “almost mystical striving for awareness
of a particular locality” that motivates his use of a simpler technology—writing.

Feather
of Hope (Numenius) – June 15, 2003

"The danger in our modern world of geodatabases,
remote sensing technologies, and GPS mapping tools with sub-meter accuracies,
is that what cannot be conveniently georeferenced and placed in computer maps
gets forgotten about. These spatial tools are eminently technologies for the
managerial mindset, designed to support the archetypal ‘decision-maker’. Lost
here is any notion of place as narrative, or place as history.

I was always one for a saunter anyway. As John Stilgoe
puts it, cycling along at 11 miles an hour is an ideal way to explore the
landscape (at such a speed one can gaze straight through picket fences), and
wandering on bicycle or foot is deep in my bones. If every place has tales,
trying to write them down is a worthy way to bring them to light."

For Numenius, two technologies, biking and writing, are particularly well suited
for the exploration of place. As Mitchell Thomashow has pointed out, it’s
difficult for us to develop a deep sense of place when we don’t modulate
the pace of our perception, if we only experience places at the pace of a car
or an airplane and not at the pace of walking or biking. And the Internet also
seems to be part of the problem; as the “information superhighway,”
it tends to provides us with vast amounts of information in a very short time.

However, in a comment he expresses some hope that we’re not “very far
off from having narrative-rich geographies emerge from the grassroots side of
the Web,” by which I assume he would include both weblogs and other spatial
technologies (perhaps some combination of both).


What he leaves implicit here is the ways the blog is a technology that has
the potential to alter the pace at which we engage with places. I think it does
this in a few ways:

1. Chronological organization. The expectation for regularity
is build into the culture of blogging in a way that encourages daily writing,
and by extension, daily observation of the local places that the writer can
access easily.

There are continuities between this kind of chronological organization and
print based genres like the journal or logbook, as Numenius’s co-blogger
Pica observes in a post from last year. Before beginning to blog regularly,
she and Numinius kept a detailed logbook of their house and its environs in
which they described the weather, wildlife, gardening, and so forth. This genre
and the impulse toward daily-ness carried over into the practice of blogging
about place:

Feather
of Hope (Numenius) – August 16, 2003

"While anyone is able and welcome to read our
logbooks, nobody ever does, because they are physically bound, literally and
figuratively, in our living room. Feathers of Hope extends the space that
this shared activity has created and also the scope of our joint writing.
The weblog is a place where I can write something–this, for instance–and
know that at least fifteen, and probably many more, people than that will
read it. One of them lives in Davis; another in Sweden; another few in England;
another in Australia. Many are in North America.

I write this with a cast on my left leg, on a laptop
(which is conveniently on my lap), looking out the back window to oleander
bushes which despite the increasing heat are still miraculously blooming.
The space makes it seem as though these fifteen (or more) people are in the
room with me. The weblog seems to be an extension of my living room. It is
always in need of some tidying, but hey, everyone’s welcome anytime. The kettle’s
on the stove. I’d get it for you if I could get up…"

Clearly there on continuities with the logbook as a print-based, place oriented
genre, but the weblog makes it easy to transfer of that writing impulse to the
web:

2. Easily updated with short, informal posts. The ease of
posting to a weblog minimizes the obstacles to writing regularly. It’s
more important to write something short fairly often that to write long polished
pieces only a couple times a month.

But of course, Pica also points out one of the important differences made possible
by weblog technology:

3. The ability to construct an audience of interested readers, often
reading from a geographical distance.

Chris Corrigan, whose Bowen Island Journal, documents life on a small Island
off the coast of Vancouver, reflects in similar ways on the significance of
audience for his place blog:

Bowen
Island Journal

June 15, 2003

"Moving to Bowen Island in 2001, combined with
the samizdat opportunity of blogging led me to start this weblog to capture
my experiences for myself, for my family who are scattered across North America
and for friends in Israel, South Africa, America and the UK. As I have been
writing about my life here, I am increasingly conscious of how blogging has
brought a sharper awareness and attention to my life here. For me, blogging
place is drawing attention to links in the elements that make up the landscape.
As this blog has evolved, I have become acutely aware of the landscape that
is forming in my mind and heart of who I am and what Bowen Island is as a
place and what relationship exists between us. I have even begun posting stories
of my life here on an interactive GeoLibrary which in essence returns the
stories to the place that birthed them, and coincidently introduces my readers
to these places in a more concrete and connected way.

A project that started in exile, now continues with
an exile’s eyes, writing a landscape that surrounds and holds me, and constantly
inspires."

The construction of an audience is central to blogging about place, but in
complicated ways. When we think place-based, we might assume that the values
of writing about the place and for the people in that place might be necessarily
go together. However, it appears that place bloggers write as much for a “global”
audience as for a local one.

There’s nothing surprising about this, insofar as Ecotone is a community
of interest like so many other communities on the web. This is after all what
the web is all about, at least according to utopian rhetoric of the web that
trumpets the advantages of online communities organized by common interest that
transcend the geographic limitations of place-based communities. The web allows
us to escape the tyranny of the local and pursue our interests where ever they
may lead us.

Without denying this element of online experience, we also must acknowledge
that the way we actually use the web is often very local in nature, even if
just for such simple activities as finding the location of nearby stores, movie
times, or information about local organizations. Place-blogging appears to occupy
a space somewhere between community of interest and place-based community, but
what’s unique about place blogging is the intentional connection it makes
between online experience and life in places.

So I think we can make a couple observations about the nature of audience in
place blogging:

The place blog makes use of the ability of the blog to transcend
the limits of proximity to create a community of interest, but doesn’t make
this an end in itself.
This I think ties in with the rhetorical exigency
for place blogging—Christ Corrigan represents many place blogging in
that the experience of mobility and the desire to intentionally construct
a sense of place out of the places they inhabit appear to be primary motivations
for blogging.

Because an important rhetorical exigency for place blogging seems
to emerge out of the experience of mobility, place bloggers often write about
the local but not primarily for the local.
Blogs enable the geographically
distant audience to play the role out of town visitor: when we have someone
else looking at places that are familiar to us, we often are able to see with
fresh eyes.

Ecotone Biweekly Topics: Heuristics for invention

What theses bloggers highlight is the cultural context many of us are writing
out of: As we move more often and as places around us change more quickly, we
not longer can take place for granted. Sense of place is less often inherited
than it is intentionally constructed.

In this context, blogging about place serves as a kind of heuristic for the
invention of a place sense. Not only does a place-oriented blog provide a regular
impetus to examine one’s sense of place in writing, but the Ecotone
Biweekly Topics
build this into the culture of the online community of writers.

Every two weeks, Ecotone bloggers write about a common topic in their blogs
and link to these posts from the Ecotone site:

OnComingToWriteAboutPlace – June 15, 2003
HowAreWeDefinedAndShapedByThePlaceWeLive – July 1 Topic
SuBurbs – July 15 Topic
TreesAndPlace – August 1 Topic
WeblogAsPlace – August 15 Topic
MapsAndPlace – September 1
IslandsAndPlace – September 15
AncestralPlace – October 1
PlaceNames – October 15
CoffeeShopAsPlace – November 1
HowVisitorsAffectYourViewOfPlace – November 15
ProtectingPlace – December 1
MythicPlace – December 15
CemeteriesAndPlace – January 1, 2004
Place:ComingAndGoing – January 15
FoodAndPlace – February 1
StonesAndRocks – February 15
OceanAndSea – March 1
SpidersAndPlace – March 15
SmellAndPlace – April 1
RiverAndEstuary – April 15
SoundOfPlace – May 1
TimeAndPlace – May 15
ImaginaryPlaces – June 1

The place blog tends to create a rhetorical rhythm between life online and
life in places by offering, and the daily and informality of writing about place
in a weblog format means that our pace of observation takes on a more deliberate
pace. And the fact that this can be easily shared with others begins to create
networks of place-people whose writing inspires us to write more.


Tensions of Place Blogging

Of course, blogging about place does not guarantee that this rhetorical rhythm
will be effortless. At the core of place blogging as a writing practice is the
conflict between the time one spends in front of the computer writing and the
time when spends out exploring actual places, a tension articulated by Maria
in a recent post:

Alembic:
May 24, 2004

"Once I migrated my blog to Movable Type and people
started to stop by, and I, in turn, started to travel farther in the worlds
of blogs, my walks in my physical neighborhood became less frequent and I
spent a lot less time in my garden, or even caring about it. My focus shifted
to worlds that came to me first in words only. At first, it was intoxicating
to find out about the state of certain flowers in some other blogger’s
garden in Vermont, for example – even as my own rose bushes, just out
of view of my office, began to fail. To know where in London one can have
good Lebanese food, to take another example, made me feel, somehow, a bit
more worldly – or rather, a bit more as if my neighborhood just got
bigger, even as I was eating leftovers from my fridge because I didn’t have
the time to go exploring restaurants or grocery stores within a wider circle
of my physical neighborhood…."

This is the dilemma that all place bloggers struggle with, but I think it is
ultimately a productive tension that makes this practice of writing unique.
Everyone struggles with it in different ways and there are seasons of practice,
phases when one swings to one side or the other. To be a healthy place blogger,
I think you always have to be able to walk away from the computer, for days
or weeks, when necessary, as Frank from Bicycle Communing Now did last week:

Tuesday,
June 01, 2004

"ON HIATUS or HEY IT’S SUMMER

Bicycle Communing Now is officially on hiatus, not
permanently I hope. I started this blog to help me keep motivated for commuting
to work, but now it feels as if it takes time away from that. I should be
doing routine maintenance or such, not typing right now. I set a goal to post
for one year, and as of this post I’ll have a year’s worth of posts from July
2003 to June 2004, barely. And I should be gardening, drinking a beer outside
under the stars, and walking the dog, hey it’s summer"


Observations

1. Rhetorical Traits

  • Rhetorical exigency
    Place bloggers often write in response to the experience of mobility and as
    a way of constructing a sense of place.
  • Audience
    Bloggers write about place, but not exclusively for readers from the places
    they inhabit. In fact, writing for a geographically disparate audience and
    reading place bloggers from all over the world plays an important role in
    the practice of place-blogging.
  • Heuristic for Invention
    Place blogging functions as a collaborative heuristic device for creating
    local knowledge and constructing a sense of place.
  • Rhetorical effectiveness
    For a place blog to be successful, it must persuade people to leave it.

2. Tentative definitions

  • If a weblog can be defined as “a website organized by time,”
    then a place blog as a weblog organized by place.
  • A mode of online literacy that encourages a regular encounter with the ordinary
    places one inhabits and reflection on the relationship between place and identity
  • A trans-geographic online community of interest whose goal is not to transcend
    geography

3. Pedagogical Implications

Pedagogy: Blogging

  • The importance of writing as a daily discipline
  • the collaborative nature of writing (writing with and for others)
  • the personal role of writing in non-academic settings (yes, people write
    even when its not for school or for money)
  • The representation of the mind at work (like personal essays, blogs represent
    not just the product of thought, but the process of thinking)

Pedagogy: Place Blogging

  • The practice of close, regular attention to ordinary experience (observation,
    description, notetaking)
  • Makes deliberate connections between life online and life in place
  • Makes technology visible by foregrounding tensions between place and
    technology


Parting Thoughts

As places change more quickly and we move more often, does the construction
of community online become compensatory mechanism to make up for the fact that
we longer invest in local communities? In his book The Wired Neighborhood,
Stephen Dohery Farina, expresses his fear that “the continual virtualization
of community reveals that geophysical community is dying. As we invest ourselves
in the simulation, the simulated phenomena disappear” (27).

In a recent post in Fragments of Floyd, Fred describes his discovery that someone
had dumped a 55 gallon drum of waste oil into Goose Creek, which runs through
his property. He concludes his post with this reflection:

Fragments
of Floyd May 04, 2004

"There is no way to catch this slug of a human
who did this. I would be perfectly willing to accept that this same person
left Goose Creek and went back home to their regular job: propagating weblog
comment spam. There are facets of human nature with which I am thankfully
not often in contact–while some of the prisoners in Iraq have become quite
familiar with them, I fear. God help us overcome the varied ways we find to
reap pollution, corruption and hatred on the earth and each other."

Here we see a place blogger who is not interested in creating online communities
as a way of compensating for the loss of actual communities and environments.
While Cynthia Selfe has warned us of “The perils of Not Paying Attention”
to technology; perhaps it’s equally perilous if our technologies do not encourage
us to pay attention to the places we inhabit. Place blogging has the potential
to help us pay attention to both places and online technologies, and to complicate
our understanding of both in the process.

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