Thesis Review: The corporate blog as an emerging genre (2010)

Thesis Review by Marina Santini

Cornelius Puschmann, The corporate blog as an emerging genre of computer-mediated communication: features, constraints, discourse situation. Universitätsverlag Göttingen (2010). Available online*.

The Corporate Blogging Corpus (CBC/Corporati)**  used in the Cornelius Puschmann’s research is available for download and re-use from here.

Blogs are one of the most prolific and studied web genres in the last decade. Identified as specific types of text with by Rebecca Blood in 2000 (Blood, 2000), blogs (or weblogs) have been generously analysed and classified into several (sub)categories following a number of classification criteria, e.g. rhetoric (e.g. Miller and Shepherd, 2004), pragmatic (e.g. Herring et al., 2005), quantitative (Grieve et al., 2010) qualitative (Myers, 2009). Currently, the blog genre seems to be pervasive. Thanks to ready made, freely available open source technologies, the blog-way has either overridden other web genres like the home pages, or has become a stable co-presence  associated with other genres.  More specifically, I am thinking of the power of Content Management Systems (CMS) like WordPress or Joomla originally devised to easily handle blog self-management and nowadays widely used as a technological platform to create home pages, (both personal and corporate home pages) or to replace more static and stiff web genres, like FAQs .

A valuable contribution to the discussion on blogs is Cornelius Puschmann’s PhD thesis submitted to University of Düsseldorf in 2010. Puschmann presents a comprehensive and well-documented study of blogging and focuses on the emerging of the corporate blog genre.

The thesis is divided into five chapters and an appendix.

Chapter 1 (“Introduction”) lays out the key definitions of Puschmann’s research, namely:

  • a working definition of a corporate blog as “a (primarily textual) blog used in an institutional context to further organizational goals” (p. 15, italics in the original);
  • the definition object of research, namely “English-speaking corporate blogs, the majority of them maintained by major U.S. companies […] and their linguistic form and pragmatic function as an emerging discourse genre” (p. 15);
  • the description of the corpus used in the research (pp. 15-17);
  • theoretical considerations about corporate blogs (pp. 17-19);
  • the definition of the aim and scope of the research (p. 20).

One of the main objectives of the thesis is the development of a theory of how blogs are conceptualized by their users (p. 19).

Chapter 2 (“Formal technical and pragmatic aspects of blogging”) describes  the theoretical basis of the research by first exploring the relationship among discourse community, communicative purpose and text, and then applying the classification scheme developed by Herring (2007) to blogging.

Genres are seen as amalgams of discourse communities, communicative purposes and formal traditions. “These constellations shift, evolve and transform over time, but they are generally regarded as the basis for our understanding of genre. Individual discourse genres are componential entities that dynamically combine these aspects, and it is plausible to assume that practitioners recognize specific combinations and assign them different relative weights when forming their image of what constitutes a good or typical instantiation of a specific genre. ” (p. 24).  However, Puschmann points out that many types of  computer-mediated communication are characterized by “programmed traits” which are consistent, regardless of purpose and community. This is the case of blogs which although they present stable technological features, they are not open to only a single discourse community, they do not have only a single purpose associated with their production and uniform stylistic conventions have yet emerged from them, but we are still able to identify them via their presentation and structure. For this reason, Puschmann argues, blogs are not well-suited for a classification in terms of genre. Following Herring (2007), the author uses the term socio-technical format (SFT)  to describe forms of CMC whose genre status is either unclear or appear to be constrained primarily by their software-conditioned characteristics. The faceted classification scheme proposed by Herring is applied to the Corporate Blogging Corpus in the effort to describe the broader pragmatic aspect of blog communication. Herring’s classification proposes a differentiation between medium factors and situation factors. The medium factors for blogs of all varieties are summarized in Table 2.1 (pp. 26-27), and the situation factors for blogs in general and for corporate blogs in particular are summarized in Table 2.2 (pp. 34-35). The rest of the chapter (pp. 40-78) presents an in-depth analysis and interpretation of the blog  in many different aspects, from the inspections of users and uses, to the blog macrostructure and microstructure, to the study of the audience, to politeness.

Chapter 3 (“The corporate blog as an emerging genre”) describes the specific attributes of the corporate blog as opposed to private/personal blog. The author outlines the origins of corporate blogging and reaches  the conclusions that “company blogs are consciously used for the purpose of reinventing and redressing the interactions between corporations and their external stakeholders. […] By blending characteristics of private blogs as openness, information sharing/offering, subjectivity and lack of fixed external purpose with the advantage of a self-direct discourse environment and the ability to showcase politeness by ceding discourse space, corporate bloggers show socio-communicative competence while retaining ultimate editorial control.” (p. 87).  This means that  corporate blogs are topical and thematic and focus on the audience and their needs and not on the blogger himself/herself, as in personal blogs. However, the subjective and non-suasive attributes associated with personal blogging are deliberately employed by corporate bloggers in an effort to counter-balance the perception of corporate communication as manipulative and merely persuasive. The chapter includes a list and descriptions of corporate blog subgenres, namely product blogs, image blogs, executive blogs, employee blogs and flogs (i.e. fake blogs. See also Puschmann, 2009 on flogging) and an quick overview of linguistic aspects of corporate blogs.

Chapter 4 (“Corporate blogging case studies”)  presents two corporate blog case studies to illustrate the observations in Chapter 3, namely One Louder (Microsoft) and Jonathan’s Blog (Sun Microsystem).

Chapter 5 (“Discussion”) contains a discussion of the main research findings, which include the differentiation between ego blogging and topic blogging,  blog macrostructure, blog deixis, and audience design. The author’s conclusion is that the corporate blog genre “is an attempt to bring together two conflicting tendencies: goal-oriented, strategic and collectively planned external communication that has strong illocutionary force,  […] with subjective, spontaneous and personal thoughts and reflections that have weak or no illocutionary force, because they center on the self, not on others.” (p. 124).

Appendix A (“CBC/Corporati corpus statistics”) contains the list of blogs indexed in the Corporati Blogging Corpus and used in the research. Each blog is described with an ID, a title, a category, the company, and the number of posts per blog included in the corpus.

Overall, the thesis is an informative and pleasant reading that I recommend to all those studying computer-mediated communications and webgenre in general, and blogs in particular. It is richly documented and presents many examples.

I would have enjoyed a longer and more in-depth discussion on the findings in Chapter 5 and more shaped conclusions. I would also have enjoyed a more comprehensive linguistic analysis and long-lasting resources such as downloadable frequency lists.

The discussion about blogs is indeed captivating and would immediately argue that the corporate blog is a fully emerged genre rather than an emerging genre. It has stable and predictable characteristics, it is widespread, it has spawn subgenres, it has a recurrent pattern. It might be the case that the definition of genre (discourse communities + communicative purposes + formal traditions) chosen to underpin the analysis does not account for the complexity of the corporate blog genre and for the web in general. Web designers , web developers and web strategy specialists think in terms of “target audience”, which essential means “current and above all prospect customers”. Arguably, customers are not a discourse community, they do not necessarily share any background knowledge. What they share is a “need” (either spontaneous or stimulated by persuasion).

This, however, is my opinion and should not take away from reading the thesis.

References:

Blood R. “Weblogs: A History and Perspective”, Rebecca’s Pocket. 07 September 2000. 12 July 2011. <http://www.rebeccablood.net/essays/weblog_history.html”>.

Herring S., Scheidt L., Bonus S., and Wright E. (2005). Weblogs as a bridging genre. Information, Technology & People, 18(2):142-171.

Susan C. Herring. A faceted classification scheme for Computer-Mediated discourse. Language@Internet, 4, 2007. <http://www.languageatinternet.de/articles/2007/761>.

Susan C. Herring. A faceted classi fication scheme for Computer-Mediated discourse. Language@Internet, 4, 2007. .

Miller C. and Shepherd D. (2004). Blogging as social action: A genre analysis of the weblog. In Gurak L. et al. (eds).  Into the blogosphere: Rhetoric, community, and the culture of the weblogs < http://tc.eserver.org/24397.html >.

Myers G. (2007 — to date) The Language of blogs Blog <http://thelanguageofblogs.typepad.com/>.

Puschmann C. (2009). Lies at Wal-Mart: Style and the subversion of  genre in teh Life at Wal-Mart blog. In Giltrow J. and Stein D. (eds) Genres in the Internet. John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2009.

Related posts:

Book Review. Genres in the Internet (2009)
Flogs, i.e. the subversion of the blog genre
Abstract: Variation Among Blogs: A Multi-dimensional Analysis

* This work is licensed under the Creative Commons License 3.0 “by-nd”, allowing you to download, distribute and print the document in a few copies for private or educational use, given that the document stays unchanged and the creator is mentioned. You are not allowed to sell copies of the free version.

** The full description of the corpus is on pages 15-17 of the thesis.

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