Book Review: The Personal Weblog (Peter Lang, 2016)

Published i LINGUIST List 28.2320, Wed May 24 2017
https://linguistlist.org/issues/28/28-2320.html

AUTHOR(S): Schildhauer, Peter;
TITLE: The Personal Weblog
SUBTITLE: A Linguistic History
SERIES: Hallesche Sprach- und Textforschung. Language and Text Studies.
Recherches linguistiques et textuelles – Band 14
YEAR: 2016 PUBLISHER: Peter Lang AG
ISBN13: 9783631662748,9783631662748,9783631662748
ANNOUNCED IN: http://linguistlist.org/issues/27/27-2198.htmla

REVIEWER: Marina Santini
Senior Research Scientist
RISE SICS East AB
Research Institutes of Sweden

INTRODUCTION

“The Personal Weblog: A Linguistic History” by Peter Schildhauer is a monograph that describes and interprets the evolution of the personal weblog genre. The study of the personal weblog is corpus-based. The corpus was created using material from The Internet Archive. The volume is written in English. It is based on the author’s PhD thesis (p. 17), originally written in German. The reading of this book is recommended to all those interested in genre analysis, genre evolution, genre classification, blog genre analysis.

SUMMARY

The volume ”The Personal Weblog: A Linguistic History” has 308 pages. It includes Acknowledgements, Contents Overview, Table of Contents, List of Illustrations and References. The volume does not have an Index.

The monograph opens with an Introduction and contains 4 parts, namely “Part A: Background”, where the theoretical framework, the methodology and the research corpus are presented; “Part B: Facets of the History of the Personal Weblog”, that describes in detail all the dimensions introduced in Part A; “Part C: Conclusions”, where a synthesis of the results is presented; and finally “Part D: Appendix”, where the source URLs of the blog posts used to build the DIABLOC research corpus are listed. All in all, the volume has 12 chapters, numbered from Chapter 0 (Introduction) to Chapter 11 (Corpus and Citation).

Chapter 0 contains a short preamble and the outline of the book.

In Chapter 1, the author frames the concept of genre. He discusses several facets and focuses on the following aspects:
– genre users and genre’s community;
– genres as cognitive prototypically structured devices;
– genres as complex multimodal patterns;
– genre dynamics and change.

A genre model of the personal weblog is proposed and graphically illustrated in Fig. 4 (p. 39). According to this model, genres are cognitive devices that show prototypical traits. Genres are based on communication forms (i.e. technical affordances that give rise to communicative potentials) and are instantiated in individual texts that can be analysed in terms of descriptive dimensions, such as situation, structure and function. Genres evolve over time. The author accounts for genre evolution in terms of the interaction between individual change and collective change and adapts the Invisible Hand Theory (Keller, 1989) to genre. Keller’s theory assumes that language change is based on the sum of the actions of individual speakers. Similarly, genres (which can be seen as acts of language) are pushed forward by the sum of actions of individual genre users (p. 45).

Chapter 2 describes the design and the content of the Diachronic Blog Corpus (DIABLOC), i.e. the research corpus on which the book is based upon. DIABLOC was compiled using The Internet Archive. For the annotation of the texts, the author applied the ”ethnocategory-based approach to genres” (p. 49), which basically means that a text is a member of a genre as soon as the genre label is declared as such in some way by members of the community. DIABLOC spans from 1997 to 2012, contains 3,553 posts and approx. 771,537 words (p. 57). A differentiation of the terms: “weblog”, “blog” and “personal weblog” is then provided (pp. 49-52).

Chapter 3 outlines the methodological framework of the research, which, essentially, rests on three “methodological pillars”, namely:
1. a variety of linguistic approaches;
2. “a bundle of qualitative methods and premises developed in social sciences” collected under the umbrella term of Grounded Theory, which conceptualizes research as a circular incremental process;
3. a variety of quantitative methods (descriptive statistics in SPSS and WordSmith 6.0).

Chapter 4 opens Part B and describes several aspects, namely the multiple layers of the blog communication form (e.g. the spread of blog software and multimodality); the influence of the blog communication form on other dimensions of the genre; accessibility, innovation, and the notion of “blogging community” that plays an important role in the development of the blogging activity and practice. Fig. 9 on page 95 illustrates the complexity of the blog communication form. This is a crucial chapter that helps make sense of the complexity of the blog genre.

Chapter 5 is a multifaceted chapter focussing on and developing three themes, namely: communicative sphere, conceptualized audience and conversational maxims. The communicative sphere is analysed in terms of the characteristic traits of a typical personal weblog (e.g. blogging as leisure activity; the sense of “immediacy”, i.e. acting “here” and “now”; authorship and self-disclosure). The audience concept is very variable and it may contain friends, family and mass audience. Personal weblogs seem to be characterized by the ambivalence of being “private” and being “public” at the same time. The dilemma is often solved by conceptualizing the audience as similar to the blogger himself/herself as for demographics, opinions, interests, and the like (p. 138). Finally, the author argues that conversational maxims of quality, quantity relevance and manner play an important role in the production and reception of blog posts (see Section 5.8).

Chapter 6 is organized into several subsections, where the structure that characterizes blogs is analysed at macrolevel (i.e. a personal blog is seen as part of a website), mesolevel (where design and layout are considered) and microlevel (where the use of links, language and images are investigated). As for the linguistic characterization, the author states: “it’s hard to pinpoint something like the language of personal weblogs” (p. 181). He uses WordSmith 6.0 to analyses some linguistic traits such as word frequencies (that show how personal pronouns are more frequent in DIABLOC than in the BNC), spontaneity (assessed using interjection frequency), emulated orality, emoticons, parataxis and hypotaxis, and standardized type-token ratio. All these phenomena fit into the debate on the hybridisation hypothesis, i.e. “blog-posts cover all shades from emulated orality to prototypical literality” (p. 185-186).

Chapter 7 provides an insightful analysis of blog posts. The author adopts the concept of genre profiles (Luginbühl, 2014) and assumes that a “blog post can be related to certain post genres, which in turn are more delimited in a structural and functional way than the super-genre personal weblog” (p. 245). The author discusses informative, appellative and contact-oriented post genres, but focuses primarily on informative genres as they occur most frequently. Many examples are described and analysed in detail. The overall picture that we get is one of complexity, a complexity that the author summarizes in Table 44 (p. 223). In Section 7.5 it is shown that “genres of blog posts do not, in most cases, only serve communicative purposes, but that the writing process itself also fulfils important functions for the authors; for example, structuring thoughts and reaching insights, releasing emotional tension and generating creative ideas.” (p. 245).

Part C provides a synthesis of the results from two different perspectives, namely Chapter 8 provides an historical overview of the personal weblog, including the weblog and its online ancestor; and Chapter 9 addresses more theoretical questions, such as why genres changes. In this chapter, the author restates and reinforces the idea that Keller’s theory of the invisible hand (see Chapter 1) can be profitably applied to some phenomena of the personal blog.

Chapter 10 closes the book with a summary and questions for further research.

Part D contains the Appendix related to the DIABLOC corpus.

EVALUATION

The book is a valuable contribution to the history of personal weblog and to the interpretation of the concept of genre.

The most valuable part is, in my opinion, Chapter 1, where the author tries to systematize the complexity of the concept of genre.

Genre has often been defined as a “complex and multi-faceted” notion (e.g. recently Stukker et al., 2016). The author expands this idea of multifarious-ness and proposes the definition of genres as “multi-layered phenomena” (p. 30). Genres are defined as cognitive devices which group texts according to similarities based on structure, situation and function and where texts are seen as multimodal rather than language-only entities (p. 38-39). Genres are basically cognitive categories that often have prototypical structures and that are instantiated in specific texts. “Each instantiation of a genre is unique and contains innovations” (p. 40). It is the mass of individual instantiations of a genre that trigger genre evolution in the long term. This view of genre evolution is compliant with the Invisible Hand Theory (cited above), and reminds me of the Saussurian “langue and parole” interaction in humans: ‘langue’ encompasses the abstract, systematic rules and conventions, while ‘parole’ refers to the concrete instances of the use of ‘langue’. I find this view convincing as far as personal blogs are concerned. I am not completely sure that this view would be entirely applicable to more recent genres created on social network platforms such, as tweets and Facebook microblogging (instantiated in conversation threads and individual comments), where imitative behaviour seems to be widespread, but conventions are hard to identify consistently.

The volume makes important statements that are useful for those working with genre analysis. For instance, the author states: “an important indicator for the emergence of a genre is the use of a genre label. The christening of the weblog has been traced back to 1997 […].” (p. 249). This importance of the “genre name” (and its variants) is not new (e.g. cf. Görlach, 2004: 9), although it is often overlooked. Personally, I think that the widespread use of a “genre name” is a reliable signal for the identity of a genre, but this stance is not uncontroversial, since some researchers argues that genres are not always labelled by a name.

An additional and not negligible contribution of the research described in the volume is the creation of DIABLOG, the diachronic corpus of English personal weblogs that spans from 1997 to 2012. Possibly, the corpus can be further extended by regularly adding new items along the years and serve as a resource to monitor the evolution of this genre in the next decades.

The content of the book is very dense. It is understandable that the organization is sometimes convoluted. For example, Chapter 5 has three ad interim summaries and an end-of-the chapter “Summary and Conclusions” section. I wonder whether subdividing dense chapters into shorter independent chapters would have simplified the reading and the navigation of the book.

The language used in blogs is analysed in Section 6.4.2 “The Language of Blog Posts”. However, reflections on language use are interspersed all along the book. For instance, when discussing “immediacy” in Chapter 5, the author points out: ”Language-wise, the adherence to immediacy becomes particularly evident in the use of proximal deictic expressions, for instance the adverbs “here” and “now” as well as the present progressive […]” (p. 105). It would have been nice to have a summary of all the linguistic phenomena in an Appendix, and it would have been handy for those looking for linguistic features or cues for automatic extraction.

The typesetting of the book is accurate (no typos struck my attention). However, I missed the presence of an index in the back matter of the book. The back-of-the-book index (a handy list of words, phrases and related pointers) is like a “search engine” for non-digital documents, which helps the reader in finding concepts, notions and references, thus facilitating the navigation of the content and creation of associations and relations in the reader’s mind. This volume would have certainly benefited from it.

Surprisingly, I did not find any reference to the work of Yates and Orlikowski, who carried out extensive research on genre and on its definition, as well on genre taxonomy and genre systems (especially in corporations). In particular, in Yates and Orlikowski (1992), the authors traced the evolution from the memo genre to the email genre, and stressed (among other things) the idea that new genres mostly ”evolve” from previous genres and successfully settle-in in new communicative environments and on new media. In The Personal Weblog: a Linguistic History, the author makes a similar claim.

Just for the sake of completeness, for those who are currently carrying out research on the blog genre, I add a related reference, namely Pinjamaa (2016), which focuses on corporate communication through a blog. Pinjamaa (2016) was published after the publication of the volume that I am reviewing here.

In conclusion, “The Personal Weblog: a Linguistic History” provides comprehensive coverage. It is an excellent reading on (corpus-based) genre analysis and more specifically on the diachronic analysis of blogs. It is a recommended reading for linguists and computational linguists interested in genre analysis and in the genre-revealing linguistic features.

References

Görlach, Manfred., 2004. Text types and the history of English (Vol. 139). Walter de Gruyter.

Keller, Rudi (1989). ”Invisible-hand theory and language evolution.” Lingua 77, no. 2 (1989): 113-127.

Luginbühl, Martin (2014). ”Genre profiles and genre change. The case of TV news.” Mediatization and Sociolinguistic Change 36 (2014): 305.

Pinjamaa, Noora (2016). ”Evolution of the Blog Genre: The Emergence of the Corporate Personal Blog.” In Scandinavian Conference on Information Systems, pp. 3-15. Springer International Publishing, 2016.

Stukker, Ninke, Wilbert Spooren, and Gerard Steen, eds. (2016). Genre in Language, Discourse and Cognition. Vol. 33. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG, 2016.

Yates, JoAnne, and Wanda J. Orlikowski (1992). ”Genres of organizational communication: A structurational approach to studying communication and media.” Academy of management review 17, no. 2 (1992): 299-326.

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