Blogging as Community Theater

Some of the comments on this post about Mt. Lebanon are having their desired effect. The blog was suspended not merely because of the threat of a lawsuit; it was suspended largely because I did not and do not have the ability to make it the priority that it needs to be when the associated stress levels get that high. If the stress levels can be brought under control, thought will be given to reviving Blog-Lebo in some form. And as one friend said to me, "Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?" I'm trying to figure out how to make it fun. Cut the cake?

Since the events of last week, I've been thinking a lot about why I started blogging in Lebo, about what the blog "means" in Mt. Lebanon, and about various other issues raised by the episode. I've heard both Blog-Lebo and Pittsblog referred to as "journalism" in recent days. That characterization is quite wrong. This isn't journalism, and I'm not a journalist. If not that, then what? What do Blog-Lebo and Pittsblog represent? In no particular order:

Community blogs confound traditional notions of community privacy. Small communities and neighborhoods enjoy a presumptive privacy that comes from being geographically distinctive. Neighbors and friends can share gossip over the back fence or while walking the dog and have a lot of confidence that what gets said in those conversations won't get amplified and broadcast. Roads and parks and buildings isolate neighborhoods from one another. Outsiders are kept outside. Blogging about a community at times threatens that privacy, because it takes some of that neighborhood conversation and ignores physical boundaries, putting the news out there for all the world to read. Sometimes, even often, that's a good thing. I've learned that there are Mt. Lebanon ex-pats literally from coast to coast who follow local goings-on via Blog-Lebo. And bringing a bit of Internet sunshine to local politics, business, and culture can be a provocative but useful way to break up and expose in-group coziness, political fiefdoms, and sweetheart deals. Mt. Lebanon is no different than many small towns in this regard -- no better, and no worse. Sometimes, of course, bringing neighborhood news onto the Internet is risky; feelings get hurt. Reputations are threatened. People don't understand that the local privacy constructed by geography is rapidly eroding for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with a weblog, or even with the Internet. No neighborhood is an island. The transition from neighborhood isolation to neighborhood connection is inevitable, but it is also painful. From all sides of the blogosphere -- author, commenter, reader -- we feel our way to resolution of offense and misunderstanding, with little to go on but decency and common sense. And at times, those elude us.

Among the many tensions at work here is a tension that's expressed everywhere online but that exists even in the offline "world," between more or less "traditional" or top-down information management, and more or less "novel," emergent, bottom-up information management. If you're a semiotician, try out this phrase: Who controls the meaning of Mt. Lebanon? Or of Pittsburgh? Or of Southwest PA? Community blogging is an exercise in old-fashioned democracy, the original bottom-up technology. But it's also an exercise in citizens speaking out about what matters to them -- whether that's something as seemingly trivial as a walking path or as important as a mayoral election, and using that power to define themselves. Blog-Lebo isn't Mt. Lebanon; Pittsblog isn't Pittsburgh. No blog can represent a community that way. But by the same token, my community isn't defined by the images I see when the local government-sponsored magazine appears in my mailbox once a month, or even by what the Post-Gazette delivers to my driveway each morning.

There's also a tension between what appears to be the "real" community represented on the blog, and the simultaneous presence of a fictional community. One friend of mine referred to Blog-Lebo recently as a kind of "Oz," a land of wonder that embodies our hopes and aspirations for the town. I don't know about "Oz," but a community blog does become a kind of stage where the community enacts all kinds of performances. Some are comic, some serious, some dramatic, some tragic, some silly. Those of us who post under our own names are performing for an unseen audience, creating and sustaining characters that we largely but do not entirely control. If we perform well, we attract traffic and commentary and links from other blogs. Anonymous and pseudonymous commenters benefit from the ability to perform without repercussion -- a freedom that comes with serious risks, and when I reject comments, as I do from time to time, I'm stage-managing. "Get back in character"; that's what I'm trying to say; "help the play." Blog moderators face a peculiar challenge: feeding "lines" to community members at a pace and in a style that keeps the dialogue moving forward. Novelty and surprise are the things we prize. We try to disagree without being disagreeable; in the differences, new players find roles for themselves. Silence is bad; repetition is worse. Occasionally, I cut off comments when the conversation circles back on itself. No blog wants to become Groundhog Day.

I hear Sonny & Cher. Or is that Blutarsky shouting, "Let's do it"? Gotta go.


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About Pittsblog

Updated September 2020:

Pittsblog 2.0 was written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, from January 2004 through December 2011.

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at, on law and technology, and in some of Pittsburgh's classier professional media venues.

Chris Briem of Null Space drops by Pittsblog from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.


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