Beyond Lie Dragons: Delimiting Blogospheres

We often talk about the “blogosphere” as a singular entity—a hive mind, almost, that reflects the beliefs, activities, and interests of its participants. When we assume that this supposedly singular entity can tell us something about “global youth culture”—or, indeed, about any culture—we immediately run into problems.

For one, if “the blogosphere” is a hive mind, it is one perpetually at war with itself; blogging may be a push-button method of publishing beliefs and proselytizing agendas, but there’s nothing in the method itself that determines the slant of the content. In fact, anyone who has read the comments on a politically contentious blog post probably recognizes that blogging facilitates disagreement and reactionary debate to the point that every opinion will find its opposite in “the blogosphere.”

There is another problem, however, and this one is more trenchant. The word “sphere” goes beyond connoting a network; it subtly suggests a global quality that “the blogosphere” simply does not possess. Yes, people blog all over the world. But the network created by these blogs appears not as one sphere, but as many.

This alternate understanding of the term “blogosphere” emerges especially when we try to study specific groups of bloggers, and run into a language barrier. The Internet, by erasing the barrier of distance, enables English-language bloggers in Australia and English-speaking expats in Brazil to belong to the same sphere of understanding; they can freely traffic in each other’s blogs, comment on them, understand them. In fact, the English-speaking expat in Brazil might write regularly on the 2008 presidential election, and effectively be a part of the same conversation as a fellow political blogger in Kansas. Nationality, location, and age have almost nothing to do with this mutual legibility; language has everything to do with it.

The Internet & Democracy Project at the Berkman Center has a fascinating new paper on Iran’s blogosphere that delves into many of these questions: “Mapping Iran’s Online Public: Politics and Culture in the Persian Blogosphere.” The very premise of the paper hints at one of its larger claims: that there is a specifically Iranian blogosphere. Interestingly, though, many contributors to this blogosphere are physically located far from Iran. According to the report,

Iranian bloggers include members of Hezbollah, teenagers in Tehran, retirees in Los Angeles, religious students in Qom, dissident journalists who left Iran a few years ago, exiles who left thirty years ago, current members of the Majlis (parliament), reformist politicians, a multitude of poets, and quite famously the President of Iran, among many others.

These bloggers span the spectrum from very secular to very religious; from politically conservative to radically liberal. But the conversation in which they engage, and its consequences for Iranian politics, is sometimes hard to parse because anyone who writes in Persian—regardless of location or citizenship—is, by default, a part of the Iranian blogosphere as we are able to measure it. The report addresses this problem at length, admitting that

It is often difficult to judge where a blogger is physically located, especially since Iranian bloggers inside and outside Iran use the same Persian language blog hosting services, but our analysis suggests that a significant proportion of the bloggers who live in what is thus popularly understood to be the “Iranian blogosphere” do not live in Iran.

It’s alluring to think of a “global youth culture” emerging on the internet—a cyber-space where distance is no object, and young people on opposite sides of the globe can trade ideas, stories, and favorite music. This is not a pipe dream. However, language is a very real barrier, especially because the internet as it exists right now demands textual navigation. If you search in your own language, you will, for the most part, only encounter results in your own language—even if someone writing in Russian, Japanese, or Swedish might have something smart or provocative to say on the topic. Perhaps we perceive “the blogosphere” as a singular entity because we are blind to its boundaries; “beyond” lie dragons, and words we cannot understand.

For more on blogospheres and language barriers, see this post on my blog, about the Russian internet and the difficulties presented by Cyrillic characters.

Diana Kimball