Blogs and the Communications Renaissance

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Uses of Blogs on 1 June 2006

Finally it’s becoming practical for people with little or no technical expertise whatsoever to find their voice.

Now we just need ways to make sure we know how to hear them….¹

--Tom Coates (2003)

Finding people with similar interests to yourself can be a challenging experience. Finding out how to communicate effectively with people of similar interests has been an ongoing challenge. In spite of the promise of new technologies acting as an agora for political debate and cyberdemocracy in the fashion documented by Mark Poster,² the realities of bandwidth scarcity, the intellectual property issues associated with posting rich media content, and a user-oriented need for maximum communication with minimum time wastage have meant that the vast majority of communications between people online are text-based . And the nature of text-based communications is such that the practice of communicating ideas and cultures becomes a frustrating process of negotiating meaning and searching for synergy. This could well be a reason why blogs have been so successful at defining new cultures for the sharing of ideas. Dominated by text (in spite of the growth of moblogging, picture, and vidblogging–on the latter, see chapter nineteen by Adrian Miles in this volume), text-based blogs allow for conversations and cultures to develop in an almost evolutionary fashion, growing and changing in accordance with reader interests and influences. Thus it is blogs that come closest to achieving the vision for cyberspace first promulgated by advocates of technocracies–cyber-utopias for cultural expansion, political debate, and economic efficiency. Blogs provide us with the basis for developmg the triple crown of “faster, cheaper, better”; information of interest to any specific community is available on the fly, at almost zero cost for all members of a community, and with more reliability and cross-referencing than was ever before available. In terms of modern cultural development, blogs may well be the source of the communication renaissance.

This chapter demonstrates the power of blogs as a means of constructing and negotiating ideas. Excerpts from blog posts by Douglas Rushkoff have been interspersed with commentary by Uses of Blogs co-editor Joanne Jacobs.

The Communications Renaissance

» Douglas Rushkoff–Renaissance Now? (13 June 2002)³

The birth of the Internet era was considered a revolution, by many. My best friends–particularly those in the ‘counterculture’–saw in the lnternet an opportunity to topple the storytellers who had dominated our politics, economics, society, and religion, in short our very reality, and to replace their stories with ones of our own. It was a beautiful and exciting sentiment, but one as based in a particular narrative as any other. Revolutions simply replace one story with another. The capitalist narrative is replaced by the communist; the religious fundamentalist’s for the agnostic’s. The means may be different, but the rewards are the same, as is the exclusivity of their distribution. That’s why they’re called revolutions; we’re just going in a circle.

I prefer to think of the proliferation of interactive media as an opportunity for renaissance: a moment when we have the opportunity to step out of the story, altogether. Renaissances are historical instances of widespread recontextualization. People in a variety of different arts, philosophies, and sciences have the ability to reframe their reality. Quite literally, renaissance means “rebirth.” It is the rebirth of old ideas in a new context. A renaissance is a dimensional leap, when our perspective shifts so dramatically that our understanding of the oldest, most fundamental elements of existence changes.

Take a look back at what we think of as the original Renaissance–the one we were taught in school. What were the main leaps in perspective? Well, most obviously, perspective painting itself. Artists developed the technique of the “vanishing point” and with it the ability to paint three dimensional representations on two-dimensional surfaces. The character of this innovation is subtle, but distinct. It is not a technique for working in three dimensions; it is not that artists moved from working on canvas to working with clay. Rather, perspective painting allows an artist to relate between dimensions. It is a way of representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional plane.

Likewise, calculus–another innovation developed not quite during, but immediately in the wake of Renaissance advances–is a mathematical system that allows us to derive one dimensional perspective from another. Most simply, it is a new way of describing curves with the language of lines, spheres with the language of curves, or speed in the language of distance. The leap from arithmetic to calculus was not just a leap in our ability to relate the objects of one dimension to the objects of another. It was a shift in perspective that allowed us to orient ourselves to mathematical objects from beyond the context of their own dimensionality.

The other main features of the Renaissance permitted similar shifts in perspective. Circumnavigation of the globe changed our relationship to the planet we live on and the maps we used to describe it. The maps still worked, of course–only they described a globe instead of a plane. Anyone hoping to navigate a course had to be able to relate a two-dimensional map to the new reality of a three-dimensional planet. Similarly, the invention of moveable type and the printing press changed the relationship of author and audience to text. The creation of a manuscript was no longer a one-pointed affair. Well, the creation of the first manuscript still was–but now it could be replicated and distributed to everyone, It was still one story, but now it was subject to a multiplicity of individual perspectives. This lattermost innovation, alone, changed the landscape of religion in the Western world. Individual interpretation of the Bible led to the collapse of Church authority and of the unilateral nature of its decrees. Everyone demanded his or her own relationship to the story.

In all these cases, people experienced a very particular shift in their relationship to and understanding of dimensions. Understood this way, a renaissance is a moment of reframing. We step out of the frame as it is currently defined, and see the whole picture in a new context. We can then play by new rules.

The great Renaissance was a simple leap in perspective. Instead of seeing everything in one dimension, we came to realize there was more than one dimension on which things were occurring. Even the Elizabethan world picture, with its concentric rings of authority–God, king, man, animals–reflects this newfound way of contending with the simultaneity of action of many dimensions at once.

The evidence of today’s renaissance is at least as profound as that of the one that went before. The 16th century saw the successful circumnavigation of the globe via the seas. The 20th century saw the successful clrcumnavigation of the globe from space. The first pictures of earth from space changed our perspective on this sphere, forever. In the same century, our dominance over the planet was confirmed not just through our ability to travel around it, but to destroy it. The atomic bomb (itself the result of a rude dimensional interchange between submolecular particles) gave us the ability to destroy the globe. Now, instead of merely being able to circumnavigate “God’s” creation, we could actively destroy it. This is a new perspective.

We also have our equivalent of perspective painting, in the invention of the holograph. The holograph allows us to represent not just three, but four dimensions on a two-dimensional plate. When the viewer walks past a holograph, she can observe the three-dimensional object over a course of time. A bird can flap its wings in a single picture. But, more importantly for our renaissance’s purposes, the holographic plate itself embodies a new renaissance principle. When the plate is smashed into hundreds of pieces, we do not find that one piece contains the bird’s wing, and another piece the bird’s beak. No, each piece of the plate contains an image of the entire subject, albeit a faint one. When the pieces are put together, the image achieves greater resolution. But each piece contains a representation of the totality–a leap in dimensional understanding that is now informing disciplines as diverse as brain anatomy and computer programming.

Our analog to calculus is the development of systems theory, chaos math, and the much-celebrated fractal. Confronting non-linear equations on their own terms for the first time, mathematicians armed with computers are coming to new understandings of the way numbers can be used to represent the complex relationships between dimensions. Accepting that the surfaces in our world, from coastlines to clouds, exhibit the properties of both two- and three-dimensional objects (just what is the surface area of a cloud?) they came up with ways of working with and representing objects with fractional dimensionality. Using fractals and their equations, we can now represent and work with objects from the natural world that defied Cartesian analysis. We also become able to develop mathematical models that reflect many more properties of nature’s own systems–such as self-similarity and remote high leverage points. Again, we find this renaissance characterized by the ability of an individual to reflect, or even affect, the grand narrative. To write the game.

Finally, our renaissance’s answer to the printing press is the computer and its ability to network. Just as the printing press gave everyone access to readership, though, the computer and Internet give everyone access to authorship. The first Renaissance took us from the position of passive recipient to active interpreter. Our current renaissance brings us from a position of active interpretation to one of authorship. We are the creators.

Blog Cultures

So if we accept Rushkoff’s premise of the present renaissance mimicking that of the previous Renaissance, how does our ability to create and to control our environments relate to the development of the blog? Many have argued that the growth of the blog is a revolution or at least major restructuring of mainstream media: that blogs are a powerful alternative news source and provide an effective check against the mass oligopolization of media organizations and concomitant reduction in content diversity.⁴ But given the growth rates and decidedly personal nature of the majority of new blogs,⁵ it’s probably more significant that blogs represent the current renaissance’s version of cross-cultural exchange. Safer and more efficient than circumnavigating the globe in either tall ships or spacecraft, blogs still allow for debate, exchange, and speculation between strangers, and the growth of new friendships, business deals, and partnerships that might never otherwise have been forged.

The rise of blogs as a medium for the creators of the modern communications renaissance has permitted an almost meteoric development of very specific cultural groups. Elsewhere in this edition are chapters focusing on niche blogging groups, but the culture of blogging itself has arisen as a key niche market. Celebrity bloggers are now a cult in their own right, with “A-list” identities such as Cory Doctorow, Meg Hourihan, Joi Ito, Jason Kottke, Glenn Reynolds, and Douglas Rushkoff (among many others) attracting major audiences simply because they are blogging. It helps, of course, to have a book or two under your belt to promote the image, but the act of blogging and the cult of blogging have produced their own unique market niche.

But is this blog culture impacting negatively upon the act of creativity? Is the growing blog culture a popularity contest among high-profile participants, where authorship by a few articulate pioneers is drowning out the voice of the people? Are blogging cultures in fact diluting the power and significance of the communications renaissance, and once again relegating most blog readers to active participants?

lt was journalism in the nineteenth century that evolved as a Fourth Estate, providing stops and checks on the operations of the ruling classes and parliament. ln her study on the changes taking place in news media today, Schultz noted that the public service principle of journalism made it the most important and powerful instrument of influence within a democracy.⁶ The function of journalism and media reporting was designed to be informative, allowing the citizenry to respond to the issues of the day in a manner that ensured that the interests of the people were being considered. And the individual perspectives of the populace on all matter of issues, from religion to politics, began to have an impact on decision making. Thus multiplicity of individual perspectives of readers made possible by the printing press at the height of the Renaissance brought down the Church and spawned journalism simultaneously. There was a growing need to develop personalized responses to the world, and journalism could provide that voice for the masses.

But eventually the power of the media as a vehicle for the public voice and as a means of bringing down governing bodies was recognized, and commercial interests as well as political leaders sought to regulate the output of media institutions. Corporate mergers and acquisitions as well as formal and informal political affiliations emerged, and the number of media voices was reduced. Even the style of media reporting began to standardize. Globally, the perceived value of investigative journalism waned after the Washington Post’s association in the Watergate affair of the 1960s; by the turn of the millennium, in Western nations, representatives from the media were considered to be as trustworthy as used car salesmen. Even where the number of media channels in subscription television networks rose, the similarity of content production and centralization of news sources, as well as mass production of programming, was and is considered a reduction in media output quality.

Enter: blogs. Instead of relying on journalism as a trusted source of information and a means of checking the accuracy and authority of mainstream media, blogs provided a new shift: a change in perspective in news reporting and, more widely, in the creation of cultural content. The conflict that had emerged in mainstream media, of providing commercially viable content at low cost while also meeting an acceptable standard of news reporting, was deemed irrelevant in the blogosphere, because content was created at nearly zero cost for all authors, and the commentary system provided an immediate channel for response. Like the change in perspective experienced during the high Renaissance, the significance of blogs added a new dimension to our understanding of the world as previously experienced through print and electronic media channels.

But this supposed change in perspective is worth questioning. What we are seeing with the development of a blogging culture may not be as democratizing as the idealists would have us believe. The technology of blogging itself encourages centralization through networks of similar thinkers and debaters. David Weinberger has explored some of this territory in his work, describing the conversations erupting online through the vehicle of blogs and other social software tools as “small pieces, loosely joined,”⁷ but it’s worth exploring just how loosely these “pieces” of data–news, cultural content creation, business idea generation, legal mediation, learning facilitation, and so on–are joined.

Since the release of blogging software at the turn of the millennium, blogs have simply replaced older “home pages” of technology advocates and netizens alike. As the technology itself evolved, and articulate pioneer bloggers began to list “blogrolls” of other bloggers they read and advocated, and concepts like Friendster and LiveJournal’s Friends networks developed, there emerged–almost by accident–blog communities. Very quickly, a power law distribution of blog popularity emerged, and the significance of some blogs dramatically overshadowed the majority.⁸ This did not mean that new blogs were prevented from rising to prominence–there have been several instances of blogs that have grown in influence over time–but the development of a hierarchy of blog significance did emerge, and syndicates of bloggers achieved a degree of influence approaching that of mainstream media. Gill cautioned that any attempt to measure the specific influence of blogs (based on links and audience numbers) is inherently flawed, because the competing methodologies for calculating these linkages and audiences are so complex. She also notes that other research questions about the relative influence of cross-linking through direct in-blog references as opposed to blogrolls, as well as the frequency of blog entries and first-mover advantage of early bloggers, will all impact on any degree of influence. But she also concludes that regardless of these measurement issues, there is no doubt that certain “A-list” blogs are so influential that they spawn other blog discussions and create a pyramid structure of influence.⁹

So while the functionality and power of negotiation inherent to blogs may well be providing us with a new perspective and a new means of understanding the world, there are even now the seeds of centralization of blog significance at work. Just as mainstream media have suffered oligopolization and centralization of control and voices, blogs may be considered to be oh-so-gradually moving down the same path of centralization.

Of course, the age of blogs competing with mainstream media as one of the most important instruments of influence in a democracy is a long way off, at least. Blogs may at present offer individuals and organizations a much more efficient manner of communicating, reporting, and negotiating content, but they are not yet a great threat to mainstream media, nor are they likely to bring down governments. Indeed, it could also be argued that blog centralization that is occurring could better be described as information fragmentation–even fracturing. As cults of “A-list” bloggers emerge with very specific agendas, and these blogs in turn spawn similar blogs (small pieces, loosely joined), what emerges is not a cyber-utopia of political debate and an agora for democratic practice, but a series of disconnected streams of information aggregation and discussion, highly specialized and politically specific. Rather than acting as a forum for dispassionate deliberation, pockets of political opinion can emerge, and participants of such blog cults positively reinforce their own ideals without consulting alternative arguments. In such an environment, blogs are no renaissance in communuication, but merely an instrument of apartheid for individual perspectives.

The Real Threat of Blogging

» Douglas Rushkoff–The Real Threat of Blogs (5 Sep. 2004)¹⁰

I believe that the most dangerous thing about blogs to the status quo is that so many of them exist for reasons other than to make money. A thriving community of people who are engaged for free, to me, have a certain authority that people doing things for money don’t.

Writing a book for money is always suspect. (Disclosure to all: I have written books for money and for free.) Writing it for free is very different–and might still be suspect, but for other reasons.

What made the early Internet so very threatening to the mainstream media was not just the new opinions being expressed, but the fact that people were spending hours of their lives doing something that didn’t involve production or consumption in the traditional market sense. Families with Internet connections were watching an average of nine hours less commercial programming each week.

The threat of rave culture was that it was an alternative economy. The kids were no longer going to the mob-run nightclubs, the police weren’t getting their cut, and the liquor distributors weren’t making any money. Those of us involved in rave–or at least many of us– didn’t realize that’s why they were such a threat.

Likewise, I believe the greatest power of the blog is not just its ability to distribute alternative information–a great power, indeed–but its power to demonstrate a mode of engagement that is not based on the profit principle.

Admittedly, many people need to try to make money any way they can. And many people who insist on making their money by writing, but can’t do so in the current commercial writing space, will attempt to do so on their biogs. I think that they will learn, as I have, what is so valuable about keeping certain areas of one’s life and work market-free if at all possible. Even if it means getting a day job, which many of us have done in order to support our work. I have been very lucky in my ability to craft my messages into forms that publishers will pay for. But the more integrity I get (and the more market-driven the book industry gets) the harder that is to do. Indeed, the book industry used to use criteria other than marketability in picking what to publish. Sometimes, editors would publish books that only broke even, because they happened to like them. Those editors are few and far between, now, because they don’t make as much money for their companies, and the values have changed.


There is growing debate over business models for blogging, with the commercial sector keen to consider means of profiting from the blogging act. Of course, this business focus has spawned much concern among blogging “purists” about the effects of blog advertising on the validity of blogs as a source of critical debate. However, Rushkoff’s discussion above is not focused on advertisements in blogs, but on the power of blogging as an activity which is largely disengaged from commercial media. Rushkoff’s notion of the real threat of blogs goes some way toward alleviating the potential problems that could arise from a growing centralization (or fragmentation) of voices. If the real “threat” of blogging is its challenge to mainstream media as a nonprofit activity, then a very old problem arises: how do businesses access consumers in an age of content generation by the people and for the people? Any fragmentation of voices occurring in the blogosphere will be secondary to the primary concern of sales and marketing for commercial players. If blogs threaten audience sizes and types for mainstream media, then the pricing of advertising for media will decline, and costs of production for advertising-supported media will consequently rise. Businesses will seek out new ways of accessing audiences either through Google-esque search engine and context-specific Website advertising, or through some other manner of contextual information aggregation.

This threat is real and palpable for businesses today. Research is being conducted on new models for television and interactive media advertising across the globe precisely because businesses still need a means of providing information about products and services to potential consumers. And as blogs inherently provide content that audiences find engaging and interesting, businesses are also considering how they can use blogs as a vehicle for accessing those highly specialized audiences.

Chris Anderson has explored this in his ideas about “the Long Tail”: an entertainment or content industry that is characterized by millions of niche markets at the “shallow end of the bitstream.”¹¹ Blogs fit perfectly into this theory of business development, because they respond so dynamically to the changing wants and needs of what Bruns has called “produsers.”¹² Being loosely collected communities of content creators and readers, blogs provide for businesses an opportunity to access niche interest groups while also collecting data on the changing interests of those groups. Anderson argues that the “long tail” actually facilitates development of diverse content, reversing the trend of content homogenization in mainstream media. Business generated in the “long tail” doesn’t seek to replace mass-market fare, but augments it for niche interests. Similarly, blogs don’t replace mass media content, but they augment consumer content production. Blogs have what Tapscott calls “digital capital”:¹³ the combination of employee (blogger) and customer (blog reader) knowledge, customer relationship capital (blog readership understanding and growth), and knowledge maximization for business efficiencies (use of that understanding to grow blog influence and readership). Bloggers develop an understanding of their readership through commentary systems and can dynamically affect their readership and influence through cross-linking posts and contributing to other blogs. Thus, blogs are uniquely suited to business development in the “long tail,” because blogs are content vehicles for niche interests, and bloggers have the digitial capital that businesses seek.

The trouble with this emergence of blogging as a facilitator for business is that what Rushkoff describes as the “real threat” of blogs begins to weaken as blogs formally or informally adopt business models for connecting businesses with potential consumers. And with highly specialized business markets erupting in the “long tail,” the threat of blogs as non-profit ventures declines, and market segmentation–and fragmentation of perspectives–once again rises.

We’re left wondering what kind of communication renaissance has really emerged, and who are the greatest beneficiaries of the blogging revolution.


1. Tom Coates, “Second Sight,” The Guardian, 28 Aug. 2003.

2 Mark Poster “CyberDemocracy: Internet and the Public Sphere,” Lecture at the University of California, Irvine, 1995, (accessed 16 Nov. 2005).

3. Excerpted from Douglas Rushkoff, “Renaissance Now?” Douglas Rushkoff, 13 June 2002, (accessed 16 Nov. 2005). This article also touches on issues covered m more detail in Douglas Rushkoff, Open Source Democracy: How Online Communication Is Changing Offiine Politics (London: Demos, 2003), (accessed 22 April 2004).

4. See, among others, the chapter by Axel Bruns in this text, and David Abrahamson, “From the Many, to the Many: The Journalistic Promise of Blogs,” Journal of Magazine and New Media Research (Summer 2005).

5. See, in particular, David Sifry, “State of the Blogosphere, August 2005, Part 5: The A-List and the Long Tail,” David Sifry’s Alerts, Aug. 2005,, 2005 (accessed 16 Nov. 2005).

6. Julianne Schultz, Reviving the Fourth Estate: Democracy, Accountability and the Media (London: Cambridge UP, 1998).

7. David Weinberger, Small Pieces, Loosely Joined (London: Cambridge UP, 1998).

8. Clay Shirky, “Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality,” Clay Shirky’s Writings about the Internet: Economics & Culture, Media & Community, Open Source, 2 Oct. 2003, (accessed 20 Feb. 2004).

9. Kathy Gill, “How Can We Measure the Influence of the Blogosphere?” WWW2004 Conference Proceedings, University of Washington, 2004.

10. Excerpted from Douglas Rushkoff, “The Real Threat of Blogs,” Douglas Rushkoff, 5 Sep. 2004, (accessed 16 Nov. 2005).

Issues addressed both in this article and in the previous excerpt are also explored in more detail in Douglas Rushkoff, Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out (London: CollinsBusiness, 2005).

11. Chris Anderson, “The Long Tail,” Wired Magazine 12.10 (Oct. 2004).

12. See Axel Bruns, “Some Exploratory Notes on Produsers and Produsage”, Snurblog, 3 Nov. 2005, (accessed 4 Nov. 2005).

13. Don Tapscott, Digital Capital: Harnessing the Power of Business Webs (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School P, 2000).