Blogs as places

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Andrew Gelman wrote to ask "Do you have any idea why blogs are often considered to be 'places' (rather than 'things')?", with a link to a post at his weblog that explains

Henry Farrell referred here to his blog as a "place." Which seemed funny to me because I think of a blog as a "thing." Henry replied:

That's the way that I [Henry] think about blogs (or at least group blogs and blogs with comments) – places where people meet up, chat, form communities, drift away from each other etc.

My analogy was blog-as-newspaper, the self-publishing idea, and I'm not used to thinking of a newspaper, or even a listserv, as a place. I think there is an aspect of the analogy that I'm still missing.

Maybe it'll help to consider the distribution of prepositions, which I think tends to support Henry Farrell, even for blogs that are less interactive.

People often talk or write about what or who is "at" a weblog, as if it were at a club or at a restaurant; and similarly with what is "on" a weblog, as if it were on a table or on a highway; but stuff is much less likely to be "in" a weblog, as if it were in a container — or in a book, magazine, or newspaper.

This intuition is generally supported by Google counts. If we count instances of "P <weblog name>" compared to "P <magazine name>" or "P <newspaper name>", limiting P to { "at", "on", "in"}, and looking only at  Crooked Timber and Language Log, in comparison to Newsweek and The Guardian:

  Crooked Timber Language Log Newsweek The Guardian

at

5,800 (62%)

6,490 (30%)

131k (23%)

5.37m (44%)

on

2,600 (28%)

13,700 (64%)

50.3k (9%)

679k (6%)

in

889 (10%)

1,300 (6%)

387k (68%)

6.21m (51%)

Crooked Timber seems to be especially at-ful, perhaps because of the lively discussions that take place there (i.e. "at Crooked Timber") among the contributors and commenters.

A related issue was discussed in an old LL post "Blognomens and blognomenclature", 7/18/2004:

There seem to be two main emerging conventions for blognomenclature. One is "X at Y", where X is a personal name (which can be a complete name, a pseudonym, a first name or nickname, etc.), and Y is the name of the blog. Thus

Rivka at Respectful of Otters
Neal Whitman at Literal Minded
Claire at Anggarrgoon
Iggy at Blogalization

and so on. The other possibility is to use just X or Y by itself. The personal name is often enough, if the association with the weblog is well known to the explicit audience: Glen Reynolds, Brian Weatherson, Margaret Marks, Cory Doctorow.

Of course, people also work "at" MSM entities, thing happen "at" and "on" those publications and broadcasters, etc. In fact, TV and radio seem to be mostly "on" and very little "at" or "in", since stuff mainly comes at us "on" those media as if it were floating past us on the river:

 

 

Language Hat

 Wonkette

CBS

HBO

at

311 (63%)

15,900 (37%)

1.05m (4%)

151k (7%)

on

174 (35%)

23,400 (55%)

26.1m (95%)

1.95m (86%)

in

10 (2%)

3,620 (8%)

399k (1%)

160k (7%)

 

[By the way -- are there any major blogs out there with longer names than Andrew's, which is Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science? I write as someone who periodically teaches the course with (what I believe is) the longest name of any in the Penn catalogue, Computer Analysis and Modeling of Biological Signals and Systems.]

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30 Comments »

  1. John Roth said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 7:36 am

    I think there's a fairly obvious explanation here. Back in the day, when I read a newspaper I had to open it to get at the contents; ergo, it's a container. To get to a blog, I have to navigate to it; hence the use of the preposition at.

    I suspect the standard construction using an @ in email addresses also contributes.

    John Roth

  2. Oliver Lenz said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 8:19 am

    I think really that it is due to websites in general being thought of as places.

  3. Rod Whiteley said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 8:29 am

    Long ago, organizations explaining the use of collaborative software encouraged the place analogy. For example, this is from 1996: TeamRooms: Groupware for Shared Electronic Spaces

    Perhaps because of this, a blog with a lot of comments seems more like a place to me. A blog with no comments seems more like a thing.

    As John Roth points out, you navigate to, or go to, a web page, because it seems like a place. Programmers developing Mozilla Firefox called their system for storing bookmarks etc. "Places".

  4. Laurent C said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 8:43 am

    Easy linguification: a blog is a site.

  5. TB said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 8:48 am

    My idea is that every day you get a new newspaper, a new thing–but it's always the same blog, just the content changes. Like a room with different people coming and going inside it. Maybe!

  6. sleepnothavingness said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 8:56 am

    Clearly it should be "on" Language Log. A log is something you can stand on. Had this blog been "The Language Log", we'd be "in" it.

  7. Random Michelle K said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 9:03 am

    In my experience, it goes back to two things.

    It seems to me that the early bulletin board systems were a precursor to blog and the communities that sprung up around them. When you called these entities you had to log onto the system, you were quite clearly going to a place that was hosted on an individual's computer.

    Second, starting with BBSes and continuing forward, those of us who run personal websites and blogs see them as a virtual space–our virtual living rooms if you like. And discussions of moderation will frequently use the analogy of being thrown out of someone's house if you misbehave. The terminology of moderation enforces that idea. To say someone has been banned from a blog brings to mind a physical barrier to entry–a removal from or a barrier to a place.

    Combine that with the fact that these places are considered by their users as virtual communities and you have a distinct sense of place.

  8. S Onosson said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 9:28 am

    Two reasons I can think of:

    1. Most websites/blogs do not have the/a in their name, akin to most placenames.

    2. Websites have addresses!

  9. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 9:39 am

    Also, why "on TV", "on the radio", "on film", but "in the movies"?

  10. S Onosson said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 9:40 am

    Because we (used to) only watch movies in theatres?

  11. Karen said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 9:41 am

    People come and go at blogs; the blog stays still. Its content changes, the audience changes; the address stays put.

    I never thought about it, but I've always said "Joe at his blog" or sometimes "over at".

  12. Indecisive said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 9:56 am

    As S Onosson suggests, it doesn't really make sense to think of blogs outside the context of the internet in general. I personally think of all websites as places. Whether that's because we think of urls as "addresses" or because I've read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (in which much of the action takes place in a virtual world that has geographic features that mimic the real world, kind of like Second Life) one too many times is unclear.

  13. outeast said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 10:16 am

    A few thoughts:

    1) I'm not sure that 'on' is useful as an indicator of placeness since the obvious similarity between a website (viewed on a monitor) and a TV programme (viewed on a screen) is likely too great a confounding factor.

    2) The Guardian is a problematic datapoint: the Guardian website claims some 23 million unique users per month, outstripping the dead-tree readership of 1.2 million by quite some margin. With CiF and so on, it also has many of the features common to even the most interactive websites.

    3) Comment areas – like chatrooms – are analogous to places for very obvious reasons. I'm not sure that this necessarily means blogs per se are thought of this way, and I'm not convinced the choices of prepositions are indicative either way.

  14. Mark Liberman said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 10:20 am

    Several people have suggested that all websites are places.

    There's some truth in this, but the distribution of spatial metaphors is by no means uniform over places on the internet, at least as judged by preposition usage.

  15. Chris said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

    The spatial metaphor is extended to referencing links, as well, when bloggers tell their readers that an interesting link is "here" (but not "there". I blogged about this in when "here" is "there".

  16. Jens Fiederer said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 12:58 pm

    I agree with the bit about sites being places, as well as the historical reference to "bulletin boards". I'd like to add to that related synonym, "forum", another term that at least used to denote a place.

    As far as the question goes, "This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics" has the longest title that jumps to mind.

  17. Peter said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 1:00 pm

    Many blogs also permit comments from strangers to be appended to posts, making them much closer in terms of interactivity and immediacy to 17th-century coffee-houses than to newspapers. IMV, this makes blogs more like places than like things.

  18. marie-lucie said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 2:13 pm

    (17th century coffee-houses) A very good analogy. This image is very close to mine: 18th or 19th century salons where civil conversation drifts into all kinds of interesting subjects, loosely moderated by an empathetic, broad-minded and tolerant host(ess).

  19. dr pepper said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

    I started on bbses in 84. At that time, most of them were hosted on Apple ][e's or even ][+'s. They were single line, of course, and text only. But from the beginning the regulars on any successfull bbs thought of it as a community, yeah a coffeehouse or mavbe a bar, where the sequential posts added up to a noisy conversation. Everything else since has inherited this sense.

    I wouldn't be surprised if pre computer discussions by telex had this sense too. Or even some written communications. Republic of Letters, anyone?

    Also, i once read a collection of mathmatical puzzles that Lewis Caroll presented in a newspaper column. Some of his respondents used eccentric nicknames, we'd call them handles today, and wrote as if to someone they knew. Caroll responded in kind. That seems as much a vitual place as anything we have now.

  20. Nigel Greenwood said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

    The spatial metaphor has been used for a long time when referring to broadcast media. On the BBC you often hear expressions like "meanwhile, over on Radio 4 …". The implied mental image seems to be something like a number of parallel tracks or channels.

  21. mgh said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 4:22 pm

    Newspapers are things that come to you (on your doorstep), and so cannot be places.

    Websites are locations you go to (visit, navigate) and so feel like places.

    The key difference is whether it comes to you or you go get it. For the same reason, an email newsletter — although in content sometimes indistinguishable from a blog — does not feel like a place, because it is delivered to you rather than you going to it.

  22. Nathan Myers said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

    I don't know in general, but I always say "on Language Log". Before we had websites we had bulletin boards, wailing walls, and telephone poles, which postings were certainly "on".

  23. Alex Chaffee said,

    September 30, 2008 @ 9:03 pm

    "Cyberspace is where you are when you're on the telephone." – William Gibson (?)

    We used to say that a lot in the mid-90s when most people still didn't know what the Internet was (and still called it "cyber" — how quaint). And think of the spatial resonance of "join us tonight for a very special episode of Blossom". I think there's just something about new media (perhaps going back to radio and FDR's "fireside chats") that invokes the metaphor of spaces the audience visits, rather than books or magazines coming to them.

  24. Graham Collman said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 6:34 am

    I'm not sure about Mark's initial use of 'on' in his preposition distribution analysis to support blogs etc as places. I can understand the analogy that you may be 'on the train' or 'on the the road', but these seem to be much more about the act of travelling rather than the place you're at.

    I would generally go with 'on' to refer to blogs, websites etc. When I fire up my browser, I'm 'on' the internet. When I browse to a site, I'm 'on' Language Log (or BBC or whatever).

    To me the 'on' is about broadcast, not place. Something is 'on' TV, not 'at' or 'in' TV because it's on air – and crucially it travels from the transmitter to my receiver. Similarly, something is 'on' the internet because it travels from the server to my PC. (Skullturf – for my twopenn'orth, that's why people aren't 'on' the movies, the film isn't broadcast from the studio, it's physically at the cinema).

    For all that, 'at' seems fine in the sense of a community or forum, i.e. a place that people go to and interact. And for other, less interactive sites, it also seems fine to me when thinking about the owners or authors.

  25. Chad Nilep said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 10:11 am

    Chris said,

    "The spatial metaphor is extended to referencing links, as well, when bloggers tell their readers that an interesting link is 'here'."

    This spatial metaphor extends even to people who claim not to think of blogs as places – for example, Andrew Gelman: "Henry Farrell referred here to his blog as a 'place.'"

    See also various commenter's mentions of spatial terms such as 'visit', 'address', 'site' etc.

  26. Sili said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

    I'm sure there's some subtlety to my own use, but "on" and "at" do appear to be in almost free variation. I certainly say "Pullum and Liberman at LanguageLog/the Log", but I think I'm more likely to say "I think I read it on Languagehat".

    A quick googling showst that for "forum" the numbers come out as

    "at the forum": 2M Ghits – 11%
    "on the forum": 5.6M Ghits – 30%
    "in the forum": 10.9M Ghits – 59%

    That's actually a bigger spread than I expected. My own use is "in" and that's the only one I'm aware of seeing used. Most forums I've attended have been a supplement to a website – an annex, so to speak – but I can't say whether that influences the choice of preposition.

  27. David Marjanović said,

    October 1, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

    In fact, TV and radio seem to be mostly "on" and very little "at" or "in", since stuff mainly comes at us "on" those media as if it were floating past us on the river:

    Sounds logical, but it may well be arbitrary, because this is where languages differ — in German, "in" is the only option for TV, radio, cinema, and the Internet; content is "on" a blog, and its authors are "of/from" it (German lacks the distinction between "of" and "from"), perhaps because there is no good analogue to "at".

  28. jp said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 12:47 am

    I agree with mgh and others who suggest that the metaphor of a a website as a place has existed for quite some time as used to refer to our interaction with web pages/sites.

    as has been said, before the word 'blog' there was 'site', 'navigate', '(web) address' and you 'visit' or 'go to' those "places". you can visit a person or other object, but that means you go to the place that person or thing lives.

  29. Karen said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 5:57 am

    I use them both: "I read it ON Language Log", but "over at Language Log is a discussion on prepositions"

  30. Stephen Jones said,

    October 2, 2008 @ 9:23 am

    The Guardian is a problematic datapoint: the Guardian website claims some 23 million unique users per month, outstripping the dead-tree readership of 1.2 million by quite some margin. With CiF and so on, it also has many of the features common to even the most interactive websites.

    Exactly, the Guardian is one of the most visited and important political websites in the world. I've got about 3,500 comments posted there and spend between two and eight hours a day on the site depending on whether it's a working day or not.

    The 23 million unique users don't outstrip dead tree readership. I personally suspect they're inflating the numbers to go for the advertising revenue, or have been affected by AVG's check-out-the-website-on-Google-search feature, but even if they're not, it comes down to less than a million a day, and with dynamic IP addresses unique ain't as unique as they used to be.

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