93 Wonderful Things: a short history of BoingBoing
BoingBoing: A Directory of Wonderful Things is a groupblog that provides a mix of Web humor, art, politics, gadgetry and unicorns (and plenty more). It is probably the only blog popular enough to receive its own backlash. I used to visit BoingBoing on a regular basis, nowadays it fills my feed reader.
BoingBoing started as one of a number of San Francisco based magazines (including Wired and Mondo 2000) that, over the years, have contributed to the public imagination of new media and their possible uses. Detailing its history may reveal insights, for example, into some of the continuities between Webs 1.0 (the virtual community) and 2.0 (the online social network). I am thinking of something along the lines of Fred Turner’s work in his book From Counterculture to Cyberculture (my review of which is here).
My analysis, though, is relatively hasty and qualitatively different: I look only to aspects of the blog’s form, its content and its makers, testing each for their specificity. This takes the form of three short studies, and assumes that readers are already somewhat familiar with the blog (for proper introduction, including some of the history, see the wikipedia article). It is by no means exhaustive, and is more a first step for me in learning how to do this kind of analysis on the Web.
A Directory Exhumed
When I first saw BoingBoing’s extended title, ‘A Directory of Wonderful Things’, I thought it was just a juxtaposition meant to be funny. How could anyone associate ‘directory’ with such seemingly random posts? But the title has a history, and ‘directory of wonderful things’ actually refers to, well, a real directory. Comprising 93 things, the directory was (as far as I can tell) carefully compiled and annotated by Mark Frauenfelder in early 2000, when BoingBoing became a ‘real’ blog. It was featured prominently, as seen here at the top of the blog’s right column:
But within a year, the directory was forced below the fold to make room for a ‘donate’ button and a merchandise link (among other things). It also disappeared from the top menu bar. Jump forward another 2 years to 2003, and we find the directory – still the same 93 things – by scrolling all the way to the bottom of the page:
And then finally, a few days later, it disappears altogether:
In a way, the disappearance of Boingboing’s directory reflects more general changes that were happening on the Web. A professor recently pointed out (also using the Internet Archive) how something similar occurred at Google. Its directory was slowly phased out, just as the Web’s most comprehensive directory – Yahoo – had to surrender to algorithmic search in order to ‘keep up’ with Sergei and Larry.
Not to worry, though. Those carefully edited directories are still out there, if a little broken now. Boingboing’s directory of 93 things can be found here. To get to Google’s directory, you will have to google it.
Where Unicorns Come From
If the directory’s drop from the front page signified the growing diversity of Boingboing’s output, continuity started appearing in other ways. The various authors have specific interests and favorite topics, and these are reflected in their respective ‘canons’ of work. Cory Doctorow, for example, does e-activism and cyberpunk related news, while Mark Frauenfelder tends to write more about art, DIY crafts and gadgets.
The tendency of the authors to specialize and, in a way, to homogenize the overriding category of ‘wonderful things’ is most apparent with the postings of Xeni Jardin. Xeni takes full advantage of the knowledge that most of the audience consists of (at least somewhat) regular readers, and does ‘serialized’ work. This includes the infamous Unicorn Chasers (which are posted directly after any gross content) and Web Zen , as well as previous ‘trends’ that spanned a number of posts, such as those child-eating robots.
But am I not jumping to conclusions? To get an idea of the topics the authors stick to, I took the top ten posts by Cory and Xeni (according to a google search) and used the text from each to make some word clouds (click on the images for larger versions):
While the samples are way too small, and questionably obtained, you can see some trends already. Cory seems more interested in copyright, science fiction and, here, in the movie industry, while Xeni’s cloud suggests a more international outlook, attention to current news stories (especially concerning human rights) and of course to Virgin Airlines’ decision to let BoingBoing name one of their new planes. The authors could not resist, and dubbed the plane ‘Unicorn Chaser’ (perhaps as a corrective to the horrible experience of London airports?).
Boing Boing as ‘Obligatory Passing Point’
If the BoingBoing authors are to be described in terms of citizen-journalism – I doubt they would use that word themselves, but oh well – then it is interesting to note that, rather than simply represent a different kind of journalist, they are quite adept at shifting between roles. At different times, they can be seen as fellow audience members, as distributors of news or, increasingly, as the source of news. BoingBoing may thus in part be understood in the way it makes us rethink traditional journalistic categories (see Fred Turner, 2005 for more on this). Cory Doctorow’s focus on Web politics is a case in point: in late 2005, he seemed to juggle all three roles as he made BoingBoing a central player in the Sony DRM Rootkit scandal. Initially a fellow spectator, Doctorow (also acting as high-profile member of the EFF) quickly took on the task of centralizing related content in Sony round-ups and, at times, even leading the charge.
Arguably, the role-switching going on at BoingBoing has contributed to both the perceived effect of blogging as a cultural form and the perception that bloggers share the common aim of keeping the mainstream media and their corporate sponsors in check. What kind of formatting power do such perceptions have, and what does it mean for other bloggers? These, anyway, are some of the major points raised by Geert Lovink in his article “Blogging: The Nihilist Impulse“.
Bruno Latour and Michel Callon, in their early work on Actor-network theory (ANT), introduced the term ‘obligatory passing point’ to denote powerful actants within networks. This is different, however, to the ‘hub’ in network theory, as ANT understands power as something extrinsic. In ANT, power is the extent to which others (people and things) do the work for you. The point may be applied here: you can’t find the ‘power’ that BoingBoing yields on the site itself – rather, you have to look everywhere else. This is not a radical claim, just look at how Technorati ranks blogs (where BoingBoing is at number two).
With this in mind, I’ll end this review with a final observation: from the day BoingBoing switched to a Blog format in 2000, the first link on its menu bar was “Suggest a site”. Clicking on the link would produce the following form:
While the form is now more detailed and less purple, it remains important. Unlike BoingBoing’s directory, this won’t disappear.
This post is a slightly altered version of the one on my blog, Default Settings.
The analyses here were carried out using tools made by the Digital Methods Initiative. For more on the blurring of journalistic boundaries see Fred Turner (2005), “Actor-networking the News,” Social Epistemology 19(4): 321-4.