Reconstruction 6.4 (2006)
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Design & Play: Weblog Genres of Adolescent Girls in Israel /
Carmel L. Vaisman
Abstract: Unique circumstances existing in the Israeli blogsphere have attracted many adolescent girls. In recent years, a growing number of weblogs belonging to adolescent girls are challenging blogging norms, creating a tension between written narratives and performance narratives that combine design and play practices. Existing weblog research has explored the connections between gender, linguistic features, and genre but has not examined visual blog genres, nor questioned the role of features inherent in weblog software in the formation of gendered blog genres and blogging norms. Based on a work-in-progress of a larger scope, I shall argue that design supportive features distinctive to Israeli weblog software are directly responsible for the emergence of new blog genres and blogging norms, as well as for attracting many adolescent girls to blogging.
<1> A weblog is a non-synchronous multimedia format resembling a home page but with a "pulse" consisting of constant updating and distinctive technological conventions and crystallizing norms such as personal and informal journal-type writing, updating in reverse-chronology, permanent links (permalinks), inter-blog links (trackbacks), and response-mechanisms.
<1> In recent years, weblogs have captured the attention of academic researchers who have raised conceptual questions regarding the weblog as a genre (Herring, Scheidt, Bonus & Wright, 2005; Miller & Shepherd, 2004 ( , how weblogs create communities (Blanchard, 2004; Flynn, 2003; Lampa, 2004), the identity of bloggers and their motives (Carl, 2003), and the influence of blogging on the media and on political agenda setting (Gill, 2004; Gallo, 2004).
<1> Blogging has been framed as grassroots journalism (Gallo, 2004) as a result of individual coverage initiatives of bloggers during crisis events. The profile of the American blogger was of a young, white, educated male, often a web-veteran (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2005). Herring, Kouper, Scheidt and Wright (2004) found that it is mostly men who write in the filter-type news-report blog genre, while the majority of U.S. bloggers are adolescent girls who write in the journal-type blog genre. They claimed academic research and media coverage pay more attention to the news-report genre and to male bloggers, since personal journals are traditionally identified with women and perceived as non-serious writing.
<1> Further research regarding adolescent weblog audiences and their linguistic features (Scheidt, 2006; Huffaker, 2005) supports the claim of significant growth in the number of American adolescent girls who blog, and found that boundaries are blurring between male and female stylistic features. In their most recent overall study, Herring and Paolillo (2006) found no significant correlation between the stylistic features of weblogs and gender. None of the above, however, addressed the role of design features inherent in weblog software in the development of gendered blog genres and blogging norms.
A Capsule History of the Israeli Blogsphere
<1> In Israel, 3.7 million residents (52% of the population) are connected to the Internet. Of the Jewish Israeli households, 71% are connected to the Internet, 94% of them using a fast connection (cable or ADSL). Of Israeli Internet users, 55% are male, although males represent only 48% of the population overall. Regarding age, 62% of Israeli internet users are younger than 39, although this group represents only 46% of the population (TIM, 31/7/06). There is no data available regarding how many of them blog or know what a weblog is, though blogging was not listed as one of their top seven reported uses of the Internet.
<1> The blog phenomenon formally emerged in the Israeli web-sphere in August 2001 with the creation of the Isra-Blog hosting website, which remains the larger of two active popular blog-hosting websites in Israel today. More than 278,000 blogs were created on the Isra-Blog website between August 2001 and August 2006. Approximately 120,000 of them are still available online, but only around 20,000 are actively updated (at least once a month).
<1> Before 2001, the Internet-savvy were already writing English-language weblogs on American websites or opening scattered personal weblogs in Hebrew on private domains. On the web, however, there is no such thing as a vacuum, and the void on Isra-Blog was filled by adolescents. From a sample of 44,000 blogs providing the gender of their authors, 27% were male and 73% were female. This data was sampled in August 2005 and again in August 2006, when 88,000 blogs were sampled and a similar balance was measured. From a sample of 27,000 blogs providing a probable birth date, the distribution of ages was as follows:
|Under 15 years old||
|15-19 years old||
|20-29 years old||
|30-39 years old||
|Above 40 years old||
<1> These data show a steep drop in the age of bloggers and a significantly increased representation of female bloggers. In August 2006 age definitions were sampled more specifically with the following results: 17% were under the age of 13, 57% were between 14 and 17, 16% were between 18 to 21 and only 5% were between 22 and 29, 2% were between 30 and 39, and 3% were over 40.
<1> In 2005, the second Israeli blog-hosting website, Tapuz-People, emerged from an active community and forums infrastructure, and was thus expected to reflect its community demographics rather than comply with the blogging profile that was taking shape. Even under those circumstances, however, 51% of their bloggers are between 11 and 20 years old and 55% are female. A careful study of these variables taken together may support the conclusion that the dominant profile of the Israeli blogger is an adolescent girl.
<1> Israeli weblogs are structurally distinctive from American weblogs in a number of significant ways that affect the emergence of blogging norms. For example, all weblogs feature comments as opposed to only 43% in the U.S. (Herring, Scheidt, Bonus & Wright, 2005). Further, while the comments on the main U.S. weblogs have a simple linear display, on Israeli sites they are branched, a format that encourages multi-discussions. The most conspicuous feature differentiating "Isra-Blog" from both American weblogs and its local competition, however, is the support of advanced design features, some available only for paid pro-bloggers.
<1> Both Tapuz-People and American Blogger hosting website provide pre-designed templates for bloggers to choose from. Isra-Blog offers a selection of tools for creating a basic personal template and enables the replacement of HTML codes for creation of original templates with almost no restrictions. In addition, Isra-Blog supports permanent image displays by enabling the headline of a permalink to be represented by an iconic image. Bloggers started using this function for permanent visual displays without linking them anywhere outside of the blog, and called these images "buttons" (although they usually lead nowhere when pressed).
<1> Finding a carelessly designed blog on Isra-Blog is a rarity. You could press the throw-me-to-a-random-blog link three hundred times and get only a couple of blogs that lack original graphics. I shall argue that the design-supportive features distinctive to Isra-Blog are directly responsible for the emergence of new blog genres and blogging norms, as well as for attracting large numbers of adolescent girls to blogging.
Winning the Blog Beauty Contest
<1> By August 2004 it was becoming evident that a growing proportion of adolescent girls chose to invest in their weblog design rather than in its content. A growing number of weblogs were actively posting self-made graphics, distancing the weblog from any identifiable journal-type genre. Complaints on this practice and the stigmatization of these girls as illiterate and incompetent were one of the main posting subjects of the Israeli blogsphere in the following months.
<1> "Blogs are something to read but also something to look at" (Badger, 2004). We are willing to accept that fact only when it comes to artistic photo blogs. The emerging genre of adolescent girls expressing everyday life through image design was rejected by most bloggers and labeled as an illegitimate, meaningless, or "non-blog" activity. Graphic design is a professional practice that requires professional know-how and some HTML code basics. This know-how wasn't readily available to any adolescent girl, and yet, this visual form of literacy and competence wasn't recognized by other bloggers as relevant to blogging.
<1> The know-how problem was solved by the girls through developing a playful system of sharing and exchange practices in ways that resemble collection practices (Danet & Katriel, 1989) and previously researched women's online playfulness and performance practices (Danet, 2001). Many girls played with design software and taught themselves to use it, posted effective tips and offered free designs for others, while continuing to improve with the help of similar blogs. At present, 4573 weblogs, 4% of the total, define their blog purpose as designing "buttons" and supplying designs and tips for other blogs.
<1> The "traditional" linking and communication norms seen on weblogs became influenced by design practices when many of the "design" blogs mentioned above started daily design contests, bridging between the participating blogs. Soon there were "Blog Beauty" and "Blog Oscar" contests, where the prizes were a desired design or a paid pro-account providing statistics and advanced design features. The online inter-blog contest ritual is distinctive to the Israeli blogsphere and seems to be a virtual contemporary form of child-play rituals and exchange practices identified as distinctive to Israeli children (Katriel, 1999).
<1> In 2005, when Tapuz-People launched their weblogs site, they offered free access to statistics and complete backup and transfer of former blog content. Their templates supported images in posts but were not able to handle designed templates, "buttons," or original template designs. Some of the written-blog genre authors moved their blogs to the competing website to get free statistics, but few adolescent girls did so because design capabilities and playful exchange practices are not available on the new website. The number of active weblogs (posting at least once a month) who own paid pro-accounts on Isra-Blog is quite high and has been stable for the past three years, regardless of the attractive free competition. This data further supports the argument that its distinctive design possibilities are the key to Isra-Blog's growing size, popularity, and stable demographics.
Discussion and Preliminary Conclusions
<1> It has been recognized that what characterizes the weblog as a genre depends on its ability to blend personal narrative with performance narrative (Scheidt, 2006) and that blog space has an exchange relationship character (Langellier & Peterson, 2004). These insights, however, were limited to the performance and the exchange relationship characteristics of written narratives. In the case of the Israeli blogsphere, a tension is evident between written narratives and the performance narratives that combine image design and playful exchange practices.
<1> From an institutionalized communication perspective, weblogs are often framed as having subversive content and being a post-modern threat (Gallo, 2004; Carroll, 2004). From a structural perspective, however, one could claim that it is a conservative genre, helping to re-establish the connection between image, text, and place (Badger, 2004), restoring and re-enforcing written genres in a medium that has already gone multimedia. Israeli adolescent girls who were born into the multimedia age and demonstrate low affinity to the written word could therefore be seen as incompetent, but can also be perceived as having alternative skills and positioned as subversive.
<1> Many of the youngest girls collect and post various images of dolls, referred to as "dollies." This new "playing with dolls" virtual practice based on visual pleasure requires further study. I've seen some American adolescent girls' blogs posting similar collections; however, American adolescent weblog research has so far focused on written genres and has not identified the phenomenon. This genre cannot be ignored statistically in Israel, and it seems to rely on features inherent to the weblog software provided by Isra-Blog that supports the described practices.
<1> find it hard to believe that so many adolescent girls show a profound interest in graphic design as a hobby. It is my hypothesis that the ability of children to express themselves is no longer limited to the written word or traditional photography, and that these girls experience their lives in the digital age and make meaning of it through image design and play. Recent research in multi-modal literacy (Kress, 2003; Kress & Jewitt 2003; Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2001) has demonstrated new ways to interpret meanings over different media and formats, mostly used by children in the digital age. In my current work-in-progress, I am applying multi-modality as a content analysis interpretive methodology in hopes of learning more about the potential of the weblog as a genre and the ways it offers young women the opportunity to make meaning of their lives.
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TIM Internet statistics, 31/7/06; http://www.internetworldstats.com
 All data queries were run on the website's back stage complete database, sampled in August each year, courtesy of the website owner. [^]
 Some bloggers treat the birth date data field as a joke so that some are listed as being one- year-old and some as one hundred. The probable range was 8-80. The youngest authenticated age was nine. [^]
 The category was self-defined when bloggers made a check next to this category. We should take into account that there may be many more purely design blogs whose owners did not bother to check that category or checked others instead. [^]
 The exact percentage is known to me but I was asked not to publicly disclose it since it is confidential commercial information. [^]
 This statement is based on additional analysis of linguistic features in the larger scope work-in-progress and an academic paper I wrote in Hebrew on the subject. [^]