Back in February 2001, Barry Wellman of the University of Toronto wrote an article entitled, "Physical Place and Cyber Place: The Rise of Personalized Networking. You can find a copy here. I just re-read the article, and found it extremely valuable. I highly recommend it.
One of the the things it got me thinking about is this. Is a blog (as an example of social media) a place, a person or a role? Let me explain.
As you know, I believe the task of public relations today is network building, or nurturing and expanding the growing web of connections of organizational stakeholders (customers, employees, investors, media, analysts, competitors, etc.). I also believe that the primary activity that all of us who participate somehow in the social media landscape are pursuing--be it through blogging, commenting on blogs, posting photos on Flickr, adding comments to YouTube videos, even participating in the old-style bulletin boards--is the creation of our digital identities.
So, let's take the example of blogs and compare a blog to a website to get a better sense of what I am asking here. A blog is written by either a single author or a group of authors. Regardless of whether it is singular or a group effort, the blog itself expresses a certain identity of its writer(s) based on its topics. Throughout the multiple posts over time, the identity of the author(s) becomes more and more clear. So, in a sense, you could say that a blog (particularly a single-author blog) represents a person more than a place. A website by contrast -- particularly corporate websites -- is clearly a place you visit to get information. This is one of the reasons we blog evangelists encourage companies to blog -- people like to connect with people, not some abstract corporate entity.
But it is certainly a little strange to say that a blog is a person, because in most cases, it only reflects certain roles that a person is playing, be it a professional role in the case of business blogging, a political role for pundit blogs, a family role for mommy blogs, and so on. And it is even more strange to say that a thing is a person. However, any type of technology one uses in communications certainly puts a barrier between a person and the one or more others he/she is communicating with. And even straight up in-person conversations only really operate at the role level, vs. at some (perhaps mythical) whole-person level. So perhaps my question isn't so strange.
I think you can safely say that a blog is a role (in the perhaps awkward language I am using here). To be more precise, it is a tool for performing a role. As we know, however, as technology tools become so ingrained and familiar in our everyday existence, they cease to be noticed. I don't think of my eyeglasses as a technological tool that mediates between me and the world, but that is, in fact, what they are. Using them (used to them), I am a cyborg. Can I say the same about a blog? Has it become so ingrained a tool for me that it is encompassed inside my very identity? Not yet, I'd say for me. But it is certainly possible it could become so. I notice I think in terms of blog posts now (and have for at least a couple of years). I might be getting a little off track here, but asking the question, is a blog a role, may not be as awkward as it initially sounds.
Wellman wrote on p. 22-23 of his article (referenced above):
"Online communication also extends the reach of networks, allowing more ties to be maintained and fostering specialized relationships in networks. People are increasingly known and related to only in terms of particular aspects of their persona: role-to-role instead of person-to-person, much less person-in-group."
If we think about blogs and other social media as role-playing tools, I think it provides us with some interesting food for thought. For one, classic demographic descriptions start to become problematic. We need to know psychographic traits instead. We need to understand what roles people are playing when and respond appropriately (which, as we know, is a skill sorely needed online). It has significant ramifications for our network building activities, which need to focus on roles vs. people. And it helps us to avoid falling into utopian/dystopian traps of "technology saves the world/technology destroys the world" statements, as we know roles, while important, aren't the whole story when it comes to personal identity.
So what do you think? I am just sounding this out now, using my blog as public notebook as I have in the past, so I do apologize if this seems a bit half-baked. But I think there is indeed something important here. I look forward to hearing from you.