Distribution Project – Pamphlets and Blogs

The publishing technologies of pamphlets and blogs have both had a noticeable effect of the public sphere. The public sphere is a term used generally in society to refer to information available to and discussed in the public, but has a more precise connotation in academic writing. There, it denotes a “concept for thinking about how democratic culture should work” (McKee 2005, p. vii). Jürgen Habermas, an eminent public sphere theorist, describes the bourgeois public sphere as “the sphere of private people come together as a public…to engage [public authorities] in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor.” (Habermas 1991, p.27). By giving a brief overview of the histories of blogging and pamphleteering and examples of what instigated their prominence in society a context will be established that can therefore be used to examine the effect of these technologies upon the public sphere.

As is the case with many literary forms the word pamphlet has never been satisfactorily defined. However, the main qualities that differentiate pamphlets from books are their paper covers and length of less than eighty pages (Wyllie 1955) Originally, pamphlets were seen to be mainly short, quarto books. (Raymond 2003) Here, ‘quarto’ refers to the sheets used in the production. They were folded twice and thus lower in stature than the once-folded sheets making up a folio, for when pamphlets first appeared amongst the ephemeral literature found in the streets early modern societies they were distrusted and considered insignificant and unworthy. (Raymond 2003). In fact, when Thomas Bodley founded a library at Oxford in 1603 he wanted pamphlets to be excluded (Shepard 1973).

However, this changed. One of the main events that highlighted the capability of pamphlets to create controversy and stir up public opinions was the Martin Marprelate pamphlet war of the sixteenth century. Written under a pseudonym the Marprelate tracts trumpeted the Presbyterian cause and sparked in the Elizabethan state officials a corresponding anti-Martinist campaign. (Black 1997) Though the Martinists were fighting a losing battle, against not only state opinion but that of the public as well, it the “style, not his arguments on church government, that would ultimately have the greater impact.” (Black 1997, p. 708) The amalgamation of fiction, colloquial prose and references to everyday life in the tracts and the sheer infamy that surrounded them enlightened others to the social and public possibilities of pamphleteering (Randall 2004). The French Civil Wars were another way in which the pamphlet was cemented into the fabric of everyday English social life.  While news concerning wars had been published before the French Civil Wars resulted in increase in both production of pamphlets and regularity of the pamphlets produced. (Randall 2004)

While pamphlets began as an unreliable and trivial news source this changed dramatically over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The “pamphlet became a pre-eminent model of public speech, a way of conceiving of the power of the word” (Raymond 2003, p.26) and part of everyday life, exercising a huge amount of social influence. Halasz (1997) saw them as having an effect in two main ways. Firstly, pamphlets offer access to historically and culturally important discourses and secondly to topical and ephemeral information and entertainment, the latter is also confirmed by Shepard (1973). Both of these are extremely important in the functioning of the public sphere.

The term blog was derived from “weblog”, which was in turn a combination of the words web and log. Weblog was coined by Jorn Barger in December 1997 (Perlmutter 2008) and has since given rise to terms such as the tongue in cheek ‘blogosphere,’ the collection of all blogs and bloggers. While there had been some technology for sharing ideas and thoughts available previous to the existence of blogs, such as bulletin board systems (BBSs), closed and sometimes paid systems could not compete with the open and accessible nature of the blogs, not the mention to lure of the hyperlink (Barlow 2007.)  Hyperlinks allow users to move from blog to blog, discussion to discussion and idea to idea with ease. Early technologies released by the companies Pitas and Pyra labs meant making your own blog was relatively simple (Perlmutter 2008). In the words of  Farkas (2007, p. 12) blogs are a “low-threshold technology” and do not require advanced knowledge of information technology. Today, creating a blog using a  host like Blogger (Blogger 2010) is as simple as entering a name and an email address. The popularity of blogs grew so much in fact that Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year, based on Internet search data, for 2004 was blog (Farkas 2007). Estimates in 2005 saw the size of the blogosphere doubling every five months.

Similarly to the publishing technology of pamphlets and pamphleteering there are several well-known events that brought the possibilities inherent in blogs to light, many of which are concerned with politics. One such example is that of the resignation of Senator Trent Lott, whose comments were purported to have racial undertones (Barlow 2007).  The major news media, for all intents and purposes, ignored this but the blogger refused to relinquish their grip. The combined pressure of the blogs eventually led to Lott’s resignation.

Thus it can be seen that emergence of both blogs and pamphlets were significant events. McKee (2005) comments upon how it is generally agreed that Western societies changed dramatically during the seventeenth century, with print being a main affecter of change. However, beginning nineteenth century and certainly by twentieth century conversation had become a product in the marketplace (Halasz 1997).  When Barlow’s (2008, p. 3) comment that the supposed reclaiming of the public sphere “ through the blogs is, in some resects, nothing more than a return to the type of debate and journalism practiced in the United States before the tremendous growth of the commercial news media” is considered it could be said that activity in the public sphere simply had a brief rest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries before awakening again in the advent of the Internet. Whether the same type of activity was present in each time period remains to be seen.

One similarity between the two publishing technologies is that both wrested power away from ‘top-down’ institutions, in the case of pamphlets this was the state and the monarchy where appropriate, for blogs it was the huge mainstream media organisations. As Halasz (1997, p. 165) points out “print is, from its inception, allied with those sites and practices of high literacy.” This was astoundingly obvious in early modern life where books were costly and meant only for the monks, scholars and noble class. However, pamphlets were cheap and easily accessible to all classes. Here, the power taken from the authority was not merely the power of information or the ability to influence public opinion, though that power was certainly present as well, but the power of the actual written word (Raymond 2003). The increase in literacy that resulted actually facilitated the construction of a definable public sphere, where events and thoughts pertinent to the community could be reported on and debated.  With blogs on the other hand, the changes wrought in the public sphere in terms of power have largely been due to the information available. With the commercialisation of the mainstream media many people began looking for alternate sources of news. Aaron Barlow describes a personal experience of his where the events of 9/11 highlighted the “inability [of the mainstream media] to understand just how they were viewed by the public and their unwillingness to accept responsibility for their cynical reputation” (Barlow 2007, p.115) and caused him to turn to the blogs for information during an event that would shaped the history of years to come. The blogs are  “carving out a new place in the universe of organization and authority” (Barlow 2008, p.xi) and once again allowing the public sphere to carry out its intended function by giving people the information they need to make decisions about their society. In a world where “two-third of Americans now believe that traditional journalism is ‘out of touch’ (Loewenstein 2008, p.7) it is easy to see why blogs had such a dramatic effect on where citizens looked for information.

However, as is often pointed out by the critics of blogs and also by their supporters, the information provided is generally unreliable. The ability to post anonymously and the ease with which seemingly sound sources can be fabricated does result in a lot of false information. Furthermore, the content published using blogs is usually considered to be subjective. The point that must be remembered here is that this passion and emotion is expected. The function of the public sphere is mainly to discuss, not simply to report.  Barlow (2007) celebrates this lack of objectivity. The lack of hidden agendas can strangely increase our confidence in a blogger. Expertise is of little consequence in the blogosphere, instead reputations are built on content posted and opinions contributed in the virtual world. The hierarchy of prestige is radically rearranged as conversations and discussions flow, an example of democracy at work. This is not the case with pamphleteering. While it is true that pamphlets were not objective, the war pamphlets that reported only good news based on personal letters from the battlefield is proof of this (Randall 2004), it was still people with the necessary funds who were printing the pamphlets. A pamphlet could stimulate oral conversations at taverns and market stalls but there was no direct way for the reader to reply. The only written conversation taking place was the usual ‘call and response’ from the two opposing parties generally seen in pamphlet wars. Therefore, while pamphleteering did allow for the construction of a public sphere it did not allow for anywhere near as much distribution contribution of content as the blogosphere.

Finally, there is the physical nature of the material produced and it consequences for circulation and preservation. Blogs create digital content, and as Barlow (2007, p. 103) so neatly sums up “on the Internet, nothing disappears.” Thus, an archive of the public sphere is automatically created and the ‘I told you so response’ is much more effective. Furthermore, circulation is completely simplified. All that is needed is an Internet connection and this has broadened the public sphere. Discussion around the globe is facilitated by the interactive and digital qualities of the blog. Obviously, this is not the case with pamphlets. They are both limited in their circulation and ephemeral in their physicality. Combined with the scorn originally placed on the pamphlet this means that only a fraction of the actual number remain.  Also, this meant that the public sphere only extended so far and was concentrated in the cities. However, both technologies did allow a wider audience than before to be reached, through the power of new technology.

It is undeniable that both blogs and pamphlets as publishing technologies have had an effect on the public sphere. The quote “pamphlets are…ubiquitous and polymorphous, they imply a generalized access to the circulation of printed discourse and thus open us the social space that will come to be conceptualized as a public sphere” (Halasz 1997, p.4) could easily refer to blogs by changing the word  ‘printed’ to ‘virtual’. However, the ‘marketplace of print’ is a very different location to the online world that exists today and as seen above, this is bound to alter the effects of each technology on the public sphere.

References:

Barlow, A. (2007). The rise of the blogosphere. Westport, Praeger Publishers.

Barlow, A. (2008). Blogging America: The New Public Sphere. Westport, Praeger Publishers.

Black, J. (1997). “The Rhetoric of Reaction: The Martin Marprelate Tracts (1588-89), Anti- Martinism, and the Uses of Print in Early Modern England.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 28(3): 707-725.

Blogger (2010). “Blogger: Create your free blog.” Retrieved 6 June, 2010, from https://www.google.com/accounts/NewAccount?service=blogger&continue=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.blogger.com%2Floginz%3Fd%3D%252Fcreate-blog.g%26a%3DADD_SERVICE_FLAG&hl=en&sendvemail=true&followup=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.blogger.com%2Floginz%3Fd%3D%252Fhome%26a%3DSERVICE_ONLY&naui=8.

Farkas, M. G. (2007). Blogs. Social software in libraries: building collaboration, communication and community online. New Jersey, Information Today, Inc.: 11-19.

Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere: an inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Trans. Burger, T. Cambridge, MIT Press.

Halasz, A. (1997). The marketplace of print. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Loewenstein, A. (2008). Introduction: getting on the blogging bandwagon. The Blogging Revolution. Carlton, Melbourne University Publishing: 1-15.

McKee, A. (2005). The public sphere: an introduction. Cambridge, The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.

Perlmutter, D. D. (2008). The Ascent of Blogs. Blogwars. New York, Oxford University Press, Inc.: 61-108.

Randall, D. (2004). “Review: Recent Studies in Print Culture: News, Propaganda, and Ephemera.” Huntington Library Quarterly 67(3): 457-472.

Raymond, J. (2003). Pamphlets and pamphleteering in early modern Britain. Cambridge, Cambride University Press.

Shepard, L. (1973). The history of street literature. Newton Abbot, David & Charles.

Wyllie, J. C. (1955). “Pamphlets, broadsides, clippings and posters.” Library Trends 4(2): 195-202.

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