Notes on “academic blogging”

by Chris Bertram on February 27, 2014

I had a fun day on Tuesday, as my friend Stuart White had invited me to speak at a conference on “academic blogging”, to be precise “Academic Blogging: Political Analysis in the Digital Age” at Oxford. There were some great talks and conversations, but, to me, something was quite weird about it. When we started Crooked Timber back in 2003, universities didn’t really want to know about blogging, it was a fundamentally unserious activity and a distraction from the central tasks of teaching and scholarship. There was also, recognizably, a “blogosphere” composed of sundry citizen-journalists, cranks and enthusiasts (and a few academics) whose members linked and interacted with one another (often in quite civil terms, despite deep differences). Now universities, at least British universities, want to get in on the act, as “impact” and “outreach” are suddenly important. Hence, the sudden impulse to fund blogs backed by universities, or university department or consortiums of universities.

I wish all of those engaged in these ventures every success, but to my mind, blogging-as-corporate-outreach and blogging-as-research-dissemination rather miss the point (never mind missing the decade). At the conference, there was lots of discussion of business-models and markets, of how many full-time staff were necessaary to run a decent blog, of budgets and (of course) of “reputation management”. And then, very much in tandem with this, there was much complaint about academics who are unable to write a blog post without it reading like a book chapter and whose every sub-clause had to be accompanied by a battery of supporting footnotes.

To be fair, may of the new initiatives, such as The Conversation, Politics in Spires, and the LSE Blogs are great, content-wise. But they do labour under the burden of being born in a different web environment. Much of the back-and-forth of the early blogosphere has been displaced by twitter and Facebook and so there’s inevitably a tendency for what is produced on blogs to be merely outward-facing pronoucements, reports of research or online op-ed columns. I’m occasionally annoyed by our commenters at CT, but the fact that we have a community here means that we retain that sense of conversation. Rosemary Bechler of OpenDemocracy (a site I very much admire) gave a great talk about constipated academics saving themselves and their thoughts for someone in the future (who?) and about the conflict between the corporate urge to restrict conversation through IP and the sharing, remixing and recycling that’s the natural to-and-fro of ideas on the internet.

For me (and for us, I hope) it was always for fun or it was nothing. There is a connection between blogging and academic teaching and research, but it isn’t really about “dissemination”, it is about putting tentative ideas out there, about chatting to people, about learning that someone in some other field is working on a similar problem (but you read different journals, so didn’t know of one another’s existence before). And it is also about hearing about new books and new writings and maybe getting to go places you wouldn’t otherwise have gone to. And then there’s just goofing about and discussing comics and pop music.

Over on the corporate side: there’s much anxiety about “quality control”, managing the flow of posts and who has the authority to decide what gets published. Over here, we’ve worked pretty well as an anarchic collective (a fact that upset a well-known anarchist) and nobody gets to tell anybody else what to say. If you write a duff post (and we all do) then it is, paradoxically, both gone in a week and there on the internet for all time.

During the conference, I joked on twitter that Crooked Timber started as a skiffle band but that academic blogging had now entered the Stock, Aitken and Waterman period. How long before the X-Factor phase kicks in, with senior university administrators in the role of Simon Cowell?

{ 60 comments }

1

Jacob T. Levy 02.27.14 at 12:07 pm

Hear, hear. (I’m reminded of this recent Will Wilkinson post on the old days.) I still feel a real sense of camaraderie with those who were at it back then, even across ideological and disciplinary divides.

2

Neville Morley 02.27.14 at 1:46 pm

One of the many great things about blogs and microblogging is the free exchange of ideas without feeling the need obsessively to give credit for every single point; I imagine that corporate oversight will tend, if not to insist on monetisation of academics’ online writing, then at any rate to demand a strict demarcation of responsibility and indication of intellectual property. After all, the X-Factor exists to make money for Cowell, not for the acts except incidentally.

3

Anarcissie 02.27.14 at 2:16 pm

Actually, one of the things I’ve liked about blogs, forums, and the like, has been the possibility of asking for, and getting, sources and references. In the old days, material in the newspapers, magazines, posters pasted on walls, rants in bars, radio, and television, didn’t have this. But I’m coming from a different territory than most of you, I guess.

4

Neville Morley 02.27.14 at 2:24 pm

I wasn’t thinking of sources/references in that sense, but the occasionally OTT covering of one’s back: “I got this idea from X, Y came up with the X-Factor joke, but this half of the sentence is definitely mine…”.

5

Russell Arben Fox 02.27.14 at 2:35 pm

For me (and for us, I hope) it was always for fun or it was nothing. There is a connection between blogging and academic teaching and research, but it isn’t really about “dissemination”, it is about putting tentative ideas out there, about chatting to people, about learning that someone in some other field is working on a similar problem (but you read different journals, so didn’t know of one another’s existence before).

Yes and yes! Blogging was, from the start, always mostly about getting know what’s happening in your and other disciplines, and learning from those who were similarly curious about others’ happenings. In one form or another, may it long continue.

6

Straightwood 02.27.14 at 2:42 pm

It is hard to believe that the German university model was once a radical innovation, since it is now the template for our most august academic institutions. The onset of rigid thinking and reactionary conservatism is not restricted to the political domain; it has afflicted universities, which are paying lip service to a digital communications revolution which they earnestly wish would go away.

The only practical future for the ivy covered campuses currently associated with the concept of the university is repurposing to serve the civic needs of the communities to which they are geographically tied. The future of advanced university education is global faculties serving a global student body. The disciplines will not longer observe geographic and national boundaries, nor will the student bodies.

It is a sad irony that most of the highly intelligent and knowledgeable faculty and administrators at the world’s universities steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the impending changes to their institutions indicated by the simple extrapolation of obvious trends.

7

LFC 02.27.14 at 3:15 pm

Jacob T. Levy @1:

I still feel a real sense of camaraderie with those who were at it back then, even across ideological and disciplinary divides.

I feel no camaraderie with those who were at it back then, since I didn’t start blogging until mid-’08. (Btw I don’t have a Facebook account and I don’t tweet, and I have no current plans to change that.) This comment, of course, is fairly pointless, but if J. Levy feels moved to express his nostalgia for the good old days in line with the OP’s nostalgic mood, I feel moved to express my lack of interest in such (not infrequent) expressions of nostalgia.

8

Widmerpool 02.27.14 at 3:21 pm

Duff Post, I love that band.

9

LFC 02.27.14 at 3:22 pm

From the OP:

There is a connection between blogging and academic teaching and research, but it isn’t really about “dissemination”, it is about putting tentative ideas out there, about chatting to people, about learning that someone in some other field is working on a similar problem (but you read different journals, so didn’t know of one another’s existence before). And it is also about hearing about new books and new writings and maybe getting to go places you wouldn’t otherwise have gone to. And then there’s just goofing about and discussing comics and pop music.

And then there’s something that Chris Bertram does a fair amount of, it seems to me, at Crooked Timber, but which he doesn’t mention here: namely, comment on the news of the day (see his most recent post on Ukraine, e.g.). There’s nothing wrong with that, indeed it’s valuable, but it doesn’t really fit squarely into any of the categories mentioned in the above quote.

10

Chris Bertram 02.27.14 at 3:33 pm

But LFC, I didn’t post on Ukraine because I know much about Ukraine (I don’t) but because the issue of how to think of “the people” in relation to the state, and the attitude of the state towards large cultural/ethnic/linguistic minorities came up. And that’s an issue that I have given some thought to. So think of it as an intervention on the basis of academic interests.

11

Donald A. Coffin 02.27.14 at 3:35 pm

Straightwood’s “…the ivy covered campuses …” puts me in mind of the Tom Lehrer lyric about “…ivy covered professors in ivy covered halls…” Which is, thankfully, one thing the best blogs are not.

12

Rakesh Bhandari 02.27.14 at 3:47 pm

It would probably be helpful to have a discussion of the possibilities and dangers in the homophily that internet networking seems to encourage, even though participants are often not aware of it.

13

Corey Robin 02.27.14 at 4:18 pm

This is a great post, Chris. I had no idea that things had gotten this bad. It confirms something a writer at Jacobin said the other day in a thoughtful critique of my response to Nick Kristof: blogging and other forms of public engagement have now become yet another task that academics, particularly younger academics, have to shoulder.

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/02/the-work-of-public-work/

14

LFC 02.27.14 at 4:52 pm

CB @10
ok, I see.
In that sense I suppose much or the majority of the CT posting is indeed based on, or grows out of, the posters’ academic interests.

15

TM 02.27.14 at 5:49 pm

“The future of advanced university education is global faculties serving a global student body. The disciplines will not longer observe geographic and national boundaries, nor will the student bodies.”

Count me skeptic. What was that figure I recently read in Harper’s? (Fetching paper copy, looking up p. 9)

“Percentage pf students enrolled in a MOOC who view no more than one lecture: 49
Percentage who complete the course: 4″

The printed book predates most universities and everything one can learn at a university (or from an online course) can be learned from books. Why did people still think universities were a good idea? In the US, *since the advent of the internet* higher education has been able to raise prices far more than any other economic sector. I expect there’s a bubble waiting to burst but I don’t see evidence of the internet’s much predicted profound influence on higher education.

16

Anarcissie 02.27.14 at 6:11 pm

TM 02.27.14 at 5:49 pm @ 15 — As with many books, the problem with the Internet is low cost and wide availability, whereas established-order academic institutions must necessarily be part of the class system, which implies restriction and sequestration of knowledge, recognition, and socialization.

17

roy belmont 02.27.14 at 6:52 pm

I used to read The New Yorker cover-to-cover in the days before…now, er, then.
Some time in 2000 the reason why I was reading the NYer so obsessively passed over into the digital, the web.
In 1999, though, still voraciously consuming that “dead tree” mag, there was a little one paragraph filler thing, called something like “web sites we’re watching”.
Robot Wisdom.
Sci-fi me I was on that as soon as I could get to a computer. At a university near-by. Little 15″ screen Macs, and cludgy ratchety Windows98 machines.
He was going around all over this thing called the internet, and keeping a record of where and what he saw, with little descriptions and links.
A log of his activities. He called it a “weblog”. Way before I got there. His coinage. Shortened to… yes.
Others were doing much the same thing, but it’s his word, and his example. For a lot of us. I hit Evan Williams’ blogspot on his recommend, in 2000. I saw the entry of the word “blogosphere” and the mild debate ensuant about its clunky possible efficacy as descriptor.
What happened to Barger the Robot Wisdom guy online is really illustrative of what makes me often seem like a troll here. Indignation at the unfairness of it. And a refusal to take shit from the smug assholes who did that to him.
But the information, the opening and opening out of everything. Link-search-link-search. Wow.
Really quickly it was apparent journalists were moving toward whatever that was, pens and notebooks in hand. It was new, and newsishy, and they were obviously trying to come back with marketable packages from it, reductions that attempted to catch the gist, and it was just so pathetically clear they were incapable. It was way to big to fit their abilities and the constraining demands of their jobs.
So much of what was there, for me, was missing from their take – mostly political, novelty, print-analogous, basically a reiteration of their own familiar turf, only digital.
There was a thing called “honeyguide”. There was wood s lot. UFO Breakfast Recipients.
All kinds of things that never saw the glaring light of consensus mainstream day.
But in the larger older realm it was like the subjective experience of these “explorers” was all there was out there.
Hey I went to the internet, and this is what it is!
As opposed to”This is what I saw”.
Facebook’s like that for a lot folks who came online actively in the late 00’s.
That’s the internet web! We know what that is.
But I was constantly being reminded that it was huger, what that was, and way beyond even my ability to look at it enough to pin it, let alone have the vocabulary for it. And I was, fortunately or not, able to spend a lot of time there. Here.
Elephants, blind men, story.
It’s natural enough, you see the web as what it is to you. Same-same with the world, the real one.
The difference would be arrogance versus humility. Trying to describe the contents of the library versus a bookshelf in someone’s house.
And what happened to Robot Wisdom in the still relatively invisible corner of what this was at that time, man that wasn’t right.
The vitality of free and open communal information sharing is what has nearly passed by these institutions, it’s what threatens them, and it should.
JSTOR. Aaron Schwartz.
Control.

18

TM 02.27.14 at 7:02 pm

“established-order academic institutions must necessarily be part of the class system, which implies restriction and sequestration of knowledge, recognition, and socialization.”

I don’t know whether that must “necessarily” be so but as a matter of fact it is. And that’s precisely why they won’t go away anytime soon: People who pay for college don’t pay for the education – which in principle they could get much cheaper from books or the internet – they pay for the degree and the prestige it entails.

19

Colin Danby 02.27.14 at 7:15 pm

Yeah – the best bloggers have distinct, individual voices, a willingness to be wrong in public, and the capacity for irony and self-mockery — virtues incompatible with how universities present themselves to the public.

I mean, it’s clearly full of smart, earnest stuff, but you go to https://theconversation.com/uk and read its self-description as “A new journalism project featuring content from the sharpest academic minds” and you sort of cringe, no?

20

loren 02.27.14 at 8:25 pm

You bloggers, you. Before the blogosphere there was Usenet.

That was radical space.

(… at least, before the “cheap toner cartridges!” and “herbal v1@gra!” spam did it in for good).

21

LFC 02.27.14 at 8:38 pm

TM @18:
People who pay for college don’t pay for the education – which in principle they could get much cheaper from books or the internet – they pay for the degree and the prestige it entails.

So you think one never gets anything from being exposed to teachers’ and fellow students’ perspectives, sense of what’s important, etc., and that someone sitting at home plowing through a syllabus, or taking an internet course, could learn exactly as much?

It’s worth noting, btw, that far from going in Straightwood’s preferred direction, my guess or impression is that those universities that can afford it seem to be doubling down on the model, the ideal, the ideology — whatever you prefer to call it — of residential education. At least some of the institutions, I think, that pour lots of money into renovating student residences do so not mainly for marketing purposes but because they believe that a particular model of student living contributes to education broadly defined. You can, if so inclined, dismiss this as self-serving or false or whatever, but it doesn’t seem to be going away, and the MOOCs etc are not seen as replacements for but rather adjuncts to the core function of the institutions, which remains, for many of them, the residential model.

I happened to notice the other day that the Univ of Virginia is offering a new MOOC on ‘the Age of Jefferson’ overseen by a noted historian. But it’s not mainly for the students in residence, presumably, and UVA is not going to start tearing down those old brick buildings that surround the Lawn or do anything else like that to set Mr. Jefferson twirling in his grave.

22

TM 02.27.14 at 9:06 pm

“So you think one never gets anything from being exposed “

No that’s not what I said.

23

BrendanH 02.27.14 at 9:10 pm

Re loren at 20: disillusioned slashdotters have recently started squatting comp.misc, so the corpse of Usenet is stirring.

24

The Temporary Name 02.27.14 at 9:15 pm

People who pay for college don’t pay for the education – which in principle they could get much cheaper from books or the internet – they pay for the degree and the prestige it entails.

You may want to write a version of this that is true. It might include the word “some”.

25

The Temporary Name 02.27.14 at 9:16 pm

I would like to extend a thank you to our hosts for putting up with us and for the posts.

26

Straightwood 02.27.14 at 9:28 pm

@17

Shorter Roy on the Internet – How can you describe the ocean to pygmies?

27

Metatone 02.27.14 at 9:30 pm

I know I’m in a minority on this, but I find the “camaraderie” of the old days to be extremely counter-productive. It means (as an example) people like Tim Worstall get a free pass on writing all sorts of nonsense, because they are “one of the crew.”

28

shah8 02.27.14 at 9:50 pm

Tim Worstall got his ass handed to him on a regular basis. What went wrong with how the blog works? Good people float, bad people sink like witches.

29

LFC 02.27.14 at 9:53 pm

TM @22
No that’s not what I said

You didn’t say it in so many words, but “which in principle they could get much cheaper” does imply it on a fair reading, I think.

30

LFC 02.27.14 at 9:56 pm

…which is not of course to deny all the obvs. practical/hardheaded/mercenary motives, etc

31

bianca steele 02.27.14 at 10:08 pm

loren @ 20
Great link, but I wonder whether his research includes questions involving how many of the other producers of his data were eleven year olds pretending to be their dads (which he admits, though it’s within the bounds of possibility that he was signing every post “11 and using dad’s account”).

32

Alan Peakall 02.27.14 at 10:16 pm

Whenever I hear the warm nostalgia for the blissful dawn of the blogging era and its cameraderie across ideological boundaries, my inner cynic wonders how much of it was a consequence of each ideologically partisan blogger’s individual illusion that, now that he personally had the opportunity to argue his case, the brilliance of his own exposition of the issues would convert the vast, intelligent, good-faith majority of those who disagreed with him, and detach them from the tiny minority of the bigoted and the dishonest.

Any female reader wishing to object to my sexist pronouns is, of course, free plead guilty to the same arrogance.

33

TM 02.27.14 at 11:07 pm

[LFC: let's not derail this thread. "In principle" is the necessary qualification.I'm not saying that there's no educational value in college. However, the educational value is not what justifies the cost (speaking in the US context). It's the degree and its reputation that justifies the cost.]

34

Anarcissie 02.28.14 at 12:44 am

TM 02.27.14 at 5:49 pm @ 33 — Also, in the prestigious institutions, meeting the right people and learning from direct observation and practice about elite language and fashions.

35

Sumana Harihareswara 02.28.14 at 3:29 am

While reminiscing about the blogs and blogging of yore, I got a comment from someone who basically misses the days when there simply wasn’t so much of it, because then he could feel caught up on everything, like he wasn’t missing anything. Not my view. I’m glad there’s so much of it happening now.

I wonder whether we’ll see more splitting of academic blogging into the pseudonymous and the official?

36

Joeb 02.28.14 at 5:02 am

“Academic Blogging: Political Analysis in the Digital Age” — The Digital Age? LOL. Wasn’t that like before I was born? I assume from the title that this was a conference dedicated to historical analysis. This blog is a fun read, but I agree that it is becoming (sadly) an anachronism.

37

yabonn 02.28.14 at 8:14 am

The Digital Age? LOL. Wasn’t that like before I was born?

Sounds like it.

38

Tim Worstall 02.28.14 at 11:20 am

“Tim Worstall got his ass handed to him on a regular basis.”

Indeed: and Tim Worstall learnt a lot from that happening. Which is sorta the point of this education thing isn’t it?

39

Dan Hardie 02.28.14 at 12:14 pm

I never understood the whole ‘Tim Worstall is evil’ bullshit. Most libertarians are just shills for big business who suddenly become terribly authoritarian when the discussion turns to any freedom other than that of the market. Tim, AFAICS, was a libertarian who put his money where his mouth was: when a number of bloggers were campaigning for asylum rights for Iraqis who had worked for the British, he went the extra mile. Most UKIP types would run a mile rather than stand up and argue for more immigration by Arabs.

And Worstall gave a lot of publicity to new bloggers, based on whether he thought they could write rather than whether they wrote something that chimed with his politics. I disagree with almost everything the man ever said, but you could differ from him and not have him scream abuse at you.

40

William Timberman 02.28.14 at 3:43 pm

Say what you will about a general lack of grace in academic writing, that’s not what we get here. What we get here is something I’ve always found lacking in major media punditry, namely substance. People who actually know things, and have a view of matters outside their own fields which is informed by that knowledge are always more engaging than a paid blowhard, even one who writes well. Collect a group of such people in one venue, and you have the makings of a genuine intellectual synergy. In these parlous times, that’s worth something, no?

It’s worth a great deal to me, certainly. Astute commenters, other bloggers with fascinating takes on this or that, books read that I never heard of before, or wouldn’t have considered — these things are beyond price. Every morning, I say a little prayer of thanks for my rescue from Friedman, Will and Brooks, from Charlie Rose and Washington Week in Review, and for the fact that I don’t have to read anyone’s dissertation to appreciate their contribution to our public discourse. Well done, CT.

41

TM 02.28.14 at 4:09 pm

“I got a comment from someone who basically misses the days when there simply wasn’t so much of it because then he could feel caught up on everything, like he wasn’t missing anything. Not my view. I’m glad there’s so much of it happening now.”

Well there is the problem that humans aren’t really equipped to deal with the flooding of information enabled by the internet. I’m a bit surprised this hasn’t come up yet so let me ask: is nobody else worried about how much time we are spending with this? It’s fun yes but most blogging is trivial. It has to be because there just can’t be so much profundity in the world to justify the millions of blogs and forums and web sites and whatnot (not to mention facebook etc.). How did we spend all that time before the internet? And if more academics are getting into blogging, do they really have much to say that isn’t already being said somewhere else?

I suspect that the internet has reduced the overall productivity of office workers, and that includes academics. It’s not just the raw amount of time spent but the frequency of distraction by checking email, facebook, blogs, forums. I wonder whether that came up at all at the “academic blogging” conference?

42

Straightwood 02.28.14 at 4:36 pm

CT is an excellent example of a lightly-structured, self-selected community of thinkers. The academics bring substantial knowledge resources and scholarly discipline, and the intellectual irregulars and academics manque bring independence and fresh perspectives. All expose their ideas to withering scrutiny, and all benefit.

Before the advent of the Internet, such assemblages were infeasible. We are in the early stages of something like a Cambrian explosion of networked human associations. Many Internet discussion groups are oriented toward conversational amusement and random exploration, but more focused structures will emerge, and as they develop political effectiveness, society will benefit.

43

yabonn 02.28.14 at 6:25 pm

TM@41
It’s fun yes but most blogging is trivial.

Wait, no, that can’t be. It’s a conversation, except that you can quote without author checks – you get to look more clever than you actually are.

Statistically, J. Quiggin on the traditionality of modernity got some people, somewhere, laid. And D. Davies on beer started a few fights. Anything but trivial.

44

Ronan(rf) 02.28.14 at 6:27 pm

“Statistically, J. Quiggin on the traditionality of modernity got some people, somewhere, laid. “

Who, how, why, when, what ?

45

yabonn 02.28.14 at 7:10 pm

Ronan(rf) @ 44
C’mon, I’m a gentleman.

Besides, it’s statistics.

46

Bill Gardner 02.28.14 at 7:18 pm

So, I’m biased, but I think their has been a certain ‘professionalization’ of blogs that has been for the good. I point to Henry’s Monkey Cage for political science or our The Incidental Economist in health policy. These are groups of academics trying to bring science and (I hope) informed opinion into debates. It’s not as much fun as it used to be, but I feel like more is getting accomplished.

47

roy belmont 02.28.14 at 7:23 pm

It’s fun yes but most blogging is trivial. It has to be because there just can’t be so much profundity in the world to justify the millions of blogs and forums and web sites and…

I suffer. More or less patiently.
With all due respect TM, what you mean there is either “most blogging in my experience of it” or you mean “most blogging, in its entirety, on the internet full stop“.
Two really different scenarios. Assuming you mean your subjective experience – because how could you personally have experienced every blog out there – what does that mean? A bunch of filtered access to a cluster of things you kind of randomly bumped into until your bookmarks folders were bulging at the seams?
Not important until it’s time to make judgment calls about the efficacy and utility of interaction with what that whole thing is.
Probably the percentage of trivial dreck is majority, okay, but the amount of valuable non-dreck is an unknown, outside subjective experience.
Seconding Straightwood’s paleo-analog: a refinement of the ubiquitous arrow that has this little barb thing on it, so it won’t slip back out. From those guys over around Clovis.
Who knows how important that is, at the time, from within the change, and how altering it’s going to be?
The internet is bigger than any single human mind’s ability to comprehend what it is, it was that big already, bigger than the single mind’s reach, in 2001.
Maybe some of our more savantish freaks can do it, but they have to get that comprehension back down to our scale to do us any good.
Or we could just pretend it’s much smaller than it really is.
What happens when things like facebook and other residential actively-filtered platforms intentionally reduce the size of it, allowing for the pretense the internet’s not that big, for palatibility and ease of digestion, and comfort.
Twitter not so much because of its stripped-down nature. You can’t live there, though people do sort of, in the sense of spending massive time. People put their full selves on facebook. Different.
Blogging as a platform isn’t portaled like f’book, its doors open directly onto the net. Facebook has a tightly secured lobby.
Talking comprehensively and concretely about blogging is like talking comprehensively and concretely about the human race.
You can do it, but unless you’ve got some serious philosophical ducks in a row, you end up sounding portentous and silly.
Not you “TM”, but you “one”.

48

Ronan(rf) 02.28.14 at 7:30 pm

Bill Gardner

But my impression is that the political science research (I won’t extend it to health policy) pretty conclusively shows that the problem with ‘bad policy’ is not due to lack of good information etc but the realities of politics (interest group bargaining, electoral concerns, policy making indifference, what have you) This I learned from reading the Monkey Cage.
So what’s the point of tailoring your position towards policymakers if it’s not going to have an effect ? Isn’t all we’re going to see is policy making charlatans catered for to the detriment of the layperson ?

49

Ronan(rf) 02.28.14 at 7:32 pm

..which won’t matter of course if the info remains unpaywalled

50

TM 02.28.14 at 7:55 pm

roy 47, I obviously mean “most blogging, in its entirety, on the internet full stop“. Recall my next sentence following the one you quoted. It’s a matter of statistics.

51

Straightwood 02.28.14 at 9:11 pm

Scholars don’t like protean phenomena because mastery can’t be attained, certified, refereed, etc. As long as the evolution of the Internet keeps wriggling, squirming, and morphing, it will be the domain of intellectual cowboys like J. P. Barlow and Jaron Lanier. Scholars want it to stop moving so that they can dissect it and teach anatomy, but it just won’t hold still.

In a time of plutocratic ascendancy and the failure of conventional democratic institutions, we can at least hope that some engines of reform will emerge from the evolutionary factory of the Internet. There was a long interval between the invention of Gutenberg’s press and the fall of monarchies. We won’t have to wait that long this time.

52

TM 02.28.14 at 9:20 pm

Gutenberg’s press led to the reformation in almost no time. Aren’t things supposed to move faster nowadays?

53

Jon M 02.28.14 at 9:24 pm

I agree with the benefit of less commercialised blogs (although research dissemination has its place). Personally, I blog about:
1) Things that I’m interested in but don’t have the time to turn into research
2) Things that are a bit too fanciful to spend any real research time on (this is probably 90%)
3) Things that I only have one interesting thing to contribute and hence wouldn’t have enough material to turn it into a full research project

Some of this will be informed by my research but I think that there’s a benefit in sometimes thinking about things outside your research.

54

roy belmont 02.28.14 at 9:27 pm

TM-
Well I’m more using the perceived logical hole there as an excuse to riff, which is slightly unfair, but if you say “most blogging is trivial”, and then you say “It’s a matter of statistics”, I have to say “wha?”
How can a qualitative judgment “trivial” be statistical? Concerned with trivia?
Where is the database from which that cometh?
And how come that’s different from most irl human activities being mundane toward the trivial, except whoa, Descartes, or Lacan, or uhm, Alice Munro or somebody?
Full category value judgment trivial in the one instance, but in the other it’s kind of worth it, yes? All that human drudgery with redeeming genius mixed in it, somewhere.
Bunch of people doing nothing much seriously important, and then here comes Ms. Exceptional making it all worthwhile.
Would be my point.
Elephant, blind men, story.
We’re supposed to learn from that.
It seems important because right after assessments like trivial comes contempt for the trivial, and then after contempt comes…

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Bill Gardner 02.28.14 at 9:54 pm

Ronan,
I don’t have a poli sci answer for you. I just have faith in the democratic enterprise in the long term. That is, I want to reach policy makers, but I also want to reach citizens and get more information and better arguments into the public discourse. This will, eventually, I hope, help.

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Sumana Harihareswara 03.01.14 at 4:05 am

TM, the quick answer is: people making things (including superficial, derivative art or writing) is inherently better than them not making things, ceteris paribus. And making bad things is part of how people learn to make good things. I’m a better writer now than I was in 2000, and my blogging is one reason for that. And in the twentieth century before the net, people spent a bunch of their cognitive surplus (Clay Shirky’s term I believe) absorbing one-to-many mass media instead.

Your phrasings imply that meaning inheres in some kind of objectively measurable and novel intellectual impact and that a certain amount of that novelty or ingenuity is necessary to justify the time we spend talking to each other. Your worry is not new; Shirky et al. have been addressing it for years. (And thus, by your own argument, perhaps you shouldn’t have posted it!)

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geo 03.01.14 at 7:03 am

It’s bootless to predicate anything of so large a phenomenon as “blogging” or “the Internet” in general, just as it would be of “technology” or “mass production” or “modernity.” Obviously all those things entail enormous blessings but also grave costs. Few of us would want to live without automobiles or airplanes, but the world is in danger of choking on gasoline exhaust. Mass production has made life a lot easier, but it’s also massively changed the prevailing character structure, and not entirely for the better.

The Internet seems to be an almost unmixed blessing for scientists, who can circulate ideas and information much wider and faster than ever before. It’s a potential blessing for democracy, though so far largely unrealized because people with strong political beliefs tend to affiliate chiefly with the like-minded, while those without strong beliefs largely eschew political sites — just as they rarely read newspapers — and instead use the Internet mainly for shopping, entertainment, and socializing. I’m not sure, though, that it’s even a potential net blessing for culture and education, at least in the humanities. For the most part, cultivation in literature and the arts is necessarily slow, difficult, silent, and solitary — all the things that hyperconnection militates against. And unlike science and politics, where up-to-the-minute information is essential and superseded theories can be ignored, literature and the arts are mostly backward-looking. We’ve surpassed Galileo, Linnaeus, and Lavoisier; there’s no reason to grapple with their work now. But the idea of surpassing Homer, Dante, Leonardo, Milton, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tolstoy, or Joyce is unintelligible — it makes no sense. There will still be great — maybe even greater — new poetry, painting, music, but nothing that will make reading/listening to Homer et al superfluous, the way Darwin and Einstein made reading Galileo et al superfluous.

All the above, as I hope most people will recognize, is just a footnote to the work of Sven Birkerts, especially The Gutenberg Elegies and his forthcoming book On or About … .

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geo 03.01.14 at 7:22 am

PS – May I amend the above list? I left off Doctor Who and the Rolling Stones.

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TM 03.03.14 at 3:32 pm

“How can a qualitative judgment “trivial” be statistical?”

Fair point, it’s not easy to define and measure intellectual profundity. What I roughly have in mind is a test along the lines of “is this worthwhile to be preserved for posterity?” And this is not meant pejorative. It is just in the nature of things that the vast bulk of human communication is not meant for posterity. I remember Feyerabend having said something along the lines that ‘philosophers always assume that the purpose of language is to express profound philosophical ideas but really, language was invented to communicate everyday gossip’ (this is very roughly from memory and certainly not a quote – maybe somebody can help locate the original, if it was preserved).

What is new about communication on the internet is the fact that all that trivial gossip IS preserved for posterity.

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TM 03.03.14 at 3:47 pm

“TM, the quick answer is: people making things (including superficial, derivative art or writing) is inherently better than them not making things, ceteris paribus.”

I cannot find any justification for that claim. To name just one objection, when people make one thing, they can’t make another thing that they might have made instead. When one thing (say blogging) becomes so fashionable that everybody wants to do it, maybe the quality of the whole pool of bloggers benefits from sheer numbers (although identifying the pearls becomes exponentially more difficult) but maybe also other things that are not so fashionable suffer (say, old-fashioned organizing).

Another objection that I find also relevant is that there is indeed value in not doing anything from time to time and our smartphone/tablet/TV online culture really has reduced the frequency of that happening. It really has become rare to see people not paying attention to some electronic device. People are really distracted by the online universe from other things they ought to be doing (I am right now sorry to say that).
It may be old-fashioned to point that reality out but it seems hard to deny (wanna try?)

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