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?