September 9, 2003

The Rewards of Blogging?

A lot of intriguing ideas floating around the blogsphere lately. Chuck talks more about blogs as forums for research and as "writing machines". He previously discussed attempting to follow a single "meme" through the blogsphere, tracking how the writing developed - which I think would actually be a fascinating project (in fact, I feel somewhat compelled to experiment with a few tools to see if mapping relationships between blogs is easily possible).

His more recent thoughts spawned from this post at Crooked Timber, where Brian (one of the posters on the group blog) talked about how a paper he recently published came from - at least in part - blogging (both reading and writing). But he wonders:

just how many scholar-bloggers use their blogs to advance their scholarship. Very few have posts directly about their research, and fewer still it seems use their blog as a place to try out ideas, or paragraphs, for forthcoming papers.

To me, blogs are curious creatures - personal scrapbook, creative outlet, public advertisement, scholarly test bed, memory machine, and social connector. And I have used it as all of these things. Since I've taken on a full-time job, I rely on my blog, e-mail, and instant messaging to keep in touch with those people that I normally would grab for a coffee on campus. Blogging, for me, is very much social software. I write with an audience in mind even if and when I know they are unlikely to respond, because part of the time, I just need to force myself to write, and write publicly. To put ideas - no matter how silly or wrong-headed - on paper (virtual or otherwise), so that next time I come back to them, I have a record. Too often in the past, I've had an idea and refused to write it down, convincing myself that I would remember.

And, of course, I don't.

The blog offers a few features particularly useful for the scholar, including a handy search function (how many times have you crawled through your notebooks before tossing them down in disgust?), as well as methods of receiving feedback from friends and strangers alike.

As many have stated before, blogs (like IM'ing, online games, and so on) are a social software system, but they also demand a careful examination as to how they function as social software. Jason's (a different herder named Jason - welcome to the confusion) response to Chuck points out that blogging might be a "peculiarly egocentric mode of discourse" (although I wonder how many discursive models aren't predominately egocentric?).

If blogging is part egocentric self-promotion/self-reflection, and part honest desire for a space to post ideas and solicit feedback, how might they fit within traditional academic spheres? What influence do they really have (or might they already have - good or bad)?

KF, in her post at Planned Obsolescence, finds herself working through difficult issue of the relationship between academic teaching and research - and the systems that rewards (or disdains) one or the other. After finding herself on both sides of the argument in two separate blogs, she writes:

This slip of mine really gives me pause. The origin of my equation of scholarly work and scholarly production is internal, and has everything to do with anxieties about the role of such work in my own life: I had to remind myself all the way through writing my dissertation -- and still have to remind myself, as I'm doing research -- that reading, and talking, and listening, and thinking, are important forms of knowledge-production, despite the fact that not all of this work resulted in writing.

And thus the question gets raised yet again, in another form, of what counts as work in academic lives, what we claim to value versus what we actually reward.

In some respects, I agree with JBJ's assertion that the "blogosphere tends to organize itself into echo chambers" (which he draws from Cass Sunstein's book, which I have not read, although now I want to). KF - in a comment on the same post listed above - has a slightly different concern about an echo - not that it resonates through a singular public, but instead little public at all:

My worry about the blogosphere as the locus of such dialogue, though, is the sense (as one of my colleagues describes it) that I'm shouting down a well -- I can hear my own voice bouncing back at me, but there's precious little other response. This is a public discourse -- but how do you get the public involved?

Her worry is understandable, even though it somewhat ironically came out of a seemingly intense debate between several individuals (no quiet echo there).

Admittedly, several of the blogs that I read are folks that I know personally - one is my dissertation director, others are long-standing friends (some live down the block, while others have moved far away). But several others - even a couple of wordherders - I met only through blogging. Some of my favorite blogs are people I don't even know except through what they write (Invisible Shoebox is a great example of a blog by a complete stranger that I think is incredibly interesting both creatively and academically).

So I wonder - as I try to pull together this three-threaded discussion about research tools, social software, and the academic publishing machine - if blogs, in some fashion, can help us begin to tackle what I see (clearly, as do many others) as an increasing problem in academia: reliance on publication as a reward system while the value of texts, per se, might be said to be on the decline - more books published each year, to an increasingly select audience, while some academic publishers are limiting or closing their humanities publishing departments (in April 2002, U. of California press reduced its humanities publications; other details about University Presses can be found at the Chronicle, including the following interesting article that details problems with University Presses [subscription required, I believe. Sorry.]).

Can comments and trackbacks - in some fashion - lead to a sense of peer review (or do they already)? If not that, what kind of peer review could we imagine if it were facilitated by technology? Clearly, there are issues with ignoring the "blind" review process (and if blogs were the model, blind review would be nigh-impossible); E-Bay style procedures are unlikely to benefit academia, since reputation-based evaluation is hardly an effective measure in an environment that, like so many others, can burn you with a wayward comment. The superstars are unlikely to be criticized, and even the newbies will likely find themselves either coddled (because to do otherwise might ruin their career) or cut [again, the Chronicle has some interesting articles on these issues]. Research on E-Bay (wish I could find the link - anyone have it?) recently shared that their peer-review system was struggling with the same issues, resulting in an inflated grading system (where people hestitated to give bad grades, even for poor service) and a level of fraud large enough to be alarming.

And how would academic discourse benefit or suffer if it began to settle (in part, at least, as it has) into a subtle mix of 0-draft ideas, more in-depth articles, mixed with personal achivements and surprises? What are the rewards and pitfalls of academic blogging?

I have no clear way to end this, so I'll just mention that Ryan just posted a great little piece that somewhat subverts the idealism we sometimes hold in face to face encounters (a response to Chuck's musings, which I already cited above).

[edit: comments closed due to spam; email jason at wordherders dot net if you wish to add a comment]

Posted by Jason at September 9, 2003 4:07 PM | TrackBack

Jason, you do an excellent job of pulling together several threaded discussions here. I think it makes sense to consider the validity of blogging reviews, especially in light of the Ebay review system.

Still, I think that social software gives us an opportunity to build a sense of community around discourse as opposed to physical presence. I suppose, in most respects, I'm not worried about whether an identity is "authentic" or "artificial." What seems to me as most important is whether or not the resulting conversation is engaging, thoughtful, and helpful.

I look at our community of writers within wordherders and think that what keeps us interested isn't the blogger's personaliy, persay, but what s/he has to say (and, yes, the two are often indistinguishable). I don't want to sound too techno-idealist here... certainly face-to-face interaction is necessary. Still, I'm trying to imagine how many times I can just pop into someone's head, ask them what they're thinking... get a 5 minute summary of ideas... and then say "ok... check ya later..." I think that the kind of intimacy that we foster within a blogging community is familiarity with ideas--even small ones--and not necessarily sustained interaction. Interaction is important, but here, silence is also productive. Productive in a way that I haven't found face-to-face academic discussion to be.

Of course, this comes from someone who refuses to relinquish his/her "real" identity and feels completely, well, complete as a persona. Unlike face-to-face conversation in academe, which frequently (admit it) turns into sycophancy... I can read, think, and reply thoughtfully at my leisure...

Although, I suppose this post is really not the best example of the thoughtful part....

Posted by: CJ at September 9, 2003 6:12 PM | Permalink to Comment

Interesting thoughts-- I was actually looking into doing this type of project for a pragmatics class-- theories of speech intention rely on the implicit joint action of each participant-- remove the participants from their union but keep the intention intact and we'll get....

Posted by: Marc at September 9, 2003 6:40 PM | Permalink to Comment

CJ - I agree with you about the "authentic" and "artificial". Although I do think it poses an interesting problem once you delve into issues of alternative reward systems for faculty. If someone writes a blog article of several thousand words that becomes an often-cited resource, are they under the same standards for, say, revision as my blog post on a personal matter? This ties into some previous conversations in the blog circuit ...

In terms of interaction, I would say - as I'm often liable to - that it is simply a different type of interaction enabled through a different technology. I would like to examine, for example, how an e-mail list differs in terms of social and academic 'interaction' (exchange of ideas) as opposed to a blog that uses comments and trackbacks (which are in themselves very different dynamics, partly based on place - my blog or yours, as it were).

Marc - I'm intrigued by your comment, but I wonder if you might expand a little (I'm a little slow this morning, I'm afraid ... only into my first cup of coffee).

Posted by: Jason at September 10, 2003 10:38 AM | Permalink to Comment

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