Making it Work Perspective
Thinking about Blogging 2: Why We Blog
Last time around (April 2009, Cites & Insights 9:5) I discussed blogging as a median medium, comments and conversations as part of blogging (or as part of its definition) and staying power (whether blogs are here to stay). One theme noted in that article, “are blogs plausible replacements for journals,” became part of a Library Access to Scholarship essay, “The Death of Journals (Film at 11).”
That leaves two of the original themes: Why we blog and how we blog. Why—the reasons people blog and philosophy of blogging—is more than enough for this installment.
Although most of the source material inspiring this essay comes from liblogs and it appears as a Making it Work Perspective, it’s as applicable to other blogs as it is to liblogs. (I define “liblogs” broadly, including those from archivists and museum folk.)
Start with Kate T.’s “The role of blogs in professional discourse in the archival profession,” posted June 26, 2008 on ArchivesNext (www.archivesnext.com/). Portions of it are about more than archival blogging—they’re about anonymous blogs and comments.
Back in the very early days of this blog, I wrote a post that asked whether or not there was an archivo-blogosphere (comparable to the robust biblioblogosphere created by librarians). I came to the conclusion that there was not. Recently, Heather (of the Archives Found blog) wrote on a comment on that old post asking if my opinion has changed. I think it has, although I would still say that our archivo-blogosphere is in its infancy. This post will explain why I’ve changed my opinion and will also address some comments made at another blog about the value of blogs for professional discourse.
That earlier post appeared in March 2007. Kate found 58 English-language blogs, 15 primarily repository “bulletin board” blogs and five dormant. She did serious weeding—eliminating “primarily personal or social” blogs and those associated with niches or related professions, as well as those not originating in North America. That left 23 blogs, including seven averaging at least one post a week. That didn’t look like an active blog community to her.
Around the same time Heather raised her question, David Kemper (of The DIGTAL Archive blog) wrote a post called “How Blogs Can Save Your Career.” He said, in part:
As I walked down the bustling streets, I was caught in my thoughts, wondering how I have managed to stay current (more or less) despite being on contracts or, more recently, unemployed.
One word kept surfacing: blogs.
Seriously, if it were not for the many library and archives, Web 2.0, new media, digitization, digital preservation bloggers and social networkers on the Web, I would be far, far behind the curve.
It is thanks to those who, in the spirit of sharing, write and talk about their work, projects, ideas either daily, bi-weekly, weekly or monthly that I have been able to stay current in the field…
I believe in the power of blogs, their immediacy, their intimacy, and their uncanny ability to auto-generate communities, because I know I have benefited from them and learned from them. And continue to do so.
…I think we are gathering a critical mass of archivists writing and reading blogs. By my count we now have over 25 blogs written by archivists or related records professionals (in English) that they use to share their own opinions or items of interest… I think we’ve seen some valuable discussion of professional issues among the comments on this blog, and I’m told that it generates even more conversations around the lunch tables of many archival institutions.
So, we have archivists writing blogs, reading blogs, commenting on blogs and talking about blogs. Blogging is the subject of a seminar at the upcoming RBMS Pre-Conference… Archivists are using blogs to talk about our profession among ourselves and with our public. Many of us are using them to meet our information needs.
So you may understand my surprise when I read in one of Geof Huth’s incredibly valuable posts about the Archives Leadership Institute (on The Anarchivist blog) that:
During the course of our wide ranging conversation, we found ourselves discussing the need for a more vibrant professional literature, and someone questioned the reliability of blogs and other new media, and the suitability of these to meet our informational needs.
…[Later] there was clarification about what was meant by “suitability.”
Paraphrasing for brevity: One person involved in the conversation was concerned about the lack of real names on archival blogs. Another seconded this: “It is difficult to have a useful, citable professional conversation about issues when participants chose not to identify themselves.”
Commenters offer reasons they remain anonymous—e.g., so they can criticize institutional policies without getting in trouble. Some people have concerns about privacy—including, early on, Kate T.
Here’s an unusual comment, at least given my experience with liblogs in general:
I have also observed that identifying oneself by initials (or one initial, as my friend “T” has often done on this blog) or by a nickname is something of a convention in the world of blogs. Many people may be using nicknames or initials not because they’re trying to hide something, but just because that’s the way it’s commonly done.
I’ve observed no such convention in liblogs. Of those studied in The Liblog Landscape 2007-2008, only 7% had the first name or first name and initial of the author, while 66% had full names and nearly 16% were group-authored with full names. Perhaps the conventions are different among archivists.
Kate T. comes down in favor of anonymity:
For the most part, I find myself agreeing with the observation Jim made in closing his comment over on Geof’s blog:
In the end, I’d just suggest that a good idea, though expressed anonymously, does not make it any less a good idea. Anonymously posted information can still have value, even if not conveniently citable and therefore “scholarly.”
While I’d agree that anonymously posted information can have value, I believe anonymity substantially weakens contributions to the professional literature and a blog’s “suitability to meet our information needs.” Kate T. asked for the views of others. She received three responses. One blogger suggested “fear of not knowing where the line is” as a reason for anonymity. Another cited privacy and perpetuity as reasons for privacy. A third, saying how much blogging has helped him, ends his comment: “It’s a personal choice, but I just think being easily identified gives a blog more credibility and accountability.”
This post isn’t directly about “why”—except that the whys of anonymity also matter.
Who blogs using only their first name or first name and initial (as far as I could determine without investigation)? Here’s the list of liblogs that meet current inclusion standards for an update of The Liblog Landscape and had at least one post a week during the 2008 study period:
Library Chronicles, Bad Librarianship Now!, Information Junk, Jennie Law, Laurie the Librarian, Atomic Librarian, The Misadventures of Super_Librarian, Talking Books Librarian, BentleyBlog, LibraryTavern, SemiConscious Dot Org, The Utopian Library, Zee Says=Film Addict + Teen Librarian, Library Stories: Libraries & Librarians in the News, mélange, Gemini Moon, the strange librarian, Terry's Worklog, Bad Girl Librarian, maura and the library, ADHD Librarian, Into the Stacks, Solvitur ambulando
Two or three of those have well-known authors and are probably mischaracterized as first-name-only, but how many would you consider to be important sources of serious discussion of librarianship?
Here’s the list of anonymous blogs meeting those criteria: Angels have the phone box, Incoherent Scribblings, rawbrick.net.
Here are the pseudonymous blogs that would still qualify for inclusion and that averaged at least one post a week:
the.effing.librarian, Killin' time being lazy, zydeco fish, TangognaT, Tales from the "Liberry," The Krafty Librarian, Misadventures of the Monster Librarian, Chronicles of the (almost) Bald Technology Trainer, Your Neighborhood Librarian, lo-fi librarian, Bigenarian Librarian, Chez Shoes, DrWeb's Domain, Quiescit anima libris, Pop Culture Librarian, Dojo of the Library Ninja, The Well Dressed Librarian, Dewey's Dartboard, Annoyed Librarian, Darth Libris, BookBitchBlog, Right Wing Librarian, Linux Librarian, The Soggy Librarian, The Hot Librarian, repressed librarian, The Zenformation Professional, Miss Information
Maybe no comment is required. There are blogs in those lists that I regard as significant sources of thoughtful commentary—but not that many. (I’d probably name roughly half a dozen, but your standards may not be mine.) Of those I’d name, I’d guess half are first-name or pseudonymous in name only—that most readers of the blogs know the authors by full name. I could be wrong on all counts.
Heather Soyka (fully named on the About page of her blog Archives Found, archivesfound.com) posted this on July 11, 2008, following up on her comment on Kate T’s post. Soyka considers the role of blogging in the archival field: “I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but I’d like to raise some questions, and perhaps provoke discussion.”
It seems to me that, as a group, we have been slow to participate in the blogosphere. While there are fewer archivists out there than say other groups with which we might identify (say, librarians or historians), it seems that we’ve been comparatively reluctant to dip our toes in the water. Why might that be? Are we less tech-savvy, or uninterested in using new technologies to communicate? Is it that we are mirroring the somewhat apathetic national participation in civic discourse? Is there a lack of interest in contributing to the field, or that we have nothing to say? Are we reticent about being record creators instead of worrying about the disposition of records?...
Why do some fields gain a core group of serious bloggers faster than others? I doubt there are good answers. If you go to state library conferences or even ALA, you get the idea that librarians are surprisingly social animals—and this may be true online as well. Are archivists less social? Or was it a few evangelizing early libloggers who got things going?
Is a blog a good place to have a professional conversation? What about a peer-reviewed journal, or a listserv? How about a symposium, or a conference call, or workshop? In order to have participation, there needs to be a balance between “if you build it, they will come,” and meeting people where they already are. In this case, my feeling is that a lot of folks are already doing everything else on this list, but not blogging or actively participating in the blogosphere. It’s professionally acceptable for us to have discussions in all of those other places; why not online? Is a journal article in the American Archivist going to provoke the same type of timely discussion as a blog post? Maybe. But a discussion in real time, with participants from around the globe? Probably not.
Today, a librarian might posit that FriendFeed outdoes either blogs or, by a long shot, journal articles in terms of rapid conversation.
I’m not against more established forms of communication within the profession; far from it. But I think that we need to look towards the example of many librarians who have used their blogs to actively participate and shape their experiences in the field.
There it is: Library folk (some of us not librarians) have set an example.
…Part of the problem that hasn’t been fully acknowledged is this: elders and so-called “names” in the field have not really embraced blogging or maintained their own blogs (with [one or two exceptions]). Archivists that are new to the field may be afraid of reprisal or blogging themselves out of their next job, or simply not willing to jump into the conversation. Those mid-career may have the same fears.
Relatively few “elders” in the library field maintain active blogs. Maybe libloggers fear reprisal less because the library field is so much bigger?
Soyka asks how archivists can move forward toward lively conversations in blogs. There were no direct comments on the post—in one sense, the conversation stalled right there. But that’s not quite true: There was a conversation, but in an alternate mode, one that jumps from blog to blog.
Dani—first name only, but since she lists her workplace it’s not a true disguise—posted “Blogging archivists” on July 17, 2008 at Curious child’s library wanderings (curiouschild.wordpress.com). She asked a question in May 2008 about archivists and social media in general—noting her astonishment at the number of librarians and others using Twitter and the lack of archivists using this “or any social networking service for that matter.” Excerpts from this followup post:
Like Archives Next, I’ve noticed the abundance of librarians who are tearing up the blogosphere and creating a new pedagogy for library instruction. And, after some digging, I’ve found some archivists who are also paving the way for new archivists by sharing project information, helpful suggestions, etc. The problem is that these blogs are not getting the same publicity as library blogs. Archivists have to be more proactive in their marketing… [She recommends advertising your blog on social networks, adding your URL to email signatures, commenting on other archivist blogs and sharing problems and solutions]
…I rely heavily on blogs and tweets to keep current and learn more about my profession. I rely on the expertise of those who have been working in the field for longer than I have, but I also like being able to commiserate with those who are new to the field. I know there are professional journals out there that offer the same professional support that I’m talking about but I like the instant gratification that comes from blogging and social networking. And I believe that we, as a profession, need to move forward by granting blogs and other web 2.0 technologies professional legitimacy.
Tearing up the blogosphere? Maybe. Creating a new pedagogy for library instruction? Have libloggers done that? Dani did draw comments—six of them, plus her responses. DKemper called it “A well-written and gutsy blog post that sheds light on what we as professionals need to do to encourage talk and discussion not only amongst ourselves at conferences but online, in the blogosphere, if you will, where so many colleagues in libraries have already congregated and push enormous quantities of content from many different voices out to readers.” Later in the conversation he adds two notes, one a significant caveat:
To embrace these new technologies is really to embrace the ideals of sharing and communicating information and exchanging knowledge, either among new archivists or between senior archivists and the next generation of archivists…
[T]he Social Web (blogs, micro-blogging, podcasts, social networking sites, etc) is time-consuming. It takes time to write quality blog content, for example. And for many archivists, time and other resources are limited and mainly directed to taking care ‘bread-and-butter’ business.
Paul Lasewicz has an internal blog—but continues:
But to blog externally, well, that assumes that somebody would read it! And even if that’s so, the time invested produces too few benefits to justify taking time away from other things … like my family.
The best argument against blogging is that it takes time (and if it’s not part of your workplace, you shouldn’t be doing it on work time). “That assumes somebody would read it” is interesting, given the number of libloggers who regularly talk about “my two readers” or the like—a phrase that could be false humility but could also reflect the uncertainty most of us have as to whether we’re reaching anybody.
Gordon offered a comment that may mirror the thoughts of many libloggers and other bloggers on why we blog (substitute “librarian” or other profession for “archivist”):
As someone who just recently started blogging, for me it is an exercise in intellectual curiosity. Blogging is a way to throw ideas up against the wall and see what sticks. By communicating my active interests in a blog I not only inform others, but I also educate myself and hopefully make myself a better archivist in the process by interacting with others.
From there, the conversation jumped back to ArchivesNext in a July 18, 2008 post:
Kate T. sees this turning into something that “kind of looks like a discussion.” She doubts that archivists don’t blog because they’re not comfortable with technology or with creating records—but does think people fear disclosure and reprisal. She continues:
I think it’s a great sign that more and more people are starting processing blogs and other blogs that share information about their repositories... But, I think the kind of participation Heather is looking for, like me, is in the area of opinion and discussion of professional issues. That is where we are weak… I think risk-aversion and fear are very real factors that hold people back from writing or commenting (and from signing their full names, even if they chose to contribute).
I sincerely believe that stating an opinion that may be controversial is potentially dangerous in our profession and this inhibits many people from publicly sharing their views. This may be true in all professions, but I am only speaking here about ours. I think people are right to be cautious. We are a comparatively small profession with a tight job market. No one wants to risk that an all-too-honest comment on a blog will cost them a job. I wish it were true that no one would hold an honest opinion, expressed in a professional manner, against you, but I do not think we live in that world.
Are librarians more fearless? Probably not, but it’s a much larger field. The Society of American Archivists has some 3,100 individual members and 500 institutional members. ALA has considerably more than 60,000 members, and there may be a lot more librarians who aren’t ALA members than archivists who aren’t in SAA. Proportionally, it’s possible that archivists are more active bloggers than library people.
I also think there’s an element of something like snobbery at play. I think quite a few people in our profession think blogs, and the people who write and read them, aren’t “serious” or “scholarly.” (And don’t even think of bringing up something like Facebook!). Our opinions are not reviewed or mediated and they don’t come with footnotes. If blogs are not taken seriously, why would serious people spend time writing or reading them?...
Are liblogs taken seriously? Yes, but it’s a slow process. Are liblogs considered scholarly? Not so much.
…I think that a lot of us who are interested in writing, reading, and contributing to open, unmediated, relatively informal professional discussions via blogs are already here and doing it. We don’t care if the rest of the profession doesn’t take what we do seriously. We see the value for ourselves and our colleagues and that’s enough. There are probably many more who would do so if only they were given some kind of indication that to do is accepted as a serious professional activity. One way to achieve this kind of seal of approval is by word of mouth, and I think we’re doing a good job of achieving that. Keep telling your colleagues that there are some great blogs out there that they need to be reading. Send them the links. If you’re not commenting, take a few minutes to post a comment (with your name, of course) to show newbies that these blogs aren’t out there in a vacuum.
Most library people who start and continue liblogs do so for similar reasons.
There’s more to the post—dealing with fears and the desire for top-down recognition of blogs as valid fora for professional discourse. A comment from Jeanne offers another take on why we blog:
For me the driving reason to keep blogging is because I love doing this sort of research - I love pulling ideas together across disciplines. The handful of people passionate about the topics I am most intrigued by are so geographically dispersed that I feel that blogging is the best way to keep the conversation alive between like-minded individuals.
Another from Kate T. at ArchivesNext. Although the post is a few months old (November 11, 2008), it marks a good closing point for this section—and with a metatitle as rich as that, how could I resist?
Kate T. participated in a session on blogging at a regional conference, a session that drew a good crowd.
Let me clarify–I don’t know if it’s “good” to step up to the podium and see three people who you know blog all sitting there in the third row with their laptops or mobile devices out and ready to go. And when they start typing away when you start talking, it can make you a bit nervous. Not me, of course. I was there to talk about my blog–this one–but I thought that probably most people in the audience would be more interested in more general tips and lessons learned about blogs than in the specifics of this one.
Kate summarizes the presentations and notes some of the blogging about the session. Then she draws some lessons “serious or otherwise” from “all this blogging about a blogging session”—lessons that apply equally to librarians, museum people and others:
First, people were able to post live, or virtually live, because the hotel had wireless in the meeting spaces. Any conference that wants to encourage bloggers (and the free publicity they offer) must make arrangements for free wireless. Going forward, I think this should be part of the conference amenities all archival organizations look for when selecting a venue…
Second…our blogging friends weren’t quite prepared. Two lost power on their laptops and one lost a post because he was still learning how to work with some new software… These are reminders to be aware of the technical requirements of blogging.
Third…imagine the potential if we had fully powered, connected, and organized bloggers at all our conferences. I think a liveblogging session from an opening plenary, for example, would be fascinating…
I have mixed feelings about liveblogging from conference sessions; it too often seems to yield bullet points rather than holistic senses of what was being said, with the blogger’s perspective added. I prefer well-prepared reports written after a session—but I’m realistic enough to know such reports are hard to come by these days, and maybe liveblogging is better than nothing. (Such liveblogging now seems more likely via Twitter or FriendFeed.) I’ve also realized that I can’t safely respond to liveblogging (after some difficult examples), or even to post-session blogging about speeches: That is, it’s simply not safe to assume that what’s reported as being said has anything to do with what the speaker intended. (More to the point, speakers feel free to complain bitterly of being misinterpreted if you weren’t actually at the session.)
The post drew lots of comments—19 in all, including Kate’s five interleaved responses. The first commenter wants to see more active blogging from sessions; the second is “my kind of blogger,” one who pulls notes together after the fact and doesn’t find that liveblogging works for her. (Kate T. also blogs after a session.)
“Paul” raised an issue discussed in C&I previously, one I’m starting to think of as a lost cause:
The problem with all this parallel activity during a session is that it distracts—and detracts—from the presentations. Doesn’t anybody remember note taking in college? Okay, let me qualify that a bit: diligent note taking. It was hard to keep up with the speaker’s train of thought if you were capturing everything they said. Can it be any easier if you are typing or texting? And if you are only twittering quick idea captures, are you doing the speaker’s talk an appropriate amount of justice?
All I know is if I had an audience of typers, I’d tolerate it because it’s marginally better than having folks fall asleep on you. But I’m not sure how much tolerance I’d have for the first one who asks a follow up question to something I covered that he missed due to his sideline distractions.
I love Kate’s immediate response: “Well, I had someone who was both typing and sleeping, but he’s a special case…” She deferred to others to respond—and, frankly, I didn’t see much in the way of responses. “RobinRKC” might be giving an answer:
How many of us attend a conference session, diligently take detailed notes on paper, go back home, type up those notes, add an in-depth analysis of what was said, and then share them widely with our colleagues? Seriously? Twittering and blogging may not capture much more than key concepts and phrases, but that’s a whole lot more than I have seen from most conferences. It allows us all to start and continue discussions that aren’t possible within the confines of a traditional presentation.
But post-session blogging, summarizing and responding the same day, isn’t at all the same as the scenario RobinRKC posits; it has the feel of a straw man.
The comments also discuss Twitter and how, with hash tags, you can follow tweets about a session without following people (or even joining Twitter).
That’s the title of an Andrew Sullivan article in the November 2008 Atlantic (www.theatlantic.com/doc/ 200811/andrew-sullivan-why-i-blog). At 5,300 words, the piece would be long for most blog posts (although I’ve read 10,000-word posts), but that’s a good length for a thoughtful essay. A few excerpts and comments:
This form of instant and global self-publishing, made possible by technology widely available only for the past decade or so, allows for no retroactive editing (apart from fixing minor typos or small glitches) and removes from the act of writing any considered or lengthy review. It is the spontaneous expression of instant thought—impermanent beyond even the ephemera of daily journalism. It is accountable in immediate and unavoidable ways to readers and other bloggers, and linked via hypertext to continuously multiplying references and sources. Unlike any single piece of print journalism, its borders are extremely porous and its truth inherently transitory. The consequences of this for the act of writing are still sinking in.
Spontaneous, sometimes—but “impermanent”? That depends. I can cite Jenny Levine from February 2002: “Under the DMCA, librarians are not protected from criminal prosecution for crimes committed by others. There's just so much wrong with this legislation that we as a profession have to become active participants in the debate.” Karen Schneider from November 2003: “A computer break-in at Bancroft Library (UCB) highlights one of my concerns about RFID: many library servers aren’t secure to begin with–and that, hand in hand with a potent technology such as RFID (full disclosure: I don’t have any indication Bancroft plans to implement RFID), could lead to compromised user privacy.” Jessamyn West from November 1999: “As many of you know, it is my not-so-secret dream to work in a VT library somewhere near my place eventually.” I could go on…
We bloggers have scant opportunity to collect our thoughts, to wait until events have settled and a clear pattern emerges. We blog now—as news reaches us, as facts emerge… [A] blog is not so much daily writing as hourly writing. And with that level of timeliness, the provisionality of every word is even more pressing—and the risk of error or the thrill of prescience that much greater.
Simply not true. At least not for many bloggers. “We” don’t all blog on an hourly or even daily basis. Maybe Sullivan feels compelled to “commit thoughts to pixels several times a day”; most of us don’t.
Sullivan says interesting things, even if some of them overgeneralize or make blogging a bit more “revolutionary” than it is. He does exaggerate the power of comments to correct errors in blogs, particularly as more and more high-profile blogs either disallow comments or moderate them. He argues that blogging rewards brevity—“No one wants to read a 9,000-word treatise online”—and agrees with a questionable Matt Drudge statement, that a blog is a broadcast, not a publication. The first statement is largely but not universally true; the second is, I think, wrong—to my mind, blogs are publications.
Why does Sullivan blog? I’m not sure. “Because he gets paid for it” would be snarky. Maybe you can piece it together from:
Blogging is…to writing what extreme sports are to athletics: more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive. It is, in many ways, writing out loud…
[A] blog, unlike a diary, is instantly public. It transforms this most personal and retrospective of forms into a painfully public and immediate one. It combines the confessional genre with the log form and exposes the author in a manner no author has ever been exposed before…
From the first few days of using the form, I was hooked. The simple experience of being able to directly broadcast my own words to readers was an exhilarating literary liberation. Unlike the current generation of writers, who have only ever blogged, I knew firsthand what the alternative meant…
Wait. “The current generation” of bloggers “have only ever blogged”? Talk about false generalizations…
Back to Sullivan’s “why”:
Blogging—even to an audience of a few hundred in the early days—was intoxicatingly free in comparison. Like taking a narcotic. It was obvious from the start that it was revolutionary. Every writer since the printing press has longed for a means to publish himself and reach—instantly—any reader on Earth…
A blog…bobs on the surface of the ocean but has its anchorage in waters deeper than those print media is technologically able to exploit. It disempowers the writer to that extent, of course. The blogger can get away with less and afford fewer pretensions of authority. He is—more than any writer of the past—a node among other nodes, connected but unfinished without the links and the comments and the track-backs that make the blogosphere, at its best, a conversation, rather than a production….
The role of a blogger is not to defend against this but to embrace it. He is similar in this way to the host of a dinner party. He can provoke discussion or take a position, even passionately, but he also must create an atmosphere in which others want to participate…
There’s more. I keep wanting to say “But…That’s just not true for all blogs.” A good essayist ought to remember that “I” does not mean “we all”; Sullivan should not generalize so frequently and with so little apparent reflection.
For that matter, Sullivan’s an odd host. His blog, The Daily Dish, does not seem to support comments, an interesting stance for one speaking so favorably of conversation. After glancing through a day’s worth of Sullivan’s blogging, I see that it’s a style I find annoying and not worth following, with lots of brief posts, few of them saying much.
To some extent, I’m nitpicking—and Sullivan is one of those writers who you can find valuable and thought-provoking even as you occasionally yell. Why Sullivan blogs may not be why I blog or why you should blog (if you should) or why (some) scientists should blog—but it’s a tale worth reading.
Still… “Even the most careful and self-aware blogger will reveal more about himself than he wants to in a few unguarded sentences and publish them before he has the sense to hit Delete… You can’t have blogger’s block. You have to express yourself now, while your emotions roil, while your temper flares, while your humor lasts.” Again, false generalizations—Sullivan should know better. He seems to think blogs have to be more balanced than print media; one can only say “Wha?” And sometimes he gets it wrong:
A traditional writer is valued by readers precisely because they trust him to have thought long and hard about a subject, given it time to evolve in his head, and composed a piece of writing that is worth their time to read at length and to ponder. Bloggers don’t do this and cannot do this—and that limits them far more than it does traditional long-form writing. [Emphasis added.]
A blogger will air a variety of thoughts or facts on any subject in no particular order other than that dictated by the passing of time. A writer will instead use time, synthesizing these thoughts, ordering them, weighing which points count more than others, seeing how his views evolved in the writing process itself, and responding to an editor’s perusal of a draft or two. The result is almost always more measured, more satisfying, and more enduring than a blizzard of posts.
The liblog field includes counter-examples, some even using editors or at least referees. Sullivan appears to have formed a mental model of blogs, presumably based on his own experience—and ruled the rest of the field out of existence. What Sullivan says may be true for most blogs, maybe even 95% of them—but there are shining examples of blogs that have not “a blizzard of posts” but well-formed, synthesized, satisfying essays. There is simply nothing about blogs as media (multiple essays on the web appearing in reverse chronological order) that rules out traditional long-form writing or its more frequent 800-word cousin. I would venture a suspicion that more first-rate essays appear in blogs these days than in traditional media; other than The Atlantic, The New Yorker and a handful of others, the market for essays is a thin one.
Nicholas Carr comments on Sullivan’s essay in an October 15, 2008 Rough type post (www.roughtype. com). He notes the assertion that blogging is “a superficial medium” and includes even more of the section beginning “A traditional writer” that I quote above. Carr’s reaction? “Well put.” None of the commenters take issue with that limited view of blogs, although Chris K comes close: “If a reader is willing to invest the time to follow postings over time, there is a track record, as well as a pattern of thinking that evolves, much as the personal essayist of the past.”
I’m in the minority on this one—and blogs consisting of true essays are admittedly in a small minority (but still they exist). Marcus Banks commented on Sullivan’s essay in an October 25, 2008 Marcus’ world post (mbanks.typepad.com/), wondering about a certain excessive fondness for blogs in the first half and praising the second half:
The old-fashioned essay, in its deliberateness, affords a much greater space for thoughtfulness and profundity than the typical blog musing. In between is the print newspaper column, which comes out frequently enough that profundity is harder...but infrequently enough that there is more time to think clearly.
A worthy blog post will make interesting points, reference the relevant sources, and (hopefully) get a good online conversation brewing. A print newspaper column will not be able to pull together relevant sources as seamlessly, but will encourage deeper reflection because the time pressures aren't as intense as in the blogosphere. And the slow-bubbling essay will usually be the deepest of the lot.
So that simple principle holds: A place for everything and everything in its place.
Online conversations are unpredictable. This post drew no comments. I continue to assert that blogs can encompass the slow-bubbling essay (In the library with the lead pipe, anyone?).
After going through many posts that either just quote portions of Sullivan’s essay or high-five him (with a remarkable paucity of comments), I finally found Scott Rosenberg and “Sullivan’s new blog manifesto” (www.wordyard.com/2008/10/20/sullivans-new-blog-manifesto/):
I think it’s important to say that Sullivan offers blanket declarations about the nature of blogging that really ought to be understood as descriptions of his particular mode of blogging. The picture of blogging Sullivan paints is very much one from the perspective of a writer trained as a print journalist. Nothing wrong with that; I’m in the same boat. But blogging is, as Sullivan says, an enterprise of the individual, and individual experiences are all over the map — many, almost certainly the majority, very different from his, yet no less valid.
Rosenberg also points out a “sloppy error” in Sullivan’s piece, describing Slate as “the first magazine published exclusively on the Web,” which is only true if you define “magazine” so narrowly as to exclude Salon, Feed, Hotwired and Web Review (probably “among others”).
There were, of course, more reactions—possibly thousands of them.
The key post with this title is probably Hugh McGuire’s October 26, 2008 post at hughmcguire.net, but I only saw that because of John Dupuis’ identically-titled October 27, 2008 post at the old Confessions of a science librarian. (jdupuis.blogspot.com./; the new ScienceBlogs version does not yet carry forward the archive).
McGuire, taking a media theory course that involves “a fair bit of reading,” concludes “all academics should blog.” Dupuis quotes his nine key points—but without McGuire’s lovely expansions. I won’t quote them in full, but I’ll include a few of the choice comments…and save my own comments, if any, for the end.
1. You need to improve your writing. I have never read such dismally bad writing as that which is prevalent in academia. Not all of it is terrible, but the stuff that is bad is just atrocious. It’s wordy, flabby, repetitive, and filled with jargony mumbo-jumbo… You need lots of practice writing clear, good prose and saying what you mean. Blogging will help you get that practice.
2. Some of your ideas are dumb. The sooner you get called out on bad ideas, the better. Blogging has an almost-immediate feedback loop…
3. The point of academia is to expand knowledge. If you believe that the reason academics publish is to expand knowledge, then expanding it beyond the few tens or hundreds of your colleagues that read the obscure journals you publish in should be a good thing…
4. Blogging expands your readership. Cross-pollination of ideas makes for a more healthy intellectual ecosystem, and blogging means that anyone, not just those in your discipline, will be likely to read your stuff…
5. Blogging protects and promotes your ideas. By blogging a new idea, you put your stakes in the (cyber)ground, with dates and readership to attest to your claim…
6. Blogging is Reputation. In blogging links are currency: your reputation is made by who links to you and how often. It’s a built in, and more-or-less democratic system of reputation as defined by interest…
7. Linking is better than footnotes… It allows your readers to visit your source material immediately (assuming it too is online), so again is likely to expand knowledge by giving readers direct access to the ideas that underpin your ideas.
8. Journals and blogs can (and should) coexist… If academics blog, they can evolve and develop a series of ideas. When the ideas are clearer and polished, they can move on to be journal articles…
9. What have journals done for you lately? Journals define your reputation, and don’t pay anything. That’s like blogging. They are exorbitantly expensive, have abusive and restrictive copyright terms, and are not available online to the general public. You can’t link to them, and often you can’t find them. That’s unlike blogging…
A few quibbles come to mind (as a non-academic, I will steer clear of the first one entirely). “Few tens or hundreds” describes the readership of most blogs; while blogging may expand an academic’s readership, that’s not a given, any more than it’s a given that anyone outside the specialty will care. I’ll pass on #6, although that one has problems, and on #9 will note that many journals (particularly in the humanities) are not exorbitantly expensive.
None of which erases the value of this list. Some commenters seconded his notions. One took issue with #5 (because you can change the time stamp on a post) and #6 (“most scholars don’t really care about scholarly blogs”). The comment stream is fascinating if sometimes frustrating—and includes an approving assertion at one point that “academics don’t write in order to be understood.” What an interesting statement, given that it’s apparently not intended as criticism!
Here’s what Dupuis has to say about the list:
What I love about the list is that it so perfectly captures the full range of reasons for academics to blog. And not just academics and academic librarians—I would say that the reasons more-or-less apply just as much to any knowledge worker or professional, librarians and library school students included, where the idea is to both share what we know and to build our professional reputations.
In other words, there are both altruistic and selfish reasons to blog, free and open expression benefits both the blogger and the larger social/ professional/ academic context in which she or he blogs.
Is this the full range of reasons for professionals to blog? I’m not sure. It’s an interesting list, though.
The next few items aren’t part of a continuous thread; they’re notes on why some professionals (and others) blog.
Marcus Banks posted this on May 3, 2009 at Marcus’ world (mbanks.typepad.com/my_weblog/). T. Scott had commented, in relation to something else entirely, that one writer was intent on making every word count. “That's why so much blog writing is so lousy—people are focused on their ideas, not on the words they use to get those ideas across.” Counterpoint to McGuire’s #1? Maybe, maybe not. (Maybe most people are just lousy writers, whether they’re academics or not.) But here’s what Banks has to say (in part):
This made me think, yet again, about the difference between blog writing and more established forms of publication. A few years ago I was very interested in whether blogs would displace traditional news sources; there was excitement in the blogosphere about how this was inevitable, and much hand-wringing in the mainstream media (MSM) about the temerity of those bloggers who wrote late at night in their pajamas.
Today that battle feels ancient. News organizations are under serious threat, but not from bloggers. The inability to make money from online ads is the real culprit…
Harking back to the previous section, Banks now notes Sullivan’s essay and the idea that “many posts are less fully formed than they would be as old-fashioned essays.” Banks uses the word “many,” backing away from Sullivan’s generalization, removing any disagreement I might have.
I usually re-read my posts a few times before clicking the magic button. Once a post is up I'll only change something if there is a typo or grammatical error … or if a phrase seems particularly wordy or pretentious. I try not to tinker too much, grandly reasoning that this random post of mine has become a teeny part of history.
The blog post always represents a slice of time, however carefully it's written. You can grow into essays and take as much time as you need, knowing (of course) that it could always be better.
Well said, and I’m in agreement for most blogs. It’s certainly true for my own writing, where posts (few and far between as they are) get the least review, C&I pieces get more review, true C&I essays (many of which have “On” as the first word of their titles)—as opposed to these sections that are piecemeal essays—get even more, and columns for print publications (which are, or should be, essays) get the most. Of course, those columns also have length restrictions—and it’s much tougher to write a good 800-word essay than it is to write a pretty good 4,000-word piece.
Leigh Anne Vrabel’s May 11, 2009 post at Library alchemy (libraryalchemy.wordpress.com) makes a distinction between professional blogging and personal blogging and offers her reasons for professional blogging. Excerpts:
To demonstrate that it can be done… I wanted to demonstrate to skeptics that it really is possible to keep a professional blog and still get all your other work done. From the day I started until now, I’ve managed to balance collection development, refdesk time, database stuff, and more meetings than you can shake a very big stick at with, on average, twice-weekly entries…
To keep track of my professional accomplishments. Writing and tagging has been really helpful when writing up my self-appraisals, updating my resume, applying for programs like Emerging Leaders, etc…
To explore things that don’t make sense to me… Writing things out helps me make sense and understand them. Blogging about projects I’m working on, or making observations about other 2.0 issues, has helped me clarify for myself what I need to do now or next in any given situation..
To become a better writer… It’s simply not enough to have opinions - one must express them artfully if one is to make an impact… If you’re going to speak publicly at all, you might as well take the opportunity to hone your craft so that the people who stumble across your work have a better chance of benefiting from it…
To express an under-represented point of view about Library 2.0… I started noticing, as I was reading Library 2.0 bloggers, that my experiences and opinions weren’t exactly lining up on the same page. So I figured I’d better engage with that. I find myself disagreeing with the “rock star bloggers” more often than not, not to be a pain, but because my experiences here–and those of my peers, and those of our patrons–are often so radically different from what’s presented as “normal” that I can’t, in all good conscience, NOT say something sometimes…
I’m sure my reasons for blogging will grow and change as my career does…
Read the rest of the post. I see items here that aren’t on McGuire’s list—and ones that may apply to quite a few professionals, particularly if you generalize the final one. I’m particularly fond of the third reason; posts as a form of public exploration can be both revealing and useful. Some of the essays here are also public explorations in longer form—when you think of it, Library 2.0 and “Library 2.0” was an elaborate attempt to figure out what Library 2.0 meant.
Barbara Fister offers a response to a blogging meme in this May 19, 2009 post at Barbara fister’s place (barbarafister.wordpress.com). Excerpts from sections dealing with the “why”:
[My] first foray was to replace an irregular library newsletter with a nimbler, more responsive means of providing information (and avoiding the huge headache of layout and creating content for a newsletter that was, frankly, one newsletter too many for most of its potential audience). Later I started my personal blog for a similar reason: to replace another static web page that was tricky to update, one containing book reviews…
My own blog has evolved into a place where I can integrate the various strands of my life – librarian, academic, novelist, citizen. Another thing about blogging: since discovering FriendFeed I am finding it a wonderfully communal activity.
My personal blog is, for me, a place to work out things that I’m thinking about. There’s something about the medium that is nicely informal and immediate, which is a change from the more academic or polished writing that I do elsewhere. I like the bracing logic of an academic argument, and I like writing fiction in someone else’s first person voice, but blogging is like having a conversation with a friend.
In that final paragraph (the first sentence, repeated in different form earlier), I see Vrabel’s third item expressed differently. It’s an excellent reason to blog.
This one’s from way outside liblogs, a May 10, 2009 post at The FutureBuzz, “Adam Singer on media | marketing | PR.” I won’t get into a Twitter-vs.-blogging discussion, but he does offer a few notable items, along with some odd comments like “Blogging is the antithesis of easy,” an odd statement for something that takes two minutes to set up and little more time to do. Some of the points:
2. Old articles are valuable and still read years later, given infinite life by the engines.
4. A compelling link in a blog entry will be clicked…
6. You own your work in a self-hosted blog and are in total control over how it is presented.
8. Cumulative results over time from blogging, each post incrementally adds value…
15. These are all just tools to share content and ideas, no more, no less… A blog is the perfect place…if you want focused attention and to build an interested community.
Most of the other notes are more specifically arguments for a blog as home, with Twitter as an outpost. One of those is particularly cogent—“13. 140 characters is often more than necessary - but also it is often less than necessary.”
There are lots of comments—including one from a person who’s a Twitterer all the way, regards the need to click on a link as too much trouble, and offers this dystopian comment: “Soon enough our needs will get so great that the thought of reading news in more then [sic] 140 characters will be hard to imagine.” Set aside the key point that many (most?) good blogs are not “news,” this is one person who apparently has no use for perspective or even complex thoughts.
That’s John Dupuis title for a trio of posts at Confessions of a science librarian (the old one) on February 4, 9, and 19, 2009.
The point here is to make the case that blogging is good for your career. It's been good for me and it's been good for a lot of other people and I think it has potential for everyone.
Now, is everyone a blogger-in-waiting? Of course not. Would absolutely everyone actually benefit from blogging? Probably not. And if absolutely everyone did take up blogging, would the massive amount of noise generated actually cancel itself out and end up hardly benefiting anyone at all? Probably.
This is an interesting take on generalization: Blogging might have potential for everyone, but that doesn’t mean everyone should blog.
Dupuis quotes other bloggers, specifically Daniel Lemire, and I think you need to go to Dupuis’ posts and continue from there. Dupuis has written a good roundup of his own, adding value through his comments and selections—and, as with most blogs, his posts have live links.
I believe that if you blog to become famous (in other words, to explicitly build your reputation, with cynicism not passion), that will be your reputation. If you blog to share and grow and explore, it's that passion that will hopefully influence your reputation-building efforts and that any concrete benefits that you accrue will reflect that…
Decide for yourself whether or not you could integrate blogging into your own professional development plan. It's definitely worth it for pretty well anyone to at least give it a try. And if you don't have a professional development plan, I have to say that blogging will help you define and refine your goals and interests. Believe it or not, just writing a little about a lot of different things really will help you figure out what's important to you…
I believe that blogging has a lot of benefits for building reputation at the very outset of a career, as it can really help to distinguish one candidate from another…
Do you find your own motives here? Do you have different reasons?
There’s little here about making big bucks from advertising, becoming a rockstar or other dubious rewards for blogging. There’s a lot about professional communication and personal growth. This is probably as it should be.
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