Another panel on blogging

Both Chuck Tryon and Tim Burke have recently been asked to be on panels on blogging at their home institutions. Today was my turn. The organizer, a colleague of mine in the English department, asked me to talk about why I blog for 8-10 minutes as part of a series for Lehigh Lab.

8-10 minutes! How about 8 to 10 hours?

For lack of a better organizational system, I used (attributively) Tim's 5 points, since they are pretty similar to my own:

1) Because I want to introduce some unexpected influences and ideas into my intellectual and academic work. I want to unsettle the overly domesticated, often hermetic thinking that comes with academic specialization. I want to introduce a “mutational vector” into my scholarly and intellectual work.
2) Because I want a place to publish small writings, odd writings, leftover writings, lazy speculations, half-formed hypotheses. I want a place to publish all the things that I think have some value but not enough to constitute legitimate scholarship. I want a chance to branch into new areas of specialization at a reduced level of intensity and seriousness.
3) Because I want to find out how much of my scholarly work is usefully translatable into a wider public conversation. A lot of my writings on Iraq, for example, are really a public working-out of more scholarly writing I’m doing in my current monograph, a translation of my academic engagement with the historiography of imperialism.
4) Because I want to model for myself and others how we should all behave within an idealized democratic public sphere. I want to figure out how to behave responsibly but also generatively, how to rise to the better angels of my communicative nature.
5) Because I’m a compulsive loudmouth.

The most interesting questions in the Q&A revolved around the problem of how information is organized in the blogosphere. How are things verified? If blogging really blurs the line between professional journalism and idiosyncratic opinion (or, closer to home: between formal scholarship and half-digested chatter), doesn't that pose problems of legitimation?

In an anarcho-libertarian world-view, it's no problem at all if the flow of information and opinion is completely democratized: who cares whether people get their news from Daily Kos or the Times?

But in the real world, it's not so simple. The "reality-based community" needs some sources of legitimation. In my response to the questions, I was perhaps a little too flippant in dismissing the established order. No one knows whether the cacophony of the blogosphere is really going to lead to a paradigm shift in the World Information Order. But for now I actually feel pretty strongly that we need a conceptual and practical division between what one would call professional journalism (and analogously to academia, formal scholarship), and the informal space of blogs. It is necessary for the same reason as it is necessary to know absolutely whether 1 million people died or not during India's Partition. Every community must have norms and standards, as well as a shared version of the general sweep of history. Without it, conversations don't work.

I probably should have said something to that effect. But it sounded much cooler to say "screw the Times..."

* * * *

And below are some things I said (amplifying Tim's five points, or personalizing them). They are pulled from a few pages of notes I culled together before the panel. I've taken out introductory material that I thought would be highly redundant to readers. Sorry if the resulting points are a little discontinuous:

1. New ways of thinking, new sources. I'm a little disaffected by the patterns of thought that characterize scholarly work in my general field (literature) as well as within my sub-fields (postcolonial studies, British modernism). It seems like quite a number of major paradigm shifts –- the ideas that people were especially passionate about –- were hashed out 15 to 30 years ago. There are quite a number of very smart people who are saying versions of something that was already said, pretty well, by other scholars. Where are new ideas going to come from? Sometimes I get new ideas from really excellent conference talks or public lectures; sometimes I get it from journals. But more often the experience resembles something out of a Scott McLemee essay.

Blogging, in contrast, offers access to worlds considerably beyond one's own. Potentially, it can pose a new model for internet-assisted learning, and a new way of modeling ideas and information in the humanities.

2. International readers. About 40 percent of the readers of my blog are reading me from outside the U.S. I have made contacts with bloggers and readers in places like Germany and Denmark, and quite a number in the UK. I've also got -- no surprise here -– some readers in India, most of whom find me through Indian bloggers based in India who link to me. (Journalists Dilip D'Souza, Jai Arjun, and Amit Varma are particularly culpable for the growth of my Indian readership). I also got nominated for an award or two -- “Best India Blog,” and so on. I didn't win, but the attention probably didn't hurt. And did I mention the readers in Japan, Australia, Singapore (ok, just John Holbo there)?

Amongst this international readership there are academics, to be sure. But I'm not entirely sure what it means. Most of the people who are reading this are people I'll never meet, and who will likely have little or no actual impact on my career or my personal life. What is really at stake for me either personally or professionally in blogging? I'm not 100% sure.

3. Brevity is the soul of blogging. Long historical disquisitions generally get skimmed or skipped. Few readers will stick with you for more than 500 words (how many of you are still left, even here?), and most will start skimming after 250. Some tricky nuances or complex evaluations might get sidelined, but the overriding principle is, can you make yourself understood by everyone, and hold their interest? Can you be smart without being pompous?

Trying to meet all those demands leads to a level of discourse somewhere between formal writing and verbal conversation. Many of the skills one uses to get and hold student interest in the classroom also apply to blogging, except in blogging you should always expect that someone who knows as much or more than you do on a given subject is reading what you write. People reading you are quicker to challenge you than people who are talking to you face to face.

4. Blogging is Conversational. Most blog posts work on the principle of the integration of information dissemination, your own critique, and your readers' responses to your critique. Blogging is thus inherently conversational (much more so than either the traditional media or traditional academic scholarship), which means it relies on a pretty highly developed system of etiquette.

The particulars of that system are quite complex. For one thing, if you quote someone else, you have to be quite clear about it, because on the internet, it's pretty easy to figure out whether something might be plagiarism. Also, if you put someone down, expect them to hear about it pretty quickly (even if the person in question doesn't read blogs). Published writers are habitually googling themselves; they'll find what you said. If you say something harsh about the new novel of a well-respected writer, expect to get a nasty note from that person at 2 in the morning (this has happened to me!). One learns what to do and not to do, mainly through trial and error. And one helps other people learn the ropes.
Sociologists have begun to study this system of etiquette (Henry Farrell and Daniel Drezner have been publishing papers on it, which I responded to here, some time ago).

5. Collective process. The conversational quality of blogs means that many key problems are worked out in what might be called a collective process. It's ironic, because most bloggers are also intensely individualistic when it comes to their tastes and social configuration. Quite a number of academic bloggers are a bit alienated at their home colleges and universities.

How can blogging be at once driven by an individualist ethos, and such an intensely collective/reciprocal universe, where you depend -- completely -- on other people linking to you? That's another one I'm still thinking about.