Sunday, September 27, 2009

'blogging is not serious writing': Oh, re-he-he-he-heallllly?

file under: you can't be serious.

Blogging, writes Jose Quesada over at the Academic Productivity blog, is not serious writing. Quesada references Jaron Lanier's essay,"Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism," in which Lanier argues that

writing professionally and well takes time and that most authors need to be paid to take that time. In this regard, blogging is not writing. For example, it's easy to be loved as a blogger. All you have to do is play to the crowd. Or you can flame the crowd to get attention. Nothing is wrong with either of those activities. What I think of as real writing, however, writing meant to last, is something else. It involves articulating a perspective that is not just reactive to yesterday's moves in a conversation.

Far from challenging either the notion that "writing meant to last" is not "just reactive" or that blogposts are somehow just reactive and not meant to last, Quesada agrees with Lanier's stance and adds that

[a]ll academics are painfully aware that writing well takes time, and some know that writing well is not a prerequisite for having a successful blog.

So, basically, it doesn’t pay off to painfully slowly distill ideas for a blog post. In a sense, consuming blog posts –let alone microblogging 140-character blurbs- warrants you a so-so level of refinement.... Playing to the crowd –what bloggers must do, according to Lanier- does not require incredibly solid thinking; it’s a completely different skill.

Truly, I've had enough of this outdated stance with respect to blogs. It's worth pointing out that Lanier's essay dates back to 2006--eons ago, from the perspective of the social revolution. Here in 2009, blogs have come into their own as spaces for serious engagement with serious ideas. (Author update 9/27/09, 11:18 PM: Not to press too hard on this issue, but Lanier's essay is so outdated that it refers to Wikipedia as "the Wikipedia"--not once, not twice, but twenty-one times. Just imagine the alternate universe where we talk about looking up information on the Wikipedia--akin to tweeting on the Twitter or posting a new status update on the Facebook. That would make for a very different the America, that's for sure.)

Academics have embraced the platform in a variety of ways. Media scholar Henry Jenkins uses his blog for presentation and exchange of serious ideas. Over at the Tiger Beatdown, Sady Doyle takes on the outrages of a deeply sexist society with a playful tone (she explains her blog is about "ladybusiness") that only heightens her deeply effective expression of rage. HASTAC co-founder and Duke University professor Cathy Davidson uses her blog to work through key issues (social media, literacy practices, academia) in an informal, inviting, colloquial tone. Though I've only offered three examples, academics are in fact embracing the weblog in their own interesting ways by the dozens--by the hundreds, perhaps by the thousands.

Quesada argues that "blogging will do nothing in an academic CV." I couldn't disagree more. While it may be true that blogposts don't yet count as "serious" academic discourse on par with publication in peer reviewed journals, not having a blog is increasingly a glaring omission, especially for academics who are or should be focused on the role of social media within their discipline (which is to say just about every academic).

Career advancement issues aside, Quesada seems to be arguing that producing thoughtful, intellectually challenging blogposts is not a productive enterprise for academics--that if they choose to blog, they should use it to reach a popular audience instead of using it to present deeper intellectual work. "What I think could work," he writes,
is a hybrid between a focused paper (that nobody would read other than a close circle of scientists) and a blog post that ‘plays to the masses’ and tries hard to capture attention at the cost of rigor and polish.

(Shut up! the blogger in me wants to holler. At the cost of rigor and polish? Do you even read any academic blogs? *cough* *sputter* ::regains composure::)

One of the most significant obstacles to intellectual progress is the difficulty of getting interesting but new or untested ideas circulated among other thinkers--academics and non-academics alike. This is especially true for young academics (like me!) who have an awful lot to say but neither the credentials nor the years of research to back up their ideas. My work in maintaining a blog--and using it to present ideas that I think are both rigorous and fairly well polished--allows me to not only offer up my thoughts for examination by thinkers whose opinions matter to me, but also to refine, build on, or dismiss ideas based on input from others. (I got Ted Castronova to comment on my blog!) Further, when other academics whose work I admire keep a blog, I have the opportunity to weigh in on and perhaps contribute to their ideas. (I get to comment on Henry Jenkins' blog!)

In short, academic blogs drop the barriers to participation in productive, valuable and meaningful ways--and the more seriously academics take this platform, the more likely it is that blogs will increase in significance (and, incidentally, upping the odds that blogging will come to mean something on an academic CV).

We would do well to remember that academic productivity is about much more than finding ways to get your work done efficiently. It's also about being a productive member of a larger community of thinkers and researchers, all of whom benefit from the wider circulation of more ideas, from more people, in more participatory ways.


Anonymous said...

There are lots of bloggers who write for a small, but intended, audience. I'm playing to a crowd and so what? I'm not changing the world here and I'm not trying to. My audience is small but tight and made up of a large number of other law- and law-school bloggers. We share ideas in comments and emails and, yes, even 140-character blurbs. It doesn't mean that we take our sites--and our writing--any less seriously, and it certainly doesn't mean that our thinking is any less solid. I put as much time and effort into my work as you do into yours; a blog doesn't have to speak to academics to be well-written.

I've had enough of this outdated stance with regard to blogs. If you stop looking down on us you might realize that we're part of the social media network, too. Without the rest of us you wouldn't have a revolution to write about.

Jenna McWilliams said...

It's not at all my intention to imply that I look down on blogs intended for small, non-academic audiences. Indeed, I agree (and have argued in the above post and elsewhere) that one of the neatest affordances of the weblog is that it supports a vast range of writing styles, intended audiences, and rhetorical purposes. Be funny if you want! Be unpolished and crazy! Use your blog as a diary! Tweet about what you had for breakfast! For godsake, that's also how god intended the blog and microblog to be used.

My argument here is only with respect to the use of blogs by academics for the purpose of expressing and circulating ideas--and to the argument that blogs by their very nature lack rigor and polish. They MIGHT lack rigor and polish, sure, but they don't HAVE to.

melissa said...

Academic productivity is not only about getting work done efficiently, but also to make progress, right? You can play to the masses just to get a piece published too. And although, yes, there is value in being published in peer-reviewed journals, etc, I feel that the idea that this is the only legitimate way to communicate begs the question of whether or not you've forgotten why you're doing what you're doing to begin with.

The advantages of social media, and in correllation with the social revolution, allow more voices to break into the discussion--which has potential to jostle the dominant Discourse.

So, yes, academic blogs provide a platform for more efficent work, but they also, potentially, provide a platform for more genuine work. As has been referenced in this blog before, it's for the love of it. Not necessarily for the money.

Anonymous said...

There's an overall undertone here. Ladybusiness is academic but my blog is not. Perhaps is academic but--wait; is that an academic blog or is it pure slush? Where do we put Perhaps ideolog is but idealawg isn't. Such distinctions are becoming more and more blurred and I'm not sure they shouldn't be.

Melissa said...

I wrote this whole response and then it errored out. Anyhow, here's trying again...

Perhaps a blogger can play to the masses, but so can an academic play to the masses to get a piece published in a journal--and that sort of playing is often more insidious as it becomes mired in polictics and bureaucracy. Yes, there is value to being published in a peer-reviewed journal, but in this social revolution, blogging provides a platform for more voices to enter into the dominant Discourse. Because assuming that the only legitimate voices are the ones being published, it begs the question of whether or not the academics who care only about getting pieces published have forgotten why they're doing it to begin with.

I feel that having a platform like this affords our productivity to be not only more efficient, but more genuine. As has been referenced in this blog so many times before, doing it for love, and not necessarily for money...

melissa said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jenna McWilliams said...

No, I'm only saying that blogs CAN be considered spaces for rigorous and polished discourse, despite arguments to the contrary. I'm not making any proclamations about which blogs are, or which blogs are better than others. From a participatory culture theory perspective, questions of net value are meaningless, anyway. What really matters is what types of communications get taken up in culturally meaningful ways, and why, and for whom.

Ironicus Maximus said...

Well, as purveyors of a blog with absolutely no socially redeeming value, we certainly fit Mr. Quesada's definition, however we feel obligated to say that his view that blogging is not serious writing is somewhat akin to saying Granny Smiths aren't apples.

Of course Granny Smiths aren't all apples, but they are some apples just as "serious writing" isn't all writing, but it is some writing.

What a dull pie we would have if Granny Smiths were the only apples in the world, and what a dull blogosphere if serious writing were the only writing in the blogosphere.

Our point is there's room in this cart (blogosphere) for all the varieties. That's why they call them varieties. Get it Mr. Quesada? Makes a better pie when you mix it up a little.

We also find the veiled implication that only serious writing is valued and, dare we say, good writing to be vaguely insulting and rather narrow is scope, but then we never thought rigor was all it was cracked up to be anyway, which may explain why our graduate chair retired shortly after we received our degree.

But that's another story.

Jenna McWilliams said...

wow. good comment. that's all. just...good comment.

The Untwitterable said...

Hey Jenna,

sorry to write a random thing in here. I was going to use my new media skill of 'copying and pasting' or what I like to call 'transmedia translating' but uh i cannot figure out how to copy the blogpost i wrote in word into my blog box. please save me from my new media distress...if you do, i promise i'll read fully your blogpost and contribute a real comment.

The Untwitterable said...

aw cracker doodles,
i figured it out. ctrl c, ctrl v has made a fool of me. I'll never be foiled by hotkeys again! I'll try to follow this up with a legitimate intelligent comment now lest I prove Quesada's point.

The Untwitterable said...

I think a good contemporary reference for the vices and virtues of blogs can be found in chris mooney and sheril kirshenbaum's Unscientific America - looking solely at science blogs they write that the science blogs most prone to flaming, pseudoscience discussions of otherwise hot button scientific debates, and anti-intellectual riffs seem to be winning the popularity contest, but at the same time there is a good persistent segment of blogs that is recognized in academia for being not just as informative as peer reviewed journals but also much more appealing and public-savvy for non-specialists. The chapter itself is really good, but the whole book was a bit too vague (and I think the publishers made them come off a bit doomsday sounding at times) so it's probably not worth buying or reading otherwise.

Jose said...

Hi Jenna (and commenters).

Looks like we are saying the same thing, but in different ways. I've been blogging for as long as you, and I see the value of blogging as much as anyone. In fact, I have an unfinished post on how blogs and books, been less exposed to the flattening effect of peer review, can be more agile and worth reading. I have a pile of unfinished posts so we'll see.

I'm glad to see that in your field "not having a blog is increasingly a glaring omission". Not in mine, that's for sure! I still blog all the same.

Anyway, what I wanted to emphasize is that 'even if they are not serious writing', they have an important role. But more than that, the style for blogging and writing papers is different, and we need to master both. Calling one 'serious' is not a compliment. Most academics only master the 'serious' style. My point is that we definitely need to put more effort on the other.
I'm not sure how I came across a 'get-out-of-my-lawn' antiblogger :)

But just because we are quoting a lot:
"I’m convinced that some ideas’ natural ecosystem is the blog post, and some papers are unnecessarily elaborated and boring without necessity."

Kylie Peppler said...

I think that the larger institution is certainly a barrier to blogging as being seen as academic work... I can hear the voices on my tenure committee now saying that it's the the lack of traditional types of peer review... Although reading the comments makes me think that there is certainly a way to reconceptualize "peer review" to give it a facelift... So Jenna, the question for me is how are you/we going to go about changing the institution? What's the plan so we can all get behind it? ;)

Jenna McWilliams said...

Since we're quoting a lot:
"It’s just a matter of time until we (or our scientific publishers) realize how much we could gain by being readable, popular, and accessible."

This also comes from Jose's post at Academic Productivity. It does seem that we agree on certain things.

Kylie, it seems like you're the one changing the institution--you and all the faculty members like you who push their students to engage with social media platforms as authentic, valid formats for intellectual engagement. I'll help you along by keeping this blog.

ailsa said...

I listened to David Boud try to demystify publishing in journals describing such papers as entering into a conversation, albeit an incredibly slow one. I enjoy being able to blog and enter into current conversations. Thankyou for blogging this topic.

jdanish said...


One thing that jumped out at me in this discussion is the question of rigor. I found myself wondering "which kinds and aspects of rigor are we talking about?" In the world of journals there is a dramatic range in the rigor demanded by editors / readers, and this is both well known and factors into the tenure process. The flip-side might be that there are clearly a range of kinds (and amounts) of rigor that not only are employed in blogs, but may be demanded in a sense by blog readers. Are they the same, though?

Furthermore, I feel compelled to say that my take is that not blogging is not a glaring omission amongst many faculty yet. It may be amongst the more high-tech faculty (though even then there are very tech-savy faculty who ignore the blogosphere) on the part of students who note which faculty still have a web-site developed in 1999 and which ones are on twitter, but... I think we aren't there yet even if it may seem that way in some circles.


Jenna McWilliams said...

That's so depressing to hear! Does this mean that all good academics will give up blogging in favor of more favored activities? How much is lost when that happens?

jdanish said...

Oh, I don't think it is anything so dramatic. Academics all have a range of voices and audiences, and that was true before blogging was an option and continues to be true. So, my sense is that those who find it interesting, helpful, powerful, etc., will continue to blog, and those that find other venues more / similarly productive will continue to do their work there.

One way I tried to think about it was: if blogging suddenly counted as much for my tenure case as refereed journal articles, would I start blogging regularly?

The answer is ... I don't know for sure, but probably not. I might start with some research into whether the audiences I want to reach are actually reading blogs. My guess is that only a small percentage of them are in my case, in which case I may be able to reach more people via other methods.

Wait, you say, there are other benefits to blogging! True. I won't dispute that, but I'm also not convinced that they are limited to blogging.

Having said all that, I also admit that I have setup my website as a blog, and have a few small posts there. Over time, I'll add to that, and I may get hooked. Or not. I'll let you know in a few years :)

Jenna McWilliams said...

But...but...the potential to reach a broad audience...the potential to throw up interesting ideas that wouldn't survive peer review and to have people around the world comment on your just seems...

What would academia be like without its community? And blogs (and other tools, of course) allow us to think about "academic community" without regard to institutional affiliation or nationality or even credentials. I can comment on Howard Rheingold's blog and get him to comment on mine. Twenty years ago, would there have been any way for an uncredentialled student at a midwestern university to have that opportunity for conversation? (I mean, other than at conferences, where everyone like me wants their shot at Howard too.)

jdanish said...

So, a few quick points, though I don't want to monopolize your comment thread...

1) I think there is and should be a space for non-peer-reviewed ideas, presentations etc. But I also think that there are many upsides to peer review that shouldn't be discounted.

2) Broad audience etc. is great - but which audience where, and is a blog the best place to get to that audience? For some of us and for some topics it is the PERFECT location. For others, less so. Furthermore, I find that with work that branches into many different areas, there are times when it behooves me to talk to very different audiences. So, if I personally were to blog, I'd need to decide between one of those audiences, multiple blogs, or tying to appeal to them all at once, which I think is incredibly problematic (though not always impossible). Also, I've spent a great deal of time over the last 15 years in a host of online discussion formats including blogs, poll sites, bulletin boards, list serves, chat forums, social networking sites, twitter, etc. in a range of roles including lurker, contributor, founder, moderator, reader, casual stop-in, etc. Through all that, I've found that sometimes that big broad audience is really powerful, and sometimes it is distracting when what you really want is to engage with some experts or folks with a shared understanding of the problem, etc. So, basically there are key trade-offs to be considered.

3) I agree that the academic community is crucial. But I also think it existed before blogs, so we should also keep that in mind and think about the ways that it worked well before, and the ways that it might be enhanced.

Basically, I don't disagree with any of your reasons for promoting, writing, or engaging with blogs. I obviously engage in reading them myself! However, I also think there have been many cycles in technology where people declare "this is it! everything is, will, and MUST change" and it isn't always true, or not as people suspect. So, I'm just trying to add my critical voice to the mix and try to think more explicitly about when and how something like a blog can be transformative, and for whom. And when maybe there is a better way to go.

Thanks for reading...

Jenna McWilliams said...

But this time it IS true. Everything is changing, will change, and must change.

jdanish said...

Ah, omniscience. If only you had led with that... ;)

Jenna McWilliams said...

I feel that all of my posts lead with that, implicitly.

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