It’s always interesting to read about why people blog. Academic blogs are particular creatures that share similarities with, but are also distinct from, more journalistically oriented blogs. Over at the London School of Economics’ “Impact of Social Science” blog, Patrick Dunleavy and Chris Gilson claim that shifts in research communications and publishing environments means “blogging is quite simply, one of the most important things that an academic should be doing right now.” (Not sure I’d go that far.) They also insist that blogging is one way to engage in more public forms of scholarship. (On this, I mostly agree.) For me, my blog serves several purposes, but most of all it’s a personal Wikipedia-style archive—a running account of my work—and it helps exercise my writing while allowing me to write in different styles and formats. By far, the best thing I’ve read on blogging comes from Andrew Sullivan on “Why I Blog” at The Atlantic. The essay’s blurb explains:
For centuries, writers have experimented with forms that evoke the imperfection of thought, the inconstancy of human affairs, and the chastening passage of time. But as blogging evolves as a literary form, it is generating a new and quintessentially postmodern idiom that’s enabling writers to express themselves in ways that have never been seen or understood before. Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy. Yet the interaction it enables between writer and reader is unprecedented, visceral, and sometimes brutal. And make no mistake: it heralds a golden era for journalism.
Having straddled the worlds of journalism and academia for all my professional life, most of what Sullivan argues makes a lot of sense to me, particularly the idea of a blog being a venue for “writing out loud.” A few more interesting, scattered quotes from Sullivan’s article:
Blogging is therefore 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, therefore, 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.
To blog is therefore to let go of your writing in a way, to hold it at arm’s length, open it to scrutiny, allow it to float in the ether for a while, and to let others, as Montaigne did, pivot you toward relative truth.
And if you think of blogging as more like talk radio or cable news than opinion magazines or daily newspapers, then this personalized emphasis is less surprising. People have a voice for radio and a face for television. For blogging, they have a sensibility.
A successful blog therefore has to balance itself between a writer’s own take on the world and others. Some bloggers collect, or “aggregate,” other bloggers’ posts with dozens of quick links and minimalist opinion topspin… Others are more eclectic, or aggregate links in a particular niche, or cater to a settled and knowledgeable reader base.
Sullivan makes clear that blogging is not a replacement to more traditional journalistic genres; the same is obviously true for scholarly pursuits. The other formats and an audience substantively familiar with those formats are, in many ways, a necessary pre-condition for blogging. And, as Dunleavy and Gilson note, academic blogs have the potential to create mutually positive feedback loops with more traditional scholarly publishing:
Recent research from the World Bank has shown that blogging about an academic article can lead to hundreds of new readers when before there were only a handful. Blogging in multi-author blogs is a great way to build knowledge of your work, to grow readership of useful articles and research reports, to build up citations, and to foster debate across academia, government, civil society and the public in general.
The authors go on to make a strong practical and substantive case for favoring group blogs. However, the blog still strikes me as a somewhat awkward academic format: its naked exposure, the admitted fallibility, the off-the-cuff remark (not to mention brevity) are all things that are normally frowned upon or obscured in broader academic practices—at least, in the social sciences and humanities. But academic blogs are varied, and not all of them are intended or used as a public intellectual work space. This would, of course, require a humility and transparency that is some times rare in our world.
Video interview with Sullivan on blogging: