I keep meaning to write something on the intensive series of reflections on blogging – now unfolding across several posts – that has been taking place over at The Kugelmass Episodes. While I was able to participate in the very earliest rounds of these reflections, my schedule has intruded recently, and so I wanted to draw attention to the discussion arc in a more comprehensive way here.
Joseph first voiced concern about the self-referentiality and closed character of certain academic blogs, a post which then led me to offer a bit of a “wild sociology” on what I speculated might be intrinsic tensions created by the search for interdisciplinary discussions. To quote a slice from one of my interventions:
The content/community balance is a difficult one – among other things, because the fact that blogs break across established institutional and disciplinary barriers actually necessitates the negotiation of some kind of common frame of reference that makes productive, high-level discussion possible. Of course, some blogs are happy to host free-for-alls of ever-renewed mutual incomprehension… ;-P But if you want to use the potential diversity of a blogging community creatively, generatively, this probably does mean letting a community hash out its own rituals, references, and rules – and these shared norms, plus an active knowledge of the history of the discussion in a particular community, does tend, over time, to raise the barriers to participation for new posters – and raise the risks that established posters will cold shoulder anyone new… Some blogs won’t mind this process of closure – they might be perfectly happy to communicate with the community that has already coalesced around them. The challenge is for those blogs who want to remain open: how can we do this while (1) facilitating the kinds of shared vocabularies that enable productive communication across backgrounds, and (2) dealing with the sheer weight of our own accumulated histories, so that a lack of knowledge of the sorts of discussions that have already taken place doesn’t unduly disadvantage new participants…
But shared vocabulary – of the sort that develops in particular in longish discussions that perists across blogs or within a blogging community over a longish period of time – can be both absolutely essential to a high-level discussion, and also extremely difficult to communicate easily to new readers… But really productive, cumulative discussions – exactly the sorts of discussions I most want to have – come at a price, in terms of what they ask from new readers… And sometimes even old ones: I’ve had a couple of long-term readers mention on back channels that they are having trouble following posts related to cross-blog discussions because these posts place them in the position of seeing, effectively, half the conversation – either because they’re not following links over to the other blog (just because I read specific blogs, doesn’t mean my readers feel compelled to…), or because, when they do follow such links, they find the unfamiliar discursive environment too alien (they’ve gotten used to my style, but don’t want to adjust to someone else’s when they don’t plan on reading regularly)… So my guess would be that, from the standpoint of at least a few folks who are otherwise very interested in what I write, I’m engaging in too many referential conversations that seem exclusionary…
…the medium has its own dynamics, and requires a delicate balance between producing content and producing community – a balance that, I suspect, becomes more and more difficult as blogs become better established… And that, like all balances, spends most of its time out of its ideal equilibrium state… ;-P
Joseph then responded by reiterating his concerns with the risk of closure and referentiality in blogging communities, and suggesting some standards for ensuring the continued openness of blog content:
I think that “continuity” is a fairly hard thing to achieve on the Internet, and I haven’t been particularly happy with where I’ve seen it lead. For example, it often leads to paralyzing rhetorical identities for given bloggers. I like the medium best when it is pithy, provocative, and alive with the enthusiasms of the moment.
Most of the personal interactions to which blogging can lead ought to be carried out via so-called “back channels”: e-mail, instant messaging, and (eventually) phone calls and visits. A blog can be anything its user wants, of course…but as someone who wants to provide and peruse writing with intellectual content, I recognize the obligation to the stranger who arrives via a blogroll, or a forwarded or re-posted link, or via Google.
And the discussion continued from there, spilling over a bit into a post at this blog, in which I expressed my concern – not with Joseph’s post specifically, but with the tendency to set down proscriptive rules for the conduct of academic (or other) blogs.
Here my schedule overwhelmed me, and I couldn’t participate in the discussions that centred around Joseph’s subsequent posts. First, in a lovely post titled The Ivory Webpage, Joseph rejects the common distinction, highlighted in a recent Acephalous discussion, between “academic blogs” and “academics who blog”, and proposes that we move away from the notion of academic blogging altogether. Joseph proposes instead breaking down the professional and ivory tower emphasis suggested in the term “academic” blogging, and moving toward a notion of “intellectual” blogs – a term that I very much like, particularly given that I actually use this blog specifically to explore a great deal of content that I regard as “intellectual”, but that has no clear cut and easy relationship to more normative kinds of academic writing. At the same time, though, I honestly can’t recognise much of what I do here in Joseph’s elaboration of the concept of “intellectual blogging”, which he defines in terms of its “focus on culture and politics”, and which he also seems to suggest should observe a standard of “accessibility”. My thought was: not much of any of that going on around these parts… ;-P Does this mean I have a… nonintellectual blog? ;-P
Joseph moved on to a more lighthearted post on blogging faux pas. This post suffered, I suspect, from having been sandwiched in between posts on blogging that were much more serious in their tone and intent – even recognising that the post was intended to be humorous, I found myself running down Joseph’s list, thinking of all the posts I’d written that had committed precisely these “sins”, and wondering how Joseph finds the time to maintain such high standards… ;-P I should note that one of the posts at this blog did receive positive mention for its “excessiveness” – i.e., for that special kind of obliviousness and unconcern for my readers that regularly leads me to write blog posts that massively exceed the short, pithy length that is supposed to define the medium, while also holding forth, repeatedly, on highly idiosyncratic topics that one wouldn’t specifically expect to hold much interest for regulars (Klein bottles, anyone? poverty of the stimulus?). I take this to be a bit like Joseph’s version of awarding the Kinsey Memorial Golden Gall Wasp prize for dogged persistence in pursuit of interests unfathomable to anyone else… ;-P
Joseph then moved into the always dangerous ground of discussing flame wars and appropriate standards for self-expression in intellectual discussions online.
I take it that Joseph’s intention in writing these each of these posts was, partially, to be self-reflexive – to explore the standards he wishes to adopt as a matter of personal ethics and reflexive practice – and partially to be sociological – to explore the impacts of specific practices on blogging culture.
Nevertheless, as expressed, some of the recommendations sound quite proscriptive: I found myself, as I read, unable to stop myself using the standards set forth in these pieces as one might one of those self-help articles in a grocery checkout-stand magazine: ticking off the posts on this blog against Joseph’s criteria. By the end, I think I’d managed to demonstrate that, by Joseph’s stated standards, I’m a rude, boring, exclusionary, self-referential, in-joke obsessed, non-intellectual blogger… ;-P Please note that I don’t seriously mean this – or, more to the point, I don’t think Joseph seriously meant this: among other things, because he has several times held up this blog as a positive example of what can be achieved through a form of intellectual blogging. Nevertheless, I wondered whether there might be a tension between, on the one hand, what Joseph is seeking to do and, on the other, his specific strategy for framing the issue – a tension which sometimes managed to suggest a judgmental stance that, having interacted with Joseph for some time now across many discussions, I very much doubt he actually intends.
Some commenters, I gather, had similar reactions. Tomemos, for example, suggested:
More broadly, I also would tactfully submit that it is perhaps problematic to suggest how people should generally be populating their blogs—or at least, it’s problematic to suggest how they should not be populating them. After all, very few of us are doing this for our jobs, and many of us are writing as much for ourselves as for an audience. That being the case, I don’t think the relationship between blogger and reader is as straightforward as it is between, say, a commercially-released film and its audience: the blogger is rarely dependent on the reader for support, and the reasons to blog are potentially much more varied than the reasons to make a movie. The epithet “plagiarism” in particular is strong meat; I sometimes get tired of endless YouTube vids too, but the author is hardly passing off other work as his or her own own. I suspect that you have in mind blogs which were once creative but have succumbed to the entropy of endless linkage, but as written it seems categorical.
To be clear, I’m not saying that one should always be mum about what happens on the internet—for instance, since blog/online etiquette is a matter of how we treat each other rather than just a matter of preference, discussing it certainly seems legitimate to me. I’m sure that comes as a great relief to you.
And from the (understandably more emotive) discussion on flame wars and appropriate standards of self-expression in online debates, Namaroopa argued:
Bluntly: I’m saying that I don’t care what you want to read. I don’t want instructions about how to feel for blogging in such a manner. I am not in any way central to this discussion, but a lot of other bloggers I can’t speak for have said similar things before. To me, the topics people are flaming about are not a debate game. Debating other people’s choices subjects them to the possibility of losing.
The original post read that way to me especially because you describe “bad” irritation, the example of doing something better, and the “we” assumed about readers’ positions.
While the always brilliant and inimitable belledame insisted:
at any rate, i gotta say, I do bridle at the suggestion that i am “unhinged” because i use terms like “fuck you, shitbag.” particularly when those phrases are directed at people who in fact have been incredibly, sweetly venomous, without so much as raising their voice. That casual observers don’t see the poison behind the reasonable sounding language is 1) why it’s so bloody effective and 2) why some of us lose our shit every so often, out of sheer frustration. I am sure that it would be more -politically- effective for me to manage to not lose my shit ever, and you know, i’ve been working on it? but at the same time: yeah. I really don’t want to lose any more sleep over the idea that somewhere, someone who hasn’t spoken up and never will, might be offended.
These reactions – which I think relate more to the form, than to the content, of Joseph’s posts – bring me back to the point I raised in my initial intervention into this recent round of discussion about academic blogging:
why are we so tempted to generalise this medium? Does it need to be one thing? Do its mechanics really dictate a strong and pregiven trajectory for the realisation of its potentials? Do we need a consensus on where “we” are going, with our writing in this form?
And yet, of course, we each do want to have specific kinds of discussions – and not other kinds – and we each have an interest in the spread of the forms of discussions we would like to take place. Proscriptive standards are certainly one way to try to achieve this – and, in a purely professionalised blogging space, they might in fact be quite effective. But if we are to take seriously the potential expressed in Joseph’s “Ivory Webpage” post – the very important potential, I think, of bridging professional and nonprofessional spaces into a broader intellectual blogging sphere – the proscriptive route is both difficult to pursue, and arguably in structural tension with the kinds of discussion we’re trying to promote.
Perhaps a more adequate concept, to replace the notion of proscriptive standards in this context, would be something like model practices? Demonstrating, through a standard of writing and discussion on our own blogs, some of the potentials of the medium? I think Joseph engages in such model practices – and, I suspect, this recent round of posts was simply an attempt to refine those practices through more overt and shared reflection. The issue is how to phrase this kind of reflection so that it centres on how we can personally better meet our own ideals, and then invites others to help us refine these ideals and formulate them in better ways, rather than suggesting – as I’m sure Joseph had no intention of doing – that others have fallen short of ideals we have arbitrarily set for them. That, or we can just use my “excessive” approach – and write whatever the hell we want, and assume the readers will sort themselves into the communities that appeal to them… ;-P