On Tuesday afternoon at the MSR Symposium, we divided up into small groups to talk about focused topics—my group was nominally about “small-scale publishing,” and included David Weinberger, Gina Venolia, and Susan Herring. (A nice mix of academic and industry expertise.) Because we had limited time, we narrowed our focus down to academic blogging, and we had an amazingly productive discussion on that topic. (As an aside, it was interesting to see that the backchannel at the conference went absolutely silent for the entire duration of the breakout sessions and the reporting back of results; I know this because I left it running in the background in order to capture anything said, but found a whole lot of nothing when I returned.)
This is my take on our group’s discussion; keep in mind that we had only about half an hour to talk, so this is almost all stream-of-consciousness material. Nonetheless, I think it’s worth sharing—and I promised that I would.
We started by trying to define what we thought were the salient characteristics of blogs from the point of view of someone publishing academic work or research, and came up with the following:
- speed of publishing (and dissemination)
- the ability to publish (and get feedback on) work in progress
- an increased authorial/personal voice (in contrast to the typical passive voice of academic writing)
- bypassing of the editorial process
- increased distributed peer review.
Then we took up the question of why many academics don’t currently blog, and a variety of themes emerged. We touched on the topic of concerns about institutional control (“what will my dean think if I put this on my professional, institutionally-branded site?”), but that wasn’t a major issue.
Other reasons we identified were based on the risks of sharing information before research is complete (or, in some cases, even begun). That included a fear of having ideas stolen before they’re ready, as well as a fear of having ideas attacked before they’re fully thought through. The latter is something that danah and I both encountered first-hand on misbehaving.net when we first started talking about the idea of defining weblogs. And the disclaimer I felt impelled to include at the beginning of this post is related to that fear as well.
An important topic that we discussed centered around authority and reputation management. There are critical questions in this context, which significantly impact the use of blogs by academics. How do blogs change the authority that academics have in discourse? How do we manage our professional reputation? (This is directly relevant to work currently being done by danah in the context of managing and displaying faceted identify.) What information do we feel comfortable revealing, and to whom? (This is another topic that cuts close to home for me; see the comments and trackbacks here for some discussions on the topic that took place last year; unfortunately, the meat of the discussion was on Wealth Bondage, but the page in question seems to have become corrupted.)
Then we turned to ways that blogs are qualitatively different from other publication media used by academics. One significant difference is between monologic and dialogic modes; academic papers are typically meant to end a conversation by coming up with a definitive answer, whereas blogs are typically meant to start a conversation by inviting comment and linked commentary.
Despite all this, we know that many academics do blog (take a look at the sidebar on Crooked Timber for a great list of academic blogs). Why? I noted that blogging allows me to build connections and get feedback from people I wouldn’t otherwise have know to ask (especially from other disciplines). David Weinberger had a great line, that as an academic, “I’d rather be wrong earlier.” The early, informal peer review from weblogs can help you to find out if you’re headed down the primrose path before you’ve committed too many resources.
Another advantage for the researcher is that the corpus of the blog becomes a searchable archive of ideas/observations, and that in turn can leading to emergent theses/ideas. Many bloggers find themselves “mining” their blog (often with Google’s help) to find ideas for later development.
In an attempt to add some practicality to our discussion, we talked a bit about the tools and features we need for academic blogging. Three things we noted in this context were better searchability (how can we best identify emergent ideas and themes in our own writing, for example?), better tracking of cross-blog communication (which isn’t a unique need in academia, certainly), and easier, more intuitive ways to control access (based on the role management issue).
Finally, we tried to come up with what we saw as viable and interesting research questions on the topic. Here’s what we ended up with:
- How do weblogs change the perception of the author—personally and professionally?
- Does blogging an idea enhance or degrade an idea’s credibility? The author’s credibility?
- How do conversations develop across blogs over time?
- How do we operationalize conversations? Linking to, talking about, commenting on?
- What factors influence the decision to use lightweight publishing, and which format is best suited for what type of activity (weblogs vs wikis, for example)