Blogging and the Public Face of Archaeology

Colleen Morgan posted another question to generate good conversation and buzz in the lead up to SAA conference panel on Blogging Archaeology (here’s my response to her first question):

Blogging archaeology is often fraught with tensions that are sometimes not immediately apparent. Beyond the general problems that come with performing as a public intellectual, what risks do archaeologists take when they make themselves available to the public via blogging? What (if any) are the unexpected consequences of blogging? How do you choose what to share?

NewImageI can offer two answers to this question:

1. At my project on Cyprus, the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, we produced a short guide on how to write a for our various blogs. PKAP, like many projects, asked students and staff to blog about their experiences as part of a commitment to a reflexive method and as a component of the project’s hybrid position between a pure research project and a undergraduate field school. Our guidelines were pretty straight forward and practical: be respectful and courteous, regard the blog as the extension of conversations and experience within the project, and when in doubt ask whether its appropriate to post a story, picture, or discovery.  In general, students and staff had a good sense of censorship. In fact, as you can tell from our blogs – undergraduate, graduate, staff – many of the posts are mundane or, frankly, silly.

The response to our blog has only been positive from university administrators, colleagues, and other stakeholders. In large part, this is because we use the blog as way to project the positive aspects of our project to a wider audience (experiential learning, the excitement of discovery, “exotic” locales, camaraderie, the challenges of research, et c.).  Because these aspects of the project are explicitly foregrounded in the project discourse, there is little need (beyond the handout above) to promote these subjects as topics for the blog in a explicit way.  In other words, the blog is a fairly (if a bit Pollyanna-ish) accurate representation of our project’s (undoubtedly aspirational) view of itself.

At the same time, we explicitly and implicitly limit how much of our archaeology appears in the project’s blogs. This is, in part, because our site is very vulnerable to looting (and we know that people in the community read the blogs), the host countries (Cyprus and the UK) reserve some rights to be informed of our results before they are released to the general public, and the goal of the blog is to be a record of experiences rather than objects. As the project has moved into the interpretative and analytical stage, we have released more archaeological information, but as I discussed yesterday, the place of the blog in ecosystem of knowledge production makes these conclusions preliminary, provisional, and tentative.

2. A professional blog is just another fragment of our digitized world. As Colleen points out, blogs have mostly functioned as a form of public outreach and archaeologists have been playing the public outreach game for decades (for example…).  As a result there are a set of fairly routine realizations that any archaeologist recognizes when communicating to the public about archaeology: recognize the risk of looting (and that many looters are local) and take steps to avoid tempting fate, respect the host country’s procedures for publicizing discoveries (e.g. do not go to the NYTimes before you tell the local officials), recognize that the archaeologist’s cynical joy of toppling traditional ideas is not shared by everyone, respect the attention span and interests of a public reader, embrace opportunities to give back to the community, et c.

The difference today is that our digital world allows information to travel so much more quickly and to disperse so much more rapidly than before. An informal talk at a local military installation can appear almost instantly in the installation’s newspaper which is published online. A mildly controversial talk in front of a public audience in a museum in Canada can reach the ears of an retired academic in the UK before the reception is over. This is hardly a revelation, of course. Archaeologists communicate instantly and electronically about conference papers, scholarly articles, new books, and even blogs all the time.  Any expectation that a paper, publication, informal talk will somehow remain outside of the public eye is delusional (as so many of our politicians and members of our intelligence community have found out!).

In this world, blogs have become ways to manage one’s digital and public identity. If an archaeological project does not blog or maintain a presence in the digital world, that project is basically ceding a significant aspect of their public face to other people.  While it is probably unreasonable to expect projects to have an influence over every person engaged in public conversation about their work, I think it is safe to say that it’s irresponsible not to make any effort to influence how people understand their methods, results, and interpretation. A blog represents one part of a program to manage the dissemination of archaeological knowledge in general, and a particularly easy, inexpensive, and relevant tool for archaeology in the digital age.

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