Over the last few months I’ve thought a good bit about blogging. Part of this was motivated by the 10th anniversary of an article I wrote for Archaeology Magazine’s website on the “Blogging Archaeology and the Archaeology of Blogging.” This piece feels like it’s from another era when Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr were in their infancies and academic publishing on the web still felt like a risky proposition that needed to be explained or advocated (especially as this piece was written in my spare time as a fellow at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens!). More recently, Andrew Reinhard and I wrote a piece on blogging in archaeology for Internet Archaeology. In this piece, I tried to emphasize academic bloggers as disciplinary and generic community of practice that initially organized around blogrolls and RSS feeds and now has become increasingly mediated by the growing reach of social media. While the open reviewers of this piece (and my coauthor!) were somewhat less sanguine about the viability of blogs as a platform for serious scholarly communication, I remained committed to the blogging platform.
Only very recently, did I experience a crisis in faith for lots of reasons. Partly, I worried that my droning voice takes up a certain amount of space in the collective attention of my peers, colleagues, and readers, and I should maybe cede the floor. I also worried that maybe the culture of the web had changed enough that my rather unguarded posts could do real harm in an increasingly politically charged environment. After thinking about it for a few weeks and actually deciding to quit, I quietly kept blogging for all the reasons that I’ve always blogged.
Over the last week, my friends and colleagues have started (once again) to announce their departure from Facebook after the most recent data mining scandal. I’m vaguely sympathetic in that I find Facebook’s business practices distasteful and annoying. Twitter continues to overwhelm me and I struggle to filter my feed down to manageable numbers of posts to read, people to follow, and conversations to engage.
On the opposite end of the new media spectrum from social media is the recent impressive growth of collaborative projects like Eidolon for Classics and, of course, the rise of the academic columnist on mainstream media platforms like Sarah Bond or Ian Bogost. These individuals and projects are remarkable for the scope and depth of their perspectives and the genuine spirit of collaboration, but they lack the provisional character of blogs and the polish and professionalism clearly indicate that these individuals (and the editors with whom they work) know how to play their instruments, speak to a wide audience, and, in the case of mainstream media platforms, generate content that attracts page views and advertising dollars to their patrons.
Folks like Jason Kottke and Dan Cohen have written interesting things about the place that the independent blog occupies on the web. If social media and mainstream publishing are designed, to some extent, to commodify content – whatever their other benefits – independent blogging remains something else entirely. Among academics, the independent blog is almost certainly non-commercial (and in this way is manifestly a luxury of the “creative class” who have the time, freedom, and expertise to indulge such practices). In most cases it neither counts for academic promotion or tenure nor is it easily commodified. It relies, at best, on small pools of readers who know of its existence through word of mouth or random searches on the web. The quality of independent blogs is uneven and they ideas that they play are often provisional and require a kind of critical awareness on the part of reader. I’ve increasingly come to think of my blog as a space for first drafts and for ideas.
Finally, there is something unmistakably “slow” about independent blogs. While they certainly emerged alongside other manifestations of the interactive web (Web 2.0) with the expectation that readers would comment and engage with authors on blogs, the reality is that this rarely occurs on the blog page itself. More frequently, of course, are conversations between blogs with mutual links making clear contested or nuanced perspectives between authors, but even this practice is relatively deliberate and sparse compared to the spontaneity present in the dense social networks hosted by Facebook or Twitter.
More importantly, the links between blogs and bloggers are largely done by hand meaning that the intellectual, academic, and topical networks manifest in academic blogging are not algorithmically generated but genuine commitments to dialogue, sharing ideas, and community. If the automated communities of social media provide us with almost instant gratification, then the deliberate relationships established by blogging require patience and intentionality on the part of the reader and the writer. If the current flight from Facebook marks a change in how we consume media on the web, then as bloggers we have an opportunity to step into the gap and replace a sense of community based on computer generated relationships with one built around genuine connections to other writers and readers. This will be work, but might be worth it.