A Memorial for a Digital Friend: Diana Gilliland Wright

Yesterday, I learned that Diana Gilliland Wright had died earlier this month. I didn’t know her very well and, in fact, I can’t exactly remember if I had ever met her. I knew her mostly via email, comments on my blog, and her own voluminous blogging output.

Over the last decade, as my research interest shifted toward the Argolid, she and I corresponded a bit more regularly as she offered us the occasional insight based on her years of work on the city of Nafplion and its environs. From what I can gather she wrote her dissertation on a 15th century Venetian administrator at Nafplion, Bartolomeo Minio. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never read it. Nor have I read any of her formal scholarship. What I did read, quite regularly, were her blogs.

Year ago, when blogging was still fresh and exciting and filled bloggers with hope, we envisioned a world where bloggers read each others’ work and reached out to one another and commented and shared each others’ work through hyperlinks and blogrolls and ultimately forged relationships across networks of blogs. Diana Wright did all that and was a regularly commenter on my blog from its earliest days (on Typepad!). And even as the promise of blogs as a corresponding medium faded a bit, she continued to reach out via email to offer comments and ask for publications. I remember sending her a few copies of North Dakota Quarterly at some point as well and hoping that she found the poetry and fiction in those pages interesting.

From what I can piece together she ran two blogs. The blog that I knew best was called “Surprised by Time” and it largely focused on the Medieval Morea (or Peloponnesus). Her interests were wide ranging and did much to make transparent murky waters separating the Medieval and Early Modern worlds. The scions of Byzantine elite families rubbed shoulders with Venetian administrators, on assignment, Ottoman officials, and Mediterranean diplomats, literati, and ne’er-do-wells. Palaiologoi cross paths with Italian merchants and Ottoman travelers, Pashas, and poets. Each of the over 200 entries, offered a startling glimpse into a world often overlooked by scholars preoccupied by tidier narratives of rise and decline of empire and neglectful of the messier interface of daily life among those most effected by political and cultural change. To Dr. Wright’s particular credit, the blog exists under a CC-By-SA license meaning that anyone can share her work as long as they credit her and make their work available under an open license. The blog appears to be fairly well archived by the internet archive, but I would be keen to entertain ways to preserve it more formally. 

For many years, she also maintained a landing page of sorts called “Nauplion.net” where she offered an index of her work and the work of her partner Pierre MacKay which featured regularly on her blog. It also featured links to many scans of hard to find primary sources some of which were translated on Surprised by Time. This site is no longer working and hadn’t been updated in many years, but it is preserved on the Internet Archive.

[By coincidence, I’m teaching Evliya Çelebi this week and using Pierre MacKay’s translation of Evliya’s visit to Corinth in my class. Diana Wright posted bits and pieces of Pierre’s translation and the story of his discovery of Evliya’s manuscript on her blog.]

Her other blog, Firesteel is an anthology of poetry gleaned from ancient and modern sources and from Greek, Ottoman, Arab, Italian, French and English language poets. I don’t know whether the poetry posted here and her more academic content crossed paths in some kind of formal way, but it really is an amazing collection of work (which I suspect violates all sort of copyrights, but I get the sense that Diana Wright just didn’t really care). 

~

As a small, digital memorial to Diana Gilliland Wright’s passing, I would encourage you spend a moment looking at her online legacy and recognizing it as a gesture of a kind of digital kinship that could connect individuals who had never met. For whatever reason, her profile included a link to John Coltrane’s 1957 recording of “While My Lady Sleeps.” It feels like an appropriate soundtrack for a visit to her digital world. 

. . . a little wine for remembrance . . . a little water for the dust.  

The Year in Blogging

When I first started blogging, I had this idea that I my blog would somehow make my research more accessible to the average web surfer. I still believe that this is a worthwhile pursuit, but I expect that I get very few “average non-academic web denizens” stopping by my blog.

This worries me sometimes because I get concerned that recently “public scholarship” in its eagerness to capture the “attention economy” (see Andrew Henry’s recent Pasts Imperfect on this) has embraced a pattern of surfing the latest media maelstrom or adopted click-bait-esque approaches capturing bored social media scrollers. This isn’t bad, in and of itself, and if leveraging what I might playfully call the “outrage economy,” works to draw readers into more sustained and subtle conversations about the past, then I’m all for it. In fact, being able to write across multiple registers from the outraged to the journalistic and academic is a brilliant skill that we ought to cultivate as a key component of effective activism.

Unfortunately, I’m not always convinced that the skill of writing across genres and registers always supports a more tolerant and magnanimous view of the world. In fact, it seems like there is a certain tendency for even the most sober minded academics to be dragged down into the muck of pedantic bickering, arguments resting on supposed expertise, and even the occasional ad hominem attack. Worse still, academics get drawn into the politically fraught (and in most cases unnecessary and vaguely colonialist) game of myth-busting where they seek to attack popular misconceptions not to produce a more informed audience, in general, but to advance their own personal brand or, at very least, their own version of expertise (typically academic).

I can’t help feeling a bit depressed by all this and it has made me sour a bit on blogging. Of course, I recognize that at its best, academic blogging (and our presence on social media and podcasts and youtubling and the like) can create a space where new forms of community an emerge and these forms of community operating outside of the traditional institutional, academic, and political constraints can give voice to marginalized and underrepresented voices. In some ways, academic blogging, social media, newsletters, YouTubes, and podcasts —as well as the growing number of scholar-led presses and radical experiments in publishing (e.g. Epoiesen) — offers a response to the ongoing collapse of the humanities in higher education in the US and a positive alternative to those eager to burn down the institutional frameworks that have supported the existing system of academic knowledge making. Radical alternatives already exist, the bar to entry is low, the potential for fundamentally new forms of public and scholarly conversation appears high.

This motivates me to keep writing my blog for another year even as the number of readers and page views have continued to decline and waters the surrounding public conversation become murkier and more toxic. 

Last year, I wrote around 250 posts and 190,000 words on the ole blog (and averaged about 750 words per post). The number of posts is more or less average, but the number of words per post is the second highest over the last decade. 

Of the top 500 posts saw about 12,000 individual visits (and the homepage with the most recent post saw 4800 visits). 

The most visited pages from 2021 (per day) were:

  1. Corinth Excavations, Preliminary Reports, and Time
  2. Citation Politics and Practices
  3. American History or Medieval History
  4. Archaeology of Temperature
  5. Citational Politics: Citing Dissertations
  6. Teaching Tuesday: The Wesley College Documentation Project as Radical Pedagogy
  7. Teaching Thursday: Ungrading
  8. Atlantis, Expertise, and Utopia
  9. Music Monday: Sun Ra, Pseudoarchaeoogy, and Atlantis
  10. Two Draft Articles on Sun Ra
  11. Pilgrimage CHAT: Walking the Grand Forks Greenway
  12. Summer Reading List 2021
  13. Why Those Who Shovel are Silent
  14. Methods for an Archaeology of the Contemporary World
  15. Book By Its Cover: Deserted Villages

Amid this group of 15 posts, there were five posts from past years that maintained spots in the top 20 most viewed posts: 

  1. Assemblages (1/30/2017)
  2. Roman Temples and Christian Churches (10/11/2017)
  3. Sun Ra, Papyrus, and Ancient Aliens (11/11/2020)
  4. Quick Note on Creating a Podcast Lecture (3/12/2020)
  5. Disciplinary Societies and Societies of Control (10/24/2018)

Maybe there’s something on these lists that interests you or that you missed if you’re a regular reader.

Three Things Thursday: Blogging, Archaeology and Climate, and Poetry

I’ve reached the point of the summer when all my projects seem to melt together into chaotic ball of deadlines, half-met expectations, and long bikes rides. Needless to say, it has not been very productive.

At the same time, I am having fun thinking about things to blog about and then stretching my morning blogging time well into my second cup of coffee. So this morning, I have three things that might, someday, mature into full blog posts.

Thing the First

Years ago (let’s say 2008), I wrote a piece on the archaeology of blogging (and blogging archaeology) for Archaeology magazine’s website. I returned to some of the ideas in that article with a piece co-written by Andrew Reinhard for Internet Archaeology which considered the place of blogs in the academic ecosystem.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how blogging has changed over the past five years. When I started blogging, I imagined an audience who would be interested in understanding how the [academic] sausage was made. Along those lines, my blog would serve as part idea box, part academic scratch pad, and part preview channel for my various research interests. At my most optimistic, I considered it to be living supplement to my academic CV (with occasional dog photo!) and as a way to move back the veil on how academics produce new knowledge. In any event, it may be that this was an optimistic program from the start, but I continue to think that it has relevance. I suspect that this is even more true for today as the general public has become increasingly invested in understanding how scientific knowledge forms the basis for public policy, authority, and expertise.

That said, I can completely understand how my blog is not to everyone’s taste. Indeed, it seems like public scholarship has two main areas of emphasis. One is works that approach historical problems with a journalistic flair for narrative, description, and analysis. Ed Watt’s recent book on the fall of the Roman Republic fits this category as do works by the likes of Eric Cline or my colleague Eric Burin. These works have the potential to attract the elusive crossover audience that includes both academics and the general public and have emerged as a revenue stream for publishers and scholars alike. This is important at a time when library purchasing power is in decline and faculty salaries have tended to stagnate.

The other major strain in public scholarship, and one that has particular prominence in the blogging community, is politically engaged outreach. This involves writing — often for blogs, but also in more established publications — on both academic issues that have an impact on contemporary society and in efforts to demonstrate how the contemporary political discourse has had an impact on what we do as researchers. I find the work of folks like Sarah Bond, Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, and the folks who blog at places like Everyday Orientalism (and previously Eidolon) compelling and important voices. At the same time, I recognize that this kind of public outreach often puts you in the crosshairs of the political outrage machine on social media. On the other hand, their work also attracts significant positive attention from readers within and outside the academy and if the goal of public outreach is actually reaching the public, then these authors have succeeded in spades. 

That said, it is a very different kind of blogging than what I envisioned when I started my blog and one wonders whether the changing political and cultural economy of academia has fundamentally transformed the character of outreach and public oriented scholarship? 

Thing the Second

I really enjoyed this article in the Journal of Field Archaeology by Karim Alizadeh, M. Rouhollah Mohammadi, Sepideh Maziar, and Mohmmad Feizkhah titled: “The Islamic Conquest or Flooding? Sasanian Settlements and Irrigation Systems Collapse in Mughan, Iranian Azerbaijan.” It is another in the recent gaggle of articles interested in considering the role of climate change in the transformation of settlement and activity in the ancient Mediterranean (broadly construed) landscape. Alizadeh and colleagues look at evidence for fortifications and irrigation systems in the Mughan Steppe region of the Azerbaijan-Iranian borderland.

They argue that the Sassanians constructed a complex network of irrigation canals throughout the region that only faltered as a result of two major flooding events in the 7th century. These floods cut down the Aras River bed making disrupting its relationship to the steppe’s irrigation network. These flooding events may well be connected to changes in climate and hydrology precipitated by the Late Antique Little Ice Age. The subsequent abandonment of settlement in the Mughan Steppe in the late 7th century, then, may not be related to the Muslim Conquests and the arrival of Muslim military forces in the world. Or, alternately, the faltering irrigation may have made the regional less resilient in the face of political and military challenges. 

This kind of work has had me thinking more carefully about the settlement change in Greece in the 7th century and the relationship between climate change, changes in economic structures, and the evident reorganization of Greek rural settlement. While the data that we have for the environmental conditions at the local level remains fragmentary and inconclusive, comparisons with other regions of the Mediterranean give us another reason to resist assuming that political and military events precipitated changes in the settlement and economy.   

Thing the Third

Do go and check out the North Dakota Quarterly blog today. I’ve posted a poem by John Walser titled “Chronoscope 181: And that spot.” It’s a great example of how poetry (and music!) can do things with time that we struggle to accomplish in the more linear world of academic prose. Plus, it’s a perfect poem to read heading into midsummer and thinking about how long days can slow down time and make even the chaotic disorganization of summer feel like something significant… 

Year End Blogging Review

It’s been a strange year for blogging. On the one hand, it feels like the blog is more of an outdated platform than ever before. Social media to occupy the center of our online consciousness more than ever before as the COVID pandemic has pushed us to engage with our professional colleagues in new ways, to find digital opportunities to defy social distancing restriction, and to navigate the high speed news cycle. Frankly, who has time to find much less read blogs which more and more feel like clunky and anti-social hermitage in comparison to the riotous conviviality of Twitter and Facebook. 

On the other hand, it is clear that people still read my blog. In fact, I’ve had more positive and encouraging comments about my blog this year than any of the past few. Moreover, it continues to get around 70 page views per day, which is more or less consistent with the last five years, but down for the more heady days of 2013, 2014, and 2015 when the blog averaged over 100. Most of the traffic come from search engines, as one would expect, but social media send a significant number of referrals my way. It would appear that the “blog list” is probably dead with only the faintest trickle of referrals from this once central hub for directing traffic on the internet. As always, I know when David Meadows links to my blog from Rogue Classicism.  

I’ve posted 257 times this year (including this post) and will likely post something on tomorrow and Thursday. This makes this year the second busiest year on record (while I’ve been blogging since 2007 (and you can read my past posts on The Archive). This year will be the first year that I have written more than 200,000 words for the blog and averaged about 780 words per post. This is significant to me mostly because I started this blog, in part, as a way to encourage my own writing habit as well as to make the inner workings of academic production more visible. In some ways, having readers was then a bit secondary to my own desire to present my academic life in a bit more public way. 

Finally, here are the 12 most popular blog posts that I’ve written this year. I decided that a post had to get at least .5 of a view per day to be eligible for the list and at least 50 page views total.

1. Good Practice in Survey Archaeology
2. Writing Clearly
3. COVID in North Dakota as Structural Violence
4. Online in a Hurry
5. A Quick Note on Creating a Podcast Lecture
6. Performative Informality in Archaeology
7. Genealogy of Mediterranean Survey Archaeology
8. Plague and Famine in Late Antiquity and Byzantium
9. Archaeology without Antiquity
10. Some More ASOR Books Available as Open Access
11. Excavations at Corinth in Hesperia
12. The Mystery of the Missing Building.

I like this list in part because I think it embodies the range of topics that I tend to write about on my blog. 5 of the 12 are engagements with recent published scholarship (1, 6, 7, 9, 11); 2 of the 12 reflect my situation here in Grand Forks, North Dakota (3, 12); two are about teaching (4 and 5); 1 is about academic life (2); 1 is about my work as an editor and publisher (10); and 1 is about my own scholarship (8). If I were to extend this list to the top 25 most read posts, the pattern would be largely the same.

As readers of this blog know, I worry a good bit about blogging particularly in an increasingly toxic online environment. Some of this is the standard kind of worry that we all face as academics: “what if I’m just writing into the void?” and “what if my blog is keeping from writing proper, substantive, and significant scholarship?” 

Some of this is the typical worry about doing anything online: “what if someone is offended by what I write?”, “what if I’m attacked by trolls?”, and “what if I say something that is wrong or hurtful?”

But most of my worry is that with a limited amount of time, energy, and attention in the world, the existence of my blog represents another mid-career, white, male, tenured, professional using his ill-gotten time and resources to influence scholarly and public conversation. My hope is that I continue to remember to amplify the voices of others (and their research) on my blog and it continues to be a place where I celebrate all the cool stuff happening in the world. 

Along those lines, I was happy to see that the most clicked links on my blog were to WorldCat and JSTOR as well as academia.edudoi.org, and HathiTrust. Of course, I also was happy to see links to The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and North Dakota Quarterly being high on the list.

It would not offend me in the least if you found yourself coming to my blog mostly just to find more interesting, significant, worthwhile, and meaningful things to read elsewhere. 

In any event, for everyone who has stopped by over the last 12 months (or 12 years!), thanks for reading and clicking and commenting and tweeting, facebookling, and sharing my posts. Despite my efforts to stop blogging, I probably won’t, but I hope that no one feels like this is just another thing that you should read.

New Book Day! Epoiesen 3

It’s new book day over at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota as the third installment of the Epoiesen Annual drops in a paginated-pdf and as a print-on-demand paper volume from Amazon

As readers of this blog know, Epoiesen is a digital journal published at Carleton University in Ottawa and edited by Shawn Graham. Three years ago, he asked whether my press might be interested in publishing a paginated and paper version of the journal. Without hesitation, I agreed and this is the third installment in that series. 

To my mind, this is the strongest Epoiesen annual yet. It features a series of interactive meditations on the Melian Dialogue touched off by a Twine game developed by Neville Morley, an album of assemblages concocted in Andrew Reinhard’s laboratory, an exploration of the concept of the “phrygital” from Digital Archaeology heavy-weights Ian Dawson and Paul Reilly and in the fantastic papercraft of Alyssa Loyless. Each of these contributes have compelling response (including one from me!) which challenge, expand, and critique the work. A concise introduction by Shawn Graham brings this work together and a reflexive commentary on a visually compelling Twitter essay by Katy Whitaker provides a nice anchor to the volume. The cover art from Jens Notroff makes the cover an essay.  

If you haven’t checked out Epoiesen you should. And, if you have a creative project or genre defying article that is lingering in your mind and looking good home, consider submitting to Epoiesen!  

To celebrate the appearance of Epoiesen 3 and Shawn’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays last month, he agreed to answer 7 questions about his work, failure, and future project. We’ve published this interview at The Digital Press blog.

A Decade of Blogging in Review

I guess everyone is doing year’s and decade’s end lists (even if there is a good bit of confusion whether decades should start with the “0” or with the “1”). I was really flattered to be included on Neville Morley’s “Blogs of the Year” list at his Sphinx Blog

One of the general feelings over the past year (and Morley prompted some reflection on my part) is that interests in blogs have declined over the past few years. While my blog has tended to hang pretty steady in terms of page views over the past year — with as many months showing increases over the past year as declines — I can’t help but think that web reading habits have changed a good bit over the past decade and academic bloggers could do more to change with the times.

One idea that I floated was a monthly newsletter highlighting archaeology, Classics, and Ancient History blogs. I even, in a moment of weakness, volunteered to coordinate these efforts. As someone how spends as much time reading the dozen or so newsletters and accessing a good bit of academic and literary content via email, I wondered if a newsletter would bring attention not only to individual blog posts, but also to individual bloggers. As the long-time veteran David Meadow of Rogue Classicism noted, it would be like a blog carnival for the 21st century. 

This is a new project for the new year, I think. I’ll put out a general solicitation via social media and the blog in January.

I also reflected a bit on my own blog over the past decade. I don’t usually pay much attention to statistics, but when I do, they always tell a story. For example, over the past decade I have written somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.2 million words on my blog. The average post length is about 600 words for slightly over 2200 posts. 

Earlier this year, a colleague suggested a formula in our department that awarded 2 points for every 20 blog posts. For context, an article in this formula was worth 10 points. Whatever the merits of such quantification, my blog would have been worth 22 articles over the past decade.  Needless to say, our department did not adopt this policy.

In terms of the most frequently viewed posts, the maths are slightly more difficult when reckoned over the duration of a decade. The longer a post is up on the internets, the greater a chance that people might click on it, find it via a search engine, or find it linked in an academic citation. As a result, there’s reason to suspect that total page views might not reflect the prominence of a blog post. 

The following graph shows the number of views per day on the vertical axis and the number of overall views on the horizontal axis for the top 100 posts per total views from my blog. As you can see, the very general trend is that top performing posts overall, also tend to be the top performing posts per day with a few notable exceptions forming the periodic spikes.

NewImage

Of the top ten performing posts per day, only 7 garnered more than 1 view per day. Of the top ten, only 5 are from more recent than 2016. 

Here’s the list, in case you’re interested. Stars mark posts from 2019:

1. Joel Jonientz.
2. Punk Archaeology: The Book.
3. SCS, SAA, CAMWS, and the End of the Big Tent Professional Organization.*
4. Transumanism and Archaeology.
5. Teaching Graduate Historiography: A Final Syllabus.
6. Roman Temples and Christian Churches.
7. Five Notes on Classics.*
8. An Archaeology of Care.
9. Man Camps in May: Some More Observations.
10. My University is Dying.

Have a great holidays and all the best in the new year. And, as always, thanks for reading my blog.

End of Blogs?

Last week Neville Morley wrote a little piece on his declining blog statistics over at his Sphinx blog and has since followed it up with a new podcast. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast yet and I should have commented on his blog post when he asked other bloggers to chime in on their statistics. I feel like I let the community down.

If I look closely, I can tell that my visitor and page view numbers are down. At the same time, my monthly averages appear steady (or even slightly improved) over the past five or six years. My March numbers, for example, were 106 page views per day which is the highest since 2015 and the fourth highest total in the last 9 years. Two very popular posts, however, in the first half of the month drove a good bit of the traffic. These posts circulated rather widely (for me) on Twitter and Facebook, and social media platforms accounted for over 500 page views (or about 18% of the traffic). In an ordinary month, Twitter and Facebook account for 5%-8% of views. Despite my erratic use of social media to promote my blog, it is notable that for 10 of the last 12 months, my page views have been high than the previous year and for 8 of the last 12 months, they’ve been the strongest since 2015.

It is worth noting, however, that my 2014 and 2015 page views were also buoyed by a series of very prominent posts that led to spikes in traffic. Most of these spikes, like the publication of Punk Archaeology or Visions of Substance, tended to have a much longer tale and while they were abrupt, they attracted readers to my blog for months.

It may be that the shorter term spikes in my blog’s page views reflects the function of blogs within at least American academia has changed. When I started my blog I wanted both to draw the public into my research and give them a bit of a perspective on how scholars (and, in particular, archaeologists) build their arguments. In fact, I celebrated the fuzziness of the knowledge making the process and the ragged edges of what we know. This seemed like a good thing to do at the time when fetishization of “facts” was undermining the careful work of scholars in the humanities to present a world where structures, power, and practice matter more than black and white judgements. Today, this mission seems more problematic and my audience, perhaps, less interested and sympathetic.

Today, my most popular posts serve as open letters which attempt to address issues that face my discipline and academia more broadly. The audience is more academic, more engaged with social, political, and economic situation within academia, and less curious about how knowledge is made in my little corner of the discipline. This isn’t meant as a critique or even criticism of my readers, blogging, or academia, but speaks to the shifting landscape of blogging as practice. Instead of blogs maturing into a less-formal and more intimate complement to the scholarly discourse, blogs have become places where we negotiate the social conscience of our fields. This is not a bad thing, but it creates a different rhythm of blog viewing.

Ephemera

I’ve been thinking a good bit about ephemera lately and how to distinguish between things that should be kept and cherished and things that have value in the moment, but there’s no particular reason to keep them in our lives and world. I always think of newspapers and magazines as ephemera. They are useful to read on a lazy Sunday, but are best kept (and slowly altered and recombined and sifted) in our memories than on the end table in the living room or in a stack near the most comfortable chair in the house.

A few things promoted me to think about the ephemeral.

First, one my goals for North Dakota Quarterly was to make the entire run of the journal available on various online platforms. The idea is that people could delve back into the Quarterly and find overlooked gems or return to reflect on an essay or story. To that end, I’ve linked to a bunch of the NDQ archive online and made it available via the HathiTrust, the archives has seen a good flow of traffic, which is heartening, but only about 5% of the visitors click through. 

One of the things that I’ve come to realize about little magazines is that they have an ephemeral quality to them. The desire among some members of my editorial board to produce NDQ in paper was grounded not in the persistence of the medium, but, in someways, in its ephemerality, in parallel with magazines and newspapers, compared to the easy persistence of digital formats. 

Second, I read a few posts lately about the carbon footprint of websites and the emerging low-tech green web. I’ve toyed with the idea refashioning my blog as a static site. This is partly because static sites are lightweight, quick to load, and widely compatible with even the most simple devices and use less energy. I also wonder whether I a very lightweight static site would complement a version of my blog where I produce a single post per day and that post to overwrites the previous days post. This would create a more ephemeral quality to my web writing. The ideas and text would be accessible for a day and then vanish (or move onto a more permanent home in an article or a conference paper or something else).  

An experiment like this would both be liberating for me (as I could be more provocative when I am less worried about the archive of my site being easily accessible forever), but I also could write more in the moment with less responsibility to trace some kind of coherent arc of thought.

Less selfishly, it would also celebrate the vibrancy of media ephemerality not as producing idea that don’t persist, but as a way to create ideas that only persist within the person who reads them and are not burdened by reference to a particular text. 

Finally, I started think more about the tension between possessions and things. The idea that we possess a thing implies its persistence. An embrace of the ephemeral, on the other hand, privileges the momentary utility of an object. As various popular voices have urged us to minimize our possessions and maintain a trim and tidy personal space, it seems to me that they’ve drawn greater attention to the value of ephemeral objects that are useful and then passed on or discarded once they’ve served their immediate purpose. On the one hand, this might create a world where there are fewer things encroaching on our space. On the other hand, personal austerity rarely is possible without access to a wide range of services and objects that are ready to use, but also at arm’s length. Useful and ephemeral things appear in our lives and disappear back into the margins when their purpose is fulfilled. (I’ve argued, playfully, that pickup trucks are like that. Despite being a symbol of bourgeois excess, they are often useful, and truck owners often share their vehicles with a community of friends and neighbors who, for various reasons, do not want to burdens of truck ownership.)   

A New Golden Age of Blogging Antiquity

2019 is an important year for bloggers. It marks the 20th anniversary of the Blogger platform which appeared in August of 1999. Four years later, Typepad and WordPress appeared and the Blogosphere emerged as a significant space for politics, creativity, and academic expression.  

In 2008, I wrote a little piece on the “Blogging Archaeology and the Archaeology of Blogging” for the now-defunct AIA blog. I followed this up in 2015 with a piece co-authored with Andrew Reinhard in Internet Archaeology: “From Blogs to Books: Blogging as Community, Practice and Platform.” In both of these pieces, I imagined a world where blogging would complement or at least slowly encroach on traditional scholarly practices (a view shared by several other bloggers). Blogs would not only reveal how the sausage of academic knowledge was made by being an outlet for preliminary drafts, rough and raw ideas, and fragments that have value, but don’t fit the argument of the moment. I also thought blogging would provide a place for academic conversations, critique, and comment that would lead to formation of new communities unconstrained distance or academic affiliation or rank. Finally, I thought that the gap between informed readers in the general public and academic readers was relatively small. This view of blogging has largely informed what I write on my blog. 

I also think that it’s probably wrong. I didn’t really anticipate the growing impact of social media. I probably underestimated how deeply entrenched traditional writing, publishing, and knowledge making practices were. Blogs continued to be fairly marginal spaces for serious scholarship in archaeology with a few notable exceptions (like Andrew Reinhard’s Archaeogaming blog , Colleen Morgan’s blogJeremy Hugget at Introspective Digital Archaeology, or Shawn Graham at Electric Archaeologist). More than that, I think I misread the interest by the general public in how academic knowledge was made.

What I missed in my narrow interpretation of academic blogging is that this practice also provided space for sustained and meaningful critiques of institutional practices in archaeology and related fields. To be clear, I don’t see academic work and institutional or disciplinary critiques as mutually exclusive, but when I consider the impact of academic bloggers over the last few years, I see their incisive and thoughtful criticism of academic practices far more valuable than the smattering of academic or popular citations that my blog has seen (as just one example).

The online work of Sarah Bond, for example, while taking nothing away at her steadfast effort to engage a diverse audience, has offered brilliant and distinctive commentary on the political and institutional character of ancient history (and her work with the SCS blog likewise highlights recent debates in the discipline of Classics). Rebecca Futo-Kennedy’s blog is another remarkable space for disciplinary critique in matters of race, gender, and civilization. Dimitri Nakassis’s blog has also provided insights and offered arguments along similar lines and Andre Costopoulos’s blog has consistently critiqued academic publishing and recently the character of field work projects.  Larger projects like Eidolon or Sententiae Antiquae provide remarkable platforms for conversations about the future, past, and present of the discipline. Eidolon’s commitment to a wide range of often-marginalized voices represents an important expression of the egalitarian spirit present among some of the earliest academic bloggers who wrote as the “Invisible Adjunct” or BitchPhD. 

What is more, it is pretty clear that there is an audience for this kind of commentary and critique. Even my modest efforts along those lines saw a 50% increase in page views, but also comments both on the blog and across social media. My more academic posts don’t get nearly as much attention. In other words, there’s an audience for this kind of work among academics. 

In particular, this new Golden Age of Blogging (in caps!) is backed by a robust and consistent social media presence and a willingness to engage with readers in near realtime (rather than occasionally as commenters).  It shows that while blogging may not have toppled traditional publishing practices or provided an outlet for a wider audience to engage with scholarly practices, methods, and knowledge making at a provisional stage, it nevertheless has played a key roll in challenging academic orthodoxies through direct critique of institutional and academic practices. I’m pretty happy to have a venue to contribute my little part to making academia better (or at least trying), and while I probably still want to believe that there is an audience for the academic process, I’m also not disappointed that a new Golden Age is doing something quite different with the venerable old blog.

Unlocking the Commons: Tim Carmody, NDQ, Amazon, and the Digital Press

There is a ton of tech writing on the internet these days and some of it is really good. None is better, I think than Tim Carmody who wrote really great pieces for The Verge and Wired back in the day, and now partners with one of the original bloggers, Jason Kottke, to produce a regular newsletter called Noticing that blends content from Kottke.org and the rest of the web. He also has a Ph.D. in Comparative literature from Penn.

What’s more interesting to me lately is his interest in the economics of good writing on the web. As a writer, editor, and a publisher, I have long relaxed in the relatively luxury of academia which has given me the security to do creative work — whether through my professional writing, my blog, my editorial role at North Dakota Quarterly, or my work as publisher at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota — without having to get too far into the weeds of funding and finance. At the same time, I do realize that if these projects are going to have a life beyond my own energies and attention, some kind of sustainable model will have to exist to support them.

Carmody has proposed and developed a model that he calls “unlocking the commons.” It is predicated on the idea that a project – like his new newsletter on Amazon – needs a certain amount of support to exist. Carmody is a freelance writer and, from what I gather, he earns his income from his writing. At the same time, Carmody is aware that locking content behind a paywall or the like makes it difficult to demonstrate the value of the content and difficult for supporters and authors to share their work. In fact, it actually reduces the impact of any content produced by making it less visible and less likely to influence a larger community. In this way, Carmody is following arguments long held by the open access community who see the value of creative work not in its narrow and immediate monetary value realized through subscribers, but in its expansive potential to inspire and influence a wide range of audiences. By unlocking the commons, subscriber support allows Carmody to develop his ideas, write, and produce his work, and once it is supported, the work is available freely to anyone who wants to read it. He and Jason Kottke modeled this approach with Kottke.org’s membership program, which apparently worked.

For his new newsletter on Amazon, the threshold for unlocking the commons and making supporting Carmody to produce one newsletter per week was 200 subscribers at $5 per month. If he manages 400 subscribers at $5 per month, he’ll write two articles per week. You can subscribe and support the newsletter here.

This project is interesting to me for two reasons.

First, NDQ has a money problem. Right now, it’s not existential, but it is limiting. We have a great publishing partner in the University of Nebraska Press, and moving forward, they will handle subscriptions and most production for the Quarterly. The goal is that as we rebuild our subscriber base, we can break even for UNP and, then, with a little help from our community, generate some revenue. In the meantime, we rely on three sources of revenue: a small endowment that provides us with enough to copy edit the journal, a funding “backstop” provided by donors and income generated by The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, and surplus energy provided by our editors and editorial board. This is enough to keep our head above water and to survive the occasional emergency, but isn’t really enough to innovate in a sustainable way. 

Recently, several editorial board members suggested that we install a reading fee for submissions. Other members of the editorial board pushed back arguing that the submitters and contributors MAKE the journal and they shouldn’t be charged for that privilege. While I’m not entirely convinced by this argument, I share its broad sentiment that submissions should remain free as a way to encourage the widest possible range of potential contributors. Moreover, ideologically, there’s something democratic about allowing anyone to contribute and, practically, I think even a modest reading fee might discourage contributions from marginal writers especially in the global south.

What if instead of a reading fee, we included a link to a Patreon or Memberful account or created a formal NDQ newsletter using Substack subscription. To be clear, these wouldn’t be subscriptions in a formal sense — that is money provided in exchange for a product — but they’d unlock the commons and make more of the same creative content that typifies NDQ. More than that, the synergy between a funded newsletter and the regular publication of NDQ will be complementary. After all, the print version of NDQ is what makes us NDQ.

The second interest that I have in Carmody’s new project is that we built The Digital Press, in part, on Amazon’s print-on-demand infrastructure. Whether we like it or not, the world still loves paper books, and the ability to distribute our paper books from the nearly global Amazon marketplace is a massive advantage to a small press like ours.

At the same time, we realize that using Amazon is problematic. First, it limits our reach to small book sellers in the region who have not really warmed to Amazon’s direct sales to retailers. Second, Amazon’s labor practices and corporate culture are in many ways antithetical to the values that we have at The Digital Press. Thirdly, our relationship with Amazon’s production system, platform, and marketplace is completely outside of our control. Of course, as our catalogue expands, we will likely have other opportunities to partner with distributors, but at present, we’re stuck with Amazon whether we like it or not.

Carmody’s regular columns exploring Amazon as a company will offer us insights into both the present and future of the current distribution model for The Digital Press.