Ghosts Towns, Process, and Product on the World Wide Web

I had originally intended to write about the local humanities this morning, but I was distracted by an interesting little discussion on the internet. A local author, Troy Larson, took issues with a website produced for a class offered by Tom Isern, a historian at North Dakota State University. Tom had designed the class, as far as I can recall, to produce a catalogue of North Dakota “Ghost Towns”. Troy Larson is the local expert on North Dakota Ghost Towns and has published a couple of coffee table books on the subject and maintains a remarkable blog called Ghosts of North Dakota. By all means, go and buy his book and surf his blog. They’re both pretty cool things.

Update: Troy has responded to my post here, and, better still, included a link to his original thoughts on the issue here with screen shots.

The website prepared for Tom’s class had a list of ghost towns on it with a series of links to Troy’s blog. From what I gathered, these links were designed to get students started on Tom’s larger ghost town project. In general, Troy has dedicated his blog to photographs with very short historical sketches of the towns with a bit of census information and some notes about local postal service. Most of this information is available in one way or another on the internet. In many cases former and even current residents of these towns make comments on Troy’s blog. In short, Troy’s blog is one of the best points of departure for research on small places in North Dakota. 

The kerfuffle began when Tom’s class page pointed to Troy’s blog as a point of departure for student research on ghost towns. Apparently, the goal of Tom’s class was to produce a book or part of a book on abandoned places in North Dakota. From what I understand that goal has not been achieved yet so there is no final product. The internet, as this blog is ample evidence for, provides access to process, however, and Troy objected to the process that Tom’s class was using to start their research. And then this all hit Facebook and got pretty exciting for a couple of days. 

This is an interesting problem on two levels. First, it demonstrates two fundamentally different ways of viewing information made available on the web. Troy naturally feels protective of the work he has invested into an impressive resource that he generously made available on the web. I can’t really say for sure what Tom’s motives are, but I suspect they were similar to mine when I created an index to my History 101 class that consisted entirely of links to Wikipedia. If a resource is available on the web, I feel pretty comfortable deploying it for whatever schemes or goals I have in mind. (Tom is a sometime reader of this blog and is known to have a wry smile about many things in life, so maybe he’ll post a comment).  

In fact, much of my academic career has been dedicated to creating resources that I hope other people will do more with than I have. For example, I included a catalogue of over 200 churches in my dissertation, and it is available for free for download via Ohio State’s library catalogue. I fully (and optimistically) expected someone to use my catalogue to produce their own studies of Early Christian basilicas in Greece. In fact, I think the enduring value to my work is probably not the analysis (which will always represent strains of thinking grounded in a particular time and place), but the catalogue, which will hopefully represent a resource for the next generation of scholars. David Pettegrew and I have made available a photographic catalogue of houses at the site of Lakka Skoutara in the southeastern Corinthia and our data from our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus.

From what I understand, and please Troy correct me here, is that Troy objects to his project being used as a sources of data for another similar project. Since the internet provides a kind of transparency of process, he was able to see how another group was using his “data” and object prior to the appearance of a final product that may or may not compete with his work. 

Much of the debate on Facebook centered around matters of etiquette. Troy was particularly put out that Tom did not ask for permission to use his content as a point of departure for his class. I’ve had a few scholars ask for permission to use my dissertation catalogue, but this is hardly necessary.

Perhaps a better point of comparison is that I ask people who read and cite my working papers to ask permission by including in bold across every page: “Do Not Cite Without Author’s Permission.” This is largely because most working papers get updated regularly and a more current copy of a paper might exist or the paper gets published and a more stable citation exists for the same content. I suppose Troy could ask people who want to use his content or link to his page to ask permission, but I am not sure that this would do anything but limit the reach and audience of his work.  

The debate is still simmering on Facebook as I write this post and with any luck Troy and Tom will comment here to clarify their positions. What interests me the most is seeing how the relative transparency of the internet has created new social expectations. I think back to my largely pre-internet graduate school days where certain resources like A.H.M. Jones’ Later Roman Empire (1964) or well-acronymed Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium served as guides for many issues in the Late Antique world. Neither Jones nor Khazdan could know, of course, if we were using their work and its hard to avoid the idea that many recent books and encyclopedias on these topics used the exhaustive efforts of Jones and Khazdan as a guide. I wonder whether Troy would have felt different had Tom used a paper syllabus and assigned copies of Troy’s books as a guide for his class? Would Troy have ever even known?

I also wonder whether the relatively small and tight nit community of scholars interested in North Dakota also played a part in how this particular controversy took place? It seems like Troy was particularly offended that Tom didn’t ask or contact him before linking liberally to his blog. The courtesies, much like waving on a lonely rural road in North Dakota, are the kind of thing that happens regularly in small communities where people know one another and both Tom and Troy live in Fargo. I wonder whether Troy would have felt the same way if Tom was a professor at, say, the University of Texas or University of Queensland in Australia?

Finally, it is interesting that some of the rhetoric (and I’ll ask Troy to clarify this, if he thinks I’m mischaracterizing him in any way) is grounded in the difference in how academics and non-academics see resources made available on the web. As we academics explore small, privately produced collections  on the web (many of which are curated by antiquarians like Troy), we will have to think more carefully about how we use these resources both to respect the significant investment of time and energy that they involved and to transfer their value effectively to an academic context.

I’m reluctant to see either Troy or Tom in the wrong here, but this little controversy (by the standards of the internet) reminds us how far we are from understanding how this media works even after in the 25th year of the World Wide Web Era. 

Contributing to the Media Circus

I’ll admit to being somewhat overwhelmed by the media attention surrounding the excavation of Atari games in the New Mexico desert. At the same time, I couldn’t resist contributing to it.

First, here is an interview I did yesterday that focused on the punk archaeology movement. In the last segment, we talk about the Atari dig.

And here is something the University of North Dakota’s College of Arts and Sciences staff writer put together for their newsletter:

Digging Atari

When the words Atari and archaeology appear together, one usually thinks of such iconic video games as Pitfall! or Raiders of the Lost Ark. It is almost impossible to think of the Atari console itself or games designed for it as archaeological artifacts. At the end of April, however, Prof. Bill Caraher from the Department of History, the Working Group in Digital and New Media, and the global Punk Archaeology Collective, headed to Alamogordo, New Mexico to excavate the famous Atari graveyard from the city’s old landfill.

According to the urban legend, the Atari corporation buried millions of returned, damaged, and even new games in the Alamogordo city landfill to hide massive losses incurred in 1982. The most famous object in this lot was the ill-fated E.T. game which some critics have rated among the worst video game ever. Atari dumped the games in Alamogordo both to hide poor selling, damaged, or returned games from investors, but also because the Alamogordo landfill owners offered company a good deal not far from their El Paso distribution center.

“We landed in El Paso and checked out the completely nondescript building where the games originated. It’s not a box factory, but in the early 1980s it was a distribution center for Atari. It reminded us straight away that culturally significant objects from the late 20th century will not necessarily originate in the hands of crafts people or exotic locales. These are consumer goods, made in anonymous factories, and shipped through boxlike warehouses,” Caraher noted, “We wanted to locate these objects in their social context from the start. These are not exotic.”

For a shockingly large number of retro-video games enthusiasts and nostalgic 40somethings, the games nevertheless had meaning. The 2014 Atari Expedition was an extension of a documentary film directed by Zak Penn which sought to to determine the fate of the Atari burial ground. The documentary is scheduled to appear this year on Microsoft’s Xbox platform. Caraher was part of an archaeological team coordinated by Andrew Reinhard and was joined by Bret Weber from the Department of Social Work, and archaeologist Richard Rothaus (NDSU). They were joined by Raiford Guins from Stony Brook University, one of the foremost video game experts in the world. They spent four days in the New Mexico desert offering archaeological perspectives to the documentary film and recording the finds and excavation process.

“Our goals,” Caraher said, “were somewhat different from the guys making the documentary. We were there to record what was happening in as detailed way as possible. They were there to make a movie.”

For Caraher and Weber, the work in New Mexico was an extension of their interest in the archaeology of workforce housing in the Bakken. Since 2012, they have co-directed the North Dakota Man Camp Project which explores the material and social environments of North Dakota’s so-called man camps. Like the Atari dig, the NDMCP takes the material culture of the last 30 years seriously as a way to explore social, economic, and political relationships that traditional ethnographic and historical practices over look. Both projects emphasized not only the recent past, but also privileged the production large-scale photographic archives as the primary form of data collection.

“The Atari project was a great opportunity to see the excavation of a landfill which can tell us as much about an American community as the traditional texts of historians. So we were interested in documenting the landfill as much as finding the games,” Caraher said.

The games, however, told another story. While Caraher and the archaeology team will wait for the documentary to appear to disclose all that they found, he can say that the Atari assemblage is unique in the history of archaeology. The rapid pace of life at the end of the 20th century moves objects from pride of place in our house to archaeological contexts at an alarming rate. Just as the oil companies have promised to leave the western North Dakota landscape without a trace, we purge our house of outdated technology and send it to landfills at the edge of town, and bury it away from human sight and memory.

The archaeological recovery of objects cast aside by consumers casts them in a new light and gives them new value. Caraher and the archaeological team were as interested in the way that archaeological excavation transformed these once discarded games into object of desire.

“While most of what we excavated has become property of the city of Alamogordo and the production company, we have worked with city to identify objects from the dig that would communicate the story effectively in a museum context,” Caraher says.

The project also captures some of the spirit of Punk Archaeology. Caraher and Reinhard were key players in the formation of the Global Punk Archaeology Collective and both see the Atari dig as part of that movement. Punk Archaeology emerged as a movement that celebrated the flexible “Do It Yourself” (DIY) spirit flourishing among archaeologists. It also emphasized the process of taking every day objects and placing them in new contexts.

“Punk rockers frequently challenged how we see the world by taking every day objects – like safety pins – and turning them into jewelry or taking perfectly good blue jeans and ripping holes in them. These acts are senseless, but they show how the presentation and use of objects defines their meaning,” Caraher explained.

The Atari E.T. excavation was covered widely in the media and the archaeologists had to work with both documentary filmmakers, who funded the project, and contractors, city officials, and members of the media. The result was a complex web of priorities and activities at the dig site. At times, the archaeologists were excluded from observing excavations because of safety concerns. The landfill was unstable and posed challenges to the massive excavator used to dig over 20 feet below the surface to exhume the games. To make matters more complicated, the entire crew was battered by 40-60 mph winds on the days of excavation that whipped desert sand across the landfill making it nearly impossible to document finds in the field. The production team had their own priorities. At times, they withheld information from the archaeologists to create suspense in the documentary.

His students were particular eager to hear about the dig on his return.

“The students, of course, got the uncensored story, and it provided me with a chance to introduce students to the punk archaeology movement and make them more attuned how our interaction with objects – even mundane ones like Atari games – create value in the world. If I can encourage students to think about how their relationship with objects through the absurd example of the Atari dig, then I think I’ve started to get them to think about their world and how capitalism works in a bit of a different way.”

The scholarly results of the Atari dig will appear over the next year or so while Caraher is on sabbatical, but he has already contributed to an article to appear on the The Atlantic’s webpage and will contribute to an article for Archaeology Magazine as well as more scholarly publications.

“I’ve never worked in an environment like the Atari dig or on material like that which we found in our excavations there. We’re excited to prepare some academic publications that document both the results and our experiences on a project like this.”

Blogs and Archaeology Published Quickly

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been nudging a draft of an article on blogging archaeology forward a little bit each week. I’ve posted part of it here already. The first part of the article looks at blogging among archaeologists as a community of practice. The second part will look at blogging as one of the ways that archaeologists are speeding up the pace of archaeological knowledge production.

This is done not by archaeologists working faster, but rather through a regular stream of information available about archaeological research on the web. Transparency removes what appears to be long pauses from the field work and research process and makes visible the incremental efforts, small revelations, and baffling setbacks that characterize archaeological research.  

Here you go:

Compared to the social media, blogs develop content rather slowly. Even the most fast paced commercial blog rarely rewards more then two or three visits a day to the site. Academic blogs, true to to longstanding rhythms of disciplinary production, tend to update on a much more gradual schedule. At the same time, compared to the traditional print publications, the practice and medium of blogging allows the posts to appear at a blistering pace. Unencumbered by such time consuming processes as editorial oversight, peer review, typesetting, and proofreading, blogs can appear as quickly as the author has words to fill them. Of course, the speed at which blogs posts can appear and the absence of peer or editorial oversight represent blogging practice, and this has attracted the attention of critics who remain skeptical of the value of blogging to the larger academic discourse. Our ability to push unfiltered archaeological knowledge into the web has both outpaced the institutional practices designed to evaluate and control the flow of academic knowledge as well as our interpretative habits which often rely on clear generic indicators to define the character and utility of scholarly production.

Field archaeology is a meticulous process that proceeds at its own pace dictated by the vagaries of manpower, artifact recovery, and recording. The publication process frequently fall prey to the same gradualist approach as famous excavations can take years or even decades to reach publication. While some of this can be attributed to the workflows of particular excavators and their teams, at least some of the issues reside in the traditional process of publishing a field project which involves significant time dedicated to review, editing, and layout. The published results of the field publications are regarded as definitive, although even the most hardened empiricists recognize a difference between a preliminary excavation report and the final publication.

The basic character of blogging streamlines many of these concerns, traditionally going with limited editorial attention and drastically simplified layouts. Both in terms of practice and as a medium, blogging lacks the substantial friction associated with print publication, has allows for almost instantaneous online publication. Bloggers now report on field projects from the field and use the blog to speculate on their work, hypothesize, and even report tentative conclusions. These practices not only lift the veil on the interpretative processes that produce archaeological knowledge (Morgan and Eve 2012; Maguire 2008 for similar attitudes), but also communicate some of the experiences of archaeology from the edge of the trowel. My blog, for example, both documented our misguided expectation that a basilica style church stood on the site of a Hellenistic fortification, and explored the tensions among the project’s senior staff as we struggled to balance the educational and research components of our work. A similar, if more radically inclusive process, was used on the Prescot Street excavations in the U.K. in which all participants were invited to blog and to document their work on the excavation.

While few will argue against the value of blogging for provide a sense of the archaeological experience and to expose archaeological practice to a wider audience, there are limits to the kind of immediacy and transparency that blogging can provide. For example, some nations control stringently the right to reproduce images of objects, architecture, and sites, but have yet to develop comprehensive policies extending to the digital realm. A blog may or may not represent a digital publication. On an even more practical level, announcing the results of an ongoing excavation during the season might make a site more susceptible to looting or other forms of disruption. As with all archaeological work, the limitations and opportunities of a particular medium or practice is not the final work on a decision to disseminate information.

If field work blogs have the potential to make the field processes more transparent, research blogs invite readers into the creative and generative process associated with scholarship. The ability to present ongoing research to a wide audience of peers fits into a continuum of scholarly communication that begins with the conference paper (or perhaps with the informal conversation) and culminates in the peer reviewed book or article. The blog is less clearly vetted than the conference paper or the late, barely lamented, “note” or “correspondence” section of academic journals. In the lead up to the 2014 Society of American Archaeology blogging panel, Doug’s Archaeology Blog curated a blog carnival involving many prominent archaeological bloggers. The responses to the question “Why do you blog?” revealed the range of purposes associated with research from publishing snippets of programing code useful to archaeologists, to staking claim to academic ideas in process and sharing academic problems as they arise in scholarship. As S.W. Kansa and F. Deblauwe have recently noted in their survey of web tools for research in Zooarchaeology , scholarly use of blogs to circulate research remains inconsistent (Kansa and Deblauwe 2011). The practice of exposing ideas to critique is part of the academic process, but we have yet to completely exploit the potential of blogging for communicating ongoing research.

The recent responses to the prompt posted on Doug’s Archaeology Blog likewise demonstrate the importance of the public nature of blogging which has allowed it to become a venue to communicate scholarly work to a broader audience. The popular appeal of archaeology has provided a ready-made audience for efforts to bridge the gap between academic research and the public fascination with the past. At the same time, there is an important aspect of outreach in archaeological blogging. Because archaeologists rely on an informed public both to identify and to protect archaeological sites and objects. In a broader sense blogging to a public audience allows archaeologists to communicate disciplinary boundaries and expertise to a wider group of stakeholders.

The process of blogging research as it occurs also increases the pace of archaeological knowledge production by disseminating and acknowledging the significance of provisional conclusions. Archaeologists make tentative observations regularly over the course of their research and analysis. By making these public on a blog, we demonstrate that the production of archaeological knowledge is not always a plodding, incremental, ponderous slog through reams of data, but often jumps and dances across a landscape of ingenious false starts, brilliant failed hypotheses, and provocative dead ends. Making the intellectual leaps and bounds public hints at both the importance of process and the potential utility of failure for both the academic community and the general public. While it may seem like archaeological publication takes years because of inactivity on the part of archaeologist (and surely some of that is true), in most cases, archaeological analysis is rarely stalled by long delays and is regularly punctuated with exciting, if incremental accomplishments. Archaeology done quickly makes these little victories (and failures) visible.

Day of Digital Humanities 2014

Today is the long awaited Intergalactic Day of Digital Humanities. While we have not heard whether we’ll be joined by any off planet humans and the usual uproar about whether “the humanities” are offensive to non-human lifeforms has yet to flair up, I commend the organizers for melding together humanocentric jingoism with a open-armed inclusiveness. The digital humanities are, after all, big tent.

My posts today will appear here.

But I’ll keep a little updated index on this page so none of my regular readers will miss out.

A Digital Morning
Digitally Mediated Learning
The Afterlife of Old Media
The Keymaster and the Gatekeeper

Archaeology, Blogging, and Community

This past week, I’ve slowly worked on an article for a special issue of Internet Archaeology that will focus on blogging and archaeology. My article, co-authored with Andrew Reinhard, the Director of Publications of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, looks at how blogging in the field of archaeology had contributed new directions to traditional, academic publishing.

We’ve split the article into two parts, with me contributing the first two sections. I’ve been working on the first section over the past couple of weeks. It sought to articulate how the blogging community among archaeologists constitutes a community of practice. Over the past decade archaeological bloggers have come to act in certain ways that actively constitute the production and reproduction of a community. The most simple example of this is the practice of using hyperlinks to provide connections between blog posts (or a blog post and other online content). This not only is a shared practice among bloggers, but explicitly creates links that represent the relationship between various locations of content on the web. The oft-mocked term blogosphere reflects the concept of a blogging community by evoking the universalizing metaphor of the sphere for the world (and also, perhaps, recognizing the organic nature of the blogging environment).

In earlier days, blogrolls forged explicit links between members of the blogging community, but the practice of maintaining an active list of blogs on related topics has gone into decline. In fact, some major blogging platforms have stopped supporting this feature. I can recall, however, surfing the blogosphere by jumping from one blogs blogroll to the next. RSS readers – like the late, lamented Google Reader, largely replaced the blogroll by taking the space for aggregating related content (or the space of articulating the blogging community) from the space of the content provider (the blogger) to the consumer (the reader). That being said, aggregators, like Tom Elliot’s Maia, continue to provide a curated point of access to the archaeological blogosphere.

The practice of commenting on blogs has also provided a space for the interaction among members of a broadly construed blogging community. Unfortunately (I suppose), comments fields on academic blogs have tended to be fairly deserted. A recurring complaint among academic bloggers is that they have so few commenters on their work. In my assessment, much of this has to do with the rather circumscribed space of the individual blog. The archaeological community remains relatively small and the loyal readership of any particular archaeological blog smaller still. More than that, compared to contemporary social media sites, the relative infrequency of posts and the fairly small audience on an academic blog creates a situation where the opportunities for comments and conversation remain few and far between. In other words, the structure of the blogging community provides only a modest space for communities to develop through commenting (except in particular, exceptional circumstances).

Social media space is instructional for academic bloggers. The size of a networked audience and the regularity (and diversity) of posts has created a new space for conversation and commenting largely replacing the comments section on a blog. The multiple points of entry, formally structured relationships between commenters, and the sustained activity alone conspires to encourage conversation in the same way that the informal space at the hotel bar during a busy conference often produced more useful insights than the formal period of content at the end of a panel.

Archaeological blogs represent a particular situation for content distribution on the web. In the blogging world, then communities of practice developed not through the staccato burst of daily interaction in comment feeds, but through the development of linked content. With the social media providing a space of interaction and conversation, the blog represents a platform for communicating academic ideas and for the engagement with dynamic linked content. 

The Goals for Archaeological Blogging

The final prompt in the 2014 SAA Blogging Carnival was pretty direct and serves to get me thinking about the abstract on archaeological blogging that I submitted to Colleen Morgan’s proposed volume of Internet Archaeology. Andrew Reinhard, punk archaeologist, musician, and director of publications at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, has agreed to co-author my contribution and to contribute his thoughts on how blogging (or the larger constellation of tools and genres produced on the web) will shape the future of archaeological publication.

So this prompt is a good first step to getting a few of me thoughts down:

The last question is where are you/we going with blogging or would you it like to go? I leave it up to you to choose between reflecting on you and your blog personally or all of archaeology blogging/bloggers or both. Tells us your goals for blogging. Or if you have none why that is? Tell us the direction that you hope blogging takes in archaeology.

From the start my goals with this blog and for archaeological blogging in general was to produce an alternative mode of scholarly communication. At first, it was directly largely to people interested in my fieldwork projects in Cyprus, but by midway through my first year blogging, I realized that I had access to a much more diverse audience that included both scholars, non-academics, students, teachers, and interested lurkers from around the world. 

As I watched my page views and visitors slowly increase over the first few years of this blog and a few fearless colleagues start their own blogs, we began to discuss the potential of our efforts to disrupt the standard methods of scholarly communication. Academics love to imagine themselves to be rebellious trailblazers, but mostly we’re as conventional as anyone who sits in cramped offices under florescent lights taking a paycheck and “doin’ work”. At the same time, we do have the freedom to be a bit more unconventional than the average cubicle jockey and we have generally been trained to challenge authority. 

It is hardly a revolution to see blogging as a more interesting mode of academic communication than the traditional scholarly routine of poorly-attended conference papers, barely-read (much less cited) articles, and the skimmed battery of echo-chamber forged book reviews. The appeal of academic blogging might be as simple as the regularity, visibility, and immediacy of the content. But it might also be that bloggers have generally developed their pages as personal vehicles and, like our favorite teachers in high school and college, weave in their own personality throughout the posts. In contrast to the austerely “scientifical” prose favored in traditional academic publications, blogs and individual blog posts can be informal, provisionalflippanthumorous, random, and polemical without undermining their integrity as a academic products. For many of us, the blog carries the our more dynamic classroom personas into public space and toward the realm of academic publication.   

Along the way, our blogs develop loyal readers, commenters (especially when combined with the social media), and like-minded fellowbloggers have begun to formulate a new perspective on the long-standing academic back-channel. This group not only believes in the existence of a community of people who are interested in academic archaeology, but also feels it appropriate to share with this community the process of archaeological thinking from the first random scribbles on an idea to the fully formed working papers and publications. The unveiling of the archaeological process works to demystify the “science” of archaeological thought and to invest the community in the process as much as the product.

The final step in the disruptive potential of archaeological blogging is returning to the traditional realm of scholarly publications and somehow infusing it with the sense of community, transparency, excitement, and energy of blogging. Some of this has already happened with experiments in open peer review, comment enabled publications, a commitment to working papers, and deeper engagements with social media. The future of academic publications in archaeology and how willing they are to reflect trends in blogging remains unclear, but it seems like the nature of the conversation in our discipline has begun to change, and it’s cool to have been part of that transformation.

An Article Abstract on Archaeological Blogging

Over the past couple years, I’ve been turning over in my head an article idea about archaeological blogging. I have written a good bit on my blog about the virtues and prospects of writing about my research and teaching on a nearly daily basis, but I’ve so far found it difficult to wrap my various ideas (reflexive, reflective, and otherwise) into a cohesive argument.

I tried with this thing, but it’s hard not to see it as a mess.

So with the open invitation to contribute something to an Internet Archaeology volume dedicated to blogging and edited by the spectacular Colleen Morgan, I decided to take another stab at it.

My biggest struggle is attempting to understand how blogging in the archaeological community fits into the larger trajectory of blogging and publication on the web. I started with the  idea that blogs began with the promise of creating communities on the web (even before social media). The blogroll and sharing links established communities of likeminded readers. At the same time the regular, daily posts that tended to be short, filled with links, and informal created some generic expectations that many bloggers followed.

More recently, however, I have this feeling that blogging – as Jason Kottke has observed – is (not) dead, and in a period of transition as the traditional practice of ordering posts by days gives way to more elegant and topic organization of content. And the long form potential of the internet has challenged the dominance of short informal notes. Sites like Medium may not be the precise way forward, but its hard to avoid thinking that they are the general direction that online, personal publishing will go. In archaeology, being traditionalists, we may continue to blog in a chronological format drawing on longstanding models from the archaeological notebook or field dispatch. But as we have started to use our web presence for more than just regular reports from the field, we may begin to think about how the blogging platform fits can contribute to larger enterprise of reimagining publication.

So here’s my abstract for now:

From Blogs to Books
Blogging as Community, Genre, and Platform

Looking back at my first efforts to describe the blogging phenomenon among Mediterranean archaeologists in 2008, I was reminded how the work at the intersection of blogging and archaeology defied simple characterization. At the same times, blogs created communities of readers and allowed for public experiments with the traditional generic conventions of academia as bloggers reflected, speculated, and annotated their experiences. The speed of blogging, the networks it created and relied upon, and the range of different functions blogging served from public relations to academic notes, initiated a key reimagining of our professional discourse by the archaeological community.

In recent years, archaeological bloggers begun to move the platform used for blogging in the direction of a new forms of archaeological publication. It is worth noting that there is nothing inherent in the technology of blogging that makes it incompatible with academic publishing. In fact, even the casual, conversational style of an informal blog post can echo the style of the more academically respectable conference paper. Moreover, new platforms like Medium dispense with the rigid chronological formatting associated with blogs and provide graphically sophisticated and appealing final product. More importantly, these new forms offer both a speed of delivery absent in traditional print publications as well as space for interaction between author and audience and can accommodate audio, video, and interactive media that are only now being incorporated into the more digital versions of traditional journals.

 

 

SAA Blogging Carnival: Popular Blog Posts and Networked Reading

If you haven’t checked it out, the summary of last month’s SAA Blog Carnival is posted at Doug’s Archaeology Blog. It’s pretty epic in terms of number of contributors and range of responses. My contribution got a bit lost in the shuffle, but it’s still there and the energy from the entire undertaking has motivated me to keep with it.

This month’s prompts are as follows:

What are your best (or if you want your worst) post(s) and why? Compare and contrast your different bests/worsts.

While is a cool question because it opens the door not only to reflect on our own blogging efforts, I’m going to mostly ignore it and use it as prompt to speculate a bit on the entire blogging ecosystem. After all, the best and worst posts are only partly determined by our own judgement and partly by their reception by our audience.

Anyway, I have three observations.

1. My best posts and networked knowledge. On my blog, my best posts are those read by the most people. It’s pretty simple, really. I write stuff. People read it. And when people read and appreciate my contributions to their online worlds, I get happy.

The great thing about blogging (or writing on the web) is how transparent networked reading is. I remember as a graduate student, one of my prized possessions as a graduate student was a copy of Eriki Sironen’s Helsinki dissertation: “The late Roman and early Byzantine inscriptions of Athens and Attica.” It was hard to get in the U.S. and I had no idea how many people had copies. My copy carried from Athens and photocopied with a purloined copier code at night in a dark corner of the history department.

Today, we read in a different way. Articles circulate at the speed of light, and social media, email, and blogs compose part of this networked reading infrastructure. When other people read our posts and like our ideas we know it. Our reading habits sway with the flickering of other people’s interest on our social media dashboards. It appears in our blog analytics and sketches out the barest outlines of a community who shares practices, habits, and interests. The attention a post gets from this community shows the community of readers (and writers) at work.

My most popular posts were primarily driven these days by their prominence on social media. When a popular Facebook or Twitter personality likes what they see, my daily page view jump from the hundreds to over 1000 within hours.  

2. The Ephemeral and the Persistent. One of the most interesting things about blogging is attempting to understand the relationship between posts that receive significant immediate attention and those that linger and gain page views slowly over time. My “New” Archaeology of the Mediterranean World blog has existed for close to three years now and some posts continue to garner attention indicating that our idea of blogs as kinds of digital ephemera is perhaps over stated.

In the past, I have suggested that blogs can fill a gap between the almost completely ephemeral media of the conference paper and the institutionally protected status of traditional academic journals. As blogs continue to mature on the web issues of visibility and persistence will shape how we understand their value and their place in the academic ecosystem. A post that’s three or four years old and continues to get attention has greater meaning than a post that attracts a few hundred hits in a day and then fades into obscurity.  

At the same time, I’ve tried to strike a balance between posts that enjoy momentary or situational popularity (for example, I had a post featured on WordPress.com’s Freshly Pressed page) and those that have persistent significance to my reading community. The sensational or situational post has the advantage of making by blog more visible on the web and attracting new, interested readers. As I continue to experiment with using my blog as a platform for other people’s writing, I feel even greater obligation to draw attention to it through ephemeral posts and a greater social media presence.

3. Blogging is Dead. A few weeks ago Jason Kottke (one of the great “old” men of the blogging community) wrote a short piece for the Nieman Journalism Lab titled “The Blog is Dead, Long Live the Blog.” In it he talked broadly about the transformation of reading on the internet and how he almost never reads proper, traditional blogs any more. In fact, he suggests that the traditional format of the blog with posts arranged in chronological order has slowly given way over the past few years to more topical or thematic arrangement of content. He notes the emergence of sites like Medium which  look to present content for various authors in a more stylish format than most blogs, and without any concession to chronological format.

Over the past few months, I ran a series of posts on 3D imaging in Mediterranean archaeology. One of the complaints voiced by a number of contributors was that there was no proper table of contents and they had to scroll through pages of content to read the entire series of posts. That was an easy enough problem to fix, but it shows that as the blog developed, the suitability in the traditional blogging format has limits.   

At the same time, the narrative structure of blogging with its clear, chronological trajectory seems suitable for telling the story of archaeological work and academic research as ongoing processes. It invites a regular reader into an archaeologist’s world and has obvious parallels with the format of a archaeological field notebooks. It also assumes a particular practice in the part of the reader who makes daily visits to a blog and reads it in sequence getting to know the authors over time. Whether this is enough to keep blogging as the format of choice for archaeological outreach remains to be seen.  

Tis the Season

Every year I have readers asking me whether the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World team can help with a last minute Christmas gift. 

Every year, I assure them that the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Archive is the perfect gift for anyone who wants to relive the glory that is the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World Blog on luxurious paper. Volume 4 of The Archive is now available in all of its digital glory. It is most free of obfuscating mark-up and html artifact and perfectly ready for printing and binding at the book binder of your choice. I’d recommend binding it in rich, Corinthian leather.

This year The Archive is prepared in Garamond font (the cover page is in Futura) and runs to over 500 pages. These are 500 pages that might have been directed toward book projects, properly completing university mandate paperwork, or letters to the editor of the local newspaper. It runs to well over 100,000 words. 

I have decided to exclude other people’s posts (o.p.p.) from this archive, in part, because they will appear in a separate, better edited volume, and because it would be too hard to explain to other people why I prepare an annual archive. I have also followed past practices and left out all of the images. It is just easier this way and I figured that it would fuel my readers imagination as they attempted to visualize whatever it was that I was talking about.

For this feeling nostalgic, copies of Volume 1, Volume 2, and Volume 3 are still available.

Merry Christmas!

SAA Blogging Carnival: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly about Blogging

Last week, I offered a post on “Why I blog?” in the run-up to the 2014 Society for American Archaeology panel on blogging at their annual meeting. The responses were collated and commented on over at Doug’s Archaeology blog where he has also offered us another round of prompts.

Here are Doug’s prompts:

The theme is the good, the bad, and the ugly of blogging. Blog about one or all of these themes. Instructions on how to participate can be found here.

The Good- what has been good about blogging? I know some people in their ‘why blogging’ posts mentioned creating networks and getting asked to talk on a subject. But take this to the next level, anything and everything positive about blogging, share your stories. You could even share what you hope blogging will do for you in the future.

The Bad- lots of people mention it feels like talking to brick wall sometimes when you blog. No one comments on posts or very few people do. What are your disappointments with blogging? What are your frustrations? What do you hate about blogging? What would you like to see changed about blogging?

The Ugly- I know Chris at RAS will mention the time he got fired for blogging about archaeology. It is your worst experiences with blogging- trolls, getting fired, etc.

I’m pleased enough to observe that most of my blogging experiences have been good with few in the other two categories, but I’ll offer a few comments none the less…

The Good

1. Writing. As I mentioned in my “why I blog” post last week, the best about blogging for me is that it has helped me learn to write more quickly and efficiently. With all the disruptions present in a traditional academic career (students, meetings, colleagues, books, et c.), there is nothing more rewarding than having an hour or so to write each morning with a cup of coffee. I have found that this writing time sets the tone for my entire day. More mornings last a little longer and I am far more willing to set aside some pressing task and spend some time on a long term project.

2. Contact. Like many bloggers, I’ll complain that my blog has not necessary attracted the boisterous community of readers who fill my comments with untold riches. That being said, there are few things more gratifying than getting an email from a reader letting me know that my blog has brought something to their attention. This is perhaps the most heartwarming of those stories

3. A Platform. Recently, I have been more willing to turn my blog over to other people, and I’ve come to realize that my blog is both an outlet for my writing, but can be used as a platform to bring the writing of other people to a wider audience. Since part of what gives a blog exposure on the web is a regular (and constant) stream of good content (good being adjusted to the standards of the interwebs), a regularly updated blog tends to attract more attention than one that is only updated occasionally. My blog is updated five days a week, and it is immensely gratifying to be able to use my blogging habit to provide a platform for other people’s writing. 

4. Citation and Credit. I’ve never asked for any direct credit for my blog at my institution. I think I could probably get some kind of credit for it, but since the blog is part of my workflow, it seems unnecessary to me. Occasionally, someone cites my blog in a traditional academic publication, and this is incredibly gratifying because it means that someone sees my work here as a meaningful contribution to the scholarly conversation. 

The Bad

1. Comments. As with all bloggers, I wish there were more comments on my blog. I also wish that panels at conferences were more vibrant and interactive. I wish that academic journals published responses to articles more frequently and that scholars took the time (and had the opportunity) to respond to reviews of their books. But, honestly, these things rarely happen. The optimist in me sees something in academics that pushes them to read, process, and look ahead leaving little time to engage in conversations. The pessimist in me recognizes that we tend to see reading – even on the web – as a largely passive exercise.

2. Am I a Blogger? There are still people who think that blogging is silly and a waste of time. This is a perspective that I generally respect except when blogging is wrenched from its place within an evolving workflow of academic production. In other words, if blogging is a waste of time, then surely conference papers are every bit as much of a waste of time. To this I could add other forms of informal writing (some festschrifts, non-peer reviewed proceedings, correspondences, working papers, and popular publications) that have long held a place in the accepted typology of academic productions. Moreover, the idea that a blogger is somehow less serious as a scholar because they produce a regular stream writing in a digital format, relies on a view of writing and production that is not only outdated, but also privileges elitist forms of scholarly communication.

The Ugly

I began blogging when the long shadow of scholarly skepticism was still retreating. People still conceived of bloggers, like forthright Bitch Ph.D., as transgressive rebels who were willing to put their academic career and intellectual credentials on the line to speak truth to power. Earnest commentators urged scholars to consider carefully their decision to blog because it might jeopardize their academic or professional careers. I am sure that there are still those who feel that expressing themselves at all on a blog is intrinsically risky.

I’ll admit that every now and then, I do get a tingle that tells me not to blog something. Sometimes, like when I eagerly announced the discovery of an Early Christian basilica on the hill of Vigla at our site on Cyprus (it was a Hellenistic fortified settlement), I probably should have followed those instincts. In other cases, like when I referred to the Regular Program at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens as “approach[ing] a kind of hazing”, I will stand by my critique, but admit that it wasn’t the nicest thing to say while they were funding my term as a professor there. On the other hand, there are things that I haven’t blogged about when I really wanted to. 

Maybe this kind of tingly blogger-sense has kept me sheltered from the ugly side of blogging. Maybe it is the memory of the early blogging days when we feared the new medium and the free flow of information that it promised. Maybe there are only two kinds of bloggers: those who have quit blogging and those who haven’t quit yet.  Whatever the reason, I’ve yet to encounter the ugly side of blogging.