“Blogging, Scholarship, and the Networked Public Sphere” Draft

Chuck Tryon's picture

 It’s probably too late for any substantial commentary, but in the spirit of my MLApanel, convened by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, on Media Studies and the Digital Scholarly Present, which calls for taking a closer look at new models of digital scholarly communication, I’ve decided to post a draft of my conference paper below the fold.  In essence, the paper looks at how blogging as a practice has begun to shape other forms of scholarly communication and, more crucially, how scholars can learn from the three primary styles of blogging as defined by Jill Walker-Rettberg in her book, BloggingWalker defines these as personal, topic-driven, and filtering, and part of what I’m trying to do in the paper is to make a case that “filtering blogs,” blogs that offer collections of links, often with short commentary, are a crucial means not only for navigating a wide array of material but also for creating collectives with shared interests.


 I’m still not satisfied with the paper, in part because the concept of the filter seems imprecise, especially when it comes to the role that many “filter bloggers” have in building communities with shared interests.  I’m also still trying to map out the ways in which blogs are defined in terms of how they structure (or are structured by) time.  I’ve always been intrigued by the tension between immediate (but not necessarily spontaneous) publication and permanent archives that accrue over time.  It’s a topic I’d planned to address years ago (way back in 2003, when blogging was very young) but never found the right forum.

 Apologies for any formatting problems below.  I copied this directly from a Word processing file.


“Blogging, Scholarship, and the Networked Public Sphere”

 In the call for papers for this panel, Kathleen Fitzpatrick requested proposals that would address “Not the future of digital scholarly publishing but the material form of such mediated communication as it exists today.” In responding to the CFP, I reflected on my own experience in navigating what might be called, following Kathleen, “mediated scholarly communication,” particularly as it has played out within the field of scholarly publishing.  The challenges raised by the collision of academic presses and digital media, particularly in a recession economy, need little introduction here: As scholarly publishing models continue to face the need for significant changes in response to the rise of digital media, it is worth using these changes in order to theorize what counts as “scholarship” within the fields of literary and media studies. These issues have been at the forefront of the many meta-level discussions that have been taking place as theMLA re-evaluates how tenure applications should be evaluated.  While the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion has wisely observed that “forms of scholarship other than single-authored books were not being properly recognized” and by calling for “a more capacious conception of scholarship” (Profession 2007), it is less clear what counts as scholarly publication in the current context. In fact, to some extent, the Task Force Report still places emphasis on the scholarly monograph as a crucial means for transmitting academic research and for perpetuating the ongoing scholarly conversations that makes our research so vital.  In this sense, the Task Force Report reflects or repeats traditional accounts of what counts as scholarship.  However, as Christine Borgman (2007, p. 33) points out: “Notions of scholarship, information, and infrastructure are deeply embedded in technology, policy, and social arrangements….An important step in examining directions for digital scholarship is to make the invisible assumptions visible.”  By looking at other digital modes of writing, we can begin to think about how scholarly engagement might be structured differently.

 In contributing to this conversation, I would like to make what is probably a relatively modest argument that academic blogs offer a vital public forum where many of the goals of scholarly publishing are already being addressed.   While blogs have been the object of discussion at MLAfor some time, they have rarely been treated as a productive model for reimagining the scholarly conversations that we are having. In particular, I am interested in thinking about how blogging can revitalize scholarship in part by positioning blogging within what Yochai Benkler refers to as the “networked public sphere.”  In drawing a connection between blogging and scholarship, I recognize that skeptical listeners may object that crucial “quality-control” measures, such as peer review may be lost.  At the same time, individual blog posts, marked by what Evan Williams referred to as “frequency, brevity, and personality” may challenge traditional modes of evaluating scholarly production.  However, such concerns often fail to take into account how blogs function as a distributed conversation and how they interact with other media, including scholarly articles and books.  In this sense, we should not view an individual blog or blog post in isolation but should engage with blogs as part of a larger network that enables new forms of “publication” that emphasize both public engagement (with scholars and non-academic audiences) and gradual, collective knowledge-building.  In order to address these concerns, I argue that, contrary to common complaints, bloggers have developed relatively elaborate, if ad hoc, modes of evaluating different forms of digital scholarly publication.  Although these evaluative practices are typically informal, they can provide some access into how practices typically associated with blogging can inform other academic writing practices.  More crucially, bloggers actively form overlapping hubs where shared interests can be addressed.  I then describe three of the more common modes, or styles, of blogging (as defined by Jill Walker-Rettberg), the personal, topic-driven, and filter modes, in order to consider the types of conversations that shape mediated scholarly communication as it is being practiced in the present moment.


Blogs and the Public Sphere:

Although blogs allow anyone with web access the opportunity to publish, this does not imply that all material posted to blogs is treated equally.  In connecting blogging to the public sphere, I am aware that my formulation runs against many of the arguments run counter to those developed by Jurgen Habermas, the author responsible for popularizing the concept of the public sphere.  Habermas famously defined the public sphere as “an ideal democratic space for rational debate among informed and engaged citizens” (Walker-Rettberg 46)  identifying such cultures of debate within the “cultures of debate” associated with 19th-century coffeehouses and fueled by the widespread dissemination of newspapers, magazines, and other printed texts.  Even though it is doubtful that the Habermasian ideal ever truly existed–especially given the number of people who would have been excluded from participating–the concept of the public sphere has tremendous power and has served as a useful starting point for thinking about how blogs and other forms of online writing can combine the practices associated with scholarly production with the benefits associated with public engagement.

 More recently, Yochai Benkler has updated the concept of the public sphere in order to take practices such as blogging into consideration, using the term to describe “the set of practices that the members of a society use to communicate about matters they understand to be of public concern and that potentially require collective action or recognition” (177).  Such a model seeks to take into consideration the interplay between networked communication and political participation.  Benkler offers a number of case studies, including the uproar within the political blogosphere when the Federal Communication Commission threatened to loosen rules regarding media ownership even further.  As information about the FCC’s plans emerged, a number of prominent bloggers, many informed by media studies scholarship, coordinated collective efforts to express concern over these plans.  On a more basic level, scholars in media studies and literary studies can engage the public, media companies, and the government regarding policies that will effect media literacy and access.  Many of these conversations allow film and media scholars, such as Henry Jenkins and danah boyd, to contribute in a timely way to ongoing media policy debates, work that seems to be in keeping with what Avi Santo and Christopher Lucas identify, in a recentCinema Journal article, as a process of ongoing engagement with policy makers and media industry creative personnel.

 But although blogs offer potentially useful ways for engaging with a wider, public audience, they have been greeted with some ambivalence or confusion about how they fit within existing practices of scholarly publishing.  One of the challenges of defining how blogs fit within current perceptions of scholarly publishing has been the perception that the ability to publish material immediately leads to the production of unreflective, spontaneous material that does not reflect thought or analysis.  In some cases, prominent bloggers have helped foster this perception.  Political pundit Andrew Sullivan romanticizes this ability to publish material immediately, arguing that bloggers are, socially and technologically driven toward immediate publication, writing that “we bloggers have scant opportunity to collect our thoughts, to wait until events have settled and a clear pattern emerges. We blog now–as news reaches us, as facts emerge” (58).  The format, driven by the page views that may, in turn, increase advertising revenue, seems to demand constant updating as bloggers seek out attention from readers.  As Sullivan succinctly puts it, “for bloggers, the deadline is always now” (58).

 These dual characteristics have been described by Girish Shambu, who writes, “Here’s my single favorite thing about blogging: being able to educate oneself in public.  Going through this process–trying to move forward, stumbling, groping occasionally finding–in full view of the world does not always stroke one’s ego.  Each week you find yourself writing not about what you know but what you perhaps hope to learn from the process of watching, reading, and struggling to think through and articulate.”  As Shambu’s comments suggest, blogs operate most effectively when they offer partial, provisional forms of knowledge by testing a hypothesis, raising a question, or introducing a topic for discussion.  Such an approach may open bloggers up to certain risks.  Ideas that are incomplete may open a blogger up to criticism or attack; however, these collaborative, open-ended conversations can also help scholars rethink traditional assumptions about a scholarly field or theoretical approach.

 These conversations are enabled by the three primary styles, or modes, of blogging identified by Walker-Rettberg, personal, filter, and topic-driven blogs.  Each of these modes overlap to a significant degree.  The personal immediacy associated with blogging informs the kinds of topics addressed, and of course, an author will inevitably “filter” the material she encounters on the web according to her interests and tastes, but these categories are helpful in thinking about how blogging practices might help us to think about scholarship in the digital age.


Personal blogs:

Perhaps the most commonly discussed category of blogs are “personal blogs.”  Known for their diaristic and sometimes confessional style, personal blogs have, quite often, inspired criticism, in part because their personal nature defies normal expectations for public writing.  The perception of personal blogs was profoundly shaped by the experiences of Heather Armstrong, a web designer, whose complaints about her boss on her blog, Dooce, contributed to her being fired from her job.  In fact, Armstrong’s experiences led to the coinage of the term “dooced” to describe anyone who loses a job because of something they posted online.  Soon after Armstrong’s story began receiving attention, a pseudonymous column by Ivan Tribble in The Chronicle of Higher Education expressed similar concern that young scholars seeking tenure-track jobs might be well-advised to avoid posting content online or risk out on offending curious job-search committees.  However, these horror stories obscure the ways in which personal experience can be used as both a form of critique (of the profession) and as a nascent form of media analysis.  In this context, a number of media scholars, such as Jason Mittell, Tim Anderson, and Jonathan Gray, have used their personal experiences with new media technologies to analyze the rapid changes in the television and film industries.  These observations–such as Mittell’s blog post about his child’s use of a DVR or Anderson’s discussion of watching a Saturday Night Live skit on YouTube–can tell us much about media use patterns, especially when a post inspires conversations among other bloggers.


Topic-Driven Blogs:

In addition to personal blogs, topic-driven blogs serve as a crucial means through which engaged scholars can address issues pertaining to their chosen academic field.  This is, perhaps, the most familiar, and accepted, form of academic blogging today.  In film studies, for example, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson have generously posted countless blog essays recounting various elements of film history or offering reviews or observations about contemporary film culture.  Topic-driven blogs also allow scholars such as Henry Jenkins (among many others) to engage with important social issues in a timely fashion.  The approach of Jenkins, boyd, and others here probably closely mirrors the concept of the public sphere as it was described by Habermas and reinterpreted by Benkler.  Benkler, for example, famously cites the role of bloggers in exposing comments by Mississippi Senator Trent Lott that expressed nostalgia for segregation.  Given that prominent media scholars such as Bordwell, Thompson, and Jenkins have embraced this style of blogging, it seems as if topic-driven blogs have received acceptance as a valuable form of scholarly work, in large part because they most resemble the essay, which has traditionally served as a familiar form of scholarship, even if it is less clear how that work will be evaluated in tenure and promotion cases.


Filter Blogs:

Perhaps the most complicated mode is the filtering mode, in which bloggers identify and, in most cases comment on, valuable materials found by the author of a blog.  As Walker-Rettberg observes, these writers “filter the web from the blogger’s own point-of-view” (12).  Walker-Rettberg cites the example of Kottke.org, a prominent web design blog authored by Jason Kottke, who will typically link to and comment on articles of interest to his readers.    Given the rapid expansion of the blogosphere, this “filtering” activity can become a significant way of providing readers with a means for navigating the web’s vast and rapidly expanding knowledge database.  In fact, as Alex Halavais points out, the web is fostering a model of authorship that emphasizes “findability and making connections as central to what it means to create in a hyperlinked world” (110).  In this context, we might consider the type of curatorial work being done by British film scholar, Catherine Grant, in her Film Studies for Free blog, where Grant offers semi-daily posts offering links to a wide range of scholarly articles focused on a film genre, director, or issue.  Similarly, Tama Leaver’s “Annotated Digital Culture” posts frequently offer a short bullet-point list of links addressing current news stories addressing media policy or fan studies issues.  However, in addition to serving as a means of knowledge-building, filtering blogs can also help to cultivate links between bloggers with shared interests.  In this sense, the filtering mode has proven to be a crucial organizing force within the film blogosphere, particularly through the work of David Hudson, who blogged for the video rental service Green Cine for several years before more recently writing for both the IFC blog and The Auteurs, a site that streams classical films.  Hudson typically offered a daily digest of links to virtually everything of interest in the film blogosphere, linking to as many as one hundred blog posts and news articles per day, providing readers with a vast range of materials on film and media topics.  Although it is likely that many of these film bloggers could have found each other–and many of the items of interest posted by Hudson–the practice of link-sharing becomes a crucial means of organizing a group of people with shared interests.

In addition to contributing to our overall “knowledge database,” the “filtering mode” can also help to facilitate the “social” aspect of blogging and shares affinities with both the social bookmarking practices associated with a website such as delicious and with microblogging tools such as Twitter.  Both of these sites place a premium on sharing information with a wider circle of people with shared interests [develop this relationship further].  This approach is also consistent with what David Parry describes (on this panel) as a “curatorial” approach.  Parry argues that in the digital age, “the author’s role is less the creator of a material work and more that of a curator (or maybe even a janitor) of an immaterial, ever evolving one.”  In essence, digital authorship becomes a means of making sense of the vast proliferation of information available on the web, providing a method of connecting, or creating links between, disconnected texts.

 This practice of linking also has an affinity with what Clive Thompson calls “ambient intimacy,” the ability of Facebook and Twitter users to follow the updates of a large number of colleagues or friends, often through a brief glance at their news feeds, opening up the possibility for what Thompson calls “ad hoc, self-organizing socializing” (125).  As Thompson implies, reading Twitter and other microblogging tools is often difficult for people who are unfamiliar with it, especially when you look only at an individual tweet.  Typical complaints about Twitter often express some version of an identical sentiment: “I don’t care what you had for dinner last night.”  However, woven together, a collection of tweets can tell us much more about ourselves and about the people with whom we interact on a daily basis, and more crucially, given my interests here, Twitter and Facebook help to supplement my reading on the web, directing me to articles, films, essays, and ideas that might be pertinent to my research.


The “So-What” Question:

So, what are the implications of these new practices for scholarly communication?  One of the most powerful effects is that scholarship can now become increasingly networked.  Of course, journals such as Kairos and Postmodern Culture have long exploited the web, whether through hypertextual structures, embedded video, or links to external sources.  But these approaches tend to preserve the essential structure of a scholarly essay.  They typically present an argument, albeit in a new format, one that can potentially open up new definitions of what counts as an essay.

 Blogs also fit neatly within existing paradigms regarding the relationship between academics and the public sphere.  There is, of course, a long history of scholars engaging with a wider public, whether through newspaper editorials or other formats. That being said, blogs do allow both  immediate and sustained forms of public engagement that might not otherwise have been available, democratizing access to a wider public, even if that public is increasingly fragmented, focusing on niche interests.

 However, the most notable aspect of blogging may be the temporal orientation that encourages daily or semi-daily publication.  Although writing frequently may seem to discourage the deeper reflection privileged in academic essays, writing often, for a large audience, also provides the opportunity not only to benefit from the expertise of a wide range of readers–whether scholars or industry professionals–but also to build a well-developed, cross-referenced archive that can serve as a kind of history of the present.  In this sense, it is worthwhile to return to Shambu’s comments about what he values about blogging: blogs allow us to educate ourselves in public, to learn collectively about pertinent issues, as we seek to make sense of our current moment of media transition.  To be sure, there are a number of risks involved in this type of public authorship, including the potential that an argument or conclusion may turn out to be wrong.