Stu Elden has been posting about a debate debate on the Critical Geography listserv over the virtues and pitfalls of blogging, and of using blogs, Twitter, and other social media as research tools and data.

I’ve been trying to follow that debate, at least to the extent that I’ve been able to follow anything on the listservs I subscribe to (which hasn’t been much recently). The ease of following blogs as opposed to listservs is one of the points I made in a comment to the list. I find that listservs can be more difficult to keep up with than blogs, since blogs just roll into one’s blog reader, which make their posts more easily organizable, taggable, shareable, searchable, and so on. When one follows one or two listservs, as many disciplinary scholars are likely to do, it’s not a real bother to keep up with them. But when one follows several, as interdisiciplinarians tend to do, it can become overwhelming. I’ve unsubscribed from some recently, but still stay on a handful (for the record, E-ANTH, Critical Geography, the Environmental Communication Network, ASLE, the Peirce List, and two or three others I can’t remember right now).

Scu at Critical Animal has added his own reflections on academic blogging, where he refers to a “blogger backlash.” I suspect that term may be premature: the Crit-Geog debate mostly featured comments supportive of blogging as both an academic activity and as a source of useful information. The comment Scu quoted questioning the value of blogs (I won’t use names, since the listserv is a subscriber-only venue, though one can easily access the archive online) was actually the most negative comment there, and one of the only negative comments in a sea of positive or nuanced yet largely appreciative comments.

(I should add that that commenter suggested that age has something to do with it, he being over 42 and presumably over a certain hill. That must put me into the category of senior bloggers… ech. Which tells me, at least, that age has little to do with it, except in a statistical and happenstance kind of way. Many of the most frequent bloggers I know — philosophers Brian Leiter and Graham Harman, climate scientist Judith Curry, economist Paul Krugman, and others — are in their 40s or up.)

Since I’ve made my own arguments about the virtues and disvirtues of blogging a few times already (mainly in this old post), I’ll just add a few brief reflections here.

1) Almost everything that can be said of other kinds of communication can be said about blogging: the quality varies; one should do one’s research and be critical and judicious with trusting one’s sources; and so on.

2) Because of the speed and the thickly networked character of the blogosphere, there’s a (self-induced) pressure to comment on anything and everything that happens. It’s only an internal pressure, and it arises in part out of a sense of responsibility to one’s readers (they’ve taken the trouble to subscribe and I don’t want to disappoint them…). But all of that helps to generate the sense of community that can develop through social media across distances that physical contact cannot bridge. Those two kinds of “community” are different, of course, but each has its advantages, and getting too drawn in to the mediated kind takes away from the pleasures of the more direct kind. We choose how to spend our time and find the right balance for ourselves.

3) Blogging lends itself more to a “watch me now” style of expression, and critiques of blogging tend to often be critiques of exactly that — which means they are critiques of the blogger who does it, not necessarily of the medium and its possibilities. This is part of a more general trend whereby communication is, perhaps more and more, becoming a matter of positioning oneself between other interlocutors and lines of locution — of becoming what Latour would call an “obligatory passage point” between intersecting networks.

Why would this be happening “more and more”? There’s a trivial point to be made that media are responsible for it. That’s a half-truth at best: it’s media, it’s the mediators (media-users), but most of all it’s the larger system both are a part of, which is a political-economic-technological system that is nearing 7-billion-humans-strong on a planet that is finite in some fairly obvious respects (though not in others, such as the density of communicative nodes being generated by new media).

That said, communication has always been about positioning through self-expression. And it’s never only that: it’s both a reaching out to others and an allowing of others into oneself, since self-disclosure invites scrutiny. And it’s about gossip, the sharing of the details that build a world. Whatever else it is, communication is always the expression of desire and of love for the universe and for those we share it with. (Go read some Peirce if you need convincing.)

4) In terms of the typical academic’s workload, customarily divided into “teaching,” “scholarship,” and “service,” blogging is for me largely a matter of “service”, i.e. of outreach into the wider community — making available the results of one’s scholarship to the public, and so on. Fortunately, however, things are never as unidirectional as that suggests — it’s a two-way interaction, and the connections and conversations generated through blogging can feed back beautifully into one’s scholarship. I’ve described a bit of that feedback here, and could easily provide several more examples if I updated that post.

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My favorite comment from the Crit-Geog discussion, for its simplicity, was this one:

I hope we can all appreciate the irony and humor of debating the value of internet blogs in *2011*. (Next topic: “is bipedalism overrated?”)

In the end, though, we all have our comfort zones and our thresholds beyond which we don’t think it’s worth venturing. I haven’t made much use of Twitter, and reflections like Jodi Dean’s From swords unto mindshares confirm my own suspicion that each new medium, each new social networking format, has its uses and its abuses, and that sliding into use-addiction easily clears the path for the less worthwhile uses, such as, in Twitter’s case, the automated-feed “remediations” Jodi laments.

As for listservs — which, if anything, tend to have all the same problems and probably more easily degenerate into flame wars — they provide a kind of enclosure where the community becomes more self-contained, more prescribed according to who is a legitimate participant and who isn’t. (E.g., if you’re on E-ANTH but aren’t an anthropologist you’re probably either a lurker or you’ve already commented about why you’re there.)

My favorite listserv activity at the moment, courtesy of the Peirce List, is a slow read of an article by the late Joseph Ransdell, which is only the first of a projected series of slow reads of selected Peirce-related articles. Those kinds of things can easily take place online, as cross-blog slow-reads of books have demonstrated. The choice there is between a more public venue and a more circumscribed one. Either way, we use the media available for whatever ends we wish, and some of them are good.

This recent Inside Higher Ed piece makes another kind of argument for academic blogging, which I tend to agree with. Some academics prefer to be ivory tower lifers, others enjoy spending time in the streets. Me, I like both, but I’ll also go for a walk in the woods from time to time, which is why I’ll end this post right now.

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