by Kevin Wiliarty, Wesleyan University
You.Niversity? A Review of Reconstruction’s Special Issue: “Theories/Practices of Blogging”
At a recent workshop on academic applications of Web 2.0 technologies, NITLE’s Bryan Alexander acknowledged that one of the challenges for the converted is to help their peers get past the often playfully silly names associated with the tools in question: “Blogs? Wikis? Are you serious?” The point is not insignificant. I remember my own initial reactions to these terms, and I read the wariness in the faces of the faculty I now advise on matters of academic computing. Scholars often correctly intuit that they are not the target demographic for Web 2.0. Negative press only reinforces that visceral inclination. Most academics presumably know the Wikipedia better for its vulnerabilities and pitfalls than for its real or potential strengths, and blogging is perceived, even by some of its scholarly practitioners, as extraprofessional, if not outright “neurotic or masturbatory” (Benton 2006).
Intended end-user or not, higher education stands to benefit greatly from technologies that significantly enrich our information infrastructure. We are only beginning to appreciate how Web 2.0 can facilitate or enhance familiar scholarly and pedagogical endeavors, not least of all by helping us to manage the information glut for which Web 2.0 is, itself, partly responsible. We sense, if vaguely, that these new tools will change some of our ways of working, perhaps dramatically. For good or ill, it has already begun, and even adherents of the cause generally recognize the need for attention to a number of issues: peer review, professionalism, promotion, and intellectual property, to mention only a few.
Amid the shifting technological sands, the recent special issue (vol. 6, no. 4, 2006) of the freely available, online, peer-reviewed, academic quarterly Reconstruction offers a welcome antidote to the speculation and scuttlebutt. Titled “Theories/Practices of Blogging,” the issue tackles a wide range of topics using disparate methodologies. Academic blogging features prominently (see Michael Benton’s introductory “Thoughts on Blogging by a Poorly Masked Academic,” Craig Saper’s “Blogademia,” Lilia Efimova’s “Two papers, me in between,” and to a lesser extent Tama Leaver’s “Blogging Everyday Life“). In closely allied projects, the multi-authored “Webfestschrift for Wealth Bondage/The Happy Tutor” celebrates blogging as a literary enterprise, while Erica Johnson’s “Democracy Defended: Polibloggers and the Political Press in America” examines blogging’s relationship to still another form of professional writing: journalism.
Further contributions to the issue address questions of blogging and identity in international contexts (see Carmel L. Vaisman’s “Design and Play: Weblog Genres of Adolescent Girls in Israel,” David Sasaki’s “Identity and Credibility in the Global Blogosphere,” and Lauren Elkin’s “Blogging and (Expatriate) Identity“). The expatriate blogger Esther Herman’s beautifully written “My Life in the Panopticon: Blogging From Iran” serves as a highly personalized foil for the more analytical pieces.
True to the spirit of blogging, perhaps, the contributions are diverse and international. They include theoretical and empirical analyses alongside a number of ‘primary’ sources, i.e. bloggers’ own reflections on blogging. This one-two punch provides ammunition for the advocate and manna for the believer. As befits a publication whose subtitle reads “Studies in Contemporary Culture,” all of the offerings address the intersections of technology and culture. The theoretical papers cover thinkers from Habermas (see Anna Notaro on “The Lo(n)g Revolution: The Blogosphere as an Alternative Public Sphere?“) to de Certeau (see Leaver) to Ong, Lakoff, and Goffman (see danah boyd’s “A Blogger’s Blog: Exploring the Definition of a Medium,” a piece whose theoretical insights I find particularly nuanced and enlightening).
A theme that informs most of the pieces is a distinction between blogs as a form of technology and blogging as a form of cultural activity. Not surprisingly, given the focus of the publication, the emphasis is generally on the latter. A few of the authors point out that blogs need not be focused on individual expression (political, scholarly, or otherwise), but still the emphasis of the issue is on highly personal, completely accessible blogs. The topic that the editors put to the blogosphere for comment was “Why I blog.” The choice of the singular pronoun is telling.
From the standpoint of academic technology, however, I cannot help but suspect that some of the most effective usage of blogs is restricted, practical, and collaborative rather than public, expressive, and individual. Researchers collaborating from different institutions, for example, might well find a shared blog with built-in archiving and navigation a more convenient way to document their progress than, say, flurries of emails. There are plenty of reasons to put work on a server other than wanting to share it indiscriminately with the world. More practical uses of blogs do not get much attention, though, not even in diverse collections like the volume under review. Practical blogging is less controversial, and from a methodological perspective, it is also harder to research what is being done with private or restricted blogs, or even how many there are, or who has them.
For now, at any rate, the stereotype of blogging as individual public expression will probably continue to dominate in the public perception. The volume under review gives us a number of reasons to take professional and scholarly interest in individual public blogging, but those of us working to promote the less obvious uses of blogging technology still have a long way to go before our colleagues feel comfortable entrusting their ‘serious’ content to what is still widely perceived as a ‘frivolous’ medium.