Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Risks and unexpected consequences of blogging

Responding here to another of Colleen Morgan's queries about archaeological blogging, leading up to the SAA session in a few weeks (a few weeks? wow, I'd better get to work...). This week's question is about the risks and consequences of blogging.

Putting one's ideas out in public is always risky. I'm a tenured full professor, and I'm pretty secure about my abilities and contributions. I don't have many of the worries and risks that students, junior scholars, and others may face. I often shoot from the hip on this blog, and when I say stupid things, sometimes I get called on it. That's fine with me. But younger and more vulnerable archaeologists often think twice about making public statements that aren't fully insulated with academic context (that is, conference papers, journal articles, etc.). I can't seem to get my students and colleagues to contribute to my project blog about Calixtlahuaca, which in turn reduces my own contributions, since I view it as a PROJECT blog, not as a personal blog. The end result is a somewhat desultory entity that I'm not too proud of.

Or to take another example, many of the more interesting comments on this blog are posted by "Anonymous," who is either a busy person, or a bunch of different people. I guess some folks do not want to risk exposing their identities, even on something as transitory and trivial as a blog comment. Perhaps some of these people are students in a politicized department, or perhaps they are just busy professionals who don't want to spend the time to register for comments.

There are some very real risks to blogging from agencies and governments that are responsible for funding and overseeing archaeological research. And to prove my point that these are real risks, I will say that I don't feel comfortable talking about this issue in public. Sorry, but transparency only goes so far. Wow, this is starting to sound like a redacted text.

Here is another kind of risk. I finally started a blog that deals with my research on comparative urbanism. My goal is to promote a comparative, historical approach to cities and urban phenomena, and I think this will interest various people. This isn't a single academic discipline, though, and I can't predict much about the size or nature of the audience. Maybe nobody will care about this stuff. Maybe I will be sorely disappointed that my work in this area, which I consider interesting and important, is just not something that others want to hear about. In this case the very fact of starting that blog is something of a risk for me.

As for unexpected consequences, one things stand out. When I started Publishing Archaeology, I focused pretty heavily on open access issues. I was very pleased when Steven Harnad and Peter Suber, my two heroes of the open access movement, both commented on my posts. Harnad has continued to post comments occasionally, usually to set me straight when I say something bone-headed about open access.


Chris said...

With the job market such as it is, having an opinion and being anonymous are, sadly, necessary. Of course, one does not need to express oneself (but what is coffee for, then...).

On the other hand, I am not sure what I think of academics' blogging, either on research or just opinions of others' work. There is no evaluation process to filter someone's opinion, which peer review does. Moreover, it makes the author the exclusive arbiter. In cases where a blogger strongly disagrees with an academic piece and blogs about it, it can be destructive for the individual whose work is targeted. Peer review enables an important filter that should be basic to the exchange of intellectual ideas, at least when they address others' work (and especially when involving work of younger scholars attempting to enter the field).

Has anyone ever shot off an email when angry or annoyed and then regretted it? I feel it is contrary (not always) to academic work to have an avenue for unmitigated scholarly opinion. One could say, well, blogs enhance the democratic process of communicating ideas. I think this is true for journalism. But academia is a different beast entirely. It is not a democracy. And it is not egalitarian. Academics have differential status, and their opinions and importance are evaluated on this status.

If my work was criticized on this blog, for example, I feel that it could adversely affect my career and future reputation. But, given my current status, I would feel dis-empowered to defend myself. Indeed, I would feel that defending my ideas on this blog would make me come across as aggressive. Moreover, given the nature of academia, most people would not care but would remember your critique.

In terms of research on blogs, that opens the door to an entirely different bag of ethical issues regarding who controls the past. At least peer review gives some time to consider what is being written, how the past is being depicted, and how archaeological materials (often patrimony) are being displayed. In some respects, blogs are a good new step toward public archaeology. In other respects, however, they can be based on many, many poorly thought out decisions.

Of course, I am not saying this blog is guilty of these things. I happen to really enjoy reading this blog (especially in the mornings when I should be applying for jobs)...

Michael E. Smith said...


I agree with a lot of what you say. In my view, blogs are a pretty trivial part of the academic universe. As you point out, they are not peer reviewed, and thus they are not really scholarship. One of the reasons I write entries is as a displacement activity.

Unknown said...

I would say its misplaced fear or in the case of comments laziness (its surprising how having to take one extra step can stop people). If a grad. student, early career, or even late career archaeologists is concerned about posting something that is offensive they should really do the math. First, they have to assume that someone knows about their blog- even with google, yahoo, and bing there is no guarantee to be found. Second, that what they say if offensive or even offensive enough to get noticed - people might agree with what you say. Third that what ever they say offensive is relevant at the time or can be found- not many people go through archives.

Take all these factors into account I would say it is very minimal to non-existent that any damage could/can be done.

Also, lets not forget that it is possible to delete or change ones mind in a blog. If you truly no longer believe what you said blog about it.

On a side comment to Chris I think that one of the great advantages of blogging is the lack of work and off the cuff ideas that go into them. Not to say that they are not well research, in many cases I find blogs far superior to peer reviewed articles, but that extra steps do not need to be taken.

A peer reviewed article takes months if not years of invested interest from submitting to re-submitting to waiting etc.. I would say that in some cases this investment makes it to hard for someone to walk away from their opinions. So when then they are critiqued in peer review they feel that they must re-invest in another peer-reviewed responses of equal weight. In which case we really dont move forward but just spin our wheels.

I would also say that blogging gives at least the chance for those whose work is criticised to respond ether in comments or in another form of medium and have something tangible to point at. We should not kind ourselves, many underhanded and dirty things are said about a persons research or even that person. Unfortunately, this is usually in conversation so there is no way for some to know what is being said or even have a chance to defend themselves.

If its in writing at least it gives you a chance to know its out there and respond.

While I did not appreciate what a person, who has never met me, said about me personally in a blog I was glad I could find it and respond. I was also glad that someone was bringing attention to my work.