Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Another panel on blogging

Both Chuck Tryon and Tim Burke have recently been asked to be on panels on blogging at their home institutions. Today was my turn. The organizer, a colleague of mine in the English department, asked me to talk about why I blog for 8-10 minutes as part of a series for Lehigh Lab.

8-10 minutes! How about 8 to 10 hours?

For lack of a better organizational system, I used (attributively) Tim's 5 points, since they are pretty similar to my own:

1) Because I want to introduce some unexpected influences and ideas into my intellectual and academic work. I want to unsettle the overly domesticated, often hermetic thinking that comes with academic specialization. I want to introduce a “mutational vector” into my scholarly and intellectual work.
2) Because I want a place to publish small writings, odd writings, leftover writings, lazy speculations, half-formed hypotheses. I want a place to publish all the things that I think have some value but not enough to constitute legitimate scholarship. I want a chance to branch into new areas of specialization at a reduced level of intensity and seriousness.
3) Because I want to find out how much of my scholarly work is usefully translatable into a wider public conversation. A lot of my writings on Iraq, for example, are really a public working-out of more scholarly writing I’m doing in my current monograph, a translation of my academic engagement with the historiography of imperialism.
4) Because I want to model for myself and others how we should all behave within an idealized democratic public sphere. I want to figure out how to behave responsibly but also generatively, how to rise to the better angels of my communicative nature.
5) Because I’m a compulsive loudmouth.

The most interesting questions in the Q&A revolved around the problem of how information is organized in the blogosphere. How are things verified? If blogging really blurs the line between professional journalism and idiosyncratic opinion (or, closer to home: between formal scholarship and half-digested chatter), doesn't that pose problems of legitimation?

In an anarcho-libertarian world-view, it's no problem at all if the flow of information and opinion is completely democratized: who cares whether people get their news from Daily Kos or the Times?

But in the real world, it's not so simple. The "reality-based community" needs some sources of legitimation. In my response to the questions, I was perhaps a little too flippant in dismissing the established order. No one knows whether the cacophony of the blogosphere is really going to lead to a paradigm shift in the World Information Order. But for now I actually feel pretty strongly that we need a conceptual and practical division between what one would call professional journalism (and analogously to academia, formal scholarship), and the informal space of blogs. It is necessary for the same reason as it is necessary to know absolutely whether 1 million people died or not during India's Partition. Every community must have norms and standards, as well as a shared version of the general sweep of history. Without it, conversations don't work.

I probably should have said something to that effect. But it sounded much cooler to say "screw the Times..."

* * * *

And below are some things I said (amplifying Tim's five points, or personalizing them). They are pulled from a few pages of notes I culled together before the panel. I've taken out introductory material that I thought would be highly redundant to readers. Sorry if the resulting points are a little discontinuous:

1. New ways of thinking, new sources. I'm a little disaffected by the patterns of thought that characterize scholarly work in my general field (literature) as well as within my sub-fields (postcolonial studies, British modernism). It seems like quite a number of major paradigm shifts –- the ideas that people were especially passionate about –- were hashed out 15 to 30 years ago. There are quite a number of very smart people who are saying versions of something that was already said, pretty well, by other scholars. Where are new ideas going to come from? Sometimes I get new ideas from really excellent conference talks or public lectures; sometimes I get it from journals. But more often the experience resembles something out of a Scott McLemee essay.

Blogging, in contrast, offers access to worlds considerably beyond one's own. Potentially, it can pose a new model for internet-assisted learning, and a new way of modeling ideas and information in the humanities.

2. International readers. About 40 percent of the readers of my blog are reading me from outside the U.S. I have made contacts with bloggers and readers in places like Germany and Denmark, and quite a number in the UK. I've also got -- no surprise here -– some readers in India, most of whom find me through Indian bloggers based in India who link to me. (Journalists Dilip D'Souza, Jai Arjun, and Amit Varma are particularly culpable for the growth of my Indian readership). I also got nominated for an award or two -- “Best India Blog,” and so on. I didn't win, but the attention probably didn't hurt. And did I mention the readers in Japan, Australia, Singapore (ok, just John Holbo there)?

Amongst this international readership there are academics, to be sure. But I'm not entirely sure what it means. Most of the people who are reading this are people I'll never meet, and who will likely have little or no actual impact on my career or my personal life. What is really at stake for me either personally or professionally in blogging? I'm not 100% sure.

3. Brevity is the soul of blogging. Long historical disquisitions generally get skimmed or skipped. Few readers will stick with you for more than 500 words (how many of you are still left, even here?), and most will start skimming after 250. Some tricky nuances or complex evaluations might get sidelined, but the overriding principle is, can you make yourself understood by everyone, and hold their interest? Can you be smart without being pompous?

Trying to meet all those demands leads to a level of discourse somewhere between formal writing and verbal conversation. Many of the skills one uses to get and hold student interest in the classroom also apply to blogging, except in blogging you should always expect that someone who knows as much or more than you do on a given subject is reading what you write. People reading you are quicker to challenge you than people who are talking to you face to face.

4. Blogging is Conversational. Most blog posts work on the principle of the integration of information dissemination, your own critique, and your readers' responses to your critique. Blogging is thus inherently conversational (much more so than either the traditional media or traditional academic scholarship), which means it relies on a pretty highly developed system of etiquette.

The particulars of that system are quite complex. For one thing, if you quote someone else, you have to be quite clear about it, because on the internet, it's pretty easy to figure out whether something might be plagiarism. Also, if you put someone down, expect them to hear about it pretty quickly (even if the person in question doesn't read blogs). Published writers are habitually googling themselves; they'll find what you said. If you say something harsh about the new novel of a well-respected writer, expect to get a nasty note from that person at 2 in the morning (this has happened to me!). One learns what to do and not to do, mainly through trial and error. And one helps other people learn the ropes.
Sociologists have begun to study this system of etiquette (Henry Farrell and Daniel Drezner have been publishing papers on it, which I responded to here, some time ago).

5. Collective process. The conversational quality of blogs means that many key problems are worked out in what might be called a collective process. It's ironic, because most bloggers are also intensely individualistic when it comes to their tastes and social configuration. Quite a number of academic bloggers are a bit alienated at their home colleges and universities.

How can blogging be at once driven by an individualist ethos, and such an intensely collective/reciprocal universe, where you depend -- completely -- on other people linking to you? That's another one I'm still thinking about.


Anwesha said...

Excellent post. I had to open an account to say that ...: )

11:32 PM  
Amardeep said...


I'm honored. Thanks for taking the trouble, and sorry I don't have open commenting (the perils of using one's academic webspace to host one's blog).

12:10 AM  
Anjali Taneja said...

Fine words, my friend.

You're right on the brevity tip, I found myself starting to skim 3/4 of the way through (bloggers with adhd). But i ended up reading your whole post :>

I too am fascinated by the blurring of lines between professional journalism (i enjoyed your "screw the times" feeling) and blogging. I quite enjoy how bloggers can focus on issues that the mainstream press refuses to cover, and can bring important things to light (i'm NOT talking about things like the rather gate crap that some folks like to pride themselves on, i'm talking about REAL issues).

12:33 PM  
Quizman said...


Very good observations, these. My $0.02 worth. And I'll break your 250 word rule. :-P

My own observation has been that blogging acts as a catalyst for 'group-think.' I posit that a vast majority of bloggers link and blogroll only those blogs/posts that are congruent with their own biases. In a perverse way, the affirmation of a belief by an anonymous source possibly acts as a basis for self-validation. Anonymity, of course, is not used in the sense of hidden identity - most bloggers love to link to 'pundits' - even if they are marginal professors in marginal universities. (So sue me, I'm a snob.) :-)

Most debates are cursory and superficial. This is especially true for economic/political blogs by Indians. I have tried very hard to provoke non-normative responses to posts, but we Indians have a habit of confusing slogans with solutions. How often have I despaired of hearing, "govt subsidy is the answer" or "for libertarians, the solution is a no-brainer." Such normative posts, when challenged in the comments section, either lead to being ignored or to ad hominem barbs.

These were major reasons for the cessation of my blog in late 2003. I often think of jump-starting a new blog, one that invites writers of various political hues to write and argue over real-world localized solutions - really micro level. One that moves away from "-isms". Perhaps, I will. Someday.
- Arun

1:57 PM  
Amrit said...

For me blogging acts more like a stimulant. Prior to my current blog (http://www.writingcave.com) I used to publish another blog and for good two years never bothered to see who was reading it. I started blogging when I was heavily into programming. I felt my literary side desperately needed an outlet, but if I bothered about my readers, then I'd, consciously or unconsciously, need to tailor my posts.

Blogging has some worthy business potential because they provide a very interactive communication tool. I don't know if it because of my blogging, I recently got an offer to write a blog for a fee for another company.

Thanks for sharing your insightful thoughts.


3:00 PM  
Amardeep said...

Arun (Quizman),

Just because the conversations don't always produce brilliant new ideas doesn't mean we shouldn't try and have them. It's what the chattering classes are for, really.

As for groupthink, yes, that's a problem sometimes. But I think the solution is pretty simple: read stuff written by people who think differently. It's definitely out there.

In the U.S., where everything is lined up pretty neatly on a left/right basis, it's not too hard to think of alternative solutions to problems -- one simply has to try and think in between political parties. In India, though things are generally much more complicated (because of the dominance of local parties), much of the main debate in recent years has also been pro-government vs. anti-government. Fresh solutions (non 'ism' solutions) to problems might come from other kinds of responses, or mixed responses.

For instance, are there alternatives to the Maharashtran government's current slum-clearing strategy in Bombay? It's a sometimes brutal, generally pointless practice much of the time. (The slums are rebuilt a few days later.) The solution can't simply be to throw more money at the problem. But it also can't be to simply let the slum-dwellers do whatever they want. Maybe a public-private partnership?

The superficiality issue is also a problem: it seems like many bloggers are people who would prefer to learn over the internet rather than hunt down and read actual books. But is the solution to simply insist that the blog world become more 'bookish'?

Recently I've been talking with someone who is thinking of starting a formal scholarly journal with some of the attributes of a blog -- comments, hyperlinks, and so on. The advantage there is that it has the potential to take us past the level of the 'one off' comment or partially digested idea. One might have some of the comprehensiveness and care that goes into traditional publishing, combined with the ease of distribution and immediacy of blogging.

And it's not as if the writing in your average book on, say, Kashmir, is all that profound. One shouldn't romanticize the traditional (print) media as a space where people are somehow all well-informed, intelligent, free-thinking citizens.

At the panel I was at yesterday, someone said, in defense of blogging, "80 percent of everything is crap." Sorry for the sloganizing, but I think it's a good way to put things in perspective.

6:04 PM  
amcorrea said...

Re. groupthink: Yes, it exists...but I think it's a bit more nuanced than that. For example, I link to someone I agree with on one issue, but there will never be 100% agreement on all issues. The differences push the limits of any ideological boundaries. Ideas are challenged, but in ways that may enact more change (or growth) since there is a mutual respect built from the common ground of that one area of agreement.

9:07 AM  
Bala Pillai said...


I post quite prolifically on topics like "Why Has India Not Produced a Single Quantum Invention in 1000 years?" onto mailing lists (Yahoogroups in particular). I sense, though I'm not sure that there is more conversation by Indians in Yahoogroups than in blogs.

Do you have a feel if my hunch is so?

4:09 AM  
Anonymous said...

Amardeep, in your blog site with several dozens of blogs are you not being unfair by making it one-sided only? I sent in many rejoinders which you blocked out despite no inappropriate language and simply because I disagreed.
This is why egroups are better as public sees both sides and evaluates for itself.
Time to give these self appointed "critics" one's mind.

12:51 PM  
Anonymous said...

Cant help agreeing with anon comment after visiting Dr Singh's blog and failing to get my criticism of his writing through.

12:52 PM  

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