Beyond Blogs
How do scholars want to read and write?
March 22, 2011

There's been a flurry of discussion in the speculative realism corner of the blogosphere over the last week about the nature of blogging as an academic pursuit. There are more posts than I can link or summarize (a point to which I'll return), but for now, you can read Adam Robbert, Levi Bryant, Tim Morton, and Graham Harman on the subject.

The themes of these posts are familiar and accurate. They cover the insufferable slowness and obscurity of academic publication and the questionable quality and usefulness of traditional peer review, along with the undeniable fact that blog posts, articles, and books are different forms that exist in complement rather than in competition with one another. And perhaps most importantly, both blogs and electronic publishing more generally is changing the ecology of writing and its dissemination. Burying one's head in the sand is not an option.

This is all well and good, but in reading the posts linked above, I was most struck by this comment from Graham: "In general, I would tend to agree with those who claim that the blogosphere is not yet the right place for fully worked-out philosophical arguments." What if we worked on this problem instead?

Blogs are a received digital format that's not necessarily well-suited to the rapid exchange of complex intellectual ideas (Graham comments on this very challenge). They are the accidents of a handful of simple software infrastructures built to allow individuals to update webpages in a diary-like format, but one with no logical end.

Blogs don't aggregate conversation well. Just scan my Speculative Realism Aggregator on any given day, and you'll find a great many posts linking back to other posts, pointing to other philosophers' opinions on or responses to a current topic. It's overwhelming.

And blog posts tend to get lost in the obscurity of the past, even the recent past, thanks to the way their structure privileges recentness. Just try to find an old post on most blogs. Graham is right to observe that Levi has "pioneered the blog mini-treatise in philosophy" with specimens like this one. But in a week or a month or a year, how easy will it be to refer back to that treatise? I often miss important philosophical moments on blogs because they correspond with weeks when I happen to be unavailable. Even my aggregator doesn't save anything, but simply takes the most recent 50 posts from the several dozen blogs I rather arbitrarily chose to call the speculative realism blogosphere.

Levi often (and understandably) rejoins readers, commenters, or other bloggers who ask basic questions or raise objections he has long since answered, often in incredible detail. But in fairness, how would they know? As a form, the blog burns its own pages. This is how the web works in general, in fact. Google's search results strongly privilege recent pages, even when recentness isn't the best criterion. And Twitter doesn't even bother displaying tweets older than a couple weeks.

Blogs aren't saviors, by any means. There just the most convenient way to publish words online.

Tim Morton is right to call out old forms like books and academic essays, rejoining them to "figure out what they are about in this new environment." But the same is true for blogs and other forms of digital writing as well. We're no more stuck with the awkward tools that are blogs than we are stuck with awkward tools that are journals.

For a while now, I've been advancing the philosophical construction of artifacts, a practice I've given the name carpentry. Taking up that philosophical hobby horse, I wonder what a writing and discussion system would look like if it were designed more deliberately for the sorts of complex, ongoing, often heated conversation that now takes place poorly on blogs. This is a question that might apply to subjects far beyond philosophy, of course, but perhaps the philosopher's native tools would have special properties, features of particular use and native purpose. What if we asked how we want to read and write rather than just making the best of the media we randomly inherit, whether from the nineteenth century or the twenty-first?

I wish these were the sorts of questions so-called digital humanists considered, rather than figuring out how to pay homage to the latest received web app or to build new tools to do the same old work. But as I recently argued, a real digital humanism isn't one that's digital, but one that's concerned with the present and the future. A part of that concern involves considering the way we want to interact with one another and the world as scholars, and to intervene in that process by making it happen. Such a question is far more interesting and productive than debating the relative merits of blogs or online journals, acts that amount to celebrations of how little has really changed.

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Q: "I wonder what a writing and discussion system would look like if it were designed more deliberately for the sorts of complex, ongoing, often heated conversation that now takes place poorly on blogs."

A: Google Wave [before they pulled the plug]. They're offering a bastardized [read: chronically distilled] vers nowadays through Google Docs.

...also regarding: "I wish these were the sorts of questions so-called digital humanists considered": some of do, and have consistently, for over a decade now [eg: ].


So I was explicitly thinking about your idea of 'carpentry' a few days ago while trying to make a rhetorical point via a new URL for my blog.

I don't have anything particularly definitive to add to your thinking here, Ian, but perhaps you'll excuse me thinking-out-loud in the comments here? I'm working on a paper for a conference in July where I'm going to be trying to position the 'critical videogame blogosphere' (think Michael Abbott, Leigh Alexander, Yourself, et al.) as a community structure that is useful (or at least helpful?) to producing knowledge. Perhaps a blog isn't a great tool for (philosophical; videogame) discussion or even for knowledge retention, etc... but a whole *blogosphere*...? If individuals (and individual memory in particular) are included within the scope of "the blogosphere" then surely someone remembers the "important" posts, like you seemed to be asking for...? That's been part of the motivation behind Critical Distance, at any rate.

Not to present the idea of the blogosphere uncritically, mind, but at least it's a different way of thinking about the problem.

What do you think of attempts like the Polymath project in mathematics? They seem to have some of the flavor you advocate, of having started on blogs, and then moved towards experimenting with alternate architectures more conducive to various styles of research work, some of which was worked out while actually also trying to do the work itself (a big feature of Polymath was doing real, research-quality mathematics online while simultaneously meta-discussing how to do so).

It's possible their experience doesn't generalize beyond mathematics, or to modes of online research other than collaborative problem solving, but it's at least one example of what seems like an attempt to take up tools and try things out. In more humanistic areas, the Electronic Book Review's bespoke discussion/response/review system is an interesting experiment as well, albeit on that hasn't be much experimented with in a few years.

I think Polymath is a great example of a project that did something like I have in mind. The outcome may not be generalizable outside of mathematics, but the approach certainly is.

While it's true that perhaps the most prominent characteristic of a blog is the placement of new material at the top, all those archived posts are readily available. Tagging and back-linking can help provide context, define terms, etc.

In the early blogosphere, mainstream media types regularly mocked bloggers for their tendency to link, rather than explain. In the late 90s, it was very common for news organizations to break their permalinks. (They would post new information on the home page, and would only give it a permalink when they moved it off the permalink into an archive. That was very frustrating, and may have been why bloggers linked to themselves so frequently back in the day.)

In general, any time experts get together to talk in public, they're not always going to be thinking of making the newcomers feel welcome.

To add to your list, here's the description of the panel that Steve Krause has put together for Computers and Writing that I'm supposed to be weighing in on too.

In one fashion or another, the short history of blogging has always been about dismissal. Blogging has consistently been labeled a fad, discredited as little more than amateurs keeping public diaries, criticized by mainstream media for their shoddy writing (compared to the mainstream media), and so forth. And yet Rosenberg (2009) argues that blogging was “the first form of social media to be widely adopted beyond the world of technology enthusiasts,” a development that provided a “template for all the other forms that would follow” (p. 13). Blogs perforated the borders between author and audience, reporter and reader, diary and pulpit in ways that launched careers, destroyed campaigns, and illustrated, perhaps, the communal philosophy of the digital age. That said, as Facebook and Twitter have eclipsed blogs, perhaps the death of blogging has finally arrived. Perhaps the medium that showed the way has been superseded by the forms following. Or not. Or maybe it has become something else. Something other.

Go wikis?

I feel that one of the under-utilized (and explored, for that matter) affordances of wikis is the ability to browse the history (and thus, evolution) of a particular page. Yes, the current solutions (e.g Mediawiki) aren't all that practical in this respect...but the potential is definitely there.

I'm not sure yet. I'm still feeling my way around the blog form. I somewhat perversely love working with constraints, so thinking of new stuff can be hard for me.

Well while I was grading exams last night I wracked my brain and decided to follow up my previous with something more succinct. Blogs ARE doing what I want...Is there something wrong with me?!

Tim, I don't think blogs necessarily need to do more or less than they currently do. But there is a tendency to try to make things like blogs (or journals!) do everything rather than to realize that we can invent new bespoke things.

Wikis are perhaps more promise than we give them credit for, but on the flipside, most people who use wikis (I think?) have no idea that they can view history and discussion. At least with blogs, the full (if limited) affordances are clear.

Which is just to say, yes, we can use or adapt anything to a specific purpose. We just tend not to.

Ian, yes, completely agree. I'm still wondering what kind of bespoke thing I want. Like I say I find it easier to fit into existing boxes than invent new ones...that's why you exist, to upgrade my mind...

...I mean you're talking about someone (me) who made a shrine out of a cardboard box until someone told me it wasn't quite kosher...

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