Sunday, September 23, 2007

To Blog or Not to Blog?

Part of my ongoing fascination with the implication of the internet is how a revolutionary new technology can have an impact on the non-virtual social world. I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the impact of Wikipedia on the way in which existing social institutions, particularly the news media or academia, adapt to the proliferation of web-based reference material. squires pointed out that Wiktionary "is basically a recapitulation of whatever is already published about the topic"[1] and is not, therefore, really a new social form as much as a new medium through which traditional social forms exist. But another interesting question is what happens when those institutions are confronted with new technology and, potentially, forced to adapt.

This has been brought to light in a thread at where the appropriateness of blogging the content of academic talks given at university seminars. The discussion has also continued to Jeremy Freese's Weblog. Jeremy has taken the position that "anything that is cv'able is blogable"—a position, which, in my opinion is very sensible. Jeremy has certainly taken some heat in the Orgtheory thread and feels that he is "staking out a lonely position" there. The main objection (and, indeed, the main thrust of the thread) is expressed by Ezra Zuckerman's position that early adapters to the blogosphere have a huge advantage if they can institutionalize blogging as an academic norm whereby late adapters and people who have higher costs (i.e. those that do not derive enjoyment from blogging) are forced to adapt. This, Ezra argues, cedes an incredible advantage to early adapters that, I perceive, he thinks is unwarrented[2].

This brings up several interesting sociological questions that I find really interesting, in no small part because sociologists are the subjects of a sociological inquiry (very postmodern). The first question to me is the role of institutional norms in the development of new technology -- a topic which I discussed in my Wikipedia post mentioned above. Ezra brings up one of my main points from that post when he says "the main reason I don’t do this is that I have no time." While, overall, I agree with Jeremy that public discussion is a positive for the discipline, I also recognize the externalities considered by Ezra. If academics are required to respond to online discussions about their work that they did not initiate, it represents a significant investment in time that is required for which one might not receive any formalized institutional recognition. Where does this work fit in the academic triumvirate of teaching, service and research — especially when we know that the last of those is prioritized the highest? If, as Ezra suspects, bloggers are able to transform the academic norms to require that professors respond to online comments, then some recognition of this responsibility needs to be recognized by departments and institutions. This is particularly true for non-tenured faculty members who give up valuable research time responding to blogs and is probably part of the reason why Jeremy keeps emphasizing that his ideas are most applicable to senior faculty.

The second interesting question presented by this discussion is the role of social norms and scripts. The general consensus over the course of the thread is that permission should be requested to blog about an academic presentation. Jeremy brings up the fact that there are two forms of permission: 1) a request for permission where the receiver of the request has a legitimate claim to deny that permission (i.e. a child asking his parents for an extra scoop of ice cream for desert), or 2) a request for permission that is a linguistic hedge to show deference where the receiver of the request is expected to oblige (i.e. asking someone to turn the volume down if one has a headache). There are legitimate reasons to ask for permission. The most important, in my view, is allowing the author to respond if s/he so desires. I think that Jeremy would agree that the goal of discourse is not furthered if the original author is not given a chance to respond. In fact, a lack of response would be antithetical to Jeremy's goal. It reminds me of a similar thread at Crooked Timber where academics place the request "Please do not cite or quote without permission" at the tops of papers. This is essentially a form of moderation to ensure that researchers citing the work have the latest version or that the authors know where their work is being used to contribute to an academic discourse. To me, this is the second sense of permission.

The other reason that I find it to be appropriate to ask for permission is because, as an author, I might have stronger or weaker confidence about particular conclusions. If I were a faculty member and Jeremy came to me and asked "Would you mind if I wrote about your presentation on my blog?" my response would be "Yes, please feel free. Let me make sure that you have a copy of the paper. I should tell you that I believe conclusion A to be very robust, but I am more hesitant about conclusion B. Therefore, I plan to do more work on that part of the paper - so you might want to keep that in mind when you are writing." (In my head, I would also be thinking, "Whoo hoo! Now the hundreds of people who read Jeremy's blog will read about my research!"). In this way, I am not restricting what Jeremy writes or limiting the benefits to the field, but am, in a sense, providing a guide to replicate the kind of fruitful discussion that can happen at academic seminars where constructive criticism is created to a wider audience than those who attend a single academic seminar at a single (or a couple) of institutions[3].

All of these questions bring to mind other important questions of sociological importance. The first, who is the academic "public"? Is is the "invisible college" linked instantly through the internet or the older, established community linked through the slower academic journals? This, then, is related to a second question. As sociologists look for a greater position for public sociology, then the role of the internet needs to be part of that discussion. On the one hand, academics are not journalists. Our discipline is marked by careful consideration of all available evidence and this mission might be undermined if we are pushed to discuss work much more quickly or frequently. Trying to do both the "journalistic" side of research (responding to blogs, posting about research) and the "academic" side of research (publishing in journals, writing grant proposals) means that there either need to be benefits for doing both (in tenure reviews, for instance) or that both cannot be done as successfully without requiring more time devoted to this work.

[1] I tend to find the same thing is also true in Wikipedia; however, what I notice more of in Wikipedia than in traditional academic published research is citations to mainstream media sources such as the Washington Post or New York Times. While this is still a very circumscribed list of potential citations, it does expand the understanding of some topics beyond their strictly academic research to at least include sources that have a much larger circulation.
[2] Of course any summary does injustice, but in the interest of providing background, I don't want to reiterate the whole thread here.
[3] By restricting the conversation only to people at particular institutions is also a way in which privilege is created and maintained. While early-adapters might have an advantage creating externalities to benefit bloggers, restricting conversations to academics in the ivory tower also creates externalities for those who would need to academics in those settings. The difference, I think, is that that kind of privilege is accepted while blogging changes the "winners" and "losers" of privilege and, thus, causes this much discussion. I think that this is the point that Dave made to my Wikipedia post.


jeremy said...

I brought up senior faculty in the thread in two different senses. One was just to note that, since the speaker in the seminar in question was a senior scholar from an outside speaker (and, incidentally, a friend of mine who is a good and smart guy who can more than hold is own), it was very different than had Gabriel written a critique of a grad student's job talk.

The other was that it's much easier to engage in debate about issues like norms and appropriate behavior and such when you are tenured (or anonymous). I'm not sure I would have argued with Ezra publicly if I had been a junior faculty member (not out of fear of Ezra, but just because being a junior faculty member makes somebody wildly risk averse).

Mike3550 said...

Jeremy - Thank you for stopping by!

That explanation makes a lot more sense than my somewhat removed "it takes too much time" explanation. I also hope you don't mind that I used you as the "ideal-typical" blogger in the post, I just thought that it kind of went with what you were saying at orgtheory.

It's also interesting because I actually felt, reading the orgtheory discussion and your, anomie's and andrew's reactions, that I had a much more enlightening experience on professionalization than I ever had in person (at least, I should say, watching these discussions happen among faculty members - I have certainly had plenty of one-on-one experiences with my mentors and faculty members at my institution). In a very real sense, I think that blogging has actually had its intended goal of making me feel more connected to the discipline.

Anomie said...

I second that: blogging has definitely contributed to my own professional socialization, and feelings of network embeddedness within the discipline. And I've only been at it for about two months!

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