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section heading icon     blogging, academics and the digerati

This page looks at blogging, the digerati, public intellectuals and blogging from ivory towers.

It covers -


Elsewhere on this site we have have discussed the 'digerati' - self-appointed spokespersons for the 'internet community' or figures who have been chosen by the media as embodying the net and new economy.

That selection is typically because the individual has a mastery of the sound bite (pithy, pungent statements without nuance and - alas - often without scruple), a point of view, is colourful, is available and has a public profile (eg is recurrently quoted on matters digital).

Blogging has offered new opportunities for current and wannabe digerati to build/extend profiles. It has also been hailed as providing unprecedented opportunities for public intellectuals, who will supposedly reify civil society as they bypass 'big media'.

     a reality test?

Nicholas Lemann observed in 2004 that

one reason that "the press" and "the media" have become synonyms for journalism is that we've given journalists what we think is a critical task: amassing, digesting, and getting across important material that isn't readily accessible to ordinary citizens. Journalists have an invisible passe-partout that allows them to roam the world and ask consequential people impertinent questions.

For us it is unclear whether 'consequential people' yet feel under much pressure to answer the questions or even recognise the existence of the blogosphere.

power bloggers

The traffic figures noted earlier in this profile indicate that some bloggers receive significantly higher attention than others, with power laws meaning that they are more likely to be identified, read, linked to and quoted.

As noted in the following page that has led some observers to ask whether governments, businesses and other entities should make special efforts to cultivate those 'power bloggers' - an extension of past efforts to stroke or otherwise manage influential columnists and investigative reports.

Other observers have more modestly suggested that there is a need to monitor what is being blogged, so that organisations or individuals can respond as appropriate through, for example, a request for a blogger to issue a correction, posting of a comment, release of a media statement or even recourse to a defamation lawyer.

One perspective is offered in Engaging the Blogosphere, a 2005 survey
by Edelman Public Relations of 821 "influential bloggers" from the Technorati list.

34% of those surveyed reported that they blogged to gain responsibility in their field, with 32% characterising themselves as "public diarists" or "part of a community". 26% posted daily (18% posted several times per day), with 38% posting every few days and 10% posting weekly. Supposedly 50% post about companies and/or products at least once a week: 9% daily, 16% more than once a week and 22% about once a week.

     digerati, public intellectuals and politics

Some enthusiasts have been quick to conflate blogging, the digerati, public intellectuals and substantive political/cultural change.

Claude Levi-Strauss said that the role of public intellectuals was

to talk about everything … reply to the idlest queries, compose messages, pontificate at random, guide their fellow-creatures in directions maturely chosen in five minutes.

Terry Eagleton suggested in 2004 that

the spooky music of Mastermind says it all. Intellectuals are weird, creepy creatures, akin to aliens in their clinical detachment from the everyday human world. Yet you can also see them as just the opposite. If they are feared as sinisterly cerebral, they are also pitied as bumbling figures who wear their underpants back to front, harmless eccentrics who know the value of everything and the price of nothing. Alternatively, you can reject both viewpoints and see intellectuals as neither dispassionate nor ineffectual, denouncing them instead as the kind of dangerously partisan ideologues who were responsible for the French and Bolshevik revolutions. Their problem is fanaticism, not frigidity. Whichever way they turn, the intelligentsia get it in the neck.

Can the public variety be rescued through blogging? Tim Dunlap's 2003 Evatt Foundation If you build it they will come: Blogging and the new citizenship asked "is blogging really the new public intellectual rock 'n' roll".

For us that is an apt image, given that the best part of many blogs - like many rock groups - is the funky name rather than what you read, hear or smell.

Dunlap praised blogging as

the home of a new type of public intellectual, a type that breaks down the usual images of the detached wise person or topical expert explaining things to an uninformed public ... blogging brings public debate back within coo-ee of those to whom it should belong anyway, the ordinary citizens. Blogging, potentially on a large scale, puts the public in public intellectual.

We are not fans of Richard Posner's rather zany Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 2002) - an idiosyncratic catalogue of the great & good ... or merely windy & soundbite-wise - that is less insightful than Stefan Collini's Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 2006). We are therefore inclined to say, with apologies to Monty Python, that although the net makes a bully pulpit the blogger as public intellectual isn't the Messiah, "he's just a naughty boy".

Dunlap argues that

blogs are necessarily sycophantic. Being run largely by people without the resources of a media agency with which to do original research, they are merely reactive to the news of the day as published by major outlets. ...

As I say, the lone blogger's resources are limited, but experience shows that they tend to make good use of those they have. Chief amongst these is the search engine Google which is to blogging what the Otis elevator was to skyscrapers: not just a way of getting around but the very thing that made the structure feasible in the first place. ...

blogs are politically engaged, not artificially detached. Few bloggers try for "objectivity" in the traditional journalistic sense and most are happy to declare openly their political allegiance. This is both a strength and a weakness, as we will see, but ultimately it is the nature of the beast and nothing to get upset about. In fact, it goes to the heart of my understanding of bloggers as the new public intellectuals.

Although history and works such as Mark Lilla's The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (New York: NY Review Books 2001), Frank Furedi's Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? (London: Continuum 2004) and Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York: Basic 1987) suggest that public intellectuals such as Sartre are perhaps best kept off the streets, we wonder whether the energy going into writing (and even reading) some political blogs might be more usefully employed in civic engagement of a less virtual kind.

As we have suggested in discussing online politics, it is difficult to respect a commitment that does not extend beyond a mouse-click. Has blogging become a substitute rather than a means of engagement?

Ken Parish's 2003 Monitorial cyber-citizens? The new fire alarms paper, in noting the adversarial nature of much blogging, more broadly questioned some assumptions about civic discourse, leadership and the net. The 2004 The Power and Politics of Blogs (PDF) by Daniel Drezner & Henry Farrell offered other perspectives.

The US Chronicle of Higher Education quoted University of Chicago academic Jacob Levy as commenting that

I'm worried about public-intellectualitis - the well-known tendency for professors with real expertise in one field to pose as experts in many others, the pose of authority that comes with academics' comments on issues of the day

but consoling the academy that there is little tendency to fall into "the scholarly sound bite - the public career built on offering quick juicy quotes to the press." Bites - sound or otherwise - are explored in The Ideas Market (Carlton: Melbourne Uni Press 2004) edited by David Carter, an examination of Australian public intellectuals and their reception.

section marker     academic blogs

Academic blogging has been characterised as metascholarship and metadiscourse, with claims that scholarly blogging by faculty and postgrads -

  • "lowers the cost of publishing almost to the vanishing point ... It really does help realize the promise of the Internet as a place for wide-ranging public discussion"
  • offers an effective mechanism for peer review
  • enables scholars to engage with a wider community and with colleagues overseas

Perhaps as importantly, it also offers instant gratification, with Eric Muller commenting that

What blogging offers is immediacy ... Compared to what we're all used to in academia, where you submit something and then maybe when you have grandchildren you'll hear whether it's going to be published, the immediacy is something that we're all unaccustomed to. I think a lot of people feel sort of like kids in a candy store.

Has blogging contributed to a serious advancement of scholarship, replacing for example the Notes found in some journals? The answer appears to be no. At its best it may, however, be complementing and to some extent superseding the exchange of correspondence in publications such as the London Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement.

A 2003 Chronicle of Higher Education feature noted that

In their skeptical moments, academic bloggers worry that the medium smells faddish, ephemeral. But they also make a strong case for blogging's virtues, the foremost of which is freedom of tone. Blog entries can range from three-word bursts of sarcasm to carefully honed 5,000-word treatises. The sweet spot lies somewhere in between, where scholars tackle serious questions in a loose-limbed, vernacular mode.

Blogging also offers speed; the opportunity to interact with diverse audiences both inside and outside academe; and the freedom to adopt a persona more playful than those generally available to people with Ph.D.'s.

No wonder, then, that scholarly blogs are sprouting like mushrooms.

Comprehensive statistics are not available but we suspect that many of the mushrooms are withering. Uptake of blogging among the professoriat appears to reflect national academic styles, with greater acceptance in US than in Australia, New Zealand or the EU.

Assessments of the scholarly significance or personal impact of scholarly blogs vary. Arguably many of the most prominent bloggers have gained attention for mastery of the online 'soundbite' (and as provocateurs) rather than as leading scholars offline. Some had previously enjoyed a newspaper or magazine soapbox.

Eric Muller says that he

perceives among academic bloggers 'a talk-radioization' of the discourse, which I'm not especially interested in participating in. It's becoming very personality-driven, very combative, very adversarial. There's a kind of ideological categorizing that goes on ... It really does start to feel like the Rush Limbaugh show.

Blogging among the professoriat appears to reflect national academic styles, with greater acceptance in US than in Australia, New Zealand or the EU and a greater preparedness to venture utside areas of expertise. Most academic blogs have involved law and the social sciences: there's little blogging in the natural sciences or humanities.

Much of the undergrad and postgrad blogging has a confessional flavour, with students reporting on the day's progress, highlighting work presented at seminars or other venues and seeking feedback from local/overseas peers.

     blogging from the ivory tower

Blogging by academics has been defended as a sort of digital braid from Rapunzel's ivory tower, whether to connect with other scholars or to enable an escape as a talking head (one of those unread pundits who are famous for being famous - or merely for being unreadable).

Arguments for blogging, particularly by brave untenured staff, include -

  • peer recognition - blogging can deliver an exposure among peers and the general public that few scholars achieve until late in their careers, if at all. It can be a replacement for fervent networking at national/international conferences. It can also damage a reputation, whether because those peers consider that blogging is fundamentally unprofessional or - as one enthusiast cautioned - "exposure isn't good if there's nothing worth exposing".
  • exposure beyond peers - blogging enables scholars to get exposure outside of their fields, something with the potential for interdisciplinary communication or merely to identify the author as a target. One blogging pundit thus claimed that "unless scholars are particularly well-known, I won't be too familiar with them. But I may know about them from the blogosphere", going on to argue that "junior scholar bloggers are at an advantage" when senior academics are huntring for symposium participants.
  • popularisation of a discipline or area of interest - blogging potentially exposes a global audience to current issues in that field.

Laments that blogging is not serious or legitimate are common. One pundit primly acknowledged

blogging can be a distraction from scholarship. Indeed, blogging takes up a ton of time. As a junior scholar, scholarship must come first. If blogging is distracting or inhibiting scholarly productivity, then stop. But I believe that there's a way to blog that doesn't overly inhibit scholarly productivity - and that is to use blogging as a way to develop one's scholarly ideas. I often blog about cases and issues I intend to include in my casebook. In this way, blogging is my way of keeping current with my field. I blog about issues that I will be discussing in articles and books. Blogging is thus my way of doing some very preliminary work on larger scholarly projects.

Perspectives are offered in the 2006 paper Blogging While Untenured and Other Extreme Sports by Christine Hurt & Tung Yin.

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