Academic librarians are the nice guys of higher education. We dwell in neutral territory; the library belongs to no one and everyone. So do we. Our reputation is mostly one of being excruciatingly helpful. We give service with a smile. Our academic roost is a peaceful haven, and we welcome all. As an academic librarian who regularly navigates the library blogosphere, I find that the librarian’s penchant for pleasantry extends to our own virtual nest. In the world of library blogging the sky is always sunny, and nary is a dissenting or argumentative thought expressed.
Why is it that “flatlined” may be the best term to describe the state of discourse in librarianship? In the traditional library literature one rarely sees an article that takes issue with the research or perspectives of a particular author. There may be a dissenting letter to the editor every so often, but one would be hard pressed to identify a juicy back-and-forth between two camps engaged in academic discourse about a controversial issue. Maybe we’re just too nice to take an intellectual sledgehammer to a colleague’s work, even if it was well deserved. Some librarians might point to any number of the profession’s electronic discussion lists as the virtual ground where real debates between librarians are happening, but I would argue that what debate takes place on these lists often occurs between the same small crew of librarians who simply have an axe to grind with each other’s positions. The vast majority of list members never get involved, and what transpires might be more accurately described as bickering than intellectual discourse.
As one explores and delves into the world of library blogs it soon becomes apparent that the rules of disengagement dominate the landscape. There one is likely to see a repetitious flood of posts exclaiming “What a great post by so-and-so” or “She’s got a must read post today”. Rarely does one see a post that starts with “I have to disagree” or “Boy, does he have it wrong.” Most commenting is no better. It’s mostly gratuitous back patting. But why bother anyway? Comments are secondary to actual posts and they reach a much smaller audience. One exception might be ACRLog, a blog for which I write. Geared specifically to academic librarians it still allows fairly unrestrictive commenting, and on occasion comments may offer brilliant opposing views. But these are few and far between; the overall dearth of comments, even for posts that make controversial statements, is shockingly surprising for this profession.
Other areas of academia have fostered some excellent exchanges between dissenting parties -- in blogs, journal back and forths, and at scholarly meetings -- in fact many professors worry that some fields are too contentious. That’s hardly a concern the library profession must address. If anything our professional meetings are exceptionally notable for the atmosphere of courtesy and collegiality. On those unusual occasions when parties do disagree it’s typically handled in a jovial manner so that neither side perceives any offense. On those occasions when the gauntlet of disagreement is thrown down, rarely is it taken up by the opposition. At the recent ACRL conference in Baltimore, in response to a participant comment, a speaker said “that was passionate but you are completely wrong”. It ended there. I wonder how that exchange would play out at a faculty conference. The outcome, I think, would be quite different.
It’s not that librarianship lacks controversies worth getting worked up. Remember the virtual firestorm created by Michael Gorman? Gorman’s critical essay about bloggers in a 2005 Library Journal column set off an explosion of anger in the library blogosphere. How, bloggers asked, could an American Library Association president be so out of touch with a communication medium so important to his own profession? How dare he attack bloggers and even the blog as a form of expression! Even non-librarians got in on the action. But the action was all one way. There was hardly a defense of Gorman. It appeared no one wanted to step forward and take on the hoards of critics. And what he said and why he said wasn’t completely indefensible. Bloggers had attacked Gorman over comments he published in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times ("Google and God's Mind," December 17, 2004) that were critical of Google’s plan to digitize books. So Gorman responded in kind. After the assault Gorman claimed his words to be hardly serious, but from the reaction you would have thought he said that the blogosphere was an evil plague that needed to be eradicated. Did any library bloggers come to Gorman’s defense? None that I could detect. And I know why. Fear of underserved and irrational reprisal.
Although many library pundits and A-list library bloggers would be quick to deny it, it seems increasingly the case that a speech chill has descended on the library blogosphere. On the few occasions when a dissenting comment is attached to a post in the spirit of discourse, the commenter is likely to find him or herself the target of an unpleasant post in which the blogger uses his or her bully pulpit to lash out against someone who’s dared to take an opposing view. Even if the commenter responds with a follow-up comment (and more bloggers refuse to allow them these days), few readers take the time to look at them. Posts on the other hand can be quite memorable. The blogger has the upper hand. Ultimately, those who make an attempt at discourse are discouraged and the next time simply ask, “Why bother?”
Even more remote is the possibility of discourse between opposing bloggers, particularly in an attempt to bring to the table an observation of groupthink. In those circumstances the woeful dissenter is subject to swift condemnation that quite quickly quashes any chance of thoughtful dialogue. The essential trend of 2006 was Library 2.0. But exactly what it meant became the subject of some promising back and forth exchange among bloggers. As a far less heated issue than Gorman’s blogger incident, a few librarians felt encouraged to wade in against the tide to voice opinions that Library 2.0 was little more than old wine in a new bottle, a new fad for those who seek out new technology solutions before they’ve identified a legitimate problem. Library 2.0 advocates were quick to band together in a “they just don’t get it” response. Ultimately groupthink won out over efforts to help all those interested in the topic to better understand it through thoughtful examination. Is it any surprise that few oppose the majority? And in the end the nice thing to do is just go along with the crowd.
What makes this situation all the worse is that the library profession has long nursed a debilitating inferiority complex when we compare ourselves to other disciplines. It’s supposed to be library science, not library “let’s all just be nice and agree to think the same way." What seems to define many other disciplines is the discourse that occurs. When academics challenge each other’s thoughts their understanding of the issues evolves, and as a result the entire profession’s body of knowledge moves to a higher plane of discovery. Instead library science is the Rodney Dangerfield of the social sciences; it gets no respect. Lack of discourse is not the sole reason, but it points to the profession’s lack of interest in engaging each other in discourse. It’s just easier to agree – or better yet share no thoughts at all.
Perhaps what the library profession needs to do, if it wants to be taken seriously as a science, is to realize that we need to be accepting of rigorous discourse. We need to learn that there’s something special about it, and that we do a disservice to ourselves and our profession when we fail to do all we can to encourage it. Despite the chill factor that has descended on the library profession there may be some hope. We need to look at how other disciplines stimulate and support discourse. At our conferences and through online communities we need to engage in discussions about how to encourage discourse and appropriate ways in which to engage. We need to hear from scholars in other disciplines with experience in discourse so that we can better understand how to inspire ourselves and our colleagues to be both constructively critical and accepting of criticism. We need to focus on the content, and resist the temptation to make it about personalities.
Library educators should begin to integrate into the curriculum more opportunities for verbal and written discourse, as well as present students with case studies that serve as good examples of discourse and how it advances professional knowledge. What contemporary issues are deserving of discourse that might provide good examples? The role of reference services and the future of the reference desk are topics that emerge every few years, but that issue is now re-energized as new technologies make the need for traditional desks less important. Arguing the values of face-to-face interaction versus the immediacy of delivering services virtually is certainly fertile ground for debate. As future professionals, students would undoubtedly find challenges in discussing the qualifications required of academic librarians. As new professionals without library degrees, such as Web programmers and Ph.D. bibliographers, increasingly join the ranks of MLS degreed librarians, there is opportunity to debate the relative merits of an evolving new class of non-MLS professionals in the academic library. What academic librarianship shares with other disciplines is a seemingly never ending parade of controversial issues and challenges that invite the sharing of multiple, strong perspectives. If our future professionals can learn to appreciate and be inspired by the collegial expression of disagreement, it would serve well the future value of scholarly discourse in librarianship.
Another encouraging factor is a recent library blog thread about there being too much politeness in the library blogosphere. This originated in a post by a public librarian, Rachel Hartman, at the Tinfoil + Raccoon blog. The gist of the blog correctly noted that when everyone is too polite to say what is really on their mind we construct a rather boring echo chamber in which all we do is exchange pleasantries. Others responded with observations concerning the need for librarians to engage each other with more constructive criticism. Finally this small segment of the profession began to awake to the possibilities of improving the quality of our discourse, and how that would provide a serious blow to the groupthink that was bringing a slow death to any serious conversations. Of course, the challenge is to simultaneously eliminate the atmosphere of personal repercussions, real and perceived, when expressing opinions while stressing to colleagues that their polite act of suppressing opinions is actually a disservice to our professional advancement. Only time will tell if the profession moves beyond this initial attempt at creating more rigorous discourse.
Whatever we may think about the Web 2.0 phenomenon, whether you love or hate the concept, it is clear that at its core is the creation of conversations between those who build the web and those who use it. The latter seeks to participate by adding their voice, in whatever medium that may occur, and by virtue of doing so helps to build new layers of content. It is ironic that a profession dedicated to community building and embracing Web 2.0 has so miserably failed to create a conversation among it own members. But one thing I greatly admire about my librarian colleagues is how vastly open minded a group they are. They are widely accepting of new ideas, and welcome into the discussion anyone who is willing to share their thoughts. But perhaps we have become too welcoming, too complacent to remember that we share a responsibility to take our profession forward through intellectual discourse. Maybe a good place to start is with a well thought out response to this article. It offers great opportunity for argument. Who wants to take the first shot?
Steven J. Bell
Steven J. Bell is associate university librarian for research and instructional services at Temple University.
In the blogging circles in which I run, one of my many claims to fame is the extent to which I am tired of blogging. I am the author of several pieces on the drawbacks of academic blogging in particular (see, for instance, “On Academic Blogging: A Diagnosis”), and I seize upon any evidence of momentary fatigue or frustration in other academic bloggers as proof of my prescience and insight.
What has caused me to become so cynical at such a tender age? Certainly I can’t deny that I have benefited from blogging -- I’ve met some interesting people and even gotten a couple publications (albeit non-peer-reviewed) out of it. I also can’t deny that I was once among those I now berate as “blog triumphalists.” For approximately two years after I graduated college, my blog was a lifeline for me, and my circle of blogging friends at the time started a fairly ambitious series of reading groups under the Derridean title of “The University Without Condition.” Our first discussion, of Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” was enthusiastic and productive, but things gradually tapered off. Since that time, blog-based conversations have nearly always been disappointing to me.
So one way of investigating the origin of my negative attitude is to look at what might have gone wrong with the University Without Condition. First of all, the initial discussions took place over a widely-dispersed network of blogs, which produced an open-ended effect. I hosted a central clearing-house post on my own personal blog, but in theory, anyone could participate in the discussion, either through their own blog, through the comments on someone else’s post, or through some combination thereof. The result was a conversation that was free-wheeling and often difficult to follow, especially for those who were not comfortable with blogging technology. However, when we eventually decided to pool our efforts in a group blog for the sake of convenience, we found the new setting to be stultifying. Why the change?
I have come to the conclusion that what was so good about the original disorganized format of the University Without Condition conversations was precisely that it was so decentralized. This feature allowed it to escape one of the major pitfalls of conversations based in blog comments -- the inherently hierarchical nature of the format. In blog comments, someone has written out a thoughtful post in what they will often regard as their own personal space. They have an established community of commenters who are, for the most part, sympathetic to the author’s point of view. Thus, when someone comes along and starts criticizing the original post, there is naturally a temptation toward “circling the wagons.” Additionally, comment forms are generally cumbersome and difficult to use for in-depth conversation -- with the paradoxical result that one will either dash off a quick comment that by definition cannot match the rigor of the original post, or else an overly long comment that people will experience as an imposition. Having various people responding on their own personal blogs rather than in comments gets around all these problems -- the conversation is decentered, not localized to anyone’s “turf,” and people are more likely to write lengthier, more thoughtful responses if they are producing it for the sake of their own blog instead of writing something that will be hidden away in some obscure corner of someone else’s comment sections.
Unfortunately, the trend in my corner of the academic blogosphere has been toward assembling group blogs with some particular mission or outlook. For a time, a particularly toxic relationship developed between two academic blogs, Long Sunday and The Valve. Long Sunday was originally formed with the ambitious goal of providing an alternative to the (still) dominant academic group blog, Crooked Timber. The contributors all shared a strong interest in continental philosophy and literary theory. The Valve, by contrast, had a strong skepticism about literary theory and in fact featured many posts critiquing the entire enterprise -- together with a book event surrounding an anthology called Theory’s Empire, which positioned itself as “dissenting” from the hegemony of Theory in literary studies. (At the time, I was an occasional contributor to Long Sunday, and my particular loyalties were broadly in line with Long Sunday’s.) Broadly speaking, the dynamic in the various debates between The Valve and Long Sunday was that Long Sunday tended to read The Valve as attacking the entire enterprise of continental philosophy in favor of a more Anglo-American approach, whereas The Valve consistently viewed Long Sunday as failing to provide any definite idea of where The Valve had gone wrong or even what they understood The Valve to be about. As time went on, this dynamic became a negative feedback loop that predecided every argument in advance -- to the point that two years later, certain parties (including me) still periodically argue about the exact stakes of those disputes.
It seems to me that there was a kind of short circuit in these conversations -- a minority tendency in literary studies (The Valve) was coming up against a minority tendency in American philosophy departments (Long Sunday), resulting in a kind of missed encounter where the stakes revolved more around institutional insecurities rather than the supposed "substance" of whatever we were talking about. I believe that this effect was exacerbated by the quasi-“institutional” nature of the two respective blogs. The various debates may still have been just as heated if the various group loyalty issues were not in play, but they probably would have been more intellectually productive. There are enough institutional turf wars in academe – if blogs are to play a productive role in academic discourse, they should not gratuitously recreate those same dynamics, and for me that means moving away from having quasi-institutional group blogs with stated missions and back toward conversations dispersed among many blogs.
More than formatting issues, however, I think that everyone needs to realize that having a productive conversation in an online format is very hard work, which is why it happens so rarely. Many bloggers can point out online conversations in which they were pushed to think in a new direction or got genuinely valuable feedback on a question, but as with all human endeavors, there is a high percentage of dross to go along with the occasional gold. Policing comments is a difficult job, and efforts to keep conversations on-topic or ensure that contributors have some substantial knowledge to share will often cause resentment in light of the “democratic” leanings of online communities. All this is on top of the obvious problems with online interaction as opposed to in-person conversations.
As more and more academic resources become available online, hopefully academic blogs will begin to fill a role analogous to the political blogs that link to and comment on particular news stories -- that is, bringing new scholarly research to the attention of an interdisciplinary audience. I hope that events like this will help to push more journals toward open-access electronic formats. Failing that, however, academic blogs seem to me to be best-suited as a social outlet for academics who would otherwise feel isolated, creating camaraderie and supplementing the social aspects of disciplinary conferences. I know that my interest in blogs peaked when I was living in the rural town where my undergraduate institution was located. I was fortunate enough to find a vibrant intellectual community in Chicago, so that I frankly don’t need blogs as much as I once did. If I were asked why I don’t just quit blogging if I’m so tired of it, I would have to say that the answer is finally that I recognize that I may not always be so lucky: I may need blogging again.
Adam Kotsko is a doctoral student at the Chicago Theological Seminary. He blogs at The Weblog and An und fÃ¼r sich. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave last month at the annual meeting of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.
Adam may not need blogging right now, but even he admits that the community he has as a graduate student is transitory -- contingent upon a certain group of students sharing an institutional affiliation in a particular historical moment -- and perhaps all the more vibrant for being so.
I have a similar community in Irvine: I speak regularly with Joseph Kugelmass, another contributor to The Valve, and our conversations as frequently turn to things we’ve read and written online as they do formal professional matters. Our conversations straddle two mediums; but someday soon, when he’s sporting tenure at an Ivy and I’m adjuncting my way up and down the California coast, we’ll still be able to keep half our current dynamic intact. I’m not talking about pointless Facebook update -- there may be a benefit to knowing that a Simpsons rerun left a fellow Americanist craving Cherry Garcia, but I doubt it’s intellectual. I’m talking about a regular engagement with each other’s intellectual concerns -- everything from the pains of preparing for the job market to the theoretical implications of an interpretive move you’re not sure you should’ve made -- all communicated in a medium able to accommodate everything from idle chatter to earnest manifesto.
Over the past three years, I’ve learned what it’s like to write in a way most academics never have: namely, for an audience. If this seems like a simple point, that’s because it is. Nor is it one of those profoundly simple points, either: it’s straight simple. When a blogger sits down to slave on her dissertation, article, or book, she doesn’t turn her back on the public sphere. Because in the end, the public sphere is us.
I’m talking about the communities we currently have, only five years in the future, when we’re scattered around the country, unable to communicate face-to-face, but still connected, still intellectually intimate, because we’ll still regularly be engaged with each other’s thoughts. But I’m not only talking about us. There’s no reason our community needs to consist solely of people we knew in grad school. Why not write for people who don’t already how you think about everything? Why not force yourself to articulate your points in such a way that strangers could come to know your thought as intimately as your friends from grad school do?
The informal publishing mechanisms available online can facilitate such communication so long as bloggers write for an audience informally. Senior faculty might continue to orient their scholarly production to the four people whose scholarly journals don’t pile up in the corner of the living room, slowly buried beneath unpaid bills and unread New Yorkers. Whether they know it or not, bloggers write for an audience larger than the search committees we hope to impress. They have already started eye-balling the rest of the world, asking themselves how they can communicate with it without seeming to pander to it. By and large, this approach works. To draw from my own recent experience:
In the first week of October, I presented at the American Literature Association’s Symposium on Naturalism. My talk went well enough, but the conference itself was surreal: two tenured faculty members -- both of whom wrote books I wish I’d written at institutions that would never consider hiring me -- two tenured faculty members independently introduced themselves to me and acknowledged that they’ve read my blog, Acephalous, for quite some time. Flattering, but hardly surreal. However, they then told me that they almost didn’t introduce themselves because they were, and I quote, “intimidated.”
Tenured faculty intimidated by a graduate student. These professors obviously put some weight into what I’ve written on Acephalous and The Valve. So I turned to my audience for feedback, and one of my commenters made the obvious point: I have commenters. Most scholars don’t. They have people they need to impress and tenure files to fill; but I have sustained intellectual engagement with hundreds of people. As one member of it wrote: “In the land of the people who work on things only three people will ever read, the schlub with a somewhat popular blog is king.”
Perhaps, but I don’t want to sound like one of Adam’s blog triumphalists, because I consider the power of blogs to be supplementary and concrete: they provide atomized intellectuals a way to meet and remain in contact with fellow sufferers and their ideas. More importantly, they ensure you’re not forgotten.
Scott Eric Kaufman
Scott Eric Kaufman is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of California at Irvine and blogs at Acephalous. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave last month at the annual meeting of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.
A few months ago, I started using Bloglines, a service for keeping track of new posts on the blogs one looks at regularly. Other such aggregators are available elsewhere -- from Google, for one. But my decision to go with this one was not a matter of carefully evaluating the available options. A librarian who found Bloglines useful in her own work offered to set it up for me and provide a quick tutorial on how to use it. We "late adopters" are prone to using whatever tools someone is kind enough to explain to us.
To express appreciation, I gave her a copy of the recent essay collection She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff, reviewed here. The skills of tech-savvy women may be underestimated by society at large, but not by me. This gesture was well received (the librarian in question flies her geek flag proudly) and I would recommend the book as a gift suggestion for anyone owing a debt of gratitude to the female digerati.
Having been thus initiated into the mysteries of the RSS feed, I plugged the two or three dozen URLs from my regular rounds into Bloglines and started keeping up. Most were academic blogs. And when they linked to another blog that looked interesting enough to bear monitoring, I would enter it into Bloglines, too. A group blog run by social scientists interested in the dynamics of various kinds of organizations? Sure thing! One where a graduate student in philosophy thinks out loud about philosophy, and about being a graduate student? Why not?
You can probably see where this is headed. As of this morning, there are 372 feeds in my Bloglines account. Occasionally it proves necessary to purge a few. (From time to time, my aspiration to be under-informed on a really encyclopedic scale is undercut by the sheer eyestrain involved.) But there's too much benefit to being able to eavesdrop on smart conversations not to keep adding new ones; and ephemerality has its pleasures, too.
Curious what worthwhile feeds might be missing from my aggregator, I contacted a number of academic bloggers to ask if they followed any academic blogs that deserved more attention. (I defined "academic blogging" here pretty loosely, since this seems like a category that can involve a wide range of interests, approaches, and personnel.) Nearly everyone responded. So here follows a roundup of their suggested readings -- points on a map that nobody has gotten around to drawing yet.
Matthew Battles, a senior editor at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the author of Library: An Unquiet History (Norton 2003), responded that he's not actually doing any blogging himself now -- what with "nonvirtual life, alas, being all too nonvirtual." But he did name a couple of favorites.
"Whatever definition of academic blog you adopt," he said, "The Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society likely stretches it to breaking. But I appreciate the Kircher Society' Panglossian perspective and its commitment to what I can only call esoteric universalism -- the world's a tissue of secrets and wonders."
He also cited Ethan Zuckerman's My Heart's in Accra: "With great activity and intelligence, Ethan's blog ties together the seemingly disparate strands of human rights, development, and Internet culture (and it doesn't take long reading his blog to realize that they're not disparate at all)."
Cathy Davidson, a professor of English and interdisciplinary studies at Duke University who blogs at Cat in the Stack, recommends a number of blogs including "danah boyd's Apophrenia column, Howard Reingolds' Smart Mobs, and Henry Jenkins' Acafan."
All three have a strong emphasis on digital culture. She also points out Savage Minds, a group blog on anthropology, and Jonathan Sterne's Super Bon!
Barbara Fister, an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, in St. Peter, Minn., contributes to the Association of College and Research Libraries' ACRLog. She singles out if:book, the blog of the Institute for the Future of the Book, as a source of "thought-provoking discussions of how we may be reimagining the book in a digital world."
Less analytic, but a reliable source of "intriguing stuff, hot off the press," is Sabrina I. Pacifici's blog, BeSpacific. "Its tagline, 'accurate, focused law and technology news' is on target," Fister says.
Phil Ford is an assistant professor of music at Indiana University and a member of the almost excessively enjoyable group blog Dial "M" for Musicology. Some of you may recall his notorious (and widely read) piece here at IHE applying the wisdom of gangsta rap to the academic workplace. I don't mean to play favorites here, but what the hell: Of any blog that I read regularly, Dial "M" is the one that seems most like a really good magazine.
Ford recommends a new effort called People Listen To It that was, he says, "started by a University of Illinois ethnomusicology professor named Gabriel Solis and is a group blog that includes a number of his seminar students. They're still kind of catching their stride (it takes a while to work out a bloggy voice), but it's an interesting idea, doing a group blog grounded in a single institution, and having students blogging alongside their professor. Has anyone else done this? It wouldn't have occurred to me even to try, and I wouldn't think it would work, but this one does."
Scott Eric Kaufman, now finishing his dissertation in English at the University of California at Irvine, is probably better known as "that guy who walked in on two students having sex in his office," thanks to a widely circulated post at his blog Acephalous. That was two years ago. The story will never die. Someday it will be adapted for film and shown at Sundance.
And Kaufman singles out Jonathan Mayhew's Bemsha Swing as a source of "the best writing about writing out there, a consistently sound motivator for me to stop reading blogs and start writing my dissertation. (Odd praise, that is: it's the blog that makes you want to stop reading it.)"
Adam Kotsko is a doctoral student at the Chicago Theological Seminary and author of Zizek and Theology, to be published next year by Continuum Books. He contributes to An und fur sich, a group blog on theology and Continental philosophy.
"I would recommend Voyou Desoeuvre," he says; "the writing and political analysis are great, and I love that he doesn't have a 'publish or perish' mentality."
Tedra Osell was an assistant professor of English at the University of Guelph (now on the job market) and has written an interesting paper on gender and anonymity in 18th century magazines and 21st century blogging. She is also the channel for Bitch Ph.D.
Osell calls herself "a huge fan" of Outside the (Toy)Box, the work of a blogger who identifies herself as "a professor in an unnamed social science field as well as media studies."
"Her writing shows the ways that being a mom and an academic are not only compatible," says Osell, "but that doing both together makes her better at each of her jobs."
Eric Rauchway, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, was interviewed in this column previously. He has contributed to The New Republic's effort to create the academic supergroup blog Open University, which I think is technically still alive. (If you hold a mirror under its nose, there is fog, sometimes.) With his colleague Ari Kelman, he has more recently been blogging at Edge of the West.
Rauchway is a fan of Ben Wolfson's blog waste: "If you had been living on a blogless planet, and then had blogs described to you, and then were asked to hypothesize what a scholar's blog might look like, this would be it: rich in dry wit, obscure wordplay, and shaggy dog stories."
Chris Matthew Sciabarra is a visiting scholar in the department of politics at New York University and the author, most recently, of Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (Penn State University Press, 2000). He is part of the group blog Liberty and Power
He calls Lester Hunt's E pur si muove! "just a lot of fun, and all over the map, from popular culture to philosophy." And while Once Upon a Time is not written by an academic, Sciabarra calls it "among the most passionate blogs I've ever read on the crossroads of culture, social psychology, and politics." And he cites Roderick Long's blog Austro-Athenian Empire for "pure libertarian radicalism that I find very appealing."
Aaron Swartz is a programmer whose work on Open Library was covered in Intellectual Affairs this summer. He blogs at Raw Thought.
Swartz referred me to Robert Viennau's Thoughts on Economics, calling it the work of "a scrupulous, independent scholar with an interest bordering on obsession with heterodox economics. His blog is filled with interesting quotes from his voluminous reading, arguments against the economics mainstream, and occasionally proofs of various interesting things."
He also points out The Monkey Cage: ""Although this blog started only days ago, it's quickly become one of my favorites. Three political scientists from [George Washington University] describe recent research results in an clear and engaging style. I wish every field had a blog like this -- come on, sociologists!"
Siva Vaidhyanathan, an associate professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia, has published widely on questions involving new media and intellectual property, and not long ago started a blog in conjunction with his book in progress, The Googlization of Everything.
Like Scott Eric Kaufman (above), he points to Liz Losh's VirtualPolitik: "Liz teaches rhetoric at UC-Irvine. She is one of the smartest people writing about information technology uses among educators and young people. The way she combines rhetorical criticism with technological sophistication is inspiring. I also dig Madisonian.net. It's a group blog by a bunch of my favorite law professors. It's sharp and well written, concerned with a broad array of legal issues but centers on intellectual property, mostly."
Vaidhyanathan also says he is "a big fan" of Feminist Law Professors: "This blog keeps the good ol' boys in the legal academy honest. Ann Bartow at the University of South Carolina is the editor and leader of the blog. Its contributions are wide ranging. And the writing is first-rate."
Jeremy Young is a graduate student in history at Indiana University, with a special interest in the Progressive era. And when he blogs, it's at Progressive Historians.
"I'm a liberal," Young says. "ZenPundit (Mark Safranski) is a conservative. So what? His history blog is one of the most best reads on the 'Net. Whether he's discussing small wars theory, political history, or Jack Kerouac, he's unfailingly thorough and offers a unique, insightful perspective on every issue he covers."
He also follows A Historian's Craft, the blog of Rachel Leow, "an obscenely smart Malaysian-British grad student at Cambridge." Young describes it as "a delightful, thought-provoking, and often moving journey through intellectual history. Don't miss Rachel's collection of what she playfully terms 'bookporn' -- salivatingly-gorgeous photographs of library stacks taken by the author herself."
Just before heading to San Francisco for the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, I had a brilliant idea, or so it seemed. Between scholarly panels and face-to-face meetings, I would blog here at Inside Higher Ed. Instead of scribbling notes on a pad and then synthesizing out some kind of continuous text after the fact, this would mean recording the MLA in all its paratactic glory -- perhaps including links to YouTube videos of people saying interesting things in casual discussion after the panels. Your roving reporter would pause every so often to type up something on the laptop, or shoot it with the digital camera, and fire the resulting document out into the world via the wireless ether.
This was indeed, in its conception, a beautiful plan. Except that my laptop (which by now probably counts as vintage) is heavy, and the hotel wireless proved another sort of pain. The rooms where the panels were held tended to be badly lit, so that the video clips were all of a murkiness. Besides which, there were never any fireworks. If the days of Theory are over, so are the days of post-Theory, and "the rediscovery of aesthetics." I have attended six of the past seven MLA conventions. This was the first time when it really felt like a trade show in Detroit -- and not back in the day when next year's auto designs were a big deal, either. More like one right about now. Non-deflation counts as progress.
Be that as it may, I filed occasional causeries along the way, available here. And the blog will continue in the months ahead as an annex or supplement to Intellectual Affairs. In the four years that IA has been running, any number of books, papers, debates, etc. have fallen through the cracks. For whatever reason, I found it impossible to develop a full-length column around them. Given how few nonspecialist journals devote space to university-press books (apart from a handful of crossover titles per season, usually from the same four or five publishers), it might be helpful to offer quick or timely references to work that might otherwise be missed.
One possibility is that the new venue might include the occasional striking passage from my reading, in the manner of a commonplace book.
As blogged early in MLA, the organization has given its most recent lifetime achievement for scholarship to René Girard. His newest book, Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005, is from Stanford University Press, which naturally had it prominently displayed at their booth. A couple of paragraphs in "Theory and Its Terrors" (first published in 1989) jumped out as worth quoting here.
"If you consider our numbers in the abstract, you might think we are about the right size for a harmonious and productive intellectual life. How many of us are there in the humanities? How many members does the Modern Language Association have? There must be at least twenty thousand active people. [Twenty years later, it is thirty thousand, according to the MLA website.-SM] We complain about the indifference of the outside world. The public pays no attention to us; it is not interested in criticism; yet our numbers correspond, more or less, to the actual audiences of Shakespeare or Racine at the time they were writing. Our sector of the academic world is as large as the entire cultivated public of Elizabethan England or the France of Louis XIV.
"And yet our cultural world is a far cry from Elizabethan England or la cour et la ville in seventeenth-century France. There is a reason for this, so simple and yet so obvious that no one ever mentions it. At the time of Elizabeth and Louis, one percent, perhaps, of the educated people were producers, and ninety-nine percent were consumers. With us, the proportion is curiously reversed. We are supposed to live in a world of consumerism, but in the university there are only producers. We are under a strict obligation to write, and therefore we hardly have the time to read one another's work. It is very nice, when you give a lecture, to encounter someone who is not publishing, because perhaps that person has not only enough curiosity but enough time to read your books."
Submitted by Chad Orzel on January 11, 2010 - 3:00am
When I started my blog in 2002, I had no idea it would lead me to talking to my dog about physics. Let alone to writing a book about explaining physics to my dog.
I thought of the blog as a way to talk a bit about politics, pop culture, and academic science, and a place to let off a little steam as I went through the tenure process (I started the blog at the end of my first year as an assistant professor). Over the last seven and a half years, it's evolved into something much more, and I've begun to see it as an essential part of my responsibilities as a scientist.
A statement like that obviously presupposes some definition of the responsibilities of a scientist. Without getting too deeply into the many complex philosophical debates about the nature of science, my own view is that science is a four-step process for generating useful knowledge: the first step is to identify an interesting phenomenon in the natural world, the second to develop a model that might explain the phenomenon, the third to test the model by experiment or further observation, and the fourth to tell everyone the results of those tests.
The fourth step was the last one to become general practice -- as late as 1676, Robert Hooke published what we now know as "Hooke's Law" for elastic materials as a Latin cryptogram ("ceiinossttu," which unscrambles to "ut tensio, sic vis" for “as the stretch, so the force,” indicating that the force exerted by a spring is proportional to the amount it is stretched), so as to hide his results from his competitors while still claiming credit for the work. But it is not until wide and open dissemination of scientific results became the norm that we saw the tremendous explosion of scientific knowledge that has shaped the modern world. Broad publication of results is critical for the success of science, as it allows large numbers of scientists to build off the same body of knowledge, and to try many different approaches in parallel.
As essential as this step is, it is in many ways the weakest link in the scientific process today. While there are more scientific papers published today than ever before, a combination of technical sophistication and scientific specialization means that as far as the general public is concerned, modern scientific papers might as well be Latin cryptograms.
This is the famous "Two Cultures" problem pointed out by C.P. Snow a half century ago, and in many ways, the problems have only gotten worse since Snow's day. This is especially troubling given that the biggest problems facing human civilization today -- global climate change, pandemic disease, dwindling natural resources -- demand scientific solutions. Public understanding of science remains dangerously low, however, to the point where slick and cynical lobbyists can easily sow doubt about the state of global climate, or the safety of vaccines. When a shameless huckster like Glenn Beck can convince people not to vaccinate themselves or their children, in the face of decades of scientific evidence of the safety and efficacy of vaccines, something is dangerously wrong.
The only solution to this problem is to reinforce the fourth step of the scientific process, by disseminating scientific knowledge as widely as possible. We need to communicate science not only to other scientists, but also to the average voter, so they can have the knowledge base and critical faculties needed to distinguish solid science from cynical manipulations. This is a daunting task, though, both because all the professional incentives for academic scientists reward technical publication above all else -- you get tenure by publishing in Science, not Scientific American -- and also because modern science is a highly technical and mathematical enterprise, and even highly educated and intelligent people have a sort of learned helplessness when confronted with mathematics. Communicating science to the general public requires scientists to find a way to make science less intimidating, to find a voice that will make complex science seem more approachable to people who aren't comfortable with the mathematical language of modern science.
This is where blogs can play a role. Blogging gives scientists a platform from which they can reach a huge audience. On a fairly typical weekday, my blog is read by nearly 3,000 people, which is more than the entire enrollment at Union College, where I teach. When I write something about physics on the blog, it gets read by more people than I could ever hope to teach in my classes. Other science blogs have many times more daily visitors than I do, allowing the scientists who write them to share their results with thousands of people all around the world.
Blogging also gives scientists who are interested in communicating with the general public a chance to hone their communications skills. There are numerous feedback mechanisms available -- site traffic, comments, links from other blogs and social media platforms -- that allow blogging scientists to figure out what works, and practice communication to a broad audience. Through trial and error, they can find a voice that works for them, that will let them speak directly to people who wouldn't be interested in the technical details of a scientific journal article.
What voice will work is different for every scientist, and can be surprising. The voice might not even be human -- the voice that has been most successful for me is that of my dog, Emmy. In 2007, I wrote a couple of blog posts featuring imaginary conversations with my dog about aspects of quantum physics (Bunnies Made of Cheese and Many Worlds, Many Treats). These were read by tens of thousands of people, and led directly to a general audience physics book, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. Strange as the concept may seem, I've found explaining physics via my dog to be extremely effective. She provides a way to keep even very abstract concepts grounded, and to break up dense and potentially intimidating discussions with an element of humor, making the science more approachable.
Writing as the dog is not something that ever would've occurred to me without the blog. Because I had the blog as a forum to try new things, even things that seemed kind of silly, I was able to experiment with different approaches to presenting physics, and stumble across something that worked exceptionally well for me. Any scientist with an interest in public communication of science should jump at the opportunities offered by running or writing for a blog.
Of course, no one book or individual blogging scientist will be enough to fix the problems science faces. We need many scientists willing to speak to the public, making use of the tools that the Internet offers. Not every scientist needs to be a public communicator -- some people will not have the inclination or the skills needed to convey complex technical ideas to a general audience, and that's fine -- but those scientists with an interest in public communication should have the opportunity to explore that, for the good of the scientific community, and the larger society.
Internet technologies remove most of the technical obstacles to scientists speaking directly to the public, but there are still significant roadblocks due to academic culture. Public communication is not highly regarded in academic science, and many junior faculty are explicitly warned against outreach programming and other public communication activities that "distract" them from producing technical publications. The only sure path to academic success is through publishing for a narrow audience of other scientists, not for a broad general audience.
Given the urgent threats that we now face, and the need for sensible decision making based on solid scientific evidence, though, we need to encourage faculty with an interest in communicating with the public to do just that. The consequences of a continued disconnect between voters and the scientific community are too great. We need to encourage and reward people who can help increase the public's understanding of science, and recognize public communication as a valid and even essential part of the scientific enterprise. We should ensure that scientists with an interest in public communication have the tools they need, and an opportunity to find a voice that works for them.
“It is my impression that no one really likes the new. We are afraid of it. It is not only as Dostoevsky put it that 'taking a new step, uttering a new word is what people fear most.' Even in slight things the experience of the new is rarely without some stirring of foreboding.” --Eric Hoffer, Between The Devil And The Dragon
I tried the new in fall 2009, teaching with student blogs, (look in sidebar and scroll down) out in the open where anyone who wanted to could see what the students were producing. The blogging wasn’t new for me. I’d been doing that for almost five years. Having students blog was a different matter. I had no experience in getting them to overcome their anxieties, relaxing in writing online, learning to trust one another that way. Normally I believe what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If I could blog comfortably and get something from that, so could they. On reflection, however, I was very gentle with myself when I started to blog. As an experiment to prove to myself whether I could do it, for three full weeks I made at least one post a day, 500 to 600 words, a couple of times 1,100 to 1,200 words. I didn’t tell a soul I was doing this. There was no pressure on me to keep it up. It was out in the open, yet nobody seemed to be watching. After those three weeks I felt ready. In the teaching, however, at best I could ask the students to blog once a week. I gave the students weekly prompts on the readings or to follow up on class discussion. (See the class calendar for fall 2009. The prompts are in the Friday afternoon entries.) If I let them blog quietly to get comfortable as I had done, the entire semester would expire before they were ready to go public. There seemed no alternative but to have them plunge in.
The uncertainty about how best to assist the students once they had taken the plunge created an important symmetry between the students and me; we both were to learn about how to do this well, often by first doing it less well. Though it was an inadvertent consequence, of all my teaching over the past 30 years I believe this course came closest to emulating the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education by Chickering and Gamson. I learned to comment on the student posts, not with some pre-thought-through response based on what I anticipated they’d write, but rather to react to where they appeared to be in their own thinking. (This post provides a typical example. The student introduced time management as a theme. My comment aimed to make her think more about time management.) As natural as that is to do in ordinary conversation, I had never done it before when evaluating student work. Indeed, I didn’t think of these comments as evaluation at all. I thought of them as response. In the normal course of my non-teaching work I respond to colleagues all the time and they respond to me. This form of online interaction in the class made it more like the rest of my interactions at work.
Most of the students were quite awkward in their initial blogging. Good students all, the class was a seminar on "Designing for Effective Change" for the Honors Program, but lacking experience in this sort of approach to instruction, the students wrote to their conception of what I wanted to hear from them. I can’t imagine a more constipated mindset for producing interesting prose. For this class there was a need for them to unlearn much of their approach which had been finely tuned and was quite successful in their other classes. They needed to take more responsibility for their choices. While I gave them a prompt each week on which to write, I also gave them the freedom to choose their own topic so long as they could create a tie to the course themes. Upon reading much of the early writing, I admonished many of them to "please themselves" in the writing. I informed them that they could not possibly please other readers if they didn’t first please themselves. It was a message they were not used to hearing. So it took a while for them to believe it was true. In several instances they tried it out only after being frustrating with the results from their usual approach. This, as Ken Bain teaches us, is how students learn on a fundamental level.
I'm crustier now than I was as a younger faculty member. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to deal with the emotion that underlies giving feedback to students when that feedback is less than entirely complimentary to them. Yet given their awkward early attempts at writing posts that’s exactly what honest response demanded. It’s here where having the postings and the comments out in the open so all can see is so important, before the class has become a community, before the students have made up their minds about what they think about this blogging stuff. Though both the writing and the response are highly subjective, of necessity, it is equally important for the process to be fair. How can a student who receives critical comments judge those comments to be fitting and appropriate, rather than an example of the insensitive instructor picking on the hapless student? Perhaps a very mature student can discern this even-handedly from the comments themselves and a self-critique of the original post. I believe most students benefit by reading the posts of their classmates, making their own judgments about those writings and then seeing the instructor’s comments, finally making a subsequent determination as to whether those comments seem appropriate and helpful for the student in reconsidering the writing.
A positive feedback loop can be created by this process. The commenting, more than any other activity the instructor engages in, demonstrates the instructor’s commitment to the course and to the students. In turn the students, learning to appreciate the value of the comments, start to push themselves in the writing. Their learning is encouraged this way. Further, since the blogging is not a competition between the students and their classmates, those who like getting comments begin to comment on the posts of other students. The elements of the community that the class can become are found in this activity.
Since on a daily basis I use blogs and blog readers in my regular work, one of the original reasons for me taking this approach rather than use the campus learning management system was simply that I thought it would be more convenient for me. Also, given my job as a learning technology administrator, I went into the course with some thought that I might showcase the work afterward. Openness is clearly better for that. However in retrospect neither of these is primary. The main reason to be open is to set a good tone for the class. We want ideas to emerge and not remain concealed.
Yet there remains one troubling element: student privacy. Is open blogging this way consistent with FERPA? As best as I’ve been able to determine, it is as long as students “opt in.” (I did give students the alternatives of writing in the class LMS site or writing in the class wiki site. No student opted for those.) My experience suggests, however, that is not quite sufficient. If most students opt in, peer pressure may drive others to opt in as well. More importantly, however, students choose to opt in when they are largely ignorant of the consequences. Might they feel regret after they better understand what the blogging is all about?
Based on my discussion with the students on this point, essentially all their reservations about blogging would have been eliminated were they to have blogged under aliases. One of my students figured that out on her own, for self-protection. A few others took out any mention of their name on their blogs partway into the class. I’ve been thinking of the next class I will teach and how I’ll adopt aliases in that setting. My current plan is to assign aliases generated by concatenating the names of famous economists (I teach microeconomics) with the course rubric and number. Then in the bio section of their blogs I’ll have the students post a little about the economists who are their namesakes. The actual aliases will be a little long and clunky this way, but in the colloquial way students are apt to communicate with each other, I’m sure they’ll embrace shorter forms. And this way they’ll become acquainted with some of the giants in the field, not a bad byproduct from satisfying their privacy need. I had briefly considered using something considerably shorter, say a number. But that conjured up thoughts of The Prisoner and that’s not the ambiance I’m trying to create for the course.
I wonder if partway into the semester, after having established some confidence with the blogging, students might choose to reveal their true identities. I’m curious to find out.
Lanny Arvan is CIO and associate dean for e-learning at the College of Business of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
In an essay from the late 1960s, Umberto Eco wrote that day when revolutionaries could seize power by storming the central government offices of the old regime were over. The distribution of forces changed over the course of the 20th century. Taking control of the television stations had become at least as important -- possibly more so.
Reading this in the 1980s, I felt a certain skepticism. The Italian semiotician was responding, in part, to Marshall McLuhan, who made all sorts of gnomic and frequently silly pronouncements about the mass media; it appeared as if Eco were succumbing to the same impulse. A revolutionary strategist once defined the state as "bodies of armed men" -- and confronting those armed men, rather than the anchormen, still seemed to me like the decisive moment in any change of system or regime regime.
That passage has come to mind again over the past month – especially last Thursday, when the Egyptian government tried to derail the protests against Hosni Mubarak by shutting off access to the Internet. It amounts to a significant wrinkle in Eco’s argument. This time, it was the counterrevolutionaries seizing control of the media (not to use it, but to dissolve it). Likewise, the authorities in Tunisia responded to the popular uprising there by running a piece of code on the country’s servers to harvest the Facebook passwords of its citizens. It then tried to shut down their accounts.
The role of social networking and online communication in anti-authoritarian uprisings is a topic that gained special currency during the protests over the Iranian presidential election in June 2009. And the discussion often resonates with the familiar themes of what might be called the new digital populism: established authority shaking in its boots before the distributed power of the ‘netitizens. Watching American television coverage of the Egyptian events, in particular, one could be forgiven for supposing that new media sparked the uprising, since nothing in that country’s history over the past three decades is discussed as much as the arrival of Twitter and Facebook.
Considerably more thoughtful discussion has been taking place on academic blogs. Ulises Mejias, an assistant professor of new media at the State University of New York at Oswego, points out “how absurd it is to refer to events in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere as the Twitter Revolution, the Facebook Revolution, and so on. What we call things, the names we use to identify them, has incredible symbolic power, and I, for one, refuse to associate corporate brands with struggles for human dignity.”
While acknowledging the role that “tech-savvy youth” have played in recent mass protests, Jillian York of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University avoids calling them “social-media revolutions” because “the implication of such nomenclature is that Twitter or Facebook can make or break a protest, turn a revolt into a revolution. This is not the case: Neither in Iran nor Tunisia was social media the catalyst for uprising.”
The most categorical challenge to the notion that digital tools have some intrinsic democratogenic potency comes from Evgeny Morozov, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, whose polemic The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom was published last month by PublicAffairs. He argues “that it's wrong to assess the political power of the Internet solely based on its contribution to social mobilization: We should also consider how it empowers the government via surveillance, how it disempowers citizens via entertainment, how it transforms the nature of dissent by shifting it into a more virtual realm, how it enables governments to produce better and more effective propaganda, and so forth. All of this might decrease the likelihood that the revolutionary situation like the one in Tunisia actually happens -- even if the Internet might be of tremendous help in social mobilization. The point here is that while the Internet could make the next revolution more effective, it could also make it less likely.”
Cory Doctorow, the novelist and a co-editor of the website Boingboing, has published an extensive critique of The Net Delusion -- arguing that its broadsides against net activism are misdirected. “Where Morozov describes people who see the internet as a ‘deterministic one-directional force for either global liberation or oppression,’ or ‘refusing to acknowledge that the web can either strengthen rather than undermine authoritarian regimes,’ I see only straw-men, cartoons drawn from CNN headlines, talking head sound bites from the US administrative branch, and quips from press conferences.”
Doctorow may be right that the net activists he knows are much more sophisticated than Morozov allows. But it cannot be said that simplistic ideas one hears articulated in “CNN headlines, talking head sound bites from the US administrative branch, and quips from press conferences” are without effect or consequence.
A graph of the Internet traffic going to and from Egypt last Thursday shows online activity proceeding at a brisk pace all afternoon -- then suddenly collapsing to a bare minimum around 5 o'clock, as the country’s service providers shut access down.
This did not have the desired effect. The protests occurring the next day were bigger than before, and have grown steadily ever since -- with labor unions organizing a general strike, and people carrying on with the strangely festive brand of courage that seems always to emerge during this sort of historical episode. A very few Egyptians have managed to get access to Twitter and the like. But nobody can claim that digital technology is driving events there.
How to understand this dynamic, then? In August, the United States Institute of Peace issued a report called “Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics,” co-authored by half a dozen political scientist and media analysts. (One of them is Henry Farrell, an associate professor of political science at the George Washington University, and a friend.) It offers the smartest assessment I have seen of the impact of new media on movements such as the upheavals sweeping North Africa lately – because it makes clear that we just don’t know very much.
“Conclusions are generally drawn from potentially nonrepresentative anecdotes,” the authors write, sometimes combined with "laborious hand coding of a subset of easily identified major (usually English) media.” There's a tendency to focus on new media as "the magic bullet" explaining the course of events when "at best, it may be a 'rusty bullet,' " since "traditional media sources [may prove] equally if not more important." Nor is it clear how digital tools affect the various dimensions of political conflict -- whether they serve to forge alliances among groups, for example, or tend to make each one close in upon itself more.
As the familiar refrain goes, more research is needed. For now, all generalizations are guesses.
Attend a higher ed marketing conference or read a marketing blog these days and you’ll quickly conclude that the path to recruitment, fund-raising and mission attainment is social media. Whatever the issue, a campaign built around (fill in the blank) tweets, blogs, LinkedIn, Facebook or whatever seems to be the key to achieving institutional goals.
Social media activists are invariably trotted out at conferences and webinars to demonstrate their recent excursion into the age of social media enlightenment.
Being the first one in the swimming pool, however, doesn’t mean you’re the strongest swimmer. It doesn’t even mean you are much of a swimmer. It simply means you got wet first. Before we hurl ourselves headlong into the collective pool, we’d be advised to take a step or two back and look at social media from a broader perspective.
What is social media? It’s a communication vehicle -- a way to reach and converse with others. It’s not imbued with magical qualities to increase sales, raise money or feed the homeless. It’s simply a tool that can help you achieve a goal -- much like a hammer is to a carpenter. In the hands of a skilled carpenter, it can be used to create a beautiful house. In lesser hands, you might end up with a dysfunctional garage.
As we know, when wielding a hammer everything is apt to look like a nail. That’s what we’re seeing in the current environment: early-bird practitioners urging us to rush out and put up blogs, launch LinkedIn campaigns, create digital publications, start podcasts and engage in all manner of activities that are part of the social media bandwagon.
What’s wrong with that?
One big problem: a tool is not a strategy. A social media campaign does not equate with good marketing.
We can learn from the rush to execution that ensued when desktop publishing debuted in the '80s. With the purchase of PageMaker software, everyone suddenly became a graphic designer with the ability to produce ads, newsletters, logos and all manner of illustrations.
Obviously, managers and accountants didn’t really become designers. They used the tools of a designer to execute some functions. Graphic design requires more than just pretty pictures. Judgment and creativity, quantitative and analytic thinking is the key to successfully conveying specific messages to targeted audiences. These skills don’t come stuffed inside a software box. Graphic software may make the process easier, faster and less expensive but it’s only valuable in the hands of skilled designer.
Currently, social media is about execution. I’m all for exploring sexy, fun new ways of reaching an audience, but social media evangelists seem to spend little time comparing their medium with alternatives that may be a better strategic fit or more cost-efficient. We rarely hear headliners caution that social media can be a worthless exercise, a drag on precious resources or damaging to reputations. There’s little talk about limitations or failures or more reliable alternatives. It’s as if everyone is whistling their way down the path and over the cliff drinking the collective Kool-Aid.
Examples of disastrous social media campaigns abound and they are not limited to cash-strapped nonprofits. Take a look at ThoughtPick’s list of the top 10 social media campaign failures. It’s littered with big brand names from Wal-Mart and GM to Skittles and Starbucks -- huge retailers that had the resources for success and should have known better.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tightened Twitter rules after athletes' activities brought unwanted attention to their athletic program.
Regardless of size or good intentions, it’s easy to make a social media mistake.
A focus on social media places a disproportionate emphasis on one component of the marketing mix: promotion. A 2011 survey of members pf the Council for Advancement and Support of Education found that 36 percent of higher education institutions had six or more full-time people assigned to social media. Ten percent had 20 or more.
This disproportionate emphasis leads practitioners to minimize or even overlook other components -- product, price and place -- key strategic considerations which are likely to be more important to ultimate success than social media. Before engaging in a social media campaign marketers should make sure the product is the best it can be, that consumer sentiment has helped shape it, that the price is appropriate for the marketplace and that we’ve made purchasing as easy and as convenient as possible. Each component in the marketing mix comes with a large body of work and research that should be seriously considered in any strategic marketing plan.
Social media is one communication tool within the promotional component. Other functions such as advertising, public relations, personal selling and sales promotion may complement or be better alternatives to social media. We can’t increase bottom-line performance by ignoring other communication options.
Which brings me to some decidedly unsexy comments that you won’t hear from convention headliners but will be helpful if you are considering a social media campaign.
1. Social media is in its embryonic stage. Internet Explorer is distributing version 12.0, but early versions were barely functional and didn’t resemble today’s browser. Read, learn, experiment as much as you like but don’t place too many chips on the social media roulette wheel just yet. A few years ago headliners were urging clients to build campaigns around MySpace, which has tanked as an alternative to Facebook. The landscape is still in flux; products are trendy and largely untested.
2. Use a marketing plan to keep focused. Write a brief marketing plan before you start. Nothing elaborate, maybe one page. Identify the three key goals you are trying to achieve. Define the audience, your message and communication vehicles. Be critical. Ask yourself, Are there other, more cost-effective communication options that may more efficiently reach your audience? Sometimes a blog/Facebook page/SEO campaign is too slow/expensive/reaches the wrong demographic/sends the wrong message. Strategize first, execute second.
3. Rely on marketing principles -- not trendy ideas. Marketing principles are based on 70 years of research and practice. They are based on understanding consumer needs, wants and emotions. Fear, happiness, survival, love, jealousy, hunger are behavior motivators with a longer shelf life than a pair of Crocs. A good marketer will prod and survey, question and talk with the audience before creating the message and selecting the communication vehicles. We don’t select the vehicle first (read: Twitter), then hope it reaches the right audience.
4. A good convention headliner pushes limits and stimulates creativity. But most headliners are no more marketing mavens than PageMaker users were graphic designers. They were simply first into the pool. A smart swimmer watches others, considers the depth, assesses his skills and then decides when and whether to get wet. Remember, convention headliners are generally entertaining and upbeat so anything that doesn’t make the cut -- anything old school -- is edited out.
5. Get the facts behind the sizzle. Sure, putting an ad on a current events blog may give you street cred, but if you want to reach the typically affluent news junkie, for instance, try a newspaper. Recent Pew-funded research found that 95 percent of original news content on the Internet comes from legacy providers -- primarily newspapers. Gossip, opinion, speculation and hyperbole may attract readers but perhaps not those seeking authoritative, timely news.
One blogger on Adrants.com recently wrote, “Agencies rightfully see social [media] as central to the future of marketing and work to develop in this space as fast as they can.” Central to the future of marketing? That’s the type of overblown hype we hear dispensed by headliners and pseudo-marketers. Sure, social media is an attractive communication vehicle but it’s just that – a vehicle -- what about product, price, strategy, distribution, research and promotion? Shouldn’t we focus on these key components before we select a communication vehicle?
And certainly agencies are working to develop the space as fast as they can; it’s a money-making opportunity. But don’t confuse the pronouncements of self-anointed, self-promoting social media experts with the need for a comprehensive marketing plan that’s a little more thoughtful and takes little longer to plan and execute but has a better chance of taking you where you want to go.
Kevin Tynan is executive director for marketing and communications at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of Exposure! How to Market So Your Message is Unavoidable, Dartnell and Multi-Channel Marketing.