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Serious Bloggers

Serious Bloggers
February 20, 2006

In several online educational columns, various blog posts, department meetings, and graduate education advice, we repeatedly hear the dangers of blogging. Blogging will ruin your career! Blogging will prevent you from getting a job! Blogging will ... fill in the blank. In a 2005 Chronicle of Higher Education column that received widespread attention from online readers, blogging critic "Ivan Tribble" argued that openly sharing one's views or one's life with the world can only have detrimental consequences for aspiring educators. Tribble wrote: "The pertinent question for bloggers is simply, Why? What is the purpose of broadcasting one's unfiltered thoughts to the whole wired world? It's not hard to imagine legitimate, constructive applications for such a forum. But it's also not hard to find examples of the worst kinds of uses."

Too many academic bloggers have taken Tribble and similar commentaries seriously. Technorati, the blog search engine, lists 264 weblogs linking to (and one assumes commenting on as well) the initial Tribble column. It's not a trivial number considering the small amount of academic bloggers writing and the even smaller number of humanities-academic bloggers on the Web. The latter was the focus of Tribble's diatribe. Tribble's intense reading is not alone nor the anomaly. Most notable among other warnings regarding blogging is Forbes magazine's October 2005 cover story "Attack of the Blogs." Written by Daniel Lyons, the essay transformed blogging into an economic heavyweight whose influence far exceeds normal market and political forces. Beware of the blogs, Lyons cautioned. They will destroy your business!

More worrisome than this trepidation over blogging (i.e. whether these warnings are accurate or not), however, is the general seriousness that has immediately encased a fairly novel form of writing.  By "seriousness," I don't mean the investments and concern we place in our work; instead I note the over-hyped heaviness centered on this one particular type of writing. That heaviness can be overbearing. It turns online writing into either an obligation or a burden; either way, writers act as if they are trapped in this medium they have chosen to work in. The two brief examples I just alluded to are not the only attributes of the seriousness weblogging evokes. A quick glance at Inside Higher Ed's "Around the Web" section reveals a majority of blogs linked to whose writers are identifiable only by pseudonyms: Wanna Be Ph.D, Angry Professor, Anonymous Professor, La Lecturess.

These "names" do not reflect the general tendency in digital culture to adopt alter-egos (as in hip hop culture) nor do they reflect the altering of one's name for easier and more likable recognition (as in Hollywood screen names) nor the postmodern play of identity (as in Philip Roth's novels). Instead, these names re-enforce the burden of seriousness which has overtaken academic blogging. Writing a blog under a pseudonym is usually an argument that the only safe way for an academic to write publicly is to write anonymously. Our thoughts about students, grades, internal policy and even our private lives and interests can never be revealed to our colleagues or future colleagues or we risk losing all we have worked so hard for! As one anonymous writer states about her decision to stop blogging: "The only reason I'm in this predicament is because I've been terrified of people knowing who I am. As much as I've dealt with my 'real' identity being revealed to a few people, I've also been really afraid of the consequences of being a 'real' person in the blogosphere. And so, I thought, maybe the solution is to come out -- to just write under my "real" name, to tell people in my real life that I blog. As I thought about it more, however, it seemed to me that to write under that name is no solution, ultimately, because it would limit my writing here in the opposite direction."

I don't want to rehash the pro/con argument regarding blog pseudonyms or  anonymous blogging in general. Instead, I draw attention to how serious both the critics and supporters of this kind of writing take its activities. Lost in this seriousness are a number of quite amazing things blogging has provided writers: ability to create discourse in widely accessed, public venues, ease of online publishing, ability to write daily to a networked space, ability to archive one's writing, ability to interlink writing spaces, ability to respond to other writers quickly, etc. That over a million people of various ages and writing proficiencies have taken up blogging so quickly speaks to its attractiveness and novel nature. Indeed, all new genres of writing spurred on by technological innovation create new opportunities for expression. Always there exist doubters, but seldom do the adopters themselves express as much seriousness and trepidation of the very medium they use as their opponents do.

The consequences of this seriousness can be quite problematic, more problematic than whether or not a reader will take offense (or even retribution) at one's postings. The consequence of this seriousness is stagnation. When we become too serious about novel ideas too quickly, we deny ourselves the ability to experiment with and develop the very innovations in communication we are attracted to in the first place. In turn, we replicate processes already in circulation; i.e., we maintain a status quo and fail to explore possibilities raised by the new medium. One hears that stagnation in the repeated refrains of "fear" pseudonymous bloggers express or the tropes of general complaining many pseudonymous weblogs turn out. One hears that stagnation in Tribble's own cliché reading of the job market or what digital writing entails. On hears that stagnation in Forbes' model of economic competition.

If we have too much seriousness, nothing new occurs. One might imagine what would have happened to the future of the essay if Rousseau had contemplated and feared negative public response to his love of self-pleasure and resisted exploring his emotions in such a way (i.e., if he doubted whether self love would be a "serious" topic).  Or what if Cervantes took the "novel" form of the novel so serious that he could not mock his own novel's origins and purpose, as Don Quixote does in its beginning pages? Would this medium be the same as it is today?

To break this sense of seriousness, academic bloggers would benefit by engaging with the potentials this medium offers writers and by allowing themselves the opportunity to experiment. In a professional environment like ours, where experimentation is typically admired elsewhere (poetry, fiction) and downplayed in our own practices (exams, dissertation writing, outcomes statements, academic publishing), finally academia has the opportunity to play with digital form, content, and genre in ways previously denied because of the difficulty of learning hypertext or setting up webspace on university servers.

Some of the most provocative and exciting weblogs are, in fact, those that experiment with content and form: Boing Boing's daily juxtapositions of Internet oddities and current events, Warren Ellis' s explorations of fetish, comic book culture, sci-fi, and related topics, Oliver Wang's Soul-Sides,  an archival replay of forgotten soul tracks (and which incorporates music into the blogging experience), dETROITfUNK's photographic exploration of Detroit's ruins, forgotten sites, and surprising charms, Wonderland's mixture of game related and consumer items, and Drawn's highly visual, daily updates of cartoon and graphic art developments are but a few blogs functioning in a fairly experimental manner. By experimentation, and not by seriousness, they explore how blogging may change or enhance their interests. That they are not academic is worth noting if only for the lack of seriousness they apply to their existence and their willingness to break conventions. We, in academia, might learn from them. We might learn how to simultaneously be serious about our work (i.e., to be invested) while not allowing that  seriousness (heaviness) to be overbearing.

My own blog, Yellow Dog, attempts to engage with the experimentation blogging affords as well as to produce a lighter sense of seriousness. In my writing, I mix personal narratives, imaginative encounters, academic work, critical commentary, humor, Photoshop imagery, multiple personalities, and other items in an effort to generate a space which is both professional and playful. I am serious about what I do; but I am not overpowered by seriousness. Yellow Dog is not a model, but one effort to think about a new medium while actively working with that medium. What Yellow Dog does not do, and what my overall point of this short piece is trying to convey, is resort to a sense of super-hyped seriousness; a stagnation that fails to move our ideas, work, and sense of experimentation anywhere. I can name other academics who have also chosen to place "seriousness" aside in favor of play and experimentation: Jenny Edbauer, Derek Mueller and Collin Brooke are but three. Serious bloggers might take heed of such writing and think about how their own sense of seriousness limits their interaction with the new medium of weblogging. As Roland Barthes famously noted, there is a pleasure of the text. To that we might add the pleasure of online activities in general, engagements which do not always have to be placed in the realm of super-seriousness.

Bio

Jeff Rice is assistant professor of English at Wayne State University, where he teaches courses in rhetoric, writing, and new media.

 

 

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