This post was created for and appears on the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland’s newsblog, Imagine.
“I [wish] to rid myself of a crippling academic prose and to develop an intelligible way of communicating modern social science to non-specialized publics.” – C.W. Mills in a 1944 application for a Guggenheim grant
Many have argued that academia has a crisis of relevance. What impact does our work have on the world at large? Who reads sociology journals? For better or worse, public knowledge is increasingly being pulled from a Google search that typically does not provide content created by academics. It is in light of the (supposed) dilemma about the future relevance of sociology in the world of Google-search-epistemology that I discuss some advantages and disadvantages of academic blogging.
Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales once quipped that if something is not on Google then it does not exist. Of course, this is partly a joke, but it also highlights the increasing relevance of being indexed (that is, being documented in searchable digital databases). Some insightful research on Facebook has shown that people put themselves online to exist [e.g., .pdf]. If the power of all these opportunities (or obligations?) to produce content online is to create one’s existence, then blogging allows one to create and maintain an intellectual existence within our database society. Because we know that social capital can be gained this way, there are important advantages to academic blogging. Blogging can be used to network, advertise, self-promote and to attach your name to various ideas. Use the Foucauldian union of power and knowledge to your advantage as the world increasingly focuses on one’s online social networks and digitized intellectual profile.
There is much else to be gained from blogging beyond this perhaps overly-strategic job-market view. The crisis of relevance might be eased as sociologists utilize the blogosphere to speak directly to non-academic audiences. Being able to speak to an informed citizen that has no interest in picking up a sociology journal is an important opportunity to enact change or simply stimulate a curious mind. In doing this, one can also create new connections with others with similar interests. However, given this new pulpit, be aware that negative comments are sure to follow. Bloggers have thick skin because they know that disagreements engender more page views (the currency of the online reputation economy).
The very act of writing the blogs can be useful. Blogs are relatively short. They should be interesting. Assume that the reader is skimming with their trigger-finger ready to click away from your post at the moment their increasingly short attention span wanes. By writing for this audience, the blogger is practicing to be more focused, conscience, witty or whatever strategy one employs to garner page views. This begs the point that all of this seems to preclude writing more in-depth, well thought out prose in favor of sensationalist McIdeas. The point is a good one. We might be concerned with a world of blogs only. However, as academics, blogging need only compliment our other work rather than preclude it. In fact, blogging may help in the very act of getting brand new ideas out there – the ones too fresh for the for-real-journal-article. Forcing oneself to put an argument together, however brief, lays the groundwork for the fleshed out ideas one can eventually publish. Last, blogging forces productivity. Bloggers know they need to produce because a dormant blog is of no use. This is helpful for those who have difficulty with self-motivation – but pesky for those who do not have room for this time consuming activity.
It seems that my take on academic blogging has been mostly positive (I didn’t even get into others stealing your yet-unpublished ideas). However, the ways in which blogging will be beneficial and detrimental to academics are still largely unknown. The world we are producing seems to grant ‘the digital’ increasing importance. How we position ourselves in this world of new media technologies is significant because, as sociologists, we know that Friedman is wrong: this world is not flat.
Nathan Jurgenson is a third year PhD student.