Dangers of Academic Blogging

A-list blogger and fellow Ph.D.  candidate danah boyd comments on the reaction to one of her blog entries.

I think some folks misinterpreted this piece as an academic article. No doubt this is based on my observations from the field, but this is by no means an academic article. I did add some methodological footnotes in the piece so that folks would at least know where the data was coming from. But I didn’t situate or theorize or contextualize this at all. It’s more like publicizing field observations. There’s much work to be done before this can be anything resembling an academic article. The “citation” note at the top of my pieces also confuses this. That was meant for when people picked it up and stole it whole from my page or when people got to it indirectly. I put that as a standard for my blog essays a while back because of this issue. I guess I see my blog as a space to work out half-formed ideas. I just didn’t expect 90K people to read it. Blog essays to me are thoughts in progress, blog entries that are too long to be blog entries. But I can see where there’s confusion.

apophenia: woah…. omg. reflections on mega-viewership

The same could be said about a lot of online texts. Taken out of context, they are often thought to be more serious than they were meant to be. Examples from The Onion abound as readers often send links to friends without pointing out that the site is parody. I quite like the fact that online humour may force people to adopt critical thinking.

But Boyd’s case is a bit different. The difference isn’t simply in terms of serious vs. non-serious (or between fully-researched and off-the-cuff). It’s between reflections by an academic and actual academic writing.

The issue here isn’t that people aren’t trained to distinguish academic writing from personal thoughts. Many people can and do distinguish the two. IMHO, the issue is that an academic will often sound academic even when writing from a personal perspective. Kind of an occupational hazard.

Then, there’s the combined issue of prestige, trust, and authoritative voice.  Very common in U.S. academia and U.S. media. Somewhat similar to what happens with public intellectuals elsewhere but with a political twist.

It will certainly be fascinating to see what comes out of this situation in Boyd’s academic life.


Author: enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast.

5 thoughts on “Dangers of Academic Blogging”

  1. AFAICT, the “A-List” is the hypothetical list of high-profile bloggers people keep talking about. Celebrity bloggers. Maybe that’s not exactly accurate but that’s what I understood the term to mean.
    About topics which stir up controversies. I do usually avoid them and I do get more comments on some subjects than others. What you say about anthros and intellos reminds me of Anthro-L and the recurring themes of “Race and IQ” or other such thing which impassions people but rarely generates the kind of thoughtful reaction I have been thanking you and other comment-writers about.
    As for being chatty… Well, I guess I’m talkative despite being an anthro. Probably comes from my French-speaking European background. Many people have said that everyone in my family is talkative. I often take this as a fault but, at this point, being talkative is such an important part of my life that I’ve learnt to accept it. After all, a teacher is allowed to be chatty and my student evaluations are pretty good overall.
    Let’s talk about this over coffee or tea, one day!
    Thanks again!

  2. I enjoy commenting on your blog 🙂 Thanks to you. BTW, I bet you don’t as much action because your blogs don’t address as much the chatty-types. You’re into education technology that probably attracts technology buffs who are not big talkers (take it from someone who’s married to one! I think in you case, the anthro angle is your saving grace as a chatty person ;p)

    Where as blogs about politics or anthropology as a whole act as magnets for chatty people (those intello. always looking for someone to debate with about something (moi ;p) So I bet if you analyze your blog posts, you will find that you get the most comments on blogs that address those subjects.

    I just made an ethnographical observation, but I don’t dare call it a blog essay ;p

    Ok gotta go back to bed (a call form the kids woke me)

  3. Yara, I can always trust you to provide me with thoughtful and thought-provoking comments!
    I would agree with you (as a student of Performance Theory) that framing this text as an “essay” was key in how extreme people’s reaction to it has been. Playing with genres is always risky. Oftentimes, the advantages in stylistic freedom make such risk-taking worthwhile. Yet, with sensitive subjects, it might be wise to limit oneself to preset templates, as frustrating as that might be.
    And you’re probably right that Boyd’s authoritative tone threw people off. Conditional forms and hedges can be very useful in such situations but U.S. communication ideology makes it hard to write in such a “hedgy” way, at least in cases for which the truth-value of diverse statements matters a whole deal.
    So, maybe Boyd should have played it safer. But she was also caught in the problems accompanying media exposure.

    To go on the confessional mode (which I use somewhat rarely), I probably am kind of jealous of the attention Boyd has been receiving with her blog in the past year or so. Well, to be more precise… I noticed her blog on multiple occasions and originally often felt that we had a fair bit in common. I then realized that she was an A-List blogger and, as such, probably “out of my league” for peer-to-peer chats between “blogging Ph.D. candidates.” I don’t really want more media attention than I’m getting (I actually do get a bit; less than you are, though). Still, I guess I was kind of jealous of her ability to stir things up. At least, I probably wished, even briefly, that I could do the kind of thing she does.
    But then… I eventually understood, about myself, that what I’m doing with blogs is almost exactly what I want to do. I don’t mind controversy so much but I really don’t seek it. I could probably handle a heated argument, once in a while, but I’m so glad that I can blog without getting trolls and flamewarriors.
    I still wish I had a few more comments than what I get. But I’m really grateful that every single comment I have had on blogs so far has been very useful.

    As is usual, I notice a number of things. Or, at least, I get impressions. Like the impression that being male is very consequential in the type of response I get. Or that people are ok with opinions when they’re stated as opinions and allow for feedback.
    Or even the simple idea that some subjects are just bound to cause strong reactions with some groups of people. (Yes: Duh!)
    Such is the case with anything related to “race” in the United States. Having taught cultural anthro in the U.S., I noticed that “race and ethnicity” was the one topic which generated heated arguments with even the most apathetic of audiences. The same thing could be said about religion in Quebec, patriotism in France, or family dynamics in Mali.

    BTW, on media delight over Boyd’s text. It’s quite interesting that, fairly quickly, that text was the object of a pitch for the Radio Open Source show: http://www.radioopensource.org/pitch-a-show-june-22-2007/#comment-76626 .
    Now that Boyd’s post has become something of a media event, I do hope Lydon and the rest of the ROS crew will invite her to talk about both her positions on race and on the ensuing hubbub.

    Yara, as always, thanks for all your help. I consistently learn a lot from you.

  4. Interesting turn of events. I’m always a bit hesitant when I post something on my blog precisely for this reason. So in my case, I try to keep myself in check by asking myself, is this stuff publishable? I tend to post and then edit out things that might be misconstrued. I guess I take it for granted that I will be judged as a phd student in anthropology and so I try to write as a phd student in anthropology. Unfortunately there’s no escaping that. I also keep in mind that I will be read as palestinian, as a woman and as a muslim. So I’ve become quite good at avoiding hidden “word-mines”.

    I think part of the problem here is that she labelled the text a “blog essay”, creating a “new” category of literature that had the smell of academic authority but not the checks and balances. It also creates expectations: this is not a post, this is an essay … and so automatically the text is put in a different category of criteria. I think if she had simply posted it without giving it that label, no one would’ve blamed her for throwing out fresh, provocative ideas. Ironically, by justifying her essay and giving metodological notes, she turned it into an academic text. On a simple blog post, you don’t have to justify much.

    Also the tone of the text was way too affirmative. Too many statements, not many questions. When throwing out new ideas that have not been proven but observed, the conditional should always me used …

    Now the fact that the media threw itself at it is entirely the media’s fault. It’s quite appaulling really. It goes to show how much junk we get by media people who jump at every little thing without any critical distance. And how media stories are dictated by underlying prejudices and the quest for sensationalism ( they read class conflict, immigration and internet and their dirty little noses went: YUM!) There you have it: the immigration issue, the class issue and youth culture all in one. For editors it must’ve felt like christmas. They would’ve probably loved a mention of the christian right somewhere in the text just to top it off.

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