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Uncommon Sense

By Joseph M. Adelman · September 22, 2015

A Social Media Brouhaha: Talking about Blogging in Chicago

conferences 7 min read

Today we continue our series with a review of the roundtable on “The Maturing Blogosphere of Early America.”

You may have heard that there was some amount of controversy about social media during the OI-SEA meeting in Chicago this past June. But almost all of that happened after the roundtable session, so we’ll get to that in a minute.

At the start of the conference, we convened a roundtable to discuss the state of the blogosphere for early Americanists, including scholars at several stages of their careers and with a range of blogging experience: Ben Breen, a recent Texas PhD who runs The Appendix; Emily Conroy-Krutz of Michigan State; and Rebecca Goetz of NYU and Historianess.

The conversation in the session developed along two divergent but complementary lines. We started with a set of questions to invite the panelists to share their experiences in the blogosphere. Each of us, for example, explained how we’d gotten into blogging, from Goetz, who started as a graduate student in 2002 (before the “Ivan Tribble” essays in The Chronicle warned, incorrectly in hindsight, that blogging was a career-killer), to Emily Conroy-Krutz, who began blogging with an invitation to write for Teaching U.S. History. Several panelists discussed the challenges of writing for an online audience, which usually are mundane and relate to time management. For Rebecca, however, those challenges at one point included threats of violence for issues she raised on her blog (I strongly recommend you read her post, linked above).

The Q&A session then revealed an intriguing dichotomy among the audience. About half the crowd consisted of people who had engaged in the blogosphere themselves and had come to talk about their experiences and the perils and possibilities as they saw them. The other half were interested in something closer to a “how-to” session, people who were looking to become active online and sought some advice on how to go about doing it. (For the record, the panel description envisioned both audiences, but for some reason it still caught me off-guard to see such a stark if friendly division.)

The session was deeply invigorating for me and offered encouragement that social media engagement is here to stay. Blogging, in fact, seems to rapidly be heading towards the territory of being assumed. While people may not be ready to grant tenure based on a blog-as-research, most participants see a value in short- and medium-form essays published without prior peer review. Which is to say that none of those issues were raised as problematic.

Conversations online often move quickly, and as many of our readers know, the discussion about blogging was almost immediately swallowed whole by the Leviathan that was the Twitter debate. Given that the session was devoted to social media (if specifically focused on blogging), it seems appropriate to offer a few thoughts here. Over the weekend of the conference, participants debated vehemently the “Twittiquette” guidelines that OIEAHC had distributed in advance of the conference (I added my own thoughts on the topic here). I was party or witness to numerous conversations about whether participants thought that Twitter was a net good or not for the conference and for academia generally. By the end of the weekend, Director Karin Wulf had weighed in as well to clarify the Institute’s reasoning and to offer a note of support for the idea of tweeting.

Without casting aspersions, the conversation sounded much like the conversation about blogging in 2005 and 2006. I’m a partisan in the debate, which is probably obvious, but I personally doubt that Twitter will have a detrimental impact on scholarly debate. For me, it’s had quite the opposite effect in terms of engagement and even publishing opportunities. But the form of Twitter as a conference tool is relatively new. It does not yet have standardized practices, either from the grassroots (or “crowdsourced,” in the parlance) or, for the most part, from institutions. That some argue that the guidelines would have a chilling effect on online speech, and others that it would have a similarly deleterious impact on in-person speech indicates to me that we don’t yet understand one another, and not, as I said in June, that the Institute is doing something right by triangulating.

Blogging is clearly here to stay, if the audience and conversation in Chicago are any indication. I doubt that microblogging (of which Twitter is one manifestation) will disappear either, and I hope that we can come to a place where a large proportion of the profession agrees on its purpose and function within the province of scholarly communication. If I sound unclear about exactly how that will happen, well, that’s a pretty accurate reflection of where I am right now.

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