February 15, 2005

What's "real life" anyway?

In Timothy Burke's long, interesting post on why he blogs (read it, then come back), he writes:

After listening, one of my colleagues asked a question thatís fairly typical and yet it really made me think once again about some perennial questions. She wondered if any of this blogging stuff leads to real, human connections. (emph. added)

What are "real, human connections"? What the question implies is that the connections we make via text and at a distance are somehow less real than in-person conversation. That's a mighty strange contention for an academic to make. (Not to mention an academic historian, but we'll get to that latterly).

Think about it. Many academics spend much of their professional time engaged in conversations with people they have never met. We read things, we react to them, we do some research, we write something of our own in response. Is the other person actually there in person? Most of the time, no.

Of course, the professional meeting or conference, is intended to make up for this normal lack of face-to-face dialog. But professional meetings occupy [for most people] a few days in the year. The rest of the time we are surrounded by our immediate colleagues, who may be working on quite different things.

I should note that this is more often the case in history departments, where people specialize in a time and a place. Compared to the hard sciences and social sciences, historians largely lack a common language to talk about things. There's little methodological or theoretical core that holds history together in the way that method holds economics together as a discipline. For sure, there's the core in history that favors research in primary sources. But when I'm researching American history I'm not looking at the same sources as people in African history. Our conversations about the archives are incredibly procedural -- were the archivists nice? was the collection well-organized?

Or, take graduate students working on a tiny chunk of a problem for their thesis or dissertation. Most of the time, the people whose work they are directly engaging are elsewhere. Indeed, one model of a dissertation is to attack the famous author. It's a lot easier to do that in print, when you haven't actually met the author.

I will note, parenthetically, that these issues of intellectual semi-isolation are less prevalent in modern American academia. People in somewhat remote places have more conversations with themselves while reading. The qualification "modern" on America reminds us that cheap, quick transportation across the continent to meet the people in our field is a comparatively recent thing.

Other conversations that we have in academia are, in a sense, with dead people. In history (of course) and certainly in the humanities and social sciences, engaging with what past thinkers put forth is a significant part of the enterprise. Much as we'd love to meet Max Weber, he isn't going to come and tell us what he actually meant in Economy & Society.

Where are we? My point is that academia has always been characterized by people interacting via letter, book, and professional journal. It's hardly unreal, non-human interaction. Blogging is just a new way of doing what we've always done -- distributing ideas we've written down.

How does blogging fit into this? As we potter away on our semi-isolated intellectual pursuits we find the need to make contact with people working on closely related topics. This was a demand that always existed. In the past, it was satisfied by scholar X typing up her manuscript and sending it to scholar Y, who may reply in a couple of weeks.

Email sped all that up, and is great for one-to-one correspondence. You will all likely have experienced the phenomenon of the mass communication by email, where people don't reply to all, and the conversation gets disjointed. Mailing lists are, of course, an efficient way of dealing with some of these problems. But for mass distribution of ideas-in-progress the mailing list is less than ideal. If everyone posted 1000 word posts to mailing lists it would be hard to sort through the mail in the morning. (It already is, somedays ...)

So, blogging is really just the efficient solution to a demand that has always existed -- broadcasting your thoughts to the widest possible audience, being able to receive feedback, while also not overwhelming the audience. The RSS feed makes this really quite manageable for the audience.

Not all the connections we make in this way will lead to in-person meetings. But that's how it has always been! Back in the day when people communicated by letter they didn't always meet up. If the relationship got to the point where it was necessary then they did. As I note above, our ability to transform these textual interactions into face-to-face ones is heavily influenced by the price and availability of transportation.

The emergence of distant interactions, mediated by text, and propelled in other ways by the train, the steamship, the plane and the telephone cable, is hardly something new and intrinsic to blogging. Our ability to learn what people elsewhere were thinking took a great leap forward with the printing press, way back in the 1400s. It speeded up as printing got cheaper, and as steamships got quicker, and cables spanned the Atlantic and then the Pacific.

Widespread urbanization at the turn of the twentieth century also broke the norm of people's relationships largely being local, long-standing and encompassing. In the city, people were more easily able to seek out others interested in the same activities, and form clubs and associations based on common interests. Blogs are an extension of this as well, the urge to associate with people who you share an interest or hobby or cause. The internet helps extends this process beyond the city, though it certainly didn't start it.

In closing, I think that asking why people blog is letting the new word obscure the answer. People have always sought out others of similar interests for conversation across time and space, and this software merely gives them a way to have conversations they always wanted to have.

Posted by robe0419 at February 15, 2005 04:34 PM | TrackBack

I think you're on to something really important here that I've thought about a lot in the context of my own dissertation. The key thing that seems to distinguish blogging and electronic communication from communication through print, telegraph, or steamship is speed.

It's funny that this increased speed can impress people in such diametrically opposite ways: some globalization theorists exult that speedier communication (the shortening of "time-space distanciation," to use Anthony Giddens' jargon) will lead to more human connection globally, while others view this speed as the obliteration of human connection.

To your point that people have always wanted to communicate through text, I would add that there have always been people who worried about such communication as a substitute for "real" interaction. Even letter writers in the early nineteenth century waxed long and poetical about how much they deplored the separation of their bodies, and evincing some doubtfulness about whether they could be united in mind in spite of this distance. There have always been some who say distance makes the heart grow fonder, and others who say that's a load of crap.

Posted by: Caleb at February 16, 2005 06:49 AM

You've made some important points here about academics' uses of blogging. Do you think partly it's a familiarity thing--that part of the confusion/fear/misunderstanding is due to this form of mass communication being relatively new?

Another thing I think is involved in the reservations people express about blogging is the issue of "authenticity." I do agree this is an issue with evaluating blogs, blog posts, and bloggers. (For example, there are still many people who choose to not identify themselves with their real names, locations and affiliations when blogging.) Do we know who we're reading/talking to? But then again, to what extent do we "know" the grad student/prof/staff we pass everyday in the halls...

Posted by: Yvette at February 16, 2005 02:48 PM
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