Via various sources (Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Cliopatria) I see that the pseudonymous Ivan Tribble is back, saying he was just trying to be helpful by warning people away from blogging.
I don't have the time or the inclination today to write much more on the matter, but will just beat this idea again: don't make blogs appear much more exotic than they really are.
All they are is a form of written communication -- the standard conventions about good social behavior carry over from spoken conversation and other modes of writing. Think about what you are going to say, who might read it, and what the consequences of those words might be.
Two meta-blogging posts in a week! It must be the summer silly season.
One of the easily distributed pieces of wisdom in last week's discussions of the Ivan Tribble article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the more titillating story of how a New York journalist fired her nanny after reading her blog (well discussed on bitchphd) was this: blog pseudonymously, or blog anonymously.
Now, I could well have chosen to blog anonymously by using blogspot or typepad, or whatever, but I had few qualms about putting my name, face and opinions out in public. I also like to kid myself that other aspects of my CV will outweigh any hiring committee member who objects to my opinions about tipping, American football, and sweaty Mormons.
The most basic and unoriginal point is that pseudonymous and anonymous are not the same thing. Most all blogs that are anonymous are pseudonymous when referring to people and places, but remaining anonymous takes real skill.
Indeed might it be better to blog under your own name and think carefully about what you put out there—don't complain about colleagues or friends, don't express shrill political opinions, etc... —than to blog pseudonymously, say things that might well offend people, and be found out.
Many pseudonymous bloggers mention enough real details about their life that they very quickly reduce the set of people that anyone determined to unmask them has to examine. For example, when people give pretty fine detail about their job, even in the United States, you quickly narrow the field of possible blog writers down to a small number. Combine that with information about where someone is living and we really are talking about pretty small numbers.
Do pseudonymous bloggers take great care to anonymize any email with people who leave comments on their blog? I ask, because this, in part, was how some determined people worked out who Atrios was. They received some email that came from the library servers at the main line colleges in Philadelphia, put that together with Atrios' informed comment about economics, and began to suspect it was an adjunct professor of economics. And so he was.
Do pseudonymous bloggers who wish to remain anonymous keep their blogs free of photos? Put some photos in there, especially if it's of your haircut, or your hometown, and you're well on the way to providing someone with more evidence of who you might be.
I say this not to criticize pseudonymous bloggers for these posts about their jobs, and the photos of their haircuts, which I have enjoyed reading. The question really is, does putting something on the internet pseudonymously entitle you to anonymity? Is anonymity what people with pseudonyms actually want?
If I wanted to find out who profgrrrl was, could I? Perhaps, with some effort, and focussed googling. For the record, I'm not about to try. Could I find out who BitchPhD was? With a lot more difficulty. Not going to try that one either. Would it be weird? Yes. Would it be unethical? Hmmmm ... And there's the rub.
If you publish something on the internet, are you entitled to remain anonymous? I think back to the pseudonymous pamphleteers of the American revolution, who actually risked real physical violence for their views, and think that remaining anonymous is justified. There are also, of course, contemporary pseudonymous bloggers in such places as Iraq, China, and Zimbabwe who risk real violence for their expression too. I speak not of these blogs, but the pseudonymous blogs that have proliferated in politically free countries. The cost of being unmasked for most is embarrassment or job dismissal.
But there's also the established tradition of the pseudonym as parlour game, where the readership is encouraged to take some initiative and find out who wrote that. Who knows how your audience is going to react to your cloaking?
There's also the question, if you're truly, truly uncomfortable with being found out, why put your thoughts in an established, consistent place with a known—if alternate & pseudonymous—personality?
Some of the pseudonymous bloggers I read have argued that the linking between and commenting on pseudonymous blogs allows the creation of a supportive community. I have some sympathy for this view. One of the great things about the internet is how it allows people from diverse locations to come together around shared interests, and to choose the level of disclosure involved. I am less sure whether blogs, even pseudonymous ones, are the appropriate venue for those discussions.
Many message boards are anonymous, and provide much of the same support and community, without the investment in an identity and personality that a blog requires.
Obviously, it's for everyone to set their own boundaries for themselves about what is and isn't public. But I do think that the right to anonymity on a blog are less than on an anonymous message board, and certainly less than in a privately kept diary. Having kept a diary for two decades now (that clause made me realise how old I am), I'm all for the self-awareness [and self-delusion] that comes through writing. But I do think that much of that should
stay hidden from public view.
I used to include a regular amount of political and cultural musings in my diary—possibly a sign I wasn't getting out enough—but have largely transferred those to the blog now. Public place. Public comments. In my view.
When I started this entry, my idea that pseudonymous blogs were not as anonymous as all that was just an idea. This morning I was searching for reviews of a hotel that I'm planning to stay at on a trip later this year, and came across a blog entry from someone who had stayed there. The anecdotes she related sounded eerily familiar to those a friend—who I knew had stayed there—had told me. So I clicked through to the front page, and saw that, sure enough, this was the blog of a friend-of-a-friend (who I've never met, but have heard of).
In this blog, people's names had been replaced by a series of consistent pseudonyms. But the names of cities and activities and events were there. Just a couple of mentions from my friend about this other friend, were enough to make me think "this has to be X, my friend Y's friend." And so it was. And I've only heard about "X" twice.
In this instance nothing too bad will come of my idle "research" and stumbling upon the blog entry. But if it's easy enough for me to guess this person's identity when I've never met them, when they use pseudonyms for all people, I think it would be very easy for others who know the person to guess that too.
The use of proper names for places and activities was helpful, to be sure, but I note that some pseudonymous bloggers who are seemingly careful not to reveal the name of their hometown do not provide pseudonyms for places they travel too. Others do.
People who know you closely enough in real life might well be able to identify you even if you used pseudonyms for nearly everything you did. If you tell the truth about the relationship between people and events, that can easily be enough for people to work out who you are.
In the end this is a continuing debate, and I have no pithy answer to the questions I've littered along the path. But I would say this: most all of us know how to be polite, how to think about how others might hear us, it's something we've been learning since we were really young; not a lot of us know how to make writing pseudonymous enough to be anonymous, it's not really taught so much in school or at home.
Please stop a moment and look around. The kettle switches off automatically when it is done. Please save your coffee grounds and tea bags for the compost.
The topic du jour on some academic blogs is a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article by "Ivan Tribble" (Who decides on Chronicle pseudonyms? They always sound so unreal, as if they generate the first and last names randomly and separately without regard for their euphony when paired) that argues blogging is a net negative for people on the job market.
Tribble's article has been thoroughly deconstructed in the links above, so there may not be much new to say.
I do like the irony of a pseudonymous piece in the Chronicle asking "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."
The same goes double for many of the Chronicle's pseudonymous complainers. I'm unashamed to say that the pseudonymous articles in the Chronicle have many of the same demerits as blogs, because I have the inkling of a view that they are all written by the same person.
Perhaps the Chronicle just has a very firm copy editor for the pseudonymous contributions to the "First Person," but a lot of them read with the same tropes and tone. It's like the questions advice columnists get -- they just sound a little too similar to be genuine.
Many of the articles in the Chronicle's First Person section are written as a tragedy. There is no room for romance, comedy, and certainly not satire. Not intentional satire or comedy, that is.
The common theme of a Chronicle First Person tragedy, like Ivan Tribble's piece is the dashed expectation. About one third of the way through these pieces the writer details the moment of their realization that s/he was suffering from an illusion, an idealization of the world. That illusion was cruelly shattered by the way the academic job market works. The point of their pieces is to save others from such cruel realizations, by letting them in on a secret.
The revealed secret is another common element in these Chronicle pieces. They convey a tone of "I have seen inside the guild, and I can tell you just this much. You can't even imagine what else I know now."
This is, to say the least, a little problematic. Since these Chronicle pieces are pseudonymous the author's authority rests entirely on the logic of their argument and evidence. To be fair, the Chronicle authors seem to be constrained to about 1500 words. Still, they often move a little too rapidly from "I was a naive, idealistic young thing," to "I can dispense pithy wisdom on this topic." It really does strain the reader's credulity.
It doesn't help that this amazing transformation from naïveté to sage adviser to the world often occurs in the course of a single job search (whether as candidate or committee). Of course, once you're tenured you can probably safely publish in the Chronicle under your own name and damn most of the consequences.
Nor does it help the pseudonymous authors that their pieces are largely anecdotal. A sense of the scale of the problem they faced, and whether their experience was representative, often goes missing in the Chronicle.
These elements are all present in "Ivan Tribble's" essay on the applicant bloggers.
Initial naïveté about the subject? Yes. Tribble and his colleagues were clearly unaware of the diversity of blogs and the purposes to which they were put.
Tragedy and dashed expectations? Yes, in spades. See, here it is, the high initial expectations: "Don't get me wrong: Our initial thoughts about blogs were, if anything, positive." followed a couple of paragraphs later by "Several members of our search committee found the sheer volume of blog entries daunting enough to quit after reading a few. Others persisted into what turned out, in some cases, to be the dank, dark depths of the blogger's tormented soul."
Letting readers in on the secret the author has just learned? Yes. "You may think your blog is a harmless outlet," Tribble writes. (emphasis added)
A missing sense of scale and representativeness? Yes. How convenient for Tribble that the shortlist contained both Professor Shrill and Professor Bagged Cat, whose blogs were opinionated and emotional. How convenient, too, that Professor Turbo Geek's blog illustrates that job candidates might have significant outside interests.
Blogging is young and it's entirely possible that a genuine job search might turn up only bloggers who write about other interests, personal observations, and personal torments. But there are so many examples of non-anonymous blogs by graduate students and un-tenured faculty that are used for serious writing about research, that you have to wonder how deeply Tribble and colleagues delved into the range and realm of academic blogs.
I've said before that the new word, "blog," obscures the continuity with other forms of communication. Tribble's cautionary tale to bloggers is really not about blogging, it's about Google.
Blogging software does allow people to easily post things to the world, and, sure, the ease of that process may let some people put out half-formed opinions and rants. But to call these "unfiltered" as Tribble does is misleading exaggeration. Inadequately filtered, sure. But not unfiltered. A blog is always a partial, selective, and constructed online persona.
As "Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast" says, there's an easy solution for that problem. Think before you post. Imagine whether you'd say that at a party with people you'd never met. Or, imagine saying what you're writing in the apparently more casual atmosphere of a dinner or coffee with a job search committee, where many a candidate has slipped up.
But, really, it's Google, not blogging that is the issue here. This blog ranges from topic to topic, a mixture over time of serious academic musings and drafts of arguments, commentary on contemporary politics, observations on cultural differences, and running.
Even without the blog, anyone with a search engine would have been able to find that I had put drafts of work on the internet, that I had authored several little essays interpreting New Zealand and the United States to each other, that I had been involved in New Zealand's republican movement, and that my other passion was long distance running. I also occasionally wrote letters to the editor on current politics, though these predate any New Zealand newspaper's move onto the internet.
I suspect that I'm not alone in having a somewhat copious internet oeuvre without really trying. People that go onto graduate school and then apply for academic jobs have a large overlap with the kind of people who are interested in contemporary events and affairs, sign online petitions, get involved in politics and community organizations, write for the student newspaper, and have a hobby or sport on the side.
Anyone interested in googling job candidates can find out all about their candidates other interests, even if the candidate does not have a blog. Indeed, I wonder if having a blog might in time be an advantage, precisely because it focuses your internet presence. That intemperate 1998 column in the "Small College Small Campus Paper" that Clinton should share a cell with Ken Starr, and Hillary should be appointed President? Lost on page 17 of the Google search results. Your more recent musings on how the draft of your dissertation might look? An intelligent observation about the next Presidential election? Easy to find on your blog. Which would you rather they read?
To me it seems that the gist of Tribble's article is that the search committee was shocked (shocked) to learn that their candidates had outside interests and emotions that might prevent candidates from spending 14 hours a day on research or teaching.
There's nothing new about this attitude on academic search committees -- it has after all been reported in many First Person columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
A friend of mine--blogless--writes and publishes poetry as a hobby. You might think that in the humanities this kind of other interest would be seen as a useful complement to scholarship, making them a truly cultured person. Not so much. Some faculty have advised my friend that the poetry might be seen negatively by a search committee. After all, if they can find the time to write poetry and a dissertation, they can't have been serious about their studies. What if this scholar-poet were offered a faculty job, and then decided that really they wanted to be a poet instead of a professor?
A concern about blogging is just the re-expression of age-old concerns that job candidates might not be slaves to the academic galley, and might have personality "quirks" that don't quite fit into the department as it currently exists.
Daniel Drezner advises graduate students to "think very, very, very carefully about the costs and benefits of blogging under one's own name (emphasis original)." I'm not sure that I thought very, very, very carefully about blogging under my own name; perhaps very carefully. It was a while ago that I started this.
It will also be quite a while (four years, at least) before I'm on the academic job market. I think it's likely that in that time the multi-purpose, multi-topic academic blog will be better understood by search committees. And if they still have anxieties about blogs, they'll probably still have anxieties about other indications of outside interests and well-formed personalities.
This idea--how to turn an Altoids tin into a beautifully-decorated little gift box with some clay and a pasta machine--is not time or effort saving.
Here's my lifehacker tip! Get to the drug store or Target and buy a gift box. $5 at most ...
Caleb McDaniel (who blogs at Mode For Caleb -- worth reading) says in comments :
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.
I noted yesterday in my little paean to technological solutions to age-old communciation needs in academia that the technology sped things up ... not today ... when the email server goes down, and your to-do list contains 14 little items that nearly all involve replying to email, or consulting some details sent to you by e-mail ... things slow way down.
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 that’s 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.
a very useful blog I just discovered the other day is Lifehacker. They have genuinely useful recommendations for software etc. that might improve your life.
Just today, for example, I found out that the old-school Mac OS X terminal can be replaced by iTerm. If you use the command line more than a couple of times a week, it's worth checking out.
The Lifehacker site [and RSS feed] is also very quick to skim. Either the stuff interests you, or it doesn't. Little time wasted following links to useless crap ...
I was going to (may still) get together a longer, possibly somewhat self-indulgent post, about blogging, and the internet and what I see its benefits, costs and effects for our lives as ... and then I read Tim Burke's post which says a lot of what I was thinking. But not everything. I rarely play any computer games, let alone online ones. And I've only looked at Justin Hall's links.net once.
My own thoughts might come in February. Until then, the semi-real writing of grant and fellowship applications ...
According to a comment,"Beaucoup d'historiens bloguent aux USA, un peu moins en Angleterre et... presqu'aucun en France... except me ;-)"
My very shaky knowledge of French translates this to mean that many historians blog in the U.S., a little less in England, and no-one in France except this fine site.
I used to subscribe to an e-mail version of the History News Networks commentary back in 2000/1, only to unsubscribe when I found I wasn't reading most of them owing to the pressures of time and coursework. (Blog reading and writing is for the dissertation writing stage of this endeavour)
Now thanks to the wonders of RSS feeds I can see what's up at Cliopatria, and other HNN blogs.
News that Gary Becker and Richard Posner will start their own blog comes via Crooked Timber, via Eugene Volokh.
As a comment puts it, "Well if Becker’s doing it, [blogging] must be rational."
Well, maybe ... Becker's opportunity costs must be a little higher than mine since I'm sure he commands quite the speaking fee. On the other hand, if Becker at age 74 feels blogging will be worth the investment of his time, it must surely be rational to spend the time on it at 29, right?
But what I really want to get to is the bigger question: why don't historians blog [much]?.
Check out the blog roll at Crooked Timber, which must be a good sample of blogs by academics. And you get lots of lawyers, political scientists, philosophers, and economists ... Not many historians.
To be sure Juan Cole is pretty prominent these days, which just goes to show that you can labor away in relative obscurity on a topic for decades, and then they declare war on the country you study. As an historian of America I hope that never happens to me!
The rest of the historians blogrolled at Crooked Timber contain a strange preponderance of medievalists. This is somewhat unfortunate as I was going to argue that the reason historians don't blog [much] is that history is a discipline that venerates knowledge of specific facts, rather than reasoning from theory that allows you to comment on subjects you don't know much about.
And medievalists, studying things far removed from today's world, seem to be the par exemplar of history's concern with the particular and far-removed. In any case, this seems to be the exception proving [testing] the rule. Few of the medievalist bloggers use their training to comment on current events.
It's a pity -- we could have used some medievalist document analyst types during that whole Dan Rather/CBS/National Guard messiness.
One of the foremost bloggers out there, Josh Marshall trained as an historian, but his knowledge of 17th century Connecticut politics is not on display often. More's the pity -- thePequot war probably has valuable lessons for the crazy capers in Iraq.