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Imagine if the great thinkers of the past could have blogged, bouncing ideas off each other in real time, engaging in rapid-fire debates across borders. Would it have led to some kind of intellectual utopia, or total chaos? Would we be regaled with post after post from Adorno complaining about what he had for lunch that day?
Even if Blogger and Movable Type had existed back then, Adorno still might not have blogged about anything at all. Despite the ongoing media blitz about blogging, and the eye-popping stats—according to a recent report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 7 percent of the 120 million U.S. adults who use the Internet said they have created a blog or Web-based diary, and blog readership jumped by 58 percent in 2004—the majority of professors and academic types still don’t have blogs. Academic bloggers are increasing in number, but they’re still a distinct minority.
“It takes a certain kind of style, patience, and openness to non-specialists,” explains Jay Rosen, associate professor at NYU’s journalism department and author of the influential media blog PressThink. “You actually have to communicate with the public. It’s really for those who want to enter into public debate somehow, and despite all the blather you hear about ‘public intellectuals’ there are very few academics who want to do that.”
Say you’re already a public intellectual. Why start a blog? “I started blogging because I wanted to understand it,” says Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, who blogs at lessig.org. “I write about the intersection between technology and policy, and this is an important intersection to understand.”
Lessig found that blogging opened up his sphere of interaction considerably. “I’ve published a bunch of articles in law reviews, and I think I’ve gotten maybe a total of 10 letters about them in the history of my career as an academic,” he says. “I publish stuff on the blog, I get literally hundreds of e-mails about things all the time.” Lessig even went so far as to set up his 1999 book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace as a wiki, so that Internet users worldwide can update and add to the text. The raging “blawgosphere”—blogs by law school profs, students, and grads—is one of the most organized and lively pockets of online academic discourse. Meta-sites like blawg.org and lawprofessorblogs.com collate and monitor hundreds of law-related blogs.
Law blogs, media blogs, and politics blogs all seem like natural choices for a general audience of Net readers. And if you’re an academic who’s ever published a paper with the word cyberspace in it, you’re pretty much required to have a blog as a matter of course. But what about, say, the theoretical physics blogosphere? It’s a little less happening, but there are a few stars. Sean Carroll, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Chicago and co-author of papers with mind-warping titles like “Classical Stabilization of Homogeneous Extra Dimensions,” tries, admirably, to explain his arcane world in his blog, Preposterous Universe.
“It can serve a useful purpose in providing some expert commentary when something hits the news, like Hawking’s ideas about black holes last summer,” says Carroll. “And I like to think that it does provide a window into the wider concerns of an academic scientist when I talk about dinosaurs or theater or music. Writing it has made me more disciplined and careful about my ideas and how I express them; you can’t get away with things in front of a thousand readers that you might in casual conversation.”
Eszter Hargittai, an assistant professor at Northwestern and blogger at the group academic blog crookedtimber.org and her own esztersblog.com, chimes in, saying, “First, I take much more care in discussing something when it is going to be read by hundreds or thousands of people than I do when I’m making a comment to someone in passing in the hallway. Second, on blogs that attract considerable commenting, the feedback from readers can be valuable. Even if people disagree or misunderstand, the various reactions are a good reality check.”
For some in the academy, blogging offers an escape valve, a forum for free expression that’s not bound to the constraints of their fields. “Academic work on music is so bloodless most of the time,” says Jon Dale, who is finishing his Ph.D. dissertation on post-punk at the University of Adelaide in Australia and blogs at Worlds of Possibility). “There’s a writing style common to so much academia, especially musicology and cultural studies, that saps music of all its life force.” British cultural theorist Mark Fisher, author of the renegade cultural studies blog K-Punk, says, “The way I understood theory—primarily through popular culture—is generally detested in universities. Most dealings with the academy have been literally clinically depressing.” For him, K-Punk “seemed like the space—the only space—in which to maintain a kind of discourse that had started in the music press and the art schools, but which had all but died out, with appalling cultural and political consequences.”
Many academics are quick to establish a separation between their university work—which, after all, is what pays the bills—and their presence online. Wayne Marshall (wayneandwax.com), a lecturer at Brown, says that he blogs only in lowercase letters to drive home the distinction that his blog is separate from his academic work in ethnomusicology. And the professors who use blogs to blow off steam about the day-to-day drudgery of their jobs—grading papers, writing recommendations for ungrateful students, fighting for tenure—often choose to remain anonymous. So it’s difficult to tell who wrote the tantalizing rant that began: “Summers is an idiot.”
Blogs constitute a burgeoning field of study too; there are academic conferences on blogging, along with grad students writing papers and even dissertations on the subject—like Cameron Marlow, founder of blog-monitoring service blogdex.net, who is at the M.I.T. Media Lab, where he is finishing his doctorate on blogging, and danah boyd of UC Berkeley (zephoria.org), who is studying the hows and whys of online social networks.
For some, blogging fills a gap. “I have always tried to write in a public language for a general readership,” says NYU’s Rosen, “and I had been fascinated by the writing on the Web as far back as ’95 and ’96. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but what I really wanted was a weblog.”
Josh Kortbein, a philosophy Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, started his blog) Internet light-years ago—in 1999. To paraphrase Brian Eno on the Velvet Underground, not everyone read Josh’s blog, but everyone who did started one. “I write my blog because I wish that things were different, and I’m thinking about how to make them that way.”