Blogging, Extinction, and Sustainability

CoinsThe micropayment site Flattr is trying to get November 29 to catch on as “Pay a Blogger Day,” both as a marketing campaign* and an effort to recognize all the free content that people contribute daily to the web. I learned about it from Ernesto Priego’s fine post at HASTAC, “I Smell Smoke”: Blogging as an Endangered Species,” which argues that the ongoing difficulty of finding a place for blogging in the academic rewards system ought to serve as a reality check for more enthusiastic proponents of online scholarship.

Priego’s primary concern is that academics will, necessarily, do what’s best for their chances of being hired, renewed, promoted, and tenured, and so may very well see their online projects as easily abandoned:

A very important negative consequence of this lack of recognition of blogging as a primary research/teaching output is that academic bloggers feel they cannot and moreover should not dedicate time to an activity which is in fact very time-consuming, which requires considerable expertise and that nonetheless is not recognised by those who count (funding institutions, academic committees) as academic work. These leads to academics and other specialists to start blogs (often as students) only to find themselves no longer able to maintain them properly. Often these blogs are hosted with their own domains and simply vanish off the face of the web because the fees were not paid for another year (hosting content on the web does cost money). 

Anyone who’s been around the internet for a while knows the truth of this. People who have been around academic blogging since the early days will nod their head grimly when I say that it is incredibly depressing to see the Invisible Adjunct’s url turned into an e-commerce linkbait site. (That is, some e-commerce outfit snapped up the domain after it wasn’t renewed. The internet should just retire some URLs, like jersey numbers in sports.)

And this really is a longstanding problem: Six years ago**, John Holbo posted “Will Work for Whuffie,” an attempt to think about the ways that the reputation economies of academe and what people used to call the blogosphere might be mediated. The existence of sites like HASTAC, or initiatives at the Chronicle (Blog Network) or (Blog U), mitigates *some* of these concerns, but only a little. And it’s not just a problem with the amorphous category of “blogging,” either: Bethany Nowviskie and Dot Porter’s “The Graceful Degradation Survey: Managing Digital Humanities Projects Through Times of Transition and Decline” showcases the problems facing online projects of all types.

I wonder what happens, though, if we think about the tenuous sustainability of blogs as a potential strength, rather than only a problem. What I mean by this is that, in truth, I would guess that most academic projects, either in teaching or research, are abandoned prematurely, usually without any indication at all, or continue indefinitely without any prospect of publication. Right? Most things fail.

This can take forms other than George Eliot’s vampiric Edward Casaubon. Consider, for example, the situation of an assistant professor who spends a couple of years devoted to an article on some topic, only to find that the realities of promotion mean that it’s better to quickly adapt a couple of conference papers for publication rather than risk having nothing in print. And while the avalanche of scholarship sometimes makes it hard to believe, I still think it’s the case that most faculty members don’t publish all that often. I don’t think this is always because they’re doing other things–sometimes the research just grinds slowly, sometimes there’s a problem in conceptualizing the project in a publishable form, and so forth. In the past, all that effort would’ve been invisible to peers.

When folks blog about their research or their teaching, though, they can make that work visible, even if it’s work they either can’t or don’t intend to sustain forever. To at least some extent, then, even abandoned blogs are sometimes a perverse illustration of the platform’s strengths.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that academic blogging and other forms of online scholarship shouldn’t be supported in a more formal way, nor does it excuse those of us involved in these worlds from “doing the risky thing” and using our influence on campus to advocate for new kinds of scholarship. It’s just a reminder of the extent to which these new forms have already changed the terrain of higher education, even if there is still an awful lot of work to be done.

* Instead, I want to propose today as “Buy a single from Craig Finn’s solo project day.” Or, if you like, “buy an academic blogger’s book day.” (I even have a suggestion . . . .)

** Unrelated thought: I am old.

Photo “Coins” by Flickr user Mary-Lynn / Creative Commons licensed

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