Blogging is not new
We often talk about blogging within higher education (and other research sectors) as if it’s relatively new, leaving us with the challenge of explaining and making a case for it to colleagues who might be sceptical and unfamiliar. This is a curious state of affairs given that blogs have been around for close to thirty years, even if the platforms like WordPress and Blogspot which popularised the genre are somewhat more recent. Even though research blogs are widespread, with some enormous success stories, there’s still a residual sense of novelty which surrounds them.
The same is true of social media, in spite of the fact these platforms are an unremarkable part of working life for an increasingly substantial cohort of researchers. The tendency is to present these developments as something new and worthwhile, advocating for their scholarly virtues in the face of scepticism and disinterest. It’s framed as a matter of persuasion, leaving it to each individual to make up their mind about whether to embrace new forms of research communication. This makes the transition towards what’s sometimes called digital scholarship an inevitably slow and gradual process, in which scholarly culture shifts a little more with each passing year through the slow accretion of individual decisions.
We are all digital researchers now
At least that was the case until the pandemic. With the imposition of lockdown and the closure of university campuses and other workplaces, we all became digital researchers overnight, in the sense of depending on digital communications for every facet of our working lives. For many people this will be primarily a matter of platforms like Zoom and Teams rather than blogging and social media but we nonetheless find ourselves confronted with a comprehensively digitalised research environmentmuch earlier than anyone could have predicted.
Even on the most optimistic scenarios, we’ll mostly be working this way for the next academic year, with physical contact minimised and staggered. We will plausibly see significant shifts in provision and practices surrounding campuses and offices, even if we return to something approximating normality by the end of 2021. In more pessimistic scenarios, where a potential vaccine either goes unrealised or carries only temporary immunity, this could be the substance of our working lives for the indefinite future.
What are the alternatives to travel?
There are many problems created by this which are beyond the scope of this blog. My suggestion is simply that we think about blogging and social media in light of our current predicament. If we all agree that conferences, workshops and seminars cannot take place in person for the foreseeable future, it presents us with an opportunity to think creatively about the purposes which these events serve for us and how we develop alternatives which are robust and enjoyable.
Furthermore, the rapidly growing awareness of the carbon footprint of academic and other travel for research means that there was likely to be a partial turn away from the reliance on physical co-presence over time, even if the pandemic has rapidly accelerated this by making travel newly arduous to supplement the risks which would await us at our destination.
Blogging to support ‘intellectual communities’
For these reasons I suggest we need to shift away from a focus on persuading research organisations about the virtues of blogging. Instead we need to have serious conversations about intellectual community, the purposes it serves and how blogging can help us pursue them under these difficult conditions.
We need to open up the category of ‘blog’ or perhaps even dispense with it in order to focus on the different functions which a similar technology can serve: providing a notice board for a discipline, operating as a clearing house within a field, consolidating a research network, driving forward specialised agendas or helping findings and insights reach non-academic audiences.
These are all very different undertakings which nonetheless use the same platforms for their work. My concern is that the latter category of high profile blogs which bring scholarly ideas to wider non-research audiences too often dominates our imagination of what research blogs are for, squeezing out the less public but no less valuable functions which blogs can serve. We need to recognise this diversity, if we want to assess whether blogs are worthwhile because there are so many purposes they can serve, as well as so many practical questions which they present us with under our present circumstances.
We need to think about how the asynchronous technology of blogging can be integrated with synchronous online meetings in order to archive recorded talks, deepen the discussions and broaden the community. We need to recognise how inequality and power work in specific ways online, finding ways to provide a platform for voices which otherwise might not get a fair hearing while also preventing the gendered, raced and classed harassment pervasive on social media from being a feature of our blogging spaces.
Blogging to help us work and think with each other
Under these conditions, we should be talking about research blogging as a means rather than an end. When other forms of intellectual conviviality are disrupted by the pandemic, blogs and their editors have a crucial role to play in ensuring our communities can continue to thrive at a distance. It’s no longer a matter of persuading research organisations to embrace the novelty of blogging but rather helping them see that it’s a means to have the conversations, build the connections and share the ideas which become so much more difficult to sustain in a socially distanced world.
This would mean we don’t see blogs as a distinct field of activity, with their own standards and norms, but rather part of the social infrastructure of research. They enable researchers to participate in collective projects, helping us work and think with each other, even when it’s not feasible for us to meet in person for the foreseeable future.
Mark Carrigan is a sociologist in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. His research explores how we practically reason about digital platforms, with a particular focus on education systems and knowledge production. He is the author of Social Media for Academics
, the second edition of which was published in October 2019.
A version of this article first appeared on Mark Carrigan’s personal blog page
on 25th August, 2020.