When I first began this blog, I began to collect articles on blogging in the academic world with the idea of putting together, at some point a short article for some popular venue on blogging the ancient world. I have a first draft of my thoughts on blogging ready now and I will serialize it here over the next few days.
Part 1 is a short history of blogging and academic blogging in particular.
Part 2 is a more focused examination blogs on archaeology.
Part 3 is a first attempt at an archaeology of blogging.
You are, as always, invited to leave comments and make suggestions!
Blogging Archaeology or the Archaeology of Blogging:
Metablogging the Ancient World
When I decided that our archaeological project in Cyprus needed a blog, I am not sure that I had ever read weblog on a regular basis. Like most Americans, I was familiar with the idea of a weblog and had a rather an idea of how they actually function. Moreover, I had heard the famous success stories about how intrepid bloggers had laid low the mighty taking on the likes of Trent Lott and 60 Minutes, and creating the “buzz” that propelled candidates like Howard Dean to the national spotlight. While I was pretty sure that my blog wouldn’t challenge the powerful or change the landscape of American politics, the stories about the success of blogs suggested that the medium had potential for reaching a large audience of people who might be interested in a small, but energetic archaeological project on the south coast of Cyprus.
As an academic who studies the past for a living, I find it difficult to begin any project without a theoretic, historical, and practical foundation. This meant that I had to understand what a weblog was in the abstract, how they came to be, and how they functioned. As I did this, the real potential of the medium became apparent. Weblogs could bridge the gap between working archeologists and the interested public. In this way, weblogs are part of a larger movement by archaeologists toward engaging the New Media and recognizing its potential for changing how archaeologists talk to one another, scholars in allied fields (like Classics, history, art history, and anthropology), and, perhaps most importantly, the general public. The opportunity to engage the general public might be all the more important as sudden re-emergence of untrained archaeological enthusiasts, bent on discovering everything from Atlantis to Noah’s Arc, has absorbed public money and attention at the expense of rigorous, systematic archaeological research (see Eric Cline’s recent discussion in the Boston Globe and reprinted here). Engaging our colleagues and the public in new ways will not spell the end of venerable print venues like American Journal or Archaeology, Hesperia, or the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology, but the parallel emergence of a more dynamic and flexible electronic media could improve access to serious and rigorous archaeological information and discussions. The risk involved in engaging such New Media opportunities like the weblogs is minimal. They are easy to update and maintain, increasingly capable of accommodate a wide range of media from photographs, to line drawings, to video and audio clips, and, most importantly, cheap!.
The Weblog. History and Taxonomy.
Like many aspects of the New Media movement, weblog or blog defies easy definition. Some scholars, particularly New Media and literary critics like danah boyd (whose long running weblog is called apophenia) have suggested argued that a weblog is, in fact, a technology or a medium of communications that is so highly malleable that it is distinctly capable of supporting a wide range of communicative strategies (Reconstruction 6 (2006)) . Other scholar bloggers, like Jill Walker Rettberg at the well-known blog Jill/txt, see in weblogs sufficient structural regularity to enable the technique of presentation to frame her definition of the medium (her definition is here). From the perspective of a newcomer to blogging, I find the formal definition can better accommodate my impressions of the medium. Consequently, my working definition owes much to Welker Rettberg’s efforts and summarizes the most common or canonical type of weblog which owes its form increasingly to the standard setups provided by various weblog applications and services available on the web (Blogger, TypePad, Wordpress, et c.).
Weblogs are regularly updated webpage. The updates are organized as individual posts. A typical post is short (>1500 words) and largely textual – although with more powerful computers and software and more robust internet connections, weblogs have come more frequently to include photographs and even video. Posts are organized in several ways. Most commonly posts appear in reverse chronological order with the most recent post appearing at the top of the weblogs main page. In addition (and somewhat at odds with) the chronological element, weblogs typically have ancillary organizational strategies; the most typical are list of categories or, in more sophisticated blogs, “tags” which enables to reader to read together all the posts on a particular topic. The primary organization, then, of a weblog is chronological, but the secondary cataloguing scheme allows a reader to engage a topic or a narrative through a topical arrangement. The primacy of chronological organization distinguishes a weblog from, say, a wiki which is another form of easily updated webpage. While most wikis record changes to the page, they are not usually set up to allow a reader to follow a narrative or theme in the modifications.
In most cases the text of a weblog, like most web pages, uses hyperlinks (using HTML or hypertext markup langauge) to link the text of the blog to other pages either in other posts within the weblog or to elsewhere on the web. The hyperlinks internal to the individual posts are typically complemented by lists of links to other weblogs and webpages in a sidebar. The links within the post form a kind of citation style establishing the basis for claims within the weblog and making explicit at least some part of the post’s larger intellectual context. The peripheral “blogrolls” establish a particular weblog within a community of bloggers. The blogroll, along with similarities in structure and format among weblogs, forms a basic structuring element for weblogs creating what some have termed “the blogosphere”.
Many of the characteristics of a weblog today are, as one might expect, historical or archaeological in that they preserve older practices among weblog authors. The earliest weblogs appeared on the internet in the mid 1990s (a brief history is here). Traditionally the honor of being the first “blogger” goes to Justin Hall whose page Justin’s Home Page and later Links from the Underground began in 1994. By the late 1990s a few dozen serious webloggers had appeared on the internet. The term weblog is most commonly traced to Jorn Barger who referred to his iconic site Robot Wisdom as a weblog in 1997. Barger’s and Halls’ weblogs, and many of their early counterparts, shared only few features with the weblogs today. They consisted primarily of links to other sites on the internet interspersed with short commentary. Robot Wisdom still preserves the feel of an early weblog. The limitation of bandwidth, server space, and necessity of coding each webpage in HTML (rather through a wysiwyg (what-you-see-is-what-you-get) interface like many web pages today) encouraged concise and pithy posts and copious links.
As the interface between the author and the HTML code of the website became easier, webblogs began to include more commentary and, in general, fewer links, but the practice of linking is still more common in weblogs than on the web in general. The gradual expansion of the number of weblogs corresponded to an increasingly diverse interpretation of the medium. As the medium of the weblog developed, webloggers developed more personalized styles and their weblogs increasingly reflected the personality of their author. By the later 1990s, the growing number and diversity of weblogs supported a small but dedicated weblogging community. Authors frequently linked to each other’s weblogs and this formed the predecessors to the “blogrolls” that run along the margins of most blogs today. Thus from the start, weblogging was seen as a communal and collective enterprise.
The revolution in the medium came when a company called Pyra Labs created the Blogger interface in August of 1999. This easy to use interface inspired a massive expansion of the medium. (At around the same time, Peter Merholz shortened term weblog to blog giving rise to many of its dervatives including blogger and blogosphere). The resulting blogs ranged widely from the intensely personal to the political and commercial. Subsequently numerous other blogging interfaces became available allowing greater customization with more robust and enhance capabilities. Most blogs now have enabled a comments area which transforms them from a passive list of links and commentary to active area for exchange between the reader and the author. As blogs can increasingly accommodate documents, photographs, music clips and even video, they allow for particularly dynamic interfaces between author and reader. As one would expect the total number of blogs expanded rapidly and today number in the tens of millions!
The technology provided by blogging software and dedicated often free hosting enabled a whole range of blogging genres to emerge ranging from personal internet journals to short, but formed academic notes, to restaurant, movie, book, and software reviews. At the top of the blogging food chain, of course, are the political blogs, like the famous Daily Kos, which have shown their ability to keep issues in the public eye, raise money, and even cut the mighty down to size. The diversity of types of blogs has reinforced a view of the weblog as a medium rather than a distinct genre and made exploring the blogosphere both more challenging and more enriching as result.
Blogging and Academia
In some ways the academic world has been slow to take note of the burgeoning popularity of the blog as a medium of communication. On the one hand, blogging by academics provided them another method for reaching out to a public beyond the University. It may even allow for the kind of engagement characteristic of early in the previous century when academics appeared regularly in newspapers, on the radio, or even in the cabinets of public officials using their academic training and distinct methods to influence debates in the public sphere. In this regard, the medium of blogging could well offer a distinct tonic to the waning prestige and cultural power of the academic community. Blogging provided a way for academics to return to the public sphere outside the increasingly commodified confines of the national media.
At the same time, the fragmented landscape of the New Media has compelled academics to re-imagine their audience in complex new ways. When an academic writes an article for a professional or an academic monograph, for example, he or she can assume a certain kind of reader. With a blog, it is difficult to anticipate the audience and therefore, to determine the appropriate tone and even content for postings. This has been the biggest challenge for me and my blog: imagining who, exactly, would be interested in what I have to say, and how do I communicate it effectively.
The first tentative first steps of the academic community into blogging have gradually quickened over the course of the decade. Initially the best known blogs in the academic world were those seen as subversive. Anonymous blogs like the Invisible Adjunct or Bitch Ph.D. provided insights into some of the less idyllic and idealistic aspects of academic life. Even as late as 2005, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by the pseudonymous Ivan Tribble wrote about the danger of blogs to young faculty who were on the job market. There also continues to be an intellectual debate regarding the significance of academic blogging (some salient points are voiced by Adam Kotsko in two articles here and here with a response from Scott Eric Kaufman here), but I suspect that the medium is still too new and experimental to be dismissed out of hand.
In fact, the proliferation of blogs over the last 5 years has led to remarkably diverse interpretations of the media. In general, with the expansion of the blogosphere it has become more tame and less subversive. The growing acceptance of blogging as another facet of academic discourse is perhaps best seen in its appearance as a topic discussion at academic conferences. Both the AHA and the MLA have featured panels on blogging that attracted considerable attention in the “blogosphere,” in academic circles, and in the traditional media as well. AHA panel shined light on the intellectual significance of blogs by historians like the blog called Cliopatria at the History News Network hosted by George Mason University (for a brief overview and history of historians blogging see Ralph Luker, “Were there blog enough and time” Perspectives 43.4 (2005)). For the last three years, the Cliopatria group has made awards to blogs of particular substance, such as historian Mark Grimsley’s Blog Them out of the Stone Age, which chronicles, among other things, Grimsley’s efforts to bring traditional Military History into dialogue with more theoretically inclined types of historical inquiry. Bloggers from the MLA have shown an even wider range of uses for the blogosphere. Michael Bérubé whose now defunct, Le Blog Bérubé, engaged in a wide ranging commentary on everything from politics to academic life to literary theory. Jill/txt, cited earlier, explores the interaction between literary, aesthetics, and New Media studies. Several blogging journals like The Valve or those hosted by the online trade journal, Inside Higher Ed, similarly bridge the gap between academic research, social commentary, and public life. The dominant characteristic of many of these academic blogs is that they feature intellectually substantial posts often with full academic citations, careful argumentation, and, in some cases, vigorous conversations in their comments.