Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Blogging as the academic sand-pit
(or "where's my ivory tower?")

It struck me today, reading this post by ShrinkyKitten*† -- and later seeing my supervisor dance around waving a newly published book, chanting "they cited me, they cited me, they cited me" -- that there may well be some deep, dark reasons why young academics in particular are drawn to blogging.

Hungrily devouring the ideas written about by a network of people throughout the world with whom one may have little or no personal contact, we search for the perfect combination of a "hot" topic and one that piques our own (research) interests. In our own subsequent piece we are careful to mention and reference the ideas of our peers, but try to come up with an original (maybe even quirky) spin on the topic. After the piece is published, we try to curb our natural instincts to contact everyone we know, asking "Did you see it? What did you think? Did you like it?" Subtle mentions of the piece in the appropriate forums are expected, on the other hand. If we are lucky, our work then becomes part of the conversation taking place throughout the aforementioned network -- reviewed, debated, reformulated. If not, the work is not necessarily lost, only archived. There's always the chance that when the topic becomes hot again (ten months or ten years later), someone will miraculously come across our piece on it and we'll be dancing round the room chanting, "they love me, they love me, they love me."

Is this a description of blogging or academia? And why are the borders between the two so fuzzy? Is it simply because the digital world is seeping into the ivory tower and academic publications -- thanks to speedier (even electronic) publishing and distribution -- have become searchable data and a vibrant forum for dialogue?

In my more paranoid moments, an alternative explanation seems to me to be just as plausible: as young, impressionable apprentices in the academic world, we are like children who use playdough to imitate their parents baking cakes. Instead of taking these new media and creating with them new ways to act and think, could it be that most of what we do with them is no more than the result of programming our environment imposes on us unawares?

I would like to think this is not the case, of course. I would like to think our (okay, my) obsession with site rankings, traffic meters, and links are not the juvenile form of the disease known as "citation index obsession". I would like to convince myself that I don't ever post comments on other people's blogs in the hope they will come and check out mine, just as I don't ask questions at conferences just to make the smart people notice me, and I would never dream of reviewing other people's journal articles just so I can return them with references to my own work that I think they should look at.

No, now I come to think of it, blogging behaviour and academic neuroses have no connection whatsoever. Really.
*Not that I mean to implicate ShrinkyKitten in any of what follows. She just reminded me of some of these ideas I'd had.

† Hmmm. Footnoting my blog. I suspect that I myself am the best evidence for what I suggest in the following. Of course, that could mean that this only applies to me, in which case I have my head up my own arse, and you should all feel free to disregard the rest of this post.