Notes from this Webinar. I had to leave after the second speaker so they’re not complete.

Alt metrics are a complement to existing metrics, addressing some of the key issues posed by metrics: the lag time of citations, the limitations of impact factor, the time to publication and their focus on a niche audience. The intention of alt metrics is to expand the focus, in order to assess what a broader audience think about research. This has many aspects but one increasingly important one is blogging, currently encompassing 10,000+ blogs with over 1 million mentions of research, from 2006 to now.

Research commentary plays a crucial role in the public understanding of science. It mediates access to research, sometimes providing a more accessible articulation and other times providing a critical focus. The webinar gave an overview of four different types of blog which Alt Metrics are concerned with:

  • Newspaper blogs: often hosted on a subdomain, with a large and diverse audience.
  • Public education blogs: written by specialists and scientists, with public education as a main goal. They tend to have a social media presence and a large but specific audience.
  • Blogs hosted by academic institutions: a lab or department, often used for promoting that groups work, a narrow academic focus and act as a press release outlet for the group.
  • Research blogging platforms: these are a large collective domain, aggregating lots of different blogs, with an audience that tends to be researchers, helps build a research community.

One of the guest speakers, Rolf Degen, talked about how the internet has disrupted the work of freelance science writers. What were once 95 weekly science sections had become 34 in 2005 and 19 in 2012. He embraced social media in order to help build the audience for his writing, though encountered the problem of people not following links through to his article from his tweets. He tried to compress the complexity of a science story by taking a screenshot to post on Twitter, inciting readers to click through to the piece itself. Another problem is that people on Twitter like negativity, sarcastic comments and the tearing apart of established studies.

Nonetheless, it’s important to recognise that the ‘dirty side of science’ has been ignored by the media, who get most of their information from big science institutions and their press releases. Many of his followers are well qualified, prone to instantly criticising him if he makes a mistake. His editors have never been experts in his field, with criticism from readers being confined to letter to the editor. For this reason, the quality control is much higher than it has previously been. He argues that social media has created “an acquired taste for criticism” which is greatly beneficial for science writing. It’s creating a climate in which it’s just as much fun to find error in something, as to find great new insights, contributing to a turn away from the bias for positive results.

The next speaker, Neuro Skeptic, spoke about his experiences as a science blogger. He drew a sharp distinction between science blogging and science journalism. Blogs have become an accepted part of the media in a way that they weren’t until recently, leading people to talk less about blogs as they’ve become a normal part of the landscape. He discussed a really interesting case when Science Blogs lost many of its audience in protest over Pepsi Gate, leading this audience to disperse over the media ecosystem. He draws a distinction between science bloggers (as niche content creators and often research active or with research experience) and science journalists (as generalists with a science background). Blogs offer scientists a way to communicate directly with readers (stripping out press officers) but that means they can be used to push an agenda. He warns that we shouldn’t romanticise science blogging as a pristine way of ‘getting the science out’ because it’s agenda driven. This means we can’t take social media popularity as being an intrinsically good thing, because this might mean things are being celebrated within circles we would regard as unscientific.

Some interesting points about their policy for blog tracking which I’d like to know more about:

  • Their tracking is based on what they happen to hear about.
  • All blogs are weighted equally.
  • They are indexed by author, in order that multiple mentions of the same research by the same author will only be counted once.
  • They are filtered to ensure quality, in order to avoid counting spam blogs etc.

In his Uberworked and Underpaid, Trebor Scholz offers an important reflection on the cultural significance of blogging. While its uptake has been exaggerated, dependent upon questionable assumptions concerning the relationship between users and blogs, it nonetheless represents a transformation of and expansion of cultural agency which needs to be taken seriously. From loc 3825:

Web 2.0, to be fair, was incredibly successful as an ideology, a meme, and a marketing ploy with global effects. Already by 2004, the industry claimed that there were some 100 million weblogs. One didn’t have to be a skeptic of numerical reasoning to understand that the claim that everybody on this planet was blogging was based on shaky statistics. Clearly, some of these projections were blind to the digital divide, and overlooked the fact that many weblogs were set up but then never used again. But still, we need to acknowledge that more than a decade after its emergence, blogging had roped millions into a daily writing practice; it made them walk through their lives with the eyes of a participant, somebody who could potentially participate or insert her own perspective. 

This is reminiscent of the appendix to The Sociological Imagination, in which C Wright Mills offers practical advice about ‘keeping one’s inner world awake’. It would be overstating matters to claim blogging is intrinsically tied to the sociological imagination, but the propensity to “insert her own perspective” in a life more likely to be lived “with the eyes of a participant” is something we should take seriously, while refraining from assuming that this flows inexorably from the adoption of blogging as a regular activity. 

A distinction I find rather tenuous, invoked by Ray Brassier in his attack on the self-importance of the speculative realist blogging community:

What is peculiar to them is the claim that this is the first philosophy movement to have been generated and facilitated by the internet: a presumption rooted in the inability to distinguish philosophy from talk about philosophy. The vices so characteristic of their discourse can be traced back directly to the debilities of the medium. Blogging is essentially a journalistic medium, but philosophy is not journalism. Exchanging opinions about philosophy, or even exchanging philosophical opinions, ought not to be equated with philosophical debate. This is not to say that one cannot produce and disseminate valuable philosophical research online. But the most pernicious aspect of this SR/OOO syndrome is its attempt to pass off opining as argument and to substitute self-aggrandizement for actual philosophical achievement.

Given he accepts one can “produce and disseminate valuable philosophical research online”, it’s hard not to wonder about the criteria for distinguishing between philosophy and talk about philosophy. This seemingly narrow debate is one we can expect to see much more of, in other disciplines and in relation to other topics, as social media becomes increasingly mainstream within academic life.

  1. It helps you become more clear about your ideas.
  2. It gives you practice at presenting your ideas for a non-specialist audience.
  3. It increases your visibility within academia.
  4. It increases your visibility outside academia and makes it much easier for journalists, campaigners and practitioners to find you.
  5. It increases your visibility more than a static site and allows people who find you to get an overall sense of your academic interests.
  6. It’s a great way of making connections & finding potential collaborators.
  7. It can provide an archive of your thoughts, ideas and reactions which can later be incorporated into more formal work.
  8. It makes it easier for people to find your published work and increases the likelihood they will read and cite it.
  9. Its informality and immediate accessibility can help make writing part of your everyday life rather than being a source of stress and anxiety.
  10. Its a great way to promote events and call for papers. Particularly if you blog regularly and your blog is connected to Twitter.
  11. It helps ensure you can continue to develop strands of thought which, for now, don’t have any practical implications but might at some point in the future.
  12. It encourages you to reflexively interrogate and organise your work, drawing out emergent themes and placing isolated snippets of commentary into shared categories.
  13. It allows you to procrastinate for a further 10 to 20 minutes before going back to NVivo in a useful(ish) way.
  14. It helps you build a community around your ideas and interests – Kath McNiff
  15. It allows you to start a conversation that other researchers can join using comments – Kath McNiff
  16. It’s a tremendous way to access additional relevant information/sources through the connections you make – @drdjwalker
  17. It can also be a great way to increase your sample size by crowd sourcing contributions and through public scrutiny help prepare you for the peer review process when the time comes to publish your work – @drdjwalker
  18. It’s a great way to get international and cross-disciplinary input and reflections on your research – @jess1ecat
  19. It’s a fabulous way to give back to the research community by providing links and resources for other researchers, give and you shall receive – @jess1ecat
  20. Reciprocity through blogging and Twitter shares builds your profile but importantly forges lasting connections to fellow researchers – @jess1ecat
  21. It allows you to publish ideas immediately without waiting two years while things go through peer review and more peer review and wait in a publishing queue – @CelebYouthUK
  22. It’s fun – @CelebYouthUK
  23. It’s a faster way to get your research findings out. Journal/book publishing and the peer-review/editing process can take FOREVER – @ajlusc
  24. Because C Wright Mills would have probably been a blogger. If not, he would at the very least have been a fan – @ajlusc
  25. It is an exercise in disciplined writing. Stuff that doesn’t get used in the bigger thesis project, published papers, and the like, can be glossed for a blog and thrown out for ‘collision’ with others’ ideas. That’s how better ideas get formulated – Ibrar
  26. It makes you a better writer – @drfigtree
  27. It allows raw uncensored ideas to be creatively expressed before stymied by a prolonged peer review process – @DrBenKoh
  28. It allows research findings to be put out there in a format that participants can access, and are actually likely to read – Matthew Hanchard
  29. You have control of the publishing process – @DrHelenKara
  30. It’s a way to publish information about all aspects of research which formal publishing methods won’t accept, whether because it’s too short, too partial, too controversial, or for some other reason – @DrHelenKara
  31. Keeping your own blog can be a daunting prospect, but that’s not the only way: many bloggers are more than happy to accept a ‘guest’ blog on a subject which would be of interest to their readers – @DrHelenKara
  32. It helps to be up-to-date with new findings in your discipline, and often with findings in other fields – @udadisisuperior
  33. It’s a means to be FOUND. People google those words and ta-da! – @everythingabili
  34. It forces you to think of your ideas in simple language that can be easily articulated. It’s communication practice. – @everythingabili
  35. You will have MORE IDEAS – GUARANTEED. The process of blogging almost always sparks off more ideas. How could it not? – @everythingabili
  36. No need to study in isolation if you are a distance learning student, blogging is one way to network, share ideas and your studies with fellow students around the world – Lucy Bodenham
  37. Over time, a blog has helped me to develop more jargon-free and even poetic writing. I have returned to academic publication with a better language with which to express myself – Kip jones
  38. Blogging helps keep your profile out there if you are experiencing a gap between publications – Jeff Craig
  39. Help students know what their (prospective) adviser work on – @dimitridf
  40. It is free global advertisement for your programme/university – @dimitridf

Any suggestions for more reasons? Put them in the comments box and I’ll add them to the list & note who they came from. If you’re on Twitter please include your twitter handle.

Thanks to Jacqueline Bartram who drew these great cartoons as I was talking at a Hull event last yearabout academic blogging. Why should academics blog about their research?

It provides a home for things you reluctantly cut from your publications:


It allows you to get early feedback on ideas and try them out for the first time in public:


It allows you to exchange early thoughts with others working on the issues that concern you:

It allows you to share your struggles with others who are going through the same thing:

At a talk I did earlier in the week, I was asked about my focus on using social media to work ideas out in public. This is something I find myself talking about a lot, not least of all because it has been such a consistently valuable experience for me. But as the questioner observed, this isn’t appropriate for everyone. For instance, many people do research that it would be unsuitable, imprudent or unethical to rehearse in this way. Furthermore, it might simply be an approach that some people are uncomfortable with and there’s nothing wrong with this.

The question made me wonder if I overemphasise blogging as a platform for ‘continuous publishing’. My underlying point is as much about the regularity of writing as it is about doing this writing in public. I came across a lovely post by Jon Rainford recently that captured this nicely. He talks about ‘part-time studying but full-time thinking’ as something he’s been able to do through the habitual use of Evernote:

Often it is in the midst of my day job, or during my drive to work that the things I have been struggling with suddenly make sense. This is also something that needs to be capitalised upon as often these thoughts go and fast as they come. For this, Evernote has been a life saver, acting as a multimedia notepad that is with me 24/7. Sometimes, I write a note by hand and capture it with my phone’s camera, sometimes I do the same with a document and other times I type direct into it. This mental scrapbook, however, is what I believe has been the key to moving forward in my thinking even when I’m not technically working on my PhD project.

The way Jon is using Evernote is directly equivalent to how I’m suggesting blogs can be used. The peculiar value of blogging comes, in my experience, from the pressure it engenders to fully elaborate upon an inchoate idea i.e. you have to develop a line of thought in order to ensure others can read the post. But there are downsides as well, which I perhaps don’t stress enough.

Tools like Evernote, as well as apps like Day One journal, offer really effective means through which it’s possible to keep a research notebook. The point is to write regularly, most of all when the inspiration strikes you. When you enjoy what C Wright Mills called ‘the feel of an idea’. Mobile computing makes this possible in a way that would have previously been difficult, allowing you to keep a file where ever you are. More over, it’s one that can so easily incorporate multimedia, allowing you to capture artefacts of the world around you as part of this process of systematic curiosity.

Options like Evernote might be best for those whose research topics are at all sensitive. But this doesn’t mean blogging isn’t something that should be considered. After all, it’s possible to be a blogger without having your own blog. Such established platforms for guest blogging are particularly valuable to those doing research on sensitive topics because their specialised editors will be able to offer advice on potential issues the topics raise and be able to discuss any anxieties the author has about them.

There’s a lovely extract of the Academic Diary in which Les Back reflects on the life and work of the social theorist Vic Seidler. Remarking on the vast range of topics on which Seidler has written, Les suggests that this deeply committed man “writes not because his academic position expects it but because he has something to say and communicate”. For someone like Seidler, writing is something a person does because they are “trying to work something out”.

This captures what I see as the promise of academic blogging. It’s a platform for trying to work things out. More so, doing it in the open grants each of these attempts a social existence, one that comes with undoubted risks but also enormous rewards. Little bits of thought shrapnel, brief attempts to make some sense of the ‘feel of an idea’, come to enjoy their own existence within the world. They’re mostly forgotten or even ignored from the outset. But there’s something quite remarkable about occasions when these fragments resurface as someone sees something of value in them, perhaps when you saw no value in them yourself.

Furthermore, it attunes you to the impulse to write because you have “something to say and communicate”. This isn’t always the case and I worry that the metricisation of scholarly blogging will prove immensely destructive of it. But there is at least for now something deeply rewarding about seizing on an inchoate idea, developing it and throwing it off into the world to see what others make of it. For no other reason than the pleasure inherent to it.

An initiative from the Centre for Women and Gender in Sociology at Warwick, where the centre for social ontology is also based:

A reminder that we are now accepting submissions to the CSWG blog. This academic focussed blog aims to promote the work of academics and students conducting research around topics relating to women and gender studies.

We warmly welcome submissions from scholars working in, but not limited to, the following:

Reflections on issues relating to the production of feminist research, including feminist theory and methodologies;

Academics forging links with relevant contemporary activism;

Issues from any discipline relating to a broad range of gender related topics, such as gender and education, politics, transgender and sexualities, feminism and women’s rights, masculinities and femininities, media and culture, and work, employment and the family.

Submission guidelines:

Anyone can contribute; we welcome, and actively encourage, a variety of voices.

Though the focus of the blog remains primarily academic in nature, we are happy to accept a range of content from opinion pieces to short essays. Please note the maximum word limit of 1000 words.

Please include references so that readers have the opportunity to carry out further reading.

Please include a brief biography – no more than a few lines – with all submissions. Although we would prefer to avoid anonymity in order to promote transparency, we appreciate there may be instances where this would not be appropriate.

Please email submissions to for peer review. If you have any further questions, please do email us at or get in touch via Facebook or Twitter

With best wishes,

CSWG graduate seminar committee: Elizabeth Ablett, Emine Erdogan, Heather Griffiths, Iro Konstantinou, Kate Mahoney, Isabel Nuñez-Salazar and Carli Rowell

This superb post by Cory Doctorow offers a philosophy of blogging extremely similar to what I’ve described as continuous publishing:

As a committed infovore, I need to eat roughly six times my weight in information every day or my brain starts to starve and atrophy. I gather information from many sources: print, radio, television, conversation, the Web, RSS feeds, email, chance, and serendipity. I used to bookmark this stuff, but I just ended up with a million bookmarks that I never revisited and could never find anything in.

Theoretically, you can annotate your bookmarks, entering free-form reminders to yourself so that you can remember why you bookmarked this page or that one. I don’t know about you, but I never actually got around to doing this — it’s one of those get-to-it-later eat-your-vegetables best-practice housekeeping tasks like defragging your hard drive or squeegeeing your windshield that you know you should do but never get around to.

Until I started blogging. Blogging gave my knowledge-grazing direction and reward. Writing a blog entry about a useful and/or interesting subject forces me to extract the salient features of the link into a two- or three-sentence elevator pitch to my readers, whose decision to follow a link is predicated on my ability to convey its interestingness to them. This exercise fixes the subjects in my head the same way that taking notes at a lecture does, putting them in reliable and easily-accessible mentalregisters.

Blogging also provides an incentive to keep blogging. As Boing Boing’s hit-counter rises steadily, growing 10-30 percent every month, I get a continuous, low-grade stream of brain-rewards; rewards that are reinforced by admiring email, cross-links from other blogs that show up in my referrer logs, stories that I broke climbing the ranks on Daypop and Blogdex (and getting picked up by major news outlets). The more I blog, the more reward I generate: strangers approach me at conferences and tell me how much they liked some particular entry; people whose sites I’ve pointed to send me grateful email thanking me for bringing their pet projects to the attention of so many people.

Pat Thompson has written a fascinating post reflecting on her use of blogging to record field notes during an ethnographic project at the Tate summer school. She stresses the ethical challenges of such an activity – particularly the need to negotiate consent with participants, including around photos, as well as the need for a framework for naming and recognition of potential harms – but argues that blogging in this context can provide a really useful ‘audit trail’: a record of what was done and in what order.

She makes a compelling case that the resulting posts offer many advantages compared to more traditional ways of recording field notes: it’s easier to discipline yourself to do the blog post, it’s easier to link out in ways susceptible to following up later and the need to make the posts accessible and interesting (e.g. not too long) necessitates editing/filtering which itself requires valuable evaluation of the events of the day. What I found most interesting though were the advantages this can have in terms of building connections, within and beyond the fieldwork site:

(5) participants and research partners like to read the posts each day too. It not only works for you but also works for them as a record of what’s gone on and what resources, people, organisations and “stuff” they used – so they can follow these up too.

(6) participants know more about what you’re doing. We all read our institutional ethics forms about checking with participants and keeping them informed, but this is often not taken very seriously IMHO. A daily post goes a little way to telling people what youre doing, and…

(7) a post can lead to good conversations with participants. if something is online, people can read it and then – tell you’ve got something wrong, or disagree with you, or discuss something further or tell you what they think. If your notes are locked away in your notebook, then this kind of responsive conversation is less easy to begin.

(8) the telling of the events as they’ve just happened has “live-ness” which is often missing from accounts which are heavily processed long after the event has happened (see “Live methods” by Les Back and Nirmal Puwar)

(9) blog readers may get some ideas of their own from reading about your work (I’ve just been contacted by one of my colleagues who is going to play with GIFs and zines on the back of yesterday’s post.)

This is a wonderful example of what I’ve tried to write about in the past as ‘continuous publishing’: the advantages that can accrue from doing work in the open that once would have been done in private. Getting the ideas out there in this way, making them public, means they begin to act instantaneously – in this case, in a way that feeds  back upon the process that is being documented through blogging.

A few years ago I wrote a short article about the relationship between academic blogging and journalism which received a pretty positive reaction online. My suggestion was that academic blogging increasingly constitutes a ‘third space’ between the academy and journalism which facilitates translation between the two institutional spheres. It becomes easier for journalists to find relevant academics when their research is expressed in a few blog posts as well as articles in scholarly journals. However might we increasingly see academics become journalists? Not necessarily in the sense of individual career transitions (though this does happen) but rather in a blurring of the two activities that has important consequences for those working at the intersection.

Part of me likes this: I want critical social scientists* to ‘occupy debate’ in a way that gets social scientific ideas out of the academy. However in a way it’s also rather sinister if we look at the broader transformations underway within both spheres. Is there a risk that junior academics, keen to differentiate themselves and demonstrate a capacity for impact as they strive to move beyond precarious contracts, come to be seen as a reserve army of well-educated quasi-journalists who may write badly but will work for free?

*Maybe even ones who aren’t critical, at least if they write reasonably well.

The potential value and dangers of sociological blogging arise because of an environment in which the demands of audit culture incentivise the production of ‘unread’ and ‘unloved’ publications which are too often written to be counted rather than to be read. The risk is that sociological blogging gets drawn into the pernicious logic of these metrics perhaps with ‘impact’ being measured through the daily visitors a blog receives or the number of times an online article is shared on social media. The temptation arises in part because of the manner in which such analytics are designed into blogging platforms themselves, with all providing numerous ways to view statistics about a blog’s popularity and many third party utilities available which can extend these modes of measurement. Given a broader trend first towards ‘content factories’ and then ‘viral publishers’, as well as the domination of ‘click-bait’, we need to think seriously about the potential for the the logic of the ‘social web’ to act back upon digital scholarship in a way that leads to a slide towards banality. My own experience has been that these considerations can creep in almost surreptitiously, as a seamless extension of rather innocuous practical considerations. If one is investing time in a project that aims to provide a platform for sociological writing then a reliance upon the built in metrics for measuring the circulation of that writing is inevitable. The problems begin when a incipient awareness of the varying popularity of different kinds of writing begins to effect how they are valued.

For example, articles bemoaning the contemporary state of higher education are inevitably very popular (presumably because they both have a broader disciplinary remit then things which are explicitly sociological and appeal to something in the day-to-day professional lives of those reading them) but should this popularity mean that writing of this form becomes particularly valued for the blog itself? It probably should not but it is easy for this slide to happen, with a concern for the blog’s popularity and reach too easily giving rise to a concern for ‘content’ that contributes to these ends. We can see a similar issue with the titles which are chosen on blogs. With even the most casual assessment of the relative ‘performance’ (my unthinking use of this term and overwhelming need to place it in scare quotes reflects the underlying ambivalence I am attempting to convey) of blog posts, it soon becomes clear that the title chosen contributes to how widely ready they are, largely through the mediating factor of how pervasively they are shared on social media. To a certain extent this can be a positive thing, encouraging the choice of informative and evocative titles, as opposed to narrowly descriptive ones. However a recognition of the sheer difference that a title can make, particularly if this is grounded in an engagement with the available data about how widely posts are shared on social media, can surely have a distorting effect. To use a recent example, I found that a post initially entitled “Gender, Reflexivity and Friendship” attracted little attention on social media but was shared extensively when given a new title “The Sociology of Friendship”. Soon after, I found myself rejecting the potential title “Performance, Awkwardness and Sociability” for a similar post (a couple of thousands of words of social theory, too unstructured for an academic article but nonetheless trying to make a serious, albeit meandering, sociological point) in favour of “The Sociology of Awkwardness”. Predictably enough this proved extremely popular and acted as encouragement to pursue similar naming conventions in future. The risk here is that a tendency within online publishing more broadly, in which often quite obnoxious headlines are generated quasi-algorithmically because of their demonstrable impact on the ‘virality’ of a post, creep into online scholarship as a proclivity for data analysis and an investment in the success of a project outweigh the high minded dismissal of these trends.

Perhaps this points towards the emerging need for online editorship to be taken seriously as a form of academic service. It is only in the last two years, partly as a result of editing the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog as a full time job, that I’ve begun to feel comfortable describing myself as such. Previously, I felt there was a degree of affectation about it, as if describing oneself as an ‘editor’ in relation to a blog was a pretence at seriousness about an inherently unserious activity, something which was occasionally reflected in judgements I received from other people (though inevitably my own insecurity led me to give more weight to their judgement that they probably intended). But given the likely continued expansion of sociological activity online then the role of the blog editor is likely to grow in importance over time, as a gatekeeper to opportunities for professional visibility but also as a mediating factor shaping the emergence of online norms.

While some normative standards are beginning to emerge concerning matters such as attribution, style and format, these are inevitably fragmented and partial. The more seriously we take the role of blog editor then the more reflexively such questions are likely to be approached by those performing this function. This is important given that such individuals are amongst the few actually able to enforce standards online, albeit in a truncated domain, with the solidification of such norms otherwise being largely a matter of mimesis, as individuals observe others in their networks (or beyond them) in order to inform their own emerging practice. If we take editorship in this sense seriously as a form of academic service then we help mitigate against the tendency for such questions to be responded to pragmatically, instead creating the possibility of a ‘third space’ between academic research and journalism occupied by those who are concerned to translate academic knowledge. Either in the sense of being writers themselves who work to popularise academic knowledge by writing about it in a form amenable to a wider readership or by working with academics, whether directly on particular pieces of writing or indirectly through creating structures that incentivise certain forms of communication. My contention is that such a function is not straightforwardly academic but nor is it journalistic. Given the much remarked upon overproduction of PhD graduates, with too few academic jobs available for those awarded doctorates to pursue academic careers, it is intriguing to speculate about the likely implications of a potential funded expansion of group blogging for academic career trajectories.

I am personally within the first cohort for whom this is a viable occupational opportunity, albeit still in a very limited way, with blogging having contributed in an important way to sustaining myself financially through six years of a part-PhD (through working full time as an editor for some time but also through more ad hoc work such as running workshops and managing social media accounts). There is obviously a sense in which I have a vested interest in the expansion of this sphere, given I enjoy this work and, if possible, want to pursue a career path which mixes my own research and social media to the greatest extent possible. It is precisely the existence of such vested interests, as well as the significance of broader institutional trends for academic blogging and vice versa, which makes it imperative that we expand discussions of online writing, as well as other forms of social media engagement, beyond the scope of the merely technical. The communicative opportunities afforded by blogging invite us to consider the purposes of such communication. My suggestion has been that they pose tacit questions of great importance which it is valuable for the discipline as a whole to recover: what is sociology for? How do sociologists communicate? How could they communicate? How should they communicate? Many of the risks which have been discussed reflect a failure to address such questions adequately, with immediacy and novelty potentially squeezing out disciplinary craft rather than acting as an invitation to rethink that craft in light of these changing opportunities.

One of the more elusive benefits of blogging has been the implications for my professional identity. As a part-time PhD student, without funding but committed to an academic career trajectory (albeit at times waveringly), I found myself engaged in a diverse array of short term roles within the academy. Some of these had clear relevance to my nascent identity as a researcher but most did not, requiring competencies I already possessed by virtue of my research training or helping me develop ones which might in future be beneficial to me as a researcher; though never quite reflecting the core concerns that motivated my work while nonetheless being close enough to them that I could rarely put these questions out my mind in the way that would be expected in paid work engaged in for consistently and straight-forwardly instrumental reasons. The professional socialisation that ensues from such circumstances is inherently refractory, shaping one’s professional identity in all manner of ways but without the easy unfolding of a narrative that makes sense of the occupational trajectory that is unfolding. This is far from a unique experience within the neoliberal university, as the systematic casualization of academic labour combines with the idealised notion of scholarship as a noble calling to produce an intersection of commitment and precarity with all manner of harmful consequences.

It is in this context that these new communication tools become so significant, with the possibilities afforded by them being misrepresented when conceived as something external to the everyday lives of those working within the academy. Obviously these are instruments which can function to expand the scope of dissemination activities but construing them solely in such terms misses an important set of questions concerning the implications of social media for academic identity. In my own experience personal blogging helped integrate what would have otherwise been a fragmented professional identity, perpetually divided as it has been between different roles and different institutions. Sustaining a personal blog inevitably invites reflection on one’s own experiences, though of course such a use is not dictated by the technology itself. In doing so, it helps imbue those experiences with a coherency which they might otherwise lack, addressing the perennial question of how present commitments relate to potential futures.

The process of using the blog in this way has also led to an increasing awareness of the types of use I make of it, reflected in an initially inchoate working taxonomy which has emerged in my own psyche as to the various tasks which are involved in the development of ideas and the production of academic work. The process of sustaining the blog as an ‘open notebook’ has inculcated a sensitivity to workflow and craft which I had previously lacked. The claim here is a straightforward one: a change of tools can provoke a greater awareness of the uses to which such tools can be put. However this could easily be misconstrued as postulating an untenable juxtaposition of habitual analogue practice to reflexive digital practice. Instead I wish to offer a much less contentious proposition: digital tools offer a diverse range of opportunities for rethinking the practice of research and, in doing so, unavoidably raise questions in virtue of their novelty which can lead to a newfound reflexivity about the means and ends of practice. To make sense of such a claim, it is crucial that we distinguish between the tool used and the purposes to which it is put because the former may be new but the latter manifestly is not. For instance one of the most prominent explorations of the practice of journaling can be found in the explanation by C. Wright Mills of how keeping a file or a journal,

“encourages you to capture ‘fringe-thoughts’: various ideas which may be by-products of everyday life, snatches of conversation overheard on the street, or, for that matter, dreams. Once noted, these may lead to more systematic thinking, as well as lend intellectual relevance to more directed experience […] by keeping an adequate file and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them for your files and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape.”

What concerns Mills here is the cultivation of attentiveness as an aspect of intellectual craft. Through the considered adoption of specific habits of self-reflection, enacted via the medium of the ‘file’, it becomes possible to more fully and creatively engage with one’s environment and to develop the fruits of this engagement in a productive manner. On such a view, the development of ideas is seen as something which cannot be segregated into particular tracts of space and time without proving injurious to the creative faculties on which such work depends. Instead, Mills offers a view of intellectual work as dependent upon a lived engagement with the world and one which, if creativity is allowed to emerge, often overflows the conventional boundaries that society places on ‘work’. On such a view the ‘file’ cannot be adequately understood as an external record simply used to record ideas for future retrieval (though of course it does serve this purpose). Instead, it is seen as constitutive of the process through which such ideas emerge prior to being ‘recorded. For Mills the ‘file’ is the medium through which academic work becomes intellectual craft and, with this, a life encompassing academic labour becomes a life of intellectual craft which may (or may not) contingently be supported by employment within the academy.

Given that talk of ‘craft’ may divide sociological opinion, we might simply reframe this in terms of writing in the most encompassing sense of the term. Not just writing for publication but all the prior working through and recording of developing thoughts which runs prior to more formal writing. As Howard Becker succinctly observes, “by the time we come to write something, we have done a lot of thinking”. In highlighting the degree to which “[w]e have an investment in everything we have already worked out that commits us to a point of view and a way of handling the problem” Becker aims to help his readers overcome the anxieties which failing to recognise this so often provokes. Once we see writing as something intertwined with a broader process of intellectual engagement than the disabling perfectionism which can thrive in circumstances of ‘pluralistic ignorance’ (where the difficulties of similarly placed others are rendered invisible by their privatised working practices) begins to abate: it helps remove the pressure otherwise attached to the writing process by repudiating the myth of ex nihilo creation.

If we accept Becker’s diagnosis of the psychology of the writing process then we can be begin to see personal blogging as an important spur to reflexivity. It very literally serves to clarify where we stand in relation to our own work. Through regular blogging we come to register what Becker, in his discussion of free-writing, describes as “what you would like to say, what all your earlier work on the topic or project has already led you to believe”. Through the iteration which characterises engaged blogging, themes begin to emerge through repetition; some explicitly, as deliberate ways of formulating or categorising ideas, others less so, as repetition gradually reveals the convergence or overlap between superficially distinct interests or enthusiasms. Blogging of this form, as an engaged practice sustained over time, can be conducive to what we might think of as ‘non-linear creativity’: an open-ended creative process generative of emergent structure in often surprise and unpredictable ways. The humanistic psychologist Carl Roger conveys something of this in his account of the transformation experienced by a client in his creative work,

“It used to be that he tried to be orderly. “You begin at the beginning and you progress regularly through to the end.” Now he is aware that the process in himself is different. “When I’m working on an idea, the whole idea develops like the latent image coming out when you develop a photograph. It doesn’t start at one edge and fill in over to the other. It comes in all over. At first all you see is the hazy outline, and you wonder what it’s going to be; and then gradually something fits here and something fits there, and pretty soon it all becomes clear – all at once.”

One of my favourite academic blogs is Understanding Society. Written by the philosopher Daniel Little, it covers a diverse range of topics across the social sciences while continually coming back to a number of core theoretical questions that fascinate me. Reflecting on its seventh anniversary, Little offers some interesting thoughts on the role that academic blogging plays in his own intellectual life:

This week marks the seventh anniversary of Understanding Society. That’s 954 posts, almost a million words, and about a hundred posts in the past twelve months. The blog continues to serve as an enormously important part of my own intellectual life, permitting me to spend a few hours several times a week on topics of continuing interest to me, without needing to find the time within my administrative life to try to move a more orderly book manuscript forward. And truthfully, I don’t feel that it is faut de mieux or second-best. I like the notion that it’s a kind of “open source philosophy” — ideas in motion. In my view, this is an entirely legitimate primary way of contributing to philosophy and sociology.

He also makes some interesting suggestions about the future of academic blogging that are informed by his own experience. In the last couple of years I’ve been settling into a view of my blog as my main outlet for developing my ideas, feeding into formal publications as occupational necessity and/or personal passion dictate – in fact the blog has helped me come to terms with the fact that the former and the latter may not always coincide. It’s interesting to see how Daniel Little experiences his blogging because it contrasts in some ways with my own – I share the experience of it being often ‘more creative and less laboured’ but I’m certain it’s much less rigorous, at least in the narrow sense of being carefully constructed. What I do on my blog often amounts to a form of free writing – I’m interested to see if this will change over time. I think Little offers a compelling account of the intellectual legitimacy of blogging and it’s actually left me wondering if I should try and be more careful and selective about my own writing online:

What I would really like to see in the future is a more porous membrane between academic blogging and academic publishing. There is no reason why the arguments and debates that are presented within an academic blog should not enter directly into engagement with formal publication — specialists writing about mechanisms, explanation, or historiography might well want to engage in their published work with the ideas and arguments that are developing in the online world of academic blogging. For example, I think the series of exchanges among Kaidesoja, Elder-Vass, Hartwig, Cruickshank, and Ruth Groff in Understanding Society in December and January make a substantive addition to debates within the field of critical realism. It would make sense for other specialists to take these sources into account in their published work.

I suppose many scholars would look at blog entries as “working notes” and published articles as “archival” and final, more authoritative and therefore more suitable for citation and further discussion. But I’m not sure that’s the right way of thinking about the situation. When I compare the intellectual work process I undertook in writing Varieties of Social Explanation or Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science with the care and concentration I give a blog post, I would say that the latter is just as rigorous and often more creative; less labored, more willing to lay out a new idea quickly. So speaking as a focus group of one, I would say I’m more satisfied with the quality of thinking and presentation I’ve conveyed in the blog than in the books I’ve published.

This is a good list by John Danaher. Read it in full here:

1. It helps to build the habit of writing:

2. It helps to generate writing flow states:

3. It helps you to really understand your area of research:

4. It allows you to systematically develop the elements of a research article

5. It enables you to acquire serendipitous research interests

6. It helps with networking and developing contacts

7. And yes,  it also helps with teaching

Earlier this week, NatCen Social Research hosted a meeting between myself, Chris Gilson (USApp), Cristina Costa and Mark Murphy (Social Theory Applied), Donna Peach (PhD Forum) and Kelsey Beninger (NSMNSS) to discuss possible collaborations between social science bloggers in the UK and share experiences about developing and sustaining social science blogs over time. We didn’t do as much of the latter as I expected, though I personally found it valuable simply to voice a few concerns I’d had in mind about the direction of academic blogging that I’d heretofore been keeping to myself for a variety of reasons. The manner in which the audience for Sociological Imagination seems to have stopped growing over the last couple of years (unless I make an effort to tweet more links to posts in the archives) had left me wondering why I’d been operating under the assumption that the audience for a blog should be growing. I realise that I’d been working on the premise that an audience is either growing or it’s shrinking which, once I articulated it, came to seem obviously inaccurate to me. Considering this also raised questions about overarching purposes which I was keen to get other people’s perspectives on: what was the website for? To be honest I’m not entirely sure. After four years, it’s largely become both habit and hobby. It’s an enjoyable diversion. It’s a justification for spending vast quantities of time reading other sociology blogs. I’m invested in it as a cumulative project, such that even if I stopped enjoying it, I’d probably feel motivated to continue. I’m still preoccupied by how genuinely global it has become, something which feels valuable in and of itself. I’ve also had enough positive feedback at this point (I never know quite how to respond when people send ‘thank you’ e-mails but they’re immensely appreciated!) that all these other factors, essentially constituting its value for me, find themselves reflected in a sense that it’s clearly valuable for (some) other people as well.

Much of the early discussion at the meeting was about the limitations of metrics. It’s sometimes hard to know what to do with quantitative metrics of the sort that are so abundantly supplied by social media. What do they actually mean? Other people have seemingly had the same experience I’ve had of being provoked by these stats to wonder about what isn’t being measured e.g. if x number of people visit a post then how many people read the whole thing, let alone derive some value from it? We discussed the possibility of qualitative feedback, which is essentially what the aforementioned ‘thanks’ e-mails constitute, as something potentially more meaningful but difficult to elicit. Are there ways to pursue qualitative feedback from the audience of a blog? Cristina and Mark described their current project aiming to use an online questionnaire to get information about how Social Theory Applied is seen by readers and how the material is being used. Are there others ways to get this kind of feedback? Perhaps I should just ask on the @soc_imagination twitter feed? I guess the thing that makes me uncomfortable is the risk of slipping into a publisher/consumer orientation, given this is a relation so well established in contemporary society – I don’t see the people reading the site as consumers and I don’t see myself as a publisher. In fact I’ve found it immensely frustrating on a few occasions when I’ve felt people adopt the mentality of a consumer with me e.g. leaving a comment that “there’s no excuse for posting a podcast with such low audio quality” or “why haven’t you fixed the broken link on this [old] post?”. While I’d like to get qualitative feedback on Sociological Imagination, particularly more of a sense of how people use material on the site if it’s for anything other than momentary distraction, I basically have no intention of doing anything other than what I want with it, as well as leaving the Idle Ethnographer as my co-editor to do the same.

We also discussed a range of potential collaborations which we could pursue in future. One of my concerns about the general direction of social science blogging in the UK is that the LSE blogs and the Conversation might gradually swallow up single-author blogs – in the case of the former, the fact they often repost from individual blogs mitigates against this but I think there’s still a risk that single author blogging becomes a very rare pursuit over time, simply because it’s difficult to sustain it and build an audience while subject to many other demands on your time. I think the likelihood of this happening is currently obscured by academic blogging becoming, at least in some areas, slightly modish, in a way that distracts from the question of whether new bloggers are likely to sustain their blogging in a climate where their likely expectations are unlikely to be met by the activity itself. I like the idea of finding ways to share traffic and I suggested that we could experiment with aggregation systems of various sorts: perhaps framed as a social science blogging directory which people apply to join, at which point their RSS feed is plugged into a twitter feed that automatically aggregates all the other blogs on the list. Another possibility would be to use RebelMouse to create what could effectively be a homepage for the UK social science blogosphere (in the process perhaps bringing this blogosphere into being, as opposed to it simply being an abstraction at present). Chris Gilson suggested the possibility of creating a shared newsletter in which participating sites included their top post each week or month, in order to create a communal mailing which profiled the best of social science blogging in the UK. Despite being initially antipathetic towards it, this idea grew on me as I pondered it on the way home – not least of all because it could be a way to connect with audiences who are unlikely to read blogs on a regular basis. However while it would be easy to create prototypes of any of these to test the concept, it’s less obvious how they would work on an ongoing basis. The latter two would require a small amount of funding and/or someone willing to take on an unpaid task. Perhaps more worryingly from my point of view as someone who goes out of my way to avoid formal meetings in general and those concerned with elaborating procedures in particular, it seems obvious to me that some filtering criteria would be required (e.g. should blogs have to be continued past a certain point to join the aggregator? should there be quality criteria and, if so, who would assess them?) to ‘add value’ but I have no idea what these would be nor do I see how they could be fairly elaborated without a long sequence of face-to-face meetings that would likely prove tedious for all concerned. Perhaps I’m being overly negative, particularly since two of the ideas were my own, but I don’t see the point of writing a ‘reflection’ post like this and not being upfront about where I’m coming from.

We also discussed the possibility of longer term collaborations. Would social science blogging in the UK benefit from something like The Society Pages and, if so, how do we go about setting it up? I cautioned against overestimating the possible benefits of the umbrella identity TSP provides but I really have no idea. We discussed whether we should talk to the editors of the site in order to learn more about their experiences. I can certainly see the value in pursuing something like this and, as with the aggregators, it has the virtue of facilitating collaboration while retaining the individual identities of the participating sites – for both principled and practical reasons, I don’t want to collaborate in a way that dilutes the identity of the Sociological Imagination. Plus, even if I did, I’d have to ask the Idle Ethnographer and I suspect she feels even more strongly about this than I do. This discussion segued quite naturally into a broader question of how to fund academic blogging in the UK – framed in these terms, my initial ambivalence about pursuing funding melted away because I’d like nothing more than to find a way to fund blogging as an activity. My experiences at the LSE suggest this might be harder than it seems but we discussed this in terms of winning money to buy out people’s time to participate in these activities. I’ve always been an enthusiast for the LSE model of research-led editorship (as opposed to the journalist-led editorship of the Conversation, which I think leads to an often sterile product in spite of the faultless copy) so I’d like it if this possibility, as a distinctive occupational role in itself, doesn’t slip out of the conversation but it’s difficult for all sorts of reasons. I think it would also be beneficial to find ways of employing PhD students on a part-time basis, either for ad hoc assignments or work on an ongoing basis, given the retrenchment of funding and the congruence between the demands of a PhD and paid work of this sort. My one worry here is that the pursuit of funding undermines what I would see as the more valuable outcome of establishing blog editorship on an equivalent footing with journal editorship – given the latter does not, as far as I’m aware, factor into workload allocations anywhere, advocating that time for blog editing should be bought out risks preventing an equivalence between these two roles which I suspect would otherwise be likely to emerge organically over time.

My sense of the key issues facing the UK social science blogosphere:  

  • How to share experiences, allow practical advice to circulate and facilitate the establishment of best practice
  • Finding qualitative metrics to supplement the quantitative metrics provided by blogging platforms
  • Making it easier for new bloggers to build audiences and promote their writing
  • Experimenting with aggregation projects to help consolidate the blogosphere and share traffic
  • Finding ways to fund social science blogging (for students, doctoral researchers and academics)
  • Increasing the recognition of social science blogging as a valuable academic activity
  • Ensuring that social science blogging remains a researcher-led activity and doesn’t get subsumed into institutionalised public engagement schemes
  • Encouraging the development of group blogs as a type distinct from single-author blogs and multi-author blogs with designated editors