What does social media mean for academic writing? Most answers to this question focus on how such platforms might constrain or enable the expression of complex ideas. For instance, we might encounter scepticism that one could express conceptual nuance in 140 characters or an enthusiasm for blogging as offering new ways to explore theoretical questions beyond the confines of the journal article. However these discussions only rarely turn to writing in a more biographical sense, as a recurrent activity which is both personally meaningful and professionally necessary.

Social media is certainly offering us more occasions for writing. The most obvious form this takes is the personal blog, providing one with a platform for exploration whenever we are taken by the feel of an idea worth exploring. However I suspect that many academics who sustain a personal blog do so because it serves a purpose prior to writing, serving as a common-place book or ideas garden. In such cases, the time spent blogging serves as a preparation for writing, even if it is sometimes an oblique one. There is no necessary tension here between blogging and writing, even if sometimes the former can hinder the latter, for instance when the familiarity of the blog draws us away from more formal writing that might not be going well.

What about online writing that doesn’t serve this preparatory function? In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about the challenge of ephemera increasingly confronting academics. I mean ephemera in the literal sense of “things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time”. Long-established examples include book reviews, newsletter articles and short pieces in magazines. With the growth of social media, we are seeing a rapid expansion in opportunities to produce such ephemera. Multi-author blogs and online magazines will often be sources of invitations to write, as well as offering opportunities for this to qualified parties who are seeking them out. Such writing rarely constitutes much of a commitment in its own terms. One of many reasons I enjoy writing of this sort is that the usual temporal horizon rarely exceeds a few hours work. For instance, it might take a while to read a book for review but not to write the review itself.

To call ephemera a ‘challenge’ may be misleading. In many ways, I remain convinced this is an opportunity, for the enjoyment of intellectual richness and diversity at the level of both individual scholars and scholarly communities. But unlike blogging in the preparatory sense discussed above, it can often take away from time and energy available for ‘real’ writing. The number of opportunities can itself prove problematic, as invitations and inclinations lead to over-commitment in the face of this abundance. For instance, in the next couple of weeks, I’m supposed to write an article for a magazine, a book review for a blog symposium, a blog post for a newspaper and a piece of sociological fiction for a zine. If I’m being realistic, it seems unlikely I’ll complete them all and thus the writing that was chosen rather than invited is likely to fall by the wayside. Though I think it’s a shame that I experience this as in some sense a distraction, despite my enthusiasm for the planned pieces. Much of this is related to journal articles, as things I should be writing but feel little inclination to, leaving it hard not to see a distance from academia as involving a gain rather than a loss of intellectual freedom.


A subsequent conversation made me think back to Richard Rorty’s remark about universities enabling one to “read books and report what one thinks about them”. Is the promise of ephemera a matter of keeping in touch with this aspiration within a university system which militates against its realisation?

From Digital Methods, by Richard Rogers, loc 671-688:

The “sphere” in “blogosphere” refers in spirit to the public sphere; it also may suggest the geometrical form, in which all points on the surface are the same distance from the center or core. One could think of such an equidistance as an egalitarian ideal, in which every blog, or even every source of information, is knowable by the core and vice versa. It has been found, however, that certain sources are central on the web. They receive the vast majority of links as well as hits. Following such principles as that the rich get richer (aka Matthew effect and power law distributions), the sites already receiving attention tend to garner more. The distance between the center and other nodes may only grow, with the idealized sphere being a fiction, however much a useful one. I would like to put forward an approach that takes up the question of distance from core to periphery, and operationalizes it as the measure of differences in rankings between sources per sphere. Spherical analysis is a digital method for measuring and learning from the distance between sources in different spheres on the web.

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

There’s a great post on A Very Public Sociologist reflecting on how the political blogosphere in the UK has changed since the author began blogging. It strengthens my conviction that the blogosphere would be an extremely conducive object for a field analysis looking at how, say, the ‘political blogosphere’ elaborated itself through interaction at the border between itself and the print media (and their attendant digital offshoots):

The ‘function’ of blogging and blogging culture itself is a many-legged beast transformed. Whereas blogs were once an alternative to and upstart challenger against traditional media commentary, it has effortlessly segwayed into the commentariat. It’s as home in established outlets as your Toynbees and Heffers. The press has essentially colonised and co-opted cadres of writers who came up through the blogs. The top tier bloggers – you know who you are – lead existences virtually indistinguishable from ‘professionals’ who got into the papers the old way. Media-branded blogs like Comment is Free, Telegraph Blogs, The Staggers, andThe Spectator have effectively hoovered up last decade’s explosion in creative political writing and have successfully used them to forge successful online brands. Time and again, their house bloggers tend to provide the most interesting (and infuriating) comment, which is why I and tens of thousands of others read them.

This professionalisation, for want of a better word, is best exemplified by Iain Dale’s passage from blogging to mainstream punditry to publishing (and back again). Whether you love him, loathe him, or don’t have a clue who he is, when Iain Dale’s Diary was up and running between 2005 and 2010 Iain did play an important role in getting bloggers and blogging into the mainstream, if only as a by-product of his own self-promotion. But his blog commanded an audience that crossed party loyalties, and that was pretty big. Getting featured if you were a newbie, getting a slot in the ‘Daley Dozen’ picks of best writing from around the blogs, and/or securing a respectable position in the annual Total Politics poll was a very useful way of getting noticed. Also, to Iain’s credit, I found him to be as even handed as you can expect a solid Tory to be. Compare, for instance, his regular picks with the overly partisan boilerplate Guido stamps his/their approval on every day. There are now few (if any) blogs that now fill the cross-partisan market Iain’s used to. Certainly where the most-read sites are concerned anyway. It is now very rare a piece written on a left blog would receive wide circulation among conservatives, and vice versa. Blogging has always been partisan, but the division of lefties only reading lefties, and rightwingers only reading rightwingers is more pronounced than it once was.

The entry of blogging into the echo chamber was probably always going to happen. Some of it may be left at the feet of the papers and magazine who’ve muscled in on blogging. After all, they have their political allegiances. But the bigger part has been played by social media, particularly Twitter. When I started tweeting in 2009 it was to promote this here blog and have a bit of banter. Question Time and PMQs running commentary were definitely not things I had in mind. But over the last few years, the relationship between micro-blogging and blogging have found the terms reversed. I can’t help thinking that for large numbers blogging is an adjunct of tweeting. That is blog audience, while nice, is subordinated to the insatiable drive to accumulate more Twitter followers.

It has restructured how blogging works too. Leave a comment? Why not tweet the blogger instead? Twitter killed the comments box star. Twitter’s immediacy has made redundant certain little traditions too. When was the last time you tagged someone in a post? Who posts memes any more? They’re not really needed now. It’s a shame because “the old ways”, like themed blog carnivals (like the Carnival of Socialism) were excellent for hawking your wares round other blogs, introducing new writers and ensuring marginalised/ignored voices were given a wider airing.

http://averypublicsociologist.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/the-state-bloggings-in.html