Promises and Perils of Blogging

As I continue to reflect on the discussions that took place during the Digital Sandbox about student uses of social media, I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of positive feedback I’ve received from the Twitterverse and those who attended my panel in person.

For my part of the panel, I chose to focus on blogging as form of sharing humanities scholarship with the broader public. At one point in my life not too long ago I was fairly skeptical of blogs and viewed them as platforms for promoting frivolous top ten lists, gossip, and “scoops” that were generally uninteresting to me. I was never encouraged to utilize blogging (or the internet generally) as a means for learning about history during undergrad. Indeed, I viewed social media and blogging as a place for leisurely fun, not scholarly discussion, and I never thought about using social media and/or blogging as a way to assert ownership in my humanities scholarship and my education.

My views began to change when I started working for the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in 2010. Within the first few days of working there, my friend and fellow ranger Bob Pollock of Yesterday…and Today told me about a number of notable Civil War blogs that were worth reading, and nothing’s ever been the same since. While I continue to read and rely on print books for a large amount of my scholarly endeavors, I began to find myself at that point making more time to get online to read about the Civil War. I began to spend less time on sites like YouTube and NHL.com and almost completely gave up watching television. Once I started graduate school last year, the impulse to start blogging on my own became more acute, and after eight months I have no intentions of stopping. I have been amazed by the ever-growing network of connections I have developed through blogging in such a short time.

I think that blogging sometimes gets the same sorts of criticisms Wikipedia gets. Wikipedia, we are often told by history teachers, is an unreliable source that cannot be trusted, and it should never show up as a citation on a term paper. Sure, it acts as a great “starting point,” but the crowdsourcing platform that Wikipedia has embraced has led to articles that are sometimes biased, inaccurate, poorly interpreted, or a combination of all three. There is certainly a grain of truth to all of this, and I wouldn’t want my students citing Wikipedia on their assignments either. However, many of those same academics who routinely criticize Wikipedia for its shortcomings have never attempted to edit a Wikipedia page to make it more to their liking, nor have they encouraged their students to use their newly-gained skills to fix mistakes on the site. Likewise, I have seen critics of blogs question the medium as a way of sharing information and “deepening” our understanding of the past and–in the case of Gary Gallagher in a June 2012 editorial in the Civil War Times–criticize history bloggers for making an “unworthy topic appear to be serious.” Yet those same critics often don’t utilize blogging as way to tackle what they consider to be “serious” topics.

So, in sum, I’m a big fan of blogging. However, my experiences at the Digital Sandbox on Thursday, August 15 and the IUPUI Public History Workshop the following day have also reminded me that there are shortcomings to blogging that have yet to be addressed in the academic community.

Dr. Ray Haberski of Marian University and the Society of United States Intellectual History gave the keynote speech for the Digital Sandbox, and his insights into the USIH’s experiences in blogging were fascinating. Originally started as a series of discussion threads on H-Net in 2005, the USIH eventually moved to the blogging format in 2007 and gained rapid popularity in the academic community. A national intellectual society was literally formed through the blog, and the society has been hosting a national conference on intellectual history since 2008. Dr. Haberski even mentioned that comments left on his blog posts helped to better arrange and formulate arguments in his scholarly books.

However, Haberski pointed out to us that blogging doesn’t get one a job in academia, nor does it replace the experience of getting one’s hands dirty with research material at a library or archives. In fact, several of the original founders of the USIH are now out of academia completely. Furthermore, the question of audience must play a role in deciding to blog. Has the USIH had great success because of its expanding popularity amongst those in the general public, or is it because of its popularity with an academic audience? Maybe both? Does blogging encourage dialogue between scholars and the general public, or are old divisions between scholars and the public being perpetuated in an online format? What can scholars do to reach the public? Are there ways to improve scholarly content delivery or the blogging platform in general? I don’t think anyone has an idea right now.

On Friday, many of these same concerns were addressed through a speech given by Dr. Andrew Hurley of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Hurley wrote a very fine book about historic preservation, public history, and civic engagement that I will address in a future post, and his work in St. Louis is remarkable. However, Dr. Hurley came to us with a warning: be careful with digital technology, and keep your audience in mind when creating digital content.

Hurley pointed out that public history has moved beyond text and image websites and into interactive realms that could redefine how we look at the past. He also pointed out that the term “Digital Divide” has changed in meaning over the past twenty years in the United States. In the 1990s, the Digital Divide referred to the haves and have-nots: those who had access to the internet and those who did not. Today, almost everyone has access to the internet, but how they use the internet constitutes the new and critical Digital Divide. Higher income people are more likely to have desktop computers and use the internet for website building, blogging, and the accumulation of “knowledge capital.” Lower income people, however, are more likely to access the internet through mobile phones and use the internet for passive entertainment, games, image sharing, and other related activities. When Hurley’s group attempted to run a blog and Facebook page to promote its restoration efforts in North St. Louis, the sites ultimately failed, with few people in the area commenting on the blog or accessing the internet as a way to promote restoration efforts in St. Louis.

Where do we go from here? Hurley stressed to us the importance of public historians encouraging their audiences to use the internet as a form of “content-based knowledge creation” and critical thinking. I am convinced that this is the next great challenge in closing the “Digital Divide,” but I am lacking answers for how best to approach this problem. It’s an exciting time in the social media/blogging/digital realm of humanities scholarship right now, but I hope that we as a community continue to make time for critical reflection on how to best use digital technology to inspire everyone to not only use the internet as a source of personal empowerment, but to become more empathetic humans in general. That’s the goal of the humanities, right?

Cheers

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