I’ve been working on this end of cyberspace idea for a while, and occasionally posted about it on my other blog; this blog, in contrast, is just over a month old. However, I think there’s a good case to be made for the utility of special-topic research blogs— or perhaps more generally, of using social media (including blogs) as research tools.
For one thing, turning research into a form of public performance encourages you to keep at it. One of the great problems with scholarly work, or almost any kind of writing, is that it’s easy to get bogged down, blocked, run yourself around in circles, or just put the project down for a little (and then a little longer, and a little longer). Talking about it makes it harder for those things to happen.
More important, it makes public and sharable things— citations, notes, reflections on other people’s work, connections you draw between your work and others’— that in the pre-Web scholarship world were almost always private, or sharable only with a small circle of colleagues. Any given piece of content from this flow is going to be interesting only to a tiny number of other people; but to them, it could be very interesting.
With a more conventional specialist academic project, the value of a blog is likely to be reduced by the fact that you already know everyone else who’s interested in your work (or everyone who’s opinion is really going to matter when promotion time comes around). For interdisciplinary projects, in contrast, a blog can serve as a tool for attracting attention across disciplinary and geographical lines. The people who are most interested in this project, and have made the most thoughtful comments on it, are people I knew only very peripherally or not at all when I started the blog.
I’m also finding that Technorati and del.icio.us are more useful than I expected. I’ve used Technorati to follow references to this blog, the Wired article, and the term «end of cyberspace.» Essentially, it lets you follow your ideas, see who else is thinking about them, and survey the reactions they’re generating (ranging from positive, to thoughtful, to not so positive, to negative, to more negative). Del.icio.us, because it lets you follow keywords rather than specific hyperlinks or exact terms, has a slightly different, more diffuse function: it’s more a tool for sampling the collective unconscious than recording specific conversations. (If Del.icio.us is a Jungian analyst, Technorati is an NSA wiretap.)
In my old academic life, you rarely heard much about your articles, and the signals you did get that others had read them— comments from people at conferences, reprint requests, citations in other people’s work— were all the more precious for their rarity. Consequently, the ability to see how people are reacting to your work in real time— to turn an imagined community of scholars into a conversational circle— is as amazing as being able to iChat across the Atlantic.
Finally, this reinforces an argument I’ve been making in my work at the Institute: that information technologies often begin as tools for increasing efficiency and productivity, but morph into tools for enhancing sociability (without losing those earlier functions). The telephone started out as a tool for businessmen: early users were even warned to keep women off the line, since they’d just gossip. It took a couple decades for telephone companies to realize that there was a lot of money in people gossiping. Likewise, cell phones were first sold to busy executives and highly mobile workers (like sales reps); now my kids ask when they’ll be old enough to have cell phones. The personal computer? Efficiency tool— you can write papers, balance your checkbook— to social tool— you can IM with friends, play Everquest. Part of the value of setting up Technorati watchlists resides in the content they capture for you; but the deeper value, I suspect, will come from the people they help connect you to.
This begins to move you to a model of scholarly performance in which the value resides not exclusively in the finished, published work, but is distributed across a number of usually non-competitive media. If I ever do publish a book on the end of cyberspace, I seriously doubt that anyone who’s encountered the blog will think, «Well, I can read the notes, I don’t need to read the book.» The final product is more like the last chapter of a mystery. You want to know how it comes out.
It could ultimately point to a somewhat different model for both doing and evaluating scholarship: one that depends a little less on peer-reviewed papers and monographs, and more upon your ability to develop and maintain a piece of intellectual territory, and attract others to it— to build an interested, thoughtful audience. Since the former are getting more expensive for everyone (academic journals have become stunningly expensive, and some universities are starting to rebel against the high prices publishers are trying to charge), and the latter are getting harder to produce (university presses are less willing to subsidize the publication of books that are guaranteed to lose money), such changes may be in the cards anyway.
Of course, there are plenty of potential downsides to such a model: it could be license for people to perpetually tweak the details of projects, and never put a stake in the ground; there are opportunities for gaming a system that measures popularity and the quality of responses; and it might favor trendy, easier-to-describe subjects over harder ones. Then again, you could make the same criticisms of the current system.
[To the tune of Steppenwolf, «Magic Carpet Ride (Single),» from the album «Steppenwolf the Second».]
Technorati Tags: cyberspace, end of cyberspace, history of science, postacademic, work