What happened to November? Here we suddenly stand on the little work-swept isle of December 7, the tsunami of term's end raises the water level, and I am now feeling that the previous month was short a week. Or two.
The essay I promised the Chaucer blogger is due soon, so I need to bring the collaborative history of Blogging the Middle Ages to a close. I started with an overview of the early days of the electronic frontier. We then had a fascinating series of posts offering histories of various medieval-themed blogs. Now, then, some brief speculation on what the future holds. As always, I look forward to your own comments -- especially because here I will be at my most idiosyncratic. Nobody gets the future right, except in retrospect.
Some time ago I wondered here at ITM if Facebook had killed Blogger, by which I meant: have social networking sites diminished the impact of and necessity for blogs? The question's importance is tied not only to what the years ahead hold for academic blogs, but for their audience and outreach as well. Blogs are composed in part for the communities that form around them. The best posts are those that spur lively conversation. Nothing's better than having an unexpected interlocutor arrive, someone who can bring the discussion in productive new directions. Blogs also exist more for their silent readers than their garrulous ones: of the 236 people currently subscribing to ITM via Google Reader, probably no more than 36 have ever actually left a comment. I do not think I am being naive in believing that the blog has some minimal but tangible impact upon such readers, perhaps in the classes they teach, the articles they write, the projects they pursue. Add in those who read the blog just by stopping by, those who subscribe via another service like Bloglines, those who use Facebook or some other site to access the RSS feed, and you will see that most people treat a blog like an informal version of a journal: a place for news, a chuckle, a disapproving cluck of the tongue, a quick morning skim ... and sometimes a place with some material to linger over, think about, respond to.
I worry about the relocation of much of what used to unfold on blogs to spaces like Facebook because those discussions are inherently closed: they are limited to the friends one already possesses; no one stumbles across these materials due to a fortuitous Google search; the discussions do not exist in a semi-permanent, easily accessible archive in the way that a blog's thread of comments persist (and because they persist, they can even be reawakened after long dormancy; that doesn't happen on FB).
It could be argued that no technology actually supplants another: print books and e-books are not at war, but are coexistent phenomena. Facebook will not replace Blogger; we will have both, and different modes of communication will unfold on each. Maybe. But you know, very few of us are reading microfiche these days. Another possibility is that the computing-derived cloud metaphor I used in the Blogger v. Facebook post really does hold: Twitter and FB can be used to direct readers to blogs via the quick dissemination of links via multiple outlets (personal profiles, blog fan pages, tweets, and old fashioned homepages). Synergy. Thus Eileen wrote:
I don't see Facebook as draining either content or persons away from weblogs, so much as they serve as yet another portal *to* particular blogs and blog posts, via "News Feed" links and the like ... I started a Facebook page for the BABEL Working Group because I thought it would be a good way to disseminate sound-bite-style information regarding conference sessions, journal issues, books-in-progress, and so on, but if I wanted to send a message to the widest possible audience with a certain amount of detailed substance involved, I would still consider this weblog the best and most effective medium for doing that. For the most part, Facebook, as powerful and widely used as it is, is still mainly a medium for very fast & quick communications and networking between real friends and acquaintances and would-be-acquaintances and for sharing personal information in the form, again, of nugget-sized "bits."I'd mostly agree with this account: FB is best for quick, terse, multimedia communication. But I and many of my FB friends (Karl especially) have been employing the site -- as well as Twitter -- for interactive and substantial exchanges about topics that have frequently unfolded here at ITM: pedagogy, bibliographic searches, uses of technology, recommendations for texts, and discussion of books and articles. I think especially about a recent conversation that unfolded around patty Ingham's important new essay "Critic Provocateur." The piece was shared and discussed wholly within FB. Its catalyst was a status update by Eileen mentioning that she was reading the piece. I complained via status update that Literature Compass is not open access. The essay was then provided to me via multiple sources (including its author), I shared the piece with others, and multiple status updates about the essay were posted by various medievalists. Comments were posted at these updates. The essay triggered a conversation that was abbreviated in the way that the genre requires, but the dialogue had enough substance to it that (as I participated in it and watched it unfold) I was aware that yes, FB really has taken on many of the functions that had been the provenance and domain of blogs.
So what's next? Despite the "information wants to be free" ethos of the early internet, it seems clear to me that much scholarly work that ought to be available is going to vanish behind the wall of limited social networks (where the unexpected guest cannot be inspired by what she did not expect to find) and corporate sites that reserve their content for research libraries that can afford their extortionate access fees. But not all of it: open access journals are not in decline, and the day will come (I hope) when their cachet equals that of those we pay publishing megacompanies to sanction for us. Ebooks should make access to writing done under the imprimatur of peer review at "good presses" easier to get hold of. Medievalists are a techno-savvy, generous and adaptive bunch. Their work is not going to vanish from the internet any time soon.
Meanwhile the next generation of humanities scholars may not be quite as enamored of text as we currently are, leading to more work undertaken within and published as multimedia (here is a piece from Inside HigherEd on that shift and its possible impact on the undergraduate classroom). I don't have the technological proficiency to create a YouTube channel, but other medievalists will no doubt do so. I am also, I realize, already old fashioned: structuring my courses around writing and analysis that take textuality as central. I don't especially enable my students to collaborate as part of the learning process; I don't yet care if they would rather produce a video response to Marie de France than a paper based upon textual evidence and close reading. I talk frequently about new critical modes but insist that students master the old ones before they attempt them. Some day I may be one of those emaciated figures seen lurking in the moldering remains of some abandoned academic program, muttering about how declines in Latin proficiency have triggered the pedagogical apocalypse. I worry that the shifts in resources undertaken by increasingly corporatized universities will diminish the longterm health of the humanities, and make fostering the next generation of researchers and teachers a dead-end endeavor.
The future of scholarly communication will likely mean that the technologies I have been using (traditional print books, blogs, Twitter, FB) will be superseded. The future will arrive, and may well leave me behind, just like those for whom the be-all and end-all of scholarship was e-texts, CDs, or microfiche. Maybe the university will always be a location where face-to-face encounter within the humanities classroom will be prized. Maybe the Chaucer blog will always inspire those who have not taken a course in Chaucer to take one, and those are taking such a course to find a new way to enjoy and learn from the materials. Synergy, again. But it is also possible that by moving so much scholarly interaction online we make it easy for those who make decisions about educational policy to hire fewer humanists, to argue that the electronic pedagogical frontier is in fact the most viable one. I'd like to think that blogging and its siblings are ways to make a case for the vitality and importance of contemporary humanities education. On my darker days, though, I worry that once that future frontier is reached, what we'll find is not appreciation for such efforts, but a cold and startling indifference.
What do you think?