Saturday, January 26, 2013

Blogging and Social Media: My GW DH Talk

by J J Cohen

The two day fiesta of digitizing, annotating, tweeting, performing, theorizing, practicing, envisioning, developing, collaborating, skyping, interrogating and hobnobbing that was the GW Digital Humanities Symposium has come to its end (some background also here). So many good things need to be said about the event -- and fortunately most of them have were said as the conference unfolded via Twitter. But for the record, one more time: I am so in awe of my colleague Alex Huang, who gathered the funding from many sources to make the symposium happen and did much of its behind the scenes work (intellectual and otherwise); my colleagues Jonathan Hsy and Daniel DeWispelare, who planned and executed the conference with Alex so flawlessly; and Em Russel, a GW graduate student who ensured the whole thing ran beautifully, with all the labor that entails. All four of them are visionaries and I'm very proud to work with them.

For a small-ish conference, the symposium had a fairly extensive Twitter and Facebook presence, as we had hoped. We ran into some bumps, though, and Ryan Cordell's post on the matter should be required reading for anyone interested in social media and community (if you are reading this blog, that includes you!). His Principles of Conference Tweeting apply just as much, I think, to blogs, Facebook and other forums.

When I delivered my own talk I had the livestream of the Twitter feed projected around me and encouraged the audience (as well as anyone listening in remotely) to tweet reactions to what they were hearing. I knew that I was risking being tweet bombed, but that didn't bother me. Though I knew it would be distracting to have the feed scrolling along as I spoke, my hope was that this larger than life broadcasting would achieve three important things: make those in the audience not on Twitter (the majority of those in attendance) realize that they were missing some discussions that add depth and fun to the symposium; stress that social media forms communities that can be ephemeral but that are also powerful modes of conducting scholarship and partially archiving that work as well; and emphasize for those who were tweeting the proceedings that our community is not gated, but part of a larger public whose participation is often invisible but still counts.

My presentation is below. As usual I ended up ad libbing and this isn't exactly what I said, but it's close. Let me know what you think.


Presenting on blogging to a crowd like this one makes me feel like I’ve been released for the afternoon from the assisted living center to speak about how life changed when they switched my stories from radio format to picture versions. Blogs are old news, so 2005: an unremarkable part of the scholarly landscape rather than the innovative digital forum they once were.

Maybe. But perhaps, now that blogs have been assimilated into our habitual critical practice, it’s worth pausing to make a few observations about their achievements, current status and future promise. Warning: much of what I say in the short time allotted to me will be common sensical and based on personal experience. That’s why I’m hoping we can have a vigorous discussion when my fellow presenters and I conclude.

I have been blogging since January 2006, when I founded the site that became the group blog In the Middle. Back in that ancient past, humanities blogs were not a novelty, but they did seem to populate a frontier. It was a time of invention, and agonizing over the professional status of such modes of scholarly endeavor. (A large portion of this “agonizing,” I want to stress, was on the part of non-bloggers, exhibiting thinly disguised assertion of privilege, as well as worry over the fact that blogs give to the academic precariat a strong voice.) My inspiration came from reading many blogs -- but the ones that stand out were those of four female medievalists, all at a risky stage in their career when they started, all with a feminist bent, all demonstrating in their writing a generosity of spirit, an inventiveness and a playfulness.

 Of course, not every blogger espouses such a companionable ethos. Writers in various internet forums, moreover, have sometimes transported into a new arena a business as usual mode of academic praxis, sometimes with an eye towards policing those who challenge the styles of legacy scholarship. This criticism is usually disseminated under the guise of keeping the Academy precise, worthy, superlative – but such adjectives tend to be code for scholarship practiced in a way consonant with orthodox training and a love of one’s own authority. If in 2013 you do not realize why open access publication is essential; why the current for-profit journal and book publication model is broken, and especially poisonous to the young in the field; why digital modes of conducting, creating and disseminating work are the most future-oriented; and why we need always to think scholarship as a communal endeavor that challenges at every point the walls of a university system that -- demonstrating neither heart nor brain -- exploits adjunct labor and excludes some of our very best intellectuals from full access to its resources and from its ability to enable collective thriving – well, if you don’t realize these things, open your eyes, read a little, or maybe retire.

But, blogs. “In the Middle” did not start auspiciously. Despite my interest in the liveliness of blogs, I instigated mine as if it were an updatable but static webpage: a single-author, professionally focused way to provide information published conventionally elsewhere. Sometimes these early posts were pre-prints, and sometimes they were a bare form of open access, enabling material locked on library shelves to roam the internet. The first post I published was a cut and paste piece on “Race” written for the supplement to the Dictionary of the Middle Ages. I’m certain many more people have read the entry on the web than have glanced at its printed version, incarcerated in a volume that weighs ten pounds and costs $200 used. Next came encyclopedia entries for “Postcolonial Theory” and “Erotic Animals” (the latter is among most popular posts ever at In the Middle; I can only imagine the disappointment of those who arrive at the “Erotic Animals” page and find a scholarly analysis instead of whatever they thought those terms would yield through Google). A draft of the introduction to my book Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain joined them. Something extraordinary happened at this point: the blog’s first comments.

Submitted by an anonymous reader, comment number one stated simply “I disagree.” Fifteen more followed. Several were silly, speculating what the musical based upon the book might be entitled, or the possibilities of a pop-up version of Beowulf featuring a Grendel who loses his arm, with real ripping action. Other comments were serious, especially those by my eventual co-blogger Karl Steel, who pushed me to think about some assertions I’d made rather glibly. I threw myself into the discussion, and the blog’s infancy was cut remarkably short. A conversation unfolded, and it became clear to me that community-building and knowledge dissemination had to be unified endeavors. Eileen Joy and Mary Kate Hurley were early members of the commenting community. I invited them to be guest bloggers and then co-bloggers. My GW colleague Jonathan Hsy joined as a blogger last year. Together we cover a diversity of academic life stages, from senior faculty to the precariat.

Seven years later, In the Middle has obtained a substantial, dedicated readership. The blog has also become extensively networked. We’ve integrated with a fan page on Facebook (740 likes) that distributes links to blog posts and some unique content as well. Each of the five bloggers generally share the blog posts with their own Facebook friends, forming a web of cross-commentary. All five of us are to varying degrees active on Twitter, where we will typically link to the blog and catalyze discussion about material related to its ambit. In the Middle is also by association and through use essential to several communal projects and organizations: the BABEL Working Group, the GW Medieval and Early Modern Studies Group, the open access press punctum books, the journal postmedieval. To give a recent example, two ongoing discussions at In the Middle became conference sessions sponsored by BABEL and MEMSI. The presentations will soon become essays in an edited collection jointly published by punctum books and Oliphaunt, the open access publishing arm of MEMSI. These partnerships are mutually sustaining, and atypical of the scholarly landscape of even a few years ago.

I’d really like to emphasize this networked modality: no vibrant blog exists by itself but stretches across multiple sites, Twitter, Facebook, live events like conferences and symposia, open access and traditional publishing, and (to various degrees, depending on the topic), email discussion lists, YouTube, Pinterest, Flickr,, MLA Commons, and so on. And you know, you could substitute “vibrant intellectual presence” for “blog” in what I just said and get at the mission of the scholar in the post-digital humanities. I truly believe that part of our calling is to create as many publics as possible. If the humanities are important enough for us to dedicate our lives to their study, then we need to share our work, our play, and our wit in proliferating contexts. The days of locking research in an expensive book in a members-only library should be part of the scholarly past.

Different audiences interact with “In the Middle” within each forum, with Facebook and Twitter often generating more discussion than the blog site. The downside to this relocation of the commentariat, especially into the ineptly gated community of Facebook and away from a more accessible space is that much of the conversation unfolds literally among friends. The vast majority of blog readers do so in silence, a non-interactive consumption that I do not understand but that characterizes how most users approach social media. That’s fine: I realize that seemingly nonparticipating readers do in fact interact with what is published through the blog and with the discussions that unfold across its networks. It’s just that these interactions are largely invisible because their effects include impacts on thinking and relocation of some of the material to more traditional scholarly settings like essays published in journals and books. I know that this mode of participation proceeds because I often receive appreciative emails telling me so, and occasionally read citations of blog discussions in print. Everyone participates differently. Social media is, shall we say, differently social for many of its participants than for the loquacious minority who propel it.

I began my talk with the “blogging is dead” topos: I repeated it because the form does seem to have lost any radical edge it once possessed -- partly through assimilation, partly through mainstream acceptance, and partly through social media diffusiveness. I devote a great deal of time to the study of monsters, though, and I can tell you with confidence that nothing has really begun to live until after it is declared dead. Blogs continue to perform important work, even if much of what they achieve doesn’t get noticed or discoursed about as back in the days of their novelty. Let me put this another way: blogs continue quietly to reconfigure the academic landscape, sometimes in ways so profound that the restructuring isn’t apparent until after its accomplishment. This potential has been demonstrated, for example, over the past few years by the philosophical approach to materialism that goes by the names of speculative realism and object oriented ontology. In an infamous interview the philosopher Ray Brassier declared of the movement:
The ‘speculative realist movement’ exists only in the imaginations of a group of bloggers ... I don’t believe the internet is an appropriate medium for serious philosophical debate; nor do I believe it is acceptable to try to concoct a philosophical movement online by using blogs to exploit the misguided enthusiasm of impressionable graduate students … I see little philosophical merit in a ‘movement’ whose most signal achievement thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity.
Several points deserve remark here. First, everything Brassier says is wrong. Serious philosophical debate flourished across a constellation of blogs during speculative realism’s genesis. By the time Brassier gave this interview in 2011, the crossover from blogs to multiple modes of dissemination had taken place. Now, much publishing on the topic happens through mainly open access presses, but not before the hashing out of ideas on blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Though controversial, object oriented philosophy has already had a profound impact upon disciplines as diverse as art, architecture, medieval studies, computer programming, game theory, literary criticism, and ecotheory. Many of its elaborators lack (or once lacked) the pulpit of a prestige university and venerable university press. Without blogs the movement could not have burgeoned into such life.

I also want to point out the slide that Brassier makes from blogs to easily exploited and “impressionable” members of the profession. It’s almost as if Dr. Fredric Wertham has returned, only he isn’t attacking 1950s comic books; this time the seduction of the innocent involves misguidedly enthusiastic graduate students. Brassier’s pronouncement manifests a disdain for the young in the field that I find repugnant. The problem is not that graduate students are too impressionable or too enthusiastic; it’s that they tend to be more cognitively flexible than their mentors, and when they see an intellectual project worth pursuing, they will pursue it with energy, rigor, and creativity. The access to ideas that blogs grant enable that pursuit to occur and increase – and that is why the audience and authorship of blogs often skews towards the young in the field and those without secure place in the academy. (I don’t want to get too utopian; as blogger Mary Beard has recently made clear, blogs can also organize micro-communities that foster the most rancid hatred and misogyny – though they can also be called out publicly for that fact, as she has done. I’ve had to cope with a blog stalker whose animus was not confined to virtual spaces).

Academia loves its hierarchies. The humanities are an overburdened, underpaid, and sometimes unpleasant field of scholarly endeavor. Anything anyone can do to make the discipline less inhospitable, less rigid, and more congenial ought to be done. I never understand the tendency to haze, bully, and intimidate those young in the field and other members of the precariat, or why those with tenure track jobs can speak of “the adjunct problem” as if adjuncts were the problem, rather than adjunctification itself. Embracing a nonhierarchical and wall breaching nomadism assisted by social media’s tools may help to make scholarship more gregarious, less solitary, less cold – and strengthen the friendships among those within the university, those who have forged careers within alternative academic modes, and those who are building a future of increasing importance, the para-academy. Social media is the means by which we can collaborate on what we will do together next.


haylie said...

Thanks for posting, Jeffrey! I admit I was a bit distracted by the twitter feed (although I still think it was a worthwhile addition), so I appreciate having this to reference.

Jonathan Hsy said...

Thanks for posting this so quickly Jeffrey! I do plan to follow up with something about this on ITM later (and I've said this to you before) but I've always appreciated your openness, concern for others, and the creative ways you use ITM - and other online venues - to foster productive exchange and transformative community.

I, too, was struck by how twitter spawned a "parallel conference" in cyberspace that had a strange life of its own hovering over (or subtly infusing) the actual experiences we were having "on the ground." Ryan Cordell's blog posting is indeed a "must read" for twitter etiquette at conferences - and what I appreciate about this is that the whole thing actually provoked a real face-to-face conversation. I appreciate how Ryan has set out an excellent set of shared values (sorry if that sounds cheesy, but it's true!) for the twitter-community to keep in mind.

M. Bychowski said...

You'll have to imagine the giggling and other affects that the rolling twitter screen behind Jeffrey's fantastic with remarks from the audience.

Great in text, but as your talk (and others) demonstrated, bringing text, the digital, and the personal together creates a beautiful (if ephemeral) experience. Bravo on all accounts :)

Steve Mentz said...

"more gregarious, less solitary, less cold" is a great refrain & rallying cry for our profession. Thanks for posting the talk, which adds richness to the fragmentary tweets & FB bread crumbs I've been gathering. It was a great event, even to a mostly lurking presence from snowy CT!

You allude to the blog/twiter/FB nexus, and briefly gesture toward a less utopian way to think about the changing shapes of social media networks. In general I think strategic utopianism is a good thing, esp as a counter-challenge to the doom & gloom that surrounds so much thinking about the humanities today. But it would be interesting also to think about how imagined and virtually real publics shape the kinds of expression that are possible and realized. There's a part of my quasi-Romantic and Kafka-idolizing soul that sometimes still values the unconnected & solitary in addition to the networked and public. Though of course I'm happy Brod chose to make public rather than burn Kafka's manuscripts!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, everyone, for these comments. Keep them coming!

As I told the conference organizers when I emailed to them the single slide I'd made for an introductory background (before the screens went to the Twitter feed), I was trying to perform information overload in it. You can tell me if that was achieved: the slide is the first illustration for this ITM post, above. Imagine it on a screen that is almost floor to ceiling, plus two side screens ... and then its being replaced by a scrolling feed of the live tweets with the #gwdh13 hashtag. Again, I knew it would be busy and distracting -- but that was part of my point. I wanted to make the enfolding of digital and live communities visible to all instead of some -- that is, not just the "loquacious minority" that I reference in my talk; and also have those on Twitter see illustrated the impact of their tweets on audience. I'm grateful that we had the technology to pull all this off!

Gil Harris in the Q&A got at the downside of this potential information overload: it's too much, and it can be hard to focus and difficult to sustain an intense conversation in the face of such proliferations. In my response I stressed that, for me, to live with "too much" is a problem inherent in our own worldedness. We can never pay attention to everything that surrounds us; we always make attentional choices, and therein lies an ethics. Cf. the 1980s Canon Wars discussions, when people worried that after authors like Virginia Woolf and Christine de Pisan elbowed their way next to Henry James and Chaucer there would be too much for us to focus on and we'd lose commonality in our conversations. I don't think it is a coincidence that we saw the rise of theory at this same time in an attempt to hammer out a lingua franca and preserve community; we also saw and continue to see much temporally promiscuous thematic work that enables dialogue across specialties.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

And to Steve's point in particular, I want to say, first of all, YES. Strategic utopianism all the way.

I do think it's important to reflect upon what modes of expression social media enable -- and indeed that was an emergent theme of the conference, as Ryan Cordell's blog post on Twitter gone wrong (link in main body of post) makes clear. Twitter makes it too easy to be snarky and lose sight of the fact that we are vulnerable human beings connected to each other in the common cause of advancing the humanities, even if some of us are not savvy users of or even especially interested in social media. We can't act as if the loquacious minority are a closed micro-community; they are not, but they will function as if one if the humanities we practice are not humane.

Despite my own social media presence I am an ardent proponent of solitude. I get up every morning at 5 and run (in the dark, without an iPod). That hour of being alone in the world is some of the best thinking I get done all day -- and my main connections then are to the natural world (rabbits, foxes, and other urban edge wildlife) (and yes, owls; as many of you know I was attacked by an owl during a run last year); and also to the stars, planets, moon, scudding clouds. I love it, and without that time being alone I could not really get through my day.

As those who know me well also hav learned, some of my social media use is to balance the time I preserve for my own work, my own sanity, and for the other portions of my life that I guard. I am not selfish (I'm horrified that Kafka or Vergil could have desired to have their works destroyed upon their deaths, as if their work belonged only to them, as if it came only from them; I'm grateful that they charged disobedient people to execute their desires). So solitariness also can quickly become self absorption; it's too easy to guard your time to the point at which you're not putting any effort into the communal struggle that advancing humanistic study requires.

Long story short: BALANCE. As much as I believe in social media, because I have witnessed how powerful a force for reconfiguring the humanities they offer, I also believe in self preservation, boundary and quirky reserve.

josephine said...

Oh lord, I had no idea you were projecting the stream - I now feel rather awful for getting in on the hashtag when musing upon conference twitterstreams' efficacy. Perhaps a gentle devil's advocate is ok, though. Anyway, sorry!

Noreen O'Connor said...


Thank you so much for posting your paper here. Your generosity helps me become, digitally, part of a conversation I wish I could have joined physically last week. I am certain the performance with "tweet noise" was a singular experience. I enjoyed your piece very much in its less ephemeral, less time-delimited, form nevertheless.

've been thinking a lot about what I've been calling "the pedagogy of the digital"; particularly I am exploring what kinds of fresh engagement in our venerable approaches to studies that the digital opens up.

I was teaching a "Writing for New Media" course last semester to undergrads and we experimented with many "new" or "digital humanities" media, including Twitter, Wikipedia, and Wordpress.

The class made a blog which was at once a community service project, a local history project, an archival project, and a way to infuse student voices with authority. I'm still trying to theorize that.

The blog is at and the strangest but most fun thing that has happened so far is that we got names "Best local blogger" in our weekly local newspaper. My sense is that was a real scholarly cross-over, because the usual bloggers are focused on our (extremely corrupt) local politics, or popular commercial topics like food blogs.

I wonder also how to theorize the mix of old and new we are trying to work on at the college radio station. I have been working with students to produce podcasts of their work engaging in the local historical archives. (and other worthy topics--I am working on a piece right now that features five students writing about going to the Met in New York City for the first time). These projects get student voices out, encourage engaged student writing, and perhaps create a deeper commitment to meaningful work. You can find that at, under the sidebar "Off the Page."

It does blur the old boundaries of coursework--the possibilities of audience and purpose are very much broadened. As their professor, I am not really the audience but a conduit through which they can communicate their work.

So much to think about. I hope I can join the conversation again sometime soon. Thank you to GW for the digital humanities conference!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks for the comments Noreen ... and for the links. What incredible students you have. The two projects only reaffirm for me how important it is for us to be teaching our students to write in modes beyond the research paper: these multimedia, multimodal projects are exemplary.