Monday, December 07, 2009

Blogging the Middle Ages: Future Frontiers

by J J Cohen

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?


ken tompkins said...


Any thoughts on how Google Wave might fit into all of this? It can be a blog and, sort of, can be FB. It can also be a powerful collaborative space (why aren't there more scholarly articles written by teams of young humanists? Or have I missed them?). It can also be a linked discussion.

Some predict that it will be all of these plus much more but I am poor at imagining what.

We need to get some folks here onto a Wave to see what might happen. I have a few extra invites if anyone wants to grasp the challenge.

ken tompkins

holly dugan said...

oh, i'd be open to that! i've got a few wave invites, too. wave intrigues me, but i've yet to figure out how to utilize it.

Rick Godden said...

I think there is a lot of potential in google wave if it becomes more widespread. It can be a great tech add-on for teaching, and could also be a wonderful way to add more e-components to symposia, conferences, etc.

I haven't done more than tinkering with a wave just yet, but some of us ought to try it out.

(I also have some extra invites...)

Anonymous said...

I have decided to come out of the shadows in which we 'silent readers' dwell in order to add my opinion.

In my personal opinion, there is room for any digital tool that facilitates communication. Thus, I agree that Facebook and the various blogging sites can co-exist and play nicely with newer tools such as Google Wave because they each facilitate a different form of communication.

I confess that I have long dreamed of a day that internet communication would bring all of the people with whom you could ever wish to have a conversation, and to connect the world together. Yet this digital realm often troubles me, despite its obvious utility. I constantly use note taking software, bibliographical managers, word processors and all of the other trappings of the digital age, indeed I grew up with them as a scholar as they came into creation one by one.

Despite this, I often find that I long for a simple notepad and pen, a musty smelling tome or a big pile of badly stapled journal articles on my desk. I think that as the 'future frontiers' expand, we will see an increased longing for the visceral pleasures to be found in the physical. I hope that for this reason, the academic community will continue to have meetings, go to conferences, print books and have coffee together, even if technology furnishes us with a virtual interface so perfect that there is really no reason to do so.

I say that we should embrace the future, but retain the enthusiasm for the pre-computer past that we obviously all have for a more distant one. If we can love the Middle Ages, then why not a typewriter or a notepad?

Eileen Joy said...

When Jeffrey wrote that no one gets the future right, I was thinking how hard it is to get the present and past right, even when its artifacts are all around you. Taking a stab a one's present moment, especially now, with information overload all around us, is perhaps the most difficult [and futile] of all; yet the worse alternative might be in just allowing everything to wash over you without enough attention to anything that might help us to discern meaning & value [of information, social networks, relationships, communication, etc.]. I worry a little bit about closed social networks, such as Facebook, as Jeffrey does, but I think for different reasons. It's not the *closed* nature of these sites so much as their breezy brevity that I worry about. It seems to me that many of us have the attention span of gnats in our current moment. Don't get me wrong, though, because I think sites like Facebook and Twitter, at the very least, enable conversations [albeit, quick and only-so-deep conversations] that otherwise could not be squeezed into one's day, and across wide geographical tracts that otherwise could not be traversed, so quickly, or at all. Any portal, digital or otherwise, that exists for the trafficking of "talk" and information, is okay by me; I mainly just worry about our attention span in the cases where we really need to practice what might be called an undivided attention to particular persons, texts, issues, matters, "cases," events, questions, etc. or any combination thereof. Increasingly, in my own life [and this has been written about exhaustively, anyway], I sometimes feel as if what used to be called "free time" barely exists any more because so much of my time is taken up communicating with persons via digital and other mediums--cell phones, email, Facebook, etc.--who otherwise would have to have undertaken more physical and psychic labors to "reach" me, so to speak [and vice versa]. The end result sometimes feels as if, most of every day, I am just exchanging quips with too many persons across too many electronic media and spectrums and often for no real purpose at all. Sometimes for a real and meaningful purpose, though . . . sometimes.

This brings me to weblogs, I guess, and what I see as their real value--they enable a more sustained and considered conversation, and where conversation does not always spring up, at the very least, they afford the space for the sort of meditative and critical writing and reading that, in print form, just could not materialize as quickly or as often. Within the academic realm, and even if we don't have all the time we need to read everything that is out there, weblogs at least democratize the discourse(s) and allow for a greater panoply of voices and opinions and ideas than our 19th-century, ideologically encrusted, patriarchal peer-review process allows for. Anyone who studies intellectual history [both within the humanities or the sciences] knows that really important, epochal paradigm shifts are inherently iconoclastic and done the old-fashioned way, can take decades and decades to effect real change because the new ideas have to battle traditional disciplinary super-structures that are extremely rigid, so, short of broadsheet pamphleteering [haha], I just see the Internet, and academic blogs in particular, as "open access" portals to counter-intellectualisms of all varieties, as well as extensions of the spaces available for the sort of work that *would* otherwise find its way, eventually, into old-fashioned print mediums, but now has a chance to "air" itself more often along that route in a more transparent fashion.

Matthew Gabriele said...

The thing about Facebook is that it doesn't HAVE to be a closed circle. Just by doing something like this, you can open that circle up to anyone and everyone, while still maintaining a closer circle of more engaged participants.

Also, sort-of related, I tried to integrate Twitter into my teaching this semester. I don't think it really worked but I'll keep trying.

Anonymous said...

One prediction, which is not an engagement with the serious point of your post, Jeffrey, but may be worth considering anyway. At the moment, as I understand, the owners of Twitter have yet to make it make money. At some point, unless they solve this, it will therefore cease, or be swallowed like Geocities into Yahoo, or become part of a new MSN or something like that. Facebook is, I believe, in not dissimilar straits. So I personally will be slightly surprised if this conversation still makes sense in five years. On the other hand whatever the blog provider de jour may by then be, we will all probably have local copies of our content, will be using systems like Wordpress that in order to attract trade from other systems provide tools to import content from them, and so on. So I think that though they may move, blogs as specific gatherings of writing will endure, for all the reasons you suggest but also because the rivals will change and shift and never entirely take over before being replaced themselves.

At least, they'll endure as long as any other digital medium, I should say for caution's sake. That may of course not be very long, on book or parchment scale. Probably time I backed up Tenthmedieval again...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I am a newbie to Google Wave and need to spend some time with it to figure it out. My son Alex and I are reviewing a medieval historical fiction together and we are planning on using Wave as the collaborative space to compose the review. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Fluidimaginings, thanks for your thoughts. It's funny, as "plugged in" as I am I always carry a small notebook with me. Sometimes I'll use the voice memo function of my phone instead, but most of the time I like having the clarity of pen and paper in front of me.

Eileen, I am with you on the attention span thing. Wait, On the what? Bridge spans are interesting yes. Wait, lost track, YES, attention spans are short. I know I am not reading less these days (I will always be a textavore), but I am reading many more, much briefer things. For example even though I am loving reading Howard Jacobson's novel Kalooki Nights, it is taking me forever to get through it because other reading keeps coming my way. I long to sit with a novel ... but I haven't been sitting with books enough lately.

Matt, the problem is that FB can be too personal, so I definitely limit what I want people who are not friends to see, leading to a closed but somewhat intimate circle. I am well aware though that this means certain discussions that probably should be public (eg the one on Patty Ingham's essay) get locked behind an electronic door.

Jonathan, you may be right about Twitter, though for me my tweets are my FB updates so I think of those as integrated technologies, and don't believe that FB is going to go the way of Geocities etc.