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A Collective Blog for Current and Former Members (and Friends!) of the History and Sociology of Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Professional blogging-- why do it?

To continue the question of why academics-- or knowledge workers of any kind-- should blog....*

One of the key developments in blogging in the last year or two has been their evolution into tools for crafting and projecting professional identity. In a way, this just continues the vanity Web site phenomenon (remember 1998?). But it's also different in some significant ways.

For one thing, it's a lot broader: while Web sites weren't really that hard to set up, blogs have dramatically lowered the bar. The continued growth in computer ownership, and the diffusion of high-speed Internet access, meanwhile, have raised the floor. Obviously fast connections make things like photoblogging and podcasting possible; but we shouldn't discount how much easier a jump in connectivity can improve the experience of just writing words.

Another important difference is that professional blogs aren't just about being, but doing. It's not enough to describe your competence; you have to talk about your work. My favorite example in this category is English Cut, a blog written by Thomas Mahon, a bespoke Saville Row tailor. (Don't know what "bespoke" is? Find out!) I'll probably never be able to afford one of his jackets, but I find his description of the world of Saville Row, his explanations of the differences between various tailors and manufacturing methods, and the various complicated judgments tailors have to make when creating something for a client, absolutely fascinating.

It's also a great example of how many professionals have nothing to lose by talking at length about their work: as strangely compelling as I find reading about drafting patterns and worsted numbers, knowing about them will never make me a world-class tailor. Most professional work is like this: the formal stuff that you can describe is but the tip of the iceberg of your knowledge, and as often as not, the important stuff remains submerged even to you.

Mahon's blog also raises another question. For most professionals, blogs don't bring in new business. Saville Row clients aren't likely to choose bespoke over store-bought because of English Cut. Nobel laureate Gary Becker and legal scholar Richard Posner aren't going to get better jobs because they blog together; CERN physicist John Ellis isn't going to get a new atom-smasher. So why do it?

So what do professionals or knowledge workers-- scientists, academics, writers, tailors (it requires too much knowledge to be considered mere manual labor) and the like-- get out of blogs? Once you get outside the world of the A-list bloggers who attend the Berkman and O'Reilly conferences on blogging, what's motivating people to blog? How are they using the medium? I see four major patterns.

The virtual subway. For journalists and writers, blogs are a place to practice and refine their craft. As Rainer Maria Rilke put it, writers don't write because they want to; they write because they can't imagine doing anything else. For writers, blogs are to publishing as speed chess is to a formal tournament: the same basic game, but faster, edgier, and rougher in an interesting way. To invoke another metaphor, for many writers blogs are less like op-ed columns than virtual subways, a place to play for a couple hours and maybe pick up a little extra money.

Credibility = transparency. Some professionals who blog have realized that the very fact that they're blogging will impress readers. If you're willing to be so open about what you do, the logic goes, you must be good. And it's not bad reasoning. We all know that jargon and obscurity are crutches for marginal performers, and that professional poses can obscure as much as they assure. Transparency, on the other hand, is easy to understand, and easy to trust.

New court, old game. Then there are professionals-- academics and scientists, most notably-- for whom blogging is a natural extension of what they already do: network, cite each other, and argue. There are a number of high-energy physicists, string theorists, and cosmologists who are bloggers; they all seem to post extensively on each other's blogs, taking online arguments they've been having for years, or that start at a conference or colloquium and just jump to cyberspace. Charles Darwin called his Origin of Species "one long argument;" the same phrase could apply to most science. Blogs turn out to be hot-houses for disputation. If e-mail encouraged flame wars, blogs encourage intellectual feuds-- which figure prominently in academic life.

The brand of me. Finally, some use blogs to build their personal brand: to widen the reach of their ideas, to increase name familiarity, whatever you want to call it. (I almost hate to admit it, but Tom Peters' Fast Company piece, "The Brand Called You," changed me life.)

What's interesting is that in none of these cases does a blogger's online activities necessarily collide with their day job. This is a bit of a surprise, given how many bloggers are addicted to apocalyptic, disruptive innovations-saturated rhetoric: in this world-view, Rathergate, Gannongate, and Whatever-else-gate epitomize the power of blogging. (As Anil Dash and danah boyd argued, making blogging into something that gets people fired doesn't do the medium any good.) But as any smart observer of technologies will tell you, the technologies that are the biggest successes are often the ones that insinuate themselves into the workplace, recycle habits, and put old practices to new uses. Blogging is successful among professionals not because it's radically new, but because it's slightly new.

The challenge for any ambitious academic blogger, I think, it is figure out how to craft a blog that is recognizably academic in interest and content, but at the same time is satisifying to the author. Of course, that's exactly the same challenge you have when you're crafting a dissertation, or an article, or any big project: one must satisfy the dual, and sometimes conflicting, demands of professional and personal satisfaction. Perhaps learning how to balance those demands is the best reason to blog.

*This is an update of a piece I wrote for Red Herring a while ago. Since it was subscriber-only, I'm reposting it here.

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