A decade or so ago, journalism went through a mini-spasm of angst about one of the changes then roiling the trade. Many worried about a practice they considered weird and, they concluded, at best semi-professional: blogging. But what became known as the “bloggers v journalists” affair ultimately faded into obscurity as just about every major news organization added blogs to its website.
Blogging, journalists discovered – some much later than others – enhanced our work. It was a tool, one more way to communicate with our audiences in timely ways. And at its best, it helped spark something even more valuable: conversation in a field where the lecture’s tone of communication had prevailed, often to the detriment of both journalists and audiences.
As a part-time academic, I was intrigued to hear an echo of that old debate in a small confrontation that emerged this week. Some members of an academic body, the International Studies Association, propose to ban editors of several significant journals (at least to those in the field) from blogging. Why? As ISA head Harvey Starr told the Guardian, to maintain a “professional environment”, by avoiding the often heated exchanges that can occur in blog comments, and to avoid confusion between non-ISA blogs and the ones published by the journals themselves.
Aha, good intentions. Oops, bad policy, as several prominent members of the association have already pointed out (here and here, among others). Banning editors from blogging is, as ISA member Stephen Saideman of Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs wrote after posting the proposal – where else – on his blog, “pretty antithetical to the entire academic enterprise”.
I assume the ISA governing body has collective common sense. Therefore, surely it’ll shoot down this misguided trial balloon when it meets in late March.
But the affair does raise interesting questions. One is whether civility and dignity are higher goals than robust debate and the airing of views (and subsequent conversations about them) that a majority may find uncomfortable or even objectionable. I want the former to prevail, but never, ever at the cost of the latter. That’s one reason why I consider blogging, far from being even remotely unprofessional, one of the greatest enhancements to any craft or profession where people follow ideas wherever they may lead.
Another is the value blogging brings to the creators when done right. Blogging has helped liberate academics from the publishing racket that does as much, in my view, to hide useful information as surface it. Its informal tone is readable, as opposed to way too much academic prose. Blogs can make sometime abstruse topics understandable for the rest of us who don’t know the jargon; we just want to learn something. Lawyers and scientists are great examples of people whose blogging demystifies their worlds. If we could only read their writings in journals and the occasional op-ed column, we’d know much less.
Indeed, perhaps the best outcome of the ISA situation is its demonstration, yet again, that blogging is far from dead. (Do read the Guardian’s interview with three pioneer bloggers, also published this week.) It’s evolving. True, many of us are blogging less and using Facebook, Google, Tumblr, Google+ and other centralized services more, a trend that is both practical and problematic. It’s practical because the centralized operations are where the people are. It’s problematic because we end up working for those services at least as much as for ourselves.
The ability to publish our own work on our own sites can’t be overstated. This is why I strongly urge my students to get their own internet domains and create their own presence on the internet. And it’s why I’ve decided to do more blogging myself in coming months and years.
The professional, political and academic bloggers – and everyone else who helps us understand something we don’t normally encounter – are engaging in free speech on their own terms, not bound by the often murky terms of service at the centralized service. America’s first amendment shouldn’t be subject to Facebook’s whims, but Facebook’s users have made that concession.
I’m not a fan of ugly speech. But I’ll try to deal with it, as the saying goes, with better speech, or by ignoring the offender as long as I’m not being libeled or misrepresented. We’re all still working our way into this complex new media ecosystem, and it’ll take some time before we get it right.
Meanwhile, as the ISA’s Saideman observes, “The real issue is not about blogging but responsibility.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Image: Alessio Bau