Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, March 28, 2011

Bogost on blogs

Here’s a wonderfully thoughtful post by Ian Bogost about the limitations of the blog as an intellectual tool, especially in academic contexts. This is an old theme of mine, so it’s nice to have someone pick up on it. Bogost writes,

Tim Morton is right to call out old forms like books and academic essays, rejoining [“exhorting,” maybe?] them to “figure out what they are about in this new environment.” But the same is true for blogs and other forms of digital writing as well. We’re no more stuck with the awkward tools that are blogs than we are stuck with awkward tools that are journals. . . .

I wonder what a writing and discussion system would look like if it were designed more deliberately for the sorts of complex, ongoing, often heated conversation that now takes place poorly on blogs. This is a question that might apply to subjects far beyond philosophy, of course, but perhaps the philosopher’s native tools would have special properties, features of particular use and native purpose. What if we asked how we want to read and write rather than just making the best of the media we randomly inherit, whether from the nineteenth century or the twenty-first?

I wish these were the sorts of questions so-called digital humanists considered, rather than figuring out how to pay homage to the latest received web app or to build new tools to do the same old work.

This is great stuff. Blogs are very poor tools for fostering genuine intellectual exchange, which is one reason why, increasingly, those exchanges happen for many on Twitter — despite the 140-character-at-a-time limit. We might ask why that is: Why do some many people prefer to exchange ideas on Twitter rather than on blogs? I don't think it’s just laziness. And then we might ask another question: What might a tool look like that combines the best features of blogging and tweeting, while minimizing the flaws of both instruments?


  • Yeah, maybe exhorting.

  • A discussion board or forum? They still have those, you know.

    And there are also blog-type communities like LiveJournal that have much better tools for comment conversations than what one generally expects from a normal blog site.

    I'm not saying you're wrong about blogs in general, but I think it's important not to lump every form of blog-ish configuration together into one thing. And don't forget about forums and message boards, though for some reason it seems really easy to do (I certainly do!)

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  • I am somewhat mystified that you regard Twitter as a better instrument for fostering intellectual exchange than blogs. You can not advance any sort of analysis on Twitter without referring to external texts - so it's like a seminar discussion, but without the reading materials. Blogs (and journals, books, all those good things) provide the actual texts on which to tweet. They are fundamentally different tools that do different things.

    I also find some of Bogost’s points weak. For one thing, I find referring to my older posts very easy, much easier than in any other form – in fact I only started to really appreciate blogging as a form for academic enquiry once I had built up a sufficient archive of essays of my own (as opposed to writings of others) to expand upon. Tagging really does work, and there are a lot of thematic approaches you can take. Also: is it actually true that Google privileges recent results? I thought it only did it if you restricted the time period yourself. I haven’t noticed a dip over time in my posts that are most often accessed via web searches.

    I appreciate that a lot of people have issues with the limitations of discussions appended to blogs, some of those points are valid. I certainly lamented the demise of Usenet in the transition to blogging. But again, as you also note, blogs aren’t primarily a discussion space: they are a writing space that leaves (some) room for discussion. So you can have a conversation on site – and its gets archived along with the text itself, which I personally find enormously valuable, indespensible in fact – and/or take it somewhere else: on Facebook, on Twitter, on other blog posts, even in RL.

  • (As a matter of fact I think that we haven't really begun to grasp the full potential of blogs, as I have tried to articulate - if you pardon the self-linkage - in a review of the magnificent Poemas del río Wang.)

  • I am somewhat mystified that you regard Twitter as a better instrument for fostering intellectual exchange than blogs.

    I don't! Nor did I say I did. I just said that many people clearly prefer exchanging ideas on Twitter to exchanging them on blogs — I know I do, even though I am very aware of the great limitations — and we should probably think about why that is.

    And thanks for the link!

  • And Ethan: discussion boards and forums tend to work best, I think, for a limited set of people who can develop conversations over time. It's very hard simply to drop in on long threads and figure out what's going on, and if you plunge right in without knowing the history you get flamed. As perhaps is right. I think those are excellent technologies for certain very specific kinds of conversations among people who already have a good deal in common. But somehow I want more. . . .

  • And thanks for the link!

    I had been waiting for an excuse to introduce you to that blog, if you didn't in fact know it - I find it wonderful and would love to know what you think of it if it ends up amongst your regular haunts. It is not overtly about media but it contains a lot of implicit and often illuminating commentary.

  • How about GMail's "Conversations"?

  • Please forgive the naivety of my question but:

    Is there a way you could explain how a rich idea exchange happens on twitter? I do use twitter, some, but primarily to follow news from journalists in various locations that I do my work, so I admit that I don't use it nearly to its capacity. From my simple understanding of the structure, it's hard to get how an exchange on twitter could be any easier to "jump into" than a thread on a message board.

    Please know that this is a sincere question, not a sarcastic one. Thanks!

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