Tuesday, September 23, 2003

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A new blog project

Over the past year, I've been asked whether blogging can contribute to scholarship. While I've been positive about the effect of blogging on my academic writing style, I'm otherwise leery of mixing the two. Hell, last week I told the Chicago Tribune:

I would be reluctant to have blogging factored into tenure decisions. The whole idea of scholarship is to meditate on an idea, to test it critically and . . . to have your idea peer-reviewed. It's slow, but your ideas are tested in the most rigorous way possible. Blogs are often about spouting off what you're thinking without 10 minutes of reflection, and 30 minutes later you're sometimes wondering, `Did I really write that?'

I suspect my aversion to mixing the two is akin to the "worlds colliding" idea that was done to perfection on "The Pool Guy" episode from Seinfeld: I'm worried about whether Blogger Dan and Scholar Dan can co-exist in the same world.

To test out what happens when worlds collide, I've decided to co-author a scholarly paper on the power and politics of blogging with fellow political scientist and fellow blogger Henry Farrell from Crooked Timber. The idea will be to present this paper at the 2004 American Political Science Association annual meeting. Henry and I are hoping to chair a roundtable on blogging; some heavy-hitters in the blogosphere who shall remain nameless for the moment have already committed.

In the ensuing months, we'll make drafts of the paper available to the blogosphere and invite comments or criticisms. For this post, however, we're just looking for two things. The first is feedback on the definition of a blog. Our working definition -- partly inspired by the feedback from this post -- is as follows:

A weblog is defined here as a web page with minimal to no external editing, dedicated to on-line commentary, periodically updated and presented in reverse chronological order, with hyperlinks to other online sources.

Whaddaya think -- too vague? Too specific? Too wordy? Comments or suggestions for improvement are welcomed.

The second request is for links to working papers or journal articles on the political effects of blogs. I'm NOT talking about the articles that appear every six months like clockwork in the major dailies with headlines like "Americans Are Agog About Blogs!!" I'm talking about papers with more substance.

Here's our limited bibliography:

  • Rebecca Blood, The Weblog Handbook (New York: Perseus Publishing, 2002).

  • Rebecca Blood, “Weblogs: A History and Perspective,” in We’ve Got Blog: How Weblogs are Changing Our Culture (New York: Perseus Publishing, 2002).

  • Joel David Bloom, “The Blogosphere: How a Once-Humble Medium Came to Drive Media Discourse and Influence Public Policy and Elections.” Paper presented at the 2nd annual pre-APSA conference on Political Communication, Philadelphia, PA, August 2003.

  • Christine Carl, “Bloggers and Their Blogs: A Depiction of the Users and Usage of Weblogs on the World Wide Web,” M.A. thesis, Georgetown University, April 2003

  • Rebecca Mead, “You’ve Got Blog,” The New Yorker, 13 November 2000.

  • Clay Shirky, "Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality," Shirky.com, February 2003.

  • Clay Shirky, "Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing," Shirky.com, October 2002.

  • Matt Welch, “Blogworld,” Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 2003.

    Jeffrey A. Henning, "The Blogging Iceberg," October 2003.

    Pejman Yousefzadeh, "The Rt. Honorable Blogger," Tech Central Station, November 12, 2003.

  • Any readers who know of any papers beyond those listed, please let me know about them.

    I look forward to your comments.

    UPDATE: Here's a web page replete with newpaper stories on blogs. Thanks to alert reader K.M. for the link!!

    posted by Dan on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM


    Hmm... so, will the blog soon be filled obscure quotes from political philosophers with funny names, or will Dr. Drezner publish a paper on what role Salma looked the hottest as?

    posted by: George on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    How are going to measure the political impact of blogging? Are you grounding this paper in the literature on media, new technology, interest groups, elections? You IR guys need input from an Americanist.

    posted by: Laura on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    I noticed nothing in your definition about the content of the blog. If a professor maintains a blog about, say, the Chicago Cubs, or his life, are you looking at that, or are you looking for blogs more like your own, which may contain personal information but are largely devoted to academic/policy issues?

    Just a thought.

    posted by: Thomas Gower on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    reverse chronological order

    I think it might be important to add that blogs, unlike online columns, have multiple blog posts appearing on the same page.

    or will Dr. Drezner publish a paper on what role Salma looked the hottest as?

    What I'm wondering is whether the ed. alter ego will make an appearance in the paper.

    posted by: Hei Lun Chan on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    Your project puts me in mind of those college courses devoted to analyzing the lyrics of Bob Dylan.

    Which is not to (necessarily) say that I don't admire your effort. Still, when you solicit opinions about just what the definition of your subject matter is....I gotta wonder.

    By my lights, blogs constitute the 21st century version of our colonial ancestor's committees of correspondance. The revolutionary impact of their excistence will be very clearly felt during the upcoming 2004 presidential campaigns.

    So, keep your eyes on the ball and the grasshoppers out of your ears. What's about to happen will blow your minds.

    posted by: Sovereign Eye on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    I would suggest beginning the definition with pronunciation and derivation, and using the word blog within your definition. It seems awkward to begin the definition of blog with "a weblog is." Better to say "A blog is ..." Regarding pronunciation, a programmer friend of mine pronounces the word "bee-log"--as in 'a' log, 'b' log, 'c' log. Is she wrong? Are the rest of us wrong?

    posted by: on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    Your hypothetical definition seems too limiting in several respects:

    >>A weblog is defined here as a web page ... with minimal to no external editingdedicated to on-line commentary,>periodically updated and presented in reverse chronological order, with hyperlinks to other online sources.

    posted by: Doug Simpson on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    Your hypothetical definition seems too limiting in several respects:

    >>A weblog is defined here as a web page ...

    Many weblogs are entire complexes of interlinked, indexed and searchable pages. Describing it as "a web page" seems misleading. Would "website" be more accurate?

    >with minimal to no external editing

    This seems accurate today, with most blogs being self-published. But what about tomorrow? Current news indicates that certain newspublishers have chosen to exert editorial control over bloggers in their employ who are writing under the publisher's standard. Is lack of external editing an essential distinquishing feature of weblogs? I suspect we'll see more edited blogs in the future, but they will continue to qualify as "weblogs".

    >dedicated to on-line commentary,

    While opinion and commentary dominate blogs, some (though not the majority) of the blogs I follow have relatively little opinion from the blogger, but present the results of research or attention to current news or publications. The best-known example may be beSpacific. As a more humble example, my own blog ("Unintended Consequences" at http://dougsimpson.com/blog) focuses on law, networks and disruptive technologies and tries to be more of a contemporaneous journal of my current reading and research, presented in early drafts of what might be chunks of future formal academic papers, with a minimum of opinion. Perhaps a more inclusive word than "commentary" would be useful in your definition.

    >>periodically updated and presented in reverse chronological order, with hyperlinks to other online sources.

    This seems appropriate, although you may wish to include those blogs that include internal search capabilities and archives, which make the blog much like a periodic academic journal with valuable back issues.

    Doug Simpson
    Wethersfield, CT
    "Unintended Consequences"
    at http://dougsimpson.com/blog

    posted by: Doug Simpson on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    An interesting new phenomena your definition excludes is the use of Wikis as places to accumulate news on a topic; an example is this
    that documents the SCO vs. IBM case: anyone can edit the page to add updates or correct what others have written, and conventions govern where updates are made.

    I think the phenomenon is different enough not to qualify as a weblog, but perhaps it is a relative?

    posted by: Charles Stewart on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    whats the big deal academic moved newsgruops when soundbytes/spin docoters toke over the news do not the same happen to poltices when intrestgruops and think tanks take it over politics?

    posted by: hans on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    Credentials none, no self-interest in the topic, just an opinion – I don’t think maintaining a blog should be a requirement of tenure. A tool to be used to best advantage, if such exists for an academic discipline – absolutely. The (we)B as a distribution medium for comment solicitation, peer review and publication – no issue.

    I see a blog in the hands of an academic as an informal medium where opinion can be expressed, ideas bantered and pursued, concepts developed… in all a medium for engendering the experience of an idea’s eventual form. An academic blog is in many ways a decoupled, up-dated vehicle to the “Letters” sections of the traditional sciences where new ideas and theories might be suggested and “what-ifs” proposed without the rigorous underpinnings of proof and validation a published paper demands. Only with wider, real-time, cross-discipline (and even Public) interaction and commentary.

    What brings me more and more to academic blogs is exactly this discourse by individuals learned in their disciplines who can provide intelligent discussion and ready reference to their own and others material to enlighten the conversation. This does not mean I believe these same individuals are right on all of their topics, but by visiting multiple blogs I gather kernels of information that helps me learn. Information that, as I’m not in academia, I could never have found without the blogs of academics like Dr. Drezner.

    One could argue that Salma Hayek, the Red Sox, and smoked salmon (amongst other topics) have no place in an academic’s blog which should be, well, academic. One could, but not me. By posting People & ESPN-type topics academic blogs draw the common man to the light of intellectual process. Imagine the hit rate, the potential for enlightenment, if the day after the MTV music awards a sociologist had posted a link to Madonna Mom & the Twins expressing familial affection? And from this pursued the opportunity to discuss and research in public forum trends in cross-generational sexual attraction or changing American attitudes towards gay, lesbian and bi-sexual acceptance and are they different (Ed Sullivan wouldn’t have had that trio on his show).

    Yes, such topics can serve not only to educate the general population, they are valid research topics in themselves and as such are valuable and relevant additions to the academic blog, submitted to you in the context of the opinion expressed above as to it use as a rallying for new ideas and theory within an academic discipline.

    Tongue out-of-cheek, I wish Dan all the best on his paper. Blog'ing is a rising social device and it's use and impact to and on political science is as valid a research topic as that of other communication media in the past. Anyone want to argue that the printing press, radio or tv had no impact? And none of these had the global reach or the interactivity aspects. Interesting paper...

    posted by: Jon on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    I agree with Doug Simpson that the definition should read "website" rather than webpage.

    Also, what is "commentary"? Many blogs aren't commenting on anything, some are primarily links, some are diaries. I guess if you're taking a definition of commentary almost like narration in fiction then it could work (anything at all is commentary?) but I think the point here is that it's the FORM that's important, not so much what people are writing about. The fact that you can write about anything and it's still a blog - whether you're writing political commentary or linking to recipes or writing prayers or posting photos or even communicating with your coworkers - suggests to me that the "commentary" part is really irrelevant to the definition.

    Now, it's possible that your paper focuses on the political element in the blogosphere - if that's the case than you should be more explicit about it....

    Good luck! It's a fascinating project.

    posted by: paul goyette on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    To respond to a few points:

    George and Hei Lun: See, worlds are already colliding!! Sorry, no editor will be appearing in the paper. [I've read your academic stuff. Thanks for leaving me out of it--ed.] And despite my best efforts, I can't figure out how to fit Salma Hayek into the discussion.

    Laura: The idea is to go after the media and communications angle.

    Thomas: The next two sentences in the paragraph that has the definition:

    Blogs can function as personal diaries, technical advice columns, sports chat, outlets for political commentary, or all of the above. This paper’s focus will be on the political function of blogs.

    On the definition: I'm not convinced that "web page" is too limiting. A key counterfactual -- does expanding the definition too much render a magazine like Slate a blog?

    posted by: Dan on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    How about checking out Sebastien Paquet's work? He's not a political scientist, but an academic (at Universite de Montreal) he's certainly done a lot of thinking about scholarly publishing and blogging:


    (Apologies for the missing accents to the francophones among us -- I can never figure how to do them on PCs)

    posted by: Liz on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    Don't make the mistake that I did of underestimating personal blogs. And a friend even uses Blogger as a way to publish short stories.

    A lot can fit into this format. I think you might do better to admit at the beginning that you are looking only at a particular kind of weblog, i.e. the type that is likely to affect the traditional media. Personal blogs and collections of short stories ain't gonna do that.

    posted by: PG on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    Oops, sorry, didn't see the comment that amplified on the definition. I'd be curious as to how you will define "political function," as well as the degree to which a website that is a commons (such as Charlottesville's chalkboard) can be a weblog.

    posted by: PG on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    Kausfiles is a blog; Slate is not. The Corner is a blog; NRO as a whole is not. To my mind, you can have some editing or have multiple contributors, but if you have multiple contributors and editing, you've got yourself a newspaper/magazine, not a blog.

    Another indicator of blogness (not that I think your definition needs expanding): entries appear within a short time after the writer decides to post them. Thus, Instapundit is a blog; GlennReynolds.com really is not.

    A trickier case is Drudge, which is blog-like except for the fact that it includes very minimal commentary (as do Drudge knockoffs like Buzzflash). You probably need almost a separate category for Drudge, since I suspect his influence is much greater than that of any blog.

    posted by: Crank on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    Check out CyberJournalist.net's Weblog Blog, which explores the intersection between Weblogs and journalism:

    posted by: editor on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    I find perspectives on blogging fascinating. Too often, however, discussions tend to gravitate only toward the notions of Academia. It is my hope that perhaps thoughts of a lay person can add some freshness to the mix. And for this reason, I invite you to scan my post dated 15 Nov 2003.

    posted by: Roberta on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    http://www.uoregon.edu/~jbloom/ is maybe a better link for the Joel David Bloom paper - your link to the PDF doesn't appear to want to come out to play at the moment.

    posted by: Herbert on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

    This comes a bit late for this post, but I couldn't bear to post it under that ugly discussion in your posting on women and blogs. I suppose I'll put it there as well.

    You make the point that weblog links follow a power-law distribution, thus the top tier get most of the links (or views). This could be true of a normally distributed population depending on the standard deviation. What is distinct about a power law distribution is the FAT TAILS. Thus small blogs have a much higher incidence of linking than if attention was distributed normally.

    This may suggest that the web is more congenial to small communities of related interest than earlier media.

    posted by: charlie on 09.23.03 at 03:27 PM [permalink]

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