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On doing what academic bloggers do

Blogging is funA paper by Inger Mewburn and Pat Thomson entitled Why do academics blog? An analysis of audiences, purposes and challenges has just appeared online. The paper caught my attention, and not simply because it quotes at length from a post I wrote back at the beginning of the year. I regularly reflect upon what I’m doing, or trying to do, when I’m blogging. It was interesting to see whether what I’m doing bears any resemblance to what others are doing.

I guess an initial caveat would be – as outlined the post I referred to above – that I don’t see myself so much as an academic blogger as an academic who blogs. Or a blogger who happens to be an academic. Or something.

The distinction between “academic blogging” and “an academic who blogs” has always been of some significance to me, if not to anyone else.

My first forays into blogging were posts for multi-author political blogs in which my being an academic, while not irrelevant, was somewhat incidental. I continue to describe myself online as a political blogger. In political blogging, as in political debate more generally, the ‘day job’ is less important than the arguments, although that isn’t to deny that expertise is valued. I guess in the back of my mind I’ve some vague aspiration that people should read my blogs and value the arguments in their own right – because it appears that I know what I’m talking about – rather than start from the presumption that I must know what I’m talking about because they know what my job is.

This core distinction became more evident to me when reading the Mewburn and Thomson paper. What I mostly do doesn’t, on my reading at least, align all that well with what was going on among their sample of academic bloggers.

Anyway, Mewburn and Thomson draw together a snowball sample of 100 academic blogs written in English and perform a content analysis. In part they are looking to build up a picture of what people are doing and who they are doing it for. But the authors are also interested in examining how well the activities of their sample of academic bloggers relate to some of the prescriptive lists of reasons why academics should get involved in blogging in the first place. The answer to this second question is, broadly speaking, not very well.

I found three of Mewburn and Thomson’s questions particularly interesting: What are academics blogging about? How are they blogging? Who are they blogging for? It was reading their answers to these questions that gave me the feeling that I’m attempting something slightly different.

It turned out that the most common subject for academic blogging was what Mewburn and Thomson categorize as ‘academic cultural critique’ – by which they mean posts commenting on academic life and the academic system – followed by research dissemination. These were followed by posts reflecting on academic practices – what academics do and how they do it – and sharing information – about new publications, conferences or seminars and the like.

It strikes me that I do very little of any of these types of thing on this blog. In part that is because of the constraints of my role at the University. In part it is because I have a ‘professional’ website where I notify anyone who might be interested about my own professional activities. In part it is because for me blogging is primarily a chance to get beyond ‘shop talk’ and connect with what is happening in the wider world.

Where this blog does line up with Mewburn and Thomson’s findings is in the form that it takes. They identify the following seven types of content:

  • Reportage
  • Journalistic
  • Informal essay
  • Formal essay
  • Pedagogic
  • Confidential
  • Satirical

They conclude that the most common form – used in just over one in two of the sample blogs – is the informal essay. This was followed by the formal essay and reportage (both 41%). I guess I mostly write informal essays. And I quite often wish they were a bit shorter.

Finally, who is the implied audience for all this academic bloggage? In this instance the authors identified five possible audiences – academics, researchers, students, professionals, and the ‘educated public’. They conclude that the majority of blogs are targeted at a single audience, while most of the rest are targeted at two. And it appears that the single audience most academics are blogging for is people like themselves – other academics. Blogs for professional audiences came a rather distant second. Very few appeared to write intentionally for a student audience. Just over one in six bloggers were writing for an ‘educated public’.

This is almost the inverse of the audience I have in mind when I’m blogging. I think of my blog as making a contribution – admittedly small – to public debate on contemporary social and policy issues. I write more for an educated public and a professional community interested in social and housing policy. Most of the people who retweet my posts are not academics. They are just as likely to be practitioners, industry commentators, or other political bloggers. Occasionally they are journalists in the mainstream media. From feedback that I receive it is clear people who work for social housing providers or in the world of local government read this blog, but wouldn’t have the time or inclination to go back to the relevant academic literatures. And that’s fine with me.

Equally, this blog has readers who start from a lay interest in the policy issues and are seeking commentary that makes an attempt to be more analytical and balanced. That type of analysis can be found in a range of places around and about the blogosphere. I like to think one of them is this blog. So that’s great too.

Obviously the blog is also read by quite a few of my academic colleagues, so I’m not in the business of pontificating about things that I cannot discuss credibly. Some of my colleagues get something from reading the blog. Some of them refer their students to it. That’s great too.

But I’m not sure I’m telling my colleagues many things they don’t know already. It is, however, quite possible that I’m saying some of those things in ways they wouldn’t feel able to say them. Or they wouldn’t feel comfortable saying them. Some of what I had intended as rather modestly presented analytical observations has been viewed by some academic colleagues as rather angry, outspoken interventions. But there you go.

Of course, in blogging about an academic journal article about blogging – which will probably only be of interest to other academic bloggers – I am doing precisely what I’ve just argued I don’t tend to do. And in reflecting upon some reflections about the very practice in question the whole discussion runs the risk of disappearing up its own fundament. But there you go.

For me blogging is primarily about giving me a space and place to talk about what’s on my mind.

And just now it happens to be this.

Image: © zetwe – Fotolia.com

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