On Tuesday 25 February, the Department of Politics and International Relations hosted an event on the subject of ‘Academic Blogging: Political Analysis in the Digital Age’. Blogging is becoming an increasingly important aspect of academic life – a way to increase academic output, reach new audiences and foster original debates. This event was an opportunity to learn about the world of academic blogging, understand current trends, and gain insight and advice from the experts. The full podcast of the event can be found here while the videos can be located here.
The event was split into two sessions. The first session addressed the question ‘why blog?’, exploring the phenomena of blogging, its motivations and consequences, as well as analysing the wider effects of blogging. It featured contributions from Blake Ewing (Graduate Editor, Politics in Spires, DPIR), Chris Gilson (Managing Editor, LSE USApp – American Politics and Policy), Sierra Williams (Managing Editor, LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog), Chris Bertram (Department of Philosophy, University of Bristol, blogger with the group blog Crooked Timber), William Dutton (Oxford Internet Institute), David Levy (Director, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism) and Will de Frietas (Business & Economy Editor, The Conversation).
The second session explored the question of how to blog effectively, answering questions regarding what we know about audiences, readership and patterns of use of political analysis on-line. It featured contributions from Andrew Sparrow (Editor, Guardian Politics Blog), Chris Prosser (Deputy Graduate Editor, Politics in Spires, DPIR), Rosemary Bechler (Editor, openDemocracy) and Vicki Nash (Oxford Internet Institute).
This blog post presents a short summary of the discussion that took place – note that the following is a paraphrasing summary of contributions and therefore cannot be used for quotations.
Stuart White, Director of the Public Policy Unit, DPIR
Summary: I think we should begin by asking the question of how should academics working in Politics use blogging? Is it something we should do and how can we blog effectively? We need to, in the course of the discussion, not simply assume this is a good thing but also consider the downsides.
Another question we should consider is the issue of impact – something which we are all increasingly being encouraged to focus on. On this matter, I feel we often fall into the fallacy of picturing impact in the following way: A researcher publishes an idea at time T1; a policymaker then adopts that idea at time T2 and then a government implements a policy based on that idea at time T3. We need to be careful about picturing impact in this way because fundamentally we don’t live in a technocracy where policy based on quality of ideas. Policymaking also reflects current ideology and background structures power so if we focus too much on impact as government policy change then you make academics into people who service the dominant ideology and the powerful in society. What we actually need is a more democratic model of impact where it is conceived of as impact upon the public debate; inspiring gradual, long term change – and in which academic communication is part of a mutual, democratic learning process.
Lastly, we need to consider how the debate around academic blogging fits into debates around academic publishing more broadly. There are many of us now beginning to question whether we shouldn’t publish more openly and whether our work should be more widely accessible. As part of our exploration of these issues, Politics in Spires partnered with Open Democracy in 2012 to run a series on ‘democratic wealth’ which explored debates about how we can build an economy that serves the public good which has now been converted into an e-book which will be launched today.
Session 1: Why blog? (Part 1)
Chair: Katharine Brooks (Deputy Graduate Editor, Politics in Spires, DPIR)
Blake Ewing (Graduate Editor, Politics in Spires, DPIR)
Starts at 0.54
Summary: I would like to begin by adding a question to Stuart White’s list – that is ‘should departments host that blog?’ That has been the decision taken by Politics in Spires but I want to explore the impact of that decision. I would like to begin, therefore, by talking about the experience of Politics in Spires which was launched by the department as an attempt to improve the relevance of the work we do here. We decided that the model we wanted to use, unlike LSE, was to be a platform entirely for Oxford and Cambridge academics, without external contributors – there are probably benefits but deficits to that model. In addition, I want to talk about how we can begin to use Politics in Spires more as a forum for research projects. There is a problem in that the REF doesn’t recognise blogging; moreover people also appear very concerned about the possibility of ideas being stolen and a potential negative impact on publishing ability. Lastly, I’d like to talk more about how we can boost conversations between institutions.
Chris Gilson (Managing Editor, LSE USApp – American Politics and Policy) and Sierra Williams (Managing Editor, LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog)
Starts at 9.50
Summary: In response to those questions, the LSE found that if we wanted a consistent number of contributors we needed to go outside the LSE. A key issue for us is competition – how we can be different, unique and intelligible – how we can provide a platform to bridge the gap between academia and the public. We also need to think about how we measure success, how all of this converts into pound and dollar signs if we are to keep these projects going long term. Digital innovation has led to more academic conversations online and this has led to new discussions on how academics want to showcase their work. We now need to consider how traditional publishing and blogging interact and how we can make this relationship more productive. Podcasting has also been an interesting medium, providing a narrative style and reaching wider audiences. Of course, these trends don’t happen in a vacuum; they are a part of a wider trend of more open research practices. There is also growing concern on the part of institutions on how they regulate this.
Chris Bertram (Department of Philosophy, University of Bristol, blogger with the group blog Crooked Timber)
Starts at 27.54
Summary: This for me is in many ways a strange conversation. I’ve been blogging since 2002 and at Crooked Timber from 2003. Back then, universities just weren’t interested in blogging (or the internet for that matter). The world has clearly moved on a long way since 2002 – the phenomenon of the blogosphere erupted after 9/11 resulting in today’s vast array of citizen journalists. As for Crooked Timber, it’s a very open platform – the only issue we vote on is whether to accept a new member, after that it’s up to you what you post. Moreover, it’s not restricted to academics which we think is a great strength. We also have people from a variety of nationalities and disciplines. This keeps an intellectually informed but varied audience in conversation in a way which is much harder to achieve with themed blogs.
Blogging can be extremely useful – you often have two academics who work on similar things but never encounter each other – blogging can thus be a way of building connections with other parts of the academic community. It can also help overcome the fear that many academics have of putting ideas onto paper. However, it can also take a lot of energy as blogging gives rise to a sense of obligation to your readership and can then be a distraction from other work. You need to be very thick skinned as people tend to have much more forthright online presences so your work can often come in for hefty criticism.
Discussion Starts at 40.38
Session 1: Why blog? (Part 2)
Analyses of the wider effects: what is at stake in contributing academic analysis on-line?
Chair: Katharine Brooks (Deputy Graduate Editor, Politics in Spires, DPIR)
William Dutton – Get Ready to Meet the Fifth Estate – how networked individuals and institutions are reshaping academe (Oxford Internet Institute)
Starts at 0.34
Summary: For me, blogging is just one tool among an array which enables the rise of what I call the fifth estate. Edmund Burke coined the term the fourth estate (after the initial three of the clergy, the nobility and the commons) to mean the press and the media. The fifth estate, to my mind, is the degree to which the internet is allowing individuals to source their own information and networks outside of their institutions in ways which enhance their communicative power. It is clear that the internet now becoming the first port of call for information. Moreover, people are finding their information through search engines – searching content and not authority or institutions. This fifth estate empowers those outside institutions, allows new conversations to emerge and challenges the dominance and authority of institutions.
David Levy – Blogging, journalism and the consumption of news(Director, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism)
Starts at 13.47
SummaryL I want to talk about how all of this relates to journalism and the perspective of mainstream media on academic blogging and whether the crisis of professional journalism is an opportunity for academic bloggers. One thing to consider is, if you’re an academic blogger, what is your market? If it is other academics, then there are numerous advantages to this medium – it’s faster and more effective than traditional academic journals. It’s also a good way of getting your name into the mainstream media since journalists frequently cruise the net looking for people to interview on particular topics. Blogging is very useful for targeting the specific audiences of other academics and generalist intermediaries (such as journalists). The key is to seize the opportunity when your topic is flavour of the month.
However, how does this translate to the mass market? It is clear that there is a crisis going on in legacy media organisations. Newspaper sales are collapsing, and TV news audiences are fragmenting. There are now new platforms, devices and ways of engaging with news media. Does this create a great opportunity or space for academic bloggers? There is evidence to suggest that the news market is now highly turbulent and that loyalties have changed with the transition online. However, people in general are still more trusting of traditional news institutions.
Will de Frietas – Introduction to a new on-line academic publishing project – The Conversation (Business & Economy Editor, The Conversation)
Starts at 27.55
Discussion Starts 38.32
Summary I’m here representing The Conversation – a news commentary website written by academics. The content we publish is short, some is new research, others are more reactive. We want to pull together the best bits of academia and journalism. We are attempting to solve the problems of, firstly, where you can get trusted opinion and, secondly, how to unlock the knowledge of universities and deliver it to the public. We firmly believe that every academic has a story to tell and one of the key things we’re trying to do is to get people who haven’t engaged with the public before and get them blogging for the first time. Everything we do is published under creative commons and we actively encourage other organisations republish our material – that is key for us and a big departure from traditional news media.
Session 2: How to blog effectively?
What do we know about audiences, readership and patterns of use of political analysis on-line?
Chair: Blake Ewing (Graduate Editor, Politics in Spires, DPIR)
Andrew Sparrow The rise of the Guardian Politics Blog, (Editor, Guardian Politics Blog)
Starts at 0.55
Summary: I am a journalist blogger and obviously journalism and academia are rather different. However, they are actually similar in that the way we communicated hadn’t changed for 300 years – then along came the internet which disrupted the patterns of our working life. Journalists now communicate more frequently than ever before and this has actually allowed for greater professional freedom. Having said that, it has also been hugely disruptive. Previously, journalists were perceived as having authority which was not contested by their readership. We are now in an era where, by virtue of the blogosphere, anyone can be a journalist. This raises questions about the long-term future of journalism.
In regard to academic blogging specifically, my experience has been distinctively mixed. I think my first response on how to blog is you have to want to do it – not just be chivvied into doing it by your department, which often seems to be the case. Fundamentally, blog if you have something to communicate. Blogging can be for a small audience – not only large ones – all that matters is that it speaks to who you want it to. Moreover, be careful not to waste your time writing something that’s written elsewhere – focus on the bit you’ve got something new to say about. An excellent example of this is Philip Cowley who has cornered the market on parliamentary rebellions.
Andrew Sullivan was one of the pioneers of blogging and wrote an essay on ‘Why I Blog’ which I think is still the best thing on the subject. He views blogging as broadcasting – filling space, immediate, provisional, conversational, temporary and unfinished. This is how blogging should be conceived.
Chris Prosser Uses of analytics data (Deputy Graduate Editor, Politics in Spires, DPIR)
Summary: I’m here to talk about what we know about the audience of Politics in Spires. Given that we don’t survey our readers there is a limit to how much we can know but we do know that one third of our readers from the UK and the rest are international. In total we have readers in 190 countries. As for the profile of these readers, specifically whether they are academics or not – what we know is that only 15% of readers are accessing the site from a university IP address. This leads us to think that the majority of the audience are non-academics. However, readership is concentrated in cities with large research universities such as Oxford and London.
In terms of how people find us, half of our traffic comes from google. People therefore seem to be looking to find out something about a particular topic. That, by and far, is our biggest source of traffic. Next is social network with Facebook being more important than Twitter. What is interesting is that people who enter through Twitter appear to be overwhelmingly academics – suggesting our twitter presence is fairly limited to an academic bubble.
Rosemary Bechler openDemocracy: A public service on the web? (Editor, openDemocracy)
Starts at 37.35
Summary: In order to answer the question of how to blog effectively we need to answer these questions first: Who is the content for? What conversation is this already part of? How can the wider audience be built for that particular conversation most effectively? Indeed, conversations are the theme of what I would like to talk about and how essential it is for democracy that we have open conversations.
At Open Democracy we do have a particular concern with ‘open democracies’ and we are pushing for a move towards the a more democratic model of impact. This involves searching for wider audiences for important issues and seeking to transfer knowledge out from the powerful to the less powerful. We believe passionately in open and pluralistic debate as a way to further democracy. We are currently experiencing a decline in our democratic culture – demonstrated by the rise of populism’s and the dominance of unelected bodies on politics. We at Open Democracy want to build empowered and knowledgeable audiences who can fight back against these trends. We also want to provide a platform for pushing back against the parts of the media who are engaged in these conversations with deleterious results. We need more sophisticated and diverse publics. We need engaged communities of interest. We want to move away from the commodification of knowledge – we want to build sharing conversations.
Vicki Nash Current research on on-line risk (Oxford Internet Institute)
Starts at 54.50
Discussion starts at 1:10.43
Summary: There is a lot of discussion currently about the risks of the internet. However, while it’s true that there are risks for academics, they are less serious than they sometimes appear to be. Having said that, I think there are generally three sources of risk; professional, personal and political. In regard to the professional risks; there are anecdotal stories of academics who have been professionally compromised as a result of their online activity. There is also the opportunity cost to blogging – you need to consider how it contributes to your long term goals or fits into your working day. Moreover, things published on the internet do not disappear so unwise statements linger around to haunt you. There are also risks of being plagiarised which it is very difficult to act against. In terms of personal risk; there is the danger of being “trolled”. However, while there are serious cases where very unpleasant things are sent to people, this tends to be to very high profile women and I have never heard of a case of an academic being cyber-stalked.
In terms of potential political risks; it must be recognise that blogging is a form of political communication. It is often presented as participation by political equals but actually blogging doesn’t present people as equals. If you are participating as an academic you are participating in a privileged position and you should be aware of that. You should be mindful of how to avoid exaggerating these inequalities. There is also a gender element to this – although most bloggers, in general, are women, most political bloggers are white males with an elite education. You should think about who’s hearing what you’re saying and consider the democratic impact – be aware of how political debate risks undermining certain groups, such as minorities or women, and of the risk of silencing or objectifying other voices. You need to both find your own voice but say things in such a way to expand access.
Discussion and summing up (Stuart White)
Niki Seth-Smith and Stuart White: launch of the ‘Democratic Wealth’ e-book by openDemocracy and Politics in Spires