October 22, 2007

If a blog falls in the forest and nobody hears it...

Some assorted and preliminary follow-up thoughts to my previous post on blogging as a spectator sport:
  1. While I certainly find some value in blogging for myself, in sorting out my thoughts more carefully than I sometimes do in a notebook, for instance, because of the chance that someone else will read them, and in the practice it gives me in writing often, and in the excuse to write about books and topics not strictly work-related and in a relatively informal way--while I like these and some other aspects of blogging, I am disappointed in it at this point as a medium for dialogue and exchange. To be sure, the format readily allows for plenty of back-and-forth, through comments and replies or through linking, cross-posting, and cross-referencing. I certainly don't get much of that here, myself. It's true that as far as I know I have very few readers, and I don't post much that's edgy or controversial--but I do sometimes ask questions of my (imagined) audience, and sometimes it would just be nice to know what someone else thinks, whether of something I've read or of an issue I'm puzzling over--to have some constructive but casual conversation. I can think of two factors that militate against me in particular, in this regard: in the first place, there are over 75 million blogs now, so it's no wonder that things are quite quiet over here; and in the second place, the kind of conversation I imagine is hard to come by in the 'real' world because the people I'd like to talk to are very busy, and I'm sure the same is true in the 'blogosphere.' But my question about the possibilities of dialogue-through-blogging is only partly about my own case, because (sensibly) my expectations remain about as low as my profile. The thing is, as I mention in the post I've linked to above, even the busy discussions on some of the most established 'academic' blogs are dominated by a small number of avid participants, while the rest of us basically eavesdrop or 'lurk.' The more political the topic, the more likely it seems to be to engage people. (Though there are always surprises: I think the longest comment thread I've come across anywhere is still this one , with 210 comments on the first round and 53 more on the next...)
  2. One aspect of this situation that I've been thinking about is the tension between generalization and specialization that academic blogs perhaps illustrate. It's difficult to provoke comments on a specialized topic, except from other specialists. Non-specialists may be interested in reading or using your material, but they are unlikely to add to it. (I'm thinking, for instance, of the posts on The Little Professor about Victorian anti-Catholic texts: this is just not a topic on which many people can, or would, chime in, though now I know where to go if I want to learn something about them.) But if your offerings are general enough to interest a lot of people, they may lose their value in establishing a community of expertise, or in contributing to the development of your professional work. And if, as in some of the cases I linked to in my earlier post, they tend towards current events and political controversies, they may not be the kinds of conversations you are keen to participate in, especially publicly, or especially if you're not American and don't follow all the latest headlines.
  3. Further to that last point, I'm starting to notice a divide in blogging between two kinds of literary sites, which I would roughly divide into 'bookish' and 'academic'--and the academic ones really don't seem that literary, in the sense of talking about, well, literature, as opposed to politics, philosophy, theory, and criticism. (I know, I know: talking about literature always involves politics, philosophy, and theory, etc....) I 'm thinking especially at this point of The Valve, subtitled 'A Literary Organ,' after all. The bookish ones seem quite contemporary in their focus, so for those of us who spend most of our time reading loose baggy monsters from the 19th century, well, once again but for different reasons, we aren't really equipped to jump in--and there too, I don't see that much discussion, to return to my first point. A third category would be the 'academic specialty' site, like Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog or The Long Eighteenth, or Blogging the Renaissance, all of which do seem to represent a virtual community offering its members fellowship and mental stimulation--but within established boundaries (that is, I don't see them as trying to bridge any gaps between specialists and generalists--which is not to say that I think they should, just to observe that their aims seem rather different than the aims of The Valve).
I realize these remarks are rather rambling (it's been a long day) but I wanted to get some of them down, not least because I volunteered to give a short talk in my department next month, sort of a 'show and tell' about academic blogging and I'm trying to pin down my impressions. I'd be curious to know what others (especially but not exclusively other bloggers) think about how well blogs do or can work for fostering dialogue, or about how much (or whether) commenting matters to the value of blogging. I'd also be happy to learn of other models of academic or literary blogs.


RfP said...

I haven't been blogging for long. From observing other blogs, it can take quite a while for a new blog to 'inhabit' its niche and become a destination. Developing a community of 'regulars' seems to take even longer--I'm not sure whether that's a sort of icebreaking phenomenon, or whether some blogs seem 'friendlier' than others. (I think often the icebreaker is to engage people initially on their own sites.)

I read your posts with interest, in part because you seem to teach a number of books I've enjoyed. But as you said, I'm not a specialist. If I haven't read the book recently, I'm less likely to contribute.

As you've noticed, there's a critical mass in some types of book blogs--current literary fiction, current genre fiction, academic/political, etc. It's probably simplest to engage if you fit cleanly into one of those categories. I don't entirely, as my reading tastes are rather catholic. Thus far, most of my commenters are in one niche, which means that I regularly write posts that don't interest them. I enjoy writing for myself, but I feel discussion is the major benefit of blogging, so if the balance tilted too far in either direction it could become a cleft stick.

Rohan Maitzen said...


Thanks for your comment. I agree that, at least in theory, discussion should be the great advantage of writing in this kind of public way. I take your point about identifying a niche if you want to establish a community of readers--but on the other hand, it's nice to have the freedom to roam! I do think it's unfortunate that (as another writer posted somewhere, though now I've lost track of the original source) 'flames' are the most likely kinds of posts to get attention.

Joel Rodgers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joel Rodgers said...

I'm also a bit dissatisfied with The Valve for its insularity and its somewhat tangential treatment of literature. I always feel like I'm eaves-dropping on a secret club that I don't really belong to -- and I'm a graduate student in literary studies.

However, I'm not sure if blogs can ever avoid the problem of niche communities. As a form, blogs aren't that much different from webforum communities, which notoriously foster insular membership.

Rohan Maitzen said...


You may be right about blogs lending themselves to the same kind of 'small world' communities as webforums, though it still seems to me that they have at least the potential to be much more expansive or inclusive (or something) than that--though their openness also makes them vulnerable to everything from triviality (not always a bad thing, of course) to 'trolls'.

I've belonged for over a decade to the wonderful VICTORIA listserv: I was thinking for a while that its purposes would be easily served in a blog format (which would also mean less inbox clutter)--but it may be that the self-selecting nature of its participants and the more personal letter-like format of an e-mail helps sustain its attitude of open-mindedness and generosity. (It's odd, actually, to watch e-mail start to seem like a more formal alternative!) A carefully moderated blog, though, might be able to achieve much the same thing.

Rohan Maitzen said...


I meant to say, also, that I followed up the link to your webpage and really enjoyed looking at the web projects there. Were the courses these were done for part of your MA program?

Joel Rodgers said...

Dr. Maitzen,

I agree. Blogs have the potential to be more open and accessible, if only because they're more aesthetically inviting than forums and listservs tend to be. For instance, I find the aptly named SHAKSPER listserv extremely awkward to navigate. A carefully moderated blog should be able to serve the same function as VICTORIA and SHAKSPER but in a fashion better suited to online presentation.

I’m glad you enjoyed the group projects. I was fortunate enough to have excellent groups in both terms. And yes, they were created for the required theory and criticism classes in the English graduate programme at Waterloo. (However, the classes have been altered and they’re no longer mandatory for master’s students in literary studies or doctoral candidates.) I'm hoping to update the second project so it can be used as a teaching supplement in undergraduate classes.

litlove said...

I found this a very interesting post. I'm an academic with a book blog that I like to think falls between the categories of academia and general bookishness. I've been writing it now for over a year and find I do have a healthy level of debate on topics that are related to general literary questions, but that it is very rare to spark off a discussion on an individual book, unless it is part of a group read. But that strikes me as only natural. I must say I have been pleased by the way that blogging has allowed me to come into contact with a lot of educated general readers, and I've found blogging useful in the way it forces me to organise my thinking in lucid ways. I don't know how long you've been blogging, but time matters a lot in the blogworld - the experience changes distinctly as time passes. Come back to this question in six months and see what you think then.