Tag Archives: Weblogs

Online MPD… some thoughts on anonymity…

I responded to a post on The History Enthusiast‘s blog, dealing with her almost being "outed" as a blogger in class, which led her to write a rather lengthy reply post.

I started to write a comment in reply, but realized that mine had turned into a rather lengthy reply post as well, so here it is:

I struggle with some of the same issues, balancing the desire for privacy and a place to vent with my desire to make this blog as transparent as possible. I want privacy, and I want publicity– or at least I want hits. I want comments. I want readership and feedback.

My solution thus far has been to establish two (or more accurately, several) online "selves." One that’s pretty public and not too personal, and the other that’s small, secretive, much more personal, and highly screened. That latter "self" (on a friends-only LiveJournal account) is the one that only a handful of even my friends have access to, and that’s where my personal life, my joys and my angst tend to go. I keep that persona on a tight leash. I don’t connect it to other parts of my more public persona. It’s filtered, it’s under a pseudonym (or pseudonyms) that even my best friends wouldn’t necessarily guess was me.

My more public self is this blog, it’s my del.icio.us account, my flickr account. The places where I let myself be traceable, and try to control a bit more the content. And when it comes to this blog, it’s obviously less personal than the History Enthusiast’s blog, and more purely historical. And I’m sure it has less readership because of that. But I’m constantly thinking about how to strike a balance with that respect.

I think the real advantage of the "two selves principle" that I’m TRYING to make work is that it keeps me in the habit of blogging, either way. It keeps me writing and processing my life in that way, for things that won’t necessarily get turned in to anyone or published anywhere. And it also keeps me on my toes and hyper-conscious of my online profile. I make sure that my public face has a hundred times more Google Juice than my "private persona." It keeps me in the business of managing my online presence, which keeps me mindful, and (I hope) decreases the possibility of having one of those famous incidents where your internet slip is showing at the wrong time.

Personally, I’m doing this for several reasons. One is simply that I’m in a program where maintaining an internet presence is pretty much a requirement. Blogs and electronic journals and projects are some of the highest-profile things coming out of George Mason. So in one way, I’m just riding the wave here. But I also feel that there needs to be greater transparency in academia, and more immediacy.  Academics who blog openly promote these causes.

I think that this new publishing option– because that’s what blogging and the like are– is an exciting new development for academics. It’s almost like a conference that never stops, where there’s panels on any topic you can imagine. Of course there’s still a place for traditional publication and peer review, but this is an opportunity to share your work and get feedback among interested peers before all that– just like a conference, except you don’t have to wait all year to go, and you never get that 8am slot that nobody shows up for.

I’ve worried myself about the possibility of getting "scooped’ by over-sharing, as well, but honestly, I’ve been convinced by people who keep claiming that if anything, blogging increases your public presence, and gives you something to point to if somebody steals your research– you’ve already published it online. I don’t know of anyone who’s done this successfully, yet, but I DO know of several people who’ve been scooped after presenting at a conference. But we keep doing those.

I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out if this experiment is a good one or a foolhardy one in a several years, when I go on the market. But I’m hoping that even if there are some programs out there who won’t want someone who’s been blogging, there might be other programs out there who’ll like the idea of someone who’s been writing to be read– putting themselves out there– as much as possible.

Blogs are usually half-formed, often half-baked, and many are completely thoughtless and narcissistic. They’ve earned their bad name, as much as they’ve been maligned by self-appointed gatekeepers and culture guardians. But they have a lot of potential.

Academics, I feel, would be best served striving to achieve that potential, honestly and openly. When enough people do that, when there’s a critical mass, some of that bias will go away. But I feel that it’s important for people to be open about who they are. Blogging anonymously… there really is a similarity to the closet. You can either "come out," or you have to constantly fear being outed.

And look at Larry Craig… when you get outed after doing stuff in secret for a long, long time, you have a lot more difficult explaining to do.

That said, I intend to hold onto my secret "other personas" as long as possible, ’cause there’s certain parts of all our lives that we’d rather keep on the DL.

The future of H-Net… LiveJournal?

Mills Kelly has started a real debate in the last few couple weeks about the future of H-Net.

(Follow-ups can be found here, here, here, and here… And to see some of the response this engendered, check here, here, here, and here. Also, check out the discussion on the Digital History podcast.)

Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to say that, despite the advice of many professors and colleagues, I am not and never have been a member of an H-Net community. I have my reasons, though. And they have everything to do with why I’m writing this.

Mills’s article brings up the notion of email bankruptcy. People have begun declaring bankruptcy on Social Networking Sites. for that matter, too. Now, when I first heard about this phenomenon, it seemed a bit silly. But then I realized that this was exactly the same thing that had happened to me years ago.

You see, around 1998 or 1999, I declared (without using the term) listserv bankruptcy. After three or four years of being very active on several listservs, I realized that deleting messages from my lists was taking so much time I was neglecting to reply to emails from friends and family. I quit them all, and though I’ve joined one or two briefly since then, I’ve been listserv free for most of the last eight years.

So I guess I have a vested interest in coming up with a new, viable direction that H-Net could go in– it’s for the sake of my own professional development that I’m thinking about this, because I really don’t think I could face the possibility of joining one of those things again.

But it hit me the other day: there’s already an existing piece of open-source software that could do everything H-Net does now and more, that can play to its existing strengths and help improve aspects that are less than ideal.

The answer is LiveJournal.

Those of you rolling your eyes, please hear me out.

LiveJournal is a somewhat beleaguered website, a situation that is partially fair and partially unfair. It’s definitely a site where a lot of people are doing the kind of unintellectual, quotidian blogging that some opponents of leaving the listserv format seem to feel dominate blogging. So yeah, LJ is to a certain extent contributing to blogging’s bad rap. The site’s earliest adopters and most dedicated users have historically skewed young and female, too, and I think that this has also brought the site detractors within certain male-dominated circles of geekdom.

But the most important thing for this discussion is the software’s architecture– LiveJournal’s software is largely open-source,  making it relatively easy to pick it up and throw it on another server. That’s definitely a plus for a nonprofit project like HNet.

More importantly, the LiveJournal framework combines elements of blogging, message boards, and SNSs. Transmitting H-Net to this new system would give it much more functionality.

Let’s imagine what HNetJournal might look like. The H-Net Communities that currently exist as listservs could easily exist as communities like those on LJ. Various levels of moderation can be set up on these communities, so the moderated gatekeeper function that the lists currently serve could be mirrored there.

On the other hand, communities that wanted to become more open could allow more openness in their membership and posting policies if they wished. New communities could even be set up that might be more open to those who feel excluded. There could be an H-History-Undergrad community, for example. Similarly, professors could set up a community that was limited to students in a specific, encouraging discussion out of class and getting students into the habit of seeing the learning community as an important part of education.

Beyond the community feature, however, there’s the personal-journal element– the BLOGGING element of this framework. If blogging was done by the same process as posting a new item or a comment on H-Net, I’d wager a lot more academics would begin at least occasionally blogging. And those of us who already blog could easily set up our HNetJournal blog to simply be an RSS feed of our blogs elsewhere. More eyeballs, more hits, greater readership.

These blogs, like the communities, can be as open or as closed as you want them to be. Anyone afraid of prying eyes, and using that as an excuse not to blog, could blog for a closed community of colleagues that he or she has already established contact with. On LJ it’s called your "friends list." Something more professional sounding would be necessary, but the idea’s a good one.

The friends list does several things. It allows for the above-mentioned level of control over readership for those who’re still a bit weary of being "all over the internet." It’s a blog aggregater that’s less scary than dealing with RSS feed readers for the technophobic. It allows for community building across interests, as well. You may encounter a fascinating French Medievalist whose work you want to track, even though your research in 20th century Japan isn’t really relevant. You wouldn’t need to join a French Medievalist community to maintain that contact. HNetJournal could be good for interdisciplinary discussion.

There’s the fear of losing even more readership to contend with, though. This concern is understandable and real. However, I think it could be overcome. First off, LiveJournal is actually fairly user-friendly and intuitive. I’d challenge anyone reading this with skepticism to set up an account, and play around on the site for a little while. It may have a learning curve, but it’s definitely no harder– and I’d argue it’s actually easier– than navigating WebCT, Blackboard, or PeopleSoft. Changing software and re-acclimating has simply become a part of being an academic anymore, and people eventually come around.

Another thing that could be done to curb this loss of eyeballs– and here I’ll defer to anyone with a knowledge of Perl– would be to set up email notification. LJ as it exists today already has a comment notification feature, where users can have (HTML or Plain Text) notifications of any responses to posts or comments they’ve made. I’d imagine it’d be doable to set up a periodic notification email system that simply relayed information about major activities on all of a user’s subscriptions. Thus those who want to have the information put in their inbox to peruse or ignore could continue to have this done.

…I’m sure I’ve got more to say on the topic, but I’m afraid that this post is already too long, and nobody will read it. Assuming it generates any interest, I’ll continue to ruminate and offer a follow-up post soon.

On the use-value of blogs and communities for historical research…

In an introductory session of my program’s Doctoral Colloquium, a member of the program came in to talk about blogging history.  It’s only logical– George Mason’s History department seems determined to shed the Luddite image so many Historians are more than happy to propagate.  (At the last University I attended, there was one Prof in the History department who I suspect took a certain special glee in absolutely refusing to use either email or voicemail.  Some people seem to confuse living immersed in History and living in History… but that’s a different matter…)

At any rate, one of the big concerns voiced by many of the people in the Colloquium– or at least those slower to adapt to new technologies, or the usefulness of blogging– was that of authority.

If one of the big advantages of blogging is the interactivity, the fact that it’s a bi-directional medium, they asked, how can you trust anyone who tells you anything?  Couldn’t they be wrong, or deliberately misleading you?  If one searches through books or journals, the argument goes, those authors have been put through the rigors of editorial and/or peer review.  Their voices are thus lent authority, their opinions given weight and value.  But anyone with a modem can make claims on your blog– how can you trust them?

Well, the short answer is, you can’t.  Of course.  Obviously. 

Of course, in the last year, Hwang Woo-suk has proved you can’t trust the journal Science, despite it’s wonderful reputation and system of peer review.  And anyone who is either a pomo-debunker or a pomo-debunker-debunker is familiar with how Physicist Alan Sokol proved you can’t trust Social Text not to print what the author describes as absolute "nonsense."

The (only slightly) longer answer is you can’t trust anybody, ever.

It’s the duty of an academic to sort through data, test hypotheses, and generally act as a skeptical interpreter of (always slightly suspect) data.  You can’t trust anyone, in other words– or at least not completely.

But this in no way means that one should distance oneself from any possible provider of support, in tackling difficult research questions.  And the web offers historians and other academics a superb networking tool– not to mention one that can bridge the gap between the professionalized halls of academe and the world of public historians, witnesses to history, and amateur enthusiasts– all of whom may be key to unlocking that one perplexing puzzle. 

Why refuse that help if it fails to come with a PhD and a peer review?  Match the advice you’re given against what you know, and what you can deduce, and use your better judgment.

All of these comments are really just a preface to this: I found a great example of the best-case scenario, when it comes to enlisting the help of others on the web, and I thought I’d share it with those and any other classmates: it’s a discussion in the academics_anon community on the journaling site Livejournal, a community that, despite its sometimes intense snarkiness– especially during finals season– has been a lifesaver for me on more than one occasion. 

The original poster came with an illustration that wasn’t properly attributed in the book she found it in, and was a difficult piece to decipher– check it out, it’s a really interesting image– and the members of the community came up with all sorts of avenues of investigation for her.

This isn’t always the way these things work, but it’s one of the possibilities, and it’s the one that keeps me optimistic about the overall use of the net to academics.

Just felt like sharing.