The rise of the web as the source of knowledge– in a book to be released soon

I went to the JSB Symposium with Derek on Monday over at the University of Michigan, which was an event that featured David Weinberger as the speaker.  Weinberger is the author of books like The Cluetrain Manifesto, the excellent Everything is Miscellaneous, and a forthcoming book that was more or less the topic of his talk, Too Big to Know.  It was an interesting talk, though not as provoking (for me) or as popular as the last one of these I went to in 2009 with danah boyd.  But I digress.

Weinberger talked about a lot of things, but I think it’s fair to say that his new work continues in the same vein as what he talked about before, and how, in a digital age, knowledge is no longer expensive, rare, logical, and locked into books, and that the problem with books is they as objects freeze knowledge at the point of printing.  And he talked through Darwin quite a bit as a pretty good example of how knowledge used to work and how it works now, how nowadays Darwin would probably have a blog.

A lot of what he was talking about here reminded me of an article on Prof Hacker I had been meaning to blog about here for quite some time, “Do ‘the Risky Thing’ in Digital Humanities” by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who is the “director of scholarly communication” for MLA.  Basically, Fitzpatrick is offering encouragement to dissertation writers to “be bold” by producing dissertations that distinguish themselves potentially in form if not also content.  For example, she writes:

Writing a standard dissertation that meets everyone’s expectations for what a dissertation should look like, how it should argue, and what it should say is the safe path to a completed degree. But having taken that path—the path to a book—the candidate is likely to find herself on the job market with dozens of other Ph.D. holders with prospective books. Getting her work out of the pile is helped enormously by having done something more than what was expected. That is not to push experimentation for experimentation’s sake, but it is to say that reining in a project a graduate student really wants to do to conform with a traditional structure is counterproductive, deflating both the student’s passion and the thing that makes her work distinctive.

On the one hand, I don’t disagree with either Weinberger or Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald is pretty much praised in the comment section on ProfHacker.  I’m all for “breaking the rules” in terms of scholarship, my dissertation has been online now almost as long as it has existed in print, and I’m proud of the fact that I’ve published lots of stuff online.

On the other hand, let’s check in with reality.  By definition, taking the experimental/alternative path is a risk, and I don’t know if a dissertation is a good place to take that risk.  There are a lot of variables here, of course.  When I was dissertating 15 years ago, there was no “taking a risk” in that dissertations were double-spaced and bound chunks of text by definition.  My assumption that much of this has changed nowadays with electronic publishing possibilities and it is more normal for even traditional dissertations to reference web-based content.  But if someone doing a dissertation on the use of multimedia in the teaching of writing and then produced it only as a web-based chunk of video, then I think that person would probably have a difficult time having that work taken seriously by scholars or the job market.  The cautionary tale that already Alexandra Juhasz tells about her multimedia work/book on YouTube “A Truly New Genre” outlines the problems for an established scholar in publishing this kind of work; freshly minted PhDs just entering the profession would have an even bigger challenges.

Hey, I don’t make the rules.  I’m just telling you what they are.

As for Weinberger:  well, he’s telling us about the powers of the web and its transformations of what constitutes knowledge based on a book.  He isn’t working at Harvard and hasn’t been invited to the University of Michigan to give a speech (one that he has and will surly repeat at other similar venues) because he keeps a blog.  I don’t know how much money Weinberger makes from his books, but I guarantee you that in direct and indirect ways, he makes a lot more from them then he does from his blog.

So, while it is true that we technically don’t need books anymore (though there is something to be said about the permanence and unalterability of print as well) and we might not even be buying books like we used to, books have far more capital in an information economy than anything in the blogosphere.

A mini CFP for a roundtable at C&W: Blogs are Dead: Yes, No, Maybe, Other

Proposals for the Computers and Writing conference are due tomorrow, and I don’t have a proposal together yet and I’m undecided as to whether or not I should propose something.  Oh, I’ll be going to the conference, of course; but because it is so local– just across town, really– it isn’t going to cost me anything more than registration.  I’m sorta/kinda already involved in the planning, and I’m also sorta/kinda involved in the “unconference” discussions that have been going on about an alternative to the online conference.  And I need another conference presentation on my CV like I need another hole in my head.  So it might be interesting to go to the conference just to, you know, go.

So I’m on the fence here.

But while I was contemplating what to propose (or not propose), I decided that it might be interesting to throw out there something on the end of blogging.  The title I have in my head right now is “Blogs are Dead:  Yes, No, Maybe, Other,” or maybe just “Blogs are Dead:  Yes, No, Other.”  I have some sense of what I would say about that in a 15 or so minute presentation, and it might actually motivate me to do something with my mostly abandoned “Blogs as Writerly Spaces” project.

And then I thought that maybe this would be a fine roundtable sort of presentation that was more of a debate and made up of as many current and former bloggers interested in C&W that I could muster.  I’m imagining something like a 75 minute panel where each participant would have as much time as possible to talk given the need to leave at least 20-30 minutes for discussion.  In other words, if it’s three participants, everyone gets 15 minutes; if it’s 10, everyone gets four and a half minutes; it it’s some number in between 1 and 10, then the time will be somewhere between 15 and four and a half.

So, I emailed a half dozen or so people who have blogs I read occasionally.  I got back some answers rather quickly, though most of these folks are already committed in one fashion or another. So then I thought “hey, why not throw up a blog post that tries to drum up some interest quickly?”

And so I wrote this post.  Which, I should point out, I’m also sharing with the world via the tech-rhet mailing list, Twitter, and Facebook, which I suppose speaks to why I personally think the answer to the question about the death of blogging is both complicated and interesting.

In any event, if you are reading this now, if you do (or you used to) keep a blog, and if you were thinking about going to C&W this year, then it seems to me there’s a chance that you too might be interested in participating in this.  If so, add a comment and/or send me an email, skrause at emich dot edu.  We need to get this together very soon though!

The “ground zero mosque” and maybe why blogs (and their “writerly spaces”) still do matter

Earlier today– I can’t remember if it while I was on my bike ride, grading/wrapping up stuff for the summer term, reading my Google Reader feed, or what– I had this feeling that my long suffering and delayed project, Blogs as Writerly Spaces, had kind of run its course.  I mean, I haven’t done anything with it in months and months (I have poked at it more recently than my link above might suggest, but still), and I kind of have a bit of a “milked dry” feeling about the whole thing.  I’ve worked my survey data (such as it is) and other research into at least five different presentations over the years, and it has been feeling a little wrung out to me.  Besides, blogging is kind of “been there, done that” nowadays, right?  How do I write a book-length project (or hell, even a decent article-length essay) about this phenomenon that has either become irrelevant in the shadow of Facebook, Twitter, and whatever is next?  Who cares about a medium that has either faded away or has been subsumed/consumed by MSM to the point where even freakin’ Stanley Fish has a “blog” as part of the New York Times?

Anyway, this was all in the back of my mind while listening to the radio on the way to Costco and I was listening to “Here and Now” and they had a story (mp3) about this story in Salon by Justin Elliott, “How the ‘ground zero mosque’ fear mongering began,” and I had a tiny twinge of second thoughts on my project.  Maybe there’s something there there after all.  Elliott has a time-line how this mosque/community center/whatever it is controversy got so out of hand, and how a right-wing conspiracy theorist blogger named Pamela Geller (her blog is called “Altas Shrugs”) started and fueled this whole thing.  Elliott has a time-line and corresponding links to Geller’s blog to make a pretty compelling argument how her blog made this into a story.  Granted, Geller is more “connected” than most bloggers (her bio points to appearances on various news outlets, and she was apparently on Hannity’s radio show, etc.), but I think Elliott makes a pretty compelling argument that this non-story turned into a story in part because of Geller’s persistence and blogging.  Take a look at Atlas Shrugs now and it’s clear that she’s still using this story, or it’s still using her.

The politics here are interesting in a way, but the dynamics of the rhetorical situation are much more interesting to me.  And maybe I ought to not completely close up that book project yet.

What blogging has become (sorta)

I came across this passage in this article about “The Rising Stars of Gossip Blogs” on

The lines between “reporter” and “blogger,” “gossip” and “news” have blurred almost beyond distinction. No longer is blogging something that marginalized editorial wannabes do from home, in a bathrobe, because they haven’t found a “real” job. Blogging now is a career path in its own right, offering visibility, influence and an actual paycheck. As more gossip action in a variety of fields moves online, young writers who might have hungrily chased an editorial assistant job at Condé Nast a few years ago now move to New York with the dream of making it as a blogger — either launching their own blog into the big time, à la Perez Hilton, or getting snapped up by a prominent blog network like Gawker Media or MediaBistro.

I don’t care about the gossip blogging thing per se (though I have never had a problem with gossip rags or gossip TV like Entertainment Tonight or TMZ), but this quote for me reminds me once again of my long-dormant but maybe still viable project, Blogs as Writerly Spaces.  First off, what I see this quote more or less dismisses or gets beyond the “blogging is a genre” definitions that carried the day in the earliest days of blogging– I’m thinking of Rebecca Blood’s book among other things, not to mention the early criticisms of MSM who derided bloggers as “diarists.”  Blogging is most easily and usefully defined as a form with certain technical and editorial characteristics.

Second, this points quite directly to part of the idea of “writerly” that I want to explore, that blogging as a practice is “writerly” in the theoretical sense that Barthes and others have talked about, but also “writerly” in the more market-driven/capitalistic sense that it might actually pay off and help develop, nurture, or otherwise support a career as a writer.

Now, if I could just get off my butt and do a little writing….

Oh yeah? I planned it so I wouldn’t have so many readers/friends!

From a couple of different places, I came across this Mashable article, “Your Brain Can’t Handle Your Facebook Friends,” suggests that according to Dunbar’s number, the number of people you can really be “friends” with is 150.  This reminds me of article by Clive Thompson in the current issue of WIRED, “In Praise of Obscurity,” in which he talks about how when an audience becomes too large, it no longer is “social.”  He uses the example of a popular Twitter-er (???) named Maureen Evans who started tweeting recipes, became hugely popular (13,000 followers), and said the conversation between users just stopped. I’ll post a link once WIRED puts one up, probably when the next issue comes out.

First off, I blogged about this very phenomenon back in 2007 here, in talking about both Facebook and also and my struggling (dying?) “Blogs as Writerly Spaces” project.  (Perhaps I can count this post as something that will allow me to check off “worked on scholarship today” from my to do list.)  As I noted back then, since I think the readership of this blog is generally pretty small, I don’t need a lot of rules; on the other hand, with, especially when it was routinely getting 600-1000 hits a day (that’s fallen off to about half of that now), I did indeed need to set up rules.  In that sense, the Dunbar number seems to be about a threshold for organization as much as anything else.  If you have a group of people who like to play ultimate frisbee or pick-up basketball or softball every Friday night at a particular park and that group is less than 150 or so people, then you probably don’t need much in the ways of “rules.”  But if that group gets above 150, then I suspect you need to start forming a “league” with organized teams, schedules, etc.

Second, this all begs once again the definition of “friend,” something that has been a little easier to sort out with Facebook as of late thanks to its new “list” feature.  I think in the context of Facebook, people have basically over-valued and/or misinterpreted the word “friend.” In “real life,” I think of a friend as someone I either know quite well and engage in activities with on a regular basis (e.g., family friends, golfing friends, people I invite to my house for a party or something, etc.), people I know pretty well but only catch up with once in a while (e.g., many/most people at work, friends who live some distance away, etc.), or people I still know but are from a more distant past and who I haven’t necessarily even spoken with in some time.  This last category is a big one on Facebook:  we all have “friended” people from high school or college who we haven’t seen or spoken with in decades and who we aren’t especially interested in reconnecting with in “real life” again now, but who are still a kind of friend.

I have “real life” friends on Facebook, but besides “real” friends, most of my Facebook friends fall into the categories of “colleagues in my field,” people at EMU, and/or students.  No offense to any of these folks, but that y’all aren’t really my friends in the real world friend sense, right?

Third, I guess the other thing that comes up especially in the Thompson article is my concept/understanding of who I am “speaking” with when I post online, be that space on Facebook, Twitter, this or some other blog.  This may be kind of “old skool,” but I still work from the assumption that anything I post online has the potential to be read by anyone on the planet; therefore, I would never post any sort of personal thing which I would be concerned about some stranger reading.  You’re not going to get any “weird rash on my hands not going away” posts from me (btw, I have no rashes).  And if I post something like “ate tuna sandwich,” it is only because I don’t really care if anyone knows that I ate a tuna sandwich.

The tricky thing about this is trying to figure out those borders between the actually personal, the things you really would only tell to close friends, and everything else.  This is nothing new, of course; what makes it a little different now is that the sheer volume of people on networks like Facebook means that there is inevitably a learning curve for both writers and readers about the shifting definition of “Too Much Information.”  I mean, I have FB “friends” who do seem to think that posting about that mysterious rash is fair game; conversely, I also have FB “friends” who would comment on my lunch selection “Ew, TMI.”  So it goes with emerging medias, right?

BTW, today I’m going to have left-over pork loin for lunch.  If it isn’t too freezer-burned.

Lessig ends blogging for what are emerging (for me, at least) classic reasons

Lawrence Lessig announced today that he’s more or less giving up blogging, and it’s striking to me how many of his reasons seem to correspond to my own very limited research on why it is people hang up the ol’ blog.  To simplfy:

  • Life and other work has intervened– Lessig is expecting another child and is taking on more time-consuming responsibilities at Harvard.
  • Technologies of blogging has become somewhat problematic, especially in terms of spam.  Though I have to say I think this is a kind of lame explanation/excuse since it’s easy to set up a blog to dissuade spam.
  • Moving to other spaces– or, in Lessig’s case, putting his energies on other spaces he’s already mainitaining:

This isn’t an announcement of my disappearance. I’m still trying to understand twitter. My channel at will remain. As will the podcast, updated as I speak. I will continue to guest blog at Huffington Post. And as enters a new stage, I hope to be doing more there. But this community, this space, this board will now rest.

Interestingly enough, I think the Lessig blog also exhibits the classic signs of ending blogs:  a flurry of posts in recent days here in late August 2009, but none in July 2009, and one in early June.

But I have no doubt that Lessig will remain an important and prolific voice online and beyond the blogosphere.

Some artists are just kinda wrong

From the blog Livin’ it Up Big Time comes this entry, “Looks Like If The Words Are Bleeding (Collected Collegiate Student Essays, 2002-2009).” This popped up on the WPA-L mailing list.  Basically, the blogger/artist Theodore Diran Lyons III took some particularly poor examples of writing assignments he had collected from seven years of teaching at different institutions, tacked them up on the wall, circled some of the errors in red and highlighted other errors with large font pull-quotes, and said it was an art piece about illiteracy in America.  Comments on his blog ensued, and I am apart of the thread as the long-winded “Steve,” if you’re curious.

I don’t know, perhaps I was giving the guy far too much grief/far too much attention here, but I got sucked in.  The whole conversation bothers/bothered me.  This is certainly an example of the sort of feedback loop I’ve experienced/written about in terms of blog writing and viral media.  I guess I also think it’s interesting the extent to which we reached an impasse regarding the definition of illiteracy (which is obviously more complicated than mistakes circled in red), and the extent to which Lyons is so defensive about all this.  Oh well; I guess we all have a way of being defensive, eh?

I think one of the key differences of opinion is the idea about what counts as a “fair game” object of art or public discussion.  Lyons wants to claim that artists can claim pretty much anything.  In his way of thinking about it, the students abandoned these essays (they didn’t pick up them up at the end of the term), so they were his to do with as he pleased.  I think that when we ask students to write things, it is uncool to turn around and then use those things in our own work.  For example, it would be problematic for me to lift chunks of text from one or more of my students’ essays and then claim it as my own (though we’ve all heard stories of this happening before).  And it is clearly and completely wrong for teachers to use a public forum– a blog, an art gallery, both, etc.– to make fun of students’ failings.

I suppose it’s different here since Lyons isn’t exactly presenting this work as his own and he did work to conceal the identities of his “illiterate” students; but he is using his students’ work, unbeknownst to them, in an attempt to make a point.  And in my way of looking at it, he is using his students’ work to more or less demonstrate that they are not very smart and to make fun of them.

That’s just mean.

It also seems to me that the more successful of this mode of found/quasi-performance art uses as the subject/victim the artist himself.  I’m thinking of people like Chris Burden, who nailed himself (well, someone else obviously must have done the nailing) to the back of Volkswagen and who was shot by an assistant as art.  Think what you will of Burden’s art, but in these pieces, at least he is the object/victim.  In contrast, Lyons’ piece victimizes his students.  Granted, we’re talking about abandoned writing assignments here and not truly life-threatening acts/art, but these students are victims of a sort nonetheless.

For me, a more interesting piece might have involved Lyons tacking up some of the student evaluations he has collected over the years on a big wall in some sort of pattern.  Maybe there are reoccurring comments from students he could circle?  Maybe he could note the ways he himself has progressed as a teacher?  Maybe he could note the mistakes he continues to make?  Lord knows that’s a piece I could put together.

Blogging isn’t dead, but…

… it is certainly connected to and yet different from networks like Facebook and Twitter.  Case in point:

I’m writing this post because I saw Rebecca Howard’s Twitter post about Jeff Rice’s blog, which then pointed me to this ReadWriteWeb post, “Is Blogging Dead?” And this is a question, btw, that the RWW folks answer (basically) “no,” and comments ensue.  And, because I think this is interesting and it will tie in with a class I’m teaching right now, hosted here using the blogging software wordpress. And I will probably alert people that I have made this post by posting a link on Twitter with a #fb tag, which then will in turn also post it to my Facebook account.

So what I mean is this:  Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and all kinds of other Web 2.o/social networking/whatever you want to call it software is obviously connected, related, and increasingly redundant.  I’m preparing for a course called “Technology for Teaching and Learning,” which is mostly a hands-on workshop where we’ll learn about all kinds of different tools (Google stuff, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, podcasting, videocasting, wikis, etc., etc.) and talk about how this stuff can (and sometimes can’t) be part of good teaching practices.  As I am going through these various tools, it strikes me how they all do very similar things in interestingly subtle ways.  You update your status on Facebook, you update it on Twitter; why both?  And yet, that’s exactly what lots of people are doing now, including me.

But they are also different, sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes not.  And this is one of the main reasons why I don’t think blogging is going to be dead anytime soon, much in the same way that I don’t think video or audio is going to replace the written word anytime soon (notice I didn’t say print on paper– that might be a different story).  Alex Reid kposted something about this (well, the way I’m thinking of it right now at least), about digital video and scholarship, where he wondered what the role of video is as a means of delivering scholarship in comp/rhet.  Why are there so many books and journal articles out there about web 2.0 stuff, not to mention video and film?  Well, besides the academic capital issue, I think it’s because it turns out that these rather traditional forms actually are the best ones to sometimes articulate and reflect on ideas both big and small.  Not in an either/or sense, but in a “use the right tool for the job” sense.

I guess where I see this in my own blogging/facebooking/twittering is this:  Facebook and Twitter is for posting links and for posting about “being” on a day to day basis; my blog is a place to write out something more– not necessarily “thoughtful” per se, but more reflective.  In that sense, I think that one shift that is going on in blogging in relation to these other medias (and perhaps why some think that blogging is “dead”) is that the diary aspect of blogging– I’m about to go mow the lawn (a true statement, btw!)– is much more effectively presented via Facebook/Twitter.  So maybe the diary blog is a dying off, but that’s okay, I think.

And other Computers and Writing highlights

I was going to wrap this all up in my previous post on Twitter, but since that got kind of long and very Twitter-centric, I thought I’d post one last time about C&W09 here. Some of the other highlights:

  • Before the Ganley keynote, Nick Carbone and I worked on incorporating some video from Matt Barton (who was originally going to come to C&W this year but then he didn’t, I think because of travel fund issues) into my part of our talk about textbook publishing, “Textbook 2.0: Open Source Textbooks and Multimodal Composition Programs.” There is a podcast recording of it on the C&W 09 web site– one of these days, I’ll connect that audio with my slides and post them here. Anyway, it was a pretty well-attended session in my estimation, and I enjoyed presenting with Nick.
  • I was “back to back” presentation boy at this year’s conference as I followed the textbook presentation with my contribution to “Sustainable Blogging: Problems and Promises for School, Work, and Play.” I set up a new web site/blog, “Blogs as Writerly Spaces,” to host stuff about this research, and I have a link to my presentation script here. It was a smaller crowd than the textbook talk (which says to me that I’m a lot more interested in my research in blogging at this stage than most other people), but some really good presentations from my Indiana University of Pennsylvania colleague and friend Gian Pagnucci, along with some IUP grad students, Sabatino Mangini and Jessica Schreyer.
  • Friday night was the banquet, which was fine but not that exciting one way or the other, and then it was out to the Davis nightlife with various C&W folks.
  • Slept in Saturday morning (well, sort of slept in– I never did get my time issues straight out there) and managed to walk through the Davis farmer’s market on the way to the conference. I debated getting some beautiful looking morel mushrooms, but I wasn’t sure I could get them back on the plane in my carry-on luggage. Probably, but I didn’t want to chance it.
  • Then to the conference and I went to see “Researching Fully Online Instruction: Assessment, Pedagogy, and a Sustainable Theory of Hybrid Online Learning,” which was a panel by some fine folks at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Given the discussions we’ve had here in my program about teaching online, I guess there are two things I found striking. One speaker, Christopher Dean, presented about how the research suggests there is “no significant difference” in what students learn in online classes versus similar face to face classes. There are some big problems with these kinds of claims, including a kind of fuzzy sense of what exactly it is we are measuring when we describe “learning.” But I will say that in my own experiences his claims seem accurate to the extent that the writing projects and other graded “artifacts” students produce in online classes are pretty much the same as those students produce in face to face classes, and that even includes things like the collaborative video projects and such. More important to me though was that two of these folks, Randi Browning and Kathy Patterson, spoke about their experiences teaching online for the first time. I wish these folks would come and talk to some of my EMU colleagues because I think they would be a lot more persuasive than me in speaking about what it’s “like” to make the leap of faith to teach online.
  • Went to Bill Cope’s keynote, which was fantastic, in my mind: very solid theoretically, well-put together and polished, pushing the edges of what counts as technology, etc. Interestingly, I think he was making the same basic point as Ganley; but besides the delivery, I think the differences had to do with tools than it had to do with concepts.
  • Then I took a conference break to go grade– I was and remain woefully behind– and I had a solo lunch and grading session at Crepeville. Very nice, and I got a fair amount of work done, too.
  • I attended another panel after my grading lunch (a pretty good one– G1, “Hybrid Writing Classes: Literacy, Dialogues, and Intellectual Property”), I went to Town Hall III, where I was on the panel. This was an odd experience. First off, I was pretty unprepared compared to the other people on the panel, I guess because what I thought I was supposed to do mostly was react to the stuff I had seen at the conference. I wasn’t expecting to have a little speech written up. And second, as I was sitting there next to Cindy Selfe and Kathy Yancey (not to mention some other heavy-hitters), I most distinctly had the feeling of being a little like Kathy Griffin on “the D list.” But it was a good conversation and a good opportunity for me. I tried to get Cindy to sign onto Twitter with no luck though.
  • Then it was an art exhibit that actually was kinda cool (I have some video to upload sooner than later) and then bowling. I took lots of pictures that are here, but my favorite is the one video I took:

    And this was followed by a comparatively quiet night on the town.

  • And just to prove that the conference isn’t over until you’re long LONG gone: I ended up riding back on the plane with a fellow conference goer and right behind this group of drunk women. It’s a long story, and it was a long plane flight, and I’m still running behind….

All in all, a fantastic C&W this year. I thought Davis was great, I think I actually went to more panels than I’ve gone to in a long time, and I have to say I enjoyed thoroughly having my own room (though it cost too much). Carl Whithaus and friends did a fantastic job, and I’m looking forward to next year’s conference at Purdue.