Meg Barker reflects on the ways in which academics might engage with blogs and their potential to open up new possibilities.
New year resolutions
I’m not a believer in new year resolutions: I think they far too easily become another stick to beat ourselves with in a culture where we already excessively monitor ourselves and make unfavourable comparisons.
I do, however, find new year to be a useful time to reflect on my priorities and think about how they shape up in the year ahead. This is probably because – for me – there is more time over the holidays than usual, and seeing the important people in my life over the festive period offers the possibility to bounce ideas off them. It’s useful once in a while to pause and think about what we value and how well that fits with how we’re currently living.
At the beginning of last year I realised that the online world was passing me by. Despite running an online course at the OU (Counselling: Exploring fear and sadness) I didn’t use the web much myself for anything more than emails and searching for information. I decided to join facebook and twitter and to set up an OU blog to find out what social networking could achieve.
During the year I met up with Dick Skellington and started contributing regularly to the Society Matters blog. I also got to know wordpress and discovered how easy it was to set up your own basic website for free. I eventually decided that instead of having one personal blog where I posted about different topics, I’d prefer to have separate blog sites for each of my major projects. First I set up BiUK to bring together people who were researching and writing on bisexuality. Over the holidays I added Northern Existential Group for people interested in existentialism and critical mental health in the north of England; Social Mindfulness to explore how mindfulness ideas and practices might be applied to social issues; and Rewriting the Rules to collect together the work I’ve been doing about relationships.
The benefits of separate blogs like this are that people can follow what they’re most interested in rather than receiving everything you write. Also, it is possible to invite multiple people to contribute blog posts and/or pages rather than keeping it to yourself. For example, websites like these can be great places to build up lists of relevant online links and academic references which somebody new to the area can then access. With several people involved each can edit lists of references and links to build up a more comprehensive resource.
The wordpress themes which you can choose enable you to put the focus more on the blog part of your website, or on the static content. There are also themes that lend themselves to more or less visual image based sites, and you can determine whether you want your site to be a place for discussion (through enabling comments on posts) or just to be readable like a magazine or newspaper.
As an academic I’m drawn to blogging for many reasons. Primarily it enables us to get ideas and research out to a much wider audience than academic journals or books manage to reach. Academic books often come out in hardback only and cost over £50, and journal articles cost to download unless you are connected to a university which subscribes to them.
I’m inspired by sites like Sociological Images and The Sociological Imagination which do a brilliant job of putting sociological theories and findings out there in ways that are entertaining and easy to engage with. The academic ideas which most often reach wider audiences through the media and popular books are those of psychology and neuroscience, whilst more social scientific theories tend to remain in the academic arena despite how much they have to offer on both a personal and a social level.
Also blogs are a great way to assess what resonates with people. Comments and hits on my OU blog last year enabled me to realise that I had a pretty unique response to the Bailey Review which was worth writing more about for an academic publication. Also, they helped me to see how challenging people found the concept of heteronormativity which was useful in terms of thinking through how I frame information on the topic of norms in ways which people can engage with.
We can use social networking in conjunction with blogs. I generally tell people on facebook and twitter when I’ve posted a blog. Facebook is a good place to discuss what I’ve written about with a smaller group of trusted and known people, for example if it is something I feel less certain about or more personally invested in. Twitter is a good place to reach more people through retweets if its something I’d like a lot of people to read. Also you can get a lot of quick responses if you ask a question on twitter: something that I’ve noticed several academics beginning to do and to incorporate into their work (for example Steven Pinker and Richard Wiseman do this). The filters on these sites, and on blogs themselves, can be helpful in determining who reads what, and also who you read. For example, I found twitter completely overwhelming at first until I trimmed who I was reading to those most relevant to my own work, and created different groups for different areas.
In addition to this, social networking in general can help people to find others who are interested in the same topics and approaches, instead of being restricted to those in the same university or even country.
Blogs and social networking encourage us to respond to whatever is current because we may be more aware of it (by following our friends’ links) and we start to view to the news mindfully as to what we might have to offer. And if we don’t have time for a full response we can always post links to other responses on our blog, building up a useful set of articles which our readers can access. Hopefully this might encourage us to maintain an awareness of the relevance of our work and how it might be applied to real world issues. We can also use such websites to make resources available, such as training materials or activities based on our research.
Finally, blogging is a good way of practising the skill of writing clearly and succinctly, which can usefully feed back into our academic work (facebook and twitter help with succinctness even more given the word limits). We might well find it valuable to create academic and blog versions of the same materials to reach different audiences, and to consider podcasts and youtube as non-written ways of presenting the same information.
Academic publishers and writers need to think about how they can work together with more open forms of publishing which are both more freely available and easier to access.
Against the stream?
The title for this post comes from the Buddhist mindfulness idea of ‘swimming against the stream’. In meditation people are encouraged to swim against the stream of their habits and cravings. For example, we might find different ways of engaging with thoughts and feelings that bubble up than our usual habit of grabbing hold of them and following them, spinning big stories out of what might have been a passing worry or angry impulse.
I’m excited by the potential of blogging against the stream: that is to use blog posts to provide alternatives to our current cultural habits and cravings. Perhaps mainstream media overwhelmingly presents one response to a news story and we can blog another, different, one. Maybe we can use blogs to highlight what we tend to take for granted and to raise questions about it (as Sociological Images does here in relation to body image). Possibly blogs can be a useful place to disseminate and explore alternative practices: different ways of reading the media, of socially engaging, and of treating ourselves and others around us.
Technological changes open up possibilities and also provide new challenges. There is vulnerability in expressing our ideas so widely. They may get picked up in ways we hadn’t anticipated, or expose us in ways that are uncomfortable and difficult. We let go of a lot of control when we make something publicly available like this, which may well be a positive thing in many ways, but can also be personally tough. Laurie Penny and Helen Lewis Hasteley did a good job last year of exposing some of the deeply unpleasant responses that women in particular can receive when they write online.
We also need to think carefully about how we express ourselves if we may be seen as experts. We might distinguish posts summarising our own research, for example, from those which draw on the research of others, those which are based on theory or experience rather than research, and those which simply express our own opinions.
Academics could also be valuable in continuing to explore online interactions and how they work, as well as perhaps contributing to the development of communicative possibilities in this area. For example, we might consider what practices people employ in bringing together, or separating off, their online and physically present lives. What opportunities does social networking open up for humanising people we might not otherwise know, and for dehumanising them? How can we encourage compassionate-and-open forms of online communication between people who may have different values and ideas?
Over the year ahead one thing I hope to do is to continue to consider the potentials and pitfalls of new technologies and online engagement.