by Jeremy Young | 9/14/2008 03:14:00 AM
I'm not certain how long this has been the case, but the New Republic's academic blog, Open University, is no longer listed on their homepage. The last post on the blog dates from July 26, nearly two months ago. I think it's safe to say that Open University can now be pronounced officially dead.

Though the blog has been in decline for many months, it's still a somewhat startling development. Open University went live two days after ProgressiveHistorians (almost exactly two years ago) and was billed as the largest academic blog on the Internet; its stunning roster of contributors easily bore out that audacious claim. In addition to compiling the greatest collection of minds under one Web address, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, since Thomas Jefferson blogged alone, the site had the backing of the prestigious and well-read New Republic, which should have all but guaranteed its success. That it failed despite these obvious advantages demands a fuller explanation. Over the flip I'll offer my take on where Open University went wrong, and how the rest of us can avoid making similar mistakes.

The lack of an active editor. As any blog proprietor knows -- and as some have found out the hard way -- behind each and every successful group blog you'll find an overworked editor. A site can't survive without the near-constant presence of its editor, and not because things necessarily need editing. Simply put, readers come for the headliner, and no matter how many brilliant writers you corral, your readers will see them as mere opening acts; if the editor doesn't show up often enough, the audience will go home. I don't say this out of arrogance, because I myself sincerely hoped it wasn't true when I started this blog. I enticed a stable of prominent bloggers and historians to join my front page, many of whom were unquestionably better writers than I was. When a number of them left soon after the site opened for business, I braced for the worst -- but traffic wasn't affected at all. When I took a two-week break from the blog to work on grad school applications, traffic crashed more than 50% overnight. I was stunned. Even today, though some of the writers here have developed their own followings, my posts routinely receive the most comments, and a posting spurt from me can trigger up to a 50% increase in site traffic over a few days' time. I have no idea why this happens, and I can guarantee you that there are plenty of writers here who are both more eloquent and more prestigious than I -- but the numbers don't lie.

Given this inexplicable phenomenon, it's no surprising that the most popular and successful history blogs are those with the most ubiquitous editors -- Ralph Luker at Cliopatria, who posts substantively every single day, or Ari Kelman and Eric Rauchway at The Edge of the American West, who are a constant and entertaining presence in comments. (FYI, Eric was at one time the most prolific writer at Open University; I'd be curious about his take on what went wrong with the site.) At Open University, this role should have been filled by David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism at Rutgers, who was the founder and nominal editor of the site. But from the start, Greenberg adopted what I found to be a disappointingly hands-off stance toward Open University. He rarely posted there; he never commented (though sometimes Eric would use the editorial account to post comments of his own). Most importantly, Greenberg's own op-eds and ephemera were often published elsewhere, either in other journals or in print publications, and weren't even linked at Open University. If you don't consider your blog prestigious enough to publish your own articles on it, how can you expect others to do so with their work?

In his defense, perhaps Greenberg simply wasn't able to master the intricacies of the blogging world. He admitted only a year before starting Open University that he was "not cut out for blogging." His failure to engage more directly with his blog may have been a rookie mistake, but Greenberg should have made certain he wasn't a rookie before setting out to found to start the biggest academic blog in the world. Unless you're Arianna Huffington, you don't start a super-blog without first spending months, if not years, hanging out with actual bloggers and learning how to cater to their interests. This is what Eric Rauchway did, first on HNN and then on Open University, and it's paid off magnificently at Edge of the West, which is easily the fastest-growing history blog in the world and probably one of the two or three most-read history blogs overall.

Failing to ensure its contributors actually blogged. I'm still drooling over the contributor list Greenberg managed to put together, but the reality is that many of the people on that list were paper tigers when it came to blogging. You can't really expect someone like Larry Summers to take time out from being President of Harvard to write on a blog, no matter how prestigious that blog may be. I don't think I ever saw Steven Pinker, Ron Radosh, or Elizabeth Borgwardt write a single post at Open University. Their names served to lend the blog prestige, but in practical terms they were simply useless ballast to readers.

I understand that Greenberg's strategy was to seek out commitments from people who were not already active bloggers, and this paid off for him to a surprising degree; people like Sanford Levinson, Cass Sunstein, and David Bell posted frequently at the beginning of the blog's run and continuously, though less frequently, even at its end. Still, Greenberg went too far in the direction of recruiting people who had no serious interest in blogging and were just happy to have their names on the masthead of a new media project. The only experienced bloggers on the roster of writers were Eric and Dan Drezner. Drezner was busy with his own blog and never became an active contributor, while Eric soon left for greener pastures -- leaving Open University with no committed bloggers at all. (Edit: I didn't realize that Jacob T. Levy had some significant blogging experience as well.) Meanwhile, some prominent blogging academics who were looking for new online homes were overlooked by the Open University team. One example was former HNN blogger Allan Lichtman, who had recently lost his race for Senate and was looking for a new blogging venue. (He eventually landed at Britannica Blog, where he posts regularly and is a major draw for the site.)

A word of advice for anyone looking to start up a blog similar to Open University: when the honeymoon period is over, the only people who are going to blog regularly are those who have either a clear and demonstrated interest in blogging or the time to pursue it seriously. As brilliant a blog as Cliopatria is -- it's in fact one of my favorite sites -- it succeeds only because Ralph is retired from teaching and has the time and the determination to maintain it on a regular basis. The two most frequent posters at Open University make this point magnificently: Eric, who was a veteran blogger, and, later, the octogenerian emeritus professor Richard Stern. Had Greenberg gotten more Rauchways and Sterns for his blog, and fewer Summerses and Pinkers, he would have ended up with a much more viable project.

Pay-for-play comments. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know this has been my pet peeve with Open University all along -- but it bears repeating again. Most blogs (Cliopatria being the most obvious exception) thrive on an active and engaged commentariat. Bloggers are more likely to write content for your website when they're receiving consistent and incisive feedback from their readers, if they know someone they respect is actually out there paying attention to what they say. That's doubly important when your writers are famous and incredibly busy intellectuals who have much better things to do than write on blogs no one reads.

Of course, there's not much you can do if your readers aren't interested in commenting (you listening, PH lurkers?). But there's one surefire way to guarantee that no one worth reading comments on your blog: make them pay for the privilege of doing so. Incredibly enough, that's exactly what Open University did throughout its entire two-year run. In order to write a blog comment on Open University, you had to pony up $30 every year for an online subscription to TNR, or even more money for a print subscription.

When I first entered the world of academic blogging, I sprang for the $30 subscription because I was convinced that Open University was going to become the place to be for intelligent academic blogging. When I actually descended into the comments, however, I found only a surprisingly small gaggle of gadflies, blowhards, and obvious trolls bent on calling the illustrious bloggers names rather than engaging their arguments. All the interesting readers were either too busy or too poor to part with their hard-earned cash just to engage with a bunch of kooks in the comments. What remained was the unseemly spectacle of Richard Stern and Cass Sunstein writing eloquent epistles to complete bozos who had less interest in what they had to say than did freshmen in their lecture classes. Is it any wonder the site had to close up shop?

If I sound overly harsh toward Greenberg here, I only half-apologize. I happen to think that David Greenberg is a first-rate historian, and I find many of his published writings both shockingly eloquent and truly incisive. I admire him as well for being one of those rare historians who actually believes in public outreach, and his desire to start an academic super-blog reflects a promising outgrowth of that belief. However, I think if you are going to start something like Open University, you have to be able to follow through. We academic bloggers are the pioneers of a new form of engagement with the general public, and we need to be able to show that what we do works if we want to blaze a trail for those who come after us. The next person who approaches a major publication with the idea of an academic super-blog will have to fight off the perception that Open University proved such a project inherently unworkable. That's a sad legacy for Greenberg to leave, yet I'd be more sympathetic if I saw any evidence that he had taken Open University seriously after its first few months of operation. I hope the next academic to attempt a similar project shows both more forethought and more commitment to the project than Greenberg did to his.



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Blogger Jeremy Young on 9/14/2008 5:56 PM:

Make sure to read Jacob T. Levy on this as well -- though some of his comments mirror some of mine, they're different in many places, and he has the advantage of having had an insider's perspective on the enterprise.


Blogger Gordon Taylor on 9/14/2008 11:44 PM:

I found this enlightening--and not a surprise, given my long-held feelings about the importance of your stewardship. Thanks for all the links.


Blogger ndm on 9/16/2008 12:36 PM:

Jeremy Young writes:

All the interesting readers were either too busy or too poor to part with their hard-earned cash just to engage with a bunch of kooks in the comments.


Jeremy Young continues:

We academic bloggers are the pioneers of a new form of engagement with the general public, and we need to be able to show that what we do works if we want to blaze a trail for those who come after us.