by Jeremy Young | 1/28/2009 11:12:00 AM
I'm a brash blogger. Actually, I used to be an even brasher blogger. I decided I was going to build a big community blog, staffed by a bunch of people with advanced degrees, when I was twenty-one and had just received my bachelor's degree. I attacked the historical profession for being insufficiently interested in the blogosphere without bothering to take the slightest look at the wonderful work already going on in history blogging. I trashed Thomas Bender's most recent book without even having seen it (a problem I've since remedied). Even today, I refer to all bloggers by their first names, no matter what their professional rank (though I don't maintain that in person; thus, the proprietor of Cliopatria is "Ralph" on this site and "Dr. Luker" at the AHA).

Of course, some of this brashness reflects my personality. I do have a tendency to be fearless and blunt in my dealings with people. However, in person, I'm only brash with people whom I know very well and whom I trust. I'm brash with my advisor, but not with my other professors. I'm brash with my close friends, but not with people I hardly know. In the blogosphere, however, it's just the opposite. I'm more likely to criticize you if I've never read your work before or met you in person. Once you've earned my respect, I'll treat you carefully and give you the benefit of the doubt.

Those of you who haven't read me over a long period of time will be surprised to learn that when I was a political blogger from 2003-2007, I was actually considered something of a concern troll. I had to leave Daily Kos around mid-2007 (though I'm now back in a limited capacity, as a favor to a friend) because I got tired of watching established bloggers pick on newbies, and said so vocally on multiple occasions, which rather annoyed some of the folks I was criticizing. I've never been one for much cursing online, which is a staple of the political blogosphere. And I'm willing to see the good in the occasional Republican, which makes me a despicable turncoat to some extreme partisans on the left.

What I want to explore today is whether brashness in the blogosphere is a drawback of relative anonymity, as many have claimed, or whether it's a positive value. I definitely don't believe the first. I used to believe the second; now, I'm not so sure.



I have a bit of a different view on the blogosphere than do many others because I entered this medium through the Howard Dean campaign. Those of us who were "Deaniacs" fancied ourselves the ultimate populist movement (a bit odd in retrospect given the generally white middle-class demographic of that campaign). We were, to use Jerome Armstrong's and Markos Moulitsas' phrase, "crashing the gate" -- overthrowing the established order and replacing it with a grassroots movement helmed by a "man of the people" (really a blue-blood multi-millionaire, but who cares about accuracy).

Coming from that perspective, I saw our brash demeanor and quickness to condemn those who disagreed with us as both a conscious choice and a powerful virtue. Democrats in Congress had failed us by being lily-livered weaklings, trying to appease when they should have opposed; we wouldn't make that same mistake. Instead, following the bellicose Dean's lead, we crafted a muscular, heroic image of liberalism that would overthrow the existing brand in hand-to-hand combat, then return to the field of battle to dispatch the evil Republicans. (At the time, we couldn't understand why women didn't like Dean -- go figure.) Arguments in the blogosphere, we thought, were simply proxy wars for the real conflict; we were reclaiming America shout by shout.

I believed in that mission for a long time, and part of me still believes in it. But I've come to realize that what's appropriate for one situation isn't necessarily the right fit for another. The Dean movement came out of a particular moment in history in which the leaders of both major parties were peculiarly unresponsive to the needs of the people; the sword-of-truth-style campaign Dean ran would be inappropriate today, when President Obama enjoys sky-high approval ratings from both Democrats and Republicans. In the historical blogosphere, this type of crusading fervor is even more inappropriate; I fail to see what could be the point of crashing the gate of, say, John Hope Franklin. In the historical profession, at least for the most part, people occupy positions of power because they've earned them, and a healthy measure of respect is due to those who've climbed that ladder on the strength of their work. I didn't see it that way when I started this site in September 2006; perhaps I've grown up a little since then.

That said, there's an essential kernel of that brashness that I want to retain: the idea that ordinary people matter, that they matter more than many of us give them credit for, and that we should never stop working to bring them into the academic conversation as much as we can. However, though we may disagree on strategies or on the extent of that commitment, that's not an idea that needs to be sold to my fellow history bloggers. Those historians using this medium, by and large, are doing so precisely because they get it about ordinary people and academia. I'm proud to be a member of that company -- and perhaps, right now, my dissertation is the only gate that needs crashing.

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11 Comments:


Blogger AndrewMc on 1/28/2009 5:43 PM:

"That said, there's an essential kernel of that brashness that I want to retain: the idea that ordinary people matter, that they matter more than many of us give them credit for, and that we should never stop working to bring them into the academic conversation as much as we can."


This doesn't strike me as brash, but more like common sense.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/28/2009 8:14 PM:

Probably true.

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/28/2009 11:29 PM:

I don't really see outreach as "brash" but I do see value in the ability to challenge and approach even senior scholars from a fairly even playing field, where we all have to prove ourselves rather than relying on our degrees and reputations.

Academia is one of the last bastions of medievalism, and the information age is about to hoist a petard on our doorstep. I think it's great.

 

Anonymous Maarja on 1/29/2009 7:16 AM:

Judging by the way authors of main page essays and even some of the bloggers on the History News Network act, I'm not convinced many academic historians see the value of outreach. Some authors on HNN take a top down approach, posting their opinions and passing up opportunities to establish dialog with those who comment. It's akin to doing a speech and striding off the stage as soon as it is finished, without permitting any Q&A.

For a site that could be a community square where historians and history buffs can meet comfortably, HNN produces surprisingly little engagement. I don't know if its a matter of lacking confidence outside a tightly controlled environment or what. Some of that might be generational but I'm not sure what reasons lie behind the one-way street approach to communication one sometimes sees there. There must be some perceived constraints to engagement.

I wonder whether some of the challenges are related to the difficulties people have in understanding styles of communications. Professor Timothy Burke, one of the more thoughtful history bloggers, has a piece up at "Easily Distracted" on "Mr. Obama's Neighborhood." Well worth a look, as he discusses the difficulties of dealing with what he calls the "unlike." See
http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/?p=688

Have you read WaPo columnist Joel Achenbach's piece on women and blogging and punditry, "The Culture of Bluster" -- if not, take a look at
http://blog.washingtonpost.com/achenblog/2008/05/a_culture_of_bluster.html

I think many of the issues Mr. Achenbach and Dr. Burke describe are unlikely to be resolved, in part because people like them, who take the time to think deeply about communications, are so rare in the blogosphere. Some of that reflects lack of depth but I also think for some bloggers, it also is affected by lack of time to stop and think things through.

 

Anonymous Maarja on 1/30/2009 8:07 AM:

Jeremy,

I think it generally is wise to refer to people you don't know well by titles rather than first names, unless they say, "call me X." Perhaps I'm reflecting my age and the fact the European background of my parents. (I was born in the USA, however.)

In my experience, web forums can be deceptive. You can get sucked in to a place which seems open and friendly but actually is not. It's easy to make a mistake and assume someone welcomes certain styles and approaches to communication when they may have pretty strict limitations. I always tell people to study forums (listservs, blogs) before plunging in. Look at the extent to which people praise and flatter each other, the extent to which they feel comfortable saying "I didn't know that," the extent to which intimidating styles prevail. You can pick up all sorts of clues not just from content but from manner of engagement.

This actually can be important because blogs create permanent records (as long as they are up) which are Google searchable. I know someone who has a relative who is employed to search Facebook and Google to find information which employers use to assess job applicants. Some jobs call for teamwork and collaboration and for good people skills. Some employers look for self-starters and people who tolerate and handle well being the only one trained in a particular discipline within that workplace. So some call for the ability to work well with peers, others for the ability to work well with "the unlike." Some call for the ability to manage up as well as down, others only require a didactic approach. Blogs and web forums actually provide all sorts of clues about some of this, if you know what to look out for.

Basically anyone who posts on the web is at the mercy of anyone who reads his or her stuff. I'm pretty distrustful of it simply because few people are trained in Myers Briggs are have the willingness or ability to consider the unlike, as Timothy Burke calls it. I just don't think there is as much tolerance out there as some people believe, even in academe. I just haven't seen it but may be looking in the wrong places. But there's definitely a great record being created out there for experts in communications to study one day.

 

Anonymous Maarja on 1/30/2009 8:28 AM:

Best quick way to check out a collective or individual history blog? Look for how often and comfortably the people with the dominant voices or the owner/author posts, "Thanks, I didn't know that" in response to a comment. The thing with history blogging is that you never are going to write only about your area of expertise. Academic bloggers are going to get into areas related to governmental functions. Political bloggers are going to get into areas involving the academy. If you see a comfortably navigated two-way street, it's probably a safe place to join and hash out issues. That, more so than brashness, affects whether you build up an echo chamber following or a broad base of readers and posters. Of course, that assumes that is the goal of blogging. It need not be, I've seen plenty of blogs (academic, political) that seem to have goals other than encouraging discourse.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/31/2009 12:17 AM:

This was more of a musing than a coherent argument, so I can see how some of you misinterpreted it (my fault for being imprecise). Anyhow, I wasn't saying that outreach is brash -- I had kind of moved on from talking about brashness at that point. Again, though, I wasn't clear.

Maarja, thanks for those very interesting links, particularly the second one, which I found very helpful. My reason for using first names has been the same egalitarian one that I was describing as "brash" -- the idea that online, no one is better than anyone else, no matter what their training or experience. As I've stated, I'm moving away from that view; however, I don't meet very many new people online these days, so all the folks I call by their first names are people I know pretty well. (I also know that if Ralph doesn't like me calling him by his first name online, he won't hesitate to correct me -- I've seen him do so before.) As for postings coming back to haunt me, I've been aware of that possibility since I began blogging six years ago. I'm 100% comfortable with everything I've written online, except those pieces or comments I've corrected or apologized for publicly. I also do have a sort of quasi-education in Myers Briggs, through my mother, who is a trained Myers Briggs practitioner.

Finally, "Thanks, I didn't know that." :) Seriously, that is one thing I'm very proud of about myself: even at my most brash, I'm absolutely comfortable admitting errors and failings of my own. Here's a recent example.

 

Blogger Ralph Brauer on 2/05/2009 10:57 PM:

I once wrote a post likening blogging--especially at a certain orange site which is running nothing but a glorified Ponzi scheme in violation of all Writer's Union rules (and yes, Jeremy by writing for him you are contributing to that)--to high school. Two years later, I stand by that characterization, at least as it applies to the so-called progressive blogosphere. The "in group"--and we all know who they are--behave just like a high school clique. It is childish and sad, but also reality. I, for one, have grown tired of it.

Like much else in America it's all about money and power. Only in this case at such a petty level.

 

Blogger AndrewMc on 2/06/2009 5:44 AM:

Ralph,

What's ironic about your criticism of Big Orange is that in his book, that blog's keeper decries "gatekeepers," saying that the blogosphere is the perfect was to get around big media-types who use their power to control information.

And yet that site i a perfect example of gatekeeping.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 2/06/2009 1:40 PM:

Markos Moulitsas: crashing the gate, then shutting it behind him.