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In Defense of Blogging

(With apologies to Peter Cheeseman.)

Pursuant to this Chronicle Careers article. Needless to say: the opinions expressed herein are the opinions of banazir only and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kansas State University. ;-)

If you have nothing to hide, hide nothing.
    - Dr. Phil McGraw

What is wrong with the voice of {America | the world | the private individual | the common person} being "unrefereed" and, by inference, unfettered?

Four Functions of a Blog. The way I see it, there are four functions that a blog can serve:

  • 1. To report on quotidian minutiae that no one really cares about, perhaps not even the writer: what one had for dinner, how one wasted one's leisure time. These do not have much relevance to professional activities and may be safely ignored, but one posts them at one's own risk. If someone has the wherewithal and interest to poke through your garbage, your privacy can legally be invaded to an extent: after all, you are responsible for cleanly disposal of your refuse. For that is what minutiae are: waste product. Whether you are a pack rat or an obssessive-compulsive once-a-day poster, the only distinction is whether the end product is physical or intellectual waste. Who steals my purse steals trash, and who reads my blog reads... something worth very little in the grand scheme of things.

  • 2. To get up on a soapbox and disseminate views. These are things meant to be repeated. Some are professional positions; others, public service announcements, still others, personal opinions; and finally, there is gossip.

  • 3. To elicit sympathy and support. This may be related to the first or second function, but for many, the flow of information is two-way: i.e., not just "does anyone know how to fix my computer problem?" or "ohh, I'm sick, hug me", but "does anyone else feel, as I do, that the state of education in our country has gone more steeply downhill in the last five or ten years?". (These are all real examples, if not from me, then from my close friends online and offline.)

  • 4. Just to get something off one's chest. That is: to snark, be bitter, or rant for catharsis. Some of these range from confession of crimes to rash outbursts of anger or mortification to foul slanders. Many, if not most, of these consist of unkind thoughts. Some consitute suicide ideation - something that bothers me every time I see it online, but which I sometimes cannot in good conscience ignore.

There are, of course, entertainment-driven and "purely social" variations on the above, but essentially, I think any personal blog can be plotted as a mixture of the above functions.

Blogs: not here today, not gone tomorrow. People have written diaries and private letters and ranted in them for millenia! The only difference is that a blog is not only public: it provides technology for re-dissemination (subscriber-based service aka friends lists and RSS, Slashdotting, URL citation), annotation (quick citation and quoting using HTML), and commentary (comments, thread appropriation). It isn't just the publicity: it's also the interaction. I've found that many people have strong views - some very reasonable and some quite unreasonable, IMHO - about saying things that are not only retained in perpetuity but that anyone can see and comment on. "You can never take back something on USENET; the snapshot of your opinion, your state of mind, and your actual words is preserved forever". As if time was infinitely friendlier before this convenient little self-publishing technology!

Are we the new antiestablishmentarian counterculture? gondhir remarked that this is a disturbing trend in human society, in which we periodically blame the tools used for acts which are deeply rooted in human psychology, and have been acted out by humans since their beginnings, only using different tools. No need is there for force, then: use shame and the tool will still exist and be used, while the users will feel ashamed even as they continue to use and perpetuate the medium. I have to credit with what seems, upon reflection, a quite plausible view. At this juncture, I would submit that bloggers are fast becoming the Beatniks and Hippies of the Oughts. Where have we been, and whither are we going, to have a halfway technology as the weblog turn into a controversial, firestorm-generating medium?

Warning: the Voice of Reason versus the Voice of Oppression. "Dr. Ivan Tribble" espouses a kind of self-censorship that is perhaps quite advisable for the individual, and his thinly-veiled confessional-cum-threat of anti-blogger prejudice seems aimed at delivering a warning to the "right-thinking". As I consider his words I am reminded of the oft-repeated Chinese aphorism huo4 chong2 cou3 chu1, "disaster from the mouth emerges". I personally take this to mean that responsible use of free speech means thinking about the potentially good and bad effects of one's speech on others: will the net effect be beneficial or hurtful, edifying or odious, salubrious or dangerous? If one can honestly answer that a PSA is really a service? More power to you, Dr. Elders, kai1 cou3 (ouvrez la bouche), and damn the torpedoes. I am the kind of person who can be silenced by caution, the "better part of valor", or by the wisdom given to me by others, but never by pure threat or oppression. I'll fight as long as there is power left in my voice and life in my hands.

Working in other fields? Heaven forfend! I would also like to point out that "Dr. Tribble" made a rather specious comment about hardware, servers, hardcore systems geek-ness and computer science, in light of the discussion last week about Dijkstra's famous quote. Not only that: why would a CS department accept a "defector" as a tenure-track faculty member just because he's a hardcore systems geek? Was there no faculty member of the race of Numenor to choose? As gondhir characterized it: "This guy has interests outside his job so we shouldn't hire him because he might quit and work in this other field." Heaven forfend, heaven forfend. Such crimethink could lead to the outrage of... interdisciplinary collaboration! Oh, noes!

Speaking of thought crime... jereeza pointed out, quite cogently, the untenability of this critical review of the whole of the blogging medium:
Worst of all, for professional academics, it's a publishing medium with no vetting process, no review board, and no editor. The author is the sole judge of what constitutes publishable material, and the medium allows for instantaneous distribution. After wrapping up a juicy rant at 3 a.m., it only takes a few clicks to put it into global circulation.

Are personal e-mail, instant messages, impromptu cafe conversations, and even dreams subject to the refereeing? Or is it only those who have the audacity, the sheer gall, to "self-publish" who are subject to approbation and censure as if their every back-of-the-envelope word were a formal paper submission?
The search committee is composed of humans, who know that the applicants are humans, too, who have those things to hide. It's in your interest, as an applicant, for them to stay hidden, not laid out in exquisite detail for all the world to read... Our blogger applicants came off reasonably well at the initial interview, but once we hung up the phone and called up their blogs, we got to know "the real them" -- better than we wanted, enough to conclude we didn't want to know more.

In other words: if you're a successful fraud, stay one; if your friends are, help keep up the pretense; and if your enemies are, you're just a dirty snitch if you expose them by airing dirty laundry in public. How ingenuous, "Dr. Tribble". I suppose I should thank God that I will not be applying for a position in your department, nor in any likelihood at your institution. Then again, I should know much better than to think that "Dr. Tribble's" rant - ostensibly a critical review of how bloggers plant the seeds of their own failure - is representative of his department's consensus.

We have a saying in informatics, "Dr. Tribble": "Content is king." In this context it is quite fitting: by a person's actions do we know him or her, not necessarily by potential predilections for living in the public eye, for seeking popularity, or for spreading gossip. I really doubt whether "Dr. Tribble's" department actually judged the candidates for the fact that they had blogs, as is postulated, rather than for specific things they put therein. Might I add that "snarking is as snarking does" and point out the irony of anonymized postmortems in the career column of The Chronicle? Or is it still too avant-garde to suggest that the medium of The Chronicle, whatever its readership, is not particularly different from that of a LiveJournal? "Tribble's" article is web-accessible, after all, and heaven knows whom I am sharing it with.

Wherefore the Trouble with Tribble? I suspect it is precisely that: that the soi-disant Moveable Type, LiveJournal/Denga, and Blogspot have promoted themselves as "easy publishing" venues, and are thus encroaching, deliberately or involuntarily, on the territory of journalists and historical commentators, critics and monsters, who answer to the great hungering Moloch of peer review. With this encroachment into "Tribble territory" comes anxiety and consternation. An administrator of our university library once said at a Provost's Lecture Series talk by an ALA poobah that "Amazon scared him to death" with its unreviewed commentaries. While I see the point - that responsible use of free speech is increasingly important when the medium is efficient yet relatively free of checks and balances - I still have to remark that if Amazon scares you, you might scare rather easily.

And there you have it - my $0.02.
Thanks for reading.

Banazir is the pseudonym of an engineering professor at a large midwestern state university.


( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:30 am (UTC)
Hi... you don't know me, but I've been having a conversation about this article on my journal as well, and I was wondering if you didn't mind me linking to it. Credit will, of course, go where it is due.
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:47 am (UTC)
By all means!
I assume it's OK to do likewise?

Well met! I've added you - I hope that's OK.

Jul. 14th, 2005 05:53 am (UTC)
Welcome aboard.
Yes; please do so. I can only hope that my life experiences/thoughts will be as inspiring and meaningful to you.
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:52 pm (UTC)
Your threads on blogging and academe
Well, your original thread is a good start - it gave me some ideas that I have worked in, as you may have seen.

Your opinions and further discussion are welcome.

Jul. 14th, 2005 08:52 pm (UTC)
nagging paranoia
The final anecdote of the person teaching English abroad still troubles me. How the students and co-workers found the teacher's blog isn't explained, but as was mentioned in my inital thread, maintaining a certain level of anonymity helps. But only to a certain degree. Just as Karl Rove saying "Joe Wilson's wife" inevitably would lead one with the power to find out to Valerie Plame, a blog containing very recognizable and uncanny descriptions of events and circumstances unique to a person would at least draw real suspicion on that person, if not out them.

Again, the details are very few, but everyone experiences problems with their jobs, people in another country naturally want to communicate their experiences, good and bad, to their friends back home - so why did the English teacher's professional reputation get burned to a crisp over this? The only thing I can think of is that the English teacher should have voiced his concerns about his employer to the employer before airing them elsewhere... but repercussions for this person, doing what you have established one generally does in a blog, strike me as brutal. Should the English teacher have not trusted his friends and colleagues or alma-mater members? Should he never have started the blog to begin with? Was he incorrect to add his personal (and/or negative) thoughts and experiences?

In general, could this whole thing have been avoided?

Ivan Tribble would say yes, I think, that the blog should never have been started to begin with. But you/we have already decided that Tribble is too harsh on blogging to begin with. I can't reconcile the fate of the English teacher with the facts. What happened to him could very easily happen to me or to the handful of people I know who teach English abroad or plan to do so.
Jul. 14th, 2005 09:57 pm (UTC)
Re: nagging paranoia
I think if you go online and disparage a person/organization in a way that allows them to discover your identity, then you shouldn't be particularly surprised if that person/organization isn't too happy with you. However, the main thrust of that "anecdote" is that the English student "tainted" the "alma mater's reputation". That, IMO, was "Tribble's" main point. he doesn't care what you do, as long as it does not bring "shame" on the institution ("shame" being defined quite broadly). He even mentioned that it's OK to express a "way-out-there opinion in a lecture" because its reach is limited. It's all fine and dandy to expose STUDENTS to "way-out-there opinions" just as long as the institution's reputation won't be tainted. Because after all, it's the public image of the institution, rather than the well-being of the students that matters.
Jul. 14th, 2005 07:46 am (UTC)
Tribble is absolutely correct.
We need bloggers to be more responsible in what they publish. Those damn hippies! When will they learn? It's not about simply writing down your experiences, you have a duty as upstanding members of of society to be politically correct as well. Who cares what you do after work? Well I care!

If you don't like it read something else they say. Well Buster, if it weren't for a small minority of us individuals incessantly complaining, instead of simply changing the channel, tv stations would never have begun the massive effort to self-censor their programming. About time too. Just recently, scores of our children were brutalized into a vegetative state by that shocking superbowl orgy. Young lives. Promising lives. Forever scarred.

Will someone please think of the children???
Jul. 14th, 2005 01:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Tribble is absolutely correct.
Parents are supposed to parent their children. We do have a constitution that gives us the freedom of speech, after all.

Of course, slander is a different thing from merely speaking freely. Nevertheless, Eminem said it best:

I've got nothing to do but make you look stupid as parents.
You ****in' do-gooders, too bad you couldn't do good at marriage.

Jul. 14th, 2005 03:06 pm (UTC)
Will the real Adonai please stand up?
Parents are supposed to parent their children. We do have a constitution that gives us the freedom of speech, after all.

Of course, slander is a different thing from merely speaking freely.

Exactly. It is the individual's responsibility to use free speech responsibly or suffer the consequences, and society's responsibility to judge fairly and impartially. That is, as I said above, judge a person by who he or she is, by his or her actions.

Saying "blogs are unilateral risks, seldom worth while; they give you a voice, but here's the problem with having a voice" tells me three things:

  • The speaker can't be bothered to discern a responsible, sincere, and ethical use of blogging from an irresponsible, incitatory, or low-class one. What a scathing indictment of the attention span and heretofore-vaunted critical review skills of academia. Refereeship is a privilege, and it, too, should be used responsibly. When one is promoted, or when one arrogates oneself, into a position of judgement, one has certain obligations. Call it intellectual noblesse oblige. I've seen my share of the judgement, and could stand to see more of that noblesse.

  • You don't trust the blogger with his or her own pen. Yet this is someone you are willing to hire on a probationary basis into a potential lifetime position, provided he or she can keep his or her mouth shut? Self-restraint is valuable, but I wonder whether it is all that valuable.

  • The speaker values the appearance of tranquility more than a decorous and reasoned sense of justice, and yes, of outrage, when the situation calls for it. IOW: "Don't rock the boat; we would rather see that you are able to play well with others than to be a gadfly, albeit a brilliant one". Which is as much to say that Socrates would have been a dubious academic hire, never mind the hemlock. Well, good for them. I, for one, would rather hire someone who can and will shake things up, provided he or she is both technically strong and of good fundamental character. Compatibility of personality is not required.

Nevertheless, Eminem said it best:

I've got nothing to do but make you look stupid as parents.
You ****in' do-gooders, too bad you couldn't do good at marriage.

Hear, hear.

And every single person is the Lord YHWH lurkin
Or in the parkin lot, circling
So, will the real Adonai please stand up?
And put one of those fingers on each hand up?
And be proud to be outta your mind and outta control
and one more time, loud as you can, how does it go?

From one renegade to another,
Jul. 14th, 2005 10:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Will the real Adonai please stand up?
Whatever happened to academic freedom? Tenure is supposed to help defend academic freedom, yes, but just because someone does not have tenure does not mean that they should be completely subjegated to the will of their employer or their alma mater or anyone else?

Moreover, isn't it ILLEGAL to not hire someone just because they have a blog or because they have a hobby you don't like or because they like to talk about what they had for breakfast (NOT to you)?

Universities seem to be in an odd position in that they're allowed, through student acceptance procedures (and presumably hiring practices) to artificially create diversity (certain ethnic groups, certain genders, certain economic levels, etc.) of the kind they find desirable. And at the same time that they're promoting these (what I would call) "superficial" diversities, they filter out the truly (what I would call) "meaningfull" diversities, the diversities of ideas.

In an academic setting, which is more diverse: a black man from a poor background (not neccessarily poor anymore) and a Chinese woman from a wealthy background (not neccessarily wealthy anymore) who agree on almost everything OR two white men from wealthy backgrounds who disagree on everything (say one is a social libertarian laissez faire economist and the other is a social conservative who believes in government control)? Would it be more beneficial to the education of students to be exposed to the opinions of the first pair or the second?
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:50 pm (UTC)
Excellent satire, sir!
That was positively Swiftian. Shouldn't you be putting out your Modest Proposal to have blogs appropriated by the state and their owners sent in for reeducation about now?

Jul. 14th, 2005 05:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Excellent satire, sir!
I would good sir, but the venerable Communist Party of China has already gained a headstart over me ;)
Jul. 14th, 2005 07:05 pm (UTC)
Head starts
Jul. 14th, 2005 07:32 pm (UTC)
Re: Head starts
I see your tank man and raise you this.

What? I happened to like it ok! ;-D
Jul. 14th, 2005 07:56 pm (UTC)
Tank Girl
I see your Tank Girl and raise you a Maxine.

(It was going to be a Tank, but they killed him off even after he came back and trasked Cypher.)

Jul. 14th, 2005 09:59 pm (UTC)
Re: Excellent satire, sir!
"Registration" of a thing has always been and will always be used as a means of arbitrarily denying people access to that thing.
Jul. 15th, 2005 01:32 am (UTC)
If blogs are outlawed then only outlaws will have blogs
True, but do you mean because members of the underground dissident movement in China dare not register, or because the government can do as it pleases to registered bloggers?

Jul. 15th, 2005 04:29 am (UTC)
Re: If blogs are outlawed then only outlaws will have blogs
If blogs are outlawed then only outlaws will have blogs

True, but do you mean because members of the underground dissident movement in China dare not register, or because the government can do as it pleases to registered bloggers?

Neither because that's not what I said. I said that registration can lead to de-facto banning. The government can say "We don't ban blogs, we allow freedom of speech. We just want to know what's being said." When they really do ban them by not allowing certain individuals to register.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 14th, 2005 02:54 pm (UTC)
a very well thought out analysis

I wanted to second this.
Jul. 14th, 2005 03:32 pm (UTC)
Analysis, rambling, or thinking aloud: a narrow margin
Thank you, but I would consider the above very nearly as much of a rant for catharsis (#4) as my attempt at generating discussion and a grassroots microrevolution.

Also, I've been editing here and there, adding links, correcting usage errors, and putting in new thoughts such as the last part of #7 ("Wherefore the trouble with Tribble") over the last half day. I think it's better now, though perhaps "Dr. Tribble" would object to my violating the sacred process of editing. ;-)

BTW, has it occurred to you that "Tribble's" article is Swiftian satire, cf. prahlad's above? I suspected it briefly, but to me, his arguments seemed too carefully-reasoned and his anecdotes too realistic to be satiric. If it was, it was very subtle; and I rather doubt that The Chronicle accepts satiric or predominantly fictional columns.

Jul. 14th, 2005 04:52 pm (UTC)
Re: Analysis, rambling, or thinking aloud: a narrow margin
BTW, has it occurred to you that "Tribble's" article is Swiftian satire, cf. prahlad's above? I suspected it briefly, but to me, his arguments seemed too carefully-reasoned and his anecdotes too realistic to be satiric. If it was, it was very subtle; and I rather doubt that The Chronicle accepts satiric or predominantly fictional columns.

It sure hadn't. I have a Captain Obvious icon for myself (and others).
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:56 pm (UTC)
Which means...
... that you think he could not have been ironic (the conclusion I reached), or that it never occurred to you because irony goes whooshing by? :-)

Jul. 14th, 2005 05:59 pm (UTC)
Re: Which means...
that it never occurred to you because irony goes whooshing by?

Josh McDowell has a great reference manual for Christian apologetics called The Evidence Demands A Verdict. I have the newer version of it on my shelf. It's a great book.

Just like the title of his book, the evidence has brought forth a verdict.

You've gotten no argument from me. :P
Jul. 14th, 2005 09:24 pm (UTC)
Nolo contendere
IOW: you enter a plea of nolo contendere?

As zengeneral would say, in the Court of Competence, one can be guilty until proven innocent, but one is never innocent until provent guilty.

Jul. 14th, 2005 05:49 pm (UTC)
The interactive aspect of blogging: no person is an island
Ah, I may have just underemphasized the interactive aspect in my original essay. At various points above, I mentioned.
There are, of course, entertainment-driven and "purely social" variations on the above, but essentially, I think any personal blog can be plotted as a mixture of the above functions.

It isn't just the publicity: it's also the interaction.

I do think the instantaneity of feedback is what makes blogging, USENET, and especially chat and instant messaging attractive to some. Then again, I doubt that "Professor Tribble" and his compatriots would be caught dead in an IRC channel.

Jul. 14th, 2005 04:01 pm (UTC)
That is a very interesting article. Of course, I wonder just how scrupulous is it for those doing the hiring to google the candidates' names to find their blogs. One - how can they be sure they're actually reading the right blogs. Two - those blogs were not shared with them, that's akin (in my pov) to going to the neighbors and saying, "So, tell me all about so and so's darkest secrets."

Hm - must think on this more. Just waking up ;)
Jul. 14th, 2005 04:18 pm (UTC)
The system is the shadiness
(With apologies to Marshall MacLuhan.)

In another forum, I wrote:
YOU (a generic you), and only you, are responsible for what you say online. THEY (a generic they) are responsible for how they treat you as a consequence. If they discover that you're a guitarist, left-handed, gay, a computer scientist who is frequently enthused and sickened by computers, someone who eats teddy bears alive, a former biology major, a commie, a nudist, or a Christian: what they do with that information is their business.

"How they discovered" it is no justification. Prejudice is still prejudice, racism and sexism and whateverism are still the phenomena we understand them to be, and FAIR judgement still fair.

In response to your comment: as I have often been told, there may or may not be any legal limit how people attempt to "dig up dirt" about someone. Ethics, OTOH, are a different matter, and like anyone else I could say much on this matter.

As I wrote above, we have a saying in Chinese: "disaster emerges from the mouth" (i.e., a big mouth can get one in trouble). We also say that "water thrown out cannot be brought back". What does this mean? It means that self-restraint is a good thing. I personally take it to mean that I should never post anything in a public venue that I would feel bad about having around forever. In fact, with the exception of private e-mail, anything I post at all, even in a "locked" post in my non-private blog, I consider anything I post to be subject to being read - by anyone!

I am prepared for the consequences of recirculation: which is to say that I might say critical things of someone, but if I weren't ready for him or her to read it, I wouldn't put it online in what is not all that secure a medium. My journal is written to be read, as are my comments. Of the 8000+ I've supposedly posted to LiveJournal and 3000+ I've supposedly posted to USENET over the years, there is not one I would be afraid of having read, or expect to cost me a job.

But that's just me: I don't keep a diary per se, either. I would not ask anyone else to do likewise. My point, echoing yours, is that the blogging medium is not inherently good or evil: it's powerful. Blogging, IMO, is much more open-ended than Amazon's meta-annotation system ("was this review useful to you?"), what we call a 0-1 loss function in computer science, as opposed to a continuous error function. I would rather READ a meta-review.

And so I repeat that there's no intrinsic good or ill in the technology. Blogging suffers from many foibles of unrestricted, optionally anonymous, or self-regulated public fora: silly secondary-school cliques, lack of inhibitions (particularly vanities, exhibitionism, and aggression), and above all vacuousness and time-wasting. As Yoda said to Luke when he sent him into the tree: what is inside is only what you take with you. (Or, more accurately, what you and each of your chosen friends and interactors take with you.)

( 27 comments — Leave a comment )

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