Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit (banazir) wrote,
Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit

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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.
Tags: academia, anti-blogging backlash, blogs, society, weblogs

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