But in our minds the answer to the question “Should I blog?” is now a clear and resounding “Yes”, at least, if conventional indicators of academic success are your aim. Blogging is now part of a complex online ‘attention economy’ where social media like Twitter and Facebook are not merely dumb ‘echo chambers’ but a massive global conversation which can help your work travel much further than you might initially think.
Inger Mewburn and Pat Thompson, “Academic blogging is part of a complex attention economy leading to unprecedented readership” (LSE blogs, this week)
Now that I’m on sick leave, the question of what counts as work has slanted a bit. Academics are chronically prone to working while sick. Often this is accompanied with a little self-justifying jig in which we explain that we love to do our research/teaching etc so much that it doesn’t count as work. But it’s just as often the way deadlines don’t wait, and what we do is essentially contract project work that’s hard to pass on to others. Lying in bed staring at the ceiling, we all feel the pressure of the snowcave of email in which we’re slowly being buried. And so we chip away at it anyway, because it’s easier to maintain an airway of sorts by tunnelling constantly, than to have to dig yourself out from six feet of snow at the end of it.
This is fantastically good news for universities, who couldn’t stay open without the human chain of volunteer labour that extends from graduate students and other adjuncts working well beyond their paid casual hours, to salaried workers taking their email, grading, peer reviewing and online teaching into doctors’ waiting rooms, hospitals and bed.
But the funny thing about cancer is that it seems so extreme, that everyone is advising me to make sure that I’m not working. So I’ve had to think again about what counts as work, and figure out what it is that I want to protect during this confronting, confusing time.
It turns out that I don’t think of either blogging or Twitter as part of my paid employment. Quite the opposite: I started writing online secretively in 2011 because I was looking for somewhere to think for myself. I didn’t want a platform; I didn’t want to promote my research or improve my profile. I didn’t even want people to know who I was, in case this troubled my employer. I wanted to make a bower for collecting things of value to me: thoughts, information, other people’s words that would amount to a better grasp of why higher education felt like a difficult place to be.
A whole lot has changed since then. Academics are now being advised and trained to blog; and as Inger and Pat suggest in their thoughtful discussion of the impact of blogging profile on journal article downloads, it may be that they will eventually be considered delinquent if they don’t.
As it happens, I don’t dispute the utility of blogging in the “attention economy”. It does work, if that’s what you’re after. And I really can see why people get into Twitter for its amplifying capacity. We’re all unsettled by the way that academic publishing encloses writing that was already paid for by a public that then would have to pay a second time actually to read it. As citations are becoming both the carrot and the stick for survival then it makes sense that research managers are becoming more interested in the way that academics could deploy social media work to make themselves more upworthy.
But I have some serious reservations about hitching public online conversations to the pseudo-productivity of formal academic publication. It’s not about the impact of social media on the academy, but the reverse. Academic publishing is collapsing as a meaningful forum for the circulation of ideas precisely because its true function is now to maintain the scarcity of repute, in an economy that trades individual reputation for institution reputation, all of which washes back to the journals themselves. Journals pride themselves on equating difficulty with quality: how hard it is for anything to be published, and how long it takes. They do this because they need to maintain their own business models and market value; these are very hard times for them too. So for prestige to attach to publication, a huge volume of written work that has already gone through many drafts and redrafts has to be rejected.
The squandering of human time that closed, peer-reviewed academic publishing represents is truly astonishing. It’s a similar in scale, nature and damage to the other competitive systems on which higher education stakes its claim to excellence: hiring, tenure, grant-getting, ranking schemes. For all of these to be meaningful in the current scheme, they require massive failure rates. This required failure ratio then expresses itself as a kind of personal shame that works as an inducement to further overwork, which is exactly how the human cost is becoming so significant.
And the idea of publication as a means of making funded research genuinely useful has been substituted by the work of counting and factoring up research outputs. The classic story told about perverse incentives is ratfarming under colonial rule in Hanoi: in an economy where peasants are paid per rat kill, the sensible response is to farm rats to kill and turn in for reward. In other words, the rational decision that the system triggers is the exact opposite of the system’s goal. The hyphenation of citation to rankings means that higher education is very close to perfecting in its workers its own ratfarming calculation, and we all know it.
Sure, social media has versions of all this, but it’s still possible to make a space within its generous and substantially ungovernable folds for practices of thinking, sharing and listening that are self-managed, and that work just because they work for you. You can chase followers, or not mind at all. You can spend all day listening to three people and no more. You can maintain a valuable and engaging life on Twitter in the same way that you’re stimulated by listening to the radio in the car or having coffee with three friends: you don’t need the whole world in your ear at one time. And above all, you can do this without having to file an end-of-year report.
These not-work practices now need protecting against the seductive but ultimately quite sleazy pull of the attention economy. Surreptitiously joined up networks of people thinking quietly, on their own time, now offer higher education a whole range of models for learning and discovering that will still be here after the MOOC circus moves on.
That is, unless blogging becomes professionally compulsory, in which case we’ll all be in the ratfarm.
Thanks to Bon Stewart for the conversation today that got me thinking to write this down.
Also, health update: I’m off to hospital tomorrow for further surgery. Getting a big diagnosis as a higher education worker, and writing about it here, has taught me that there’s far, far more in this gift economy than the attention economy will ever offer. Thank you.