Archaeology, Archaeology outreach, Archaeology Research

What are these blog thingies? A response to ‘Blogging Anthropology…’

Anyone into digital archaeology or blogging archaeology and anthropology will have noticed the wave of dislike and irritation that has been spreading through the online communities as a result of the American Anthropologist Journal article on ‘Blogging Anthropology: Savage Minds, Zero Anthropology and AAA blogs. (That’s an open link to the PDF – don’t know how long it’ll stay free unfortunately).

First thing’s first. This is supposed to be a paper – it has an abstract and it’s written in a superficially critical manner. In reality, it’s an opinion piece that makes its author, David H Price, sound a lot like someone who isn’t really that familiar with digital humanities, blogging, online engagement, digital publishing, or the whole web 2.0 thing. The article is on the whole, “a bunch of irrelevant tutoring for the internet-challenged“.

I was going to say that I hoped someone wrote a ‘response’ to the piece, but frankly it doesn’t really undertake anything critical and academic enough to engender a ‘response’ article. Depending on how strongly you feel about the importance of the dark digital arts, you’ll either roll your eyes and be unsurprised at the article, or you’ll be pretty irritated.

Essentially it reminds me of the fuss about five years ago, when the media started to get really excited about the existence of all of these things called ‘weblogs’ (and yes, the AA article does give that clichéd explanation – as if anyone ever needed to know the word ‘weblog’). I assume the author thinks anthropologists who read the AA journal need an explanation of what blogs are, and whether they’re any good. Fair enough, I’m sure there are some people who do. But frankly AA, if you’re going to publish something like that, why not make it something good, by someone who can actually say something insightful about archae/anthro blogging?

Unfortunately the article really has nothing critical or academic to say. It could be paraphrased- ‘watch out, some of this isn’t very polite, no one is editing it so it can be a bit rubbish, and there can be a lot of opinion, and it’s all a waste of these young people’s time’. Well, gee.

I really don’t think isn’t enough to warrant a piece in a journal, even a short ‘review essay’ piece, whatever that is. Frankly I’m very disappointed in the journal’s editors, and can only support Ancient World Blogger’s opinion that they are essentially saying that blogging is largely irrelevant. I also find the tone slightly discomforting – the idea that ‘young’ people are out there doing these terribly naive things like blogging is rather patronising. And really, does anyone who is a ‘professor’ counts as ‘young’?

As Archaeology of the Mediteranean World suggests, the article is really a massive missed opportunity.

As for responses from those featured, Zero Anthropology has said he’s not posting on it as ‘it seems a bit like self flattery’, but Savage Minds is rightly ‘leery’ of being called ‘Public Anthropology’. Just because members of the public read the blog, and they make an effort to be accessible, interesting and informal, doesn’t make them ‘Public Anthropology’. Frankly I like reading archae-anthro blogs, but I don’t want to read hard-core research stuff when I’m eating my dinner. Being interesting and informal doesn’t automatically mean you’re for the ‘public’ – the rest of us like it too!

Frankly, to include the AAA blog as one of only three discussed in this article is bad research practice. It is not acceptable to use the blog of the institute whose journal you’re publishing in as an example, for very obvious reasons. Even if you do make critical remarks about it!

As an example of the general feel of the article, I frankly object to the whole idea of ‘publically engaged anthroplogists‘ that is mentioned. Sorry, but isn’t engaging with people rather a large part of anthropology? Shouldn’t everyone by ‘publically engaged’? It isn’t just something you can leave to a few of your more daring colleagues.  Also, it isn’t just big topics ‘war, race, inequality’ that blogs can engage on. Often it’s the really small, local, stuff that gets people really interested.

I’m not really sure Price ‘gets’ the ‘blog’ format at all. In fact what’s most interesting about the responses to this article I’ve seen on the web is that it’s prompted many bloggers to print specific statements of why they blog. This is a clear indication that most see this article as having fundamentally misunderstood and misrepresented them.

Depending on who we are, what we research, and what are interests are, bloggers all do it for different reasons.

In my experience archaeo-anthro blogs are usually about one or more of these:

  • Writing for the enjoyment of it
  • Meeting people in your discipline
  • Providing a focus for an online identity
  • Drafting ideas
  • Exploring concepts
  • Asking for opinion and input
  • Transgressing
  • Organising and promoting activism
  • Communicating news
  • Democratising information for everyone who doesn’t have a university to fund their journal subscriptions
  • Discussing new research
  • Engaging everyone.

What they are only occasionally (or not at all) about:

  • Engaging some notion of ‘the public’
  • Making money
  • Getting published
  • Upping your research score
  • Making yourself more employable
  • Getting any recognition from ‘important’ people

Anyone, including  Price, who thinks that blogging is about any of the above is frankly a bit out of the loop. Sure, a very few people can manage some of those, but most of us are just doing it for the sheer enjoyment of it. Anyone thinking that we do it for research/academic prestige is rather missing the point. And Prices general implication that blogs are worthless because of that is frankly a bit insulting and rather short-sighted.

The thing Price is missing, and I think a number of people don’t realise, is that archaeo-anthro blogs are usually just part of a network of different online techniques digi-friendly archaeologists use. Blogs don’t try to do everything, but they can act as a bit of a ‘signpost’ or portal to the blogger’s other online presences or publications (just look at Zero Archaeology’s prolific output!). This could include a university website, personal website, journal publications, twitter, friendfeed, online file-store, YouTube, or a university e-learning environment. As the Archaeology of the Mediterranean World blog puts it, blogs are “aggregation points for the content that defines (in whatever context) one’s identity“.

Academics may not have caught on to this yet, but as a professional these days you need a website, somewhere that people can go and immediately get a picture of who you are, what you do, and what motivates you. A blog is often part of that online presence. Sure, some people write what Price rather patronisingly refers to as “detailed and thoughtful postings and exchanges by scholars“. But a lot of people write snippets, or news or just link to other good stuff. ‘Scholars’ isn’t exactly useful terminology either. I don’t feel like a scholar and I’m a bloody grad student – what do non-researchers think and does he exclude them from this idea of acceptable blogging?

However, as Electric Archaeology discusses, one of the best (albeit sometimes unintentional and completely overlooked) results of ‘academic’ blogging is that we tell Google what matters. By highlighting what we think is good information, good sites, good books, good links, we impact Google’s search rankings and hence what students and interested people find when doing their searches. We also get the chance to set the record straight on some of those horrible pseudo-archaeology subjects. That ability to share and shape information so that anyone can find it with a click of a button is perhaps the most exciting thing about blogging.

So, nil-point for Price’s ‘Blogging Anthropology’ article, but a rather heartening response from the blogging community. We seem to know what we’re doing, even if no one else does. All we need now is someone to stand-up and contribute to the AA Journal and communicate that to the rest of the non-digital community!

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