Blogging Archaeology at the SAA – Why Blog?

Colleen asks,

The emergence of the short form, or blog entry, is becoming a popular way to transmit a wide range of archaeological knowledge. What is the place of this conversation within academic, professional, and public discourse? Simply put, what can the short form do for archaeology?

Blogging exhausts me. Blogging, as an art form, has that immediate feedback drug, the Statistics Page. Did I connect with anyone when I wrote x? Who has linked to post y? It’s a form of academic grinding; thus, I am exhausted. But I need another hit.

Almost a year ago, I wrote a post called ‘Why Academic Blogging Matters‘. My conclusions there are still appropriate:

[…]Academic blogs are content-rich, and tend to focus on very specific areas. We create an enormous signal in the chaos of the internet. This blog, Electric Archaeology, consistently shows up on Google search results for a wide variety of [knowledge] domains. […]
Google controls how we find information; but often, academic blogging tells Google what’s important.”

Yes, that’s still true. But ‘important’… well, that’s the thing. Recently, the New York Times published an article showing how one shady businessman was able to game Google’s system, on the principle that any publicity is good publicity.  This suggests that the signal we create, as far as Google is concerned, doesn’t have to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it just has to be constant; it just has to be strong. In which case, let’s return to the concept of ‘grind’.  Grinding is “a term used in video gaming to describe the process of engaging in repetitive and/or non-entertaining gameplay in order to gain access to other features within the game” (Wikipedia).

Academic blogging then forces us to grind away, putting out pieces in an effort to rise to the top, to be the first piece on a given topic that the surfer encounters as they look for information. We have to drown out ‘bad’ signals and replace them with ‘good’.  The grind forces us to become better, more concise, at expressing an idea. It forces us to be topical – to write about what people are interested in. As we get better at the grind, we can begin to shape what people are interested in, since our results come out on top (ask your students how they know whether a search result is ‘valid’ or ‘good’ or ‘important’, and you’ll get a variant on ‘it was the first Google response’). That’s how we access the other features in this game of archaeology. We shape the public face. The grind demands that we try things out in public (so that we have something to write about), and we enter into conversation with others about the results. The grind demands that the curtain gets pulled back. Already, this kind of knowledge production is having repercussions for traditional modes of publication .

The blog as grind can be gamed though. For instance, at Play The Past, we have a group of around a dozen interested individuals. Because the grind is divided by twelve, we keep a constant stream of material bubbling away, but no one person gets exhausted.  It took me three years of blogging *extremely regularly* to get over 100 000 unique page views here – but Play the Past achieved this in one month.

Signal versus noise. As academics, we are obliged to create the strongest signal we can.

7 thoughts on “Blogging Archaeology at the SAA – Why Blog?

  1. So true about the Grind, even more true about the “feedback drug”. The most frustrating thing about writing a post is having no comments….

    The Grind is probably one of the most difficult parts of getting new people to start blogging. They immediately recognize that writing posts is something that must happen regularly, and that each post takes time and energy. I know that the minute my advisor saw my website, his first question was, “How much time does this take?” (this is why he’s a good advisor. Everything I want to do is immediately responded to with this question).

    I have been enamored by the collaborative blogs such as Play the Past, or ProfHacker, where the load is shared, and, therefore, the quality goes up. Perhaps such a venture could be a product of this Blogging Archaeology session…perhaps not. This Carnival might be a good warmup to see how well we all jive.

  2. good stuff. i wonder if there is anything that suggests archaeologists are more likely to put up with repetitive non-enjoyable tasks for minimal reward, and are therefore keener bloggers?

    that was an attempt at humor, for which i apologise. But i do wonder whether blogging archaeology isnt just an emergent blogging tendency arising from a group of people who are all, lets face it, kinda obsessive about things to begin with.

    (enjoying this carnival)

  3. Hi Brenna

    I suppose that anybody who finds their niche is by definition obsessive to begin with, right? Otherwise you’d never stick with it?

    Many of my academic fellow travellers do not see any value to blogging, regarding it as something weird and inherently trivial because of its typical short form. In the words of one of my colleagues recently, ‘I don’t care what you had for lunch’. In which case, it’s not the obsessiveness but rather the mode of expression that bothers some and the bad press/early caricatures of the form.

    Academic blogging doesn’t fit those caricatures, but to the people who decide tenure and promotion, that’s the image that we-who-blog must overcome.

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