Blogging Archaeology at the SAA – What do you blog?

Colleen asks,

Beyond the general problems that come with performing as a public intellectual, what risks do archaeologists take when they make themselves available to the public via blogging? What (if any) are the unexpected consequences of blogging? How do you choose what to share?

When I started this blog, back in my dark days in the academic wilderness (ca 2007), this question was easy to answer. I blogged whatever caught my fancy, as long as it fit with my general theme (see the masthead). I tried to read widely, outside my comfort zone, with the idea that I could find interesting digital applications from other fields, reporting back to my archaeological readership.

Which, at the time, was an audience of one (thanks Mom!)

But I persevered, and continued to write, and the number of people I reach has increased quite nicely, thank you. One unintended consequence of that increase in numbers was the way that the feedback stats (the drug which I mentioned in the previous post) started to form and push subjects that I would write about. It forms a positive feedback loop… and suddenly, your blog isn’t quite what it’s supposed to be about, any more.

You become a bit of a cyborg, where your relationship with the machine starts to influence what you write, and who you read.  On that note, some work by machine-learning experts  S. Bethard and D. Jurafsky, take that idea to a new level.  In, “Who should I cite? Learning literature search models from citation behavior”, S. Bethard & D. Jurafsky, ACM Conf. on Information & Knowledge Management, pdf at, they describe a system where, given the text of an abstract for a scholarly paper, the machine can predict what the paper OUGHT to cite, given the kinds of things other papers written on similar topics tend to cite. Think IBM’s Watson for academic research.

Machine learning + echo chamber = canalization function, where a certain delimited number of authors become authorities.

This would be a very bleak outcome, indeed; but my correspondent who alerted me to the paper argues instead that it would be easy to tweak such a system to introduce an element of serendipity (perhaps this is what DevonThink does; I’m not a mac person, so see Steve Johnson‘s descriptions of using it).  So another unintended consequence of blogging is that, in reaction to the feedback loop I described above, I try to pay attention to the serendipitous, the marginal, the things on the outside: and use those to inform my writing.

Finally, I’ve come to realize that a blog can be at its most useful, its most powerful, when it chronicles failure. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” said Tolstoy. If I try an experiment, and record on my blog that “Hooray! it worded just as I wanted it to!”, I don’t know whether I’ve really accomplished anything. On the other hand, My Glorious Failure is my most-read article on Play the Past. Knowing what doesn’t work helps you explore the phase-space of possibility.

The greatest unintended consequence of blogging? The discipline of keeping this blog, of reading and writing to my digital media theme, turned me from just a Roman archaeologist with technological leanings, into a digital humanist. I know this, because it says so on my door. I don’t think I would have the position I have today, without the progression of this blog to shape me.

Of course, the following is still true too…


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