April 06, 2006

E–learning Research: Why academics blog (or not)?

Follow-up to Research Plan: ideas for researching networking, narrowcasting and broadcasting by bloggers from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Sometime ago, following a presentation that I gave about blogs to another university, I proposed to carry out some research into the question of audience and why people blog (or what might encourage them to blog more). The question "why don't academics blog?" is again being raised (and we are referring to UK academics and more specifically those at the university with the world’s best blogging system). I suspect that the answer lies in their perceptions of the purpose of blogging; and that those perceptions are formed by their view of typical blog use.

Why this matters

I think I have some answers to these questions. Or at the very least, I have a good way of thinking about the problem that may render it answerable. But first I assume you are not necessarily convinced that it matters. In response I offer two arguments:

  1. Answering the question of why academics don’t blog may give us a deeper insight into academic attitudes and behaviours. This knowledge is transferable to other learning technology development problems;
  2. I believe that weblog technology (along with other new web tools) has the potential to dramatically enhance the “academic environment”, if applied intelligently.

So there you have my agenda and motivation. I hope you agree on its significance.

Understanding the desire to blog

We should ask more widely of all bloggers: "why do you blog?”. The first and key step in answering this question is: "who do you blog for?" – "what is your intended (or implicitly assumed) audience?" The intention of a blog may be to inform, enrage, impress and so on, but those effects are always relative to and motivated by the imagined effect on a given audience. The blogger blogs so as to have these effects on an audience. Sometimes, as in a solely reflective blog, there is an audience of one, the author themselves. Even so, the motivation is to have an effect on that audience.

At this point, as I suggested in an earlier entry, we can use one of the core concepts of communications and design studies: narrowcasting versus broadcasting. The question then is put more specifically:

  1. Do you write for a specific actual audience (known nameable people)? – In which case you are engaging in formal narrowcasting (the most formal narrowcasting will apply privacy controls to keep unknown people out);
  2. Do you write for a specific virtual audience (unknown but clearly classifiable people, such as "all philosophy students")? – In which case you are engaging in informal narrowcasting.


  1. Do you write for no specific audience, considering your audience to be anyone who finds your blog? – You are engaging in broadcasting;
  2. Do you write content that appeals to a broad and loosely specified audience, but seek positive feedback from an identifiable and narrow audience? – You are broadcasting, but through the filter of what is in effect an informal or formal editorial presence.

Blogs may in reality be a mix of these attitudes, although not necessarily within the same entries. For example, my blog contains informally narrowcasted entries about the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, as well as broadcasted entries about my baby. Some blogs are particularly effective at leading a general audience into an interest in very specialized topics, or vice versa. But quite often a blogger will make an assumption, usually a received and unconsidered assumption, about their audience, the audience appropriate for a blog, and stick to it. And from where is this assumption receieved? I suggest two key sources, each transmitting a different and contradictory assumption, and resulting in very different kinds of blog:

  1. The traditional broadcast medium (newspapers, radio, television) who present blogs in terms understandable and significant to themselves. Looking at the coverage of blogs in these media, one would assume that blogging is a broadcast medium, aiming to reach an unspecialized and general audience (in fact the blogs that they like are the ones that are capable of being translated into the traditional broadcast media);
  2. The network effect of friends who blog enticing their friends to also blog. In this case the tendency would be to blog for your friends, in response to your friends, and therefore to narrowcast.

Which of these two influences is the most prevalent? Examing the list of recent entries in Warwick Blogs usually indicates that the former may be more potent. Indeed it would appear that most bloggers are trying to be one-person-broadcast-media, with the majority of entries about topics of very general interest and requiring no specialist knowledge. There could be narrowcasted topics that we can’t see dues to privacy controls, but in fact I know that this is quite rare. We could also assume that the authors of these broadcasted entries are expecting a set of known readers to appreciate them, whilst still writing in an essentially broadcast style. I suspect that this says something about the kinds of social relations that exist between these bloggers. They are after all mostly students and hence only together for a very short and uncertain period of time, perhaps not long enough to develop deeper and more specialised shared interests.

We may also ask the question of the blog system itself: is it biased towards narrowcasting or broadcasting? Have a look at the Warwick Blogs homepage and see what you think. More importantly, what does a set of blogs (and their aggregation) implicitly say about the purpose of blogging? My guess is that a brief look at Warwick Blogs would give you the impression that bloggers write more for an unspecialized and general audience. The highly discursive nature of blogging (especially at Warwick) encourages this. The listing of topics that have received many comments reinforces this. The assumption is then that blog entries are written to prompt discussion amongst a general audience.

Understanding the academic desire to blog (or not)

Now consider the nature of "being an academic". What is the most significant feature? I would say specialization. In fact I would argue that universities exist as places in which quite extreme specialization can take place. This is so extreme that even two people in the same department may not have much of an understanding of each other's work (modal logic is a mystery to me). To an outsider that may seem bad. But it is in fact the very reason for giving people the time and space required to explore and innovate. Furthermore, I conjecture that most academics would respond to finding any spare time in their busy diaries by doing activities to work further on their specialization. If you're not an academic, and you don't believe me, think back to what it was like being an undergraduate. Did you get the sense that each individual academic was trying to pull you into their own particular specialized field? This is even more so for graduate students, as lecturers seek to recruit doctoral students (or at least sell their own books).

Asking again the question: "why should an academic blog?" – So far we have no answer.

Of course academics cannot stay in their silos of specialization permanently. They occassionaly have to crawl out of the cave and communicate their work to a slightly more broad audience. Ideas do need to be tested. They also need to be funded. Could they do this in a blog? Yes. Would they? Probably not. Consider just how carefully managed this process of academic exposure usually is, and how much work is required to get it right. The peer reviewed journal is one of two mechanisms for communicating academic work in a managed way; a tighly controlled way. Conferences are a little more wild and risky, but even so are regulated with high expectations. I know of academics that could talk brilliantly about anything at any time, and yet they still cancel conference appearances because their papers are not perfect.

From this perspective, the project of academic blogging looks doomed. Perhaps that is why very few academics turn up to my workshops on blogging? (In comparison to sessions on tools that help with their own private research).

Academic blogging 2

I seem to have done a fairly good job of demolishing the idea that blogs can be useful to academics. And yet I still stand by my statement that:

weblog technology (along with other new web tools) has the potential to dramatically enhance the “academic environment”, if applied intelligently.

The weblog is, after all, a powerful tool for recording and archiving the development of ideas, for exploiting that archive, for selectively exposing it to others, and for developing an identity and a presence. All of these activities are vital to the academic process. The key to using the technology is in understanding how it can be used to address a controlled audience (from an audience of one, the author, to the whole world). This is a matter of using the features built into the software, as well as exploiting writing techniques that more clearly define the audience and hence manage engagement with it. For example, one keep a blog containing entries about a specialised topic, sometimes stating that an entry is “just a conjecture” and other times stating that it is “more conclusive”. You can alert colleagues to entries that they will be interested in, asking for a response, even a formal peer review. But you can also expose these entries to the world, allowing for chance encounters with other academics, in the same or a related field. You may also find that over time words that you use, ideas that you develop, in your blog become more widely accepted. It could even attract funding.

However, for this to become common practice, changes must occur:

  1. We need to change people’s perception of the purpose of blogging, from a broadcast medium to a medium that is sophisticated enough to combine broad and narrowcasting as required;
  2. There needs to be more widespread adoption of the techniques for managing audiences and writing;
  3. The advantages of blogging for academics in specific situations need to be explicated and communicated, with real examples.

I shall explore this in another forthcoming entry.

Your comments on any aspect of this entry are most welcome.

- 2 comments by 0 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Liz Ditz

    Greetings from California, outside the university. The question, "who do you blog for?" is going around, started by Molly.com,


    And my response is here:

    I know it has been a topic of conversation among some of the university bloggers in the US — but I don't have a tag or an easy-to-find list of the discussants.

    15 Apr 2006, 16:47

  2. Liz

    I started the comment and meant to supply the link to my post, and forgot. herewith:


    15 Apr 2006, 16:49

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