Blogging vs. Academia

I have been blogging for nearly a year now.  I wrote my first real blog post on Feb. 26, 2011.  Since then, I’ve tried to write about once a week, sometimes coming closer to that goal and sometimes less so.  In the last year, I’ve also been reading other people’s blogs much more than I ever had before.  There are a number of blogs I’ve read on a regular basis and a number more that I’ve read occasionally or for a single post.

After this year of blog experimentation, I’ve come to the conclusion that topical blogging is a lot like publishing in the academic world.  I use the term “topical blogging” intentionally.  There are a lot of personal blogs out there dedicated to relating what the author had for lunch, ranting about various pet peeves, or telling the sad/hilarious/hopeful story of the author’s lives.  Some of these can be quite entertaining or engrossing; others are just self-absorbed.  None of them count as topical blogging, however.  Topical blogging is blogging about a subject other than the author.  It’s not blogging as diary; it’s blogging as opinion piece/reporting/philosophical musings/theology/commentary.  This blog is a topical blog, and so are most of the blogs I read on a regular basis.  It’s this class of blogs that I find to be quite similar to academic publishing.

There are, of course, important differences.  Blogging is a much more democratic enterprise with fewer entrance requirements.  There are a limited number of academic jobs and academic journals in which to publish, but a relatively unlimited number of WordPress accounts that can be created.  No one needs a Ph.D. to be a topical blogger.  Blogs aren’t regulated or peer-reviewed by societies or publishing agents like academic publishing is.

Yet the similarities are striking.  Just as academics spend a lot of time reading other academics’ work and responding, so bloggers spend a lot of time reading other bloggers’ work and responding.  Sure, bloggers also respond to the news, things they’ve experienced in their lives, things they’ve read in non-electronic form.  Academics also respond to their research subjects.  But for both bloggers and academics, to be successful, it’s not enough to just interact with your subject.  You also have to interact with others who are interested in your subject.  Sometimes this interaction is constructive and collaborative; sometimes it involves a lot of invective and snark.  That’s also similar across blogs and academic publishing.  But interaction is necessary.

Just like most successful academics, most successful topical bloggers have a set range of interests they write about.  Academics are encouraged to focus their interests by the structure of academic disciplines (chemistry, English, sociology, etc.).  They’re also encouraged to focus by the amount of training needed to be accepted within the scholarly community.  It’s hard to know enough to be taken seriously in music and literature and science, as some 18th century polymaths were.  For bloggers, the pressures to have set interests are slightly different, but still present.  The background requirements for blogging about a subject are much lower than those for academia, but there’s still a certain amount of knowledge of and familiarity with one’s subject required that places some practical limits on the number of topics one can follow.  Furthermore, if one cares about readership, readers like blogs with a relatively well-defined set of interests.  It’s not the same as a discipline, but readers like knowing what they can expect from a certain blog.

Furthermore, within both academia and blogging, there’s a tendency for one’s subject to become defined in rather interest-specific ways such that the community of fellow scholars or bloggers with whom one is interacting is actually rather limited.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It would be several full-time jobs just to read a portion of the blogging on religion, for instance.  There are even more blogs than I can read thoroughly that deal just with The United Methodist Church.  In order to have a manageable community of scholarship or blogging community among whom issues can be identified and debated, it’s necessary to narrow one’s focus.  In many regards, that’s just a feature of our (post)modern society, but it plays out in similar ways in both blogging and scholarship.

Despite the interest-specific nature of both blogging and scholarship, there are some famous or important figures in both areas that are read more widely and get discussed outside their interest-specific bubbles.  These famous academics or bloggers are a mix of those who have especially compelling ideas, those who are able to write well especially well or entertainingly, those promoted by influential institutions (such as Harvard University or, for instance), and those who have just caught a lucky break.

Most bloggers and most academics want to be like these famous people.  But most of them aren’t.  Most just toil away, focusing on whatever their specific interest is, talking with the manageable set of other people who also share that specific interest.  Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But I think it’s worth noting the ways in which topical blogs and academic publishing reflect each other because I think it says something about how knowledge, information, and society are structured in our times.  Perhaps someone who shares my specific interests will write a blog about it, and our little piece of the conversation will continue.


John Caldwell posted on February 23, 2012 at 11:09 am

“Subject blogs” also provide a place for the work of public intellectuals, occasionally autodidacts but more often the surplus supply of Ph’s who are produced by the academic-industrial complex both to enhance revenues and to depress labor costs, to make some contribution to public discourse. It’s not surprising then that there are some formal similarities. As much as I have worked to shed–or at least transgress its boundaries a little–I’m still pretty “disciplined.”

David W. Scott posted on February 24, 2012 at 5:12 pm

I think you’re right that they’re a good place for public intellectuals to work, including those with PhD’s, both those outside and those inside the academy who are looking for less formal venue to explore ideas. Thanks for your comments!

Albert Greensfelder posted on October 9, 2016 at 9:07 am

Oh, just finished skimming this post. Very great articles you wrote. Surely following your site! Thank you very much.

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