Over at the great and spacious blog, Richard Bushman writes that “what I would hope for [in blogging] is more serious and focused thought, the kind that Nate Oman turns out, rather than off-the-cuff chatter that is fun but leads nowhere.” Similarly, recent discussion at DMI focuses on whether blogging can or should displace conventional scholarship. These discussions touch on the same questions: Why are we blogging, anyway? Are some types of blogging more valuable than others, as Bushman seems to suggest? Should we all be more like Nate?
It seems to me that there are several potential blogging models. Blogging can be scholarship, or dissemination of information. It can be storytelling, or therapy, or networking. In this post, I’ll focus on a two particular potential models.
First is what we might call the blogging-as-scholarship model. This might mean posts on either primary, historical research, such as Ardis often does, or it might mean synthesis and discussion, such as Nate often does (i.e., the recent political philosophy essay). Either way, blogging as scholarship is the production of new information or analysis.
Blogging as scholarship raises interesting forum questions. If an author has just researched a historical item, why not publish that with the Journal of Mormon History? There are reasons not to blog scholarship. Blogging is unlikely to generate the scholarly payouts of work published in other venues. Blogging is also more ephemeral.
There may also be reasons in favor of blogging scholarship. There are items that might better fit as blog posts than as stand-alone articles; an item may not fit well into the ideological arena of available journals; and author may prefer web dissemination. Or the piece may be published in both venues. In any case, blogging-as-scholarship raises interesting questions about the choice of venue. Blogging-as-scholarship is also the model least susceptible to charges that blogging is wasted time.
A related but distinct model is blogging as scholarly dissemination. This sort of blogging involves posts that examine existing scholarship — historical, linguistic, theoretical, or whatever — and highlight some interesting snippet, but that don’t engage in primary scholarship themselves. Under this model, blogging becomes a vector for existing scholarship. The blogger doesn’t put the entire text of Rough Stone Rolling online, but pulls out three interesting paragraphs and says, “Look at these paragraphs. Aren’t they interesting?”
The best consistent example I can think of in this category is Kevin Barney. Kevin consistently posts little interesting snippets on scriptural interpretation — that “feet” may have had a sexual connotation in the book of Ruth, for instance. Such posts have the benefit of culling out interesting information and presenting it in a neat package for a new audience.
Blogging as scholarly dissemination overlaps somewhat with journals or other print forums. There is some amount of material in printed venues — Dialogue, Sunstone, BYU Studies — that recapitulates existing scholarship and points out interesting portions of that work. However, blogging is not really in competition with print venues. If Kevin Barney publishes the same material in Dialogue and on BCC, with the intent to disseminate the information, he’s reaching somewhat different audiences each time.
Is blogging-as-dissemination less valuable than blogging-as-scholarship? To some degree, it might be. Unlike the scholarship model, the dissemination model does not focus on the production of something _new_.
However, the dissemination model has its own benefits as well. While the scholarship side is interested in the production of new information, the dissemination side is interested in raising the level of audience awareness of some fact. Even if nothing new is being _said_, something new is being _heard_. (And of course, scholarship can and often does link with dissemination.)
The dissemination model explains, to some degree, why some of the same conversations seem to occur repeatedly on blogs. It explains the existence of “From the Archives” and other links to older posts. I could repost this entire post, six months from now, and potentially achieve some benefit in added dissemination.
The dissemination model raises real questions of motive. The speaker wants to disseminate information about Hebrew terms or Joseph Smith polyandry or Word of Wisdom adoption or seer stones — why?
Also, online dissemination can be exhausting (particularly if one lacks a strong motive). The possibility of repeated dissemination is essentially endless. How many conversations can one have online about Word of Wisdom changes? Pretty much as many as one wishes to have. (No matter how many times I say “go read Mormonism in Transition,” there will always be someone new to say “wait a minute — Joseph Smith drank coffee?”)
Finally, the dissemination model probably fits the constraints of blogging better than the scholarship model, as a general matter. Blogging is not a good vehicle for many kinds of scholarship (such as the book-length biography) and is at its best when presenting short snippets of information. There is no reason why that information has to be all dissemination and no original scholarship. But dissemination is a very good natural fit for the blog format, while scholarship is less of a natural fit.
Where does this get us? First, blogging as scholarship is possible, and at least some outside observers view it as blogs’ best contribution. I’m skeptical. Blog posts are not a great fit for scholarly work, and they present several disadvantages (less recognition, less permanence) as compared to other venues. On the other hand, blogging as dissemination is where the medium really shines. A person who can disseminate without axe-grinding could use blogs to spread lots of interesting and helpful information, in a way that could not otherwise be achieved.
So I’d like to respectfully register a partial dissent to Bushman’s assessment. I certainly appreciate Nate’s blogging, and always find his posts and comments interesting. But I don’t know that the bloggernacle needs a multiplicity of Nates posting extended essays of original analysis. Rather, my own analysis is that “what I would hope for [in blogging] is more consistent dissemination of interesting information from existing scholarship, the kind that Kevin Barney turns out.”