Monday, August 07, 2006

Casual Speak

Larry Solum offers a partial dissent from the inimitable Belle Lettre, who argues that blogs show the degree to which being a serious scholar and a public intellectual can merge.

Solum argues that
there are real tensions between blogging for public consumption and scholarship. If I might be allowed a controversial assertion, I simply don't believe that it is always the case that a serious idea can be translated into a sound bite, an op/ed, or a 200 word blog post. This isn't to deny that it is sometimes possible to bridge the gap between the world of serious ideas and the world of public political debate. Not just sometimes, frequently, often, lots of the time. But reaching for the broad audience creates a set of temptations, distractions, extrinsic rewards. Blogging for wide public consumption can focus the mind on hit counts, mentions in the media, and all the rest.

Instead, he finds the real value of blogs in there ability to narrowcast--that is, be very specific and very intellectual within a very particular sub-field. The idea is that folks reading Sentencing Law and Policy are probably not random members of the public--they're serious people interested in that particular subject. Blogging greatly expands the resources for those of us who want to delve deeper into an esoteric subject. But there is no reason to assume that blogging will make the subject any less esoteric.

I'm not sure I agree entirely, however. Certainly, the idea that certain topics are too complex to be distilled down to soundbites is one I concur with (and have ranted on before). And I'd like to think that this blog deals with complex subjects in an appropriate and sophisticated manner. However, one of the key advantages of blogging is that the norms of the medium differ significantly from academic scholarship. I write in a much more relaxed and casual manner on a blog than I do when writing an official research paper. Being introduced to a subject through the lens of a jargon-laden 60 page article with 500 footnotes is very intimidating. But there is pressure, I believe, to write in a suitably dense form if one is writing for academia. One would not expect an article in a reputable scholarly journal to look like an elongated blog post. And, with some exceptions, most blog posts do not look like bite-sized law review articles. Presumably, this form might make some difficult topics more accessible to the general public than was previously possible.

1 comment:

Josh said...

Can blogs explain the obscure and obtuse to the general public? Sure.

Look at the Al-Rueters Incident. Not only were there the traditional technical disserations, but also included were entry-level experience discussions and eventually newcomer explanations - and all of these were interlinked, making it simple to find a paper that matches your level of intellect and experience.

Hell, the same thing happened at a similar scale on my blog. Normal discussions on grades of steel in an academic or materials science are fairly close to law articles in how obtuse they can get, and it's a damned esoteric subject. Thanks to show/hide code, it's possible to include not just the short descriptions and the more indepth ones, but also to do so without overwhelming those who don't need more than the soundbyte.

Will it look like the "old media"? No, and that's going to lead to a pretty vast schism. For one things, blogs remove the entire possibility of hiding behind jargon : everyone has a dictionary in their tool bar by this point, so use schadenfruede or paradigm incorrectly and people will notice it. Nor is it really possible to use the old-style emphasis on footnoted references. Hyperlinks and the ease of access to things that were previous near-impossible to check, like , mean that studies and references will become much more important than their previous status as near-appeals to authority.

I don't think I'm too upset about the differences.