mamamusings: April 23, 2004

elizabeth lane lawley's thoughts on technology, academia, family, and tangential topics

Friday, 23 April 2004

you may ask yourself "how did i get here?"

One of the questions I’ve been asked a lot lately, mostly by full-time academics, was how/why I started blogging. It’s not a quick and easy answer, but I’ve been asked it enough now that it’s probably worth having it here in a public and somewhat permanent form.

My blogging epiphany came about at the Pop!Tech conference in October of 2002. That was the first conference I’d been to with ubiquitous WiFi and a critical mass of people with laptops taking advantage of it, and I was intrigued. What were people doing with their computers, beyond taking notes and checking email? (Turned out that Simson Garfinkel was pulling POP passwords out of the ether, but that’s another story.)

When Dan Gillmor spoke, however, he related an incident that really struck me. Here’s Howard Rheingold’s account of it:

The second event Dan cited was the occasion last summer at Esther Dyson’s PC Forum, held in Arizona, where Joe Nacchio, CEO of Qwest was, in Dan’s words, “whining about how hard it was to run a telephone company these days.” Dan blogged this while he was listening, and immediately got email from a reader in Florida who sent him a link disclosing that Nachio had sold $300 million of stock in the company he was helping to kill. Dan blogged it, and another participant in the Forum, Doc Searls, who was contemporaneously blogging the event, took Nachio to task for it, while Nachio was still standing at the podium.

I wasn’t at all familiar with the term “blog” or with the amazing growth of blogging tools and sites, but I was totally intrigued by the feedback loop that Dan had described. And then I realized that everything I was hearing at Pop!Tech was also being blogged by people in the room. (In retrospect, I’d seen this mentioned on the Pop!Tech web site before the conference, but it hadn’t registered as being important to me then.) I started reading the blogs of the people in the room—David Weinberger, Dan Gillmor, Ernie the Attorney. And as I started reading their mediated versions of what I was seeing live, I found that my appreciation and understanding of what I was hearing was deepened and extended. They had different context and knowledge to bring to the topic, links to related sites, personal experiences.

It was a transformative moment for me, particularly when combined with Linda Stone’s brilliant discussion of what she calls “Continuous Partial Attention“—a kind of scanning of multiple open information channels that she was increasingly observing in her students as an adjunct professor. This is not the same thing as multitasking—instead, it’s a constant monitoring, looking for content that makes it worth switching to a focus. (It reminds me of the process that directors of live television events go through…watching a bank of monitors showing different camera angles, deciding which one to bring up as the focal point at any given point in time.)

By the time the conference was over, I was determined to go home and try this technology out on my own. I’d noticed the MovableType link on a number of the sites I’d visited, and I liked the idea of a package I could install and play with on my own server. So upon my return, I downloaded and installed MT into my RIT account, and wrote my first post. (I chose the title mamamusings on a whim, not realizing it would become inextricably linked with me and my online identity; after a year or so of posting to the blog, I finally registered the domain name and transfered my blog off of the RIT system.)

Then I started reading—voraciously. I jumped from blog to blog, soaking up the content and context, thinking about how the medium could be used in my research, in my teaching, in my personal life. I felt very much like Alice down the rabbit hole—it was exhilarating and overwhelming. Along the way, I stumbled upon Joi Ito’s weblog, and noticed he’d posted about a scary “Aspartame is poison” email he’d received. I didn’t know Joi at all, but I commented on his site, and then wrote my own response to his post on my site—my first exposure to trackback technology, since my post automatically “pinged” Joi’s site to tell him that I’d mentioned his post. Much to my delight, this resulted in him visiting my site and commenting on that post—as well as on another post.

Suddenly my experiment in blogging had gone from a monologic to a dialogic form—not only could I “scribble on the walls” of other people’s sites, the walls were talking back. It didn’t take me long to realize how powerful these tools could be in the classroom, so I started making plans to use blogs (MT, specifically) as a context for teaching my upcoming web design class. That first quarter I started with a class blog on which all students had posting privileges, along with having each student create their own blog for posting their in-class exercises and thoughts on the reading. I used that model in my web design class, as well as in my xml class.

In the web design class, the individual student blogs turned out to be an excellent tool for teaching concepts like CSS and CGI. And in both classes, the dialog was greatly enhanced by the appearance in our comments by authors of books and articles we were reading. But the multiple authors on one class blog approach didn’t work well in either class, so I discarded that approach. Instead, over the summer I rethought the role of the course blog, and developed the first version of the MT-courseware I’ve been working on.

I wasn’t just thinking about blogs in my classes, though—I was also thinking a lot about how blogs could help me to make connections in the context of doing research. I felt very isolated at RIT, which is a teaching institution that has only recently started prioritizing research as a faculty activity. It’s very hard to do research if you don’t have a critical mass of people to work with—senior colleagues with research experience in your field, graduate students interested in working in your area. I had neither—so weblogs provided me with a way to build an “invisible college” that could help me develop research-related connections, support, and visibility. Alex Halavais and I experimented with using a blog to record our NSF grant proposal process, which was helpful in many ways (even though we didn’t get funded).

Along with the external links and relationships I was forming, I was also getting a chance to write regularly for the first time since I’d been a graduate student. Having a regular outlet for “thinking out loud” turned out to be extremely valuable to me. I’m a classic “talk it out” extrovert in terms of thought processes, and the blog community I was becoming a part of provided a wonderful context for doing just that. The combination of the informality of lightweight publishing and the immediate distributed peer review and feedback on ideas that blogs encourage was just the right balance for me.

This for me is really the power of weblogs for academics—and often for students, as well. It’s not about weblogs replacing journals, or becoming mass media outlets, or creating a huge personal audience. It’s about finding and maintaining a community of like-minded thinkers—inside and outside of academia—who can be part of an ongoing conversation. As Anil points out, it’s not about popularity, or being at the top of the power law curve. It’s about being part of a community, part of an ongoing conversation.

Posted at 11:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (10) | TrackBack (5)
more like this: conferences | on blogging | research | teaching
Liz sipping melange at Cafe Central in Vienna