U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Blogging Academic Knowledge Part 2: Networking on the Net

About a year ago I began my relationship with this blogging community in a post entitled, Blogging Academic Knowledge Part 1. It was supposed to be the beginning of a series of posts on the nature and purpose of academic blogging. I asked whether the blog form itself undermined academic authority and wondered whether academic blogs were designed to extend knowledge to a broader public, to expand discussion in a way that invited the public as participants in academic debate, or to connect academics in new ways by extending existing disciplinary communities and connections. Given the perils of the web, including political polarization, the undermining of reasoned discourse, the lack of institutional mechanisms to distinguish legitimate knowledge claims from specious ones, I wondered, “What kind of institutional mechanisms, disciplinary practices, and professional standards could safeguard academics’ claim to expert knowledge while reaching out to the public through blogs? Is there a way to tap the potential of blogs while mitigating their drawbacks?” I proposed to investigate these sorts of questions on this blog.

Then I got distracted and failed to follow through on the discussion. But as I write many of my colleagues are gathering in Grand Rapids for the first U.S. Intellectual History Conference. It is the culmination of a movement, begun by Tim Lacy, to strengthen the U.S. intellectual history sub-discipline through the use of Web 2.0 technologies and the more conventional networks of scholarly exchange and collaboration. I am, alas, not able to make it to the conference this year, so while I thought of my colleagues in Grand Rapids, I decided I would return to my original questions about the uses and limitations of blogs that I raised in my first post.

One of the most powerful uses of academic blogging is the creation and strengthening of professional communities. Phil Agre, associate professor of information studies at UCLA, first alerted me to this. Among other things, Agre specializes in the way that information technology organizes knowledge and the people and institutions that create knowledge. His website offers a list of his many publications and other links of interest. But what I want to highlight is his nearly book-length manuscript, offered free on the web, called Networking on the Network. It is a primer for those in graduate school and even those beyond on how professional communities operate, how to gain access to them, how to use them to build collaborative knowledge projects, and how to utilize the newest information technologies to aid in that endeavor. This manuscript was completed before Web 2.0 and the advent of blogs, but he has salient things to say about what we are trying to do here on this blog and has been useful to me since I started reading him a few years ago. (Also useful is his shorter piece, How to Be a Leader in Your Field.)

One of his most profound claims is his most basic: “the Internet-world is part of reality.” The people who post, the people who are posted about, and the people who read the posts are people who exist not just in the virtual world but in space and time. Among the many activities that the Internet allows, Agre claims that the thing that lays beneath everything is “the activity of building and maintaining professional relationships. Electronic communication is wasted unless we use it to seek out, cultivate, and nurture relationships with other human beings.” In that sense, his purpose is not explain the working of technological networks, but the task of professional networking itself.

He is eager to dispel the notion that professional networking is grubby or careerist. People exist in communities. Knowledge grows out of communities. The solitary person thinking about the world is more likely to be the Unibomber than Immanuel Kant. “Research of all kinds depends critically on intensive and continually evolving communication among people engaged in related projects,” Agre explains. “Networking cannot substitute for good research, but good research cannot substitute for networking either.”

Networks are not perfect because people are not perfect. The Internet can accentuate some of the worst aspects of networks, which Agre does not necessarily address. It can hinder the production of knowledge by furthering the decline of incivility and spreading rumors, innuendo, and scandal. All this is part of scholarly networks already, of course, as any visit to a major conference will confirm (see also David Lodge’s brilliant and satirical novels, Small World and Changing Places). But blogs and the Internet accelerate and even intensify the phenomenon. One example here might be the now-defunct gossip blog, The Broad-Gauge Gossip, which we have already discussed. Hiding behind the veil of anonymity, the pseudonymous Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce III took aim at any number of academics with style, verve, and panache, but also without a clear agenda or purpose except the pleasure of doing it. Blogs and the Internet can increase the ability of academics to mob one another, in other words, for the group to gang up on a single and therefore defenseless individual. A Chronicle of Higher Education article summarizes the work of Kenneth Westhues, a sociology at the University of Waterloo, who has studied the way that departmental groups select targets in their midst to mob. Gary Olson, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences as Illinois State, also recently commented on the phenomenon. By accelerated the formation of networks, the Internet can intensify the ability of mobs to form. Given this reality, the possibility for a single person to hide behind the veil of anonymity (like AHB III) can also be a haven and a means of empowerment to resist the mob through satire, ridicule, and even (though altogether too infrequently) reason.

Yet even with its dangers, the Internet and blogs also accelerate the process of productive scholarly networks, which is indispensable to the production of knowledge. I won’t digest any more of Agre’s claims other than to note that he is clear on one point: the Internet is part of reality but it is an incomplete part. It can be essential to networking, but unless and until it culminates in a sit-down meeting of two human beings in real time and space (preferably with a beverage or meal), it is not fully real. Professional networks require real people to collaborate. Since people have bodies that collaboration cannot be considered fully functional until those two bodies exchange words in a non-technologically mediated way. That is the purpose of the U.S. Intellectual History conference now in process. Since I am not in Grand Rapids, on my end the scholarly network created by this blog is not fully real so I will have to close with a technologically communicated well-wishing to my colleagues: Happy networking. I hope to meet you all in person soon. -DS