Monday, August 14, 2006

Academic Blog = Friend of Information, Enemy of Thought?

This site is meant to distribute short, not-ready-for-formal-publishing essays, ostensibly about urban planning research. But one could fairly ask if the venue suits the tactic. Indeed, does a self-published spiel amount to more than a hill of beans in this crazy mixed up world, given its pronounced lack of editors, deadlines, referees or, really, any adult supervision whatsoever?

To start, there is the marketplace of ideas rationale. Yet with everyone having access to their own virtual printing press (50 million and counting), the way the marketplace does business may be changing. As the petty and trivial compete mightily with the substantive, and the French, all this product raises a transaction cost question of how to find the time or effort to separate the wheat from the chaff. ("The average blogger is a 14-year-old girl writing about her cat.") Relatedly, information is assembled and accessed faster than it can be usefully organized.

It is unclear to me what this means for academic discourse, in planning or any field, so I remain sanguine for no clear reason. English professor Alan Jacobs is more certain: Academic blogs are "the friend of information but the enemy of thought."

He writes that at some point, via his RSS feeds, he "became excited by the idea that the blogosphere could be a great venue for the exchange and development of ideas." In part, this was because it appeared to both offer and reward more risk taking by academics. He continues,

As a member of the professoriate, I had long since gotten frustrated with the game-playing and slavishly imitative scholarship of the official academic world—all choreographed in advance by the ruthless demands of the tenure system—and I thought that the blogs could provide an alternative venue where more risky ideas could be offered and debated, where real intellectual progress might take place outside the System.

He offers several examples of this kind of success in his field and then raises several subsequent problems.

One category is ill-considered or doggedly aggressive comments. Another is harm to one's career, now that several faculty have perhaps been denied tenure or other appointments based in part on their blogs.

As confirmation this can happen, another writes (pseudonymously) in the Chronicle of Higher Education that "Bloggers need not apply." To the degree web logs are open diaries, spilling guts, it is easy to see how they may offer way too much information. To the extent academic appointments can turn on controversial views, as we well know they can, this medium is far more public, and even publicized, than how our views are otherwise communicated. (Unless you regularly appear on CNN or Fox.) Especially if you give authority figures cause to google you by asking them for a job.

But I am more sensitive to another, structural issue that Jacobs raises, namely the difficulty of engaging in useful and productive on-line conversations when participants have no fixed schedule or authoritative process for doing so. Say you become aware of a provocative blog entry by a Nobel prize winner on the regulation of big box retail, a topic on which you have both expertise and interest, but do so only some weeks after it was written and roundly debated. It may now be too late to play but, if they have a life, who has the time to monitor such things?

The architecture of the internet requires a certain urgency, Jacobs concludes, that makes it "woefully deficient" as a vehicle "for the development of ideas." In particular, he regrets "the conversion of really good scholars into really lousy journalists. With few exceptions, posts at the 'academic' or 'intellectual' blogs I used to frequent have become the brief and cursory announcement of opinions, not the free explorations of new and dynamic thinking."

That is, by shifting their focus from scholarly content to just plain content, scholars regress to the internet equivalent of gabby radio talk show hosts. He calls this "an architectural deficiency" in the internet infrastructure.

Perhaps, but I suppose that is somewhat up to you and me. Better access to planning research materials is probably terrific. Additional interaction among scholars outside conferences and journals could be grand. Formats that encourage scholarly risk-taking might be good too.

Constructive remedies may be available for some problems. To partly address information overload and chaos, several academic fields have started so-called Carnivals, (e.g., here's one for History), aka the periodicals of the blogosphere. They mainly appear to provide a central source for web links to relevant research activity. The wikipedia definition for blog carnival reads, "A blog article that contains links to other articles covering a specific topic. Most blog carnivals are hosted by a rotating list of frequent contributors to the carnival, and serve to both generate new posts by contributors and highlight new bloggers posting matter in that subject area."

As important as it has been over the years, the Planet listserv for planning academics now fills these new roles rather unevenly, I think. For example, I posted the Economist article below on Planet, filling the BlackBerries of many uninterested, when it fits far better here in this little marketplace niche. (Hey, at least I've refrained from submitting self-referential quotes to Starbucks and onto your cup.)

Keep on Blogging!

Other questions remain about the impact of academic blogging. Will it crowd out traditional academic outlets, or suck up our time? As instructional and advisory materials become more widely available, will that have implications for the relative value of studying at one school versus another? And, again, why blog? For fame and fortune? The public good?

From the August 3rd Economist, "Economists' blogs: The invisible hand on the keyboard"

Why do economists spend valuable time blogging?

“CLEARLY there is here a problem of the division of knowledge, which is quite analogous to, and at least as important as, the problem of the division of labour,” Friedrich Hayek told the London Economic Club in 1936. What Mr Hayek could not have known about knowledge was that 70 years later weblogs, or blogs, would be pooling it into a vast, virtual conversation. That economists are typing as prolifically as anyone speaks both to the value of the medium and to the worth they put on their time.

Like millions of others, economists from circles of academia and public policy spend hours each day writing for nothing. The concept seems at odds with the notion of economists as intellectual instruments trained in the maximisation of utility or profit. Yet the demand is there: some of their blogs get thousands of visitors daily, often from people at influential institutions like the IMF and the Federal Reserve. One of the most active “econobloggers” is Brad DeLong, of the University of California, Berkeley, whose site,, features a morning-coffee videocast and an afternoon-tea audiocast in which he holds forth on a spread of topics from the Treasury to Trotsky.

So why do it? “It's a place in the intellectual influence game,” Mr DeLong replies (by e-mail, naturally). For prominent economists, that place can come with a price. Time spent on the internet could otherwise be spent on traditional publishing or collecting consulting fees. Mr DeLong caps his blogging at 90 minutes a day. His only blog revenue comes from selling advertising links to help cover the cost of his servers, which handle more than 20,000 visitors daily.

Gary Becker, a Nobel-prize winning economist, and Richard Posner, a federal circuit judge and law professor, began a joint blog in 2004. The pair, colleagues at the University of Chicago, believed that their site,, would permit “instantaneous pooling (and hence correction, refinement, and amplification) of the ideas and opinions, facts and images, reportage and scholarship, generated by bloggers.” The practice began as an educational tool for Greg Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard and a former chairman of George Bush's Council of Economic Advisers. His site,, started as a group e-mail sent to students, with commentary on articles and new ideas. But the market for his musings grew beyond the classroom, and a blog was the solution. “It's a natural extension of my day job—to engage in intellectual discourse about economics,” Mr Mankiw says.

With professors spending so much time blogging for no payment, universities might wonder whether this detracts from their value. Although there is no evidence of a direct link between blogging and publishing productivity, a new study* by E. Han Kim and Adair Morse, of the University of Michigan, and Luigi Zingales, of the University of Chicago, shows that the internet's ability to spread knowledge beyond university classrooms has diminished the competitive edge that elite schools once held.

Top universities once benefited from having clusters of star professors. The study showed that during the 1970s, an economics professor from a random university, outside the top 25 programmes, would double his research productivity by moving to Harvard. The strong relationship between individual output and that of one's colleagues weakened in the 1980s, and vanished by the end of the 1990s.

The faster flow of information and the waning importance of location—which blogs exemplify—have made it easier for economists from any university to have access to the best brains in their field. That anyone with an internet connection can sit in on a virtual lecture from Mr DeLong means that his ideas move freely beyond the boundaries of Berkeley, creating a welfare gain for professors and the public.

Universities can also benefit in this part of the equation. Although communications technology may have made a dent in the productivity edge of elite schools, productivity is hardly the only measure of success for a university. Prominent professors with popular blogs are good publicity, and distance in academia is not dead: the best students will still seek proximity to the best minds. When a top university hires academics, it enhances the reputations of the professors, too. That is likely to make their blogs more popular.

Self-interest lives on, as well. Not all economics bloggers toil entirely for nothing. Mr Mankiw frequently plugs his textbook. Brad Setser, of Roubini Global Economics, an economic-analysis website, is paid to spend two to three hours or so each day blogging as a part of his job. His blog,, often concentrates on macroeconomic topics, notably China. Each week, 3,000 people read it—more than bought his last book. “I certainly have not found a comparable way to get my ideas out. It allows me to have a voice I would not otherwise get,” Mr Setser says. Blogs have enabled economists to turn their microphones into megaphones. In this model, the value of influence is priceless.
* “Are Elite Universities Losing Their Competitive Edge?” by E. Han Kim, Adair Morse and Luigi Zingales. NBER working paper 12245, May 2006.

1 comment:

Deden Rukmana said...

I really enjoy reading this post. Thank you for your work. In many ways, you have inspired me to create a blog and this post particularly convinces me that the blogsphere is friend of academics.


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