April 9, 2008
Why Academics Should Blog...

As Sam Ford noted in a post earlier this week, The Chronicle of Higher Education, this week, features excerpts from my remarks at their Technology Forum earlier this year. In the talk, I described some of the ways that our program has deployed new media technologies to expand its outreach to the public and I have suggested some of the benefits to academic programs in embracing the potentials which these technologies offer for us to extend our roles as public intellectuals. Since much of this deals with this blog, it seemed only appropriate to share it with my readers on my blog and here on the C3 blog as well.

In the week after September 11, 2001, the students, faculty members, and alumni of the MIT Comparative Media Studies program rallied forces to create a Web site called (http://re:constructions). It was designed to provoke public reflection on the media's role in shaping our responses to national tragedies. Over the course of an intense weekend, students produced films, identified quotations, wrote essays, and contacted friends and family around the world. When the site went live, we had generated more than 100 separate entries, including reports on media responses to the attacks in more than 30 countries.

In many ways, re:constructions represented a turning point in our conception of the new graduate program, setting up a model for what might happen if we deployed the new technologies we studied as a vehicle for opening up a larger public conversation about media change. Today the comparative-media-studies home page (http://cms.mit.edu) hosts feeds from seven different blogs affiliated with our various research groups and faculty members. Our site regularly offers podcasts from conferences (like Futures of Entertainment and Media in Transition) and colloquia we hold at MIT. My own blog, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, attracts several thousand readers a day. We also recently made the decision to offer our masters' theses online so they can be read by researchers around the world. These efforts have had an impact on our relations with our current students, prospective students, alumni, faculty members, the news media, the general public, and other readers.

Current students. By design, students in our program come from many professional and disciplinary backgrounds, and will follow many career paths after they graduate. Early on, several students began to create blogs around their thesis projects -- in part to motivate them to write regularly, in part to get feedback on their ideas. Ilya Vedrashko, for example, started a blog called the Future of Advertising, which quickly became a favorite among industry insiders and reporters. The blog's visibility opened up new contacts and resources, which supported his research. Before long, he was also being courted by some of those companies for postgraduation jobs. Eventually, a major company created a position specifically for him.

Something similar has happened for subsequent student bloggers, who have gained visibility for their writing about "serious games", hip hop culture, music distribution, data visualization, and media policy. In each case, their work brought them into contact with key thinkers and professionals. Historically, scholars might develop a reputation as public intellectuals once they became senior statespeople in their fields; increasingly, younger researchers are using blogs as resources for reputation building, especially in cutting-edge fields that lack established authorities.

When I started my own blog, I was able to use it to showcase the writing of a broad range of students, allowing me to encourage them to refine class assignments into something that could be shared with a general readership. Several of my students have received invitations to publish their work based on the traffic they drew on my blog. Many graduate programs push their students toward academic publications, but we also see a value in helping students cultivate their skills as public intellectuals, finding ways to translate their ideas into a more citizenly discourse that speaks across disciplinary boundaries and communicates with a diverse audience.

When my blog first went live, a reader compared it with MIT's OpenCourseWare project, which makes material from the university's courses available online to the public. While OpenCourseWare allowed the public to view the content of an MIT education, the blogs offered a chance to witness the instructional process. Day by day the blogs unfold, offering a glimpse into the research culture and the ways we think about current issues in our field.

Running the blog feeds through the media-studies home page means that the site is continually refreshed without much conscious effort on the part of program administrators. Students become accustomed to checking our site daily, which means they are more likely to read other announcements we put up, thus enabling better information circulation.

Prospective students
. A rising percentage of the students we admit list these blogs as the primary way in which they learned about the media-studies program. New students come to us with a much sharper understanding of the strengths of our program and how their interests might align with our continuing research efforts. The blogs thus raise the number and quality of applicants, and may have had some impact on our yield -- the percentage of accepted candidates who enroll. New students are increasingly integrated into the life of the program well before they arrive in September.

Alumni. At a time when many universities are starting to think about the value of lifelong learning, alumni of the program continue to engage with our current faculty members and students long after they graduate. Just as we feature student work through our various blogs, blog posts may also emerge from tips from our alumni working in industries.

Faculty members. The blog posts represent what might be called "just-in-time scholarship," offering thoughtful responses to contemporary developments in the field. Because they are written for a general rather than specialized readership, these short pieces prove useful for teaching undergraduate subjects. We are seeing a growing number of colleagues using blog posts or podcasts as a springboard for classroom discussions and other instructional activities. Having developed a steady readership for such content, we are also able to use our blogs to showcase innovative ideas and research from colleagues around the world. Through my blog, I regularly offer interviews with other academics whose work touches my areas of interest. Some of those academics have started their own blogs, having enjoyed the public response to their interviews on my site.

Last summer I responded to signs of continuing gender conflicts in the field of "fan studies" -- the study of the grass-roots creative expression of fans of television, films, comics, and video games -- by hosting a series of paired conversations between male and female researchers working on the topic. The duos used emerging collaboration tools, such as Google Docs, to be able to construct dialogues that at times came from opposite corners of the globe. Altogether, more than 30 academics contributed to this forum over a six-month period. Many of those involved have gone on to propose panels for conferences or collaborate on book projects that emerged from their blog conversations.

The news media. Our blogs provide a platform from which we not only publicize our research findings and conferences, but also focus news-media interest on issues we think deserve greater attention. Historically, academics have been put in a reactive position, responding to questions from reporters. Blogging places academics in a more proactive position, intervening more effectively in popular debates around the topics they research.

Following up an interview with a blog post allows us to provide interested readers with more information or to correct misinformation. A portion of readers now seek additional information online when they encounter an interesting quotation from an academic in the press.

The general public. Our society is undergoing a phase of prolonged and profound media change, which is having an impact on every aspect of our lives. In this context, there is tremendous hunger for insights into the changing media landscape. As honest brokers of information, academics may be ideally situated to bridge these more specialized conversations. As a consequence, our various blogs attract readerships that extend well beyond the academic sphere -- public-school teachers trying to foster new-media literacy, creative people from the media industries seeking to understand shifts in consumer behavior, advertising executives looking for new models of engagement and participation, fans and "gamers" (those who participate in computer and video games) trying to understand the objects of their passion. Since the program has multiple blogs, we have been able to develop and maintain diverse constituencies of readers.

Readers. I started my own blog a few months before the release of my most recent book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York University Press, 2006). Over time, the blog has become central to the book's success. Most writers struggle to edit their books, often frustrated that interesting tidbits end up on the cutting-room floor. Having a blog gave me a place to publish outtakes from the book, nuggets that were interesting in their own right but clogged the flow of the argument. Another key frustration of anyone who writes about contemporary culture is that the world is changing so fast that certain details become out of date before a book sees print. Having a blog has allowed me to return to some of the case histories and explore those changes, as well as to extend the argument in order to deal with more-recent developments. I was able to flag aspects of the book that might appeal to different kinds of readers, and thus expand the potential market for the book over time. The global reach of the blog has helped generate interest in publishing translations of the book.

So how do you do these things? The crucial point is that running a blog is a commitment, and has to be understood as part of a larger set of professional obligations. When I first began blogging as an academic, I sought advice from other bloggers. They stressed that it was important to set a schedule for publication for your blog and stick with it. It mattered less whether you blogged once a week or once a day, so long as you were consistent in putting up material. Otherwise, on any given day it would be easy to miss a post. And over a period of time, giving over to that temptation would eventually push you out of blogging altogether. But setting deadlines and developing strategies for generating content during difficult periods insured a level of discipline that would allow one to maintain momentum over time.

Media studies as a discipline has been quick to embrace the potentials of new-media platforms as channels for sharing our research and scholarship. A growing number of junior and senior faculty members in our field are becoming bloggers. At the same time, media scholars are pooling their efforts to contribute to larger projects, such as the biweekly webzine Flow, which runs pieces on many aspects of contemporary television and digital culture, and In Media Res, which each day offers a short video clip and commentary by a leading media scholar.

These same strategies can be and are being adopted across a range of academic disciplines, as scholars make a greater commitment to circulate their findings more broadly and to respond to contemporary issues in a thoughtful and timely manner.