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Blogging. One way of taking science online

Your advice for young academics concerning starting and continuing blogging was to simply do it, to enjoy it, but to be careful. What risks and dangers do you see?

The first thing I do when looking at job applications to work with me is think „do I know this person“. If I don’t know them physically - do I know them digitally. If I haven’t seen them wade in to discussions online, why? If I haven’t heard their name mentioned or seen their twitter handle - why not? If their CV is strong, I will Google them, to have a look to see what their online presence is like. I’m interested in working with people that live and breathe digital culture. You can tell if people do pretty instantly by looking at what they get up to online. But that’s just my field, and the kind of things we do. We expect people to be engaged with social media and to be open about their research activities and to be actively using the kind of technologies we talk about in our research.

In general, though, I’d suggest younger folks to be careful about what they are putting online. I had a high old time as a student, singing in bands, dancing on tables, out all night with the best of them. I’m lucky that I wasn’t documenting these escapades on twitter then, which could be looked at now - I wouldn’t change my time for the world, but it was a time when things weren’t shared on Facebook and twitter and what happens at band camp stays at band camp (I didn’t go to band camp, but you understand). There have been a few occasions when we have looked at potential students or potential employees and gone… really? You didn’t take that down? You let that story still be up there? - So it’s just a case of maintaining a distance, and not oversharing. Learning boundaries. Setting up other accounts that won’t be tied to your professional identity if you choose to show pictures of you indulging in strange or anti-social behaviour, that kind of thing. Keep your eyes on the horizon and play the long game.

Keeping you private life private and be aware that every single click and step you make in the world wide web can be traced back easily is a very good tip when starting to blog. So after „cleaning-up“ your virtual identity the blogging can finally start, but how much time should be spend on the actual blogging and the research for the blog-entries? The daily life of young academics seems to be packed with classes or working on their thesis, what advises can you give for integrating blogging productively into your personal daily schedule?

The „how much time you should spend blogging“ in an interesting one. I struggled at first to know what I was supposed to be doing - how much time should I spend doing it? How often is enough? And settled, for me, that posting once a week (at least) is an appropriate level of time to spend on my blog. I really *should* have something to write about once a week as well, whether a fun thing or a more serious thing - if I am living this academic life, I really should have an opinion once a week or so?. So I spent about an hour, once a week, putting up a blog post. It’s generally an evening thing that I do, when at home (when I work in the evenings I try to do „fun“ things rather than admin things). I also travel quite a fair bit with my work and I find hotel rooms are a good place to write the longer blog posts - when you are alone in a city on an evening, and don’t quite fancy exploring on your own late, it beats watching rubbish TV. So blogging is generally on my to do list, once a week.

That said, I do maintain a vague list of things that I can blog about, and as more and more people read my blog I do find myself thinking „I should blog about that!“ as I go through my day to day business - and I think that is the key (as in most things in academia) to keep your antennae up for interesting things flying by. Blogging has become less of a chore for me now, now that I don’t have to necessarily think of what my weekly post will be, as I have had the idea for the blog post at another time. I currently have 5 or 6 posts that I need to write, but will get there gradually…

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht said recently: „Keeping what we have found a secret is in the humanities completely senseless.“ But what’s the case when a graduate student posts the state of work on his dissertation on a blog and might publish discoveries from archives in advance? Do you see any danger in this? After all, anyone could exploit the content.

It’s a question of voice, and tone. Just because you are on social media doesn’t mean that you have to share everything all the time. For example, if I’m down in the archives looking at some cool stuff, I might tweet a picture of some cool stuff - or just the archives - but I certainly wouldn’t say „the reason I am here is to look more closely at this archival matter which no-one else has looked at and I think is wonderfully important!“ - why would I ruin the research scoop? So its about knowing at what point you are putting a stake in the ground to say „I am the person working on this!“ by putting up blog-posts, etc, and knowing when not to share the details and research that you really should be publishing elsewhere. And once it is published - then that is where and when you can use your social media presence to share it.

So I think its about raising an awareness of appropriate behaviour online, and what to keep to yourself, and what to broadcast, when it comes to your research. In general, go with your gut instinct - if you wouldn’t show a „competitor“ researcher this down the pub, why would you show it off on your blog? There are ways to talk about things without giving away the goods, and ways to show you are have seen interesting things without giving your key research finds away.

The interaction with others, perhaps even established scientists, is especially for young scientists very important. However, comments on scientific blogs are rare or not happening at all. Your blog does not suffer from to less comments. How do you explain that?

I think it depends what kinds of posts are being made, and what kinds of questions you are asking of the reader. Lots of people read blogs, only a few will ever comment on them, and I find twitter a much better place if you actually want to have a conversation about your current research. Just because people aren’t commenting on blogs, though, doesn’t mean that they are not worth writing - or reading. It takes quite a lot of effort to write a proper reply to a blog post - if people haven’t replied or commented on a blog, have they raised questions? Have they asked opinions? Is the blog post itself starting a dialogue?

What other scientific blogs do like to read and what do you appreciate on them?

I don’t follow any other blogs religiously. It’s not like in the old days when you had your RSS reader and kept a list of the blogs you should be following every week. I mostly rely on twitter to make interesting things rise to the top - if someone tweets something interesting, I’ll click through, but if 3 or 4 people tweet something that doesn’t look interesting to me on first look, I’ll click through. In that vein, there is the Digital Humanities Now aggregation service which points out the most important posts in my field, and that is good to keep track of. I also like which aggregates hundreds of digital humanities blogs into one stream. Apart from that, I really depend on twitter showing me interesting blog posts - not interesting blogs per se! - the thought of following one source in particular is now a bit alien to me… too used to dipping in the stream that is social media!

Thank you very much for the interview, Melissa!

Melissa Terra’s blog is entitled „Melissa Terra’s Blog. Adventures in Digital Humanities and digital cultural heritage. Plus some musings on academia“. You find her on twitter here.

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