Blogger Buzz: Best Blogging Advice

The official Twitter for Google’s Blogger, @Blogger asked:

What’s the best blogging advice you’ve ever received?

I answered, and they posted.

I also sent a tweet about the absolutely brilliant post on blogging and conversation by Patrick Nielsen Hayden.

Effective blogging is a combination of good personal writing and smart party hosting. A good blog post can be a sentence long, or three pages long; what matters is that it encourages further conversation.

And, not to be overlooked:

Talk to the rest of us like we’re human beings at an interesting social event. If you feel like you’re up at a lectern on a big stage, reconsider. Tor.com aspires to be a room party, not Carnegie Hall. Circulate and talk.

Go read the whole post.

On The Use of Sources, Citations, and Links

As educators, we spend a great deal of time trying to teach students how to research, how to use sources, and, perhaps most importantly of all, how to tell a good source from a bad one. I know how to help students do this in person, where we can work with lots of practical examples; I used to think it was possible to actively teach source evaluation online. I’ve created guides and handouts on source evaluation, as well as linked to other guides, like this one on “Evaluating Web Pages: Techniques to Apply & Questions to Ask” from UC Berkeley.

Of late, I’ve grown less sure that it’s possible to teach resource evaluation remotely, and more sure that it’s a skill that many people desperately need.

I’ve spent the last year working as a paid blogger. I’m writing about a variety of subjects in which I have some expertise, and I’m blogging much as I do on my own sites. I strive for accuracy and specificity, I provide citations, and I link to solid sources.

But my peers are much less likely to link to sources, or provide citations; and when they do link to a source, more often than not, it’s one that I’d identify as a resource to avoid. I note that most, if not all, my blogging colleagues are college educated, and many have graduate degrees. But increasingly, I’m noticing not only my colleagues’ blog posts have citation problems, but others’ blog posts and articles by professional journalists (both on line and in print), and discussion forum posts that demonstrate that the writers can’t actually tell if a resource is decent, or utter crap.

Here’s an example of a source a fellow paid blogger linked to in a post about Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. The piece “Frankenstein: Themes, Images and Metaphor Birth, Biology and the Feminist Angle in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is from a Suite 101 site; pretty much anyone who is functionally literate in English can (and does) post on Suite 101. That’s generally true of most content sites, and I’m not meaning that as a slam; I think it’s a virtue. That said, there are problems with treating all content, from all sources, as equally valid. This piece opens with this sentences:

In 1818 Shelley created a much loved Gothic novel, Frankenstein, which she would use as a medium to present her ideas and thoughts on birth, biology and feminism. Birth is, for most women, considered to be one of the most important, precious and life-changing event ever to be experienced. Mary Shelley, in her novel Frankenstein took this theme and distorted it in order to produce one of the most famous gothic novels ever written.

There are some minor infelicities; much-loved needs a hyphen, Frankenstein isn’t the actual title of the novel, nor is it italicized as a title. But the real problem is that the ideas are trite, and that they are expressed as a string of prepositional phrases. There’s the ugly duplication in “ideas and thoughts,” and a fair amount of “hesitation” padding—“for most women,” “considered to be,” and then more synonym phrases—“precious and life-changing event ever to be experienced.”

And of course, there’s the paucity of thought inherent in the assertion itself—and the disconcerting agreement problem inherent in “considered to be one of the most” to modify “event,” in the singular.

No one is perfect, and heaven knows, I can’t spell or proof my own prose. I make mistakes all the time. But those two sentences were bad enough, given the absence of content, that I read them and wondered “who wrote this?”

The author is a grad student enrolled in a Comparative Literature M.A. program in London.

In other words, if you don’t know enough about Mary Shelley or her novel to realize that the piece is stupid, if you aren’t a sophisticated enough reader to know that the English is less than acceptable in terms of basic grammar and syntax (never mind style), then the author appears to have legitimate “credentials.”

I’m also noticing another issue related to an inability to evaluate a source; a phenomenon that researchers call the Dunning-Kruger Effect; that’s when “people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it” (Kruger, Justin and David Dunning. “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 77 no. 6 (1999): 1121–34). Essentially, as blogger Patrick Nielsen Hayden notes (quoting Kieran Healy):

[A]s a famous paper by Kruger and Dunning showed, people who are bad at what they do are generally also incapable of understanding that they suck&hmdasand this directly contributes to inflated self-perception. So, incompetence tends to make people cocky and people prefer cocky judgements over demonstrated expertise, which is pretty much the worst of both worlds.

On a community forum post recently, a mother explaining why she is against vaccination for her kids wrote:

I’ve read over thousands of pages of actual studies that were conducted on the individual adjuvents and attenuated viruses and bacterials. History of vaccines, of disease, demographics with a medical jargon book at hand if I didn’t understand something. I’ve read all the inserts to the vaccines, I’ve watched the vaccine (aka drug companies) companies. I’ve come to my conclusion that vaccination is not for me or mine.

This is someone who thinks Internet research—research she can’t understand without a specialized dictionary—gives her the same sort of qualifications as someone with an M.D. One reason I know that she isn’t an M.D. is that she gets basic science facts wrong, repeatedly, refers to outdated descriptions of how vaccinations are made, and thinks this site is a medically researched and scientifically valid site.

I don’t really have a solution on an individual level. But I do think one of the things we can do, all of us, as writers and educators, is keep providing better sources, better links and as kindly and gently as possible, point out why a particular citation is less than respectable. At least that way, by linking to good sources, we’ll eventually drive the lesser citations down in search engine rankings.

On "Serious" Blogging

New Kid on the Hallway drew my attention to this article in Inside Higher Ed by Jeff Rice.

Rice has two central points, I think, in his initial article. I say “I think” because the argument is less than coherent. Rice begins by referring to the “Ivan Tribble” articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, asserting that “Too many academic bloggers have taken Tribble and similar commentaries seriously” then makes an initial overture to his central point, his concern regarding “the general seriousness that has immediately encased a fairly novel form of writing.” He defines “seriousness” as “the over-hyped heaviness centered on this one particular type of writing.” This is his first point.

Next Rice segues to a red herring: the issue of anonymous blogging (discussed by Tribble) by academics using pseudonyms like “La Lecturess.” Rice argues that “these names re-enforce the burden of seriousness which has overtaken academic blogging. Writing a blog under a pseudonym is usually an argument that the only safe way for an academic to write publicly is to write anonymously.” He laments that “Lost in this seriousness are a number of quite amazing things blogging has provided writers”—he lists specific aspects of blogging, both those that relate to writing on the Web in general, like linking, that are easier because of blogging software, and those, like automatic archives, that are characteristic of blogs and blogging software. Rice asserts that this “seriousness” will lead to “stagnation.” He points to literary innovators Cervantes and Rousseau as models, and asserts that “finally academia has the opportunity to play with digital form, content, and genre in ways previously denied because of the difficulty of learning hypertext or setting up webspace on university servers.” This is his second point.

Rice closes by giving examples of “provocative and exciting weblogs,” like BoingBoing, or Wonderland, and then points to his own blog, Yellow Dog as a model via a disingenuous occultatio.

Rice seems unaware that blogs aren’t that novel; even the most parsimonious blog historian has to grant them a good six years of life—that’s an age on the Web. Moroever, it’s not like the weblog formats and features he finds novel exist as rhetorical oddities; blogs and blogging correspond with the traditional five divisions of rhetoric. Nor am I the only person to compare blogs and commonplace books or nineteenth century pamphlets.

In his contention that we take Tribble’s warnings too seriously, I wonder if Rice actually read the pieces in question. I’m also not sure who Rice is referring to by “we.” With respect to anonymous blogging, while I am not anonymous, it’s because I know that it’s time consuming and laborious to be truly anonymous on the ‘Net, and I’m too lazy. Familiarity with writing for the Web is part of my professional expertise in any case, and the drive for tenure is not likely to be part of my future. I’m lucky. Many of my blogging peers are less fortunate, and people have been fired for blogging. As Professor Nokes points out, there are anonymous bloggers that aren’t anonymous to me, but I take their decision to remain anonymous very seriously and consider their anonymity a matter of privacy and professional courtesy.

Regarding the “seriousness” of other bloggers, which strikes me as a slightly self-serving assertion on Rice’s part, it’s a little difficult to be sure what, exactly, he means. For instance, he refers to “academic bloggers,” but doesn’t indicate what he means by “academic.” Does he mean any professor, graduate student or faculty member who blogs? Does he mean people who blog about scholarly subjects? The blogs I read in my scholarly field, medieval studies, are often quite serious in tone and topic, but they are just as often humorous. Most of us are medievalists because we fell in love with our field, with the music, the languages, the literatures, the art, and the peoples, and that joy is an important part of our lives, our scholarships, and our blogs. I note that a fair number of medievalist bloggers do blog about our field—but we also blog about our outside interests, and our lives, to varying extents. I know several, anonymous and not, who have decidedly non-academic blogs about their hobbies, or their families. I think too that Rice misses the value of scholarly community in his dismissal of “seriousness.” Take, for example, what began as a semi-frivolous aside about an imaginary sheep DNA project on Professor Drout’s blog. But the response encouraged him to actually explore the project. That’s not anything like stagnation.

Rice exhorts us to “play” with the opportunities blogging gives us— yet he seems unaware that that’s exactly one reason many bloggers are anonymous— the anonymity gives them a safer place to engage in serio ludere. Rice even more surprisingly doesn’t seem to realize that the content and the presentation of a blog are two very different things, and that the presentation is ultimately controlled by the reader’s Web browser (Hint: if you have a blog with a style sheet that uses tiny type, or oddly colored text against a text-hostile background, I’m subverting your style sheet). Indeed, after his paragraph in praise of the features of blogs and blog software, the examples of innovative blogging Rice gives are all innovative in terms of content, not form. I also suspect he’s completely unaware of the often forgotten bastard child of blogging—the journal, perhaps best exemplified by LiveJournal; a fair number of “serious” and “academic” bloggers have a LiveJournal account for their less scholarly musings. In short, it seems to me that Rice is really saying not, “don’t take blogging so seriously,” but “why aren’t you all more like me?”

In his follow up post, Rice renders his argument even more confusing. He asks, via hypophora, if anonymity is an issue with respect to academic writing, and then answers “no.” I’d argue that he’s answering too quickly; sometimes anonymity may be an academic writing issue, especially for the non-tenured and the graduate student (both exceedingly common statuses for bloggers). Rice then asserts that anonymity isn’t so much an issue as “access” is. Rice says that “Because academic writing is just not as accessible as blogging. Google changed the interface of interaction in ways other search engines failed.” Rice argues that in order for him to “access” a fellow academic’s work he has to pay expensive journal subscription fees, or be at a school where a library has a current subscription and back issues, and possibly actually go to the library in question.

He’s introduced yet another red herring. “Access” has always been a problem, it’s part of the history of writing (you try toting all the tablets that make up Gilgamesh), a history that includes chained libraries, unwieldy manuscripts that weigh twenty pounds, and closed stacks. It’s not a matter of access (though I note that Rice would do well to explore the issue of access in terms of his own blog). But it might be an issue of Rice attempting to label bloggers, to pigeon-hole them as “academic” or “innovative,” or exhorting them to be more like him.

Weblog Usability

Jakob Nielsen posted an article on the top ten web log design flaws. Most of his suggestions were things I’ve been doing from the start, but two of them were new to me. He suggests a list of the “top posts,” or most popular posts; I’ve added a category on the side for that purpose, linking to the posts that show up most frequently in my referral logs. He also suggests a picture; that one, I’m still thinking about. It seems inappropriate to me, though I understand his reasoning, and I’m not qute sure how to place it in terms of layout. Maybe later.