Thoughts on Blogging in the Guise of Suggestions to Prof. Macfarlane

I notice that Prof. Macfarlane has several “experiments” with new media. I was going to send him my thoughts, but decided I’d post them here instead.

Two of his experiments are blogs. One called How the World Works is a restatement of parts of his book Letters to Lily, which is a book written in the form of letters to his teenage granddaughter. The other is entitled Hammer of Evil. In his words, It imagines what two medieval Inquisitors who wrote the very influential anti-witchcraft manual, ‘The Hammer of Evil’ (Malleus Maleficarum), might advise the current leaders who are pursuing what they proclaim to be a ‘war on terror’.” The first of these is interesting enough, but I have already read the book. The second one I do not care for since I do not believe the people waging the war against terrorism in the UK or the USA are deluded men fighting imaginary enemies like the witch-hunters of the Middle Ages apparently were. On that subject Prof. Macfarlane, for all his brilliance, loses me entirely.

But, without regard to the substance of these two blogs, I think the good professor is missing some key elements of what makes a blog “work”. Of course, at its most basic level, a blog is like a scrolling piece of paper with posts on it. It can be about anything or random things or nothing or just photos. It is a blank slate.

However, as the term has come to be used a blog usually has certain characteristics. The main one, in my view, is that its writer or writers are conducting a conversation. The blog is part of a dialogue with the larger world.

A blog, in its essence, as the term has come to be understood and employed, is an extended and ongoing conversation.

A blog, to be part of such a conversation, has to reach out, to link to others, to become part of a larger, ongoing conversation, or community engaged in a variety of conversations.

In a blog without comments, you have, strictly speaking, a monologue. But even there the discussion is usually centered around links to other blogs or articles or other material on the Net, so the element of conversation is there.

Often a blog has a blogroll. This indicates the general universe of other bloggers or sources that the blog is alert to and is in some kind of dialogue with. Sometimes a group of such blogs form a sort of informal community, as I described here.

This is an important part of the whole process. The point of blogging is to get readers and get them to respond to you, or at least read your thoughts, and this requires you to reach out and engage with others, provoke them to want to read you, and either suffer or enjoy the responses you get from them.

Of course, a blog may, like ours, have comments, which allows an immediate back-and-forth. Policing comments is a challenge, since comments can descend quickly into pointless insults, off-point speech-making, ideological ranting, and other repugnant things. Having a webmaster pre-cull the comments is good if you can afford to have that kind of help, as Tom Barnett has Sean do for his blog. Another alternative is to allow posters to police the comments to their own posts, as we do here, with Jonathan residing on Olympus, with the Jovian lightning bolt ever-ready, watching over the whole thing. Prof. Macfarlane might be able to get tech support from his University, or get some money to hire a grad student to be his webmaster and babysit his comments. He should not have to do that himself. His time is too valuable. Nonetheless, I think that comments add a lot of value to the blog, and create a community of “back benchers” who can offer critiques, suggestions and insights, and who can even sometimes be recruited to become posters on the blog.

Also, a blog may be a group blog and have multiple people posting, which allows another dimension of dialogue. Co-bloggers riff on each other, to some degree.

The group of co-bloggers may be committed to a particular range of topics, such as law or economics, or be allowed wide latitude, such as we have here.

Additionally, posts on blogs tend to be relatively brief, timely and ephemeral. There is a blog “tone”. Posts tend to be colloquial and discursive and free to offer opinions and speculations where a more formal setting would not allow such things. The tone need not be at all “academic” or “objective” but may be flippant or vehement or bitter or whimsical as the writer feels the urge. For all that, they may be and often are serious, scholarly, thoughtful, well-informed and informative.

Our own blog has a mix of short posts and longer posts, often from James McCormick and John Jay and Ginny, and sometimes Shannon. Of course, a long post is an investment by the reader, and the writer has to have the confidence that a person will sit still for a long post. Caveat Auctor. The mix I think helps add variety to the blog, and our mates here can usually pull it off.

I think the key aspect of engagement and dialogue is missing from Prof. Macfarlane’s initial blog ventures.

This means they are blogs in form but not in function, as that has come to be understood.

In other words, he has two blogs, but he is not yet blogging.

As I thought about it, I asked myself, what would I like to see on a blog from Prof. Macfarlane?

I think what I would like to see is a little bit of insight into what he is working on day by day. A glimpse into the apparatus of the scholar’s world. Shorter posts, maybe, but referring to the issues he has written about and what new things he is reading and learning and teaching and discussing, and what places he is going and who is visiting him at Cambridge from various places. I know he is finishing up a book about Japan, and planning one on China. Posts about the process of getting a book out, or researching this or that point that needs to be nailed down. All that is interesting. He could have posts showing us around his site, about this or that paper he wrote some years ago, or pointing out this or that film he has on his site or on You Tube, or tell us how his late teacher Prof. Ernest Gellner might have thought about this or that current question, or how the Nepalese do things differently from the English, etc., etc., etc.

Less formality, more discursiveness, more free play, more posts ending with questions which provoke responses from the reader. That, in my view, would have not only the form but the spirit of a “blog” and would be very valuable coming from him.

As I think about it some more, I’d like to see a blog from him have some focus, not an exclusive focus, on the Great Question: Why the West? Why England? Why modernity? And: How did it happen? These questions constitute the grand theme uniting most of his writing. He has touched on the cultural, legal, familial, technological underpinnings of modernity, and their origins in England specifically. This is what drew me to his work, this is where he has expertise and this is where I consistently learn things from his writing.

To me the absolute ideal would be a group blog, with Prof. Macfarlane and some of his colleagues and collaborators who have taken on this Great Question, like Gerry Martin (co-author of Glass: A World History), and Joel Mokyr (a rock star in our small world, and we eagerly await his forthcoming book about the Industrial Revolution), perhaps Prof. Macfarlane’s former student Emmanuel Todd, who is an expert on family structure and its impact, maybe others. Prof. Macfarlane is the center of a large circle of contacts, and has the credentials and credibility to enlist top-drawer people for a group blog. Nor is it unheard of for very highly regarded scholars to have blogs which function in more or less orthodox fashion as blogs — e.g. the Becker – Posner blog, featuring a Nobel Prize winning economist, and one of the most influential legal scholars of our age. And we know that many people only post once or twice and then don’t bother again, so a group blog needs to have a fairly large cast to generate a constant stream of good posts.

No busy person can keep a blog active by himself, unless he has a monumental work ethic and is a very fast typist. Glenn Reynolds and Tom Barnett and Wretchard are a source of amazement to all of us. A group blog would allow Prof. Macfarlane to desist from posting for blocks of time without letting the blog “go dead”, which causes readers to give up and all momentum in building readership to be lost.

Group blogs organized around a large theme allowing free play between the people posting seems to me to be the best kind of blog to have. I certainly enjoy participating in one.

Perhaps this approach is one that Prof. Macfarlane will add to his group of experiments. He has blessed us with a lot of excellent material on the Web.

But we are insatiable. We want more, always more.

So, I say, we need one more blog from him, where he is actually “blogging”, as part of team, on top of everything else.

6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Blogging in the Guise of Suggestions to Prof. Macfarlane”

  1. Excellent observations as always Lex. I am the Zeus of my blog, a small group blog. Even with a small readership as mine has you have to be on it ALL THE TIME. I would be afraid someone with a wide readership such as McFarlane would have to hire someone to police his blog and that would make it untenable.

    Blogs with comments are inherently more interesting, as you noted – but again, they must be policed closely and constantly.

    An alternative may be for McFarlane to create a blog that has commenters who are invited only, such as Midas Oracle, a blog where I like to comment.

    That way, if you know who you are inviting and who can and cannot comment you may be able to post more freely and not have to worry about trolls. The downside is that you never meet anyone new.

  2. Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream
    Bringing It All Back Home

    I was riding on the Mayflower
    When I thought I spied some land
    I yelled for Captain Arab
    I have you understand
    Who came running to the deck
    Said, “Boys, forget the whale
    Look on over yonder
    Cut the engines
    Change the sail
    Haul on the bowline”
    We sang that melody
    Like all tough sailors do
    When they are far away at sea

    * * *

    Well, the last I heard of Arab
    He was stuck on a whale
    That was married to the deputy
    Sheriff of the jail
    But the funniest thing was
    When I was leavin’ the bay
    I saw three ships a-sailin’
    They were all heading my way
    I asked the captain what his name was
    And how come he didn’t drive a truck

    He said his name was Columbus
    I just said, “Good luck.”

  3. Indeed one of the most frustrating aspects of the blogosphere is the occasional blog that presents excellent analysis or content and yet doesn’t offer the forum of commentary. As though the author is “above” such mundane factors of reciprocal discourse.

  4. For some of the longer posts lately, I’ve really appreciated the print option. Sure, that isn’t the blog as conversation but as discussion group – a gathering at an eighteenth century chocolate house. Or maybe Franklin’s Juno club or The Lunar Men. (Subtitle: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World – doesn’t that sound like bloggers?) I think Dutton was alluding to that similarity to the eighteenth century when he set up A&L to look like a broadsheet from that era. Of course, his is not a blog. But, I’m not sure what it is.

    Or perhaps, clutching McCormick’s review, I’m like one of those old radicals, trying to get friends to read “some literature” pulled from a rumpled raincoat.

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