Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Future of this Blog

Note to readers: This post is intended to serve two audiences, both regular readers and also colleagues of mine in the graduate program in Rhetoric & Composition. To regular readers, I would ask that if a choice phrase or lengthy explanation seems out of character, it is due to an attempt to bridge the two audiences and nothing more. For my academic colleagues, the latter sections of this post may seem more relevant if you briefly familiarize yourself with the content on this blog over the past six months or so. I also apologize for the lengthiness of this post, but would appreciate your time and responses on this topic.

While I began reading Steven Shaviro’s Connected, I ultimately abandoned it not because it was uninteresting, but due to the way the book is constructed. Rather than having his arguments broken into chapters to help unify his ideas, he instead has incomplete arguments set apart by bold heading at about every 400 words. Shaviro’s use of science fiction as a lens through which to view the posthuman age in which we live is not only a nice conceit, but also an effective way to demonstrate the length between literary culture and technology, an argument that is seldom done well.

Yet I was and am unable to take in the work due to the short structure of passages, often which seem to merely be blog posts that Shaviro has just strung together to make a book. He has kept a fairly regular blog since 2002, and though I have thus far been unsuccessful in making a firm link between it and the book, it would be my guess that his scholarly book started on his blog and then was sold to the University of Minnesota Press as a scholarly work that would be eligible for gaining tenure, if Shaviro doesn’t already have it.

This process has started me thinking bout the process of turning a blog into a book and different ways that authors have done this successfully (or not so much), both in the realm of academia and the popular market. Of special interest to me would of course be the scholarly side for one day I hope myself to be seeking tenure, yet I also wonder at how my own blog here measures up to the types of blogs that have been successful. Therefore, this post will attempt to critique my own work with that of others, and perhaps inform changes I may want to make as I move into the future.

This week I read Chris Anderson’s acclaimed book, The Long Tail, essentially a piece about the changing nature of supply and demand (read scarcity) in a world in which there is a nearly infinite amount of shelf space on the internet. While Anderson’s book is targeted at the popular market and was published by Hyperion, a division of the Walt Disney Company, his argument is strong and likely could with slight modifications have been published by an academic press.

In the course of my reading, I learned that the book began with an article in Wired magazine, where Anderson if the editor. After its publication, the article became the most linked-to piece in the history of the magazine. As Anderson did research to expand it to book length, he used a blog to record his thoughts on his research as he completed it
, causing thousands of comments from intelligent readers expanding his arguments and enriching his research by providing information that they knew. Anderson wrote his book almost entirely offline, but the community that formed around his blog helped inform the writing and was a nontraditional resource for someone publishing such a book.

Where The Long Tail and Shaviro’s work differ in construction is easy to see. Whereas one gets the feeling that with little editing Shaviro stitched together 250 pages of blog entries, Anderson has taken all the arguments and research that he shared with on his blog and arranged them in a more typical book structure, with different arguments being separated by chapters, chapters whose average length is about twenty pages. Such a book is much easier to read that the pastiche of Shaviro’s Connected. What I am getting at is that Anderson’s model for turning a blog into a book was more effective for this reader and should likely be emulated by those trying to do the same.

As one might expect, I have begun to brainstorm ways I can use this space to advance my academic interests, perhaps not to the point where I try and assemble a book from various posts, but to stimulate discussions with others on topics that I find interesting. It’s widely known that one develops a clearer argument when another challenges him or her; I feel that I have not been challenged by the readers of this blog. That is no condemnation on them (these are some of my best friends), just an observation that either I am not writing for my current audience and/or the audience that would be interested in my output doesn’t know about it. I have begun to question my scattershot approach here, wondering if a more dedicated topic might help me attract a greater readership and provoke more discussion.

Though books like Connected and The Long Tail concern themes of great interest to me, there are many other blogs that have been turned into books as well. Blogs with a focused but consistent product have been the source of good transitions, most notably for me the work of Will Leitch in God Save the Fan, a collection of his content from Deadspin. Yet Leitch’s work focuses almost exclusively on the new wa
ve of sports journalism that rejects the assumptions of the old guard, most notably that being in the locker room before and after games gives a reporter more insight than someone sitting on their couch at home. His collection combines humor with his observations, and while his pieces may not fall within the normal restrictions of journalism, when compared with columnists he is better than most.

So what it seems like I am seeing over and over is that a blog with more consistent content may play better to the niche audiences that the internet of which the internet is made up. My approach on this site, blending commentary on the digitalization of traditional print with reviews of books, movies, and comics, may be too scattershot to draw the sort of audience I am really looking for. And like I will detail in a post tomorrow, this blog is violating one of the central tenets of Anderson’s thesis: ‘help me find it.’

Perhaps rather than worrying about unifying content, I should first be concerned with making this space known and available to a wider range of readers. That would likely be the first step to forming a community in which debate could be held with the intention of advancing my knowledge and as a result my academic career. Had I used this forum to post about my thesis ideas and received feedback, I might have been able to do more with it. As I move on in academia, I believe this will be worthy of consideration and the current climate should be moderated for changes. It is quite possible that rather than stitch together a string of posts like Shaviro or reorganize content from a blog into a traditional book format like Anderson, merely hosting and maintaining
a blog concerning my research interests will be of enough academic merit to count towards tenure in and of itself.

As this post suggests again and again, I urge all readers to add to their thoughts about this topic as well as suggest another platform that might help me achieve these goals easier than Google’s Blogspot.

8 comments:

steve-mollmann said...

The blog Language Log published a book, but I haven't read it. It sounds like, though, it is a compilation of the best blog posts. Their blog entries are so long, though, that they could easily make short-ish essays in a book format. Four hundred words is too little, I think, but several pages per "essay" would work. It wouldn't be your normal academic work, of course, but it could function.

I guess I would say that I rarely comment because I rarely feel that I can talk about what you're talking about. Our reading tastes come very close, I think, and we overlap in certain interests, but this rarely seems to overlap in actual books read. And sometimes, the ephemeral nature of blogs/the Internet hurts it. If you post something long and insightful, I might feel as though I should post something long and insightful in reply... and when I'm quickly scrolling down my LJ friends list, I'm not necessarily in the mood to do that!

How you can attract an audience to a blog is something I don't understand. I'd love it if my comics reviews were read and commented on by more people... but no one's going to subscribe to my blog to read my comics reviews when it means they also have to read about my teaching travails and my complaints about Elizabeth Gaskell novels. On the other hand, I don't really have a desire to have a whole second (or third) blog. Though I have toyed with it. How do people build blog audiences?

Jon Polk said...

Steve, your point about the ephemeral nature of blogs is a sound one, one that I hadn't necessarily considered. I am not faulting you nor anyone else that reads this blog for not commenting, but instead criticizing my own output for not appealing more to the audience I have nor being able to target the audience who would be interested in what I have produced thus far.

I too think our reading tastes are quite similar, but I believe our research interests to be very different. While you are a fan of 19th century and children's literature, I am more interested in the future of the book, images used in print texts, and the digitalization of print spaces. So it isn't surprising that we don't have a lot of discussions about specific issues.

What I would like to do is attract a larger readership with enough variation to allow for broad, intelligent discussions on any number of topics, specifically the sort of things I've already been writing about. My question is whether to narrow the content to attract a more specific set of readers who could help me learn through discussion of my own interests.

steve-mollmann said...

Oh, I know you're not faulting me, but all I can offer you is why I don't comment!

I don't think children's lit is an interest I'll be pursuing beyond my current seminar on it, except as it intersects with my interest in sf. That's something I'd be interested in following up on, and both of my papers for the class will probably deal with it.

Even if you narrow your content (and I'm not convinced you should), where do these readers come from? Blogs are so mysterious to me.

Jon Polk said...

I'm not convinced that I should change my content either, but I do want to increase readership. How can I do that? I'll have more on that tomorrow afternoon w/ another look at Anderson's The Long Tail.

But I think a good place to start would be to start interacting more with other sites that are focused on similar topics and referencing my work here. Try to get put on some blogrolls. Rather than doing my own thing here and reading others w/o comment, I hope to become more a part of a community of like-minded individuals.

I'd really be interested to hear your insights into SF and children's lit, esp. if you are tying it into greater cultural trends. Any time you'd like another pair of eyes on your work, I'd be glad to read something and send you feedback.

Catherine said...

Ok, I did not read your entire article, but they are many knitbloggers out there who have successfully turned their blogs into books (with added content obviously). I think that would be soo cool. However, so many people have blogs, yours would really have to be set apart for anyone to notice much less offer you a book deal.

Jon Polk said...

For me, the idea is to use the blog as a forum for working out ideas and getting feedback as I do research, writing a book or an article a piece at a time. It's not so much to get a really popular blog and then get a book deal.

Deb said...

Jon,

So much to reply to here. First, as a reading response and presentation, I really see you beginning to own and develop your ideas as well as yourself within a discipline. The development is fun to watch and part of why I love teaching at the graduate level.

If you want to continue to focus a blog on an issue, as you've discussed here and f-2-f, you might begin doing so and then add your blog to the KairosNews list of blogs. Also, start commenting on blogs on the same/similar topics, which will put you in conversation and draw people in to the blog. Your observation that the successful blogs have focused is a good one. Those have an authority to them. The others are more social networking. I recognize the line is fine between the two.

In terms of reading Connected, and I already said this to you so it won't come out of left field, do you think that you value a grammar of the book and sustained argument based on your background and training? Of course, you know that is at least partially true. You might look at Johnson-Eilola's (as well as some earlier writers about hypertext) because they extend Ong and Havelock's earlier arguments that the internet is changing the way we think just as the printing press did. Some people find this argument essentialist; however, your comment demonstrates a difference in values, which could lead to a difference in thinking. Hypertextuality values associations and juxtapositions and what comes out of those more than sustained argument. It values surface rather than deep. The binaries of these are not absent, and perhaps are not in binary form, but the relationship between readers and text is changing. Of course, perhaps one reason Connected didn't work is because it is a transitional or remediated text. It is a blog functioning as a book. The grammars differ, even if only slightly.

Deb said...

Meant to select "email follow-up comments. If you reply, reply to this message so I'll get the notification. Reply not expected.