Returning to the blog after a long absence means contemplating viewing figures that are a fraction of what they once were, my own fault really, and some of the peculiar questions about audience that I have explored in print.1 In particular, the blog now has more followers than it gets views per day, a new and rather odd development, given how few of the followers seem to have medieval interests. But is this blog confined to medievalists? Well, evidently not; even from the commenting population we see—and that is all we can see, really—that there are people of many fields reading here, and that’s great, I love it. But there are some medievalists too, challenging me both to write for them and for the untrained but interested who presumably make up most of the readership.
The other side of this coin, however, is that I know that many more medievalists read this than ever comment, because they’ve told me so, either in person or by e-mail (usually with corrections…). Only a very few leave comments. I struggle to profile them, but they are much outweighed by those who do not. Now, this puzzles me to an extent. It’s an open forum, after all, you only need to enter an e-mail address to comment and it doesn’t have to be real, so I’d expect the old Usenet rule to work and to be corrected in the open pretty much every time I make a mistake.2 I’d welcome that, except for the bit where I make mistakes, but I’d also think that there are conversations here in which people could usefully participate, either by demonstrating their own expertise or by helping in our greater mission of outreach and the modelling of scholarship to an interested but untrained audience, which anyone who has a blog that has run long enough to get an audience knows we have.
My pet example, showing both sides, is the argument that blew up about my attitude to Alcuin in this post. Probably rightly telling me off for being dismissive of the character and work of Charlemagne’s own teacher, the scholar commenting told me I should have read a piece of theirs in Peritia, which is not an easy journal to get. After a few exchanges this conversation went to e-mail, in which among other things I tried to persuade the scholar to put it back on the blog and explain to people who could not get at a copy of Peritia, which is to say, all but maybe two per cent of the readership, what they had said in this article and why it mattered for the argument. I could not persuade them—I guess because I was essentially declining to do the work of reading them while asking them to do the work of free writing for my blog, kind of fair enough—and eventually—most of a year later—I read the article and tried to fill in the gap. But we could have kept the conversation going here, and I think people would have been interested.
Beyond my guesses, I’ve heard three sorts of explanation for non-participation on this blog, but each from one person only and there must be more. One, the most obvious, is that it’s my blog, and that people feel they need some kind of permission to participate. (I had one person even ask me if I minded if they read it, and this was not someone new to the Internet.) And yes, I do exercise some kind of control here; I’ve only ever deleted one comment that wasn’t plainly automated spam, for explicit racist attack on another commentator, but I’ve warned a few people and I argue back. But on the other hand anyone can comment and sometimes this produces wonderful meetings of minds that could never happen in real life (though if I ever could get Joan Vilaseca and Alex Woolf together in a bar that would be a grand gathering indeed). I don’t know how I would make it more appealing for such persons to join in. Then secondly there is the old time argument, ‘I just don’t have time to do more than read’, which is also very hard to argue with given I don’t even have time to read others’ blogs any more myself. And thirdly there is the answer I got from one very senior scholar, that they felt that their participation might intimidate other people from joining in, more thoughtful, if bewildering when one knows how approachable the scholar in question is in real life, but understandable, although I hope misjudged. I have no idea which of these might be more common more widely.
But I could suspect especially also, that people fear that, like blogging themselves, an exercise that even now it’s de rigeur for project outreach most scholars leave to their department’s or project’s postgraduates, it makes them look unserious. Yet this is, I do believe, one of the easiest and most important ways to be out there among the wider world, our notional public, showing what we do and how and why it might be fun or even worth supporting. So I also suspect a basic discomfort with doing that, with somehow being answerable to a demand to explain one’s work. We do, after all, get paid to teach, so in some ways this is pro bono labour. But the fear of explaining and demystifying what we do leaves us vulnerable to charges of living in ivory towers, unable to contend with pop historians who tell people what they remember from school dressed up as research, and in general making a poor impression, as well as depriving the audience of the value of your contribution. So, please, if you’re a scholar and reading, and your interest is piqued by a post, do consider leaving a comment on it; and if your interest was piqued and you’re not a scholar or don’t think of yourself as such, don’t let that stop you doing so too. This is all a conversation worth having!
1. J. Jarrett, “Views, Comments and Statistics: Gauging and Engaging the Audience of Medievalist Blogging” in Literature Compass Vol. 9 (Oxford 2012), pp. 991-995, doi: 10.1111/lic3.12016.
2. Though if you are using a fake address, I do hope you are Internet-savvy enough to use <email@example.com>, the only e-mail address guaranteed never to exist.