Metablog X: academics and the blogosphere

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.

Picture of a WordPress comment box

This is not an actual comment box, this is just a picture of a comment box. I’m sure it won’t be confusing at all.

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 <>, the only e-mail address guaranteed never to exist.

23 responses to “Metablog X: academics and the blogosphere

  1. I sympathise with your struggles, especially the inconsistencies of WP statistics. I have the same problem (greatly more ‘followers’ than views).
    But please don’t despair of no one being out here. I’m sure there are many like me who read your (nearly every) post; who find the links you provide a valuable resource, but who are, just at this moment, involved in something other than medieval studies. My own research (the medieval connections of the county of Rais) has been put on hold while I undertake a local history project. Also I’d say don’t judge your followers’ interests by their own blogs. One blog that I follow is written by a historian, a graduate of Harvard, and yet is his vehicle for fantasy fiction. As for myself, though a graduate of no university, in fact my background is entertainment, my interest in medieval studies is as keen and as lasting as any others; my output (when it happens) is a sister blog. So don’t despair. We are out here.

  2. From several rungs down the academic ladder, I couldn’t agree more with what you argue here. I’d also note the same applies to Twitter, which is in effect a microcosm of the pitfalls and possibilities you outline for long-form blogging. Sure, it can have a bad reputation for being the troll’s weapon of choice for issuing disgusting abuse and threats, but it’s also clear the platform is host a huge and receptive online audience for medieval tidbits, be they manuscript illustrations, quotations of literature, or archaeological discoveries. There are a good few academics who tap into this and provide credible contextual information as well, I only wish more were so-minded! And if some of their tweets in between verge on the banal, that may be no bad thing either – serves to show they are real people facing the same real-life problems with technology/traffic/bad weather!

    • Yes, there is something in the potential of the medium to make academics seem like real people, although I think that in some ways the existence of that problem is the very oldest echelons creating the stereotype under which the newer ones labour. It’s troublesome to explain the exact corner of one’s field to people who stopped studying history at age 16, sometimes, but unless one has actually lived in an Oxbridge college for one’s whole adult life, it’s something one gets used to doing anyway after a while. But yes, in general; I agree with your agreeing with me, what a surprise… Thankyou for the contribution!

  3. See, my problem is that your field is so far from mine that I read your blog in order to get some easily accessible idea of what’s going on in another, earlier corner of medieval Europe (not to mention cool pictures), but I never have the least idea of what the scholarly issues are, except as you report them. I’m never going to be able to contribute on that level, unless one of us radically changes fields. So I’m almost one of those general readers, I guess, enjoying the breezy run through foreign fields; it’s good exercise (am I pushing this metaphor too far?), though probably not “useful” to me in any professional sense (once in awhile I can point to a post of yours in the classroom, and if it’s helpful to you to know that, I can report when I do so).

    I’m glad you’re back!

    • Dame Eleanor! Long time no hear. Welcome back yourself, and thankyou for the thoughts. It would be useful for me to have a few examples of posts that serve that purpose, in fact, and to know which posts they are. But I do see the point you make about specialism. I suppose that I often hope for comparisons and insights from outside the area, the kind of thought that goes, “well, in my time and place, that thing you’re discussing would work like this…”, but our source materials are probably far enough apart that even that would be contrived. Still: I’m glad to have your readership, thankyou!

  4. I’ve also had a couple of responses to this via e-mail, ironically, of which one made the worthwhile point that increased reading via subscriptions probably accounts for a low level of commenting to some degree; comments tend to provoke comments, but people getting my posts through a feed or in e-mail not only have extra clicks to make to comment if they want to, they get the post before anyone else has commented on it, so don’t have that encouragement.

    The other correspondent made a much more obvious point, that they felt as if they knew too little to be able to say anything in comments that wouldn’t be stupid. Said person is in fact underestimating their sharpness of perception considerably, as I’m any judge, but it must be a quite common disincentive. But again, without toning down content to the point where it doesn’t challenge at all, how to encourage that sort of reader to chance a remark?

  5. I’m not an academic. I do blog, and sometimes that blog get picked up all over the place and tens of thousands of people see it. But I don’t get many comments. As others have pointed out, many people get the blogs by email and forget that it can be a two-way communication. They forget, too, that writers like comments and find them useful. Readers, too, are wary of the ugly scrum pits that comment threads become on pop culture sites; they don’t want any of that vituperation sticking to them in passing.

    What I’ve found helpful on my own blog: not to let comments threads devolve into thread-jacking; occasionally reassure readers that you monitor comments closely and moderate ruthlessly; keep writing content that demands answers…

    I don’t see you having a problem with any of that :)

    • Well, not least because rarely if ever have I had the volume of comments that would necessitate moderation so active, but I’ll take the compliment anyway, thankyou :-) As for your not being an academic, well, no, perhaps not in terms of employment, but I came across you as blogger because you were asking research questions about seventh-century England and putting the answers you got to work. I’m not very invested in drawing a line between what you do and what I do, except in what bit of the shop our books get shelved in…

  6. I am another scholar-reader of your blog, from a different corner of tenth-century Europe (Anglo-Saxon Northumbria), as well as from a different part of the globe (the Pacific).
    As a fellow blogger with similar issues (not posting for long periods, wondering if anyone is paying attention), I guess my reasons for not commenting on your posts (which I do read in my email feed) involve a combination of lack of time and lack of something substantial to say. I try to avoid meaningless comments, like “great post” or “love the idea.”
    One way to see that you have readers who are not commenting is to include the “like” feature. I know it seems really Facebookish, but it will get you hits on readers.

    • Hullo, Professor Jolly, and thanks for the thoughts. Yes, I’ve tried enabling ‘likes’ briefly, and I don’t really, well, like it. I get notified of ‘likes’ from inside WordPress anyway, and there’s one particular follower of the blog who must just click it as soon as they see my name come up in the feed-reader; I’ve sometimes had their ‘like’ show up even as I’m reloading the site immediately after posting to see what it looks like. I don’t think they count as a reader… and once one admits it at the extreme end of the case, it’s impossible to know where the line between that and attention lies. I stand by the idea that comments are the only way that one can know someone actually read what one blogged. But I share your distaste for empty commentary, too, so I guess I am setting my expectations very high…

  7. It seems as if previous commenters have the same thoughts as I have. I tend to comment if I have something to say – not just clicking a like-button or whatever the equivalent is when it comes to blog comments. Often my research interests are in different areas than yours, and while I might find a post interesting and informative, I don’t know enough of the subject to start a discussion.

  8. Allan McKinley

    As a (sometimes) medievalist who comments on this blog reasonably often, can I suggest that this is partially because I have an interest in history that is primarily based round the enjoyment of debating and arguing round the subject (so hopefully advancing knowledge, but primarily for the debate itself). I know this is not a unique viewpoint to myself, but to want to get involved in this sort of discussion is not universal amongst medievalists. Some clearly prefer the more moderated debate around lectures and seminars and I’ve met some who seem to be uninterested in discussing their ideas at all, never mind anyone else’s. Those medievalists I know who comment here are generally those who also like to discuss points in the bar (to which you indeed allude above) rather than those who prefer not to further discuss their ideas. I would say this is not guaranteed though – at least one commentator here is someone who I’ve never heard discuss their ideas in person. That proviso aside, it is not only the medium of blog comments where medievalists (and presumably interested readers more generally) may choose not to fully engage, but it would be very unusual for medievalists not to read something like this blog even if they do not feel comfortable commenting.

    • Good points, especially the one about the bar :-) There are medievalists commenting here I haven’t heard speak, but that’s usually because they’re either literature scholars whose stuff I don’t usually find myself near, or in the USA or even further afield, or both. I now wonder whom you mean and will have to extract this from you next time we’re actually in such a bar. You are right, though, that not everyone likes to engage so forthrightly as do we. Again, it’s hard to see how one opens up space into which such persons might emerge…

  9. In general I comment only when I have something to say. However, additionally I’m unlikely to ask for clarification of things that I suspect might be “basic medieval knowledge” that I lack due to having very little knowledge of such things.

    In recompense, here’s an interesting article you may not have seen


    • I do see, yes. I try and link out to things to provide that basic knowledge, so it is helpful to me to know where that’s not sufficient or I’ve missed something, but on the other hand I can see how that’s not much of a comment. But an old teaching point does occur, which I use to encourage the ‘dumb’ questions in seminars; if you can’t see the answer, you are almost certainly not alone and others will thank someone for asking…

    • Also, that’s a really interesting link, thankyou. He’s absolutely right: we don’t apply for money to such councils. Why not? I’d never before thought about it. I will now…

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