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June 25, 2003

Thinking Through Blogs

Anne Galloway has been asking some interesting questions about using blogs as research tools. Like her, I'm concerned with using my blog for thinking through some of my research (in my case, making the transition from dissertation to book), and I'm trying to work out how blogging might be able to synthesize discrete ideas. Anne points out that

For example, Blogger doesn't offer the ability to organise posts into categories like Movable Type, but even so, that type of archiving does nothing to connect posts across boundaries.
One alternative may be the "search" tool on many MT blogs, which might allow me to track down any entries on a topic, but that still doesn't necssarily allow for the types of connections that I think she is describing and creates other types of limits. I'm also a big fan of the trackback function that might alert me to others' comments on my blog.

I think she's right to suggest (via Ted Nelson)that "we are prisoners of our applications," but I'd like to make a case for the temporal linearity of blogging. I think George put it well when wrote about "writing to the moment" several months ago. I realize that he was writing more about autobiography, but "writing to the moment" (i.e. in a linear medium) can also enable a certain type of thinking that might not be permitted in "writing to a database" (George's narratives about his research in Manchster might be a good example). Certainly blogging allows one to combine both logics to an extent, but I do think that the temporal organization might allow me to see how an idea is developing over time in ways that a database with discrete categories might not. Also by privileging the most recent entries, blogs are useful in emphasizing a blogging researcher's most immediate thoughts. Then again, linearity and discrete posts also produce a segmentation of thinking that is rather artificial.

Given some of these questions, how have other academic bloggers used their blogs for thinking through reesarch ideas? In what ways do you find the temporal linearity of blogs helpful or harmful?

Posted by chuck at June 25, 2003 3:41 PM

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I tend to use my own Search a lot to find stuff I remember writing but not *when* I wrote it.

I also try to link to my own posts when relevant, so as to create my own path of associations. That way, if I can the most recent post on a long series, I can usually find the path back to the first.

One tool I would like to see established in MT and other blogs is an auto-paragraph # for each paragraph (and for paragraphs in comments). So I can not only link to a specific post in your blog, but I can deep link to a specific paragraph.

Posted by: Jason at June 25, 2003 4:40 PM

I second Jason's comment about auto-numbering each paragraph. Surely there is a way to hack this into the system, no?

"How have other academic bloggers used their blogs for thinking through research ideas?"

I have yet to really post some solid questions related to my "research" if we define that as the book I am working on. I hope to do so this summer and see what happens. One thing I'm concerned about is how many people are going to be interested in the nitty gritty details of eighteenth-century Methodism. Kari (http://karik.wordherders.net) is currently the only blogger I know with a background in the eighteenth century. Perhaps blogging about it will force me to think in terms of a wider audience: I'm not sure if this is a good thing.

When I write about teaching ideas, that has been very helpful.

"In what ways do you find the temporal linearity of blogs helpful or harmful?"

It is helpful on the homepage in that it alerts readers to what is most recent, but I wish that in the archive the entries were sortable in a variety of ways: by subject, by title, by number of words, by number of comments, by number of different commenters, etc...

A very cool feature would be the availability of a controlled vocabulary that several different (or all) bloggers could use to categorize their posts. Thus, when you saw a post on my blog that was categorized as "on blogging," you would have a choice of clicking on "other posts by this author on this topic" or "other posts by other bloggers on this topic." Some central server would keep track of who was writing on what.

I still find it hard to find blogs on specific topics that I'd like to read about. Who else has blogged about eighteenth-century Methodism, for example? How would I find out? The current tools seem a bit clunky.

Posted by: George at June 25, 2003 5:44 PM

The paragraph auto-numbering tool sounds very cool. That would be a useful way of organizing ideas or making connections between blogs.

George, I've been thinking about your point about the difficulties in searching for specific topics. As I recall, we talked a little about MIT's Blogdex, especially its limitations (specifically, an emphasis on the popular).

I still haven't found many people who write *specifically* about film among academic bloggers, and that is frustrating. I do enjoy the cross-disciplinary connections that I've been making (thinking about film narrative in relation to gaming narrative for example), and my hope (and belief) is that these connections may invigorate my work in ways that film theory list-servs often fail to do, but I sometimes feel a bit like an academic dilletante when I read or comment on other peoples' work without knowing much about the topic.

Posted by: chuck at June 26, 2003 12:23 AM

I haven't used blogging to think through my research at all which is a sad reflection about how compartmentalized my life is right now. I think partly it has to do with where I'm at with the diss. (in the final stretch) and that I have lost a lot of enthusiasm for the project because of the day to day grind though in a larger context, my areas--writing technologies, 3rd wave feminism, rhetoric--all tie into my blogging, esp. in terms of writing and representational practices. At some point, once the diss begins its frustrating transition into a longer work, I'll try to connect with some of the women whom I've gotten to know over the past few years who use various low and high end technologies and possibly ask them to read my ideas. Several of them have read articles that I've written and provided really good feedback and clarifications so I think the blog as a public space could provide an even more dynamic collaborative site for ethical ethnographic practices.

hmmm....it's scary too though to have your shit read by your research subjects but necessary.

I like both George and Jason's ideas for making blogging more search-friendly. If blogging became that sophisiticated then it'd be perfect for academics who don't have enough $$$ to buy some expensive note-taker, palm pilot. It'd provide a really nice way to organize ideas, plus have the benefit of being accessible anywhere.

Chuck, I think your ideas on blogging that you've been keeping will come in really handy for our panel at 4Cs and also be good brainstorm material for our other blog which I've totally neglected....

Posted by: doreen at June 26, 2003 12:47 PM

I'll go ahead and cross-post them. I'd noticed that things have been relatively silent over there.

Posted by: chuck at June 26, 2003 2:18 PM

You know, George, I've been thinking about your suggestion of using a "limited vocabulary" in classifying entries to allow for more flexible searching, and the more I think about, the better it sounds. That's how we've been able to sort through amorphous stacks of documents in libraries for some time now, and using Google and other search mechanisms seems too diffuse for such a wide body of material. This question of "managing" the blogosphere is certainly a big one with nearly 3 million bloggers out there.

Posted by: chuck at June 27, 2003 4:52 PM

Interesting thoughts about research and blogging here, especially the idea about being able to link to paragraphs. Perhaps some sort of internal trackback, like footnotes, would be a model to build on?

I wish I could use my blog to sort out my research, because I'd love more feedback. Unfortunately, my background is somewhat obscure, but that could be overcome with some judicious contextualizing for those lacking it. More of a problem, though, is that if I talk about my research in the level of detail needed to get good feedback, I will blow my cover!

Perhaps a second blog just for research would be the solution...

Posted by: Rana at June 29, 2003 1:34 AM

Internal trackback could be very cool.

I'm still thinking about these questions about research and blogging, and I'm trying to formulate a concept of informal blogwebs that might allow people with similar interests to share ideas without necessarily having to do "judicious contextualizing." I prefer imagining these blogwebs as informal rather than imposed from above, with the potential that too distinct categorizations might reimpose the disciplinarity that limit new ways of thinking. Research on digital studies, for example, has seriously transformed the way that I think about film. I really like being able to draw from disparate fields, and the rhizomatic linkings of logs enable that more than distinct spheres might.

Posted by: chuck at June 29, 2003 12:11 PM

Regarding my comment above about blogs sharing a common language ("controlled vocabulary," to use a metadata term) for categorizing their posts: see http://topicexchange.com/

I haven't sorted it all out, yet, but it looks like it might be what I was talking about.

Posted by: George at June 30, 2003 12:05 PM

I think you might be right, George. My quick observation in looking over Topic Exchange is that it runs the risk of becoming unwieldy quickly if they don't restrain the construction of new categories. My first impression is that perhaps establishing hierarchies of categories might make this organization easier and prevent undesired overlap (such as separate categories for film and The Matrix). But that might be too much work. Even within catgeories you'd still run into problems of overlap. Another cool alternative, one that the "database" logic of computers enables, is to allow multiple categories for each post. Thus my discussion of "Shackleton" might fit into catgeories such as "history of film," "film technologies," and, say, "history of Antarctica." Again, that might produce too many complications, especially when Blogger still doesn't include a tool for categorizing blog entries like MT does. At any rate, Topic Exchange is definitely worth a look.

Posted by: chuck at June 30, 2003 4:28 PM