I've been asked to talk about the keyword "public" in the "Professionalization in a Digital Age" forum at this little annual shindig (where I'll be sharing the podium with Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Lisa Nakamura), and so my thoughts have naturally turned to anxieties about blogging--anxieties expressed by graduate students, by assistant professors, by hiring committees. Readers who remember Ivan the Terrible Tribble know of what I speak. Some of the ideas below are very pragmatic; others, more speculative.
1. Potential publicity. At the most practical level, one of the difficulties involved in offering anyone advice about blogging is that there is no way to predict how a search (or tenure) committee will act. My own experience with hiring has been that a committee member faced with three hundred job applications will not, in all likelihood, Google anybody unless one of the following is true: 1) the applicant explicitly calls the committee's attention to a significant online/blog presence; 2) the applicant says something which sets off alarm bells (e.g., makes claims about work with Professor X which are not backed up by Professor X's letter of rec, or provides what looks like an inaccurate job title). But there are clearly committees which conduct themselves in an entirely different way. I'm not sure it's even possible to offer any profitable generalizations about what to do or not to do, given that, in some cases, the fact of breathing may be enough to condemn an applicant in a committee's eyes.
In the words of A. E. Housman:
I would not willingly acquire a name
For ill-digested thought;
But after pondering much
To this conclusion I at last have come:
LIFE IS UNCERTAIN.
And yet, it is possible to have a web presence and be virtually invisible, depending on whether or not a Googler knows the relevant search terms. It is a truth universally acknowledged that looking for information about X frequently requires you to already have information about X.
2. Excess. In his first essay (see the "Ivan" link), Tribble represented blog reading as a trip into the Twilight Zone: "Several members of our search committee found the sheer volume of blog entries daunting enough to quit after reading a few. Others persisted into what turned out, in some cases, to be the dank, dark depths of the blogger's tormented soul; in other cases, the far limits of techno-geekdom; and in one case, a cat better off left in the bag." Bloggers, like the scribbling women and dunces of yore, generate overwhelming quantities of text that leave refined souls whimpering for relief. The more intrepid explorer finds him- or herself hacking through the spiritual undergrowth, trekking to the outermost reaches of acceptable electronic savvy, or discovering unsavory revelations. Tribble's blog-induced miseries are all about excessiveness. Academic bloggers don't just enter the public sphere, they practically flood it--and to such an extent that they render themselves virtually unreadable. (Excessive publicity paradoxically makes the blogger anonymous.) Apparently, there's always Too Much Information.
This rhetoric of excess, and variants thereof, characterizes discussions of blogging more generally (e.g., here, here, and here; first two links via Dan.). Bloggers write too much, too quickly, whether about themselves or others. When it comes to academic blogging, such excess becomes a sign of an inappropriately managed academic self--insufficiently rational, objective, tasteful, or, for that matter, single-minded. (I should point out that I do, in fact, think academic bloggers should ponder long and hard about self-presentation, as well as about the ethics of discussing students, colleagues, and so forth. That's not my primary focus here, however.) And, some bloggers find that there's a real use-value to less "professional" modes of blogging, even as they are also anxious about it (e.g., here).
3. Exposure. We think of blogging as self-exposure. But what about publicizing other scholars' work, in ways that they might find problematic or even downright rude? This discussion, for example, asks if blogging a seminar presentation without permission constitutes a violation of academic norms (or etiquette). Blogging about students, colleagues, and administrators raises further questions; I suspect, for example, that we are all familiar with non-anonymous bloggers who purportedly "anonymize" their colleagues, even though their actual blog posts make it painfully easy to identify who is who. And what about asking students to blog? For non-bloggers, blogging can look suspiciously like an invasion of privacy, a violation of "safe space," or even an act of intellectual poaching.
4. Ideas in space. In order to conceal their identities, pseudonymous bloggers usually have to conceal their specializations and current research projects (e.g., complexification studies). But non-pseudonymous bloggers also worry about the ramifications of describing work-in-progress: will it be "scooped" by a reader? What happens if someone googles the project during a supposedly double-blind peer review? When ideas sketched out on a blog return to life in a book or article, what do you do with them? (I.e., a blog post is public--but is it published? Cf. Daniel J. Solove.) But by the same token, discussing research on a blog can make it easier to network with other scholars or gain useful feedback. If we are to think of blogging as a new twist on the early modern "republic of letters," let alone the Habermasian public sphere, then the ability to exchange information about one's scholarship would seem to be key--and yet, the very publicity of blogging (a blog is not, after all, specifically directed to intended recipients; it's hard to control readership without "locking" the blog altogether) may undermine older modes of scholarly networking and collaboration.
5. Gender. There's a long-running debate about gender and academic blogging, especially anonymous blogging. To what extent does gender affect how bloggers construct their online personae? Or even their choice of blogging platform? (E.g., LiveJournal vs. Blogger or Typepad.) If non-blogging academics associate blogging with either the scandalously confessional (sexual, political, departmental) or the merely trivial (shoe-shopping, cat photos), then to what extent do these associations pose different risks for male and female bloggers? What types of gendered risks does publicity pose?