Sharing My Thoughts

My colleague Sam Kinsley has raised some questions about the uses of blogs by academics, reflecting on his updated list of Geography-related blogs. He discerns a pattern whereby there is a tendency for blogs to be used primarily as “conduits for personal research”, not so much as conversational mediums that convene collective knowledge production. Via Twitter he asked a few people what we thought about his observations, so I am going to say out loud a more or less random collection of things that having ‘A blog of one’s own’ have taught me over the last few years, including some ideas that I aired a couple of years ago in a session at the AAG on social media use in geography. (One thing I should say straight away is that actually, I’m still not 100% sure about how to use all the widgets available on WordPress to post responses to Tweets about Facebook posts that you might want to re-blog as well as generating email alerts).

My starting point for thinking about all this is a remark by Louis Menand, writing in The New Yorker a few years ago now, where he described a blog as “a means of sharing your pet peeves and off-the-cuff theories of everything with the entire planet”. He contrasted blogs with books, which have a longer time horizon, and rather more substance as a result. Various people objected to the characterization, but it seems fair enough to me, and it certainly fits with my sense of my own attachment to this blog.

There is of course a line of thinking about blogs as terribly exciting spaces for creative thinking. Some people think that they are zones freed from the ‘policing’ function of conventional academic publishing; the rise of Speculative Realism has been presented as a model for blog-centric philosophical innovation (i.e. the blogosphere as a space for the validation of philosophy as ‘Making Things Up’). There are over-theorised accounts of the significance of blog culture; there are more sober and realistic accounts, like the one by Melissa Gregg that Sam cites; there are serious models of the role of blogging and other social media as mediums both for extended academic communication and for public engagement. All I want to do here is try to articulate what’s in it for Me, because of course, blogging is all about the ‘Me’.


A Short History of Pop Theory

This blog has existed for almost 5 years, which suddenly seems a long time. It is not, I should say, the most important thing in my life. Although I have blogged about some of the most important things in my life, like the birth of my children and the death of my parents, because it is about Me. I had been a reader of blogs for a while before 2010, not least from 2008 and the blog-mediated excitement of following the 2008 US Presidential election. I started the blog mainly because I acquired an iPhone, and it seemed like having a ‘smart’ phone required being familiar with some of the smart things it could do for you. A couple of people at the OU, Scott Rodgers and Kellie Payne, had tried out blogging in relation to their work and I think I was encouraged by their examples too.

The impetus for taking blogging more seriously was two weeks of paternity leave in February 2011 (I know how this sounds, trust me), during which we spent most of our time sitting in front of the TV, zonked out, sleep-deprived, watching the news – it was the two weeks when it all started kicking off in Tunisia, then Egypt, then Libya. The great thing about an iPad is that you can read, even write, one handed while also holding a small baby (I also realise this might be easier for the non-nursing participants in the post-natal childcare adventures). So I started reading various other blogs where theory-people were doing instantaneous analysis of the Arab Spring, and began re-blogging, re-tweeting, and writing little comments on all this. Those things seemed to generate more attention for the blog, and so did a mention for Pop Theory on CritGeogForum. At that point, more so than before, I think I began to have a sense of a not-so-imaginary community in which Pop Theory circulated. That actually changed how I approached it somewhat – knowing that not just anyone might be reading what you write about, but it might be read people who you might know personally or at least share the same professional space with, has a certain sort of disciplinary effect. My blogging activity has also altered since I left the OU and started work at Exeter, because the things I have been doing ‘at work’ have shifted: I am supposed to be writing a book at the moment, so any spare writing-time I have I feel obliged to give to that task, whereas before, I was in a heavy course production period, which was fun, but meant that the blog served as a kind of outlet for otherwise squeezed ‘research’ ideas, and also, I had a professional excuse for learning just how social media worked because we were making online modules for the first time.

The point of all that is to indicate that, for me, at least, blogging has been a part-time, more or less accidental activity, something I have invested energy and thought in at certain times more than others. But blogging is not what I do – Stuart Elden has a line, I think in an interview, saying that he blogs about his work, not that it is the primary medium for his writing, which captures it well. The main thing of course about having a blog is that you can say what you want, in principle, without going through the tribulations of peer review. Which means that the things you write on your own blog don’t have the same value as those you write in peer-reviewed journals or in books and book chapters (it’s called Pop Theory, not Properly Thought Through Theory).

All of which is simply to say that Pop Theory is the trace of my becoming inscribed into newish digital worlds (isn’t blogging actually about Naughties?).


Doing things with

So here are my 5 Uses of a Blog, the 5 things I find myself telling myself are the worthy reasons to keep going with an activity which actually, most of the time, seems like a distraction about which I should probably feel a little guilty.

1). It’s about Me. I use it to project my own work, and some half-baked ideas too, but especially to publicize new publications, that sort of thing. Blogging strikes me as best thought of not as a conversational medium at all, but as a form of micro-broadcasting: it’s a way of ‘getting things out there’, alongside other platforms like Twitter and and the like. There is nothing to be ashamed of about this. There is a serious point here though, which is about how we imagine academic life as a collective project actually works. I’m not sure this is best modelled on the to-and-fro of dialogue at all. The collective, and also the public, aspects of academic life are dependent on what we might all once have called ‘time-space distanciation’ – mediums of storage that facilitate the construction of anonymous publics. This is even more the case in a world of tags, and search engines, and citation indexes, and so on, than before. So in principle, to go back to Sam’s observations, there is no reason why a wholly ‘Lone Wolf’ vocation should be thought of as standing in tension with collective knowledge production at all.

2). Having a blog can serve as a means of constructing ‘a college of one’s own’. I have actually developed some unexpected conversations because of this blog, although the primary medium for these have been email and then face-to-face contact, not the Comment functions of the blog itself; in a way, I think a blog like this is just an extension of having a personal webpage on your department site.

3). I do think of this blog as an aspect of my own extended mind, a scrapbook of sorts, a kind of one-stop-shop where I can recall various things I might have read, or thought, or re-tweeted. Of course, I also have two offices (one at work, one at home) piled with books and papers and illegible notes, so it’s not quite a one-stop-shop at all. But I can see how a blog can serve as a way in which one can curate one’s own on-going thinking.

4). I’ve already mentioned this, but perhaps the main use I have made of this blog is a way of learning about social media – I know about Twitter and Facebook mainly because of this blog. I have learnt that “If you build it…”, then it doesn’t mean “They Will Come” at all. They might. But who knows why. I have learnt about the vicissitudes of attention.

Way back in 2011, there was a moment when the traffic to Pop Theory went through the roof, but this seemed entirely to do with the fact that a few weeks before, I had posted a short piece on Derek Parfit’s new book, which I had not read and didn’t actually have anything to say about (that was the point of the post). Parfit was profiled in The New Yorker that month though, and obviously anyone Googling ‘Derek Parfit’ seemed to be getting links to my blog. An example, I guess, of the degree to which the attention you can generate through a blog is not necessarily anything much to do with the substance of what you yourself have to say.

I have learnt that Titles Matter: see What are the humanities good for? and Cultural Geography is Dead!

Pop Theory also has a regular stream of traffic from searches for ‘Swindon+roundabout’, for no other reason that I might have mentioned that topic once; as well as from searches for former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, who of course shares a name with a philosopher of some note who I have also mentioned occasionally.

These are examples of how the attention generated by blogging – that is, the public-forming dynamic of this ‘medium’ – can be rather passive, accidental, if not entirely random.

5). I remember when I started this blog I had an idea of using it as a medium to develop my ‘writing’, a theme that people such as Lauren Berlant and Les Back have discussed. I have found this aspect rather disappointing, although certainly enlightening. I have mainly discovered that I have no innate writing ability at all. It turns out that it’s really difficult to write interesting stories, to find a beginning, and to end properly, about things that seemed to be interesting to you in your head or in your own experience. Which might be why I am an academic in the first place.

In short, Pop Theory is not quite a hobby, since it has accidentally become more of an aspect of my work life than I expected. It’s about Me. It might also be one small part of a culture of sharing, which is a good model for collective life after all, a much better model certainly than other practices, such as conversation or dialogue. Sharing only makes sense if things are separable. And individualism is underrated.

Local Politics III: public life in the digital city

Once upon a time, long long ago, I was tangentially involved, mainly as a researcher of sorts, with something grandly called the Oxford Motor Industry Research Group, which was actually a group of academics with links with shop stewards galvanised in the summer of 1989 by plans to close the car works in Cowley. The group was led by the activist-scholar Teresa Hayter (author of, amongst other things, Hayter of the Bourgeoisie). I seem to remember that part of the politicking around the future of Cowley, which dragged on well into the 1990s, involved plans to transfer all car production to Swindon. The Oxford plant wasn’t closed completely in the end. I, on the other hand, have indeed ended up in Swindon.

Twenty years on, there is a big mini hanging on a wall outside the BMW plant, locally referred to as Pressed Steel (good name for a band). Swindon used to build trains, now it builds cars. Even the major architectural landmarks in the town are car-related: the Magic Roundabout; Norman Foster’s Renault Building (now home to a fantastic soft-play centre for kids); the defunct speed cameras; the switched-off street lights.

What with the speed cameras covered, and the street lights turned off, it’s boy-racer heaven here. Turning things off and failing to gets things to work has become a bit of a signature of recent local council initiatives. In November 2009, shortly after we moved here, it was announced with great fanfare (locally, that is, though it made national news too) that Swindon was to become the first place in the UK to offer free wireless internet to all households. A scheme funded largely by the borough council was to be rolled out across the whole town, apparently, by April 2010. This was hailed by the controlling Tory group on the Council as an innovative public-private commercial venture. “Trailblazing Swindon Council is working with the private sector to make Swindon the first town in the UK to provide free internet access for all its residents”, they said.

Needless to say, things haven’t turned out quite as planned. The deal struck between the Council and Digital City Ltd, the company set-up to develop the free wi-fi scheme, has been mired in controversy from the start. The £1.5million project was leveraged by a loan from the Council to the tune of £450,000, but the loan deal was characterised by a lack of transparency and accountability, related to the specific type of cabinet system adopted in Swindon, which meant the deal was basically signed-off by a couple of senior Tory council leaders.

After countless delays, earlier this year Digital City was dissolved and the leading business figure behind the scheme declared bankrupt, amidst calls for the resignations of the leading Tory councillors who had signed-off on the deal. Meanwhile, everyone is wondering what happened to the money, and whether the loan will be repaid.

This has been the hottest political story in town for almost two years now, and it revolves around questions of proper procedure. The general complaint around the scheme has revolved around the level of scrutiny involved in loaning public money to the Digital City venture. The story has attracted regular attention in the local paper, but has in particular been kept alive by Swindon’s vibrant little blogosphere (you can track the story over two years here and here for example). And it even became a regular-ish feature in Private Eye, here and here, as a model of dodgy local government dealings.

The MP for South Swindon until 2010, Anne Snelgrove, raised the issue in Parliament shortly before the last election, when she lost her seat. She publicly acknowledged the role of local bloggers and websites in subjecting the Wi-Fi deal to scrutiny and making it into an issue (the Tories, meanwhile, complain that the deliberate ‘politicizing’ of the scheme is part of the reason it has struggled to get off the ground, or, should that be into the air?).

The latest twist in the story is the recent announcement that a new investor has been found for the scheme, although just who this is remains a big secret for now. But the Council assures everyone that the money invested in the Digital City venture will be recouped under the new agreement: “The council will also receive a share of the profits from the multinational company which is stepping in to run the new wireless internet system, although for “commercial reasons” its identity is still a secret.”

This is now dubbed Wi-Fi 2 locally. At the moment, ‘free Wi-Fi’ has still yet to be materialised in Swindon.

I like this little local story because of the neat relation it exposes between the promise of everyday hi-tech communication and the dull ‘materialities’ of lampposts (suddenly peculiarly central to political issues in the town), council procedures, and local journalism. But also because it illustrates how ‘new media’ can bring a new dimension, a certain sort of dispersed keenness of scrutiny, to very local issues – Swindon’s public realm these days includes bloggers poring over Council minutes and/or taking the mickey out of local politicians’ promises and excuses.