Blogging Archaeology – Week 3

The Ides of March edition of Blogging Archaeology is finally here, coming to you from the inside of a sand-tornado. First, a few stragglers from week one:

Alun Salt broadens the question to include other disciplines, linking to several interesting blog posts from our colleagues in Botany and the History of Science. He emphasizes that the comments that we can receive with blogging are similar to feedback at conferences, that is, short and to the point. Though in my experience most conferences don’t leave time for this Q&A–the papers run too long and most people just want to be out of there, sadly.

Bill Caraher, who has written one of the earliest and best pieces about blogging in archaeology, states that blogging is a tool, “neither specifically short-form or long-form, and is probably at the ragged edge of being anything at all except a piece of software running on a server and accessible via the web.” (I would take up the point that many former zine writers, myself included, turned to blogging as an easier-than-kinkos way to extend their genre and distribute an “alternative” voice, perhaps a point I should elaborate on in another post.) I especially appreciate his comparison to former “academic correspondence” or notes–Dan and I have discussed publication of sites as a series of letters, much in the way that Rosemary Joyce explored this genre in The Languages of Archaeology.

The second question, in short, the consequences of blogging, brought in a huge response again. In asking this I was hoping to start a conversation about sharing and the still-secret arcane archaeological knowledge that we must still keep to ourselves in the digital age.

We’ll start with John Lowe, our resident CRM archaeologist at Where in the hell am I? who manages the difficult balancing act between acting in the interest of the public and working in the professional sphere. The clearest consequence of blogging for him is “having the food taken out of my mouth.” He also has to confront artifact looters who could use the information that he posts to raid sensitive archaeological sites. Fortunately he uses this engagement as an “educational opportunity” and “a chance to create a steward.”

Shawn at The Electric Archaeologist provides some excellent insights about the positive feedback loop that blogging creates, and how this can change the blog (and the blog writer). He also mentions blogging as a way to document failure, something I hadn’t thought much about. I’m about to write a report on negative findings, so I should keep it in mind.

Mick Morrison and Terry Brock have similar responses, urging academics early in their careers to maintain an air of professionalism. Terry Brock extends this argument, reminding us that we “represent something bigger than yourself” as we speak for our universities, professional organizations, and various archaeological projects. I should probably re-read these posts next time I feel like grumbling about line-levels or when a publication goes awry. I worry a bit about blogs losing personality or interest though. There’s a big trend toward “research blogging,” or blogging journal papers that you’ve read and while I’ve done some of that myself, I like to hear about what people are researching themselves, and all of the quirks that go along with that process. Pure research or news blogs without a personality attached is, well, boring. Not that either of the blogs I’ve linked go down that road, thankfully.

Michael Smith acknowledges these risks, even stating that he won’t discuss impacts of blogging regarding “agencies and governments that are responsible for funding and overseeing archaeological research.” There is another side of risk though, that of disappointment from lack of interest or readership. His new blog on comparative urbanism looks fascinating though–I don’t think he’ll be let down. When I get two seconds I look forward to reading his take on Black Rock City. See you on the Playa, Michael?

I was chuffed that Johan Normark at Archaeological Haecceities, whom I specifically referenced in the second week’s question, elaborated on his ongoing conversation with 2012 folks. While 2012 has brought a lot of traffic to his blog (moreso, he states, than discussions of archaeological theory) Johan has had to develop a certain finesse in dealing with particular branch of public outreach. People passionately believe in the 2012 misinformation and they “get upset about the way I (Johan) debunk these ideas. They feel that I am patronizing, that I think I am better than them, that I am fooled by academia itself.” He also mentions getting abusive comments and emails from an astrologer. I think we all owe Johan a beer for taking on this monster of a task–I could not have done it so tactfully, that’s for sure. Johan also elaborates on his posts regarding archaeological theory and how there are very few responses from his fellow Mayanists or archaeologists in general. It’d be interesting to start an archaeological theory blogging discussion group–I’d try to write a post or two and comment.

Matthew Law and Brenna at Passim in Passing delve into some of the specifics of research that are unbloggable. Similar to John’s experience of working in CRM in the US, Matt states “I may be an archaeologist who believes passionately in public access to heritage, but I’m also a paid professional representative of the developer and while fieldwork is ongoing, that has to win out.” Matt also mentions a British archaeologist who was fired for tweeting about low pay, even though she didn’t mention her employer’s name. Brenna’s research is in bioarchaeology, so she has a very specific list of things that she cannot divulge, such as no photos of bones later in age than 1550 and no “video, photos, or recording of ‘behind the scenes’ mystery areas where analysis takes place.” Bioarchaeology is a particular minefield for public access and social media right now–this would probably be an interesting publication if one was so inclined.

Ryan Anderson at Ethnografix (whom I owe a way overdue email) approaches the question from a visual standpoint, “specifically posting photographs that potentially reveal sensitive information.” While Ryan is studying cultural anthropology, he worked on various CRM projects and relates his experience as a photographer and archaeologist in the field. While he had his camera and took photos, he “didn’t post all that much online, for some very specific reasons.” This is a particular issue in archaeology, and he tried to avoid landmarks in his photographs, posting generalized landscape shots. I see this a lot–either very large overviews, or very tight-in shots without context. Interesting that a profession so very obsessed with context will willfully annihilate that context in their documentation. I’ve spent the better part of a week looking for a site that was intentionally mis-marked on a map, but that’s a story for an upcoming post.

Sara Perry reminds us that all media is a risky endeavor, and that by focusing on blogs alone she is “concerned that we are all-too-conveniently avoiding discussion of the limitations and indeed prejudices of other modes of publication.” Publication in archaeology writ large is an incredibly fertile and interesting topic (see Michael Smith, for starters) and I would love the opportunity to push the boundaries and question our assumptions in practice. Blogging is proving to be such an expansive territory to explore–we might have to stick to the short form for now and use it to subvert other publishing paradigms.

Catherine at Dig Girl highlights the transparency that blogs lend, and how this can be scary for researchers. Many, she says, “are scared to be ‘called out’ on poor research plans or methodology.” This, as she states, undermines our ability to be reflexive and “it needs to be acceptable within the field to point out the shortcomings in our approaches.” I can’t agree more, and consider the taboo surrounding the discussion of field methodology to be frustrating and disheartening. I would also agree with her characterizing the short form (blog writing) as “an outlet for thought processes and emotional reactions” and while publishing on a blog certainly has a certain form of permanence (see the MSU response), you can change your mind on the blog and restate your argument or opinions, unlike academic publishing. If the reader chooses to only pay attention to your earlier beliefs without following up on the often hyperlinked revisions, it is their failure in understanding, not your failure to communicate. Her final point, the illusion of dialog in blogging, will be addressed in this week’s question below!

Bill Caraher at The New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World finishes us off here, sharing his manual for student contributions at the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project–excellent guidelines to follow for most archaeology project blogging. I wrote something less elaborate but similar for Dhiban in 2009, but a lot of the considerations are specific to the politics of antiquities in Jordan. Bill makes the excellent note that “if an archaeological projet does not blog or maintain a presence in the digital world, that project is basically ceding a significant aspect of their public face to other people.” In fact, it’s so excellent I’m gonna put it in bold. Be the loudest voice in the room. Tell people about your findings before they use them to misrepresent the past. It’s pretty simple, really.

Finally, the gang at MSU sum it up for us, urging to “wield their (bloggers’) public power for the greater good” (Katy Meyers). I was happy to hear from Chris Stawski that the Campus Archaeology program protects their bloggers and provides the “wonderful, albeit unique, situation in which we can share details about our research and excavations to the public; so unique that we can use blogging and social media to show in real-time where we are, what we are digging, and what we are finding.” It’d be nice if all digs were like that–radical transparency would be a bit scary, but refreshing. Lynne Goldstein backs up Terry’s response, reinforcing the institutional link to project blogging and the importance of representing the complexities of any potentially problematic situation. She also goes on to restate an ongoing theme–a candidate up for a job at MSU had “posts and photos that our faculty member found offensive and potentially unethical” and the candidate was eliminated from the job pool. This is obviously scary as hell, but I really hope that it does not encourage greater anonymity in blogging. This is exactly what the academic blogging world does not need. Kristin Sewell lays out ten rules of blogging–I agree with much of them, but part of me hopes that we’re not becoming blogging robots, thinking only of our careers and not speaking truth to power. As always, I suppose it all depends on what your goals are. Grace Krause makes the point that a good blog marries scholarly information with an attractive, engaging presentation. Specifically, “a blog that encourages creative thinking instead of endless facts and dominant opinions will be far more likely to reach a greater audience.”

I’m happy to end on this note, as this post has become tl;dr.  Thanks again for all of the outstanding responses, and I apologize that this is a bit late. Also, I apologize if I’ve left anyone out–if so, please email me the link to your post.

Catherine’s response at Dig Girl has provided this week’s question. She writes, “A final downside to the short form is the appearance of dialog. Noting this virtual round table and other blogs (like MS) as exceptions, most archaeological blogs that I read have very little in the way of dialog through comments. Often on this blog, I feel like I am talking to myself, which in a way is catharsis, but if an archaeology blogger writes and no one reacts, are we really changing opinions or moving the field forward?” I would add to this, how do you attract readership? Without too much in the way of SEO chatter, who is your audience and how to you interact with this audience? What do you want out of interactivity by means of blogging about archaeology?

22 responses to “Blogging Archaeology – Week 3

  1. Hi Colleen, sorry for the late contribution, but because I don’t work for an institution, I always feel like at outsider at these things. This is one problem with blogging; since it is on the internet, it cannot be trusted, and has no legitimate status, and unlike peer-reviewed literature, you have to think for yourself about it!

    I blog because I have no alternative; I have twenty years research into reverse–engineering buildings and structures from their foundations, particularly postholes, and even though these are the features that archaeologist find most often, this is an unprecedented area of research.
    This research is not part of the academic system for two reasons:
    I] I can no longer afford it; academic institutions are money making institution and research is only as significant as the funding behind it. Nobody is interested in research unless you pay them, it has no intrinsic value, beyond the funding it attracts.

    2] My research is fairly objective, working directly with the physical evidence, and this clashes with an academic culture that is increasingly opinion driven, where academics claim to understand the past through their insights into perceptions and cosmologies of its participants.

    In short, I was blackballed from a Newcastle University by someone who knew nothing about the engineering of buildings, but was expert in ‘Iron Age building cosmologies’ – how people she had never met felt about living in buildings she had never seen.

    This is typical of the sort of intellectual conceit that can flourish in peer-reviewed humanities, but it trumps objectivity every time. But a professional archaeologist just can’t go there; we cannot make up stories about the past.

    Blogging is the only way to get my research to a wider audience, and find those people that can understand structures on a physical, rather than quasi-psychological, level. It allows me to present your material in an innovative way, directly to those who are interested; I can write in a style than can be understood by most people, it’s available free, all over the world, in colour, 24 hours a day, and in all major languages, [subject to the limitations of google translation!]. It lets me to make a small contribution in redressing the balance, demystifying my subject, and making it available to its ultimate stakeholders.

    The downside is that once you show yourself cable of thinking outside the box, you will probably never work again, will never be able pay an academic institution to legitimise your work.

    However, for me, blogging, like archaeology, should be about understanding rather than belief.

  2. Pingback: Blogging Archaeology and Comments « The New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

  3. Thanks for the bold faced text!! And I have offered my meager insights to audience and comments on blogs here: http://mediterraneanworld.wordpress.com/2011/03/15/blogging-archaeology-and-comments/

    Thanks again for organizing this and I am getting more and more bummed that I won’t be joining the festivities in the spring!

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  5. Great wrap Colleen, thanks for including my post. What interests me is the diverse character of blogging in archaeology (and more broadly) ranging from the semi-formal research blogging style through to more casual and engaging conversational style (something I think you do particularly well!). I tend to agree that “pure research or news blogs without a personality attached is, well, boring” but you imply (a little) that adopting a professional stance/approach leads to this kind of blog. I don’t agree with this – I think a blog can/should be whatever its author(s) want it to be, but that whatever style they are, professional archaeologists should maintain professional standards, particularly in regards to ethics. The best blogs, in my view, are those that can adopt an engaging approach while being professional and sending good messages.
    Thanks!

  6. I agree with Mick on this point. Being professional doesn’t equate being boring or dry, it simply means that if we’re going to be representatives of our profession, we need to maintain professional standards. My point was that this is critical since we have put ourselves out there as these representatives online. This is a tremendous responsibility, so we want to make sure we are doing it right. The article in the nytimes the other day, that you critiqued a few posts back, is a perfect example of this: the nytimes archaeologist did not follow good archaeological standards, and has presented terrible archaeological methods to quite a lot of people. The post, and his excavation, is unprofessional, and represents our discipline poorly. You’re post brings this to light, and counters his by discussing the proper technique and the very real danger of conducting archaeological excavations, and did so in a serious, but entertaining way. This is valuable, and exactly a representation of a professional and unprofessional approach to blogging that I’m referencing.

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  10. Here’s mine, finally. I think the chicken fried steak and Lone Star brought out a little bit more of the Texan in me than usual.

    http://whereinthehellami.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/blogging-archaeology-week-3-is-this-thing-on/

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  13. Forgot to post that our response to the Week 3 question is up at the MSU Campus Archaeology website – campusarch.msu.edu.

  14. After an eventful week, I managed to get a post in under the wire for week 3…

    http://ht.ly/4iDiJ

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