ckelty’s $10 thoughts on blogging in anthropology

I got roped into a panel on “Writing for a general audience,” which is, strangely, one that you need to sign up and pay $10 for, I think because it is designated as a “workshop” — i’m thinking that this might be a rip off, given what we already pay… and it’s not like I’m seeing that money.   But I digress.  In any case, here’s what I produced for the workshop, which I guess I should charge you $10 for just so that the people in the workshop don’t feel cheated and all.  Maybe you could buy a shirt instead

ckelty’s unimportant, quickly written, barely proofread, profound thoughts on blogging (in particular with respect to anthropology), including some clear ‘do as I say, not as I do’ moments.

Why blog?

  1. Blogging is so not for everyone.  The first reason to blog is to figure out whether it is for you.  And this is part of the point:  there is no cost or barrier to blogging.  Anyone can do it, and anyone who says that there is a digital divide is selling you snake oil of one kind or another.  What they usually mean is: not everyone is equal.  This is true, and sadly, blogging won’t change that.

  2. Blog because you want to, and if you are lucky because people want to read what you write.  Getting people to read what you write is not hard.  Getting the right people to read what you write is very hard.  On the other hand, it’s easier to get the anthropologist in the office next to yours to read a blog post about your last article than your last article—and might force you to elegantly and concisely communicate what it’s about and why it is important.  And if you don’t have an office, all the more reason to blog about your articles!  If you don’t have any articles, definitely stop blogging now.

Why blog in anthropology?

1. Because if we don’t, no one will.  And I don’t just mean blog, I mean talk about what anthropologists do, and write things about what is great in anthropology right now. The key to making blog posts interesting to other anthropologists?  Blog about anthropology.  The old saw about writing what you know goes here.

  1. Because it makes anthropology public.  The calls for a public anthropology have been coming for decades, but it’s not going to happen unless people take the risk of interacting—not just with “the public” (whoever they are), but with their peers around the country and around the world; with anthropologists who teach at community colleges, work in corporations, or left the practice for greener pastures, but never gave up loving anthropology… aaaah.

  2. Because it’s a way to talk to other anthropologists as if they were human. Anthropologists, more than any other discipline I interact with, suffer from low self-esteem about their discipline.  This problem correlates directly with the level of public awareness and discussion of anthropology, which correlates directly with that bizarre desire to engage in debate in the article or the monograph… Blogging is a way of writing as if you were talking to someone, rather than as if you were saying something once and for all.

Observation: in five years of blogging at savage minds, I have seen less than a handful of comments from established (i.e. famous) anthropologists.  This does not mean they are not reading it (because they do mention it when I meet them), but that this particular form of interaction is still not seen as legitimate.  As long as this is the case, anthropology will fail to be “public” in any meaningful sense, and the famous anthropologists will continue to lament the fact that the New York Times doesn’t write about our work.

What sucks about blogging?

  1. your audience. You can’t control it.  It’s not a seminar room, it’s not the AAA.  They ask weird questions, they don’t seem to have read Talal Asad or Emily Martin or whoever, and don’t seem embarrassed by that fact.  Sometimes they are mean. Really mean.  Sometimes they take offence, really take offence, and then it feels like you spend the next three days obsessing about whether you are a bad person.  But most of the time, they actually read what you write, and sometimes are moved to say something, sometimes really nice things (Thank you John McCreery).

  2. the 72-hour attention span.  Regardless of how much time you put into a piece, it will only generate attention for 72 hrs, give or take a day.  Most posts disappear without comment.  If you are blessed/cursed as I am to write for a blog that more than 5 people read (and I love ALL SIX of our readers equally), then you will get a comment, two comments, maybe 30 or 40 comments wherein people are arguing and calling each other names and talking about religion and politics (see 4 below). But then it dies down in anticipation of the next post (see 5 below).  Spending longer than 72 hours working on a blog post:  really stupid idea.

  3. the space it takes up in your brain.   Posting on a blog causes a temporary behavioral disorder (don’t worry it only lasts 72 hrs, see the previous point).  Kind of like obsessively checking status updates, or in old school terms, walking out to the mailbox every hour.  It’s the anxiety of writing condensed into a small time frame and usually regarding a largely unimportant issue.  If you have this anxiety, I think it is a good thing, because it makes you more conscientious about what you write.  Unfortunately, blogging might not be the best avocation for you.

  4. Off topic much? What was the post about again?  Thread hijacking is a frequent feature of the blogosphere.  But really, this isn’t all that different from the seminar room now is it?  Of course, if you want to keep your comments on point, it requires being even more obsessive about your blog posts (see 3 above).

  5. Blogging is a relentless activity: it suits people who have always got something they want to say, or those who see something fascinating in everything they observe.  Add to that just a bit of skill in presenting it, and you have a blogger.  The rest of us struggle to come up with interesting topics and takes, while an angry mob of six readers stands virtually outside your door waiting for you to post the next thing.  This is why group blogging is a good idea.  It’s particularly why group blogging with people like Kerim Friedman and Alex Golub (who fit the description above) is a good idea.

How do you write a good blog post?

It should be clear from the above, but let me condense it:

Rule 1. Don’t spend longer writing it than your readers will commenting on it.  The point is communication, not publication.

Lemma 1a. Don’t give up on the craft of writing.  A well constructed blog post is a great thing, and it’s good practice.  It is it’s own genre, a hybrid of a news article, an op-ed piece, an aphorism, and a critical review.

Rule 2.  Blog about anthropology.  Most of our anthropology brethren break this rule, and blog primarily about what’s in the news.  But who needs an anthropology blog to do that?  If it’s about what’s in the news, but also about what anthropology has to say: much better.

Exercise: Blog about a journal article you read recently.  We need far more of this kind of informal discussion of our work.  Think how pleased you would be if someone blogged about your research…  This exercise hones two valuable skills: a) the ability to communicate what an article says and why it is important better than the article does itself and b) the ability to do so in a language and tone that flatters the author, provokes your audience to thought and doesn’t take you longer than a couple of hours.

Rule 3. Love your comments.  If you get them, be grateful, even if they spew vitriol and hate.  Encourage discussion rather than foreclosing it.  But…

Lemma 3a: Never, never, never feed the trolls. Trolls are an invasive species on the internet and the blogosphere is a rich broth for their reproduction.  Only respond to good comments, ignore (i.e. do not respond to or mention) bad ones.

Rule 4: Post early and often. Even though it might seem like no one is reading your posts, believe me, they are, and they will, if they keep coming.  Again, group blog makes this easier.  If you start a blog, post for a month and then stop, people will stop reading it until you start writing again.   Having an audience is an incredibly important aspect of this practice, but you don’t get one without trying.

Lemma 4a.  Communicate with the other blogs in the anthropology blogosphere… tell them about your posts, comment on their posts, link to their blogs, tweet, update, check-in, whatever, but recognize that this is about social intercourse, not armchair reflection.

Rule 5.  Never follow rules written by bloggers.  All Cretans are Liars.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

15 thoughts on “ckelty’s $10 thoughts on blogging in anthropology

  1. Chris, thanks for the stroke. Another benefit of blogging or commenting on blogs is summed up in the title of William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn. The immediate repayment for trying to craft a well-written blog or comment is improvement in one’s own knowledge and skills.

  2. Interesting way of looking at it. Reminds me of the Clerks line about how retail would be cool if it wasn’t for the fucking customers. I guess teaching would be cool if not for the students, as blogging is cool except for the readers. If there’s one thing that I love about my discipline is that there’s always a place for an elitist like me.

  3. Rick, so you were that student who made teaching a burden, who thought he was better than everyone else in the program, and always made the seminar groan when he opened his mouth?3

  4. One more:

    “Blog about anthropology. Most of our anthropology brethren break this rule, and blog primarily about what’s in the news. But who needs an anthropology blog to do that? If it’s about what’s in the news, but also about what anthropology has to say: much better.”

    I think there are a couple of different ways to go with this–either write for an anthro audience, OR look at particular issues from an anthropological perspective. There are a lot of blogs that talk to anthropologists specifically–I think there is room for some that use anthropology as a foundation or starting point for critically discussing a whole range of issues. Sometimes I’d rather see an anthropologist provide a good exploration of an idea or issue, rather than foregrounding the fact that they are an anthropologist all the time. That’s just me.

  5. I understand Ryan’s point. But for me, I read SM because it is (often) anthropologists talking about anthropology. When it turns into anthropologists talking about the news (often more politically than anthropologically inspired, it seems), my eyes glaze over. Anthropologists should definitely provide a perspective on current affairs and ideas for a broader audience, but SM is not the best venue for this.

  6. Michael,

    “When it turns into anthropologists talking about the news (often more politically than anthropologically inspired, it seems), my eyes glaze over. Anthropologists should definitely provide a perspective on current affairs and ideas for a broader audience, but SM is not the best venue for this.”

    I hear you–good point. And I don’t disagree with you. I think there is actually room for expanding a few different ways of writing about anthropology–from more internally-focused forums such as SM, to those that try to speak to broader audiences from an anthropological perspective.

  7. I have been an avid blogger in the past, albeit never about anthropology (although recently I’ve thought of making a blog about my struggles to pay down my student loan debt, and that’s indirectly about anthropology). My pattern has been to run out of steam after about 6 months. It becomes just another obligation. I wonder if a group blog would help with that. I know that some folks in the English dept at Rice are trying to start an interdisciplinary blog and enthusiastically soliciting us anthros.

  8. Thanks all for the comments. I delivered this blog-post as workshop information at the AAA… to a room full of people who seemed variously shocked and interested in the idea of blogging… a couple further clarifications.

    1) I really think there is a difference between an academic blog and the rest of the blogosphere. Academics can cultivate small audiences of people working on a project and genuinely take advantage of the affordances of a blog, but they have to have a goal and want to get something done. Generally speaking this kind of blog doesn’t attract a lot of interested outsiders, and that’s probably okay, because it should attract only those who really know they want to participate.

    2) SM is a different kind of beast, whether you choose the Hallway Metaphor or the Hotel Room metaphor, this blog is most often focused on the politics of anthropology as a discipline, which is why, I think, a lot of our readers remain interested in it. For better or for worse it is seen as a portal into the discipline. This assumption is neither entirely true nor entirely false. In any case, what we do here is to try to be anthropological about anthropology. Other blogs, like neuroanthropology or somatosphere are better at being anthropological about their research topics or about topics in the news relevant to their expertise. I think it’s a real skill to be able to think anthropologically about a contemporary problem and to write about it in such a way that your readers don’t necessarily know you just did that… rather than clubbing them with a Big Bourdieu Stick or an Agamben Taser.

  9. Thanks! It inspired me at least enough to start rifling around for some people I might be able to form a group-blog with, and hopefully enough to actually follow through.

  10. “…rather than clubbing them with a Big Bourdieu Stick or an Agamben Taser.”

    Classic. Nothing stops people faster than the weapons of the theoretically inclined!

  11. An anthropologist who does recognize that some people don’t have access to high speed internet?

    “.. anyone who says that there is a digital divide is selling you snake oil of one kind or another. “

  12. Thanks for this post. As a recent graduate with a BA in anthropology and a hopeful prospective anthropology graduate student, I have been discouraged by the lack of public discourse in the discipline at times, and see blogging in anthropology as a good way to get the critical views of anthropology and its important worldviews out there!

Comments are closed.