The Unbearable Lightness of the Digital

I had an interesting chat with a colleague the other day about academic writing and publishing that shifting over, inevitably, into the changing ways we do our writing and publishing now. My colleague said, basically, that he can’t shake the feeling that there’s something particularly ephemeral about online publishing: when it’s not in front of you, after all, where is it? Or, when its original home has expired in some way–whether it has been taken down or the site is no longer maintained or updated (as is the current status of The Valve, where I did a lot of writing for a while) or the content has migrated–where is it then? With hard copies, they are always somewhere. I have offprints of my articles and reviews, for instance, as well as copies of my books. No matter how old they are (and how unlikely it is that anyone might want to pick them up and take a look) I know where they are and the medium they are in will not be outdated. Just the other night I was actually working on a piece and trying to remember something that, it occurred to me, could be easily found in my U.B. C. honours thesis c. 1990, which exists now only in a cerlox-bound copy on my shelf.

Even though I know digital content is (or at least can be) archived and stored and in many ways is actually more accessible and durable than some kinds of paper archives, I have sometimes had the same feeling as my colleague about online writing, especially blogging. I know that all my posts are still “there” and can be searched for and viewed easily enough. (I also make back-ups by way of preserving the content against unforeseen catastrophes. What if WordPress just shut down one day?!) But there’s something relentless about the way the posts scroll off the bottom of the page. That makes them seem to lose currency, even though, with book reviews at least, there’s no reason why they should. I have tried to counter that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ effect by building the blog index, which groups and lists posts in what I hope are useful ways and gives a little form to the range of topics I write about. But there’s something about not having anything tangible to show for all these years of writing. It’s one thing to pull a book off the shelf and put it in someone’s hand: here, look what I made! It’s more complicated to do that with a blog.

I thought of this recently when my faculty held its annual “Book Launch,” which (as journals and articles are also displayed) is really more of a research showcase than a book launch. There was no provision made this year for displaying digital projects, so as not one of my 2011 publications was in print, I had nothing to contribute. Well, I could have printed out copies of my book reviews and essays–but you don’t end up with something that looks quite right when you do that unless you can figure out some way to recreate banners, not to mention links. And how do you display a blog without a computer, if you did decide to insist that it deserved, literally, a place at the table?

I know that the kind of publishing I’ve been doing doesn’t really count as research by academic standards. It’s not just that I’m publishing in digital-only forms but that I’m writing for a non-academic audience, and while I do often draw on original research, I’m putting it to slightly unconventional purposes. Because I’m well aware of this and have decided to live with the professional consequences, I’m not really upset about the book launch, though I will suggest that next time they make sure to have computers set up, as I know I’m not the only one whose research is being disseminated electronically, while other people in the faculty are at work on archival or other digital projects that really deserve to be shown off even though they aren’t books. The MLA has been advising us for years now to “decenter” the monograph, after all: here’s an opportunity to think through how we can do that.

But I do feel odd–bereft, even–that I’ve done all this writing and from a certain perspective it’s invisible. It’s not any less “there” than the offprints of articles I have filed away, but why does it feel as if it is more transient, more ephemeral? Am I just still, in spite of everything, in thrall to print? Is it a sentimental thing? Do those of you who also keep blogs ever find yourself fretting that for all your hours of writing, you have created something that seems oddly insubstantial?

7 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of the Digital

  1. KarenB March 22, 2012 / 11:56 pm

    No, I don’t fret, because when I designed my site from scratch, I specified a width that fit on 8 1/2 by 11″ paper, so that content could be:

    (a) sent to a printer, where the content issues forth the way it looks in the browser (I use a colour printer if I want the graphics colours to reproduce exactly); or
    (b) converted into a pdf (I open Adobe Acrobat Pro, tell it to make a pdf, and specify the URL to use), and

    Voila, my writing is in a portable hard-copy or electronic format. (There’s also a button on my browser that says “Convert current web page to an Adobe pdf file,” courtesy of my Adobe Acrobat Pro 10 program, but it’s not working properly at the moment.)

    I just created a pdf of your current post by way of option (b) above, and it looks good, including the banner. Spelling out link URLs if a file is printed is a separate problem, perhaps solved in pdf format by using sticky notes or some other form of annotation.


  2. Laura Vivanco March 23, 2012 / 7:56 am

    My suspicion is that if something is freely available online, it’s likely to be read by a larger number of people. That’s one reason why I’ve been very happy to have some of my work published in an open-access e-journal. Perhaps there will never be a huge audience for academic writing about some specialised topics, but it seems to me that there’s little to no chance of a non-specialist finding my work if it’s only available in paper format and in a few academic libraries. For example, I’ve just put online a couple of articles which were published in conference proceedings and until I did, those probably wouldn’t even have been readily available to the majority of the potentially-interested academics.

    As for blog posts, my feeling is that often they’re the equivalent of the kinds of thing one might say in discussions at a seminar or at a conference as one chats with colleagues. However, instead of being as truly ephemeral as those conversations, they’re preserved online. In addition, it seems to me that blog posts are the right length for exploring ideas that are unlikely to grow big enough to become a paper and would therefore never even have been submitted to a journal.

    Similarly, the papers that I’ve submitted to the open-access e-journal probably couldn’t have been published anywhere else. If that particular journal didn’t exist (and it probably wouldn’t if it had had to be printed on paper) there would have been nowhere at all where I could have had that work published. Having it available online and capable of being downloaded as a pdf makes it a lot less ephemeral than it would have been sitting in my brain or as a document which never left my computer.


  3. Rohan March 23, 2012 / 9:14 am

    Karen, those are good workarounds, but it’s interesting that first, you do still see value in being able to create a print version, and second, you can’t show off the blog itself by doing that, only individual posts (though of course you can collate the content in different ways). Though I agree with Laura that posts are typically not the same long or considered content that an article would be anyway (though of course there’s no reason in principle why they couldn’t be), cumulatively a blog is something more than individual posts, I think, and one of the things that’s tricky is trying to show what it all adds up to over time. Printing out one or two (or ten or twenty) posts is a kind of compromise, I guess, between the actual form of the writing and a more familiar form. It is certainly true that writing online makes all kinds of material accessible that otherwise might just have been on someone’s PC or in their notebooks, so in this respect blogging is less ephemeral and less cloistered than some kinds of work in print.


  4. Stefanie March 23, 2012 / 11:48 am

    These are issues of digital preservation that a good many libraries and librarians are trying to work through. I think in an academic environment it should also include helping faculty create and preserve archives of their work. For preservation of personal digital files, the Library of Congress has recently begun a program on getting the word out about it through public libraries. They also have a blog, The Signal, specifically about digital preservation issues.

    For me personally, blogging doesn’t feel ephemeral at all. Other than making a back up of my posts in a easy to preserve and update format (rich text) I don’t feel the need to print anything out. Print outs require physical storage, organization and preservation too after all. I guess I don’t see the need to make more work for myself, not to mention not having the room in my house for it.


  5. JoVE March 24, 2012 / 3:34 pm

    Your blog posts are of different types. It occurs to me that if you wanted to create a collection of book reviews, for example, you could do that and publish the collection as an e-book, which you could link in the sidebar. That might meet different needs than the blog and be a nice format for catching up on your past work if one was new.

    There is a plug-in for WordPress that allows you to do this (creation funded by an NEH grant a couple of years ago; I learned about it through folks involved that I follow in
    Twitter). It’s calle Anthologize and it also let’s you edit the posts you put into the anthology without editing their original versions on the blog, and add linking text etc. You can export to various formats including PDF and RichText if you wanted a prntable book.

    I’m not suee if you can use this plug-in on a hosted site or if you need a self-hosted site. I suspect once blogging becomes as central to your output as it has for you, you might want to consider a self-hosted site anyway.


  6. Rohan March 24, 2012 / 7:18 pm

    Jo: Good suggestions. I think I read about Anthologize on ProfHacker: it sounds like it would be a good way to re-purpose some of these posts. I’ll have to ask the Open Letters webmaster if this is a plug-in I can use here.

    Kerry: you are right, of course. The blog is the thing. I think what I was feeling was not so much a practical thing (though it has been helpful getting such practical responses and suggestions) but more an emotional thing. I am happy with blogging as a platform for my writing, as a medium for writing. I like what it lets me do. I just sometimes feel sort of wistful, especially when I’m hanging out, as I usually do, with people who do little or no reading online, that I can’t hand them a copy of it (the way they hand me copies of their books) and say “see? I made something too!”


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