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 Or, when its original home has expired in some way–whether it has been taken down or the site is no longer maintained or updated (as is the current status of The Valve, where I did a lot of writing for a while) or the content has migrated–where is it then?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is that anyone might want to pick them up and take a look) I know where they are and the medium they are in will not be outdated.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?

The Shelf Life (Half-Life?) of Blog Posts

In a piece on the role (or not) of public intellectuals, Russell Jacoby raises some questions about blogging that I’ve wondered about too:

On the Internet, articles, blog posts, and comments on blog posts pour forth, but who can keep up with them? And while everything is preserved (or “archived”), has anyone ever looked at last year’s blogs?

“Rapidly produced,” he concludes, blog posts are “just as rapidly forgotten.” Jacoby is interested in how blogging has affected “the quality or content of intellectual discussions.” I’m interested in that too, but for now I’d just like to pick up on the issue of the status of past posts. For instance, as I familiarized myself with academic and literary blogs that looked interesting to me, I often found myself trailing through archives sometimes three or four years old. Some of the discussions–the most ‘occasional’ ones–obviously had become outdated, but others, including discussions of books, retain their currency just fine. But do they really? Well, not in practice, of course. Especially with the backwards chronology blogs impose, with newest always first, they do seem designed to keep us moving on. I’m also not aware of an easy way to locate material in blog archives unless the blogger has a particularly thorough index or set of labels or categories. Especially when discussions link back and forth across different blogs, the process of following older threads is extremely laborious. I guess I’m basically wondering about a couple of things: first, is there some “netiquette” principle that governs when a post ‘expires’ and ought not to be commented on any more? and second, does the perhaps fleeting nature of the attention any given blog post can have, as it is relentlessly shuttled down and down into the archives, add an extra dimension of futility to writing in this form?

Meanwhile, on the subject of public intellectuals, there’s much discussion at The Valve about Stanley Fish, who is busy actually being one, for better and for worse, with his own blog at the New York Times. The enormous chains of comments on his recent posts on ‘the uses of the humanities’ (the first one reached around 500 comments, I believe, while the second one is up to 244 as I write this) suggests the rapidly diminishing returns at this extreme end of the commenting scale. A recent comment thread at the Valve raised questions about the importance of commenting for measuring the success or value of blogging; I’ve noted a couple of times the generally low level of discussion on literary topics and, in a more general way, felt that without active back-and-forth blogging is not as worthwhile or rewarding as I’d initially hoped it would be. But, as blogging skeptics have often noted, the greater the quantity, typically the lower the quality of the discussion. I have only scanned the replies to Fish. In general, they seemed to stand up well to the threads over at the Guardian blog, which degenerate pretty quickly. But even so, who can process so many replies or synthesize them in any kind of meaningful way? (I recommend reading the Valve comments instead; there are “just” about 80 of them, including a number of extremely thoughtful and illuminating ones.)