Blog media hot and cool

Phil Ford

In my last post, I wrote that I didn’t really think full-on academic writing really works in a blog. In response, commenter Mark wrote the following:

My opinion is that academic writing needs to lighten up, without losing its rigor.

I think that writing can be totally serious, dense, intense, without
being laden with jargon and only for the initiated. I think that
academic writing should take something of blogs’ lightness.

The question is, what is lightness?  (besides the way Joe Henderson takes a solo)?

When I started blogging, I thought that the medium’s main benefit to scholars would be a matter of distribution. Your blog could put you in touch with a wider audience than conventional print media, it could get your ideas out faster, and it would enable a kind of virtual symposium, where your colleagues could challenge your ideas and your own work would profit thereby. And this is all true — these are real benefits of blogging. But what I didn’t realize at first is how much the medium shapes your output. Lately, I’ve been thinking more that the real change that blogging brings about in scholarly communication is not a matter of distribution but a matter of style and form. The blog medium encourages the “lightness” that Mark mentions. Whether this is a good thing or not is a matter for discussion. I think it is, though I know that many of my non-blogging colleagues will disagree. But before getting into the question of whether lightness is a good thing, it’s worth asking what it is.

Since I don’t want to be taken for a radical technological determinist, I should say at once that there is nothing compulsory about blogging style: some academic blogs consist of posts that are really just chunks of straight-up academic writing. Mark Zobel’s now-vanished pedagogy blog was like that, and Sound and Mind also goes in that direction, as in this review-essay on Carol L. Krumhansl’s Cognitive Foundations of Musical Pitch.  But elsewhere on Sound and Mind — on this post dealing with J. P. Kirnberger’s The Art of Strict Composition, for instance — you get a mode of scholarly exposition that you wouldn’t see in an academic journal. This isn’t only because the post starts by begging indulgence for low blog output (a well-worn incipit of academic blog posts). First of all, about half of the total wordage of the post is quoted material, and while there is a brief introduction saying why the material is being quoted, the quotes are allowed to stand alone, pretty much, and speak for themselves. Second, the context that Kris Shaffer provides for these quotes is personalized — he writes that “this passage has served me well in recent weeks in framing my thoughts and discussion of the theories of David Temperley, Carol Krumhansl, Fred Lerdahl, David Lewin” etc. In other words, the ideas contained here (dealing with a phenomenological exploration of musical perception as a corrective to geometric representations of musical space) are presented as items from an evolving project that is taking place largely “off-camera,” but which can be glimpsed informally on the blog as it evolves. The blogging of the project is about the process, not the product, and about an evolving personal relationship to the material. Blogging is in this sense more “meta” than most forms of academic communication.

The weaker technological-determinist argument is that while you can resolve to use a medium however you want, long-term engagement with any medium will tend to knock the edges off your resolve and shape your pronouncements anyway. You can start off deciding that you’re going to use your blog to post bits of your formal academic writing, but as you do it for longer and develop a relationship to other parts of the blogosphere (the sine qua non of the medium), your style of exposition will tend to reflect your engagement.

I find myself thinking about Marshall McLuhan at moments like this. McLuhan was (and is, for those few who still bother to think about him) notorious for being a bit of a humbug. McLuhan developed ideas through thought-experiments, not arguments — “probes,” he called them — which means that not everything he wrote was intended as truth, exactly. Which means that a lot of what he wrote was frankly BS — except when it wasn’t. Sometimes, you read McLuhan for truth-statements about the media; sometimes, you read McLuhan the way you would read a sci-fi novel, as a way of imagining what the media might be doing to us (cf. William Gibson); sometimes you read McLuhan the way you read Abbie Hoffman, as someone who may have been full of it, but who was full of it in a typically and interestingly 1960s way; and in any given passage, it’s never entirely clear which of these options you should take. One of his ideas I’ve always dismissed as humbug was his distinction of “hot” and “cool” media. Hot media, he says, are those that are high-definition, information-dense, and repel interaction. According to McLuhan, the book is the classic hot medium, because you treat it as a kind of data dump from the author’s brain into yours, and while you might dispute an author’s statements, you are in a basically passive relationship to him. It’s not as if you can argue with him, or re-write the book as you read it — the most you can do is scrawl notes in the margins. (And McLuhan believed that the regimented and uniform appearance of the post-Gutenberg book makes the book an even hotter, less interactive medium). TV, on the other hand, is a cool medium, according to McLuhan. It’s a low-definition medium, literally when McLuhan was writing, and more figuratively even now, because there’s much less in the way of behavioral and cognitive compulsion. You can customize TV to your use much more easily (mute it, change the channel, go out to the kitchen and make a sandwich), and the nature of the broadcast content (generic, episodic) itself invites participation. That’s the argument, anyway. As I said, I never completely bought it.

But the hot/cool distinction kind of works for blog posts, actually. The “four theses on entertainment” post I did the other day is a “hot” piece of writing. It’s not quite right to say that it repelled interaction; after all, I got two splendid responses from Galen Brown and Mark’s above-quoted comment, which in turn inspired this blog post. But it is the kind of writing (dense, high-definition, “hot”) that circumscribes the ways you can profitably interact with it. Galen’s comments were responses in kind — serious, carefully thought-out engagements with my arguments, mapping zones of agreement and disagreement. You don’t get a lot of snark, jokes, off-hand comments, links to funny Youtube clips, etc., in response to this kind of post. (“LOL, ur historicization of disenchantment is teh SUCK111!!!”)

And you also seldom get links for those sorts of posts. I’ve often noticed how it’s the posts that I took most seriously (like this one), the ones that take 90% of my blog-related time, that end up being ignored in the blogopshere, while the ones I spend 5 minutes putting together get the mad blog love. Posts with funny Youtube clips, posts that are weakly point-driven and wander all over the place, posts that mention Bob Dylan, posts that make dumb or unsustainable claims, posts that try to set memes in circulation, posts that are contests or quizzes (e.g., make your own musicological lolcat, make an iPod random playlist) — these will win you links, site hits, comments, and contributions, because they are “cool” in the McLuhanite sense. They’re less “dense,” less “high-definition,” and offer a wider variety of ways you  can react to them; they have open pockets, lots of interstitial spaces that others can fill in for themselves. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing (the usual whinge that blogging lowers the level of discourse, etc.), but there’s no question that if academic blogging has a future — if people do it more and more and it starts to have an effect on scholarship as a whole — then I suspect it will have the effect of “cooling down” the discipline. The implications of that are probably best left to another day, since this post has gotten very hot indeed, and rather long.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Blog media hot and cool

  1. Mark Couture says:

    About the hotness/coolness: If blogs are hot, but I’m interested, I copy the text, print it, and read it at my leisure, on paper. It turns them into book-bricks (edifying texts) instead of weightless cybertexts. I engage them in a different way, and scrawl in the margins. They lose those “open pockets” that you mention.
    My inspiration for the comment was Italo Calvino; and, aptly, not so much what he says in his essay on lightness, but the way it opened itself to my own concerns.
    Lightness in music is a certain way of phrasing one’s notes (in jazz terms, “dancing” over the accompaniment). Lightness in dance is the Fred Astaire thing. So what is lightness in language? I suppose it’s a complexity that is not weighted down with intellectual metaphor that impedes or obstructs. Metaphor that ceases to be a conduit to meaning.
    Heaviness could be caused by a reference inserted just to impress the status-obsessed reader. (Cervantes joked about this in the prologue to the Quijote … He had writer’s block, so his friend said, don’t worry, just lace the thing with Latin quotes, the prologue will write itself).
    Academics should strive to be light without being lightweights; to leaven their texts with humor and word play (levity) if they’re so inclined, without compromising communicative effectiveness.
    I hope it is possible. It would be a shame if we said all fun is to be had in the blogs …serious writing must, of necessity, be weighty.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I wonder, Phil. In the first place, as I was taught in the public library in a summer book program when I was 7, books will wait for you, whenever you’re ready to continue reading. You use *THIS* (a bookmark, which we all got for free), and the the book is ready to start right where you left off. In a key way, this is a much cooler media behavior than TV, because you can at least “pause” the book; it only dumps data at the rate you’re willing to accept it. You make the call, in other words. With TV, it just spews, and unless you have other technology (VCR, higher-tech stuff) if you missed it, you missed it. The mute and off switch are not interaction with the medium, they are at best the modern way of running away and hiding in the trees.
    The thing about books is there’s a kind of solidity, a permanence that enables one to go back again and again. Slightly less permanent is a journal, less still a magazine, less still and newspaper, and at the other end…electronic media. Probably online journals are more permanent than blogs, for some reason or other.
    Maybe relative permanence is the spectrum, not hot-to-cool regarding interactivity. In any case, the McLuhan bit as you described it did not make a lot of sense to me.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Well, as I say, I never really bought the hot/cool distinction as a theory of literature — which is how 90% of intellectuals in the 1960s engaged with it. You can see this in several now-very-dated essay anthologies on McLuhan, all of which keep asking whether “books are dead.” No, as it turns out, they’re not. It’s the various 1960s attempts at publishing experimental “cool” books (blank pages for the reader to fill, experimental layouts that break the tyranny of post-Gutenberg space, etc.) that are dead, the problem being that a good book is more engaging than a bad one, no matter what the margin width is.
    It’s sometimes been remarked that McLuhan’s stranger ideas needed the internet to become more comprehensible, and that’s how I feel about the hot/cool distinction — I do think that some blog posts are hotter than others. McLuhan, by the way, would probably get all Annie Hall on me if he could read this. He believed that entire media were hot or cool, not that one piece of media content (a single blog post, say) could be hot or cool. As his ubiquitous “medium is the message” aphorism shows, he didn’t think much about the content of media — thought it was a distraction, actually.

  4. ashok says:

    Just wandered on in from the Chronicle’s Footnoted blog.
    I was curious – has anyone made a distinction between blog posts and the blog itself?
    The blog itself has a writing peculiar to it. But if you indulge in that kind of writing on the blog, and only that kind of writing, you only get a certain kind of audience, and a certain reaction.
    In fact, it looks like our concept of what is appropriate for a blog has been shaped by what the audience seems to like. Emphasis on “seems” – we don’t know that just because something gets lots of comments and responses that it is liked. There is still such a thing as keeping one’s distance from opining on things one is working to understand. Something can be liked a lot and yet not ever be mentioned by the person who likes it.
    It looks to me what should characterize academic blogging is a diversity of entries, i.e. “lightness” could be in the variety given to the reader. One day a good academic blogger could say something about a trip he’s taking, another day he could link to a paper he’s presenting and ask for comments, yet another day he could have a blog entry that is deeper than anything which could be presented at a conference, as it is a mix of the personal (why am I in this field) and the current state of research/thought.
    But if one takes “lightness” to work like that, then I wonder what that does to the discipline. It does “cool” it down in one sense, as the reader is invited to make sense of the scrapbook that is before him. But it also intensifies the “heat” in a huge way – it means one is living and breathing one’s discipline, and the barrier for entering the academic’s world is higher than it was before (it may not seem higher because anyone can comment, but notice how in our democratic age anyone is able to find niche content easily and yet niches get more and more focused and more difficult to access).
    Did I just say the same thing you did, or did I miss the point completely, or what? I’m lost now, I’m not sure what I wanted to argue. Thanks for listening to this rant.

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