Peer Comment

Neil Asher Silberman

Coherit Associates, USA.

Cite this as: Silberman, N. A. (2015) Peer Comment, Internet Archaeology 39.

I come to this discussion as a generational outsider — transported to the world of blogging, personal branding, and content strategising from an earlier academic mindset and from prolonged immersion in what you might call Late Fordist information technologies. Born in 1950, I was 30 before I began use a very primitive word processor and over 40 when I got my first BITNET address. And now in my mid-60s, I am only slowly beginning to understand the logic and grammar of online communication and multi-platform content management.

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I suppose I should be regarded as a generational representative of those against whom the authors struggle — to articulate their professional personae as a necessary step toward career advancement, and to gain full academic standing and credit for scholarly communication online. But I'm not opposed to any of this. I'm just trying to understand the language. And I think the two most serious challenges for me in commenting on this article are: 1) not to confuse new (and unfamiliar) modes of scholarly communication with faulty logic, and 2) not to write off what seems to be faulty logic by assuming that it's just a matter of my not understanding the technology.

What struck me immediately about this article is that its specific subject (archaeological looting, trafficking, and the illicit antiquities trade) is so marginal to its main theme. The title could just as well be 'Discussing archaeological authenticity online' or 'Discussing the politics of archaeology online', since the authors both write primarily about how the act of blogging can itself help or hurt a budding academic career. Indeed the ethical and/or intellectual merits of the specific ideas communicated in the blogs mentioned in this article are taken for granted. The contents seem to take second place to the behavioural dimensions: 'how academic blogs are being used, what audience is being reached, what impacts can be noted, and how it may contribute to researchers' careers in terms of investment and return on time and resources'.

The authors' observations are in no way specific to the issue of archaeological looting and illicit traffic, for blogging and social media, by their essentially networked and real-time character, have on many issues 'played a critical role in engaging countless numbers of actors… disseminating data that might otherwise go unnoticed or unstudied, and sharing information in real time' on issues that are of concern to online communities. These include (but certainly aren't restricted to) academic protests and boycotts (e.g. Silver 2014), heterodox theories (e.g. Bpnews 2014), indigenous intellectual property rights (e.g. Says 2014), and political/theological conflicts over archaeological sites (e.g. Vinay Lal 2010). In fact, the authors' most striking and thought-provoking insights relate to the personal and professional pros and cons of engaging in blogging activity.

In this respect, the case studies presented by the authors are quite generic and bound closely to the challenges they faced early in their careers. It's true that 'engaged scholarship' has become a watchword in current academic planning — and much like the words 'trans-' or 'multidisciplinary' there is no clear definition of what it is and how actually it is to be achieved within existing academic structures, tenure procedures, and standards of professional excellence. In fact, I would disagree with the authors that 'the development of the internet as a locus of information sharing has drastically altered the academic game'. It certainly has altered the visibility and creative outlets for postgraduates and early-career researchers and, as the authors point out, it has fed the need of university administrators to display information through hit counts and bounce rates that 'can be reduced to a series of charts to be reported to funding bodies and employers to demonstrate that we are worth our paycheques'. I'm not sure that this is changing the academic game as much as monitoring and publicising it.

What is most noteworthy among the authors' points is the utility of blogging for networking and personal branding. In their case studies, the authors' both ascribe their motivations to begin blogging to the lack of public outlets to display their expertise and thus create a clear persona within the field. As Donna put it, 'I wanted to create a window into my thinking as a researcher, not engage in activism per se'. Yet it is an activity that can be dropped when other academic commitments get in the way — a sure sign of its marginal status in formal scholarly life. And yet as an outlet for personal creativity and intellectual expression, its greatest strength is apparently its greatest danger for young academics who want to keep their heads down and just get along.

This is where I started to get a bit confused. In contrast to the earlier discussion of blogging as a valuable form of public outreach and engagement with estranged or wary audiences, Donna asserted that she does not need 'to provide a public medium for my ideas to be debated. I see the blog as a form of reporting ideas, broadcasting them even, that I pay to host. I am under no obligation to host arguments or opposing views'. Moreover, she noted with regret some angry posts she had published even though they were very popular — and presumably expanded her circle of influence. So what is the point of using the new medium yet moderating her prose? Playing the old academic game, not a new one, I would suggest. 'I know that I need to keep up a strong public profile if I want to be hired at the end of this', Donna wrote.

Meg's story is similar; her goal in beginning a blog was 'to carve a niche for myself in an emerging field'. Unfortunately, what appealed to me most was the element she found most dangerous: the irreverent vocabulary and the calling out of institutions and individuals by name. 'A particularly frank post about a certain institution's acquisitions earned me some friendships and a quote in the Ghanaian press, but inevitably became a source of nervousness and regret when I sought to interview curators from that museum for my dissertation.' And so she embraced a new perspective in which she became determined to straighten up and blog right. And so the article concludes with a description of an online Encyclopedia, which 'is indexed by Google Scholar as academic articles, unlike our blog posts, and through this portal we are seeing that academics cite Encyclopedia entries in traditional journal articles often and more frequently than any of our blog posts'.

There is a troubling ambivalence in stated motivation for blogging (engaging a wider public in meaningful discourse) and perceived benefit (academic networking, career advancement). And the last of their recommendations seems to undermine the personal fulfilment of blogging, whether outrageous or modest: 'We recommend employing experienced bloggers or social media experts to hold seminars and create guides to bring the expert voices on your payroll to a wider audience'. Hmmmm. Hiring ghost bloggers or blogging consultants? I'm not sure that these arguments are going to convince, or even communicate to, an older generation of academic decision makers and policy makers the value of blogging as an outlet for personal creativity and scholarship rather than just being a trendy form of PR. It seems to me that blogging must infuriate, provoke, and deeply engage wider publics — about looting, illicit traffic, or anything else. Blogging is an ideal medium for a public intellectual in an era that needs much more public debate. Yes, of course, be careful of libel laws. But have the courage not to self-censor. There's already plenty of surveillance and censorship in the academic world.

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