Peer Comment

Suzanne E. Pilaar BirchORCID logo

Department of Anthropology/Department of Geography, University of Georgia, USA.

Cite this as: Pilaar Birch, S.E. (2015) Peer Comment, Internet Archaeology 39.

This piece stands as a thoughtful review of the course of academic blogging in archaeology over the last several years. Caraher and Reinhard make several astute observations that can be summed up as a discussion of the changing form, focus, and role of blogging in academic archaeology. Here, I reflect on each of these areas and consider some of the issues facing academic blogging today as well as directions for the future.

1. Form

Caraher begins by stating that blogging has changed from a forum on the sidelines or fringes of academic discussion to occupy a more central role as it has 'come of age'. I would agree that a large part of this has to do with an essential change in form as blogging becomes more amorphous and integrated within the larger hybrid body of social media. The less 'plugged-in' a blog is to other forms of social media, the less visible it is; does this necessarily mean it has less impact on the scholarly community, or is it wholly an issue of public engagement? That may be a separate argument and depends on the intended audience. Nevertheless, Caraher evokes Kottke's hyperbolic assertion that the blog is dead (cf. Kottke 2013) as a way of pointing out this amalgamation. Twitter and Tumblr have long been identified as micro-blogging platforms, and the importance of comments that might link back to posts or relevant articles even on external sites such as Reddit cannot be discounted from engagement. Reinhard touches on this in his discussion of the necessity of generating blog content that can then be pinged to via social media networks. Even as the use of older forms of social media like Facebook and RSS feeds declines, image-based apps that have more popular appeal have grown, such as Pinterest and Instagram, and so has the ubiquity of the podcast. These cannot be left out of the discussion when it comes to considering emergent forms of daily, weekly, and monthly recording and sharing — the essence of it all.

Caraher also mentions venues like Medium, which seem a next logical step for collaboration between a small group of experts in terms of publishing, with opportunity for critical engagement on the topic from a specific audience (cf. Davies and Merchant 2007; Bonacchi 2012). Group blogging is also another way of talking to each other while creating a sense of removal from the comments section that might otherwise detract from the legitimacy of the respondent's statements. This type of format, and in fact, the format of this issue of Internet Archaeology, is a prudent formula for academic publishers to follow if they want to continue to be relevant in the fast-changing scene of research dissemination via the Internet while still producing a peer-reviewed product.

2. Focus

Caraher's 2008 article had hailed the blog as a place where the academic and popular came together, as he puts it, in a 'bizarre blend'. To some extent this is still true, depending on form and focus; many academic blogs contain a variety of posts that include topics such as paper reviews, musings on related books, and conference rundowns as well as personal achievements and struggles that may or may not be explicitly related to archaeology. In addition, many of these academic/personal blogs fuse theory, professional practice, and popular posts in a way that blogs hosted by science websites or organisations (such as National Geographic or Scientific American) do not. As discussed further below, I would note that in some sense blogging has actually retained the function of serving as a space for assembling links and blogrolling; though this is now usually achieved through 'curating' hashtags on various social media formats that are integrated or extensions of the blog (e.g. Valenza et al. 2014).

If blogs now serve as hybrid spaces that bring together the academic, professional, and public through a variety of posts and diverse social media, what of their function in actually disseminating new research, rather than existing as a forum or diary? To some extent this discussion can be linked with the role of the blog in academic publishing, below. Academics at all levels may feel that blogging is an inappropriate venue for promoting new research, citing scooping, looting, or pressure from administration to publish only in journals as reasons not to blog. For these reasons, as Caraher notes, blogging may be under-utilised in disseminating research, or at least for certain audiences (cf. Kansa and Deblauwe 2011). One form of publication that has skirted this issue is the professional newsletter. Increasingly, societies feature new research and updates published in PDF format, openly available online via society websites, in contrast to previous members-only paper versions (e.g. SAA). Many societies are now publishing blogs of their own in order to inform members – or potential members – of ongoing research in the field as well as matters relevant to them as practitioners, whether that be in the private or public sector, university or museum.

Since sustainability is an issue addressed by Reinhard, I would like to consider the authors' discussion of the difference between conference presentation and discussion and the blogosphere. In particular, the authors write 'The weekly or daily blog post required a greater personal investment to produce and to consume than the easy conversation in the bar at an academic conference or after a thought-provoking paper'. This is probably true, but by the same token, the ephemeral nature of the Twitter timeline (though fully retrievable) mimics this scenario of casual exchange. With increased numbers of readership and/or followers, these exchanges have greater 'reach' than in-person discussions, though these may not go beyond the discipline (Richardson 2012). Yet, scholarly accountability – or credit – may be less apparent than what we might expect for a traditional publication or a blog post. And though it occurs in writing and may have a wider reach, the sustainability of this type of engagement is rightfully questionable. Real-time engagement on Twitter can be a double-edged sword, since tweets do 'disappear' down the timeline. You have to be at the right place at the right time to participate in the conversation, unless there is a distinct hashtag, and even then tweets without a hashtag may be lost. The Modern Language Association (MLA) now gives guidelines for citing a tweet, so this scenario may change in the future. Storify is a newer service that allows for the compilation of Twitter conversations using hashtags, usernames, and other categories and offers a partial solution. A recent example of this application in action comes from the 2015 AIA meeting in New Orleans. A session on 'The preservation of organic remains in the Aegean' publicised their hashtag before the conference and provided a link to the relevant Twitter page for live-tweeting of the event (Dibble 2015). Afterwards, these tweets were curated in Storify and are now available in their original format, with added commentary by the session organisers (with 311 views at the time of writing). This technique was also employed for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) lecture series at Brown University in 2014 and received positive feedback from individuals who could not attend (46 views; Pilaar Birch 2013a). These exchanges disseminate new knowledge and sometimes unpublished research and can now be cited as websites, though the permanency of the Storify relies on the continued existence of the user who created it as well as the web service itself.

3. Role

To publish online and open, in both academic and accessible language, is the future of publishing. It's also a challenge.

Blog engagement has arguably increased through its melding with various social media. But we must be careful of assuming that, as academics, we are addressing, reaching, and engaging with our intended audiences (e.g. Pilaar Birch 2013b). One pitfall is the assumption of polyvocality – simply because a blog is multi-authored, or because it is available open access online, does not mean it is accessible to its intended readers, and we must strive for ways to address this. But I disagree with Reinhard's assertion that blogging contributes to a 'digital divide'. Blogging can only broaden access and make the research process more transparent and inclusive. Open publication with commenting, though currently underutilised (e.g. PLoS), means that anyone with an Internet connection can engage with that work. And although Internet access is not ubiquitous worldwide, I daresay it is more accessible for many than institutional libraries and is a situation that should only continue to improve. Blogs are certainly not the future for all publication, all the time, but they fill an essential role in open dissemination of archaeological research, not an exclusive one. The future of blogs depends on how well they articulate with open access, peer-reviewed scholarly publications.

Here we might also consider a suite of stakeholders and audiences, such as specialists vs amateurs vs students vs local individuals and organisations. There is a likelihood that someone outside your intended audience will be able to access previously inaccessible knowledge through a blog. Even a free academic e-book may be intimidating to the amateur or novice, but a blog may bridge that space. Of course, legitimacy is always a concern; who decides what is worthy publishing? Early career researchers (more likely to blog?) may run the risk of criticism by institutions and peers. But there are also blogs and websites of dubious credibility who promote racist, illegal, or just plain wrong information. These can also tarnish the reputation of blogging and damage the critical role that blogging has to play in scholarly discussion, and academic bloggers must be vigilant in calling out pseudoscience.

4. Conclusion

Blogging, aided by other forms of social media, is now in a position of influence within the realm of research dissemination in academic archaeology. As the authors point out, the continued significant role of blogging in scholarly publishing depends on a set of stakeholders including readers, writers, publishers and excavators. Other important stakeholders should include those that could be described as evaluators: governments, institutions, and granting agencies who look for justification to fund scientific projects and are concerned about outreach, relevance, and accessibility. The use of blogrolls in earlier days depended on embedded social networks, and it could be argued that today your number of Twitter followers or Facebook fans serve the same purpose; it's not who you know, but who knows you. Making sure that it's also what you know remains a challenge for the future.

Michael E. SmithORCID logo

School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University, USA.

Cite this as: Smith, M. E. (2015) Peer Comment, Internet Archaeology 39,

I started blogging eight years ago as an experiment. I like to experiment with new types of internet communication and social media that might someday prove useful for scholarly purposes. For me, research and scholarly communication are paramount, although sharing archaeology with the public is also important. Some of my experiments have been successes. Among academic networking sites, for example, has turned into a good source of scholarly papers and a useful networking venue, particularly with respect to the non-archaeological disciplines I try to keep up with. on the other hand is a failure. It brought spam and irritated colleagues but few benefits, so I quickly resigned. After reading an account by an academic psychologist about the great professional value of Twitter, I signed up. After a few weeks I stopped tweeting (although I did not cancel my account). While Twitter did contain a few interesting titbits about current topics and events, the research benefit of Twitter was approximately zero. I was advised to tweet to advertise my blog posts, but this seemed redundant.

What about blogging? Has this experiment been a success or a failure? I can only speak about my own experience; if Caraher is right about the existence of a vibrant community of bloggers, I am not part of that group (more on this below). Many of the technical and social issues addressed by Caraher and Reinhard resonate with my own experience, but my knowledge of blogging in general is far more limited than theirs. I started my first blog, on a fieldwork project, to tell friends and family at home what we were doing. People wondered just what my wife Cindy and I do on all those trips to Mexico. Acquaintances seem to assume that our time in Mexico consists of one vacation after another. That blog served its purpose, and the fact some colleagues also read it generated a few professional benefits (e.g. providing suggestions about the possible uses of some weird ceramic objects with three prongs and a flat base).

My second blog focuses on professional publishing issues in archaeology. Some posts are didactic, some are editorials, and some are just excuses for ranting and raving about archaeological issues. It seems to be most popular with graduate students and junior faculty. My third blog is targeted at a different audience – people interested in broad perspectives on urbanism. There is a serious ignorance about archaeology and ancient cities among scholars and others interested in urbanism. But it is hard to find time to post, so whenever I get some momentum built up it seems to dissipate.

My experience with blogging so far has been a qualified success. My blogs have reached at least some of their intended audience, and I have received positive feedback on all three. But it's hard to know how many readers are paying attention. Pageview counts don't measure impact, and the trackback feature in the Blogger platform broke a few years ago, so I have no idea who links to the posts. I sometimes wonder if anyone is paying attention at all; why am I wasting my time if few people care? But I do think I have more readers than I had listeners to my college radio show in the 1970s, when I played Karlheinz Stockhausen and Frank Zappa in the middle of the Boston night. Will I still be blogging in another ten years? I have no idea.

From another perspective, I judge blogging to be a failure. I initially hoped this medium might make contributions to serious research and scholarship, but to my knowledge this has yet to happen (Smith 2011b). If I say something creative or important in a blog, it is like a successful classroom lecture – pedagogically significant, perhaps, but with little research payoff. Only if I later publish the insight in a peer-reviewed paper do I feel the gratification of making a professional contribution. I know of two creative experiments in which scholars used blog posts to write a book. One, by a philosopher of social science, was a success in that a book was published (Little 2010). The other, by an archaeologist, has been stalled for a few years now. This still sounds to me like a creative use of a blog for research purposes, but it seems pretty rare. Perhaps it is naive or unrealistic to expect blogs to contribute to research in a real way, but I haven't given up hope yet.

Caraher celebrates the idea that archaeological bloggers constitute a community, and he even calls bloggers and their readers a community of practice. This does not resonate with me — I don't interact much with other bloggers (the lack of trackbacks in Blogger is a real hindrance here). Furthermore, blogging does not contribute much to my personal identity as an archaeologist or a scholar. My subjective, emotional views of blogging contrast greatly with my views of publishing peer-reviewed papers. While I feel little sense of community with others in the category of 'scholarly journal authors in archaeology' (the very idea sounds odd), my journal articles ARE my professional identity. This is what I do as a scholar. This is me. Publication of a journal paper gives me a deep sense of satisfaction, whereas posting a blog entry is hardly more gratifying than feeding the cat (and less useful, from the cat's perspective).

Blogs are certainly valuable as a way to communicate archaeology to the public. But I'm not sure what Caraher means when he says that 'the blog represents the most commonly appropriate medium of scholarly communication outside the traditional purview of academia'. The public learns far more about archaeology from TV, films, books and magazines than from blogs. But these traditional media are full of errors and nonsense, and blogs have the big advantage of being written by archaeologists and containing (one hopes) a lower level of gibberish and inaccuracies.

Caraher and Reinhard talk about the difficulty of making archaeological blogs 'discoverable' in today's condition of information glut. I agree that this is a serious problem, but I question the effectiveness of their proposed solution of having national archaeological organisations host blogs. The Society for American Archaeology and American Anthropological Association, the societies I know best, are both highly conservative organisations when it comes to both new media and publishing innovations. The AAA website currently hosts an archaeology blog, but it is hard to find via the website and the entries lack dates! In a discipline whose scholars claim to want to reach the public yet publish books written in academic prose through university presses, the task of improving the public discoverability of good archaeology is a difficult one. But it is a crucial task. Whether or not blogs contribute to research, and whether or not bloggers feel a sense of community, public education is the most important mission of archaeological blogging.

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