Conversing in a Cyberspace Community: The Growth of HPS Blogging

Originally posted in the October 2010 Newsletter of the History of Science Society

In the October 2008 issue of the HSS NewsletterBen Cohen, lecturer at University of Virginia and blogger laureate at The World’s Fair, remarked that historians who blog invariably find themselves somewhere along the Ayers-Onuf spectrum: they become either idealists contributing to and influencing public conversation or realists providing novel contributions to the history of science. We should consider all blogs and all blogging, Cohen declared, within the extremes of this spectrum. He argued, moreover, that blogging not only can serve pedagogical ends by supplementing teaching and research on history of science topics, but that it can also provide a forum for lively conversation outside of the “insiders’ box” of journals and conferences.

Following the publication of Cohen’s article, established history and philosophy of science (HPS) bloggers carried on the conversation, discussing how blogs can be part of a broader dialogue and interchange on the role of history of science in society. Will Thomas described his blog,Etherwave Propaganda, as a “laboratory of scholarship, an experiment to create a sustainable alternative scholarly culture to the one with which we are familiar.” Blogs, Thomas argued, can co-exist with mainstream culture while remaining faithful to their academic roots, providing an outreach to the public by extending scholarship’s useful functions: articulation, speculation, recovery, and criticism. Historian of scienceMichael Robinson discussed the personal dimensions of blogging and how the looser conventions of blog writing have contributed to, and perhaps strengthened, his skills as a writer.John Lynch questioned whether there was a readership for HPS blogs and other online writings by historians of sciences. Bora Zivkovic, the blogChance and NecessityJohn Wilkins and Brian Switek, along with other Sciblings (bloggers on thescienceblogs community), conversed on the value of history of science for the public.

Clearly, there’s been an ongoing conversation on the blogosphere since Cohen’s article. Several academics have jumped on the blogging bandwagon for an opportunity to participate in, or at least to examine, non-traditional aspects of scholarship, some providing in-depth critical analyses on HPS issues and scholarship, others discussing the perils of graduate school and teaching, and still others focusing on technical subjects specific to particular scientific fields. The growth of HPS blogs led Michael D. Barton from The Dispersal of Darwin todiscuss his experience as a blogger at the HSS Annual Meeting in Phoenix last November and to compile “The BIG List of History of Science Blogs and Twitter,” with over 100 listings, and more added weekly. Most HPS bloggers post regularly or semi-regularly and many are featured on The Giant’s Shoulders, a monthly blog carnival for science and history of science posts. The recent addition of the “Toronto Blog Collective” and the immediate success of two new collaborative blogs, Whewell’s Ghost and The Bubble Chamber are further indications of the pedagogical aspects of HPS blogging. Does the growth of HPS blogs, however, necessarily translate into a viable online community or necessarily provide sufficient evidence of readership and public engagement with HPS scholarship? Is there a blogging community for history of science? Furthermore, how often do readers participate in these conversations?

I pondered these questions briefly on my blog, From the Hands of Quacks, as I compiled a list of history of medicine blogs to share with others. While it was evident there was an increase in HPS blogs and in the quality and content of posts,there was no clear indication whether historians were actually reading these sites or whether scientists were blogging on history of science more or less often than historians. Shortly thereafter, I launched an informal survey on Blogs, Blogging and Readership in order to determine whether being a blogger was a prerequisite for inclusion in the HPS cyberspace community and to uncover some details on readership. The survey had two parts, Part A for bloggers and Part B for readers of blogs, and the URL spread through the H-net listerv, Twitter, blogs and word of mouth. In two weeks, 70 individuals responded to Part A, 36 to Part B.

For Part A, out of 70 respondents, 44 considered themselves members of a community, either internally within their departments or institutions and/or within the wider blogging community. Several respondents remarked that they had “regular” readers and that they had met one another away from keyboard (e.g. atScienceOnline conferences). A few commented on an “illusion of scholarship,” one remarking that blogging “by no means necessarily fosters a more constructive historiography,” although the medium does possess some potential to do precisely that, which may by itself promote a community dynamic. Others were more skeptical about the notion of “community,” asking “what does ‘community’” mean? They suggested that people overuse the word in order to create a vague sense of “significance and coherence” and that the term doesn’t really apply to such a large and varied group employing a wide range of technologies. Mutual acknowledgement, outreach and discourse among bloggers based on a shared conversation, however, were sometimes enough to achieve recognition, or at least a confirmed “status” within the blogosphere, as was participation in dialogue. An overwhelming 70% of bloggers surveyed claimed that they actively strove to foster dialogue in their blogs by asking questions, by encouraging comments, or by composing proactive posts, as well as by utilizing social media networks (e.g. Twitter, Facebook). Is it possible, one responder queried, that HPS blogs have really “solidified a community in…2010?”

Part B addressed whether blog readers were engaging in the same conversation as bloggers. Graduate students made up the largest group (40%) of respondents, followed by non-academics (28.6%) and assistant professors (11.4%). Over half participated in online dialogue with blogs by commenting on posts, by emailing suggestions, or by posting remarks on Twitter and/or Facebook. I asked what sorts of posts readers were interested in and the top four were: original articles (77.1%), research progress updates (68.6%), links to articles (62.9%), and book reviews (51.4%). Is this any different from the contents of an academic journal? While respondents viewed blogs as an avenue for “academics to engage actively with the general public” by providing a bridge between public participation and historical scholarship—ideally, even a forum for discussing (recently) published journal articles and literature—this feature was often missing in blogs as bloggers sometimes posted content sans critical analysis. Readers also called for more commentary on contemporary issues of science, politics, and society. The bottom line was that readers viewed HPS blogs as a way to augment historical scholarship for general public consumption.

It is evident there is a community of bloggers and readers participating actively in engaging histories of science. I doubt that blogs will supplant traditional scholarship (e.g. peer-reviewed journals), but as a blogger, I am open to their ability to stimulate conversations not available in traditional fora. Blogs create a new aspect of scholarly culture, an amiable digital ivory tower spearheaded by the open-access movement, a movement that presents fresh opportunities to educate or to influence public participation. Blogs are also paving the way for new careers for HPS scholars (e.g. as “Content Curators” who seek out and organize content specifically for the Internet). If we take blogs seriously as intellectual products, they can solidify many engaging aspects of HPS narratives, enhancing—rather than diminishing—the traditions and identities of history of science for non-historians.

Jai blogs regularly on From the Hands of Quacks, covering topics related to her dissertation on 19th century aural surgery in London, relevant HPS issues, the history of medicine, and grad school. She thanks Michael Barton for his helpful suggestions and her fellow bloggers and tweeps for many inspiring conversations.Full results of the survey are available on her blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s