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Friday Guest Posting: Katrina Gulliver, “In Olden Days, A Glimpse of Blogging”

January 28, 2011, 12:23 pm

A French blogger, circa 1900. 

Katrina Gulliver is a historian based at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. Her current research focuses on urban identity in colonial cities. You can see her website here, or follow her on twitter @katrinagulliver.

I have been blogging in various venues for over ten years. Aside from some early experiments, it has been under my own name. In that time, the history blog world has changed plenty.

The chorus used to be: “Not if you’re on the market!”, “Be careful if you’re untenured.”Some departments are toxic, and people are right to be afraid of some things. But to fear having a life online is merely to perpetuate the paranoia. Academics seem more paranoid than others about being unveiled online, and yet seem compelled to create such forms, tempting fate that they are discovered. Perhaps the solo lifestyle of academic research (particularly in the humanities) lends itself to this outcome. The panel on blogging at the 2006 AHA meeting featured audience members who were willing to stand up and be counted as bloggers, but unwilling to name their sites. Since then, the prospect of being “outed” has over the years led some to shutter their blogs, and others to self-reveal (as Tenured Radical herself did.)

Now, in this post-Facebook age, attitudes to online privacy have changed rapidly. The idea that googling job candidates is unethical or nosy (yes, people thought this) is fading away. Among blog authors there is a greater willingness to own their online identity, and see blogging as a useful adjunct to their professional, public lives (rather than a private hobby or potentially embarrassing secret). As Jennifer Ho has suggested, the blog process may not be a distraction or detraction from academic work, but assist with the drafting process. By the same token, a blog is not a private space you have a right to feel invaded if it is found by your boss, a hiring committee, or anyone else.

Therefore, Rachel Leow’s notion of blogs featuring half-formed thoughts “whipping round in surprise” is disingenuous. A blog is not a personal notebook. It is a form that exists for the purpose of broadcasting one’s thoughts (fully-formed or otherwise) to an audience. It’s now fifteen years since Jennifer Ringley first showed us how a woman could perform “herself” online, for a blog author to frame this (desired) audience as voyeurs invading a private space is like a stripper on stage, coyly saying “oh, silly me, I’ve dropped my clothes”. And it’s a particularly disempowered imagery for a feminist blog.

Blogging has increased the profile of women historians, and helped create networks internationally. Sharon Howard was a pioneer in blogging for history, and building not just a personal blog but a web portal for resources on Early Modern history. As she has progressed through her academic career, she has offered advice to grad students, links to job ads – the kinds of career mentorship that more recently Tenured Radical and Historiann have also offered. This aspect has been an under-examined element of academic blogging: in a field in which women are a minority, and aspiring academics may lack senior female mentors, these women sharing their wisdom online has been crucial to the development of the history blog community.

Few bloggers have provided such a comprehensive service to the field as Sharon, who also initiated the History Carnival – a monthly compendium of the best history blogging. But these kinds of things are also in a transitional phase. With the immediacy of twitter, the relevance of a monthly showcase is perhaps diminishing, although the Carnival model does offer a wonderful archive (and historians LOVE archives!). And she did it all under her own name.

I don’t think online pseudonymity is inherently wrong or cowardly – it can serve a purpose, of which I have availed myself occasionally. Ann Little has discussed in the latest Common-Place some of the strengths and heritage of pseudonymous presentation. But the pseudonymity of the internet allowing for gender imposture is not one much explored (for all of Marilee Lindemann’s dogvoice blog). Are these bloggers really female, and does it really matter? On some level it does. Voice appropriation is not mentioned in the framing of pseudonymity as a shield, by presumably honest brokers of the blog world. For every online Silence Dogood or Currer Bell, there will be a Forrest Carter, Binjamin Wilkomirski, or Helen Demidenko. The persistence of pseudonymity in some cases seems more like an egotistical pose: much like someone who is in no danger hiring a bodyguard. And it only serves to perpetuate the (irrational) fears in academia about the dangers of the newfangled interwebs.

I perform a persona on my blog too, although it is “me”, my blog identity is obviously unidimensional. I only write about my work, or history topics. Twitter however is a different beast. In its stream of collective consciousness form (which I find intoxicating), I drop comments about a variety of aspects of my life, or my thoughts on current events. Is the persona I perform there “me”? In some way – although I think I present a sunnier disposition online than I do in the flesh. Since joining Twitter, I have met many more historians, the vast majority using their real names. I have found conference contributors, editorial board members for a new journal, and made real friends through my online roles. Because I have lived in several countries during my academic career, I have found the online realm an invaluable network.

Yes, operating under my own name perhaps puts the brakes on some of the things I might say, but it also means I am operating without a net, without the retreat path of deleting a pseudonymous blog, with plausible deniability. Partly because I came away bruised from early rough and tumble in the electronic sandpit, I am pretty conflict-avoidant. I just don’t have the patience or stamina to be fighting with internet idiots. I weakly confess I leave that to stronger broads like Sady Doyle. But I am proud to add my voice to feminist issues online, and to participate in debates that would not be taking place if it were not for the internet.

Kevin Levin wrote about the importance of having an online identity, asking Can y
ou afford not to use social media?
and for academics the answer is increasingly no.  His description of building an audience has been my experience too. I know that people have become aware of my work through my blog, I’ve received emails and tweets about my research, which would not have happened had I not been open about my real id.

Nothing exemplifies the value of social media to a historian more than the case of Lucy Inglis, who created Georgian London. An independent scholar and consultant, she went from starting a blog to being offered a book contract in under a year – having been found by agents and editors on twitter. Lucy conveys a breezy style (which is true of her in person) – and her blog would not have found such an audience if she were not also drawing readers on twitter. Perhaps because she is freed from ivory tower politics (or job anxieties) she is able to interlink the personal and professional on her twitter feed, and give people more of an insight to the life of someone engaged in historical research than any “academic” historian I know. That she was engaged as a “blogger in residence” by the Museum of London, the perfect outreach position for someone with such a desire to share history with the public.

The democratic levelling of blogs is something we should reach out towards, rather than shy away from. As Tony Grafton described the challenges faced by history as a discipline, being able to explain ourselves to the public should be a key focus. And as someone who works on transnational as well as gender issues, I am keen to discuss themes and ideas from historians working all over the world. Any historian who works on society should welcome a readership outside academe, and for feminist historians: I am woman, read my blog.

Want to be a guest poster at Tenured Radical?  Write with a suggestion to tenuredDOTradicalATgmailDOTcom.

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