Category Archives: Blogs

Lisa Spiro’s New Blog

I’m always looking for good blogs on digital scholarship to add to my feed reader (please email me if you have one and think I may not know about it), and so I was glad to find the thoughtful and well-written new blog from Lisa Spiro, the director of the Digital Media Center at Rice University’s Fondren Library. Lisa’s introduction to her blog:

I plan to explore how digital resources and tools are affecting scholarship in the humanities and consider the potential for digital scholarship. I’ll look at tools and methods, reporting on the ongoing conversation about digital scholarship as well as my own efforts to transform my dissertation on nineteenth-century American bachelorhood from a fairly conventional print-based work to a piece of digital scholarship that makes use of all available tools and resources.

A reCAPTCHA Dilemma?

Here’s a possible conundrum worthy of the New York Times’s ethicist, Randy Cohen (no relation to your’s truly). I have been a major proponent of reCAPTCHA, the red and yellow box at the bottom of my blog posts that uses words from books scanned by the Internet Archive/Open Content Alliance as a system to prevent comment spam. At the same time visitors decipher the words in that box to add a comment, they help to turn old texts into accurate, useful transcriptions. My glee about killing two birds with one stone has soured a bit after discovering something unsettling: I still get comment spam on my blog, and a lot of it–thousands and thousands of bogus comments.

My investigation of these comments–checking IP addresses, looking at patterns of posting and the links therein, and other discussions of how solid reCAPTCHA’s technology is (e.g., it doesn’t seem susceptible to a “relay attack,” where a puzzle is redirected by the spammer to a unsuspecting person logging onto another site)–leads me to the depressing conclusion that these comments are not done by bots or unwitting third parties. Rather, they are added by hand, one at a time, intentionally. Real human beings are figuring out the blurry words from those old books to insert vaguely plausible comments (“Nice post! Check out my site for more on the same topic.”).

I suppose it’s good news that the spammers are being used as human OCR. By my calculations they’ve decoded, word by word, about 50 pages of text on my blog alone. (Real commenters have transcribed about a half a page.) But I suspect–and would be happy to be proven wrong in real comments, below–that many of the actual people solving the reCAPTCHA are being paid pennies an hour by spam overlords to boost the Google rankings of their clients by adding keyword-rich linked comments to sites with high PageRank.

So in a sense, reCAPTCHA leads to a kind of indirect outsourcing similar to sending a book to be “rekeyed” by low-paid, third-world typists.

Creating a Blog from Scratch, Part 9: The Conclusion

Since its inception until today, this blog was powered by code I had written myself. Some people thought this took a lot of work; to be honest, it was just a few days of simple coding. As I noted at the beginning of this series on “Creating a Blog from Scratch,” rather than using existing software or services, such as WordPress or Blogger, I wanted to write my own blog code so that I could experiment with the form of the blog. In general, I found it to be a great exercise that I would highly recommend. It helped me understand the genre of the blog, challenge long-standing assumptions of form and function (like the tyranny of the calendar, now gone on most blogs), and think about ways one might customize a blog to fit academic needs.

But starting today, this blog will be powered by WordPress, not my own code. Am I a hypocrite? Well, yes and no. Yes, in that by switching to WordPress I have had to abandon some quirks of my original blog that had made it unique and that represented the accumulated wisdom of writing my own code. No, in that I feel I’ve learned enough in the process of the last two years that I can bend WordPress to my will enough to satisfy my need to customize and adapt.

More important, I had other needs that I just didn’t have enough time to implement by writing more of my own code, and there were other features of WordPress–a terrific open-source project–that I really wanted:

  • It took two years, but I’ve decided after initially disparaging comments (sentiments echoed recently by some well-known bloggers), I actually do think they are important to a blog and that my critics were right that the blog suffered without them. So starting today I have comments at the end of each post. (My old posts will remain free of comments since I have left them in their original format.)
  • I had also worried that the blog comments would be a haven for spam, but after the release of the wonderful reCAPTCHA system–which helps the Open Content Alliance transcribe digitized books while preventing spam–I felt that relatively spam-free commenting was possible.
  • As successful open-source software, WordPress has engendered a universe of helpful plugins, modifications, and documentation. For instance, this blog is now Zotero-compatible, thanks to the WordPress COinS plugin by my colleague Sean Takats. And of course reCAPTCHA came with a plugin for WordPress too.
  • WordPress’s system for drafting and editing posts is far more advanced than the basic screens I created. Writing this post is taking me about half the time it would have taken in my old system.
  • For the past six months I have been using ma.gnolia to add small posts to my feed (and to the sidebar of my old blog under “Briefly Noted”). I now can do this just as quickly using WordPress, and plan to post much more frequently starting in September.
  • Despite my best efforts, my old blog code failed to output valid XHTML, which I believe is increasingly important in a world where non-computer devices (such as the iPhone) are browsing the web and RSS feeds. WordPress automatically writes pages in XHTML.

I suppose I should rip off of my sleeve the badge of honor from my home-grown blogging software. But I like to see the switch to WordPress as just another step in the continual improvement of this blog, and look forward to many more years of writing in this space.

PhDinHistory Is Back!

Kudos to PhDinHistory for relaunching his blog (at a new address; please refresh your RSS subscriptions). It clearly took a lot of guts and I look forward to many more insightful posts from this vibrant blogger and budding academic. I have no doubt that his site will be the locus for interesting, contentious discussion, and both supporters and critics should applaud his hard work and thoughtfulness.

The Perils of Anonymity

PhDinHistory, we hardly knew ye. A blogger who came out of nowhere to write interesting, thorough analyses of the state of academia and trends in history, captured my attention from the first post and eventually garnered a much wider audience. Then suddenly, this weekend, PhDinHistory deleted his or her WordPress account. No goodbye post and static archive of the blog, but rather a full deletion that made it impossible to read or link to the blog forever. I didn’t always agree with PhDinHistory, but as a blogger who also wanted to write more in-depth pieces rather than quick blogish ones (although more recently I have cheated by adding into my feed smaller posts from ma.gnolia), I truly respected the effort that went into this new blog. From the beginning, however, I thought there was one major problem with PhDinHistory’s blog: its anonymity.

PhDinHistory’s rise and fall demonstrates, I believe, one of the principles I’ve outlined about academic blogging: we shouldn’t use pseudonyms. PhDinHistory may have been a thoughtful blogger, but he or she created a unnecessary distraction by writing under a pseudonym. It might come as a shock to PhDinHistory, but there was almost nothing on his or her blog that was an affront to other students or professors, or that would have been a problem when he or she came on the job market. When PhDinHistory wrote about possible upcoming vacancies in history departments, he or she was simply analyzing the statistics of age and fields of concentration, not proposing to off tenured professors. Besides, professors know that graduate students are constantly mulling over schemes to get dream jobs—we were grad students once, too. It’s actually refreshing to see such speculation out in the open, and with numbers to boot.

Moreover, as I noted in “Professors, Start Your Blogs,” by writing under his or her own name, PhDinHistory would have gained the “responsibility and credit” that goes along with attribution. Both are important. It’s too bad that PhDinHistory will never receive proper credit for months of hard work and many thought-provoking articles. At the same time, I think that the responsibility that goes along with attribution actually would have strengthened, not weakened, PhDinHistory’s blog. I assume PhDinHistory thought that anonymity would be liberating and allow for the fullest latitude on the blog. But writing with attribution would have allowed PhDinHistory to truly join in a conversation with other (non-anonymous) academics. It also would have helpfully tempered some of the more speculative posts. As poets know, total freedom makes for some bad verses.

PhDinHistory thought that there was peril in writing under his or her real name, but it turned out that the opposite was true—it was the pseudonym that was the real peril. All it did—as PhDinHistory admitted to Rob Townsend of the American Historical Association—was to create a contest to see who could unmask the mystery blogger. As the pursuers closed in, PhDinHistory unfortunately had to stop blogging.

The pseudonym was counterproductive, and in PhDinHistory’s case, completely unnecessary. I am undoubtedly not alone in wanting PhDinHistory to return to the blogosphere. The solution to his or her quandary is clear to me, as it is to many others. Simply relaunch the blog under his or her own name and—as hard as this may be—stop worrying. We professors know you don’t really want us to meet an untimely end.

Creating a Blog from Scratch, Part 8: Full Feeds vs. Partial Feeds

One seemingly minor aspect of blogs I failed to consider carefully when I programmed this site was the composition of its feed. (Frankly, I was more concerned with the merely technical question of how to write code that spits out a valid RSS or Atom feed.) Looking at a lot of blogs and their feeds, I just assumed that the standard way of doing it was to put a small part of the full post in the feed—e.g., the first 50 words or the first paragraph—and then let the reader click through to the full post on your site. I noticed that some bloggers put their entire blog in their feed, but as a new blogger—one who had just spent a lot of time redesigning his old website to accommodate a blog—I couldn’t figure out why one would want to do that since it rendered your site irrelevant. It may seem minor, but a year later I’ve realized that there is, in part, a philosophical difference between a full and partial feed. Choosing which type of feed you are going to use means making a choice about the nature of your blog—and, surprisingly, the nature of your ego too. Subscribers to this blog’s feed have probably noticed that as of my last post I’ve switched from a partial feed to a full feed, so you already know the outcome of the debate I’ve had in my head about this distinction, but let me explain my reasoning and the advantages and disadvantages of full and partial feeds.

Putting the entire content of your blog into your feed has many practical advantages. Most obviously, it saves your readers the extra step of clicking on a link in their feed reader to view your full post. They can read your blog offline as well as online, and more easily access it on a non-computer device like a cell phone. Machine audiences can also take advantage of the full feed, searching it for keywords desired by other machines or people. For instance, most blog search engines allow you to set up feeds for posts from any blogger that contain certain words or phrases.

More important, providing a full feed conforms better with a philosophy I’ve tried to promote in this space, one of open access and the sharing of knowledge. A full feed allows for the easy redistribution of your writing and the combination of your posts with others on similar topics from other bloggers. A full feed is closer to “open source” than a feed that is tied to a particular site. For this reason, until the advent of in-feed advertising, most professional bloggers had partial feeds so readers would have to view advertising next to the full text of a post.

Even from the perspective of a non-commercial blogger—or more precisely the perspective of that blogger’s ego—full feeds can be slightly problematic. A liberated, full feed is less identifiably from you. As literary theorists know well, reading environments have a significant impact on the reception of a text. A full feed means that most of your blog’s audience will be reading it without the visual context of your site (its branding, in ad-speak), instead looking at the text in the homogenized reading environment of a feed reader. I’ve just switched from NetNewsWire to Google Reader to browse other blogs, and I especially like the way that Google’s feed reader provides a seamless stream of blog posts, one after the other, on a scrolling web page. I’m able to scan the many blogs I read quickly and easily. That reading style and context, however, makes me much less aware of specific authors. It makes the academic blogosphere seem like a stream of posts by a collective consciousness. Perhaps that’s fine from an information consumption standpoint, but it’s not so wonderful if you believe that individual voices and perspectives matter a great deal. Of course, some writers cut through the clutter and make me aware of their distinctive style and thoughts, but most don’t.

At the Center for History and New Media, we’ve been thinking a lot about the blog as a medium for academic conversation and publication—and even promotion and tenure—and the homogenized feed reader environment is a bit unsettling. Yes, it can be called academic narcissism, but maintaining authorial voice and also being able to measure the influence of individual voices is important to the future of academic blogging.

I’ve already mentioned in this space that I would like to submit this blog as part of my tenure package, for my own good, of course, but also to make a statement that blogs can and should be a part of the tenure review process and academic publication in general. But tenure committees, which generally focus on peer-reviewed writing, will need to see some proof of a blog’s use and impact. Right now the best I can do is to provide some basic stats about the readership of this blog, such as subscriptions to the feed.

But with a full feed, you can slowly loose track of your audience. Providing your entire posts in the feed allows anyone to resyndicate it, aggregate it, mash it up, or simply copy it. I must admit, I am a little leery of this possibility. To be sure, there are great uses for aggregation and resyndication. This blog is resyndicated on a site dedicated to the future of the academic cyberinfrastructure, and I’m honored that someone thought to include this modest blog among so many terrific blogs charting the frontiers of libraries, technology, and research. On the other hand, even before I started this blog I had experiences where content from my site appeared somewhere else for less virtuous reasons. I don’t have time to tell the full story here, but in 2005 an unscrupulous web developer used text from my website and a small trick called a “302 redirect” to boost the Google rankings of one of his clients. It was more amusing than infuriating—for a while a dentist in Arkansas had my bio instead of his. More seriously, millions of spam blogs scrape content from legitimate blogs, a process made much easier if you provide a full feed. And there are dozens of feed aggregators that will create a website from other people’s content without their permission. Regardless of the purpose, above board or below, I have no way of knowing about readers or subscribers to my blog when it appears in these other contexts.

But these concerns do not outweigh the spirit and practical advantages of a full feed. So enjoy the new feed—unless you’re that Arkansas dentist.

Part 9: The Conclusion

Creating a Blog from Scratch, Part 7: Tags, What Are They Good For?

Evidently quite a few things. In the past few years, tags have been attached to virtually everything, from web links to photos to bars. The University of Pennsylvania has recently introduced a way for those on campus to tag items in their online catalog, Franklin. With the arrival of the Zotero server this year, it will be possible for the community of Zotero users to collaboratively tag almost any object of research, from books to sculptures to letters. For their promoters, tags are a low-cost, democratic advance over traditional systems of cataloging. Detractors disparage tags as lacking the rigor of those tried-and-true methods. As I started to think about the composition of this blog, all I wanted to know was, why do so many blogs have tags all over them and what function or functions do they serve? Do I need them? What are they good for?

I have to admit that when I started this blog I had a visceral dislike of tags, probably because I was approaching them from the perspective of an academic who liked the precision and professionalism of the card catalog and encyclopedia. Tags seemed fatally flawed as putative successors to Library of Congress subject headings or the indexes in the back of books. I still believe the much-ballyhooed “tag clouds,” or set of tags of various sizes arranged in a pattern to show the contents of a blog or book or site, are poor substitutes for a good index of a work—not only because indexes are usually done by professionals who know what to highlight and how to summarize those topics, but also because indexes tell little stories through their levels, modifiers, and page numbers. For instance, here’s a section of the index the talented Jim O’Brien did for my book Equations from God:

Euclid, 165; in mathematics education, 147, 148, 214n185; Elements by, 21, 106, 138, 179, 180, 214n185; long-lasting influence of, 21, 58, 79, 147, 164, 174; waning influence of, in late Victorian era, 138, 148, 164, 178-179, 180 (see also non-Euclidean geometry)

At a glance you can tell the story line about Euclid—the ancient Greek mathematician’s incredibly long relevance (well into the modern era), and his eventual fall from grace in the nineteenth century in the face of a new kind of geometry. Some have proposed adding the hierarchical levels and other index-like features to tags to approach this level of usefulness, but that misses the point of tagging: it works because it’s done in a simple, generally offhand way. Add a lot of thought and hurdles to the process, and you’ll kill tagging. Tagging is a classic case of the “good enough” besting the “perfect” in new media.

Despite my hesitancy, I figured that there must be some reason to use tags on this blog. So I included them in the database but chose, due to my initial aversion, not to show them all over my site like many blogs do. They would just sit in the background and in the RSS feed. It turned out that was a very good compromise as I began to appreciate that tags are good at some functions that traditional taxonomies don’t address.

Much of the antagonism between the promoters and detractors of tags seems to arise from the sense—I believe, the incorrect sense—that they are competitors for the same market. But when you actually look at tags in action and actuality, it’s clear that they serve a number of functions that are distinct from the traditional cataloging functions and that make them poor replacements for high-quality categorization.

For example, look at the variety of tags on a highly used folksonomic site like del.icio.us, the grandaddy of social bookmarking. To be sure, there are some fine categorizations of websites. But del.icio.us also harbors a large number of tags with other aims. Coexisting with tags that might be at home in a Library of Congress subject heading (e.g., “history”) are tags like “readlater” (busy people marking a site as worth going back to when they get the chance), “hist301” (a tag used by students in a particular class for a particular semester), “natn” (used by listeners of the podcast “Net at Nite” to submit websites to the hosts for consideration), and of course every possible variation of “cool” (to signify a site’s…coolness).

Awareness of these other kinds of tags made me realize that what distinguishes tags from traditional forms of categorization, aside from the obvious amateur/democratic vs. professional distinction, is that while both are forms of description, tags often have specific audiences and time frames in mind, while traditional categorizations (such as Library of Congress subject headings) have only a vague general audience in mind and try to be as timeless as possible.

This distinction is particularly true when you realize that tags are strongly interwoven with feeds (RSS). Since people can subscribe to the feed of a tag, tagging a blog post in effect places it into a live, running stream of alerts to an awaiting audience. Want to alert John Musser, who maintains the list of APIs I have frequently referred to in this space, about a new API? Just tag a blog post “API” or “APIs” and I suspect John will hear about it very soon, as will a very large audience of those interested in knitting together information on the web.

Thus tags have a great utility on the “live” web, as the blog search engine Technorati calls it, as well as for personal uses of an individual or microaudiences like a college class or even for inane commentary (“awesome”). Yet I still feel that as an entrée into a blog, as the equivalent of scanning a table of contents or the index of a book, they are fairly poor. I had planned to expose my internal tags of posts to the audience of this blog in some “traditional” blog way—at the bottom of each post, down the left sidebar, in a tag cloud—but it didn’t seem helpful. If someone wants to find all of my posts on copyright, they can search for them in the upper right search box. And the tag clouds I’ve tried all seem to misrepresent the overall thrust of this blog since (like everyone else using tags) I haven’t put a lot of thought into the tags.

My hunch early on was that tags are best heard from but not seen, and I think I was mostly right about that.

Next up in the series: I make my first change to the blog, from a partial feed to a full feed, and explain the advantages and disadvantages of both—and why I’ve decided to switch.

Part 8: Full Feeds vs. Partial Feeds

Creating a Blog from Scratch, Part 6: One Year Later

Well, it’s been over a year since I started this blog with a mix of trepidation, ambivalence, and faint praise for the genre—not exactly promising stuff—and so it’s with a mixture of relief and a smidgen of smug self-satisfaction that I’m writing this post. I’m extremely glad that I started this blog last fall and have kept it going. (Evidently the half-life of blogs is about three months, so an active year-old blog is, I suppose, some kind of accomplishment in our attention-deficit age.) I thought it would be a good idea (and several correspondents have prodded me in this direction) to return to my series of posts about starting this blog, “Creating a Blog from Scratch.” (For latecomers, this blog is not powered by Blogger, TypePad, or WordPress, but rather by my own feeble concoction of programming and design.) Over the next few posts I’ll be revisiting some of the decisions I made, highlighting some good things that have happened and some regrets. And at the end of the series I’ll be introducing some adjustments to my blog that I hope will make it better. But first, in something of a sequel to my call to my colleagues to join me in this endeavor, “Professors, Start Your Blogs,” some of the triumphs and tribulations I’ve encountered over the last year.

As the five-part series on creating this blog detailed, I took the masochistic step of writing my own blog software (that’s probably a little too generous; it’s really just a set of simple PHP scripts with a MySQL database) because I wanted to learn about how blogs were put together and see if I agreed with all of the assumptions that went into the genre. That learning experience was helpful (and judging by the email still I get about the series others have found it helpful), but I think I have paid a price in some ways. I will readily admit I’m jealous of other bloggers with their fancy professional blogging software with all of the bells and whistles. Worse, much of the blogosphere is driven by the big mainstream software packages like Blogger, TypePad, and WordPress; having your own blog software means you can’t take advantage of cutting-edge features, like new forms of searching or linking between blogs. But I’m also able to tweak the blog format more readily because I wrote every line of the code that powers this blog.

As I wrote in “Welcome to My Blog,” and as regular readers of this blog know well, I’m not a frequent poster. Sometimes I lament this fact when I see blogs I respect maintain a frantic pace. I’ve written a little over 60 posts (barely better than one per week, although with the Zotero crunch this fall the delays between posts has grown). Many times I’ve felt I had something to post to the blog but just didn’t get around to writing it up. I’m sure other bloggers know that feeling of missed opportunity, which is of course a little silly considering that we’re doing this for free, in our spare time, in most cases without a gun to our heads. But you do begin to feel a responsibility to your audience, and there’s no one to pawn that responsibility off on—you’re simultaneously the head writer, editor, and publisher.

On the other hand, I just did a quick database query and was astonished to discover I’ve written almost 40,000 words in this space (about 160 pages, double-spaced) in the last twelve months. Most posts were around 500-1000 words, with the longest post (Professors, Start Your Blogs) at close to 2000 words. Had you told me that I would write the equivalent of half a book in this space last fall, a) I wouldn’t have believed it, and b) I probably wouldn’t have started this blog.

One of the reasons bloggers feel pressure to post, as I’ve discovered over the last year, is that it’s fairly simple to quantify your audience, often in excruciating detail. As of this writing this blog is ranked 34,181 out of 55 million blogs tracked by Technorati. (This sounds pretty good—the top 1/100th of a percent of all blogs!—until you realize that there are millions of abandoned and spam blogs, and that like most Internet statistics, the rankings are effectively logarithmic rather than linear. That is, the blog that is ranked 34th is probably a thousand times more prominent than mine; on the other hand, this blog is approximately a thousand times more prominent than the poor blogger at 34,000,000.) Because of that kind of quantification, temptations abound for courting popularity in a way that goes against your (or at least my) blog’s mission. I’ve undoubtedly done some posts that were a little unnecessary and gratuitously attention-seeking. For instance, the most-read post over the last year covered the fingers that have crept into Google’s book scanning project, which of course in its silliness got a lot of play on the popular social news site Digg.com and led to thousands of visitors on the day I posted it and an instant tripling of subscribers to this blog’s feed. But I’m proud to say that my subsequent more serious posts immediately alienated the segment of Digg who are overly fond of exclamation points and my numbers quickly returned to a more modest—but I hope better targeted— audience.

Surely the happiest and most unexpected outcome of creating this blog has been the way that it has gotten me in touch with dozens of people whom I probably would not have met otherwise. I meet other professional historians all the time, but the blog has introduced me to brilliant and energetic people in libraries, museums, and archives, literary studies, computer science, people within and outside of academia. Given the balkanization of the academy and its distance from “the real world” I have no idea how I would have met these fascinating people otherwise, or profited from their comments and suggestions. I have never been to a conference where someone has come up to me out of the blue and said, “Hi Dan, I’m so-and-so and I wanted to introduce myself because I loved the article you wrote for such-and-such journal.” Yet I regularly have readers of this blog approach me out of the blue, and in turn I seek out others at meetings merely because of their blogs. These experiences have made me feel that blogging has the potential to revitalize academia by creating more frequent interactions between those in a field and, perhaps more important, between those in different fields. So: thanks for reading the blog and for getting in touch!

Next up in the anniversary edition of “Creating a Blog from Scratch”: it’s taken me a year, but I finally weigh in on tagging.

Part 7: Tags, What Are They Good For?

Professors, Start Your Blogs

With a new school year about to begin, I want to reach out to other professors (and professors-to-be, i.e., graduate students) to try to convince more of them to start their own blogs. It’s the perfect time to start a blog, and many of the reasons academics state for not having a blog are, I believe, either red herrings or just plain false. So first, let me counter some biases and concerns I hear from a lot of my peers (and others in the ivory tower) when the word “blog” is mentioned.

Despite the fact that tens of millions of people now have blogs, the genre is still considered by many—especially those in academia—to be the realm of self-involved, insecure, oversexed teens and twentysomethings. To be sure, there are plenty of blogs that trace the histrionics of adolescence and its long, tortured aftermath. And there’s no denying that other blogs cover such fascinating, navel-gazing topics as one man’s love of his breakfast (preferably eggs Benedict, if you must know). And—before I throw too many stones in this glass house—I too have indulged in the occasional narcissistic act in this column (not to mention the “shameless plug” for my book, Digital History, in the right column of my home page).

But this common criticism of the genre of the blog has begun to ring hollow. As Bryan Alexander of the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education recently noted at a meeting I attended on emerging web technologies and higher education, a remarkably wide range of blog styles and genres now exist—including many noteworthy examples by professors. There are blogs by historians providing commentary on current events, blogs by journalism professors dissecting mass media coverage of health news, and blogs by whole academic departments, like Saint Cloud State University’s astronomy department.

Blogs are just like other forms of writing, such as books, in that there’s a whole lot of trash out there—and some gems worth reading. It just depends on what you choose to read (or write). And of course many (most? all?) other genres of writing have elements of self-promotion and narcissism. After all, a basic requirement of writing is the (often mistaken) belief that you have something to say that’s important.

Second, no rule book mandates that one adopt the writing style of a hormone-crazed college student. Professors, especially those in the humanities, have spent a great deal of their lives learning how to write prose, and to write in a variety of styles for different purposes: monographs, popular works, reviews, lectures to students, presentations to colleagues. For this blog I’ve adopted a plainspoken prose style with (I hope) a little humor here and there to lighten the occasional technically complex post. I’ve also carefully avoided the use of extreme adjectives and hyperbole that are common on the blogs the academic critics love to hate. I’m proud to say I’ve used only a handful of exclamation points so far. This “casual rationalist” voice is but one option among many, but it’s a style I’ve crafted to disarm those who believe that blogs can be nothing but trouble for the careers of graduate students and professors.

Another factor that has distanced professors from blogs was anonymity. Most early blogs, and especially the ones the media liked to cover, were anonymous or pseudonymous. But I would say that the vast majority of new blogs are clearly attributed (even if they have odd monikers, unlike the boring dancohen.org). Attribution and its associated goods, such as responsibility and credit, should make academics feel better about the genre.

Moreover, as I pointed out when I began this blog last year, a blog is really just a series of “posts” (whatever those are; I began the post you’re reading by calling it an “article,” because at almost 2,000 words it feels less like a post-it note than a legal pad). There’s no blogging requirement to discuss botox or baked beans or boyfriends, or to write short, snarky bits rather than long, balanced, thoughtful essays. A failure to understand this simple point has kept too many serious folks like professors on the sidelines as the blogosphere has exponentially expanded.

The addition of professorial blogs to the web will enrich the medium greatly. The critics of blogging are perhaps onto something when they note that the blogosphere has too many people writing on too few topics (does the world really need another blog on the latest moves of Apple Computer?). Although they frequently teach broad, introductory courses, professors are hired and promoted because they are specialists who discover and explain things that few others understand. For these theorists and researchers, blogging can be a powerful way to provide “notes from the field” and glosses on topics that perhaps a handful of others worldwide know a lot about. While I tend to avoid the hot term of the moment, professors are the true masters of the “long tail” of knowledge.

When I was in graduate school, the Russian historian Paul Bushkovitch once told me that the key to being a successful scholar was to become completely obsessed with a historical topic, to feel the urge to read and learn everything about an event, an era, or a person. In short, to become so knowledgeable and energetic about your subject matter that you become what others immediately recognize as a trusted, valuable expert.

As it turns out, blogs are perfect outlets for obsession. Now, there’s good and bad obsession. What the critics of blogs are worried about is the bad kind—the obsession that drives people to write about their breakfast in excruciating detail.

Yet, as Bushkovitch’s comment entailed, obsession—properly channeled and focused on a worthy subject—has its power. It forges experts. It stimulates a lifelong interest in learning (think, for a moment, about the countless examples of “retired” professors still writing influential books). The most stimulating, influential professors, even those with more traditional outlets for their work (like books and journals) overflow with views and thoughts. Shaped correctly, a blog can be a perfect place for that extra production of words and ideas. The Chronicle of Higher Education may love to find examples of Ph.D.s losing a tenure-track job because of their tell-all (anonymous) blogs, but I suspect that in the not too distant future the right type of blog—the blog that shows how a candidate has full awareness of what’s going on in a field and has potential as a thought leader in it—will become an asset not to be left off one’s CV.

The best bloggers inevitably become a nexus for information exchange in their field. Take, for instance, Lorcan Dempsey’s blog on matters relating to libraries and digital technology. It has become a touchstone for many in his field—my estimate is that he has a thousand subscribers who get updates from his blog daily. Overall, I suspect his blog has more actual readers than some print publications in his field. Looking for influence? A large blog audience is as good as a book or seminal article. A good blog provides a platform to frame discussions on a topic and point to resources of value.

Altruistic reasons for writing a blog also beckon. Writing a blog lets you reach out to an enormous audience beyond academia. Some professors may not want that audience, but I believe it’s part of our duty as teachers, experts, and public servants. It’s great that the medium of the web has come along to enable that communication at low cost.

Concerned about someone stealing your ideas if you post them to a blog? Don’t. Unless you decide otherwise, you have the same copyright on words you write on a blog as those published on paper. And you have the precedence that comes with making those words public far earlier than they would appear in a journal or book.

Worried about the time commitment involved in writing a blog? The constant pressure to post something daily or weekly? This was my stumbling block a year ago when I was thinking of starting a blog. I’m busy; we’re all busy. What I’ve found, however, is that writing a blog does not have to take a lot of time. Promoters of blogs often tell prospective bloggers it’s critical to post frequently and reliably. Nonsense. Such advice misunderstands what’s so great about RSS (Really Simply Syndication), the underlying technology of blogs that notifies people when you have a new post. RSS “pushes” new material to readers no matter the interval between posts. RSS is thus perfect for busy people with blogs who are naturally inconsistent or infrequent in their posting schedule. If you post every day, then readers can just visit your site daily; if you post six times a year, randomly (when you really have something to say), RSS is the technology for you. Without it, no one would ever remember to visit your website.

RSS also allows aggregation of blog “feeds” so that by mixing together a number of RSS files an audience can track the goings-on in a field in a single view. I would love to see a hundred historians of Victorian science have blogs to which they post quarterly. That would mean an average of one thoughtful post a day on a subject in which I’m greatly interested.

For those who need further prodding to get past these worries and biases, blogging as we know it (or don’t know it, if you are unfamiliar with the use of RSS “news readers”) is about to change. Seamless support for RSS is now being written into the most commonly used software: email programs and web browsers. Rather than having to figure out how to manage subscriptions to blogs in a news reader or on an off-putting “Web 2.0” site, the average user will find soon find new posts along with their email, or beckoning them from within their browser. And new versions of Blogger and other blog software has made it easier than ever to start a blog. In other words, blogs are about to become much more accessible and integrated into our digital lives.

Now, I’m aware the irony of imploring, on a blog, professors who don’t have a blog to start a blog. I fear I’m preaching to the choir here. Surely the subscribers to this blog’s feed are blog-savvy already, and many undoubtedly have their own blogs. So I need your help: please tell other professors or professors-to-be about this post, or forward the URL for the post to appropriate email lists or forums (if you’re worried that the long URL is difficult to cite, here’s a tiny URL that will redirect to this page: http://tinyurl.com/ptsje).

But wait—haven’t I just asked you to be an accomplice in a shameless, narcissistic act typical of blogs? Perhaps.

Creating a Blog from Scratch, Part 5: What is XHTML, and Why Should I Care?

In prior posts in this series (1, 2, 3, and 4), I described with some glee my rash abandonment of common blogging software in favor of writing my own. For my purposes there seemed to be some key disadvantages to these popular packages, including an overemphasis on the calendar (I just saw the definition of a blog at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival—”a page with dated entries”—which, to paraphrase Woody Allen, is like calling War and Peace “a book about Russia”), a sameness to their designs, and comments that are rarely helpful and often filled with spam. But one of the greatest advantages of recent blog software packages is that they generally write standards-compliant code. More specifically, blog software like WordPress automatically produces XHTML. Some of you might be asking, what is XHTML, and who cares? And why would I want to spend a great deal of effort ensuring that this blog complied strictly with this language?

The large digital library contingent that reads this blog could probably enumerate many reasons why XHTML compliance is important, but I had two reasons in mind when I started this blog. (Actually, I had a third, more secretive reason that I’ll mention first: Roy Rosenzweig and I argue in our book Digital History that XHTML will likely be critical for digital humanists to adhere to in the future—don’t want to be accused of being a hypocrite.) For those for whom web acronyms are Greek, XHTML is a sibling of XML, a more rigorously structured and flexible language than the HTML that underlies most of the web. XHTML is better prepared than HTML to be platform-independent; because it separates formatting from content, XHTML (like XML) can be reconfigured easily for very different environments (using, e.g., different style sheets). HTML, with formatting and content inextricably combined, for the most part assumes that you are using a computer screen and a web browser. Theoretically XHTML can be dynamically and instantaneously recast to work on many different devices (including a personal computer). This flexibility is becoming an increasingly important feature as people view websites on a variety of platforms (not just a normal computer screen, e.g., but cell phones or audio browsers for the blind). Indeed, according to the server logs for this blog, 1.6% of visitors are using a smart phone, PDA, or other means to read this blog, a number that will surely grow. In short, XHTML seems better prepared than regular HTML to withstand the technological changes of the coming years, and theoretically should be more easily preserved than older methods of displaying information on the web. For these and other reasons a 2001 report the Smithsonian commissioned recommended the institution move to XHTML from HTML.

Of course, with standards compliance comes extra work. (And extra cost. Just ask webmasters at government agencies trying to make their websites comply with Section 508, the mandatory accessibility rules for federal information resources.) Aside from a brief flirtation with the what-you-see-is-what-you-get, write-the-HTML-for-you program Dreamweaver in the late 1990s, I’ve been composing web pages using a text editor (the superb BBEdit) for over ten years, so my hands are used to typing certain codes in HTML, in the same way you get used to a QWERTY keyboard. XHTML is not that dissimilar from HTML, but it still has enough differences to make life difficult for those used to HTML. You have to remember to close every tag; some attributes related to formating are in strange new locations. One small example of the minor infractions I frequently trip up on writing XHTML: the oft-used break tag to add a line to a web page must “close itself” by adding a slash before the end bracket (not <br>, but <br />). But I figured doing this blog would give me a good incentive to start writing everything in strict XHTML.

Yeah, right. I clearly haven’t been paying enough attention to detail. The page you’re reading likely still has dozens of little coding errors that make it fail strict compliance with the World Wide Web Consortium’s XHTML standard. (If you would like a humbling experience that brings to mind receiving a pop quiz back from your third-grade teacher with lots of red ink on it, try the W3C’s XHTML Validator.) I haven’t had enough time to go back and correct all of those little missing slashes and quotation marks. WordPress users out there can now begin their snickering; their blog software does such mundane things for them, and many proudly (and annoyingly) display little “XHTML 1.0 compliant” badges on their sites. Go ahead, rub it in.

After I realized that it would take serious effort to bring my code up to code, so to speak, I sat back and did the only thing I could do: rationalize. I didn’t really need strict XHTML compliance because through some design slight-of-hand I had already been able to make this blog load well on a wide range of devices. I learned from other blog software that if you put the navigation on the right rather than the more common left you see on most websites, the body of each post shows up first on a PDA or smart phone. It also means that blind visitors don’t have to suffer through a long list of your other posts before getting to the article they want to read.

As far as XHTML is concerned, I’ll be brushing up on that this summer. Unless I move this blog to WordPress by then.

Part 6: One Year Later