a born-digital, open-review volume edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki

An Informal History of Informal Writing: Wikis, Blogs, and the Promise of Digital Humanities (Fall 2011 version)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The late twentieth century saw a staggering growth of media that permitted people to express themselves without going through traditional gatekeepers like editors, publishers, or record labels. Whether it was the rise of zines and the alternative press in the 1960s or websites, blogs, and wikis in the 1990s, new technologies and new formats opened the media up to voices that were often less formal or polished than the classic “published author” of yore.1 These innovations promised greater speed and openness. Computer programmer Ward Cunningham chose the word “wiki,” meaning “fast” in Hawaiian slang, to refer to a site any number of users can quickly edit without going through the technical process of writing code.2 Japanese teenagers founded a new literary genre in the “cell-phone novel,” serialized as discrete bits in the form of text messages—no editors wanted or needed.3

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Such developments have whizzed by many scholars, especially historians. Being concerned with the past and prone to reflect on the tempo of time itself, we have never been known to do things quickly. Our dissertations take eight years to write, and sometimes even longer to revise and publish. A scholar sending off an essay to an academic journal can expect to wait four months to a year for feedback, and sometimes longer. Historians thus have reason to be both wary and curious about the prospect of using technology to do what we do differently and, one hopes, faster than in the past.

Permalink for this paragraph 2 In this essay, I will convey some of my own experience with adapting history to new media, while taking account of the benefits and drawbacks of technologies such as wikis and blogs for our profession. Anyone who has seen a student cite Wikipedia as the only source in a paper will be justifiably skeptical. And there is reason to doubt whether “open source” publishing can lead us to a New Jerusalem where the material dilemmas facing university presses and academic journals will disappear. A work system based on rank and prestige will be wont to let go of the scarcity-based value that an esteemed print publication offers. This essay will focus instead on the value that using these media can have for us as writers and scholars.4

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Informal Writing in the Academy
Love of writing was for me, as for many historians, a top reason to pursue this career. I liked playing the detective and trying to piece together a story about the past. I wanted to write something that people would actually want to read, although the stilted, careful style we typically learn in graduate school has not helped a lot with that goal. We learn to write with a bitterly critical reviewer in mind, taking care to stuff our prose with qualifiers and clauses and phrases like “to be sure” to preempt any possible attack.5

Permalink for this paragraph 0 We all know the traditional avenues for academic writing. There is the path to seeing a journal article in print, which means getting past a filter just to be reviewed in the first place, followed by a confrontation with the expectations of two or three reviewers who might be unsympathetic with your topic, to say nothing of your argument. If you can negotiate a truce between your idea of what the article should be and what the readers and the editor think, your piece makes it to the pages of the Journal of Frontier Semiology. (There have been attempts to make the review process more agile, open and dynamic, as in the “open review” process exemplified by this very project.) You also can write a book review, which often seems to follow a standard formula: X makes an interesting contribution, X did meticulous research, but X failed to do Y. The result is usually not riveting for the writer or the reader. Then there is, of course, the big one—the book.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 These are not the only possibilities. Some scholars write for the popular press, although the number of historians who write op-eds are a relative few and this genre often comes with its own iron constraints. As teachers we write stories all the time, often with a style and a wit that is absent in our published works. These lectures seldom see the light of day, unless one uses the material to write a textbook. Other alternatives are harder to find, although some scholars have experimented with multimedia projects that unfortunately may not carry a great deal of weight with tenure committees. The Center for History and New Media at George Mason University has done great work to offer historians the tools to create innovative, engaging new ways for the public to learn about their research.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Lectures, syllabi, and other materials that we prepare for classes are all examples of “workplace writing”—composition done on the job, not meant for publication, and often used for a limited time before being filed away. After World War II, the huge influx of students into higher education in the United States swelled the ranks of basic college writing courses, prompting scholars of English to develop composition studies; by the 1980s, researchers in this field began to consider how their students would actually use writing in their careers, apart from formally graded or published work. This new focus on writing in everyday, practical settings produced a voluminous literature of its own among scholars of composition, yet academics themselves appear to have given little consideration to their own workplace writing.6

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Indeed, lectures constitute a genre that often has little life on the printed page or online. When I first started teaching in 2003, I searched the Internet for lesson plans and lectures and found that few were readily available. With all the teachers and professors in the world writing their own distinctive material everyday, why would so few choose to share them with others? Some historians may doubt the usefulness of freely handing out their teaching materials; the texts are the fruit of their own labor, a proprietary work that can only be accessed in a classroom and not skimmed online by a student who chooses not to attend. Yet a great deal of creativity goes into this material, which benefits only the students who take the course (and of those, only the ones who do not spend class texting and checking Facebook).7

Permalink for this paragraph 0 From Peer Review to Peer Production
One option for sharing these texts is a wiki. A number of examples can now be found online in which students and teachers publish their notes, lesson plans, and lectures for wider use, often under a creative commons or GNU license that permits copying and modification of the work. For instance, graduate students working with Professor Zachary Schrag at George Mason University set up the Mason Historiographiki. Built on the model of Wikipedia, it takes advantage of the lucid format of the world’s most famous wiki to provide an outlet for the written material that graduate students generate in the course of studying for oral exams. The site includes both overviews of historiography of topics and periods (“The New Deal,” “Suburbanization”) as well as summaries of books.8

Permalink for this paragraph 0 A few colleagues and I started a wiki called Videri in 2004 for much the same purpose. We had a study group in which we each read a book a week and met to discuss it, sharing our notes. With Wikipedia gaining greater notoriety at the time, it occurred to us to pool these resources—our notes, historiographical essays from class, and the like—and make them available to others. Some of the material was (and still is) quite rough, but the editable format meant that others could build on it and improve. It also meant that notes and papers that would otherwise languish in a file cabinet or hard drive enjoyed some kind of second life online. Every graduate student would not have to reinvent the wheel every time she faced down a reading list with hundreds of monographs.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Figure 1: Videri

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Wikis bring to academic writing a process that a number of academics have written about, though fewer have practiced—“peer production.”9 With the pressure to pad CVs with as many accomplishments as possible, scholars do not often co-write, particularly in the humanities. Long gone are the days when scholars like Eric McKitrick and Stanley Elkins or Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman composed widely read works of history together.10 In peer production, though, numerous people can be widely dispersed and even anonymous to each other and still contribute toward a common task. Wikipedia remains, perhaps, the preeminent example of such a project, but other, older examples abound. The Linux operating system, begun in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, is the product of a gradual accretion of changes by countless computer programmers who have modified it over time.11 Much of the Internet operates on a principle of distributed labor: millions of music listeners uploaded files to share through the centralized music library of Napster, beginning in 1999, while the subsequent development of BitTorrent permitted Internet users to share large files, such as feature-length films and entire discographies, by breaking the data up into small pieces that a downloader receives from many different users rather than a single source.12 Meanwhile, experiments with “crowdsourcing” have shown how people can employ multiple media to contribute in small ways to a larger end, as when WNYC listeners helped map the cost of living in New York by reporting the price of milk in their neighborhoods.13 Each of these projects uses technology to make a public good out of the uncoordinated labor of many different people.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Figure 2: A crowdsourcing project from WNYC

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Of course, online peer production is not without its drawbacks. As others have noted on Writing History, digital media can be ephemeral, subject to loss of data and obsolescence. Our site crashed in 2007, and the entire archive had to be rebuilt from scratch two years later. For the most part, Videri involved writing in the depersonalized voice that one reserves for writing notes during a lecture or writing an old-fashioned book report—accounting for the content of something without making an argument. Many historians may not find this compelling. A collective effort, it also lacks much of a role for the individual authorship that means so much in academia. As a mass of knowledge categorized into discrete entries about particular books and time periods, it does not feature the linear form of narrative and argument that one finds in an article or book. It employs a “database aesthetic” more familiar to media theorists than to historians; readers can move through the site’s summaries, lectures, and syllabi in any sequence. Scholars and novelists have argued for the potential of “hypertext” to free readers from the tyranny of the linear ever since computer scientist Ted Nelson invented the term in the 1960s, but lack of structure should not be an end in itself. Without a well-defined organization and purpose, a database runs the risk of being just a big pile of information—abundant but inert, well-intentioned but uninsightful.14

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The Cultural Form(s) of Online Publishing
One of the central insights of media studies is that a medium is not the same as a particular technology. We may call your iPhone a “phone,” but when it makes a call it uses technology more similar to radio than the old rotary phone plugged into your grandmother’s wall.15 Similarly, 30 Rock and Hill Street Blues are still “television” whether we watch them on a broadcast network, cable, or an online video site like Hulu. The genres and tropes, commercial considerations and labor relations that shape most TV programs remain sufficiently similar for us to situate the medium of television in a number of technically different platforms. In this way, academic journals and presses can easily transport many of the same conventions of reviewing, editing, and publishing to the online world—many already have.16

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Take blogging, for instance. What makes a blog a blog is not just the fact that is online, or that we use digital tools to compose and update it. It is the newspaper or diary-like rhythm of discrete, chronological posts, the variable length of posts, and, above all, the relative lack of formal filters or selection processes that makes a blog different from, say, a news website or an online journal. When Blogger set out to popularize its concept in 1999, the company described its service as “push-button publishing,” while competitor LiveJournal promised a “simple-to-use (but extremely powerful and customizable) personal publishing (‘blogging’) tool…” in 2004. Blogs offered a means for posting and updating one’s thoughts without needing to know how to design a website by writing HTML code (“push-button publishing”). Before “blog” became a common term, companies like LiveJournal and DiaryLand framed their services in a language of personal, unedited writing.17 This informality and lack of editorial supervision is key to the enterprise. Wikipedia, after all, was preceded by Nupedia, an attempt at building an online encyclopedia with credentialed authors and a formal process of review; it generated nowhere near the output of Wikipedia, which introduced the little-known format of the wiki to the broader public and spawned countless imitators. Some of its successors were more open than others—the Mason Historiographiki, for instance, only includes input from approved contributors—but each embraced the basic principles of rapid editing and multiple authorship that defines a wiki.18

Permalink for this paragraph 0 This informality, in short, can be an advantage. Academic publishers may bring traditions of peer review online or pioneer new patterns of open review and public commentary to maintain the quality of digital scholarship. Yet we should also not shy away from presenting our ideas and research in less regulated forums like wikis and blogs, which are defined in part by their lack of filters.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Historians have recently taken an interest in blogs, which accommodate both collaboration and individual authorship. The Edge of the American West was a notable example in which scholars such as Eric Rauchway and Kathy Olmstead posted about academia, politics, and pop culture—along with, as they put it, “yiddishkeit, WASPhood, the 1980s, Canadiana and, most of all, the Muppets.”19 (The site went on hiatus late in 2010.) The tone was loose but intellectual, bringing a perspective informed by history and theory to current events. Other blogs pursue a similar course but specialize in intellectual or legal history, with a committed readership among scholars who work in these fields. (As a friend who writes for such a blog admitted, though, it threatens to be a “career-killing timesuck.”)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 One detects a distinct whiff of fresh air in reading these blogs. After hours spent hammering words into their most perfect form for a post-doc application, or running in the same rut for months rewriting a sentence for a revise-and-resubmit, a little bit of code-switching can be a relief. It is easy to think of anything one writes as merely one step closer to the moment the “send” button is hit and words go off to a press or journal, with a long process of revision to follow. Having a less formal outlet for writing serves as a reminder that one’s knowledge and creativity are not only pressed in the service of professional goals and a quest for approval. I also believe that the benefits of this flexibility cycle back into one’s professional writing, through a kind of intellectual cross-pollination.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 For me, a blog offers more practical benefits. After finishing my PhD, I realized I no longer had an adviser or fellow students to read my work and offer feedback. A dissertation writing group had been absolutely crucial to my progress as I tried to figure out how to move through a chapter and on to the next one. Faculty can turn to each other for feedback, of course, but most colleagues are too over-burdened with classes, committees, and family to provide regular input, and as a post-doc in an interdisciplinary program, I did not really have colleagues anyway. Like many new PhDs, I wondered how on Earth I would get a new project off the ground with no guidance and no feedback to lend shape to it—while searching for a job, teaching and grading, and eventually seeking tenure.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Around this time, my friend Ryan Reft suggested that we put together some kind of online publication that focused on historical scholarship. This project eventually took the form of a blog, although that was not necessarily our intention at first. We wanted to create a forum where we could circulate our ideas and create a community that substituted for the ones we lacked in our programs and departments. Beginning in January 2010, I worked with Ryan and Joel Suarez, graduate students at the University of California at San Diego and Georgetown, respectively, to set up the blog Tropics of Meta. Since then we have typically posted one or two stories a week on topics relating to historiography, our own research, or pop culture. Other posts present curious finds from the archives, like a 1957 ad for “WATE ON,” a product that promises to help women gain weight. The work may not be as tightly constructed or rigorously argued as something we would send to a journal, but it has given us a chance to write about our work in a more accessible style, for readers who might not pick up a journal or monograph.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Figure 3: From a Tropics of Meta photo essay about Las Vegas

Permalink for this paragraph 1 I believe this project has helped my own writing in two ways: one, it has pushed me to write more often, with less worry about the strictures of formal writing. Merely having a deadline every week to write something helps me overcome writer’s block and sort through my ideas. In my experience, writing is the only cure for the dissertator staring hopelessly into a blank screen, and the blog, like the dissertation group in graduate school, provides the pressure to begin the process. The second advantage is clear enough—the trial balloon, a chance to float ideas for new research and see what reaction they receive. You often have to dare to be wrong or inartful to get where you need to go with a project, and the blog offers a venue for risk-taking that is less intimidating than, say, a conference panel. It serves as one early step on the way to developing a new project.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 More broadly, this kind of informal writing is just good practice. The writing muscles can atrophy when we are passing time in an archive, grading papers, or waiting to hear back from a journal. The question remains whether this writing has any more tangible, professional value, in the sense that a tenure committee would consider a blog post about insane weight-gain products from the 1950s as a substantive scholarly work. We may be more prone to sloppy writing or easy generalizations when writing online, knowing that an editor is not going to come along and demand a footnote to support the assertion that NBC’s sitcom Community is “well-loved but still-struggling.” (Is there evidence that it is well-loved? Is it really struggling?) More substantively, I found it easier to state that Arab-Americans occupy “an indeterminate place in the US spectrum of race” in that post than in a journal article, where extensive evidence and reference to an established body of literature would be required to support the assertion.20

Permalink for this paragraph 0 That messiness is, of course, what makes informal writing informal. Writing on a blog might not rise to the standard of a university press or peer reviewed journal, but neither does a lecture. Rarely will what we write to say in a classroom be subject to the same degree of scrutiny as what we write in a monograph, but that fact does not diminish the value or creativity of the texts we create in the process of teaching.21

Permalink for this paragraph 0 As professionals, we may be evaluated largely on peer reviewed, published writing, but much of what we do as scholars falls in between the formal and informal, the textual and the oral. Digital publishing offers an opportunity to recognize the multifaceted nature of our work as historians and teachers, which is not limited to the printed page. It also helps us recognize that writing and print are not one and the same; back in the 1960s, media theorist Marshall McLuhan famously predicted a future “global village” where visual and aural media would eclipse the importance of print, yet the written word has more than held its own in the years since.22 In the age of Harry Potter and blogs, people are reading and writing more, even if much of that material dismays critics of the “cult of the amateur.”23 People write all the time. They compose text messages and emails; they write newsletters for church and work and post comments in endless “flame wars” on YouTube videos and news articles.24 Blogs and wikis are part of this general flurry of written activity; some posts may exhibit the same level of thought and style as a grocery list, but online publishing remains a valuable outlet for historians and other scholars to share their work (however raw), air their thoughts (however inchoate), and show off their archival finds (however silly). This material may not contribute to tenure and promotion; it may reveal one’s work in a less polished or persuasive form than an article or book. However, it can offer real benefits to the process of writing as an outlet for expression that is freer and faster than traditional publishing. It also provides an arena for collaboration and discussion that can serve the same varied purposes as a graduate school cohort, a writing group, or the peer review process.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Long ago, Truman Capote slammed Jack Kerouac’s work by saying it “isn’t writing, it’s only typing.” When it comes to an important journal submission, online or off, we would be well advised to strive for Capote’s standards—but the rest of time we should feel free to type.25

Permalink for this paragraph 0 About the author: Alex Sayf Cummings is an assistant professor of History at Georgia State University, and previously taught in the Media Studies Program at Vassar College.  His book on the history of music piracy and intellectual property law is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

  1. Permalink for this paragraph 0
  2. Stephen Duncombe, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture (New York: Verso, 1997); John McMillian, Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Amy Spencer, DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture (London: Marion Boyars, 2008).
  3. Phoebe Ayers, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates, How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It (San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2008), 41-2.
  4. Dana Goodyear, “I Heart Novels,” New Yorker, 22 December 2008, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/12/22/081222fa_fact_goodyear (accessed 11 January 2011).
  5. Helen Nicol, “Academia vs. Wikipedia… Again,” The Business of Knowing, 24 October 2007, http://thebusinessofknowing.blogspot.com/2007/10/academia-vs-wikipediaagain.html (accessed 11 January 2011); on work systems, see Stephen A. Herzenberg, John A. Alic, and Howard Wial, New Rules for a New Economy: Employment and Opportunity in Postindustrial America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 41-7; for an example of an open source platform for scholarship, see the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media’s Pressforward project at http://pressforward.org/.
  6. “Basic Op-Ed Structure,” The OpEd Project, http://www.theopedproject.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=68&Itemid=80 (accessed 30 June 2011).
  7. Lee Odell and Dixie Goswami, “Writing in a Non-Academic Setting,” Research in the Teaching of English 16 (1982): 201-2; John Ackerman and Scott Oates, “Image, Text, and Power in Architectural Design and Workplace Writing,” in Nonacademic Writing: Social Theory and Technology, ed. Ann Hill Duin and Craig Hansen (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996), 81; Sharon Crowley, Composition in the University: Historical and Polemical Essays (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), 1-3.
  8. Jeffrey R. Young, “More Professors Could Share Lectures Online. But Should They?” Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 March 2010, http://chronicle.com/article/College-20-More-Professors/64521/ (accessed 6 August 2011).
  9. “Main Page,” Mason Historiographiki, 13 December 2010, http://chnm.gmu.edu/courses/schrag/wiki/index.php?title=Main_Page (accessed 30 June 2011).
  10. Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 5, 59-90.
  11. Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1974); Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
  12. Glyn Moody, Rebel Code: Inside Linux and the Open Source Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001), 31-54; Benkler, Wealth of Networks, 65-6.
  13. Peer-to-Peer File-Sharing Technology: Consumer Protection and Competition Issues (Washington, DC: Federal Trade Commission, 2005). 4.
  14. “Are You Being Gouged? Milk,” The Brian Lehrer Show, http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/are-you-being-gouged-milk/ (accessed 5 July 2011).
  15. “Introduction,” in Database Aesthetics: Art in the Age of Information Overflow, ed. Victoria Vesna (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), ix-xx; Jay David Bolter, “Hypertext and the Question of Visual Literacy,” in Handbook of Literacy and Technology: Transformations in a Post-Typographic World, ed. David Reinking, Michael C. McKenna, Linda D. Labbo, and Ronald D. Kieffer (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998), 5.
  16. Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 182.
  17. Raymond Williams offered a pioneering analysis of a medium as a “cultural form” in his 1974 text Television: Technology and Cultural Form; Roger Silverstone provides an updated perspective in “Preface to the Routledge Classics Edition,” Television: Technology and Cultural Form (London: Routledge, 2003), vi-xii.
  18. Danah Boyd, “A Blogger’s Blog: Exploring the Definition of a Medium,” Reconstruction 6, no. 4 (2006), http://reconstruction.eserver.org/064/boyd.shtml (accessed 5 July 2011).
  19. Stacy Schiff, “Know It All,” New Yorker, 31 July 2006, http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2006/07/31/060731fa_fact (accessed 5 July 2011).
  20. “About the Edge of the American West,” Edge of the American West, http://edgeofthewest.wordpress.com/about/ (accessed 14 January 2011).
  21. Alex Sayf Cummings, “Arab American Kitsch: From Ahab to Abed and Back Again,” Tropics of Meta, 26 July 2011, http://tropicsofmeta.blogspot.com/2011/07/american-arab-kitsch-from-ahab-to-abed.html (accessed 6 August 2011).
  22. “Preface,” in Nonacademic Writing, xvi.
  23. Ivan Kalmar, “The Future of ‘Tribal Man’ in the Electronic Age,” in Marshall McLuhan: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory, ed. Gary Genosko (New York: Routledge, 2005), 227.
  24. Shayna Garlick, “Harry Potter and the Magic of Reading,” Christian Science Monitor, 2 May 2007, http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0502/p13s01-legn.html (accessed 5 July 2011); “More American Adults Read Literature According to New NEA Study,” National Endowment for the Arts, 12 January 2009, http://www.nea.gov/news/news09/ReadingonRise.html (accessed 1 August 2011); Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 3.
  25. Alex J. Packer, How Rude! The Teenagers’ Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior and Not Grossing People Out (Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, 1997), 387-8.
  26. Robert Emmet Long, Truman Capote, Enfant Terrible (New York: Continuum, 2008), 82.