[Micro]Blogging '10: Notes on the Courage to Write and the End of Trust
"The solution?" To write by surprise. To have jotted everything down in flashes. To telegraph."
-Helene Cixous, First Days of the Year  1998: 103
"I want to utter interiority without yielding intimacy."
-Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida  2000: 98
I am writing this post in my pajamas. Yes, it is a common place. It was 8:30 am (London, UK time) when I started writing it. I am thinking writing in your pajamas can make you feel vulnerable. Perhaps that is why people wear suits to work.
The original intention behind this post has changed a little. There was no pre-written plan; it just happened. Surrounded by books, several Safari tabs open, the half-empty cup of tea cold now, I write under the artificial light of two lamps. Next to my laptop, an English version of Barthes's Camera Lucida [original from 1980], where he speaks to me and now, I hope, to you too:
"Trying to make myself write some sort of commentary on the latest "emergency" reportage, I tear up my notes as soon as I write them. What nothing to say about death, suicide, wounds, accidents?" (2000:111).
This year marked a full decade since I started blogging. It's not a long time in comparison to most things. In what's often called "Internet time" it seems like a very long time, though. I've tried several platforms and styles of blogging. The period between 2002 and 2006 was particularly fruitful.
It's no coincidence that the rise of social networking sites exploded around 2006. It had a definitive effect on my blogging, and in the blogging of others I read. The years between 2006 and 2010 saw me working on a PhD, living again in the UK, away from family and many lifelong friends. This also had an important effect on the way I blogged. This post is in a way an attempt to come to terms with that experience.
If you are reading this it is fair to assume you are also a blogger of some sort and have experienced the effects of what is often referred to as the Web 2.0 in your life. Last month I wrote a blog post here about the importance Twitter had on my PhD research. On Twitter, a reader described my post as "courageous". I was surprised by the comment, and made me realise how in spite of the enormous quantity of writing here and there about social networking in and out of academia, there are still many questions waiting to be answered. Simple questions. Questions of ethics and purpose. Why do we blog? Why do we 'tweet'? When we do it, are we honest or are always-already putting forth a facade and an armour, nothing more than shameless selfpromotion disguised as sharing and interaction?
When I started blogging ten years ago, my experience of "the network" was different. Blog rolls were networks of support. Through interaction and through mutual reading and hyperlinking, the members of a blog roll got to trust each other. The blurring of the public and the private was an issue, one dealt with in different ways by different bloggers.
In terms of what one shared or didn't share with others in the network, most bloggers felt it was up to the individual. My personal experience with blogging showed me that readers were more willing to engage with posts written in a personal tone than to drier academic essays. The two could be combined, though: "personal" did not have to mean "inane." The emergence of social networking opened up instant electronic self-publishing to a larger audience, and the challenges of exposing one's work online evolved.
A decade ago, it seems to me, it was easier to blog and belong to an online community without the feeling that everyone was judging you and that all your posts would come back to haunt you the moment you were applying for a job.
My first reaction to Facebook was that it was making blogging available to everyone. But Facebook's capital is not informational knowledge (at least to users) but social knowledge. Twitter, it can be argued, works on informational capital, but as it evolves it develops semi-closed micronetworks, where the same users tweet and retweet largely the same information to each other. [14:20 London time update: here Ethan Zuckerman on "silos"].
What blogging and other social networking sites have in common is that they rely on users sharing data with each other. And sharing can make one vulnerable. Especially if your capital, as in the case of researchers, journalists and academics, is information (cultural capital), sharing can be seen as a sign of the other's vulnerability, stupidity or, perhaps, courage. The courage to share and to do it honestly.
In H.C. for LIfe, That Is to Say...  Jacques Derrida cites from Hlne Cixous's Ananke :
"'Do you have the courage?' my friend said, and straightaway I said 'yes,' [...]"
Which brings me to the question of trust. In the context of online publishing, trust is often evoked from the point of view of the reader: can we trust Wikipedia? Are blog posts and tweets reliable sources? But trust is also necessary for a member of a network or community to be willing to share valuable information of any order. And trust between network members is what I often feel is missing in many recent exchanges in blogs and Twitter.
According to Adam Seligman,
"Trust is distinguished from confidence in that the latter rests on knowledge or predictability of the alter's actions, while trust is necessary to maintain interaction in the absence of such knowledge [...] Control or confidence is what you have when you know what to expect in a situation; trust is what you need to maintain interaction if you do not" (Seligman 1998:391).
So these days I don't blog that much. I tweet a lot, mostly links to information that I think would be interesting to others. The tweet, like the telegram, is a way of making one's self present through a quick action. A flash. Indeed, tweets might be a way of saying: "I am still alive". But whenever I am about to write something that could be considered more personal, I hesitate. Fear hits in. I once wrote that
"The tensions between a culture that encourages a highly developed sense of self-esteem, popularity amongst peers and competitiveness and a contradictorily conservative and hypocritical condemnation of those same values is enhanced by social media, which in a way is just an online public version of old media self-representational methods such as business cards, demos, CVs, statements of purpose, fashion styles, publication lists, etc.."
But I also believe that "social media" needs to be much more than that if it is to be effective. It is not only about engagement and interaction, it is about how much trust is built through that engagement. In these days of economic uncertainty and online hyper-awareness, early career scholars are facing new challenges. Do you see others as potential collaborators and colleagues (even friends) or are they the competition? Are you really sharing or just advertising?
I am sure some think that in this age of overwhelming information flow the less is said the better. But selfishness, self-censorship and careerism cannot be the alternative.
There is much good work about openness in academia, but the gate-kept models are still the rule. Privilege is still maintained within closed circles (yes, there can be such a thing as non-exclusive 'privilege', open and transparent). There are many public expressions of success, but not enough acceptance of challenges and personal setbacks. As academia and research move towards pervasive online interaction, academic online personae are becoming more like the photographic image according to Barthes: "the creation of a new social value."
One of the challenges of the 21st century academic might be a question of learning to share without immediate financial or social gain. As Jacques Derrida wrote, "courage is not the opposite of fear" (2006:188). One of the challenges for the early career scholar is learning to develop an online identity in the inter-zones; to be courageous without pretending not to be afraid.
Barthes, Roland (2000) Camera Lucida (London: Vintage)
Cixous, Helene (1998) First Days of the Year (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press)
Cixous, Helene (1979) Ananke (Paris: Des Femmes)
Derrida, Jacques (2006) H.C. for LIfe, That Is to Say... (Stanford: Stanford University Press)
Priego, Ernesto (2009) "Oh Deja Vu: On Social Media and Narcissism" [Redux] Never Neutral, 27 August 2009.
Reposted May 25 2010 <http://butterflyhunt.tumblr.com/post/631798474/oh-deja-vu-on-social-media-and-narcissism-redux>.
Seligman, Adam B. (1998) "Trust and Sociability. On the Limits of Confidence and Role Expectations." American Journal of Economics and Sociology. Volume 57, Issue 4, pages 391404, October 1998.
[Apologies for lack of accents in Helene, Anake and Deja...]