Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The future of social science blogging in the UK

Mark Carrigan is a sociologist and academic technologist and first wrote this blog post for his blog Contact Mark on Twitter @mark_carrigan

Earlier this week, NatCen Social Research hosted a meeting between myself, Chris Gilson (USApp, @ChrisHJGilson), Cristina Costa and Mark Murphy (Social Theory Applied, @christinacost & @socialtrampos ), Donna Peach (PhD Forum,Donna_Peach) and Kelsey Beninger (NSMNSS, @KBeninger) to discuss possible collaborations between social science bloggers in the UK and share experiences about developing and sustaining social science blogs over time. We didn’t do as much of the latter as I expected, though I personally found it valuable simply to voice a few concerns I’d had in mind about the direction of academic blogging that I’d heretofore been keeping to myself for a variety of reasons. The manner in which the audience for Sociological Imagination seems to have stopped growing over the last couple of years (unless I make an effort to tweet more links to posts in the archives) had left me wondering why I’d been operating under the assumption that the audience for a blog should be growing. I realise that I’d been working on the premise that an audience is either growing or it’s shrinking which, once I articulated it, came to seem obviously inaccurate to me. Considering this also raised questions about overarching purposes which I was keen to get other people’s perspectives on: what was the website for? To be honest I’m not entirely sure. After four years, it’s largely become both habit and hobby. It’s an enjoyable diversion. It’s a justification for spending vast quantities of time reading other sociology blogs. I’m invested in it as a cumulative project, such that even if I stopped enjoying it, I’d probably feel motivated to continue. I’m still preoccupied by how genuinely global it has become, something which feels valuable in and of itself. I’ve also had enough positive feedback at this point (I never know quite how to respond when people send ‘thank you’ e-mails but they’re immensely appreciated!) that all these other factors, essentially constituting its value for me, find themselves reflected in a sense that it’s clearly valuable for (some) other people as well.

Much of the early discussion at the meeting was about the limitations of metrics. It’s sometimes hard to know what to do with quantitative metrics of the sort that are so abundantly supplied by social media. What do they actually mean? Other people have seemingly had the same experience I’ve had of being provoked by these stats to wonder about what isn’t being measured e.g. if x number of people visit a post then how many people read the whole thing, let alone derive some value from it? We discussed the possibility of qualitative feedback, which is essentially what the aforementioned ‘thanks’ e-mails constitute, as something potentially more meaningful but difficult to elicit. Are there ways to pursue qualitative feedback from the audience of a blog? Cristina and Mark described their current project aiming to use an online questionnaire to get information about how Social Theory Applied is seen by readers and how the material is being used. Are there others ways to get this kind of feedback? Perhaps I should just ask on the @soc_imagination twitter feed? I guess the thing that makes me uncomfortable is the risk of slipping into a publisher/consumer orientation, given this is a relation so well established in contemporary society – I don’t see the people reading the site as consumers and I don’t see myself as a publisher. In fact I’ve found it immensely frustrating on a few occasions when I’ve felt people adopt the mentality of a consumer with me e.g. leaving a comment that “there’s no excuse for posting a podcast with such low audio quality” or “why haven’t you fixed the broken link on this [old] post?”. While I’d like to get qualitative feedback on Sociological Imagination, particularly more of a sense of how people use material on the site if it’s for anything other than momentary distraction, I basically have no intention of doing anything other than what I want with it, as well as leaving the Idle Ethnographer as my co-editor to do the same.

We also discussed a range of potential collaborations which we could pursue in future. One of my concerns about the general direction of social science blogging in the UK is that the LSE blogs and the Conversation might gradually swallow up single-author blogs – in the case of the former, the fact they often repost from individual blogs mitigates against this but I think there’s still a risk that single author blogging becomes a very rare pursuit over time, simply because it’s difficult to sustain it and build an audience while subject to many other demands on your time. I think the likelihood of this happening is currently obscured by academic blogging becoming, at least in some areas, slightly modish, in a way that distracts from the question of whether new bloggers are likely to sustain their blogging in a climate where their likely expectations are unlikely to be met by the activity itself. I like the idea of finding ways to share traffic and I suggested that we could experiment with aggregation systems of various sorts: perhaps framed as a social science blogging directory which people apply to join, at which point their RSS feed is plugged into a twitter feed that automatically aggregates all the other blogs on the list. Another possibility would be to use RebelMouse to create what could effectively be a homepage for the UK social science blogosphere (in the process perhaps bringing this blogosphere into being, as opposed to it simply being an abstraction at present). Chris Gilson suggested the possibility of creating a shared newsletter in which participating sites included their top post each week or month, in order to create a communal mailing which profiled the best of social science blogging in the UK. Despite being initially antipathetic towards it, this idea grew on me as I pondered it on the way home – not least of all because it could be a way to connect with audiences who are unlikely to read blogs on a regular basis. However while it would be easy to create prototypes of any of these to test the concept, it’s less obvious how they would work on an ongoing basis. The latter two would require a small amount of funding and/or someone willing to take on an unpaid task. Perhaps more worryingly from my point of view as someone who goes out of my way to avoid formal meetings in general and those concerned with elaborating procedures in particular, it seems obvious to me that some filtering criteria would be required (e.g. should blogs have to be continued past a certain point to join the aggregator? should there be quality criteria and, if so, who would assess them?) to ‘add value’ but I have no idea what these would be nor do I see how they could be fairly elaborated without a long sequence of face-to-face meetings that would likely prove tedious for all concerned. Perhaps I’m being overly negative, particularly since two of the ideas were my own, but I don’t see the point of writing a ‘reflection’ post like this and not being upfront about where I’m coming from.

We also discussed the possibility of longer term collaborations. Would social science blogging in the UK benefit from something like The Society Pages and, if so, how do we go about setting it up? I cautioned against overestimating the possible benefits of the umbrella identity TSP provides but I really have no idea. We discussed whether we should talk to the editors of the site in order to learn more about their experiences. I can certainly see the value in pursuing something like this and, as with the aggregators, it has the virtue of facilitating collaboration while retaining the individual identities of the participating sites – for both principled and practical reasons, I don’t want to collaborate in a way that dilutes the identity of the Sociological Imagination. Plus, even if I did, I’d have to ask the Idle Ethnographer and I suspect she feels even more strongly about this than I do. This discussion segued quite naturally into a broader question of how to fund academic blogging in the UK – framed in these terms, my initial ambivalence about pursuing funding melted away because I’d like nothing more than to find a way to fund blogging as an activity. My experiences at the LSE suggest this might be harder than it seems but we discussed this in terms of winning money to buy out people’s time to participate in these activities. I’ve always been an enthusiast for the LSE model of research-led editorship (as opposed to the journalist-led editorship of the Conversation, which I think leads to an often sterile product in spite of the faultless copy) so I’d like it if this possibility, as a distinctive occupational role in itself, doesn’t slip out of the conversation but it’s difficult for all sorts of reasons. I think it would also be beneficial to find ways of employing PhD students on a part-time basis, either for ad hoc assignments or work on an ongoing basis, given the retrenchment of funding and the congruence between the demands of a PhD and paid work of this sort. My one worry here is that the pursuit of funding undermines what I would see as the more valuable outcome of establishing blog editorship on an equivalent footing with journal editorship – given the latter does not, as far as I’m aware, factor into workload allocations anywhere, advocating that time for blog editing should be bought out risks preventing an equivalence between these two roles which I suspect would otherwise be likely to emerge organically over time.

My sense of the key issues facing the UK social science blogosphere:  
  • How to share experiences, allow practical advice to circulate and facilitate the establishment of best practice
  • Finding qualitative metrics to supplement the quantitative metrics provided by blogging platforms
  • Making it easier for new bloggers to build audiences and promote their writing
  • Experimenting with aggregation projects to help consolidate the blogosphere and share traffic
  • Finding ways to fund social science blogging (for students, doctoral researchers and academics)
  • Increasing the recognition of social science blogging as a valuable academic activity
  • Ensuring that social science blogging remains a researcher-led activity and doesn’t get subsumed into institutionalised public engagement schemes
  • Encouraging the development of group blogs as a type distinct from single-author blogs and multi-author blogs with designated editors


  1. Mark, thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post :) Your list of key issues is spot on - and seems applicable to the blogoshere as a whole. The proliferation of personal blogs makes it difficult for any one voice to rise above the noise - whatever 'rise above' means. I'm pretty sure that your ideas around aggregation, best practice, promotion and qual metrics will become increasingly important as blogging matures as a serious publishing platform. Oh and please keep Soc Imagination going - for you and for us!