A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Part 4. The Archaeology of Blogging
The final section of my article will consider one of the most commonly asked questions regarding a blog. How do we know it is reliable? How do we know what blogs to trust as sources of information or informed opinions? How do we negotiate and navigate this new medium to find the kind of information that we want? And finally, how do blogs fit into the larger world of the New Media? I am going to address these questions through an archaeological approach to the blog as a medium. This "archaeology" of blogging will, hopefully, complement the typological and historical approach that this article has already employed and form a kind of theoretical and practical conclusion to this treatment of academic blogging. In using the word "archaeology" I am not referring the academic discipline of digging in the ground or even the historical study of material culture, but the much larger intellectual project of understanding the context for particular, discrete facts, groups of related ideas, and methods of inquiry. Thus, an archaeology of blogging involves contextualizing blogs as a medium of communication, as unified narratives (even if they do not fit our traditional interpretation of narrative style), and as the location of a community of individuals committed to a similar project. Since most people approach a blog by reading an individual post, my archaeology of blogging will begin by thinking about how we can put an individual post in its broader context. To do this, I will suggest that the basic context for any post derives from three basic structures: (1) the blog itself, (2) the network of hyperlinks in the post, and (3) the identity of the blogger.
The process of reading a blog in context is very similar to the process of making sense of archaeological material.
The primary context for most posts is shared by its place within the specific blog. A blog that focuses on automobile maintenance or pet care, for example, might not be a great source of archaeological information. A blog that shows regular interest in archaeology (like the ones linked above) is more likely to be reliable. Serious and academic bloggers will often cite specific sources for the information in their blog using either parenthetical references within the post (like in this post from Kostis Kourelis's blog) or in a short bibliography at the end of the post (like in this post from Shawn Graham's blog). These kinds of academic practices show that blogging is sometimes thought of as an extension of a scholar's academic production and therefore needs to conform to certain basic academic standards. While proper citations in blogs is not uncommon among academic bloggers, it is perhaps more common for bloggers simply to link their posts to supporting or relevant information elsewhere on the internet through hypertext links (like I have done in this article). These hypertext links might lead off to other blogs, to the web sites of particular archaeological projects, or even to scholarly articles or books on various topics (it is now easy to link books mentioned in a blog to their entries in WorldCat, a massive online library database). By providing these links, a blogger assembles a range of information from across the web, and provides it with structure and context much like an archaeologist creates meaning from the various discarded objects from antiquity. The links in a post create a virtual web that positions the blog within a larger body of information on the internet. If a blogger makes a link to a page on the web, it usually means that he or she finds that page relevant for the discussion in the post.
Another way to contextualize a blog and determine whether it is a useful source of information derives from considering the identity of the blogger. Even anonymous bloggers, generally, conceive of themselves as part of a larger community. The most visible indication of a blogger's community is in his or her blogrolls. Blogrolls are lists of links to other blogs that most bloggers place on the side of their main page. These links bring together individuals with similar interests and perspectives. If you like a blog, it is often safe to assume that you will like the blogs listed in its blogroll. An easier, if less consistent way, to determine the identity of the blogger is through his or her "about me" or "profile" page. Among academic and serious bloggers these pages regularly include descriptions of a bloggers qualifications, links to their personal web pages, and statements of interests (two examples: here is my "about me" and here is David Gill's "profile"). As you can see from these examples, academic bloggers and professional archaeologists typically provide some information on our professional credentials and university affiliations.
By following the links in a blog, looking at its blogrolls, and reading about the blogger, a savvy internet explorer can determine the reliability of a blog as a source of information. In fact, the process of reading a blog in context is very similar to the process of making sense of archaeological material; reading a blog in context is one way to excavate a blog. If you have the time to explore the blogosphere you will soon discover that the best blogs provide links to a whole constellation of different sources, ideas, and perspectives. In many cases, the links and references between blogs show how bloggers engage their fellow authors in conversations. Sometimes this is organized into a blog "carnival" which pulls together different perspectives on a single topic offered by multiple blogs (a good list of a blog carnivals is provided at the Carnivaleque page which is run by Sharon Howard of the long-running Early Modern Notes blog). Another way that bloggers interact is through "metablogs." These are blogs about blogs! The metablog that I joined is called the Ancient World Bloggers Group. There are about a dozen contributors to the blog at present and each has his or her own blog. The History News Network maintains an updated blog roll of academic blogs, and the Academic Blog Portal provides a somewhat more uneven, communally updated list of blogs in a series of wikis (sets of easily updated, communally created web pages). Finally, many bloggers maintain lists of links to their favorite reads in either Technorati or del.icio.us. You can read my favorite blogs at my del.icio.us page.
The communal aspect of blogging is central to its development as a medium, and has made it an important contributor to the New Media movement. While rarely regarded in the same way as electronic journals or archives of archaeological data (blogs were not mentioned specifically, for example, in the American Institute of Archaeology/American Philological Associations Report on Electronic Publications), blogs nevertheless represent a vibrant medium for bringing together data from across a wide range of digital media (for example, my blog has included digital aerial photographs, GIS data, resistivity data, and even digital publications). The proliferation of blogs over the last half-decade has demonstrated the existence of substantial cyber infrastructure available to support the fast developing social network created by the blogging community itself. Blogs like The Valve, which promotes itself as a "literary organ," have already demonstrated how a blog can become a platform for substantial intellectual exchange. By enabling comments on the blog, readers can engage the post and create a space for exchange of ideas. In fact, some of these exchanges on The Valve had appeared as both digital and print publications. The comments on early drafts of this article (particularly part 2) have shaped its contents.
Despite the potential for creating interactive communities of intellectual and scholarly exchange, blogging has many of the same limitations as other forms of digital media. Blogs, in particular, can be ephemeral. Since most academic institutions do not regard blogging as a genuine academic exercise (that is something that counts toward tenure, promotion, or seniority), it is nearly always squeezed into the slim margins of an individual's free time. Some of the best-known and most widely read bloggers have commented on the time and energy required to maintain a blog and after a run of a few years stop writing. Many blogs will remain on the web long after they have stopped being updated as an archive of writings and comments. Others vanish without a trace (like Adrian Mudock's Bread and Circuses, which fortunately can be excavated in repositories like the Internet Archive). Individual authors might archive their writings, but the public record including the context or archaeology of the blog is no longer available. The end result is that blogs remain, at present, an ephemeral, but dynamic medium for the disseminating of archaeological knowledge.