Why do you blog? Why do you tweet? Or, why don’t you? What do you feel about your online activity, and how it relates to your identity as a scholar, or enthusiast? What role do you think online activity can, or should, play in our professional pursuits, and professional identities as “scholars”?
As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been watching a lot of random YouTube videos and the like lately. The monitor on my laptop broke a week or so ago, and while I was waiting to get it fixed/replaced (thank you, Dell CompleteCare Warranty!) I up and bought a proper 19″ external desk monitor. Which is great when you want to watch something while also doing stuff on your computer. Multi-tasking! But, as I failed to anticipate, it’s not so great when you’re doing something on your computer (single-tasking!) and that giant screen is doing nothing, basically just screaming “watch something!”
So I’ve been watching these videos of YouTube celebrities like Charlie McDonnell and video series like All Star Bowling, and though the content may be, at times, fairly devoid of real substance, I cannot help but be compelled, and to feel that there’s something here. These people seem like they’re living a truly 21st century life, like they’re truly engaging with new forms of social media, new forms of ‘being’ in the Internet Age. Like my interaction & engagement with the world is inadequate, or behind the times, by comparison.
My advisor once told me he knows that I am extremely active and involved on the internet, and for some reason this one little statement has stuck with me. Did he see that as a good thing, or as a stupid distraction? I don’t know. I don’t remember. Watching these videos, and writing that previous blogpost on posting academic content online, has got me thinking. What is it exactly that I want out of Internet engagement?
I love that I write this blog, and that I’m (occasionally) involved in a podcast, that I write Wiki entries, that I tweet, that I follow a gazillion things on RSS Feeds, and very frequently repost things, whether here, or on Facebook, or Twitter. It makes me feel connected, engaged, and up on the latest news and trends and whatever. If there’s a video going around, I’ve seen it, and if there’s art / history / archaeology / culture news, I like to think that I’m hearing about it, and playing a role in (re-)distributing it. I sit here at my computer, with a dozen tabs open, a video on the second monitor, copying and pasting links, and feeling like I’m doing something important, like I’m engaged. And then I have a second thought, and I think, I’m not one of these YouTube celebrities, or big-name bloggers, or big-name Twitter people. I remain surprised by the number of followers that I do have, and I thank you all for continuing to read, and follow, and comment, and everything – I appreciate it all very truly. But, outside of the prospect of hanging out with the likes of Felicia Day and Wil Wheaton in real life, what is it that I am, on some subconscious, can’t-quite-articulate-what-it-is level, yearning for? What is it exactly that I envy, or feel inadequate about, when I watch these videos?
Thinking about it, I realize that ultimately, I would rather be successful and widely engaged on the Internet, rather than in the relatively smaller, closed-up worlds of academia or the art/museum worlds. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do want to avoid professional failure. If you’re a professor or potential employer or the like reading thing, please don’t think I’m not serious about my research, and about pursuing a career as either an academic or a museum professional. I absolutely am.
But there’s something about having my online activity – Twitter and podcasts and RSS feeds and all of that – be a part of my identity, a part of my scholarly activity, of my engagement with the world, that’s very compelling. Artists do all kinds of things – from giving away their possessions to sleeping in the gallery to… organizing their daily schedule in a particular way or carefully coordinating their public persona – and call it a part of their “art practice.” In a similar vein, I feel like I want my “scholarly practice” to be more than just my formal activities, but to encompass a wider set of societal interactions.
I posted a few days ago questioning where the line should be drawn when sharing about academic topics (specifically about our research) online, and to my astonishment, two of my close internet-friends thought my ramblings interesting enough to merit reblogging it. Now, to my knowledge, none of the three copies of that post have gotten any comments yet, but that’s kind of besides the point. It is posts like this one (obviously not by me, but other posts like this one, by other people, who have more followers and get more comments) where, it seems, it’s really happening these days. Formal scholarship moves at a truly glacial pace by comparison, while meanwhile on numerous forums and blogs and whathaveyou online, there are constant discussions about scholarship and academia, about shifts in and threats to the institution of the university, and about a truly countless myriad of academic topics themselves (though, in a sense, just about anything can be an academic topic). Call it formal scholarship or refuse to acknowledge it as such, either way, there are pages and pages and pages of discussions about, for example, sex and gender in pop culture, expanding every day, and even though those particular topics are not necessarily related to my officially stated research focus, I feel a strong sense that this is the place, this is the cutting-edge where must-read things are being posted, where the real conversations are going on.
And, getting back to that earlier statement about my internet friends reposting things, the very fact that I have such internet friends (though perhaps there ought to be a better word) – academic colleagues whom I know primarily through the Internet, and with whom I interact primarily through the Internet – feels like it really means something, even though I’m having a difficult time articulating what it is. Though I hope to get published soon in an official journal, and though I will of course be continuing doing “real” “serious” research here in my new grad school program, in the meantime, so long as I am not producing scholarship that is being published in the conventional ways, it feels like connecting with these people, online, is so much more productive, and so much more active. This is where I share my thoughts, read others’ thoughts, and engage in discourse. Maybe, at the end of the day, that’s the real core of all of this. The fact that I, and Kathryn, Molly, Diego, Mitzi, Leah, Paula, Dan, and so many others can be so active, and so interactive, on the Internet (though some of these people are indeed quite active & successful in more formal venues as well, congrats to them), feels so much more productive, and meaningful, than the limited, geographically-restricted, glacial-pace-moving formal academic environment. Not that I mean to deride formal academia – I am, after all, still continuing to pursue a career within that realm – but, now that I think of it this way, now that I’ve finally hit upon this aspect of it, suddenly, it seems to make perfect sense that of course I should find being active and involved on the internet so appealing.
Reading, writing, and discussing about Japanese art, history, and culture does not have to happen exclusively within the Academy; it does not need to happen solely through formal, “professional” channels. At the stage of my career that I am now, where my formal responsibilities revolve more around the 250 pages of Foucault that I’m assigned to read by next week than around reading the half dozen articles on medieval Ryukyu that have been sitting on my computer Desktop for the last three years, my internet activity becomes the primary place where I get to do the reading, writing, sharing, and discussing of the topics I’m actually most interested in. At which stage in my career this might change, I don’t know. How to monetize my Internet activity so that I don’t need to jump through the hoops of formal academia any longer, I also don’t know. But, for now, I think that’s truly one of the key elements. I consume – and produce – more scholarship, if I may be permitted to call it that, everyday online than in my more formal, official academic activities. And the people I’ve listed above, the people I interact with regularly online, are more my network, my community, of people with similar interests (read: Japanese culture, history, etc.), than the people I’m thrown together with in my graduate seminars. On the Internet, I can find people who share my love of Noh and kabuki, of ukiyo-e, of Japanese history, of life in Kyoto, while in the necessarily smaller world of any individual specific geographical place (e.g. a college campus), that’s much more difficult.
At school, I’m just a first-year grad student, reading what I have to read for class, and discussing it with a limited group of people in my seminars or in my department, but on the Internet, I share and interact with, at least in theory, a much wider audience. I certainly don’t make any claims to fame or prominence, but on the Internet I can be something other than, something more than. I don’t tend to think of myself as “a blogger” as if my activities online are in anyway so prominent or successful or established, but.. online, I can be a somebody, at least a bit more. I can share my ideas, and be heard, and comment on other people’s ideas, feel engaged, and feel like I have a real community, a real network of friends or colleagues.
Being online makes me feel like I’m connected to the world, like I’m actively engaging with people all around the world, like I’m plugged in to the conversation, to whatever network/community. Perhaps it’s because I’m from (just outside of) a big city, and/or perhaps it’s because I grew up in this Internet Age, and/or because my interests (in Japanese culture/history) necessarily take me to thinking on a more international/global sort of scope, but I can’t stand the feeling of being disconnected from “what’s going on,” from feeling like I’m a part of the cutting-edge of, of, I dunno, of things. Living in New York, or Tokyo, or London, is one way to feel like you’re living at the forefront of global cultural activity; living online accomplishes much the same goal. Wherever I am, whether it’s here in Santa Barbara, or whether I find myself in Honolulu, or Kyoto, or New York, wherever I am, I remain connected to that pulse, to feeling like I’m part of something important. We live in the Internet Age, an age of globalization, globalism, and inter-connectedness. Blogging, tweeting, posting photos, reading RSS feeds, reposting and commenting on things makes me feel like I’m a part of that Internet Age, makes me feel like I’m connected and involved in the latest trends of what the Internet can do and is doing, and where it can go. Maybe I’m deluding myself. That’s okay. I know full well that I’m no software engineer, no Google staffer, no Internet mogul of any kind, and that in fact what I’m doing is not really at the cutting-edge at all, but a good bit of a ways behind it. But, compared to not being so active (and interactive) online? I feel like I’m light-years ahead.
I would love for this to develop into a conversation. I think this is a conversation that needs to be had. What role can online activity, including blogs, Twitter, podcasts, play in the development or evolution of academia, the process of scholarly production, and of scholarly engagement with the wider society?