A colleague asked me today for a recommendation for an index of scholarly humanities blogs. He noted that some of the tools he’d used previously had gone away. I didn’t have a simple answer for him…
The Landscape Has Changed
I argued that it’s not an accident when Google removes a product or Technorati transforms itself into something completely different.
There are people who are still not ready to let go of Google Reader. But, just as Apple removes ports and drives that we still hold dear, it’s often done because they see another way to accomplish the same goal (and/or would like to push in that direction).
Why is it harder to find blog indexing (Technorati), aggregating tools (Yahoo Pipes), and RSS readers (Google Reader)? Because the landscape has changed and splintered in new social media directions. It’s messier now and more complex.
With a switch in themes, WordPress can run a website (and it feels like half the web these days runs on it). Tumblr can be a tool for teenagers to post angsty photos or for faculty to promote their new book. Medium hosts writing of all types, but is also where the White House chose to post this year’s State of the Union for the first time it was shared widely before the speech. Facebook and especially Twitter are very different things to different people.
It’s not that blogs don’t still exist, it’s just that the platforms have proliferated and evolved, the distinctions have become fuzzy of what goes where, and the barrier to start creating content is near zero. The notion that the authority of a single author or small group of authors on a singular platform can easily be aggregated, ranked, filtered, and organized seems near impossible now.
Different platforms have different restrictions and norms about length and visibility of content. Authors often syndicate their material and may use different platforms for different purposes, some mixing personal and professional content, some keeping it separate by tool.
The bottom line is that the moment when we could wrap our heads around this “new-fangled Internet writing”, which was bypassing traditional routes of monographs and peer reviewed journals, but that still looked and felt like something familiar, seems to have passed.
It’s All About Context
Everything is everything now. Why is it hard to delineate good or authoritative places to find useful material? Because these are just tools and everyone chooses individually how to use them, sometimes on a daily basis. And we’re all continuing to expand the wide variety of reasons and ways to use them.
What does this mean for the student/researcher trying to mine the Internet for useful content? It means you can’t rely on old tropes of authority (you know the ones: .edu .org and .gov domains are more authoritative than .com). It means there’s no easy “authority” filter button to click in the left column. And even taking a second to see an author’s credentials isn’t enough. What mode are they speaking in? Is there sarcasm you’re missing? What are they responding to, and what was that responding to? These are the skills we need to teach: being constantly evaluative of what you’re reading.
There’s great content in Wikipedia and there’s junk. There’s great content on Medium and there’s junk. There’s great content on Twitter and there’s junk. It’s on you to dig deeper and understand not just who is speaking and gauge their authority, but also ask questions about whether this platform involves collaboration or editing or not, continually trying to establish and ascertain context for what you’re seeing.
Old Attempts and New to Organize
This isn’t to say there aren’t attempts to create new scholarly blog indexes. To be honest, I find tools like that and other ones that hope to index and sell the open web a bit off-putting. It seems like they’re taking freely available content, repackaging it, and selling it, usually without permission.
Likewise, the efforts of LexisNexis and others to somehow incorporate blogs or social media as an additional category of their search always seemed a bit desperate and out of touch to me.
Ultimately, it’s the question of who is the part and who is the whole. It seems pretty clear at this point that academic literature is the part and the Internet is the whole, not the other way around, despite what vendors would prefer. We might still continue the debate about Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia on editorial method and authority grounds, but there is no question when it comes to breadth.
Like it or not, the scholarly world of information is part of the larger world of information, not the other way around. It makes sense that our searching strategies and practice begin to reflect that.
The Community is the Index
So, what’s the best tool for finding and searching through scholarly blogs? Google, I guess.
But I wouldn’t really recommend it.
That ignores the point of the shift towards social media. Instead of searching and ranking, I’d recommend tapping into the community that interests you. Follow people in your field on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook. They’ll lead you to the good blog posts, the good caches of primary sources in your field, the experts who’ve written a book on your topic. And if there’s a question they’re not addressing: you can just ask.
The best thing about moving from the broadcaster/receiver model of blogs/aggregator to the swirling mess of participatory social media is that the community is the index. Expertise and authority is not derived from a vendor’s designation or a tool’s algorithm, but through community opinion and your real experience.
Without blog indexes it may be harder to filter the good writing from all of the noise, but only when you stay on the outside of social media. And it certainly is more work for students to have to individually decipher the value of every piece of content, rather than using a simplistic rubric or relying on a vendor’s designation. But, once you create an account and actually start participating, you’ll quickly find new and more nuanced ways to assign value and authority.
Arguably, this is what Librarians should spend our time pondering and helping students to explore: not cut-and-dry rules about evaluation or putting up walls to delineate good sites and not good sites, but considering how to actively and ethically participate in this conversation, how to develop your own method for individually evaluating every piece of content you encounter, regardless of the source or format.