I just got back from the Middle East Studies Association annual meeting. I didn't actually see much of it, less than half of one panel (other than my own). Our blogging panel was very well attended - thanks everyone for coming! - with a large room pretty much filled. It ran from 5:00 to 7:00, which is very late by Aardvark Standard Time. What's worse, I was the last speaker, so I was pretty exhausted by the time I took the podium. Plus, as I expected, the first five speakers used up most of the obvious points, so I ended up ditching most of my prepared remarks. All of which is just a way of saying that I was kind of freestylin up there, on not a lot of sleep.
I can only briefly summarize what my co-panelists said (Asad AbuKhalil, Helena Cobban, Juan Cole, and Josh Landis, along with organizer Layla Hudson). Asad remarked that blogs are essentially a narcissistic and personal exercise, and talking about them is twice as bad - I have to agree - and then went on to make some very interesting points about what blogs can and can't achieve (he's much more pessimistic than am Josh, Juan or I about the importance or influence of blogs). Helena talked about the virtues of blogging as a form of networked communication, and pointed out some gender inequalities and status hierarchies in the blogosphere (I somewhat disagree about the latter point: while there are obvious hierarchies in the blogosphere, conventionally measured academic "status" only gets you so far in blogging compared to producing quality content on a regular basis). Juan and Josh mostly talked about their own blogs (Josh had some particularly hilarious anecdotes, and a refeshing honesty about some of the reasons why people blog), and both did a good job of showing the routes by which blogs can become influential (through journalists, through policymakers, through particular academic or policy communities, through generous links from major "hub" bloggers).
Me, I actually didn't talk much about Abu Aardvark at all. Instead, I focused on two things: why there aren't more MESA bloggers, and the relevance of Arab bloggers rather than just American academics writing about the Middle East. At least I think I did - like I said, I was freestyling and talking real fast. One point which I forgot to throw in was about the competing demands of different audiences: what impresses other academics will not be the same as what impresses policy audiences or wider general blog-reading publics or readers from the countries you're writing about, and scholar-bloggers have to think carefully about who they are trying to reach and why.
I pointed out out that all of us on the panel had started our
blogs by fall 2002. Why hadn't a new generation of Middle East studies bloggers emerged to
replace join us? Maybe because the critics of MESA are right, and Middle East studies scholars just don't have much to add to the public debate. I don't think that's true, though - I know how much quality knowledge about the region was at the conference, and in the room, and how much they could add to the blogosphere if they chose to. Maybe they've all just got better things to do, but - I argued - the internet is of growing importance in shaping public debate and even policy in areas we care about, and if experts don't engage then they just cede the field to others with less (or different) expertise. Or, more bluntly, they can't cry about the state of public debate about the Middle East if they refuse to take part in that debate.
But most of the answer, I suggested, was that the first five speakers had presented an overly rosy picture of academic blogging. Now, I'm as big a fan of blogging as anyone, and blogging has been very good to me, but it's important to have a balanced perspective on the risks and costs, as well as benefits, of academic blogging. I mentioned the various rounds of intense public criticism that Juan and Josh had received, and the ways in which blog-fed firestorms could threaten scholars, especially junior scholars without tenure, or at least consume huge amounts of their time and energy. I mentioned the very real time commitments that blogging entails - no matter how many synergies you can create between your research and your blogging (and I create a lot of them), time spent on blogging is time spent not doing other potentially productive scholarly activities. Bloggers' energies can be diverted into policy-relevant work which isn't conducive to long-term research projects. Even the best blogging just doesn't rate compared to a peer-reviewed publication... and probably shouldn't. Blogging often means writing fast, and that can mean making mistakes - horrors! - especially if you venture outside your areas of expertise... and academics sometimes live in fear of making such mistakes. Bottom line: I feel uncomfortable advising junior scholars, who I think are probably best placed to become great bloggers, to take those risks.
That led to a little debate about psuedonymous blogging. I pointed out that some of the best newer Middle East-focused bloggers have been pseudonymous, such as Baheyya and Badger. So was I, pre-tenure. While that's one way to get past the problems above, it's only temporary - at some point, pseudonymous bloggers will have to go public if they want to get past a certain threshold of getting the most out of their work. Asad thought that bloggers should write under their own names, and be brave enough to state their opinions openly. That's a fine sentiment, if you have tenure, and I don't feel comfortable imposing that standard on others who might pay the price. But I did say that pseudonymity was only a thin shield. Eventually, if you blog long enough on an area of your academic specialty, people will figure it out. That can get you into trouble if you use the shield of anonymity to say silly things or launch wild attacks on people - so pseudonymous scholar-bloggers should always work on the assumption that their identities will eventually be revealed whether they like it or not.
Then I tried to convince people to contribute to qahwa sada under their real names, despite everything which I had just said. I will just note that I did point out the obvious flaws in this rhetorical strategy.
The other major thrust of my talk was to point to Arab and Iranian and other bloggers from within the region. I spent a lot of my time at the podium urging the audience to pay attention to Arab bloggers, many of whom offered sharp, savvy political analysis in both English and Arabic. These folks can represent themselves and speak for themselves, and don't need North American based scholars to do it for them - what they need is for people to pay attention to them, which is why I try to link to them as much as I can and why I spent so much of my talk touting them. I rattled off a bunch of names off the top of my head (Chanad Bahraini and Mahmood's Den from Bahrain, a bunch of Egyptians, Khalaf and Batir and Nas from Jordan, Ahmed from Saudi Jeans, a few others - please don't hate me if I didn't mention you, I was tired), and then suggested a few starting points: itoot, which selects what they consider to be the best blogs and top posts of the day; Global Voices Online; dwwen, a fairly new aggregator; Jordan Planet and other national aggregators.
All in all, not exactly the talk I had planned to give, but perhaps people enjoyed it. I was gratified to see such a large audience for a panel about blogs, which hopefully is a sign of positive things to come. Hopefully I'll go back and add links to this post later...