Three Observations from Matt Gallman

Over at Kevin Levin’s Civil War Memory a conversation has continued about blogging, with Matt Gallman weighing in again.  Here’s what Matt now says are his three main points:

(1) Are readers of CW blogs a good approximation of “the public” when it comes to public opinion? I posited that perhaps CW blogs attract people who are particularly interested in the CW, and perhaps in particular topics. That is, there is an awful lot of “public” out there who I don’t imagine are reading blogs.

(2) Are professional historians really missing out if they don’t spend much time reading CW blogs? Here my point was that there is an unending material out there that we can read. We don’t read it all, We make choices among worthy things.

(3) Is the failure to blog or to read blogs really evidence of a lack of “digital literacy”? My argument is that there are an awful lot of ways that one might engage with electronic resources and/or the internet, both in their research or their pedagogy or just for edification. Blogging (or reading blogs) is not the measure of digital literacy.

Now, I’ll argue that Matt had other things to say in his previous comments, and he said them in a certain way that some people evidently found to be offensive.  Indeed, I’m reluctant to offer these three points (taken verbatim from Matt’s comment) lest I be accused by Matt of badly distorting them.

Here are my answers:

1.  I don’t know of anyone who has made the claim that the readers of Civil War blogs are an approximation of “the public” when it comes to public opinion.  Maybe someone should point that out to me.  Certainly I don’t share that opinion.  There are various overlapping audiences for various ways in which history is communicated to a public at large (note I did not say “the public”).  Some people get their history here, some there.  Increasingly a lot of people get their history from the internet, and I don’t mean simply primary sources.

2.  I don’t know that anyone has argued that professional Civil War historians are missing out if they don’t read blogs.  My understanding, in fact, is that the argument is that blogs are one more way for professional historians to reach out to more readers and to build bridges with other historians, who may or may not fit someone’s definition of “professional historian.”  I say that because people have offered different definitions and understandings of the term “professional historian.”

3.  I don’t know of anyone who has said that a failure to read blogs demonstrates a lack of digital literacy.  Indeed, I found Kevin Levin to be making a different point about digital literacy and the need for professional historians to get involved in other ways, in part because an increasing number of people are getting an increasing amount of their historical understanding through online sources, including blogs.

In short, if these are the three points Matt Gallman wanted to make, then I don’t know why he made them or who is his audience or his target.  Other people can read what Matt’s said (about comments on this blog as well as on Kevin’s blog) back at Kevin’s blog, and make their own determination.  All I did was to link to Kevin’s blog as a point of departure for a broader conversation, and I made it clear, I thought, that the broader conversation I wanted to have would have to wait.

A word of warning … Matt Gallman offers the following observation:

I’d welcome any thoughts that anybody on either blog wants to say about those three questions. But if you folks persist in taking shots at me persoally (especially the ones based on things didn’t say) rather than talking about serious issues you are really making my point for me.

No comment.  :)

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13 thoughts on “Three Observations from Matt Gallman

  1. Matt seems to like strawman arguments.
    Blogging is communicating, that is never a bad thing.
    It probably is a good thing for Historians to read blogs, to find out what peers are thinking and to also read the comments to see what “the public” does think because what the public thinks is a barometer. of how well historians are doing.

  2. I tried posting this over on Kevin’s blog because I thought it added to the discussion, but Kevin apparently disagreed. The basketball example by Dr. Gallman is a poor analogy … in fact when I saw his example I wondered if maybe he had chosen the NBA with his tongue firmly in cheek, because there is a blogger who has the ear of every NBA manager and owner in the league.

    I was a regular reader of rec.sport.basketball.pro back in the late 90′s when the NBA hammered out the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). There was a poster in rsbp by the name of Larry Coon who had such an amazing grasp of the details in the CBA that he was contracted to work with several teams to finalize their rosters. By day he is a software engineer, but by night he is a blogger / CBA consultant and works part-time as an analyst for ESPN.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Coon

  3. That being said, Brooks, I have often wondered the same myself about your participation on blogs and on forums such as alt.war.civil.usa and StudyOfTheCivilWar. Every minute you spend redirecting the energies of an internet loon such as myself could have been a minute spent working on a new book or instructing one of your IRL students. I appreciate the time you spend here, but I find it ironic that you chide others in your profession for giving away their services too cheaply … I somehow feel like we should be paying for this service, professional oversight to our internet nuttery. Do you not ever find yourself questioning whether you give a great deal more than you receive from these exercises?

    • I don’t think I’d chiding them so much as I’m pointing out the consequences of selling themselves cheaply. Indeed, given how some of these exercises work out in terms of hourly pay, it would not take all that much to support a greater inducement to blogging. But historians often give away for free or below cost what other professionals would charge to do, and at times it becomes expected. I’m pulling away from those sorts of transactions. There are other ways in which professional historians sell themselves short, but that’s something for another time.

      In terms of investment and energy and risk/reward, with the rise of moderated forums, I’ve become much more selective about my online presence. Unmoderated usenet discussion groups were an interesting experience, in some ways the predecessors of Twitter. They eroded in quality over time (I’m being polite). As more worthwhile alternatives presented themselves, worthwhile posters moved elsewhere. Anyone who visits the alt.war.civil.usa newsgroup today will feel like they are visiting the ruins of a destroyed city. Moderated usenet newsgroups were too cumbersome, and there was too much discussion about moderation practices and too much inconsistency. Yahoo’s a better alternative, but only with good moderation policies, and some people do well on message boards.

      There are friendships made online that become face-to-face ones, and I value those very much for many reasons.

      When I need to work, I work. But I think some people mistake quantity for quality when it comes to publication … and I say this as someone who in the eyes of my fellow professionals publishes a great deal. I want to say something interesting and fresh. I think some of us do more writing than thinking.

      Now I do have to return to copyediting and indexing.

  4. Misc tuesday thoughts

    Mr O’Hara: You might be right there. I posed those three issues in response to what I thought I had read in several of Kevin Levin’s comments, and I thought it would be interesting to see what folks really think about these things. So they aren’t straw men in the sense that I intentionally constructed a false argument. I thought that things were being suggested. Your own post goes on to suggest that reading the blogs is a good way for the historian to assess what “the public” is saying (and you also suggest that that is something the historian should be assessing). That sounds to me like you feel, in answer to #1, that the blogs are a good proxy for the public. My position is that the blogs seem like a good place for discussions of some topics by folks who are deeply interested. Right now I am working on a study of popular culture (mostly fiction) written in the North during the Civil War. I want to figure out how very popular writings that are long forgotten help us understand how civilians understood the meaning of citizenship. Are there blogs and bloggers that discuss these sorts of topics? I honestly do not know.

    Mr Gunter: I thought the basketball boards analogy wasn’t too bad, although perhaps I made the point badly. I really was trying to make two points (already a bad idea). First, people who REALLY care about their team go to those discussion groups. If a top high school player says that he will announce his choice of Duke or UNC at midnight on a weekday, there will be thousands of fans on line at that moment. Literally thousands. But are they really representative of “the public”? [Or, to be more on point, my argument was that if you want to assess what the general American public feels about Black Confederates, you don't sample blogs. You will get a distorted sample] My second point was about expertise. I was talking about a moment a few years ago when I happened to read back and forth in a bunch of CW blogs where the bloggers were attacking a well-known CW historian. The tone of the discussion seemed to suggest that they thought he cared. That was my Phil Jackson reference. [But that doesn't mean that they are not all sorts of folks with lots of expertise here.]

    On Brooks: I apologize again for using the term “hobby,” It did not convey what I wanted to convey I suppose. Brooks and I are engaged in the same professional endeavors. We do research, write and publish things, teach undergrads and grad students, grade papers, assess dissertations, read manuscripts for presses and friends, review books, serve as external reviewers for folks who are up for tenure and promotion, give the occasional lecture, attend conferences, serve on prize committees, etc. That is what we do for a living,

    My GUESS is that Brooks (and Mark and all the other academic Civil War historians who are also bloggers) does not scrimp on all those other professional obligations to maintain this blog and his overall blog presence. My GUESS is that the time he spends doing this is time that I might spend reading for pleasure (ie not professional reading), watching TV, walking the dog, gardening, sleeping, etc etc, That is, i bet that he does this on top of all the other stuff. So perhaps what I should have said is that when other folks are engaged in their hobbies, some folks are working at their blogs.

    • I’d like to think that historians ignore what’s being posted on some of these forums at their own peril: no less than six books on the Vicksburg Campaign that carry demonstrably false assertions have been published in about as many years. Color me surprised that the authors can’t spare a 30 minute Google session to scan what’s being said about their subject matter.

      On the other hand, I feel badly for bloggers such as Levin and Simpson, who have to moderate out a great deal of nuttery in order to maintain order in the asylum. The internet really does a good job of bringing out the caveman in us all.

    • Matt,I’m “the public” strictly an interested party,not even close to rising to the level of amateur. History is a hobby that’s all.
      and you shouldn’t underestimate the amount of stuff filters through people like me to the rest of the public

      And blogging is growing big time now,
      Sports writers who’ve lost newspaper gigs are figuring out how to make it pay by side-ads and the like. Brooks talked of selling short but there is much money to be made on the net.
      I got Brooks book on Grant solely on seeing his views about the war in net usenet groups so that’s an example. And friends and workmates know my interest and they’ll ask whats a good book on the Civil War and they’ll consider the recommendation.
      And that is true for every other “the public” type reading blogs, so it’s not just the readers of blogs but also the people they talk to.

  5. Actually, I need to eat those words. I spent 30 minutes on Google looking for blog / forum articles on the Vicksburg Campaign to no avail. Brooks’ blog doesn’t show up for a Google search of “Ulysses Grant.” Kevin’s blog doesn’t show up on a Google search for “Black Confederates.” The sites that do show up are … ahem … interesting.

    I think if the purpose of the blogging exercise is to reach a broader audience, your blogs need to show up near the top of the list for your targeted topics. Otherwise you are still only reaching a limited, somewhat insulated, audience.

    Tips on how to get your blog to show up in Google are here:

    http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/blogger/thread?tid=58ce19749a46c003&hl=en

    • I just searched for “black confederate” on Google and my site came up on the first page. Do a search for Silas Chandler and two of my posts appear at the top of the first page.

      That’s not really relevant. Your idea of how to take advantage of good SEO practices is pretty narrow.

      • Your blog shows up only if I convert the search type to “Blogs.” I think part of Matt’s point is that “the public” doesn’t look for blogs when they seek information online, they simply go to Google and type [insert topic here].

        You are absolutely correct that my knowledge of SEO is narrow, actually it’s non-existent. But this discussion really has me curious how we can boost the Google page rank of these blogs for your topics of expertise. Google’s page rank algorithm is not public, but appears to be based on number of pages of content and number of pages that link to the content externally.

        Just color me frightened and confused that a Google search of Ulysses S. Grant turns up no mention of this blog, but includes a Facebook profile for Grant that lists:

        Activities: Fighting in the Civil War, Smoking Cigars, West Point, Being Scandalous
        Interests: Liberty, War, Drinking (boy do i love my whiskey)

        • Tony–As I don’t set up this blog as a “Ulysses S. Grant” blog, the fact that it does not show up in searches for him on the “Web” feature for Google really doesn’t matter to me.

          There are better ways to position oneself to appear in searches by topic area, but that’s part of the discussion concerning strategy. I have a friend who is very knowledgeable about that sort of thing. However, my blog covers a lot of topics, and it is an ever-evolving experiment.

          • If your page rank is near the top, then you need to log out of google before you search. Your page rank for _black confederates_ is 27th, your page rank for _”black confederates”_ is 24th … behind such gems of wisdom as the NBF Camp of the SCV and lewrockwell.com …

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