As prelude, I should note that I reject the typology recently advanced elsewhere that divides the world into “content” blogs and “controversy/confrontational/whatever” blogs. I think it highly problematic to the point of uselessness. Even those bloggers who supposedly relish controversy (I cite as an example Dimitri Rotov) offer substantive “content” blog posts that exhibit a great deal of research. I’m not even sure how to define “content” blogs (although several people have rushed to self-identify themselves as such). Donald Shaffer’s fine blog on emancipation … is that content, or controversy? To ask the question that way suggests how meaningless this flawed typology is. As for “confrontation,” why is that necessarily a bad thing? I recall confronting Harold Holzer several years ago on this blog for an opinion piece he had offered in The New York Times; that came on the heels of accusations that Thomas Lowry was altering “content” on Lincoln endorsements at the National Archives. I see no reason to retract or regret what I said then. In short, this typology is so problematic and flawed that it actively obstructs a clearer understanding of blogging activity, from the perspective of blog readers as well as bloggers themselves.
Even if we change the focus of efforts at categorization to individual posts (which I think offers a more useful understanding of what actually goes on in a blog), one runs across the “content” post that will prove “controversial,” as well as the “confrontational” post that challenges distortions of “content.” Thus even a typology of blogging activity risks running afoul of common sense, confusing intent, form, function, reception, and ensuing discussion. When Kevin Levin examined Ann DeWitt’s website on black Confederates … and, folks, if we are going to divide the world into “content” and “controversy” blogs, Ms. DeWitt’s self-identified as a “content” provider … was that “content,” “controversy,” or “confrontational”? And why would it matter? As an educator and a historian, should Kevin have ignored the rampant distortion of the historical record contained in a “content” website? Should Andy Hall have ignored Ms. DeWitt’s claim about a regiment of black cooks?
This brings me to a very interesting issue: what quality controls do we have when it comes to material posted on the web? Just because a self-styled “content” blogger posts what he or she believes is “content” doesn’t mean the “content” is any good. Yes, yes, university presses offer a form of peer review, but we all know of books that slipped between the cracks in those cases as well, and at times the problem is magnified in trade publishing. Who assesses “content” blogs to make sure the “content” is up to snuff? After all, say I look at a number of these blogs in ten years. First, I’d find the blogging format less than useful as a way to conduct research into primary sources, unless my research concerned tracing over time how a discussion developed. Second, just because it’s out there doesn’t mean it’s worth anything … or do you believe everything you find on the web? This challenge is not limited to blogging, obviously.
And, of course, my hypothetical presumes that which is not in evidence: that I can rest assured that the information being produced on self-styled content blogs will be there in ten years, or that I will have the technology to assess it. Preservation, presentation, and reorganization to improve access are all critical challenges to “content” bloggers. So is making sure that people know that the content is available and that it meets scholarly standards. And surely we all have experienced how “updates” to hardware and software often deny us easy access to what we had before (I’m sure some of you keep old CPUs around for precisely that reason). Archiving is only part of the problem: making findings known and accessible is another (it really doesn’t matter if you are blogging if no one knows about it, because whatever you say or post will simply vanish from a public consciousness it may never have reached in the first place). That’s why I found the discussion about “timelessness” and permanence of contribution a bit besides the point: says who? Have you taken steps to make sure that your timeless work is indeed “timeless” and permanent? (Documentary editors used to engage in the same sort of discussions.) Have you taken steps to inform people that you’ve done all this work? Have you opened yourself to critical assessment of that work?
I think these are questions worth discussing and answering, and I’m sure there are more questions to be asked and more topics and issues to be considered. I think that would be a far better investment of time, energy, and intellect than the invidious exercise of classifying blogs.
UPDATE: Robert Moore has now offered what I believe to be a more useful typology along the lines I’ve suggested.