Challenges for “Content” Blogging

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. Preservationpresentation, 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.


9 thoughts on “Challenges for “Content” Blogging

  1. Bummer December 7, 2012 / 1:00 pm

    Bummer sometimes feels like he has fallen in a crevice between the scholars intent and the excitement of learning. Discovering a new way of perceiving what was taken for fact, has become almost a daily occurrence. This “old guy” shares stories that most of the bloggers have heard a thousand times, however it’s the first time that Bummer has had an opportunity to put his own take on history. Is it bad or good? It’s fun and Bummer can count on the historians to keep the tale straight. Thanks for the help.


    • Brooks D. Simpson December 7, 2012 / 1:27 pm

      I think it’s always good when someone wants to learn and even better when that learning is interactive.

        • Brooks D. Simpson December 8, 2012 / 12:52 pm

          The content of the blog post to which you link is getting far afield from the themes addressed in this blog. If readers here wish to peruse such posts, fine … but in the future you’ll have to generate an alternative way to drive traffic to your site. Thanks.

          • carknow32 December 8, 2012 / 1:57 pm

            Thanks Mr. Simpson. I understand how one might think that Classical approaches to education and understanding of the world around us (including history) may seem “far afield” from the themes of this blog – as it understandably is different than the liberal worldview. However, there is merit in the belief that for folks to properly understand history or any other subject – they should attempt to look at the other views as well, instead of believing their own view is the most superior (and automatically discounts all others). Yes, truth exists – but that doesn’t mean we can’t attempt to understand why others think the way they do, or that they may have good reasons for their actions.

          • Brooks D. Simpson December 8, 2012 / 2:17 pm

            And we all have our opinion as to what the truth is. People who want to hear your version of it have been pointed to you blog. That’s a one-time gift.

  2. Michael Confoy December 7, 2012 / 1:21 pm

    I think blogs like this can play a useful role in teasing out historical truth and accuracy. Not always, but enough to be of benefit to those interested in the field of history. By challenging others and posters here to back what they say with evidence, one can glean who is spouting bs versus those in search of a reliable historical perspective. We know perspectives can be differ and change over time, but the bottom line is they must be based on honest factual based research that does not ignore inconvenient evidence.

  3. John Foskett December 8, 2012 / 12:09 pm

    As for quality controls, the only one we have, unfortunately, is “number of hits”. And that can push junk to no. 1 just as easily as it can move quality into first place. If you can set up a site and type, you’re off to the races whether you have any credentials or not. As for what constitutes quality “content” which may or may not also be “controversial”, I would resort (ironically) to Justice Stewart’s definition of hard-core pornography which government may regulate – “I know it when I see it”.

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