Wednesday, September 20, 2006

How Should Historians Read Blogs?

When I started this blog, one of the things I wanted to do was to think about blogs from an historian’s point of view. I’ve been doing some of that, but it’s more difficult than I first thought. Part of this is because of the sheer diversity of the form, something like trying to write about post-it notes from an historian’s point of view. More directly, though, there is the newness of the form. For older genres, there are techniques and strategies well-established for dissecting this text or that text. How to read a newspaper, a diplomatic telegram, an almanac, or a president’s letters – these are all topics well understood and much experienced by working historians.

Blogs resemble journals or diaries on one level, newspapers on another, but are clearly neither. For those kinds of texts, I already know how to approach them. With a newspaper, there are several things I know as a researcher. I know, for example, how newspapers are produced and why (something, of course, that is different in different time periods). I know never to confuse the thinking and the knowledge of the newspaper with that of its audience. I know there are certain questions I have to ask. What kind of ideological position does the op-ed page take? What kind of wall exists between the op-ed page and the news section? What kind of wall exists between the reporters and the advertising sales reps? Who is the target audience? One of the most important things to know about diaries is that, despite what most people think, diaries are meant to be read, and should never be thought of as uncensored stream of consciousness from the soul of the author. So one question to ask with a diary – who did the diarist expect was going to read this? What did they expect to achieve by having that person or audience read their diary?

But blogs? What are the rules for an historian reading a blog? What are the questions to ask? I imagine that the first impulse of most historians will be to treat blogs primarily as diaries. But there are some serious issues with this. Diaries do not usually reach an audience immediately upon being written, entry upon entry. Diaries are not (usually) interactive. Nor do diaries have web links, and thus do not have dead web links either (something that will definitely drive future researchers bananas). Unless the diarist is a person of prominence, most people do not expect a particularly large audience for their diary. Most diarists also expect to be able to control who reads their diary, at least in their own lifetimes. Blogs are not diaires.

Anyway, I’m still thinking barley formed thoughts about this. More poorly thought out posts on this subject to come.


lcreekmo said...

Great point on the dead links. The person who figures out how to fix dead links, cross-platform, cross-technology, that person is going to make lots of money and win lots of prizes. Deservedly so.

CK1 said...

What do barley-formed thoughts look like?

Dr.T said...

I think it has something to do with beer.