I’ve been thinking over various problems in setting up a group blog for archaeology for a while. The thought process usually follows four steps.
- Hmm… here’s a technical problem that could need to be solved for a group blog.
- Aha! Here’s a solution that would be nifty.
- Of course, you’d need someone to organise people and enthuse them…
- That sounds far too much like hard work. I’ll leave it.
For example I think Terry Brock is right, a group archaeology blog could be a good idea. But for reasons you really don’t need to know about I can’t commit to anything before mid-April at the earliest. So my contribution is limited to saying “Great Idea!” without actually doing anything that could be mistaken for work. I have been in a group blog though, so I could flag some problems that need to be solved.
I was a member of HNN’s Revise & Dissent. I don’t think it was a successful group blog. It had good bloggers as well as me, but I think collectively the blog was less than the sum of its parts. One reason is that it wasn’t a coherent collective. We had interests in different periods of history and different regions. I thought that was a good thing because it meant that we covered history’s diversity. Instead I get the impression there was no common thread to the blog other than ‘the past’. Terry Brock points out that archaeologists aren’t that well connected at the moment. I think he’s right, but creating a group blog will not inherently make us connected. I read Dirt. I like it, but I don’t comment as I don’t have anything of value to say there. I think if Terry and I were on the same group blog then I’d simply not comment on that blog instead of not commenting on Dirt.
In contrast something like Play the Past, isn’t just about history. It’s about a shared approach to history. Possibly you could say that archaeology is a specific approach to history, but some people think archaeology is a branch of anthropology. I’m sometimes a historian and sometimes an archaeologist. I’m interested in human action in the past and I’m not really conscious of deliberately switching between two approaches. However, I am not an anthropologist. Anthropology is relevant to archaeology, but they are not the same discipline. I don’t think archaeology is inherently focussed enough for a group blog to gel.
A second problem with Revise & Dissent is that we made it demanding. We already all had blogs that were our home. I don’t know if any of us felt at home at Revise & Dissent, which sat on HNN’s system. It meant that writing posts for R&D was a conscious effort because we wanted to put up something serious there. There was no pressure from HNN to do this, I was something we inflicted on ourselves.
I think this contributed to a third problem, which was when to contribute? I consciously held back some posts, and didn’t submit others because I didn’t want the blog to be Me and Revise & Dissent. This could have been a mistake. Cliopatria works perfectly well with Ralph Luker doing much of the blogging. I don’t think we tackled this problem of what to post and when. It’s not a complaint that others were not doing enough — I have long periods I cannot blog. We simply didn’t organise the work, in my case because I don’t want to try bossing people around when they’re doing something in their free time.
So a successful group archaeology blog should have entries from various people relating to each other on a regular basis and not feel too much like hard work.
One way to create relationships between bloggers is to get them talking about the same thing. This is what Colleen has done with her Blogging Archaeology carnival. So a group blog could adopt a theme each month e.g. Origins, Power, Food, Religion… and release a series of posts by different bloggers throughout that month. Bloggers would be discussing the regions and periods they were interested in, but by talking about some common human experience you get to compare and contrast actions in different times and places. You get to see what’s special about what you’re working on by seeing what other people are doing elsewhere.
That sounds good, but as Mick Morrisson can tell you getting people to respond to a theme isn’t so easy. For example I could see that some people could propose Slavery as a topic. That’s something relevant to the ancient world, but it’s not something I spend much time looking at. So do I ignore it when it comes round, or to I grind out something to contribute in the hope that when I put forward something I’d like to see others will do the same? As possible solution is that people propose and prepare drafts on a theme in a back channel. So I could write a gender piece and announce it on the back channel. Someone else could prepare something on Travel and I might see that and draft a post as well. When it comes round to choosing the next month’s topic instead of assigning the topic, you could see which topic has the most drafts ready to go and that becomes the next theme on the blog. Four or five posts mean that you’d have a topical post once a week. To get those four or five posts though you’ll need more than four or five bloggers because people get busy and run into gluts of work. It’ll take some social wrangling.
A purely ‘theme of the month’ based group blog is rather narrow in focus. There are some other things where a collective blog could add value. One is blogged reviews. Michael E. Smith at Publishing Archaeology has lamented the lack of a good outlet for reviews. I agree with him on this and on the fact that BMCR does an excellent job of publishing reviews. I sometimes get offered things for review, and it’s likely that a group blog would also get offers. Initially you’d need to prove that the concept works by bloggers reviewing things they’ve read in their own research, but a review stream would be a valuable addition to archaeology that doesn’t seem to be active elsewhere.
An assumption above is that bloggers contributing to both of these strands would get links back to their own blog. They would, but what about people who have something to say, but don’t want to start a whole blog when they’d only have something perhaps once every three or four months? A third category News & Comment could offer this. I don’t think this would work just as a collation of headlines. David Meadows already does that, and better, with the Explorator. If there was commentary on a story, for example why beer and wine matter like SciAm does here then you have something more worthwhile. You could also throw in commentary from occasional bloggers. If you get a large audience it would also make sense to add requests for help, like looking for people to answer questionnaires on outreach, here. Hopefully the contrast with the themed blog posts would make it less of a strain to blog informally in this category.
The final category I’d suggest is just personal axe-grinding. Photography. Partly because Colleen Morgan produces some great photos and there’s plenty of interesting images appearing on Flickr. Also it’s something that formal publication doesn’t do so much. In some cases some dire photos are published. Photo of the Day would be hard work, but a Photo Phriday would be possible with submissions or CC-licenced images from Flickr.
I’ve been thinking about this for a while and there are problems that need to be tackled. The big one is social. You need a core who are willing to slog for six months blogging on your monthly themes. Also one post a week is not going to build up an audience rapidly, so you’d need that core to each be committed to one post a week on average. It doesn’t sound a lot, but keeping that up for a long period is a serious commitment.
You also need people who can encourage people outside the core to contribute and also keep an eye on quality control. That’s going to need tact. You won’t want rubbish on the site. At the same time you don’t want to block people simply because you don’t agree with them. It’s likely to be some very good material that isn’t a suitable fit for the site. You need someone who can turn that down without giving the impression that it’s rubbish. I’d find setting up a site and telling people to take part, then saying ‘No thanks’ to some stressful.
There are technical issues. Some are trivial. You won’t get a theme that everyone will like, so it’ll just have something that people can live with that does the job. Some are more difficult. A bigger blog is going to be more of a target for hackers. I’m using VaultPress with AoBBlog, and something similar would make sense for a serious group blog. There are plugins to manage (Zotpress, Mendeley or both?) and they can clash in unforeseen ways. New features in WordPress can break themes in unexpected ways and the bigger the site the more visible a fault is. Ideally the technical side should be done so that people who aren’t interested in the nut ‘n’ bolts don’t notice what’s going on.
There’s also the matter of funding. I’d be willing to contribute, but I couldn’t guarantee funding in perpetuity and there’s very few people who could. It would make sense to try to make the site self-funding. I’m against Google Ads. I don’t think they’re suitable for a site discussing artefacts as it’s impossible to prevent ads for illicit antiquities appearing on site. If you’re not interested in making a profit then funding by other means might be a soluble problem, but it’s hard to raise exactly the right amount of money and no more. So what do you do with a surplus? One answer would be to donate it an archaeological fund, but it’ll make life so much easier if this you can clearly demonstrate it happening. This is even more important when if the surplus is tiny or non-existent so you rarely see donations being made. It’s natural to ask where the money is going.
The above is just one model of what an archaeological group blog could look like. Digital Archaeology might be enough of a niche that a group blog could work. There’s a few archaeodebunk sites, they too might work as group blog. A group blog does bring benefits, but I can see it being a long slog to keep it running. If one was set up now it wouldn’t be live till May, when exam marking starts in the UK so it’s a tough time to launch. June brings more marking and towards the end it fades into fieldwork season, which will also make July and August difficult months. September and October will be bad because terms start… and so on.
It can be done, but would enough people want to?