Blogging Archaeology Week 4, Part Two: What could a group Archaeology blog look like?

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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.

  1. Hmm… here’s a tech­nical prob­lem that could need to be solved for a group blog.
  2. Aha! Here’s a solu­tion that would be nifty.
  3. Of course, you’d need someone to organ­ise people and enthuse them…
  4. 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.

xf8n An archae­o­b­log not com­ing to a screen near you any time soon.

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?

3 thoughts on “Blogging Archaeology Week 4, Part Two: What could a group Archaeology blog look like?

  1. Terry Brock

    Alun — I think you raise all the right con­cerns. Perhaps the car­ni­val is the best way to keep things going…it could encom­pass all the things you dis­cuss: each month could have a theme. The host could also take sub­mis­sions on other top­ics as well (so, half is themed, half not). This would build a tighter com­munity, send people to new blogs each month, and not leave the bur­den on one or two people to be edit­ors every month/week/day…I don’t know. Ideas.

  2. As one of the more sporadic con­trib­ut­ors to Cliopatria, I think you have a lot right here. I cer­tainly recog­nise the pres­sure to be ser­i­ous and the ques­tion of when to con­trib­ute that you describe. The thing with Cliopatria is that it is an incred­ible amount of work done by Ralph, who is an Americanist I think but who is inter­ested in everything. Almost all his posts are just links but they’re well-chosen and keep it mov­ing. That’s worth not­ing as a model; he doesn’t write very much for the blog, and what he does is not as ser­i­ous as it could be. However, he also does a tre­mend­ous amount of work behind the scenes, seek­ing out new people and encour­aging people to do things. He has to, because of our thir­teen con­trib­ut­ors (and it was four­teen last time I coun­ted) only four or five are reg­u­lar posters, and they’re sub­stan­tially Americanists. Were it not Ralph, it would actu­ally be an American his­tory blog and it escapes that only by the skin of its teeth, by hav­ing me on the roster, and also Claire Potter, though she just cop­ies things she writes from her blog over to Cliopatria. That wouldn’t work for me. As a European medi­ev­al­ist and also one of the three, only, non-USians writ­ing there, I feel very odd when I throw in there, and tend not to use con­tent there which I know would reach an audi­ence bet­ter on my blog. But if I, and Rachel Leow who’s writ­ing up but does Far Eastern stuff, and Jonathan Reynolds whose focus is Africa, could con­trib­ute more… would the audi­ence care? I know Ralph would love it but it’s hard to find the blogger’s motiv­a­tion in there. All told I think Cliopatria is a lop­sided blog which stays inter­est­ing and wide-ranging largely because of one ener­getic contributor.

    So you might be right that a them­atic unity is the best guar­an­tee: The Edge of the American West, while it was run­ning, seemed to show that, although it also worked on the basis of the con­trib­ut­ors all know­ing each other, which is also what holds together Shrine of the Holy Whapping, though there again one con­trib­utor dom­in­ates. On the other hand, The Last Word on Nothing is one of the best group blogs I’ve ever seen and has almost no them­atic unity except a science-speaking approach to their vari­ous mater­ial. They have a sched­ule and a cer­tain amount of inter­play and it does seem like a group effort, and unusu­ally well-balanced, but at the same someone some­where is organ­ising like a duck’s feet below the water­line. I think if I see a com­mon theme at all, it’s that someone has to be will­ing to do that hard work you men­tion and cope with the fact that, LWON excep­ted, mostly other people won’t.

  3. As an ex-Reviser and Dissenter and cur­rent Cliopatrician (and I think the third non-American Jonathan men­tioned) I pretty much agree with all of the above. R&D never quite gelled, and I do think it was because we never found a com­mon thread to hold us together. I never quite knew what was R&D-worthy (and I have the same prob­lem with Cliopatria; I gen­er­ally post things which aren’t quite so, well, air­minded, as I usu­ally do). That might not be such a prob­lem except for the fact that we did all have our own blogs that we gen­er­ally cross-posted from. If you liked Alun’s posts, for example, but not Brett’s, well, what was to stop you from hanging out at his blog instead of R&D? There def­in­itely needs to be some­thing dif­fer­ent about the group blog, some­thing which does make it more than the sum of its parts. Having a super-energetic poster who keeps the con­tent fresh and sets the tone does help. But Ralph Lukers are hard to find, and if they can’t main­tain the effort for whatever reason, the blog with­ers and even­tu­ally dies. So I think one good piece of advice is one we received early on but ignored: get lots of con­trib­ut­ors. Lots. Between them hope­fully there will be some­thing new (oh, and good) on the blog at reg­u­lar inter­vals. That doesn’t solve the prob­lem of (ahem) syn­ergy, but I think it would help.

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