Where Joe Bloggs can have his say

August 2, 2002

'Blogging' has drawn a 50,000-strong crowd for one moonlighting academic. Stephen Phillips finds out what it is and why it's perfect for the keen ranter.

Glenn Reynolds finds himself much in demand these days. The US constitutional and technology law expert inveighs against proposals to criminalise electronic music in his latest bi-monthly column for cable television network Fox News's website. Then there are his musings on nanotechnology, biotechnology and computing for another popular website, and regular guest editorial turns for The Wall Street Journal .

Reynolds's prolific punditry is the outcome of the wildly successful website ( www.instapundit.com ) he launched last August, catapulting himself onto the radar of America's foremost opinion formers.

As a self-styled "Instapundit", he serves up an iconoclastic running commentary on breaking news to roughly 50,000 visitors a day - comparable to the readership of your average serious US magazine's website.

Not bad for a moonlighting academic who snatches time for his cyberspace postings during downtime from his day job as a law professor at the University of Tennessee, and childcare shifts.

But Reynolds is not some maverick. He leads a growing pack of fellow professors in the vanguard of the flourishing field of "blogging" - shorthand for web logging. Going by colourful handles such as The Cranky Professor or Protein Wisdom, faculty members, from medievalists to computer scientists, are flocking to use the internet as a soapbox.

Blogs typically take the form of a diary, containing observations on anything of interest to the author. Readers can follow links to articles to focus on items they might otherwise have missed.

Blogs enjoyed a lively history before September 11, but the terror attacks on New York and Washington DC transformed a nascent internet subculture into a primetime media phenomenon.

"People were looking for [other] news sources," Reynolds says. "The advantage for the reader and the blogger is the personal connection."

Political blogs, in particular, are flourishing, but blogs of all types are on the increase. As well as current affairs, academic blogs discuss higher education news and developments in their author's specialism.

Reynolds's motivations for blogging echo his reasons for entering academia. "I like having my ideas noticed," he says.

Self-expression is key for another high-profile academic blogger, University of California, Los Angeles law professor Eugene Volokh. The Russian émigré co-writes his blogs with brother Sasha, a Harvard graduate student, George Mason University professor Michelle Boardman and an anonymous fourth party. The postings offer an outlet for opinions that do not easily lend themselves to his regular Wall Street Journal editorials, or ideas that he thinks may be deemed frivolous elsewhere.

The site draws on average 2,000 daily visitors, rising to 9,000 on high-traffic days.

Volokh devotes anything from 15 minutes to four hours a day to blogging and views it as central to his academic vocation.

Blogging also fits within Reynolds's conception of the academic's role. "Part of our job is public education and outreach. When I write stuff about the [US] constitution, it's like speaking to a community group, but reaching more people," he says.

Others, however, have more personal reasons.

Indiana University law professor Jeff Cooper thought blogging might help him shake his writer's block. It did. "I became looser in writing," he says. His blogging site, www.cooped-up.blogspot.com , launched in May, has since assumed a life of its own.

"It changes when you know people are reading it," Cooper says. "When people are reading and returning, I feel a sense of obligation to write whether I feel like it or not."

Blogs also offer academics the chance to float ideas. Cooper used his blogging site as a sounding board when a case of plagiarism cropped up in his day job. Replies to his posting helped clarify his thinking, he says.

Reynolds adds that he relishes it when others pick up his ideas and run with them. His suggestion for a Hashemite restoration in Saudi Arabia as an alternative to the ruling royal family found its way into a couple of high-circulation US newspaper columns and The Economist , he recalls.

Another appeal of the medium is the "instant gratification" it offers compared with the glacial turnaround time of academic publishing. Knocking out a sub-1,000-word entry is a breeze compared with the marathon length of a journal article, Cooper says.

However, the "blogosphere", as the blogging firmament is known, has its critics. They point to the tendency of bloggers to form mutual appreciation societies, espousing common views.

Cooper acknowledges the "echo chamber" effect, adding that he set out to counter the predominately Conservative or libertarian tenor of bloggers with his own liberal voice.

Still, despite their naked partisanship, Cooper and Reynolds tip blogs to usurp email groups as academic discussion forums. Email groups are frequently hijacked by ranting, both note, while the blog structure encourages more measured discussion.

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