Over at the Duck of Minerva Daniel Nexon has posted a reflective essay on the way the political science blogosphere has changed over the last two decades. Nexon’s IR-themed group blog was one of the first “political science blogs” of the aughts; at the old blogosphere’s height it was the largest academic-IR themed blog on the internet. I first encountered it around that time, when debates from the “strategy sphere” were spilling into the larger online conversation. America was debating the wisdom of the surge and our path forward in the Middle East, and blogs like Duck of Minerva dove into the controversy.
Though he couches his disappointment in diplomatic language, Nexon is bummed about the state of online poli-sci. His views parallel mine (I have sketched out my thoughts on the causes and consequences of the blogosphere’s decline here, here, and here). Reading Nexon’s essay, however, has caused me to ponder anew the motivations of online writers and the nature of online communities that support them.
Nexon blames several things for the old political science blogosphere’s decline, including the regular culprits (the death of Google Reader, the birth of social media, and so forth). But there are other factors at play. To quote:
Normalization brings professionalization. Some of the discipline’s discomfort with blogging rested on prevailing views about proper academic comportment. Recall what I said I really liked about blogging: its informality; the way it allowed one to jump from subject to subject; an ethos that, like progressive education, can strike outsiders as chaotic. For no small number of political scientists, blogging was not merely undignified – it demeaned the academic vocation itself.
I suspect that this will sound bizarre, even incredible, to most anyone under 35 – especially if they’re familiar with political-science Twitter. But it’s something that first- and second-wave bloggers heard pretty frequently. It supercharged other objections to blogging, such as that it distracted form ‘real research.’ Some of my friends worried that blogging might harm my ability to get tenure; I told them that if Georgetown was going to deny me tenure because of blogging, then I didn’t want tenure at Georgetown.
… Nonetheless, just as email has shifted from a casual to a relatively formal mode of communication, writing ‘a blog’ now often means submitting a short-form piece to an editor for online publication. Blogging is to Twitter as Email is to Snapchat. I’ve sometimes heard Duck bloggers say that they didn’t post a piece here because it wasn’t “Duck worthy” and I’m not sure what that means, except that it’s not 2005 anymore, I guess.1
Daniel Nexon, “The Vision Thing: More on the New Duck,” Duck of Minerva (11 July 2021)
At the height of the blogosphere, blogs like Duck of Minerva provided many of the services that Twitter does now (e.g., link round ups, shower thoughts), but it also provided space for a certain kind of writing that is as difficult to find on Twitter as it is to find on the blogs that now remain. Most of the political science blogs that are left standing adopt a very specific sort of profile:
…The runaway success of The Monkey Cage at the Washington Post created a model that overwhelmingly defines how political scientists think about academic blogging as a normalized, professionalized activity. It combines aspects of explainer journalism, the use of blogging to promote specific scholarship, and one-way (academia → policy) “Bridging the Gap” sensibilities.
In general, a Monkey Cage post hooks a piece of scholarship to current events – even breaking news; authors discuss how their research ‘shows’ something that, in turn, explains or interprets the event; and, frequently, they elaborate what it all means for policy.
This is a perfectly fine model. It can reach tens of thousands of readers. But if you compare it to the broader universe of academic blogging, it’s narrow, formulaic, and, for lack of a better term, didactic.2
If your goal is to influence policy, Monkey Cage blogging makes a great deal of sense. But Monkey Cage blogging presents if not a dishonest picture of political science, at least an overly tidy one. Here is the science, it says. Learn it and use it, ye journalists. Learn it and use it.
In reality political scientists, like most social scientists, are a fractious bunch pulling at the fringes of their discipline in a dozen different directions. Academic controversies are common; many issues—methodological, theoretical, or simply practical—divide one political scientist from another. In the old blogosphere it was possible for professors and grad students to informally hash the edges of some of these controversies out, pose interesting research questions, or get informal reactions to their latest research. They were also able to speculate about the potential relevance of what they were reading to this or that issue of the day without needing to polish their thoughts up to the level of a full op-ed. They could discuss the practical problems their discipline faced as a discipline, or gripe in longer form about their difficulties teaching, mapping out a tenure pathway, and so forth. Some of that stuff exists on twitter today, but it is not common—especially for those with large twitter followings. On twitter the political scientist is expected to be—and act like—an authority. Informal exploration has no place there. The discourse has “professionalized.”
Several years ago I described a similar transformation in the “strategy sphere” (my term for the collection of blogs devoted to debating and discussing national security policy that flourished in the late aughts). Here is what I wrote:
It is interesting how many of the participants of these discussions used pseudonyms. In the context of the times (c. 2005-2009) this made sense. Most of the people involved fell into one of two groups: servicemen—especially junior officers—who had recently returned from the Near East or were about to be deployed there, and the citizens who were so intellectually engaged with the topics involved that they couldn’t help but join the discussion. (I obviously belong to this second “strategy nerd” category). Neither of these groups hoped to leverage their writings for professional gain. The common wisdom was that outspoken junior officers put their future careers in jeopardy by writing too sharply of standing practice. The nerds, for their part, lived far away from Washington and often found it easiest to gain a fair hearing when focus could be directed away from their identity and towards their arguments. Even the academics unafraid to flaunt their credentials had little to gain professionally from participating in the debates. Blogging was a less prestigious art back then, and comments in a Small Wars thread contributed nothing to a CV.
It is easy to forget how new the entire project was in those days. Blogging had not been around too long, and no one knew if “new media” had the power to make a difference. The entire discussion was a grand experiment. But it was an experiment with incredibly high stakes. This was all happening at a time when the situation in Iraq was going from bad to worse. Things like “the surge” and “population centric” counterinsurgency were debated with a fierce sense of urgency. There was this belief that if we could research, discuss, and debate as vigorously as possible over here then we would find the one fact, theory, or method that might save lives and countries over there. These were men and women out to save the world—or at least, that section of the world American soldiers had been sent to die in. But they really believed these debates could make a difference. The whole thing was fresh, exciting, and at times a bit crazy. And for a while it seemed like anybody who was smart and perceptive enough could be an important part of the discussion.3
Tanner Greer, “Requiem for the Strategy Sphere,” The Scholar’s Stage (2 November 2015)
Around 2011-12 things started to change. Part of this was the standard story of the social media, google reader, and the rest. But what Nexon calls “professionalization” also played a big role. Or as I wrote:
As old voices left the scene new ones entered it. The demographics of the two groups are very different. No longer is the conversation dominated by people writing under pseudonyms and blogger tags. To write on strategy and international politics today is to trumpet credentials at the beginning and end of every essay and post. This is partly a reaction to the sheer amount of content now published; the more material published every day the greater need there is for heuristics that filter out the wheat from the chaff….
The problem is that the basic incentive structure behind internet publishing has changed. Somewhere in the late aughts, writing online became a respectable thing to do. Professors are advised to publicize their findings through blog posts and online editorials; think tank fellows have learned to condense their policy recommendations into internet sized articles.… A junior officer who decided to take his views online in 2005 did so knowing that it might hurt his career; an M.A. student who decides to bring his views online in 2015 does in hopes it will help his career. Much of what is published in forums like War on the Rocks, The Diplomat, The National Interest, or Foreign Policy would never be written if its authors did not know it would directly boost their career goals and social profile. I don’t begrudge authors for this, but I cannot pretend it makes compelling reading. But this change in the media landscape also affects those writing for more disinterested reasons. Anyone who writes for a professional outlet knows that their writing must sound professional, or their professional reputation suffer. They know that in the years to come they will be judged by these articles in way they would not be judged for 200 word jottings published on Typepad or WordPress. The results are predictable: much of modern strategy writing is overly formal, easily slips into platitudes, and is far more likely to follow stale partisan prescriptions than was the case a decade ago. The decline of independent bloggery has stripped debates over strategy of their personality. It is very hard for authors to cultivate a distinctive voice when writing for professional platforms, and it is these platforms that are at the center of the strategy-sphere today.4
I have been told by some of the folks involved that “nat/sec twitter” replicated this feeling circa 2010-2011. But by the time I got to it the magic was gone. There are many reasons for why this was never sustainable on twitter (many of which I discuss in the post “The World That Twitter Made”), but the most important are problems of scale and boundary. Twitter is a forum without borders—or to use a different metaphor, an ocean into which all the separate ponds and lakes of the old blogosphere have been washed into. In the past ripples would have been contained in one’s own waters; a tweet rolls throgh twitter like waves upon the deep. This makes what my friend Matthew Stinson calls “points for my side-ism” one of twitter’s driving energies. An enormous chunk of twitter content amounts to finding ugly words voiced by one’s ideological opposites and then projecting them back to your audience with snide or outraged commentary on the comments they have made. Comments on comments on comments—and all for show!
Points-for-my-side-ism did not fly in the old blogosphere. Who would have been impressed? Yes, one could lampoon national figures… but other bloggers, writers, commentators? What would have been the point? Performative attacks in blog comment threads would simply get you blocked by the blogger being attacked. Retreating to one’s own blog to snipe, in contrast, would mean being ignored. If you wanted to be part of the conversation you had to add something substantive (even if informal) to it.
I recently tried to convince a perceptive friend of mine to come on my podcast as a guest. She decided against it: she was “sick of comments.” She has stopped tweeting; as much as possible, she has determined, she will stop saying things in public altogether. Commentary is too manipulative, too performative, too puffed up, too vain. “Vanity of vanities,” I half expected her to cry out, “vanity of vanities; all is vanity!” I get it. My view of twitter is nearly as dismal. If twitter was where I shaped my formative views of writing, writers, and the world of ideas, I might react to it all as she does.
Yet I remember a different way.
Last week I met someone who wanted to start up their own substack. Their problem? “I don’t feel like I have anything worth saying. How do you overcome that feeling?” I told him that I rarely feel this way. This is not because I have an especially high opinion of myself. I am not any sort of brilliant. But I do not write to express brilliance. My writing has a different goal. I write to think. Putting pen to paper focuses the brain. It is forces fuzzy conceptions into careful thought. Once those thoughts are published for the world to see, they can be refined once again, as counterarguments flow in, objections are raised, and caveats and counterexamples are thrown at me. Write because you want to solve a problem, I told my new friend, not because you have solved one already.
This whole process worked best in the informal blogosphere of old. Twitter cannot tolerate it; the great magazines and newspapers cannot afford it. What is required is an environment where it is ok—even expected—for the people involved to post bad takes. A community devoted to playing with new ideas will generate many bad takes. And that is ok—if everyone understands that we are all thinking through problems out loud together, that bad takes are stepping stones on the road to surer conclusions. This is what made the old blogosphere fun, exciting, and occasionally, useful.
I can only hope that the rising generation may experience something like this themselves one day.