What does social media mean for academic writing? Most answers to this question focus on how such platforms might constrain or enable the expression of complex ideas. For instance, we might encounter scepticism that one could express conceptual nuance in 140 characters or an enthusiasm for blogging as offering new ways to explore theoretical questions beyond the confines of the journal article. However these discussions only rarely turn to writing in a more biographical sense, as a recurrent activity which is both personally meaningful and professionally necessary.
Social media is certainly offering us more occasions for writing. The most obvious form this takes is the personal blog, providing one with a platform for exploration whenever we are taken by the feel of an idea worth exploring. However I suspect that many academics who sustain a personal blog do so because it serves a purpose prior to writing, serving as a common-place book or ideas garden. In such cases, the time spent blogging serves as a preparation for writing, even if it is sometimes an oblique one. There is no necessary tension here between blogging and writing, even if sometimes the former can hinder the latter, for instance when the familiarity of the blog draws us away from more formal writing that might not be going well.
What about online writing that doesn’t serve this preparatory function? In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about the challenge of ephemera increasingly confronting academics. I mean ephemera in the literal sense of “things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time”. Long-established examples include book reviews, newsletter articles and short pieces in magazines. With the growth of social media, we are seeing a rapid expansion in opportunities to produce such ephemera. Multi-author blogs and online magazines will often be sources of invitations to write, as well as offering opportunities for this to qualified parties who are seeking them out. Such writing rarely constitutes much of a commitment in its own terms. One of many reasons I enjoy writing of this sort is that the usual temporal horizon rarely exceeds a few hours work. For instance, it might take a while to read a book for review but not to write the review itself.
To call ephemera a ‘challenge’ may be misleading. In many ways, I remain convinced this is an opportunity, for the enjoyment of intellectual richness and diversity at the level of both individual scholars and scholarly communities. But unlike blogging in the preparatory sense discussed above, it can often take away from time and energy available for ‘real’ writing. The number of opportunities can itself prove problematic, as invitations and inclinations lead to over-commitment in the face of this abundance. For instance, in the next couple of weeks, I’m supposed to write an article for a magazine, a book review for a blog symposium, a blog post for a newspaper and a piece of sociological fiction for a zine. If I’m being realistic, it seems unlikely I’ll complete them all and thus the writing that was chosen rather than invited is likely to fall by the wayside. Though I think it’s a shame that I experience this as in some sense a distraction, despite my enthusiasm for the planned pieces. Much of this is related to journal articles, as things I should be writing but feel little inclination to, leaving it hard not to see a distance from academia as involving a gain rather than a loss of intellectual freedom.
A subsequent conversation made me think back to Richard Rorty’s remark about universities enabling one to “read books and report what one thinks about them”. Is the promise of ephemera a matter of keeping in touch with this aspiration within a university system which militates against its realisation?