Saturday, September 22, 2007

norms of engagement, 2

So, the discussion of the norms about blogging conferences, colloquia, seminars, etc., has extended into one of the longer threads Orgtheory has had, and I appear there to be staking out a lonely position. Most of the other participants seem much into the idea that "manners" provide the overriding principle for academic discourse. I see manners more as superstructure and other principles as constituting the base. Asking for permission is an action done with different kinds of ideas about the obligations of the other person to respond favorably. Sometimes, one asks permission with the understanding that it really is entirely the right of the other person to decline. Other times, one "asks permission" with the idea that the other person ought to have a good reason if they are going to decline, or else they are practicing bad manners themselves.

When I talk about a specific situation being "fair game" for blogging, perhaps one can say that courtesy implies a ritual exchange of asking permission and having it granted--in other words, "asking permission" in the second sense above. Whatever. I would prefer a world in which faculty feel comfortable engaging in discourse about ideas rather than feeling they have to go through some mutual grooming exercise beforehand, but others clearly disagree.

Still, in terms of the idea of what is genuinely within a speaker's discretion to squelch public commentary about, I am surprised at how some of the commentators regard things as private that seem to me obviously not private. While I still believe in the basic heuristics that anything that can be put on a CV is fair game for blogging, I think three other heuristics are even harder to argue with, although maybe one can say a person should "ask permission" with the presumption it will be granted:
1. If a talk is fully open to the public, it is fair game for blogging.

2. If a talk is open to individuals with media credentials, it is fair game for blogging.

3. If a talk is recorded and made available publicly on the Internet, it is fair game for blogging.
I mean, come on. Again, none of this means people should not be "polite" in offering criticism of others' work, etc..

More generally, I think another way I diverge from the other commentators is that I'm not just concerned about what's right for the speaker. The academic blogger wants to write about something because they have a reaction, and their prerogative to be able to share that reaction with others should not be regarded lightly.


Teune said...

You are right, quite a thread over there. I do have one quibble...

While defamation law is notoriously weak in the U.S., you are almost certainly incorrect that you have an unlimited right to blog your reaction to a talk – and I am assuming that law is catching up to an extent that blog stuff is now libel rather than slander – in many other countries. In short, setting up a blogger account does not provide privilege in a legal sense. Nor does your status as a professor. Moreover, in EU and British Commonwealth law, defamation via internet is actionable in any country in which the internet post is read. In short, there are good reasons not to blog the sessions of any of our animal or star-philic friends who might be resident in an EU or Commonwealth country. Given the reaction at orgtheory, it is obvious that many people don’t recognize blogging as academic work. I doubt juries would see it any differently. Tread lightly young hawkeye!

jeremy said...

My argument is not that people should be libeling other people on their blogs.

Anomie said...

I'm with you. Especially with the media comparison - if it is open to the public, it should certainly be open to public discourse. However, blogging as a form of public discourse is more permanent, and therefore the preceding argument isn't perfect if you stop there. BUT if the presentation is open to media it is open to written, permanent, public discourse. In this particular instance, a blog is a form of media, and the same norms and rules should (of course) apply.

Now, when I wrote my posts about publishing, those were based on an ASA forum. I asked all three editors if it was okay if I distributed the information. In fact, I had taped the entire thing. They said I could, but the yes didn't seem enthusiastic enough, so I kept the audio to myself and merely used it to write my posts. And I think having that information out there is quite beneficial to lots of people who couldn't make it to the original forum.

Corey said...

The whole exchange perplexes me. There are two specific points that have me scratching my head: (1) Scholarship should be a communal effort where a scholar introduces ideas for public deliberation. That's the point in having brown-bag sessions (to gather people around to hear and discuss an idea). Blogging (at least the way I think about blogging) is a simple extension of that discussion. To declare that certain forms of discourse (e.g., blogging) are out of bounds strikes me as counter productive. It's akin to admonishing all present to avoid discussing the subject matter outside the hallowed halls of the seminar room. (2) The notion that an idea must be perfect before a person is willing to take credit for it is equally weird to me. Just as few people write something worth reading on the first draft, most ideas are not "A-game" when we first encounter them. But the only way they become A-game is through a deliberative process. If one of my bad ideas (and I have many) leads to the growth of an interesting and/or useful new idea, I'd like to get credit for that.

I do understand some of the concerns articulated over at orgtheory. It's rather easy for a blogger to mischaracterize the presenters argument and absent an authoritative source, readers will take the blogger's summary as the truth. [That was part of the orgtheory thread, David clarifying Gabriel's interpretation. I found the ensuing discussion useful.] Moreover, there is an admitted sociopathic element in the blogosophere more interested in snark than discourse. Still, on balance, the widespread discussion of sociological ideas seems to be in the discipline's best interest.

Teune said...

jeremy said...
My argument is not that people should be libeling other people on their blogs.

Jeremy, obviously not. I was pointing out that, in some jurisdictions at least, there isn't an effectively unlimited right to comment on others via this medium. This seems relevant to the discussion on orgtheory because your argument (which I buy) is that blogging is an extension of traditional academic work. As far as I can tell, this would be the basis of the academic blogger’s claim of privilege to say things on blogs that might affect the reputations of others. One thing that became clear in the orgtheory thread is that not everybody sees it this way. If web-savvy academics don’t, juries certainly won’t. Therefore, my suggestion that you (and everybody else) chill when stepping into grey areas.

jeremy said...

Teune: I understand your argument now, except I unaware of whatever academics possess in terms of protection from or vulnerability to libel laws with criticism in conventional academic outlets.

LemmusLemmus said...

With respect to libel, just never criticize anything John Lott has said, written or thought and you'll be fine.

Ann said...

Isn't the clear line of defense to libel and slander charges in the United States the truth? So you can sue if someone writes something about you that you don't like, but if it was true, you probably won't win.

But I am a little more concerned that people are suggesting a limitation to my free speech rights to comment on what public figures (yes, that's you, sociologists who share your ideas in public) say about things I care about and think about.

Sure, the harsh realities of social norms and professional obligations will keep be from going to far with this right to say whatever I think. And thank goodness, because I don't always think smart or well-informed thoughts the first time something crosses my brain. But the suggestion that that I shouldn't have a _right_ to make an ass out of myself strikes me as scary.

Jay Livingston said...

I agree with Anomie. I haven't read the whole thread over at OrgTheory, but it seems as though much of it frames blogging and discussion of papers as a pissing contest. I guess the Internet is a medium that makes "flaming" all too tempting (maybe especially for men. Is Anomie the only female voice in the room?).

I'd prefer, in my naivete, to think that talk among academics is exploration of ideas in attempt to get closer to some "truth" and not about trashing and reputations.