I enjoyed re-visiting the panel discussion on Civil War blogging from this summer’s Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. A number of interesting issues were discussed including the question of whether Keith Harris, Brooks Simpson, and me occupy a position of authority in the blogosphere and whether that position comes with certain expectations about the kinds of issues discussed and who should be allowed to participate.
Peter Carmichael did a good job moderating this discussion and I appreciate his pushing this issue of authority, but his questions and comments point to the gulf between how the three of us see our blogging and an apparent lack of comfort with the range of subjects and voices that are embraced outside traditional channels. We did our best to communicate our approach, but it is very difficult to do unless you’ve experienced the challenges and dynamics of blogging for yourself.
If I understand him, Pete seems to think that our respective credentials ought to translate into a privileged place in the blogosphere. That is not an unreasonable assumption when looking at the blogosphere from the outside. Professional historians operate under a certain set of rules related to publishing and advancement in the academy that are intended to maintain quality control. I’ve experienced first hand the benefits of peer review as well as feedback on papers presented at academic conferences. The point is that there are, at times, reasons to limit certain voices. To be fair, Pete has spent a good deal of time thinking through the value of blogging for his students and for the history profession. His organization of this panel is evidence enough of this.
That said, whether we like it or not traditional academic assumptions of authority simply do not apply in the blogosphere. Sure, a blog can be established in a closed community, but that has never been an attractive option to me. I am very comfortable operating in a community where authority is determined entirely by the user. That’s right, Civil War Memory is no more authoritative than any other social media site. Any authority that my site enjoys comes from each individual’s assessment of its content. Some may find my publishing and teaching record to be a reassuring factor when evaluating the site, but it is just as likely that others will be turned off by it and/or point to something as insignificant as my current place of residence. No one assessment matters more. Again, I am just one voice.
That level playing field also gives me the freedom to take seriously everyone else out there. I want the freedom to talk about anything on my mind related to Civil War memory and to comment on anything I happen to come across that remotely relates to the subject at hand. Whether the point-of-view exists on the fringes of our intellectual/cultural landscape is of little significance to me. What matters to me is that they are there.
In the end, all of us in the blogosphere are looking for an audience. That audience ultimately rewards you with authority by visiting, commenting, and sharing the site with others. No audience, no authority. Such an environment may not be for everyone, but for me it’s made all the difference.