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What are blogs good for?

by Michael Nielsen on November 10, 2004

There’s lots of fun and exciting things about blogs. Yes, I know there’s lots of hype (“journalism as we know it is OVER!”), but there’s also something important there, and it’s worth thinking about what is worthwhile. Here’s a few thoughts.

Blogs are opening up communities. Let me give as an example one of the most abstract, technical, and, until very recently, isolated communities in existence: the quantum gravity community. Nowadays, if you’re interested in quantum gravity, you can go and look at blogs by people like John Baez, Jacques Distler, Peter Woit, or the String Coffee Table. The great thing about these blogs is that you can get something out of them even if you’re not part of the community of people who work on quantum gravity. You can figure out what’s bothering people in that community, what the real problems are, what’s exciting, what’s controversial, and so on.

A related point is that blogs are providing an excellent forum for folklore and for simple ways of understanding and organizing existing knowledge. It is unfortunately true that in any field there’s all kinds of folklore and ways of understanding that, ordinarily, you have to be part of that community to know, preferably via an apprenticeship (i.e., a PhD) to a master in that field.

A good example for me is my effort to learn various bits of condensed matter physics over the past few years. Often I’ll get stuck at some particular point, sometimes for months. I’ll talk to a condensed matter physicist, and they’ll say “Oh the way to understand that is [blah, blah, blah]“, and clear up my concern in five minutes. I’ll say “Is there anywhere that’s written down?”, and they’ll say “No, everyone just knows it”. Of course, by “everyone” they mean the people who are actually inside the condensed matter community. In the current academic publishing world, there’s all sorts of reasons this kind of informal folklore and understanding don’t get written up. This is fine if you’ve got the ear of experts in all sorts of fields, and can just go ask them to clear up your difficulties, but it’s a little discouraging for the rest of us.

I hope (and see some encouraging reasons to believe) that blogs will help alleviate this. The kind of thing I’m thinking of is, for example, Lance Fortnow’s regular “theorem of the month”, often accompanied by an explanation of the ideas used in the proof, or the significance of the result. If you’re deep inside the theoretical computer science community no doubt much of this stuff is well known to you. But if you’re outside, but interested, then Lance’s writings provide a window into that field that formerly didn’t exist.

Finally, blogs also humanize the experts. It’s fun to go visit the blog of renowned computer pioneer Dan Bricklin, and hear him gushing enthusiastically about things like the Segway, or talking about his photo hobby.

There’s a lot of ways in which our society has become more and more specialized over the past few centuries. This has always bugged me, but I now hope that blogs will help reverse that trend, helping create communities that are larger, more transparent, and more porous than before.

Update: In the comments Seb Paquet points to a great essay he wrote on this topic.

From → General

5 Comments
  1. If I may toot my own horn, I wrote a piece a couple years ago that explained a number of ways in which weblogging is useful in research. The section that connects the most closely to your observations is this one:
    http://radio.weblogs.com/0110772/stories/2002/10/03/personalKnowledgePublishingAndItsUsesInResearch.html#uses-pkp

  2. Steven Sheets permalink

    What has always suprised me is how long it was before the blog phenomenon took off. I’ve been on the internet for about ten years and recall reading blog-like webpages all the way back then. But aside from J. Baez, C. Shalizi and perhaps some others, very few scientists were really taking advantage of the medium. Something of a missed opportunity….

  3. My guess is that most scientists are simply too busy writing papers and grant applications. Right now Web work is not really recognized as a contribution to research in performance evaluations and such.

  4. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Seb — pointer added to your essay. It’s an excellent read; thanks for making it available.

    Regarding why weblogs took so long to take off, it’s certainly a perplexing question. It sure isn’t because it required a host of technological breakthroughs on top of the web!

    I agree with Seb’s comments, but think network effects also play a big role. Part of the reason I started my blog was because I looked at the blogs of people like Lance Fortnow, Chad Orzel, Dave Harris, Brad DeLong, and John Quiggin, and I saw something I’d like to be part of. Without those people blogging, I’m not sure I would have seen the point; a large part of the point certainly is conversation and cross-linking.

    Regarding academic recognition for weblogs, I recall John Quiggin saying that he often uses his weblog to throw up trial ideas, or try out drafts of his writing. So, for him at least, the weblog forms part of his overall working style.

  5. Network effects are indeed critical, Michael. Also I’d guess that the fact that you spend quite a bit of time in the “meta” realm – thinking about how research is done, etc., helped you feel a connection with the people you have cited, in spite of them not being specialized in your exact area.

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