As I approached retirement, my daughter Rebecca suggested I give thought to tweeting and blogging. I did, and they seemed infinitely better options than growing and entering shapely vegetables in the village show. My first blog, actually a year in advance of my leaving UCL, was on 30th October 2012. It was on what was for me a safe topic: stigma and mental illness. It was immediately apparent that tweeting blogs was an excellent way of reaching more people – in and out of academia – than had been possible via books, chapters or peer-reviewed papers, and by a large margin.
This is my 200th blog, so, roughly, ‘blog-a-week Scambler’, transmitting from the village of Mickleham in Surrey Hills to anyone willing to pick up the signals worldwide (quickest through www.grahamscambler.com, my website being another of Rebecca’s notions and constructions; check her out too www.rebeccascambler.com). As with my 100th blog, this seems a ready made opportunity to reflect on the pros and cons of blogs and other aspects of ‘cyber-connectivity’.
I suspect when and how one starts blogging matters. In a way I was fortunate to be a third-age novitiate. I was on the cusp of retiring and becoming an emeritus professor of sociology at UCL; moreover I was fortunate enough to engage in a twitter dialogue with Rachel Brooks, then head of the department of sociology at Surrey University, and this resulted in a visiting professorship a twenty-minute drive away from my country abode. The point I want to make is that I had established a reputation of sorts within the academic community before I entered the cybersphere. This is no kind of prerequisite for useful, entertaining or effective communication of course. But I think I had a kick-start. First, I already had some credibility within certain domains (health and health care in particular); and second, I did not have to be overly cautious, watch my back or worry about my career or CV. I could think aloud with a degree of immunity.
What have I discovered since October 2012? Well, I certainly reach more people than hitherto, if fewer than many more illustrious consociates. I am approaching 100,000 views on my website as I write, and most visitors head for one or other category of blog. The ‘best’ day for views of blogs was 19 September last year, when 1,467 checked out an open letter to the anti-democratic, anti-Corbyn, conniving Iain McNicol of Labour NEC fame: he had suspended me from the Labour Party for two tweets (one using the term ‘Tory-lite’, and a retweet asserting that Alan Johnson had fought a ‘shit’ ‘Remain and Reform’ campaign). The interest was a direct result of Michael Rosen posting the open letter on Facebook. So tweeting/blogging, or tweeting blogs, can increase and diversify audiences.
It is imprudent to pay too much attention to statistics. I am fortunate in that I can think aloud without calculating costs versus benefits. But then, as a lucky babyboomer, albeit one with maverick tendencies, I have never been particularly prudent in what I have sought to publish. My philosophy has always been the same: write what you want/have to rather what you think might be ‘acceptable’ or to your advantage; it’s up to others what they make of it all.
I would hypothesize that for academics being active in blogging is helped rather than hindered by continuous activity in conventional publishing. Mark Carrigan can probably corroborate/falsify this (see his excellent ‘manual’ Social Media for Academics). Might it be that at least a proportion of academic readers of blogs/tweets are reassured by longstanding criteria of expertise (sod Michael Gove)? I am! I am predisposed to take more seriously the contributions of generally ‘learned’, self-disciplined academics than I am those of journalists and others (including media celebrities) who can be cavalier and are often entirely dependent on secondary sources. For me, and I think for sociologists as a whole, this is part and parcel of keeping one’s nerve in culturally postmodern/post-truth – and therefore neoliberal/pro-status quo – times. But I am a third-ager and may have missed something.
I have not always found it easy to achieve a working balance between conventional publishing and blogging for all that retirement provides a safety valve. I am presently committed, for example, to authoring one book (I am on the penultimate chapter if my publisher happens to be eavesdropping) and editing another (a 7th edition of the textbook Sociology as Applied to (Health and) Medicine); and, to call to mind Sartre on freedom, while I am free to write a blog, to do so is not to get on with these. Another hypothesis: to retain the interest and commitment of readers of blogs and followers of tweets it is important to make regular contributions. But I have no evidence base for this.
As far as both Twitter and blogging are concerned, I suspect that if I had stuck more economically to areas of putative expertise I would have garnered more followers and readers. I have three comments on this. First, I’m not governed in what I tweet or blog by numbers of followers or readers respectively, or for that matter in people’s reactions, otherwise what is the point? Second, if I had to proffer advice I would suggest that people ‘be themselves’, which beats all that is postmodern/narcissist/post-truth. And third, I have a strong preference for tweeting/blogging under one’s own name whenever possible (whilst recognising that this is not always possible, most starkly in the case of whistle-blowers but recognising also that institutions like universities are exercising ever more surveillance and control over those they should be supporting).
Finally, I should acknowledge a personal failing. As we enter a new digital era, embracing ‘digital sociology’, there is much to be learned. I know this by following/reading Debora Lupton as well as Mark Carrigan. I am lagging behind. If I could summon energy enough I would take time out to catch up. To young sociologists I would commend entering cyberspace with a fully apprenticed confidence: it is a future not to be neglected.
Chill with a coffee (cafe society) or a beer/glass of wine (bar society) and think-on?