#11 The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Archaeology Blogging

This post is part of Doug Rocks-Macqueen’s Archaeology “Blogging Carnival” preparing for the 2014 Blogging in Archaeology session at the Society for American Archaeology meeting. You can read Doug’s kickoff post here and consider contributing your own post. Additionally, use the hashtag #blogarch to find other posts online!

For December 2013, Doug has asked participants to write on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of archaeology blogging.

The Good

Blogging == Writing Practice

Like most worthwhile skills, my writing ability atrophies unless I practice writing. I wrote my share of lousy papers while in undergrad and graduate school, but I also wrote a lot of papers period while in school. Over time, I refined my writing abilities enough that, even now, I can look back at several of my papers and, surprisingly, even my thesis without cringing too badly. Since graduating, however, I have been writing more technical reports, guides, and grant proposals. I find these different kinds of writing valuable in their own right, but they exercise a different skill set than used for more free form or academic writing. Through my blog, I have been able to write short posts on both broader topics in digital archaeology, as well as technical reviews. I’m not completely happy with the quality of my blog writing so far, but I think it’s improving and the skills I practice will help me as I write more on my research in the future and experiment with archaeology storytelling in other media. (What do you think of my writing? Feel free to comment below! :-)).

Blogging == Thinking

I’m lucky that, as part of my business, I spend a lot of time reading articles on digital archaeology and learning new software. While I could take the knowledge gained and just apply it on a project by project basis, I find that I miss the kind of critical thinking that my graduate classes encouraged through discussions and through writing précis. Graduate classes forced me to not just read articles, but to decide what I thought about the points in an argument or the limitations a technique or piece of software. Through my blog, I write to decide my own mind on topics of interest to me and also, hopefully, to spark discussion with points of view I never considered, or to offer an answer when other archaeologists search the web with related questions.

Blogging == #PubArch

The cover of the Shovel Bum Comic anthology
Figure 1. Like most copies of Shovel Bum, this copy has passed through many different sets of filthy field tech hands.

I recently finished reading Trent de Boer’s excellent collection of Shovel Bum comics (Figure 1). The Shovel Bum comic began as a self-published “zine” and de Boer and his friends used it to detail their day-to-day experiences as archaeology field technicians in the United States. In the afterword to the collection, Troy Lovata, one of the Shovel Bum contributors and now an Associate Professor at the University of New Mexico, wrote a great essay on the value of informal archaeological writing. In his essay, Lovata (2004) details how audiences sometimes see zines, as a phenomenon, as more authentic expressions because zine authors often produce them out of passion rather than for commercial gain. My blog is obviously attached to my commercial tutorial, software, and consulting business, but the majority of blogs are personal and non-commercial. Lovata also points out that there is a need for archaeology writing that avoids the specialized language and impersonal tone of academic writing in favor of presenting archaeology in plain terms and in ways that acknowledge that data never speak for themselves but that people, sometimes many people, are involved in translating data into information and, hopefully, knowledge. Lovata also highlights the importance of pictures, even poorly drawn stick-figures, in communicating details about a discipline as visual as archaeology. Not only do we work in some pretty visually stunning locales, but pictures can also literally equal a thousand words of description or argument in proving a point, especially when combined with humor. After all, think of how many anthropology professors have Far Side comics taped to their doors that highlight some of the more ridiculous aspects of archaeology. If you’re interested in comics as a medium for communication, I highly recommend Scott McCloud’s excellent “Understanding Comics.”

As with zines, I think that archaeologists can and are using blogs to fill an important niche in archaeological communication. Just a few examples of the variety of blogs present, from public-facing and humorous to professional and “inside-baseball,” are:

  • Serra Head’s “Archy Fantasies,” (http://archyfantasies.wordpress.com) which debunks archaeological myths and hoax artifacts.
  • Kelly M’s “Archaeology of Tomb Raider,” (http://archaeologyoftombraider.com) which uses the video game series as a way to introduce readers to the real history of featured artifacts, sites, and cultures from the games.
  • Andrea Gover’s “Anthropos Blogia” (http://andrea-gover.blogspot.com/), which details her experience with community archaeology at a field school in Alaska.
  • The Sherd Nerd Collective” (http://residentparkyologist.tumblr.com) which contains musings on all sorts of topics from anthropology and archaeology, as well as photos and archaeology comics.
  • “Digging Digitally,” the blog for the Alexandria Archive Institute and semi-official news for the SAA’s Digital Data Interest Group (http://www.alexandriaarchive.org/blog/), which contains updates on digital archaeology projects and also thoughts on the role of open science and open data in archaeology.

It is my hope that both my blog, and archaeology blogs in general, will provide a more open and honest look at the many different ways and contexts we have for forming a view of the past through archaeology. We need different kinds of archaeological “writing,” including other media like videos, games, and even music to combat misconceptions about what we do and to also involve and communicate with audiences outside of just other archaeologists. In my opinion, all archaeologists should at least consider blogging as a way to directly contribute to public archaeology efforts. The annual “Day of Archaeology” blogging event is a great way to dip your toes in and read or write even a short post on what archaeologists do on a daily basis: whether that’s surveying or excavating out in the field, doing research at a library or BLM office, rushing to finish a project report or transcribe a field notebook, giving a presentation or teaching a class, or simply enjoying a cup of coffee or pint of beer and talking about archaeology with a friend or relative.

The Bad

Blogging  Shouting into the Void?

It sometimes feels like no one is listening or participating in the discussion started on a blog. In my case, perhaps this is because I haven’t participated much in other people blogs in order to contribute to existing discussions. I’ve found that it helps to post links to my blog on other networks and forums, especially the sometimes excellent LinkedIn forums, in order to start discussions elsewhere where folks are more likely to participate. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed though is seeing people share my posts, even if actual comments on the posts themselves are rare. Technology exists to make tracking a post’s impact more apparent, such as trackbacks and social media buttons that list the number of reposts (like the ones at the bottom of this blog post). In my case, these tools largely serve a narcissistic purpose, but they do help me stay motivated and keep writing because I know at least one other person is reading. Applied more carefully though, these kinds of analytics can help you refine your posts and even come up with new topics to write about. If you’re having trouble maintaining a blog, I recommend using these features as well as installing an analytics tool, like Google Analytics, to become aware of who is reading your posts, as well as which individual posts are having the most impact.

The Ugly

Blogging  Risky

There is pressure to self-censor or blog anonymously if you want to really talk candidly about some topics. As others have mentioned, there is a career risk to blogging, whether because of your opinions or because of stigma against, and fear about, the openness that comes with blogging. According to Chris Webster over at DigTech, there is already a key example of this, since Chris was fired from a job, at least partly, over his blog; not so much because of the content, but more because of the existence of the blog made his employer nervous. Academics in both archaeology, and other fields, have also pointed out the risks of blogging openly and potential effects on an academic career. As with all social media, my policy is to think carefully before putting anything on the internet, regardless of whether I think it’s private, locked-down, or impossible for others to see. I strive to own my words and to consider and accept the consequences of posting them publicly. I think there is definitely a place for anonymous blogging, especially in political or human rights arenas – arenas in which archaeology does sometimes play a part, but that if you plan to be actually remain anonymous on the internet it takes some real effort and knowledge.

Is Blogging Archaeology?

For all the good reasons listed above, and in spite of the bad and the ugly aspects, I feel that blogging is a worthwhile endeavor for at least personal reasons, if not also widely important for encouraging discussion within archaeology and in revealing more about the process of archaeology to different publics. What do you think: is blogging a waste of time? Is it distracting and tangential to actually doing archaeology? Or is it one of the best things since blade tool manufacture or sedentary societies? Post your thoughts in the comments section below!

References Cited

Lovata, Troy
2004      Why a View from the Shovel Handle Matters. In Shovel Bum: Comix of Archaeological Field Life Pp. 115–127. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

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