When Blogs Go Bad…and a word on networking at conferences

Not this blog.

But rather the unfortunate Brian Rathbun whose ill-considered post [8]—or at the very least, poor choice of metaphors—on the merits of networking at the American Political Science Association (APSA) meetings resulted in a flurry of unanticipated consequences and Rathbun’s eventual resignation from Duck of Minerva.

As the Duck’s Charli Carpenter and Steve Saideman wisely note, the blogosphere is dangerous territory in any circumstances and, echoing some of those remarks, let me suggest that this is something that instinctively we are completely unprepared to deal with.

During the vast bulk of our evolution as humans, or social primates who would become humans, we almost certainly spent our time in groups roughly the size of a baboon troop, probably around thirty to fifty adults [1] . Who, needless to say, all knew each other and were constantly interacting in a complex set of reciprocal social interactions.

Move to the villages of settled agriculture [2] and the population with whom you interact gets a little bit larger, but not much, perhaps doubling in size. A small part of the population lived in cities that were much larger, though these were also fabulously unhealthy places to live and may have contributed disproportionately little to the gene pool. Only since industrialization, and particularly over the past century, do we have easy contact with thousands of people across thousands of miles.

Contrast this to the social media, which can reach thousands of people within a matter of hours, and do so completely unmediated. This is simply unprecedented: by the time of the mechanization of printing, a popular writer such as a Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe or Mark Twain could certainly reach such audiences, but not instantly and not without intermediaries. With the rise of electronic mass communication, one could solve the “instant” part, but this still required a massive infrastructure: even Hitler needed a Leni Riefenstahl and Joseph Goebbels and the equipment which supported them.

Not so the social media, which require just some equipment which we are all familiar with—something as simple as a phone—and a few minutes. And then whatever you’ve written is out there and out of your control.

I watched this with “Going Feral…” and the feeling was very much like watching a prairie fire you thought you had under control, then it heads somewhere unexpected and you realize that there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.[3] You are writing for one audience who will generally understand what you are saying even if they don’t agree, and you find it wandering far far afield to places you had never anticipated. It’s scary.

And at least “Going Feral…” was assembled from material I’d put together over more than a year, and except for the reflections on Boomer mortality [7], things I had already presented on the web.  The problem is that one can get the same viral response to a Tweet sent in an alcohol-induced haze with the auto-complete feature of your phone set on “Embarrass me.” It’s been done.

There be dragons.

A brief word on the value of trying to network with elites at major conferences: I would simply echo the advice of Dan Drezner and many others—a later post provides lots and lots of links —that you are largely wasting your time, and the only way to get noticed is to do interesting things and publish them.

The “generic networking” [4] model works in situations where one is essentially operating as a middle-person facilitating a transaction that could be done by pretty much any reasonably skilled professional. The classic situation is the generic salesperson, say for example an independent insurance agent.  Every insurance agent in town has access to more or less the same set of policies at the same prices, and once one has eliminated the hucksters and incompetents, the remaining are more or less equivalent. So any sort of additional connection—social, kinship, religion, even, or particularly, cheering the same sports team—could be a pivotal factor.

Academia could not be more different: it is hyper-specialized. Suppose I am approached by you at a conference. For starters, because I’m an introvert, you are probably increasing my already “This one goes to eleven!” stress level, and the chance I’ll remember the encounter is decidedly less than 1. But suppose somehow you’ve made a good impression, but that’s all—a good impression, nothing particular to back it up. What am I going to do with this information? It’s not going to help on a search committee, where there will probably be at least ten qualified (if different) candidates. I’m probably not going to spontaneously invite you into a research project or conference, since  my existing contextual networks are already more than adequate for that.[5] Article reviews are supposed to be anonymous [6] and in any case I would certainly hope that most reviewers will be more favorable to something good from someone unknown than something mediocre from something they’ve met casually.

So follow Dr. Drezner’s good advice and focus on publishing interesting things.

Footnotes

1. The typical size of an R1 political science department, eh? Coincidence?—I think not.

2. A lecturer I recently heard noted, in response to those who sense that in a previous life they were Hannibal or Cleopatra noted “I’ll find the reincarnation thing a little more credible when someone says `In a previous life I was a peasant. And before that, a peasant. And before that, peasant…peasants all the way down…’”

3. I realize this analogy will resonate more with some readers than others. It helps to have owned rural property in Kansas. And to get into such situations even in Kansas, Y chromosomes appear to be a factor.

4. Emphasis on “generic”: contextual networks are absolutely vital, a tremendous asset and well worth the time invested.

5. Would I respond to an email from an ABD I’d never met and have that gradually evolve into a major project? Sure: that is precisely the story of GDELT, and it continues in the evolution of the GDELT community. But this is in the context of a specific project requiring relatively unusual skill sets, not awkward social encounters.

6. Nowadays, usually the author of any paper can be located with a minimum of effort, though like many—not all—people I don’t do this until after I’ve written the review. Even without consulting the web, in many cases I already know the author because I’ve previously seen—or discussed—the work at conferences.

7. Well, maybe a few remarks about Penn State. There will be more, honest—I haven’t been shut down—but let’s wait for the trial testimony and the release of the report on possible Clery Act violations: maybe we will learn something new. Maybe.

8. To clarify, as there appears to be some confusion on this issue, my comments here pertain to the perils of blogging in general, not to the vast commentary surrounding the Rathbun post, a complex warren of rabbit holes I do not wish to explore. Except to note that the amount of the attention paid to the ill-stared Dr. Rathbun compared to that accorded the contemporaneous announcement that the NSF Political Science program was—contrary to earlier expectations—not accepting any proposals for the August target date is more than a little depressing.

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2 Responses to When Blogs Go Bad…and a word on networking at conferences

  1. dnexon says:

    “Convincing State-Builders? Disaggregating Internal Legitimacy in Abkhazia”

    Awesome!

    • dnexon says:

      Cut-and-paste #FAIL!

      Was supposed to be:

      “The typical size of an R1 political science department, eh? Coincidence?—I think not.”

      Awesome!

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