It’s the Content, Stupid

Posted on April 30, 2014


Conversations 5,ooo miles apart have converged in the last few days to lead me to scream at the top of my lungs, it’s the content, stupid.

Bill, on his blog, was summing up the SAA conference, which took place last week, and in his post he mentioned something that caught my attention.

“Archaeology blogging is in a maturation phase that will take a while to sort out. The archaeology blogosphere has exploded in the last five years to the point that long-time archaeology bloggers can barely keep up with all the new content. Blog posts are increasingly cited in books and archaeology articles, another indicator of their increasing legitimacy and presence. We all need to “chive on” while we wait for academia and CRM to slowly recognize the power of blogging and the value it adds to archaeological practice.

I added the emphasis because I think this was part of the general discussion of the day or at least my impression of it following it on twitter

re: faculty participation in blogosphere, audience share concerns like fear of mining from website, open pubs worth less “-@ArchaeoAD

The reason Bill’s summation and Twitter caught my attention was because a few days earlier we were dealing with similar issues at the CAA conference in Paris (the idea of a conference in Paris sounds better than it really is; you’re stuck inside most of the time). It was in the Internet and Archaeology session where a question was asked about the problems of digital publications being “worth” less. 5,000 miles away and we are having the same conversation, the worthiness of digital publications. Twitter at CAA reflected that too-

“Open Access self-publishing of books. Great in theory but what about tenure/promotion/REF classifications? Distribution? “- @jadufton

Digital Publications Should Count as Much as Crayon Drawings

I responded at the CAAs but I am going to better articulate my answer here. I think that digital publications, like blogs and Open Access Books, should “count” as much as crayon drawings, cartoons, Tweets, and Facebook posts. What I mean is that we should not confuse the medium with the content. All things should “count” and be cited based on their content not the medium they are published in. Imagine if the Constitution of the United States had been written in crayon? Would the people of the United States of America not be trying to create a more perfect union because of crayon? What if Albert Einstein had published E = mc² with a wax paste? Would Special Relativity cease to be a valid theory? We know the answers to those questions, yet, we continue to ignore what we know to be true.

Medium Counts BUT Print Can’t Polish a Turd

Blogs are a medium, not some sort of magical new form of writing that only existed after 1994(?) (or 1997? 2000?), but medium counts. The medium you use can dictate how you work. For example, Twitter limits you to 140 characters and thus most Tweets are short sentences. Due to costs most print articles in academic journals are limited to 6-8,000 words. Beyond constraints, mediums also give people abilities. For instance, blogging software allows one to insert images into their writing and this can influence how one presents their thoughts i.e. the use of GIFs. Video recording allows one to capture moving images and sound e.g. vlogging. A medium influences our work in subtle and not so subtle ways.

However, mediums can not make content better. Adding color to text will not make my thoughts clearer. Making my text bold will not make my data better. These techniques can allow me to accent my work to express my ideas.  However, if my ideas are crap no medium will change that. Printing out work may make it easier to read. That last point is subjective, some people read quicker on print. But reading crap faster will not make it any better.

The Kids are Not Alright

We ignore this fact because we are taught/conditioned to. “Wikipedia, anyone can edit it so it must not be reliable”. That is what every undergrad at university is taught. We do not teach them to engage with the work. We do not asked them to check the references being cited in the Wikipedia article to see if the information is well supported. We do not ask them to look at the discussion page of the article to see others debate about the topic or to learn more about what sources are valid or not. We do not ask them to think about what is said. Instead we tell them never use Wikipedia and to never engage with the content. They then carry these prejudices into archaeology where they proliferate.

The same could be said about academic writing. We will quote that 4000 year old cuneiform tablet but not the week old blog post. I hate to break it to people, but, I can lie to you just as easily in clay as on WordPress. A good academic looks at text and makes a judgment call about if they think the king really did kill 4000 of his enemies, by himself, with a toothbrush. However, with a blog, that cites sources and gives their data, we won’t cite it even though we can check the data. Think about that for a moment!

You’re Really Going to Stand There and Tell Me Content Doesn’t Matter?

I am not sure this section needs to be said but I will say it anyways. I challenge anyone to argue that medium matters more than the quality of the work being presented?

Please do leave a comment if you think you are up to the challenge.

That leaves us with the question, do we want archaeologists who engage with and think about content or mindless zombies? We should not be discussing blogging as a ‘legitimate’ form of communication, any form of communication is legitimate. We should be discussing the quality of our outputs, something that can be poor no matter what medium it is in.

It’s the Content, Stupid

In 1992 Bill Clinton beat George Bush in the election to become president. Bush was a sitting president who oversaw the collapse of the Iron Curtain and won a war. He did it with the simple mantra, it’s the economy stupid.  Whenever he got off topic he would tell himself, “it’s the economy, stupid” and would focus again on that content. Archaeology seriously needs to keep telling itself, it’s the content, stupid. Else we will get bogged down it pointless semantics and are stupider for it.

So next time someone talks to you about the lack of value in blogging (or insert medium of choice) explain to them the difference between medium and content.  Make archaeologists smarter people and remind them that no one likes a bigot.


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