Anyone who reads academic blogs frequently enough will know that there can be issues with academic blogging. From employers not wanting to employ people with any kind of online presence linked to their names (a tad unrealistic these days I think), through to individuals posting things that their employers take as ‘bringing the institution into disrepute’, it might seem as though academic blogging is something best avoided. And yet, it can still be a powerful tool – not just for the writer in practising writing and disseminating information, but also in terms of generating conversations and making connections with people also studying in their fields. This is the internet as its best, as an enabler, what people envisioned and hoped for when they developed this strange new world. It is perhaps no wonder that many PhD students are encouraged to blog.
A new tool is now becoming available, that of website annotation. The basic idea is that, rather like a book, you can scribble your thoughts in the margins of the text for others to see, and generate conversations spinning off from the original text. While this has some great potential applications – both in terms of working with colleagues and idea generation, and also in terms of working with students, it also has tremendous potential for abuse. While there have be and are a number of ways in which it can be done, two companies that are offering it are being heavily discussed in the blogosphere at the moment – hypothes.is, which has also had a wordpress plug-in created for it – and Genius Web. Genius in particular has recently come under fire because there was a) no way for the creator of the original text to turn off annotations, and b) no way for the creator of the original text to moderate or complain about abusive annotations. One might wonder why either of these is an issue; when you understand that, unlike twitter conversations, facebook conversations, or even blog posts on someone else’s site that reference your work, the annotations sit are on top of your original post. In other words, its like an article that you’ve slaved over and published, that a whole group of people have pulled to pieces and then published the results. And you, as the originator of the content, have no choice about this.
Hypothes.is at least seems to be more willing to engage with the debate/issues. Genius web has added the ability to report abusive annotations. Others are trying to discuss solutions, or claim to have a workaround. The basic idea of web annotation is not a new one – for those interested in the history of it, Glenn Flieshman has a post about that. He also discusses the difference between citation and appropriation. Academics will have some familiarity with the differences, enough that although the terminology may be initially unfamiliar the basic concepts will have most of us nodding happily away, and discusses the way that the Genius Web annotation uses the original posts. Genius Web, certainly, does not inform the author of the original post that there are annotations on their site – the onus is on the author to check it out for themselves (to check, you need to type genius.it before the website address in the URL bar at the top of your internet browser) and Genius Web argue that if you don’t lock your blog down, then it’s public property and thus, fair game. Hmmmm.
Having said all this: Am I going to steer clear of web annotation? Certainly not. I think it is much like anything: a tool, open to abuse but also to the creation of wonderful things when used appropriately. And while it is quite a few years away yet before I get to develop my own module to teach to undergraduates, I’m already thinking about how I/we can use online tools to help teach history in a more engaging way. It has oft been said that the traditional lecturing model doesn’t work to reach students. Okay. That being the case, then it is surely the responsibility of those who do want to work in HE, teaching students, to investigate alternative pedagogical routes, and I think this kind of annotation has exciting possibilities for learning. And that doesn’t even begin to address the possibilies of discussing ideas with colleagues from other universities in the same field in a more fluid manner. Very exciting!
But for those academics who teach in HE institutions, and who have been subject to nasty comments on those apps that allow for those attending lectures to discuss a lecture with those nearby via smartphones or tablets (i.e. YikYak, and no, I’m not providing a link), this may be ringing alarm bells. Internet and social media attacks on women with a public voice is a known issue on the internet; women lecturers regularly receive lower approval ratings from the students. One blogger (not in HE) has already fallen afoul of a series of unpleasant annotations from someone she’d already blocked from her twitter account. There is no way for someone who simply wants to reach out to like minded people via a blog, perhaps anonymously, to prevent anyone – be it trolls or a problematic ex-boyfriend – from splattering what amounts to graffiti over a page that they might have poured their heart and soul into. As that article comments: ‘the people of the internet deserve better’. This debate brings into sharp relief many of the issues surrounding material posted on the internet, that of copyright, authorship, free speech.
While the debate surrounding these issues, and yes, how to use apps and sites like Hypothes.is and Genius is ongoing (and will probably always be fought, if I am honest – much like fighting brushfires), what does it mean for the average academic, particularly ones like me who are finding their feet in both academia and the blogosphere?
I think there are a number of different steps to take:
- Awareness. Awareness that, yes, your material might be copied and used elsewhere without credit and without your consent. The old adage: ‘if you don’t want a secret to become common knowledge, don’t tell anyone’, applies here. No matter how much you trust your significant other right now not to pass on that pic of you that you would really, rather was not seen by anyone else… if you put it on t’webz, it’s possible for it to be copied or disseminated. If you wouldn’t be happy standing up and talking about something in a conference or at a public meeting, then don’t put it on the internet without thinking about how it could be used against you.
- Privacy. Remember that email is not private – it can so easily be copied or forwarded. Assume it will be. Anything you write on a blog or a public website even more so. If you want to say something that you think might just backfire in some way, then use an anonymous name. Maybe think about levels of access. Determine where you can be a bit more relaxed. My twitter account is public, for example, but my facebook is private – you must be someone I know personally to be a friend there.
- Attentiveness. Google yourself. Check what is said out there. Especially if you’re going for a job – cos you can bet that the institution will have googled you! Keep an eye out for apps or services like Genius or YikYak. At least be aware that they exist, even if you’ve not been to see what they say about you.
- Acceptance. Accept that people can and do talk about you. The only difference between what people have always done and something like YikYak is that YikYak is a) bigger and b) allows you to eavesdrop on those conversations – and I don’t advise doing so. (Have I checked to see if this blog is annotated? You betcha. Have I checked YikYak? Hell, no. I really do not need to se what people think of my clothing choices that day.)
- Preparation. While it is never easy to process when you discover unpleasant remarks that people have said about you, whether that’s gossipy undergrads or colleagues ripping your latest article to shreds, you can do a certain amount of work before, during and after to protect yourself. Put in place plans for what you will do if and when such negative things happen to you. Understand that mentally, the average human’s psyche tends to remember negative comments more easily so make sure you collect the positive comments. Write them down somewhere. I have a wall where I put the first page of my article and positive comments on post-its around it. Know your own mentality; if something like this happens to you, then try not to go home and lick your wounds and suffer silently. Talk to people about what’s happened. Gather a good support network of academic friends.
Does anyone else have any suggestions for ways to protect yourself when blogging online?