Friday, 27 December 2013

The impact of blogging on reputation

I was alerted this morning on Twitter to this blogpost by Brian LePort on the first of 5 reasons why students shouldn't blog. Its central thesis is that "it is almost impossible to avoid writing something that will offend someone". Consequently, bloggers run the risk of doing themselves reputational harm at best, or failing to get a job or even getting fired at worst.

LePort illustrates his thesis by the extraordinary case of Christopher Rollston, who tells how he was forced to resign from a post at Emmanuel Christian Seminary because he wrote a piece for the Huffington Post on the marginalization of women in the Bible. Rollston, who describes himself as a Christian, concluded: "Gender equality may not have been the norm two or three millennia ago, but it is essential. So, the next time someone refers to 'biblical values,' it's worth mentioning to them that the Bible often marginalized women and that's not something anyone should value." Apparently, a major funder of the seminary disapproved of such incendiary sentiments and Rollston's career there was toast.

I have to say, I find LePort's reaction to this story disappointing. Yes, people who blog should think carefully about what they say and the impact it may have. Yes, it's impossible to avoid offending someone somewhere, unless what you write is so boring and anodyne that nobody would want to read it. But I despair at the idea of a future generation so cowed with fear that nobody ever says anything original or controversial.

I'm not arguing that students and junior academics should sacrifice themselves on the altar of freedom of speech, but rather that they should have confidence in the positive as well as the negative power of the internet. If what they say is worth saying, they will get support. LePort focuses on the negative consequences of Rollston's blogging, but, as this post by Robert Cargill pointed out, he attracted huge support online and ended up in a better job, whereas Emmanuel Christian Seminary suffered massive reputational damage.

LePort makes the important point that blogs are very different to more formal academic writing and often represent a point of view at a particular point in time, which may subsequently change. To my mind, this is one of the huge benefits of blogging – if you are lucky, your blog will attract comments that expose you to a wide range of reactions and help clarify and develop your thinking. This can be both fun and useful. LePort worries, though, that this may mean your incomplete and half-baked thoughts on an issue are used against you by those in positions of authority.

As a senior academic, I hope I can offer some reassurance. In general, I see blogging as an indication that the author is a bit out of the ordinary – someone who cares enough about things to write about them, and who is willing to try and move discussion forward. If in addition they change their views on the basis of feedback, that's fine. Obviously, it's possible to reveal yourself on a blog as uninformed, irrational or bigoted, and that is definitely not good. But most of the blogs I read aren't like that.

Well, I can hear you saying, that's all very well. You are someone who actually blogs and understands social media, but most academics aren't like that. My reply is that social media is an unstoppable force and even the most traditional institutions are starting to focus on developing strategies for harnessing its power.  So I'd say, yes, LePort is right in that we need to be aware that blogging is a public medium, and anything we say on a blog can be read by anyone. But it would be a shame if we allowed ourselves to become so worried about potential problems that we failed to see the advantages of blogging for fostering academic debate.That would be like staying at home with the door locked because you're scared of what may happen if you go outside.

11 comments:

  1. Thank you, Dorothy. This is another excellent post that I hope will encourage others who already use social media, but feel worried about occasional bad experiences. The worry is largely about uncertainties in building and guarding your reputation, and you have to be worried if you stick your head above the parapet. Using twitter and contributing to blogs is indeed a minefield, but so is everyday social interaction.

    Here I am taking the risk of indulging in a bit of self promotion: I'd like to point readers to a paper by Tennie, Frith & Frith ‘Reputation Management in the age of the world-wide web’: doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2010.07.003. We argue that a good reputation is valued for good evolutionary reasons, e.g. as a signal for cooperativeness.

    There are mechanisms that enable humans and other animals to choose cooperative partners and punish uncooperative partners. But there is always an arms race between selfish and altruistic motivations, and hence there is no fool-proof recipe for success. Modern social media are different from a small village only in terms of their size and complexity. The same rules for managing reputation apply.

    I will mention two looming dangers, for which we need to find better countermeasures: anonymity and gossip. Both have always been with us, but they are exaggerated with large numbers and with new technologies (think whisper and vs button press; spear vs gun). Anonymity as a cloak to hide selfish or hostile intentions is an obvious problem and it can sometimes be dealt with, but what about our love of gossip? Gossip seems to be more important to us than direct experience and we accept gossip even from disreputable sources.

    This is argued in the paper I am recommending below. It reports an empirical study on the effect of gossip. The results suggest, paradoxically, that it is possible to combat pernicious gossip by more gossip from multiple sources, because inaccurate gossip has little power if it is in the minority.

    Sommerfeld, R., Krambeck, H.-J. & M. Milinski: Multiple gossip statements and their effect on reputation and trustworthiness. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. B 275:2529-2536 (2004). http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/275/1650/2529.full.pdf

    Dorothy's focus on the possibility of changing one's mind in the course of arguments and discussions is very welcome. It can be a particularly useful feature of reputation management, and a shining example.

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  2. There is really a great impact especially when your blog became very popular.

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  3. Oh dear, "reputation managers" are the people used by big organisations to delete critical comments. It is a branch of PR and therefore fundamentally dishonest. Blogging shouldn't be about reputation management, it should be about saying things that you believe, and which you hope will interest to other people. Just be yourself, and never mind reputation.

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  4. In my view, reputation management is the least important of any reason to blog or not to blog. Blogging is about ideas, conversations, sharing experiences and knowledge, advancing reform, and above all stepping beyond the conservatism of the ivory tower to see how our work can influence and be informed by the world beyond. Dorothy's blog is a fine example of this.

    I honestly couldn't care less whether blogging harms my "reputation" (whatever that even is - good grief, the concept of protecting such a thing is utterly repellent). Blogging is my right as a free agent in a democracy and I will do it regardless of whether someone with "control" over my career likes it or not. Certainly it carries risk - but as Dorothy says, so does stepping outside our front doors.

    I would encourage all scientists to blog, from the most junior to the most senior. Everyone has something interesting and unique to share. It is a great way for junior scientists to learn the art of the communication, and if there is one thing I have learned about blogging it's that you never know where it can take you.

    Life is short, and the day we become so craven as to value our careers and egos above the rich benefits of blogging is the day we trade in our own agency to the most superficial and meaningless aspects of academia. It's also the day I quit.

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  5. I so little trouble in blogging about science. Academics are generally curious people and as long as you are not often trivially wrong, I can see no harm. On the contrary.

    An exception would be a direct attack against a colleagues. Even if right, the colleague will likely not appreciate that. If sufficiently important, I would reserve that for a scientific article, to also get some benefits.

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  6. Thanks for all for comments. Fascinated and amazed to find that Uta has published on this topic, but not yet had chance to read and digest the paper. But exactly the kind of unexpected contribution that makes blogging fun.
    But I can't agree with David and Chris that reputation doesn't matter. I think what they are really saying is that they don't care what the establishment thinks of them, but I bet they do care about their reputation among people they respect. Of course, by being willing themselves to speak out, they illustrate perfectly the point of my blog - i.e. their reputations with me are enhanced by their doing so, even though I don't always agree with what they say.
    But Brian LePort's points should not be dismissed too hastily: he is right insofar as it is important to pause to consider what you write - not to censor the content, but to anticipate how it might look to others. I care intensely about having a reputation for accuracy and fairness, and on occasions when I've failed on either count, I am mortified. The fairness issue comes up in Victor's comment about cases where one might be seen to attack a colleague: I have sailed pretty close to the wind in that regard with certain critical comments. I try to emphasise when I am attacking the idea and not the person, but it is important to be very careful indeed here – not just because of reputation (which, paradoxically can be enhanced in some quarters by an attack on a well-known figure) but because of the potential for harm and injustice - and indeed damage to someone else's reputation - when a juicy story gets into cyberspace (see my first ever blogpost: http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/2010/05/academic-mobbing-in-cyberspace.html).
    In sum, I don't think you should blog *in order* to manage your reputation, but you should be concerned about your reputation and be aware that blogging might affect it. It's not so much a case of worrying about what the establishment will make of your blogging, but of how you come across to the rest of the world. The Socrates quote at the top of my post says it all really.

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  8. Alison Nickson3 March 2014 11:47

    Found this article and the responses really interesting and useful, especially as I am just about to (nervously) start my own academic blog.

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