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.