Friday, November 19, 2010

What Just Happened

WHAT JUST HAPPENED – Here's the full text of my second SBL paper, which is being presented orally (and thus without all the links) on Monday afternoon.

The rise of "biblioblogging" in the first decade
of the twenty-first century

© James R. Davila, University of St. Andrews
2010 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta
S22-209 SBL Blogger and Online Publication Section

In the tradition of my two papers on biblioblogging published in 2005, I have poached the title of this paper from elsewhere, this time from a 2002 book by James Gleick subtitled "A Chronicle from the Information Frontier." Gleick's book chronicled the rise of e-mail and the Internet in everyday life over the previous decade and it remains an entertaining and informative period piece. The aim of this paper is somewhat similar, if more constrained: it concerns the rise and development of "biblioblogging" or blogging devoted to the area of academic biblical studies. Many aspects of this topic were treated in my two earlier papers and I have made some effort here to avoid overlapping with them. (I should note in passing that the written version of this paper is posted on my blog with numerous links, so I encourage listeners at the SBL session to check there as well to get the full effect.) I will begin with some brief background notes on the rise of computer and Internet applications to biblical studies, then say a few words about the rise of biblioblogging, and then draw on the predictions I made in 2005 as a launching point for discussing further developments over the last five years. I do not hope to be as entertaining or as informative as Gleick, but I offer the following as someone who has been involved in developments since the early 1990s and who has been part of the biblioblogging revolution more or less from its inception. Let me proceed then, at the risk of trying my audience, with a riff on yet another book title, this one by Neal Stephenson:

In the beginning ... was Bob Kraft. The likelihood is that this audience has heard of Professor Kraft, seen his University of Pennsylvania website, and is aware that he has been a major influence driving the adoption of computer technology in academic biblical studies for some decades. With Emanuel Tov, Bob conceived of the Computer Assisted Tools for Septuagint Studies Project in the late 1970s, a project that received NEH funding and which is still ongoing today, having produced numerous important computerized textual resources that have generated many publications. As early as 1982 Bob was one of the teachers of a course at Penn on "Computers and Textual Research" and he began editing a bulletin called "OFFLINE: Computer Assisted Research for Religious Studies" in April of 1984, publishing it in various print venues and in early electronic discussion groups.

Bob was also instrumental in moving the field into the next stage of computer literacy, as the founder of a small e-mail group (spun off from the Humanist listserve list), which group focused its discussion on ancient Judea. Inspired by the success of this group, Steve Mason founded the listserve discussion list Ioudaios in April of 1990 at York University. (It later moved to Lehigh University as Ioudaios-l.) The great canon debate took place on Ioudaios in the early months of its existence. The ANE list followed in 1993, founded by Chuck Jones and John Sanders at the University of Chicago. Notable also is the Orion list on the Dead Sea Scrolls, published by the Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which ran from 1995 to 2001. For a time such lists proliferated; I ran three myself from 1997 to 2002. Ioudaios-l and the ANE list are still operating today. The 1990s were a heady era in which we learned to take for granted that we could trade notes to colleagues around the world anywhere, anytime, at the speed of light. And so the stage was set for the blog.

I first heard about "weblogs" or "blogs" from an essay by Andrew Sullivan in the London Times in about mid-2002. I began reading his blog, then some other political blogs. At some point it dawned on me that a blog could be a useful tool for calling the media to account on the seemingly endless errors they spew out when covering the academic field of biblical studies and related matters. So, as the saying goes, I stopped shouting at my television (and newspaper) and started the PaleoJudaica blog in March of 2003.

The blog is one of those ideas whose utility seems obvious – once someone else has thought of it. Granting the existence of the World-Wide Web and hyperlinks, it makes perfect sense to set up a web page that:
  • can be easily updated while saving the old versions as separate "posts," as though they were diary entries;
  • focuses on the thoughts of a single person (or a small number of people) rather than acting as a bulletin board for a large group;
  • does not need to be subscribed to and can be checked on by readers or not, as they please;
  • potentially gives more control over content than an e-mail list. Originally blogs did not come with a comments feature and it still remains optional, although most blogs now use it. (Mine does not.) The comments can be moderated or not, like posts on an e-mail list, but unlike a list, blog comments are always at least nominally posted in response to a specific post by the owner, and those who post too many off-topic comments tend to acquire "troll" status and be banished.
  • Blogs are also by their nature already on the Web and are therefore search-engine indexed without the need of expensive listserve software.
The advent of the "biblioblog," a blog with a substantial amount of content on academic biblical studies, came either with PaleoJudaica or with New Testament scholar AKMA Adam's more diary-style blog, AKMA's Random Thoughts, in January of 2002. In the year following the founding of PaleoJudaica, I am aware of the creation of seven more such blogs: Mark Goodacre's NT Gateway blog (building on his much older New Testament Gateway website), Stephen Carlson's Hypotyposeis, Torrey Seland's Philo of Alexandria blog, Rubén Gómez's Bible Software Review, Tim Bulkeley's SansBlogue, Jim West's Biblical Studies blog (whose archive has been deleted), and James McGrath's Exploring Our Matrix (which I only recently learned was that old). It's interesting to note that all of these original bloggers continue to blog today, although some of them have rebooted their blog with a new name, sometimes rather more than once.

By March of 2005, two years after the founding of PaleoJudaica, I was aware of sixteen more biblioblogs, which I noted at the time amounted to geometric growth. By this time blogging about the academic study of the Bible had acquired enough self-consciousness to generate the great naming debate of late 2004 and early 2005, with the result that "biblioblogging" became the generally accepted term for what we do, despite the fact that librarians had decided to use the same term. And around the same time as PaleoJudaica's second anniversary the first Biblical Studies Carnival (for biblioblogs) was published by Joel Ng at his no-longer-archived Ebla Logs.

Also in 2005 I published two papers on the phenomenon of biblioblogging, the first in April at the SBL Forum and the second as a paper for an SBL session on biblioblogging in November. In them, and in a related blog post from the same time I made a number of predictions about what to expect from biblioblogging in the coming years. It seems a useful exercise to revisit these now, both to see how I did and as a roundabout way of reviewing aspects of the last five years. (As an aside, let me mention that shortly after my two essays were published, Blogger re-jigged the URLs to all previous blog posts, so many of my internal links in the essays no longer work. Apologies for Blogger's unhelpfulness.)

One prediction was (in late November of 2005) that over the next couple of years the geometric increase in the number of biblioblogs would continue. At the time I was aware of thirty more biblioblogs, making the total close to fifty. Geometric growth would then produce about 100 at the beginning of 2007 and 200 at the beginning of 2008. Statistics have been hard to come by, but I have located one supposedly comprehensive list of biblioblogs in September of 2009 which named 362 blogs "which deal primarily with matters concerning scholarly or academic biblical studies" and another 262 "which have a different primary focus (e.g. theology, ancient Near Eastern archaeology, devotional and homiletic approaches to the Bible) or are commercial rather than personal blogs – yet which contain some biblical studies material." PaleoJudaica is listed in the first category, although I don't really think of it as dealing primarily with the Bible. This gives us a total of 585 blogs that have at least some academic Bible-related content. If we take a reasonably big-tent approach to the subject, it looks as though geometric growth did continue through at least into 2008 and perhaps even into 2009. It may well be that growth has leveled off. There are, after all, only so many biblical scholars to go around! Or the actual number may now be beyond normal human ability (or even nerd ability) to keep track of and we may not know it until our search spiders become more intelligent. In any case, my fairly cautious prediction of two more years of geometric growth seems to have been correct.

Second, I predicted "that blogging and other forms of online publishing will grow more and more user friendly and more and more people will develop a personal media voice," and, more specifically, that "blogging is in fact an early and primitive manifestation of what will become the ubiquitous media presence of the individual ... everyone who wants to will have a media soapbox as easy to access as CNN and the BBC are in our time."

What can I say? We are there. At the time, Facebook was a small cloud on the horizon, used mostly by university students. I signed up on it in the spring of 2005 to keep track of pictures being posted of me by my students, but its mass adoption (more than 500 million users at present) is a more recent phenomenon. LiveJournal has been around since 1999, but remains much less popular, with only 31 million subscribers. Twitter appeared in 2006 and currently has more than 100 million users. Flickr was launched in early 2004 and at present hosts more than 5 billion images. YouTube opened in early 2005 and currently two billion videos a day are being viewed on it and twenty-four thirty-five hours of content are being posted every minute. And smartphones are making the uploading of all kinds of content ever easier.

If I may hazard more predictions, I expect that these somewhat fragmented and still relatively primitive private media productions will become increasingly powerful, increasingly user-friendly, and increasingly integrated into a personal media expression that is as seamless as the user wishes it to be and that puts into the hands of a private individual the media resources that in the 1980s would have been available only to a major production studio. There is no time here for a proper discussion of the implications this will have for society and individual liberty, but I think they will be largely positive. In a word, the increasingly Orwellian surveillance powers of the State will be to a significant degree neutralized by the ability of billions of individuals to turn those powers back on the State and to shine the glaring light of universal publicity on an ever-increasing portion of its actions. This is already happening.

I predict also that, despite all the new media resources, blogging has found its own niche in the new media – it provides focused discussion that is readable at leisure and ring-fenced for particular purposes – and it will be here to stay at least for quite some time to come.

Lastly, in 2005 I predicted that, "any professional news story will be subject to immediate criticism by experts and eyewitnesses; these worthwhile responses will be indexed next to the story itself by intelligent software; and everyone will know to check for them. The emergent order we can see developing around us even now will let the cream rise to the top and hold the media (and bloggers!) accountable for their every word as soon as it is uttered. ... I think we can look forward to a leaner, sharper, more cautious, and better informed press corps as time passes."

Well, we've made a little progress; less, I confess, than I had hoped. The New York Times does index possibly relevant (though often not) blog posts next to their articles, and Google indexes blog commentary on media publications, but not always sensibly and helpfully. But my experience remains that the legacy media by and large is determined to ignore the implications of the new mass individual media and the increased scrutiny and accountability it generates. Journalists who are not experts in anything continue to pontificate and editorialize with a sanctimony that is increasingly intolerable to their audience, with the result that that audience is steadily shrinking. I stand by my 2005 prediction, but I will update it to say that I expect to see a radical shakeup of the mainstream media in not too many years. Empires will topple and major organizations will go under or undergo a massive restructuring. When the dust settles, the professional mass media will be a smaller, leaner, more focused enterprise that is integrated with and sensitive to the private mass media that will hold it to account. Whatever form the new professional media takes will have to compete directly with coverage by private individuals and amateur groups which meets the current highest professional production standards. Or so I hope.

Let me next say a little about what biblioblogging has done and continues to do for the field. First, it has made possible the rapid dissemination of information on new discoveries and other matters of interest – as well as dissemination of accessible specialist commentary on such matters – to a vastly enlarged audience. I have given examples in the past, but some interesting recent ones include the discovery in 2008 of an Iron Age II seal in Hebrew in Jerusalem which was initially read with the name "Temech." But within a fortnight criticisms of the reading in the biblioblogosphere led the excavator to revise it to "Shelomit." In 2009, the discovery of Coptic fragments of 2 Enoch (formerly knowing only in Old Church Slavonic) was rapidly disseminated by biblioblogs. And in 2010 when a dubious decipherment of an important Hebrew inscription was published by the media, it quickly became apparent that a quite different and more cautious decipherment had been published months before by John Hobbins at his Biblical Hebrew Poetry blog.

Second, blogging helps to put a personal face on biblical scholarship by allowing scholars to speak with an informal public voice different from the voice of academic publication. Even the most academic of academic blogs is a much more personal expression of the author's thoughts than any academic peer-review publication. And, for better or for worse, the blog will probably be read by more people than those scholarly publications. Not infrequently, we also get a welcome glimpse of the lives of prominent biblical scholars through blogs. I note, for example, my own blog posts on the ninetieth birthday party of New Testament and Gnosticism specialist Robert McLachlan Wilson and on the retirement party of New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham, and, less rather festively, April DeConick's account of her and her family's encounter with Hurricane Ike.

Third, blogging encourages biblical scholars to interact publicly with popular culture. Sometimes this borders on farce, if not tragedy, as in the recent widely-publicized court case in which the son of a prominent Dead Sea Scrolls scholar was convicted of attempting to discredit a scholar who opposed his father's theories by impersonating him online and having him confess to false misdeeds. The son's associated massive campaign of sock-puppeted online comments was exposed by a blogger and the case was widely watched and commented on in the blogosphere.

On a more constructive note, we can mention James McGrath's frequent posts on science fiction and its relation to theology and biblical studies on his blog Exploring Our Matrix or Robert Cargill's recent blog reflections of the National Geographic TV documentary that he hosted. Happily, in this case we had a reputable documentary hosted by an actual biblical scholar, but in many cases we are not so fortunate and specialist critiques by bibliobloggers becomes all the more important. As for James's science fiction commentaries, I myself am carefully avoiding all his posts on Lost, because I'm not yet finished watching the series. But the titles look fascinating.

Fourth, blogging has also generated some interesting discussions and controversies within the field and its professional organizations. An amusing example with a serious point behind it is the recent attempt of leaders in the Society of Biblical Literature hierarchy to censor the title of a paper being presented by a member at this year's conference. The paper writer posted the correspondence on his blog, which led to some pointed commentary within the biblioblogosphere, followed by the decision of the Society to withdraw the request to alter the paper's title. And April DeConick's post from last year on the deleterious effects of the proliferation of SBL sessions will, I suspect, remain all too relevant this year.

Fifth, a new development, and a sign of the times, is that blogging has helped scholars to mobilize in support of their colleagues in an era of job cuts and financially threatened departments. A recent story on this theme, one with a happy ending, involved the attempt to shut down the Biblical Studies Program at the University of Sheffield. (And, worth noting as an aside, this and related events inspired Helen Ingram to post an eloquent and much commented-on defense of the academic study of theology on her blog The Geek Muse.)

Sixth and finally, I think it is fair to say that biblioblogging has contributed at least a little to the accelerating erosion of the authority of the mainstream media. My earlier two papers collected many examples and you can find many more in posts on many biblioblogs since 2005.

To conclude, blogging has found a solid niche in academic biblical studies in the first decade of the twenty-first century. It has enriched the field in numerous ways and its expansion over the decade has been geometric, at least until recently. Moreover, the contributions of blogging have been amplified rather than diluted by the advent in recent years of additional new media such as Facebook, Twitter, and podcasts. All three are routinely used in synergy with blogs and I believe, although I cannot prove statistically, that dissemination of blog posts through these other media routinely increases blog traffic rather than reducing it. We are nowhere near a zero-sum game within the new media. And all indicators are that biblioblogging will be with biblical studies for a long time to come.

UPDATE (25 November): I have revised the language of the paper slightly in a few places to clarify a mathematical point raised in the session discussion.