The Connotations of Digital vs. Traditional Forms of Publishing

I’ve been a bit behind on my blog because I’ve been packing up my house, but last class we considered the authority of digital vs. printed texts. We were looking at possible publishers for our texts, like Lulu and Pressbooks, and compared how our blog posts looked like on WordPress vs. how they looked like imported into a Pressbooks document that had a table of contents and page numbers. When we saw our posts in a format that looked more like a book, we started to feel as if what we were producing in these blog posts was something that had actual academic weight.

This made me start thinking about the nature of blogs and the connotations that come along with them. I always flash back to those times when I have given writing tutorials for first or second year undergraduate students and I have been talking about what are appropriate sources to cite in an academic essay. When the question of whether or not blogs are good academic sources comes up, and it usually does, I always used to hesitate recommending that students use them as research tools unless they knew that the blog was written by an academic who has otherwise been published in reputable journals in their field. There is a certain connotation that comes along with blogs where they are seen to be non-academic and shouldn’t be taken seriously. They are ‘unpublished’, ‘unedited’, and ‘unofficial’ writing–aka writing that hasn’t been vetted by peer-review and/or published in a more traditional form, like a scholarly journal.

I don’t know what is about the printed page that automatically seems to suggest ‘authority’ for almost everyone. I’ll be honest I used to be a staunch anti-digital/e-book bibliophile for the longest time, and I found myself falling into these debates about the ‘unofficialness’ of digitally published material. Now, I just laugh at myself a little bit, I mean look at me now: I am a big supporter of digitally born projects and material. Regardless, the printed page still carries a certain gravitas with it that hasn’t been translated to the digital world just yet. This is most likely due to the large history that books and the printed page have accrued since the development of the printing press in the sixteenth century, and in comparison, digital publishing is still very much in its infancy. Yet, the digital world is rapidly expanding the conversation and challenging the assumptions we have surrounding what it  means to be “published” and how we go about publishing our works.

This connotation that blogs and other digitally published materials carry with them is slowly disappearing in today’s academic world. In a blog post that scholar Charlotte Frost wrote for PhD2Published, she notes that

If blogging isn’t being recognized as a reputable form then it should at least be recognized for the role it plays in the wide dissemination of information as well as in allowing academics to network more broadly… There are many more points I could make but what I want to clarify is that blogging and online discussion are absolutely present in academia and I’m a little shocked at having to defend this approach in this day and age. I want to assert that online communication platforms do have their own form and style and just because we lack some solid ways of understanding and critiquing their form at present doesn’t make them somehow less important than other types of literature.
Frost’s last point is one that I sincerely agree with–we haven’t truly come up with solid ways to critique digital publishing just yet. We have been able to critique traditional models of publishing, like the peer-reviewed systems of scholarly journals. Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book, Planned Obsolescence: Publishing, Technology and the Future of the Academy definitely points to issues with the current academic and peer-review systems (for more on this, see Lina’s excellent post here). Yet it still remains an interesting point that we still privilege the printed word over its digital counterpart. For example, when we ran the HIST5702x blog posts through Pressbooks we discovered that what we have published amounts to over 200ish printed pages–which is kind of awesome when you think about it that way, it really doesn’t seem like it’s that much when you look at our class blog one post at a time, but what we have accomplished so far is quite impressive. Again, we get this sense that the printed word has more weight (both literal and metaphorical) and I wonder why this is, and whether it would be possible to transfer this connotation to the digital realm in the future.
Another question that will have to be answered at a later point, I guess. I would love to hear what others think on this issue (leave a comment below if you’d like!)

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