Crowdsourcing the early modern blogosphere

by Nick

It has been far too long since I posted anything here: the last few months have been exceptionally busy, and once you get out of the rhythm of blogging it’s hard to get back into it. But I thought I should break my silence to link to Newton Key’s draft article on the early modern blogosphere, which you can find an open source peer review version of here.

Newton has been blogging himself over at Early Modern England since 2007, so is well-placed to offer a critical analysis of how early modern blogging has developed over the last decade or so. His argument, which I have a lot of sympathy with, is that blogs about early modern history have lots in common with the ways in which people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries conceived of, produced, shared and engaged with knowledge and information. Whether it’s sharing the ideas of others with commentary, back and forth debate, creative reimagining of texts as they are shared, reused and reworked, or heated debates and flame wars, all of these have their equivalents in early modern print and manuscript cultures.

How much of this is a product of the interests of early modern bloggers? As Newton notes, a lot of the early modern blogosphere is focused on English history; a lot of bloggers are from the UK and the US; and a lot are interested in book history (widely defined). It’s not surprising that at least some of us have gone into blogging with an eye to text, genre and medium-related parallels. I certainly started blogging with at least some sense of the similarities it had with authorship and publication in the early modern period. My choice of title for this blog was very deliberate, although in retrospect part of me wishes I’d picked Perfect Diurnall (if only because I think a lot of people got me and another blogger I’d rather not be mistaken for confused for a time). And there was a point after I finished my Masters where I wondered more explicitly about some of the parallels.

Part of me, though, wonders whether the parallels that Newton identifies are more a product of certain characteristics inherent in both early modern and twenty-first century genres and media. We are used to thinking of blogging as a social medium (social media being one of those phrases that is so widely used that one can forget what it actually means). We’re probably less used, at least until recently, to thinking about pamphlets and letters as social media too: but early modern cultures of animadversion, annotation and text-sharing owe a fair amount to some of the inherent material and textual qualities of these media. Some of the parallels may be simply be a by-product of similarities between blogs and early modern media.

I was particularly interested by Newton’s attempt to bring network analysis to the early modern blogosphere, which is (I think) the first time anyone has tried to do this. I’m not entirely convinced by the metric he uses – blogrolls, which at least some of us have gradually ceased to maintain in recent years – but it is noteworthy that certain key hubs do emerge within the network he maps. Sharon Howard’s blog is one obvious one, and indeed it’s thanks to Sharon that there was an early modern blogosphere at all, at least during the late 2000s (I was certainly inspired by her blog and I suspect others who started blogging around the same time as me were, too). One that doesn’t appear on Newton’s map, but I think deserves to be there, is Gavin Robinson’s site, which certainly between around 2007 to 2009 was the focus for a lot of really innovative experimentation with blogging as a form, and of lots of discussion in the comments. Going further back, Blogging the Renaissance was the focus early on of a small but lively community of posters and commenters.

One further parallel that strikes me, which Newton does not raise in his article, is that the difficulties facing a scholar trying to analyse early modern blogs are not unlike those facing their counterpart trying to analyse early modern texts. Much of the writing, production and sale of early modern texts must have happened in ways that have not survived in the sources, in particular through spoken conversations. Many texts simply haven’t been preserved for us to read. And the anonymity of some writers, many printers and booksellers, and nearly all of those otherwise involved in the production and reception of texts, brings a similar challenge. These are problems that anyone writing the history of blogs also has to grapple with. It’s too easy to think of digital sources as somehow more permanent than material ones, but of course that’s not true: bloggers stop blogging, sites get closed down or pulled, and they aren’t always preserved at the Internet Archive or elsewhere. Anyone trying to reconstruct the controversy sparked by several posts and comments by Mercurius Rusticus, for example, now only has one side of the debate to analyse. None of Rusticus‘s own posts are now online, although some of the comments he (and I’m presuming it was a he) left on other blogs survive.

And of course the lack of sources goes a lot deeper than that. Early modern bloggers are, I think, largely a virtual or imagined community, rather than a physical one (in the sense that I’ve met few other bloggers in real life – I think I can count four I’ve met, and two of them I knew as friends before they started blogging anyway). But like any community, its members communicate with each other in lots of different ways. There are e-mails, Twitter DMs, Facebook messages and so on sitting in inboxes and archive folders at the moment which would probably produce a rather different picture of the network between early modern blogs – not to mention conversations at conferences and in the pub. Already, despite the infancy of the early modern blogosphere, a lot is probably lost to those wanting to study it.

But that’s not to say, as with any historical topic, we can’t try to recover what’s lost. Newton’s article is a good start, and it’s only appropriate – given his argument – that he’s put a draft version up for peer review via WordPress. So go and have a read, and annotate it in the style of a sixteenth-century scholar; or do what a seventeenth-century pamphleteer would have done, and leave an answer, rejoinder or animadversion here.