Sunday, 22 December 2013

Blogging – The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. . .

This is my second post for Doug Rocks-Macqueen’s "Blogging Archaeology carnival" see here, and summary of first results  (other posts can be found at #blogarch). For December 2013, Doug has asked participants to write on: "the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of archaeology blogging", a topic that in part overlaps with last month's topic (see my earlier post on that topic). This is going to be a long one...

The Good

I think I covered a lot of what I'd say is "good" about blogging in my first post in this series, so there is no need to repeat it. Perhaps I could just add two other points.

The first is that it is clear to me that the area of archaeology which I discuss in my PACHI blog falls between two stools. On the one hand, to me it is a fundamental issue (related to the continued availability and accessibility of the archaeological source material as well as the public's vision of archaeology). At the same time, detailed discussion of the complex issues concerned seems to be regarded as a highly esoteric niche of the discipline. Indeed from reactions of colleagues it seems many archaeologists feel that this is not really archaeology, or even a concern of archaeologists. I therefore count it as one of the 'good' things that anyone reads my PACHI blog at all, and that the readership seems from present evidence to be very varied, and some of them quite persistent.

The second point is that several bloggers taking part in this Carnival have mentioned problems with "finding material". That is not a problem that affects the particular areas I write about, there is always something going on in and around the antiquities market, there is no shortage of disturbing things written by artefact hunters, dealers and collectors on their forums which must provoke comment. But this is not necessarily really a "good" thing, sometimes there is far too much to write about and attempt a balanced coverage. 

The Bad

When it comes to expressing the bad side of blogging, there are the same two answers from many archaeobloggers I am sure. The first is undeniably the time it takes. This blog is a spare time activity and, like them all, is incredibly time consuming. Much of the time goes on things that are not always obvious. Dashing off a draft text in a moment of inspiration (disappointment or anger) is no problem,  rewriting and editing it often is. Often too, what looks like a simple matter when I first spot something which I want to make just one small point (apparently easy to deal with in a three-minute summary blog post), when I start formulating the text and thinking more deeply about what I am writing, reveals itself to have some implications I'd not fully realised earlier. Then the text gets too long and it has to be shortened by deleting whole chunks which I'd spent ages laboriously formulating. (Even then, many texts in the end turn out to be too long anyway!) Finding the pictures that serve only for decoration also takes more time that I really can afford, but without them the page is grey and uninviting. Then there are the 'problem texts'. Something comes up, it should be mentioned, but need a lot of thought and maybe careful and considered phrasing to get it "right". I put off posting the drafts, sometimes for days until I am forced to deal with it (which takes up more time). Sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day. But that does not concern blogging alone of course.

Which brings me to the other point mentioned by other bloggers, the feeling that many of us are "shouting into the void". As mentioned above, people are reading this. As long as I keep up a flow of new posts (see above), there are a reasonably satisfying number of 'hits' a day/week sometimes from rather exotic regions of the world (bearing in mind that this is a rather esoteric corner of the subject and sometimes laborious reading). The tracking software shows, however, that by no means are all of these people spending any time here. They glance at, read or skim, one post and scarper off to find a text about Miley Cyrus or whatever they were looking for. I sometimes spend several hours (literally if you count the thinking-it-over-carefully-in-the-car stage preceding putting finger-tip to keyboard) on a story, come up with something which seems to me a satisfying and new fresh angle on a hackeyed issue, and... nothing. I may spot that some metal detectorist wrote on a distant blog something insulting about "the crazy bloke in Warsaw's at it again..." and that's often the end of it. The text vanishes into limbo, to be accidentally come across eight months later perhaps in a Google search by somebody in Wisconsin who was actually looking for Miley Cyrus' bottom. Or I myself find an old text on a heritagey Google search, and I wonder, "hey, did I write that?"

This in itself is a good-bad thing.  On the one hand it's sort of gratifying that all my blog-spent time is reflected in the fact that a Google search on almost any archaeological heritage issue produces (at least at this end it does) a 'hit' or two to a post about it on my blog, often in the first ten or twenty items listed. Thus to some small extent, it is getting the message out. On the other hand, that has two drawbacks. Firstly, it highlights the fact that despite the number of archaeologists and heritage professionals out there taking a salary to engage with the public, there are precious few of them writing anything remotely comparable or engaging with what others wrote on a subject. The second problem is that (assuming people actually read what's there) its a huge responsibility. My view is my view. If the casual reader finds something by me  versus in effect only what a couple of guys from the antiquities trade write, then they only get the choice between chalk and cheese, with nothing in the middle to make them think about the issue more deeply. Unless (faced with two incompatible versions of the same topic) they just shrug their shoulders and move on to find a post about Miley Cyrus, they either accept what one or the other says, automatically rejecting the other. That's not what the heritage debate should look like.  

But then, it's difficult enough to follow the undeniable complexity of issues even from this one venue. Part of the problem with this blog in this medium is that there is a substantial body (resource) of laboriously-compiled information here; much of it would be really useful to somebody wanting to find out about the topic, but it's difficult to find it and link it together (even for me, who in theory should know what is here). There is no way to link all the related bits together, they are scattered through the various unrelated posts over the months and years as a subject develops. This morning, I spent ages trying to find an old post which I know is here about the Koh Ker statues forming a group of "twelve" (I wanted to add an update that they were nine) and try as I might with all sorts of search terms, cannot find it. If the author cannot find things, then what chance has anyone else?

There is too much dross here, a lot of long posts on little things. A museum director/ lawyer/ metal detectorist/ coin collector said this or that, which raises the point that... and then a long post discussing why I think that is the wrong approach. I defend doing that, it would be pointless to simply generalise and say "coiney lobbyists/ metal detectorists/ coin collectors / archaeologists/ museums" do or believe something. I give concrete examples which anyone can see for themselves is not made up (I give a link where they can see what I discussed in context). The problem is that these often involve what real people say/do and look more like personal attacks than "case studies" in an attempt to discuss a broader issue. Sadly, that is the way the individuals mentioned take it and react, which then bogs the blogging down in side issues. It is difficult to avoid this if you are talking about real things in a real world of real interactions rather than fobbing off the reader with abstract concepts.

By the time I began this blog, I was not so naive or inexperienced as to expect any proper discussion with any of the milieus mentioned here. Thus, like several other bloggers, I have put a lot of effort into looking very carefully at the reconstructed collecting histories of objects like the Ka Nefer Nefer mask and that "Leutwitz" (Cleveland) Apollo (I've not finished with that), or the Crosby Garrett helmet (not finished with that either). The result is.... total silence from the concerned milieus, even though the tracking software shows they read those texts very carefully. Those concerned, instead of clarifying their position (engaging with their public), clearly feel that if they keep quiet, nobody will notice what the blogosphere says and the issues will somehow go away.

This just repeats itself, every day, every week, month after month. The lobbyists for the antiquities trade come out with their glib arguments and crap. One can argue perfectly cogently and logically right out in the open that there is at least another side to the issue, or that they are simply plain wrong. As a result, they go silent, then three weeks later trot out the self-same self-serving mantra as is it was something new and fresh and there had never been any discussion, or if there had been, they'd not read, understood nor taken anything permanent away from it. Its the same with the metal detectorists, its the same with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (who read this blog too, but keep very, very quiet about it). While frustrating, this intellectual fickleness and superficiality are not unexpected. These people have no answers because in the situation we are currently in, there can be no satisfactory answers to serious questions about these issues, and - despite pious declarations - changing anything is the last thing anyone involved actually wants.  How long can we sustain this? We will see. 

Thus it is, as the metal detectorists said yesterday, those involved in this collecting and commercial activity currently (still) feel the best way to deal with their critics is to simply ignore them and dismiss what is said by anyone who articulates an opinion which goes against the grain as the "ranting" of some kind of an uninformed mental retard. Apart from those that resort to personal attacks and threats, this is the only approach they are capable of adopting. In my case this has been going on now since I started raising questions publicly 14 years ago (next month), it is difficult not to adopt a jaundiced view of the whole milieu and the possibilities of reasoning with them as a result.

This is associated with one of the risks attached to this kind of blogging. Somebody said after my talk in Ipswich earlier on this year, that in my presentation, I had not come across the way she'd been "led to expect". That she obviously meant that as a compliment indicates the way reactions of opposed interest groups to this kind of outreach can have an effect reflect on a person's reputation. Her remark was a reminder that anti-intellectual dumb-down superficiality rules these days, and not everybody is going to base their judgement of someone they've heard of (at second hand) on more than a superficial glance at what they actually write and why. Personally, I think this reflects more badly on them than me, but nevertheless it is an additional frustration.

This lack of feedback is something other bloggers mention, so it is not restricted to this area of the discipline. In my case, I feel the deliberate stifling of debate (or rather the denial of the existence of any issues to be addressed) which I perceive in the field which especially concerns this blog makes a nonsense of the notion that there is a heritage debate going on. Instead of a heritage discussion, even though blogging and related media have the potential to open the discussion wide, we are still faced with a frustrating 'dialogue of the deaf'.

The Ugly

That of course brings us to the third element of the triad. Heritage Action are fairly sanguine about the relationship between debating heritage and the inevitability of attracting the attention of the nastier metal detecting trouble-makers and time wasters. This discrepancy between the official propaganda about the "responsible attitudes" (to conservation) of this milieu and the sad reality had already become apparent, to the despair of the moderators, many years earlier in attempts to discuss the issues rationally on venues such as the CBA's Britarch, and the PAS' own forum.

Metal detecting artefact hunters identify very strongly with their hobby and in general the vast majority of them tend to react inappropriately to any attempt to debate the issues surrounding it. The same goes for antiquity collectors (especially dugup ancient coins) and their dealers who, while attempting to play the "gentleman scholar-collector" card, nevertheless feel intensely vulnerable due to the somewhat dubious sources of much of the the material in the trade which is obvious to all, despite the pretence they put up. Of course anything which undermines that pretence is highly unwelcome. In both cases, then, the nastiness of the reactions results from a series of underlying insecurities and an desire to shout down critics and frighten off others from entering the discussion or paying any attention to it. I have discussed elsewhere the related phenomenon of personal abuse, harassment and threats, and the attack on a member of my family in 2011, behaviour which is apparently silently tolerated by the rest of the collecting community. These relate however to a small core of complete head cases in the British metal detecting community, now well-known to the police. 

Other 'heritage issues' archaeobloggers discussing the antiquities market have recently been the target of some pretty worrying legal threats. I am thankful to note that to date this is not a problem I have yet had to face. The wording of some posts about certain subjects is often studiously slippery. Several times I see from the tracking software that some legal firm is looking very carefully at a group of related posts and I can guess who has asked them to, and think "uh-oh". Once I chickened out and deleted a post double-quick which I do not regret as it had indeed been badly-phrased.

Going on previous experience, nobody had seriously expected heritage professionals of the British Isles to offer much in the way of any support to critics of the antiquities trade and collectors or consider why they should. In the past few years, it seems however that there are those that willingly join in the happy-slapping of the collecting milieus they "partner", though always surreptitiously behind our backs, never having the conviction or courage to debate these issues to our faces. Maybe they think that is more "professional" that way. To the evident delight of the collecting milieus, the British Museum's Portable Antiquities Scheme even went as far as labelling as "trolls" critics of current policies on the artefact trade and artefact hunting. This, together with Minister Vaisey's recent unthinking "Heritage Heroes" outburst, well epitomise the current parlous state of the public debate on the heritage in the British Isles.

This leads to a question: why, when there is the opportunity to use social media to open the debate on certain heritage issues and bring in more people into it, as well as to use them to increase awareness and inform, is this promise apparently being only partially fulfilled?  Is it to be ascribed only to the fact that institutional opportunities for such activity are limited and not enough people are concerned enough to devote their own time to such activities? Is the problem that the audience is simply not willing to become engaged and has no real interest in penetrating deeply into any topic where there are no ready answers? This 'carnival' maybe will give some insight into these problems as they are seen by other writers in various areas of the archaeo-blogosphere. 

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