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:: By Daniel W. Drezner


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Features ::

Confessions of a Scholar-Blogger

The writer, editor, and publisher of reveals how he balances his day job as an assistant professor of political science with his passion for electronic commentary.

Since becoming an assistant professor, I have authored one book, edited another, and published a respectable quantity of scholarly articles. And yet I can say with a fair degree of certainty that if you added up the number of people who have read any and all of these works, it would probably be less than the number of hits I receive daily on my Web log—an online journal I’ve kept for the last two-and-a-half years. That fact simultaneously exhilarates and appalls me.

photo:  Daniel Drezner

Daniel Drezner

Why did I start a blog? Well, I was reading blogs long before I began writing one. Five years ago—the Paleolithic era of blogging—some of my favorite essayists and journalists had started what were then called “me-zines”—writing on topics that ranged from cutting-edge technology to the future of party politics to the joys of dog ownership. The first blogs were created so writers could shop their wares to readers and future employers, with the occasional log entry to encourage recurring visits.

And then a funny thing happened—netizens liked the blog part of these sites. They certainly interested me. The writing style seemed more idiosyncratic, more conversational, less… edited. There was a candor to the prose that piqued my interest in blogs. The fact that many of these writers were plugged into machinations inside the Beltway also gave their blogs a gossipy, insider feel.

Something else started to happen. Bloggers began having conversations with each other. They would post their thoughts on some issue of the day, and a few hours later hyperlink and respond to rebuttals and disagreements with their original post. A group of individual blogs came to be known as the “blogosphere.”

After the September 11, 2001, attacks it was only natural that the politically oriented blogs started talking more and more about foreign policy. While I read much of interest, it struck me that none of the prominent bloggers had any advanced training in international relations. There was a niche to fill. At the same time, blogging software became more standardized, making it possible for someone as technologically illiterate as myself to get involved. A year and a day after 9/11 I started my eponymous blog, posting once or twice each day about politics, economics, international relations, and the Boston Red Sox.

By now I probably devote an hour or two per day researching and writing posts—but that’s an average with a high degree of variance. There are weeks where I simply do not have time to devote to the blog. There are other times when I find myself spending half the day trying to get an entry just right.

My areas of scholarly expertise are the utility of economic statecraft, the political economy of globalization, and U.S. foreign policy, so I certainly blog on those topics. However, I’m also a policy wonk, a news junkie, and a popular-culture devotee. The blog is an outlet for me to post quick thoughts about events from Iraq to offshore outsourcing to Pamela Anderson’s novel-writing abilities. The posts represent a very rough draft of what I’m thinking about—and let me stress “very rough.”

The best, most addictive part of blogging is seeing whether my posts provoke interesting and cogent responses. As National Journal columnist Jonathan Rauch wrote in Kindly Inquisitors, “We can all have three new ideas every day before breakfast: the trouble is, they will almost always be bad ideas. The hard part is figuring out who has a good idea.” Rauch believes that the liberal scientific enterprise is the way to separate good ideas from bad. For the topics that interest me—whether foreign or economic policy or pop culture—the blogosphere is now a useful part of that enterprise.

There are many bloggers I admire both in and out of the academy, and they’re all on my “blogroll.” But three bloggers in particular possess skills that I envy. Former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan has an exceptionally rare talent—he writes well when he’s impassioned. It’s exceedingly difficult to translate emotion into polished prose without seeming either petty or undisciplined. If you can do it, I tip my hat in deferential respect, and I tip my hat to Andrew. At the opposite end of the spectrum of prose styles, Virginia Postrel, author of The Future and Its Enemies and The Substance of Style, has an astringency to her blogging that I greatly admire. Her opinions are always her own—she never blows with the political winds. Finally, Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, makes all other scholar-bloggers look like slackers. In addition to his considerable publication schedule in legal journals, Eugene inevitably finds time to post 2,000-word blogs about interesting law cases.

When I started blogging, I feared that it would prove a distraction from my scholarly research. What I did not anticipate was that it would actually trigger new research avenues. My interest in offshore outsourcing, for example, started when I posted a few items about it and received impassioned responses. By the time I decided to write an article on the topic for Foreign Affairs, I realized that I had unwittingly completed a fair amount of my research via my blog posts.

Done properly, blogging can be a form of initial research in both the empirical and theoretical realms. Empirically, blogging is similar to clipping news articles or gathering information about a case study. Theoretically, blogging permits one to play with ideas—and even better, to get instant (and candid) feedback from readers. The feedback effect on blogs is much quicker than more traditional presentations of new ideas in academia. Because of these comparative advantages, blogging is seeping into scholarship. Already, footnotes referencing individual blog posts are appearing in both legal opinions and public-policy briefs.

The other area of investigation that blogging triggered was research about blogging itself. For something that started out as a hobby for most of its practitioners, blogging suddenly looks like a major political phenomenon. Commentators generally assign the blogosphere an important role in Trent Lott’s resignation as Senate majority leader, Howell Raines’s resignation as executive editor of the New York Times, Howard Dean’s rise and fall as a presidential candidate, and CBS’s retraction of its story on President Bush’s National Guard service. In July 2004 White House Internet Director Jimmy Orr stated: “Bloggers are very instrumental. They are important. They can lead the news. And they’ve been underestimated.”

How can a collection of decentralized, nonprofit, contrarian, and discordant Web sites exercise any influence over political and policy outputs? George Washington University professor Henry Farrell and I proffer an answer to this question in a paper we presented last year at the American Political Science Association annual meeting, entitled “The Power and Politics of Blogs.” In our paper we focused on two significant aspects of the blogosphere: the skewed distribution of readers across the array of political blogs and the interactions between significant blogs and traditional media outlets, or “mediasphere.” A few blogs command most of the hits, but they also link to less-recognized bloggers. Those who want to keep up on what’s going on in the blogosphere need only read a few elite bloggers to get such a snapshot. When key blogs focus on a new or neglected issue, they can create interpretive frames that act as a focal point for mainstream media, shaping and constraining the larger political debate.

My biggest surprise about blogging came as we researched the links between the mediasphere and the blogosphere: unexpectedly influential people read blogs.

Why would political experts read the musings of (mostly) political amateurs? There is no single answer. For some, it’s because blogs represent a new way to gauge public reaction to news. For others, it’s because the blogosphere is remarkably efficient at pointing readers to expert opinions. For many, I’m sure, there’s a simpler explanation: people who work in politics and the media are information junkies, and blogs feed their habit.

People often ask me whether blogs will be this decade’s equivalent of CB radio or if they’re here to stay. My strong hunch is the latter—in part because popular blogs are starting to earn significant advertising revenues. Blogs like Instapundit or Daily Kos are now valued brand names. That said, I can assert from first-person experience that there is such a thing as burnout. This past fall, with a tightly contested election and a polarized electorate, was a particularly difficult time to blog without being accused of partisanship by one side or another.

Will I still be blogging in five years? I honestly don’t know, but my suspicion is that if I do, there will be plenty of sabbaticals thrown in. One undeniable effect of having a successful blog is the inculcation of a sense of duty to keep up regular posts. Even the thought of blogging on a regular basis for half a decade exhausts me. However, the thought of not blogging about the interesting ideas or information that comes my way bothers me even more.

Daniel W. Drezner, an assistant professor of political science, joined the Chicago faculty in 1999. With an MA in economics and a PhD in political science from Stanford, he is the author of Locating the Proper Authorities: The Interaction of Domestic and International Institutions (University of Michigan Press, 2002) and The Sanctions Paradox: Economic Statecraft and International Relations (Cambridge University Press, 1999).