Celebrity, blogging and the role of the academic

A couple of articles recently have provoked some thought on academics, blogging and the relationship of these to journalism.

The first was an article in the Times Higher, “I’m a celebrity academic … in the blogosphere“, which suggested UK academics should attempt to become ‘celebrity academics’ via blogs:

“There has always been a culture of the celebrity academic in North
America,” …A
particular academic can make a big difference. They are encouraged to
get their name out there, and in many cases shamelessly self-promote.
The blog provides an excellent vehicle to do that.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the celebrity argument, but I think it misunderstands the aim, or benefits of blogging. It assumes that becoming a celebrity is the only goal for an academic blogger. This seems to me to exhibit a lack of imagination and makes a straightforward analogy of print journalism to blogging. Sure, there are some good academic bloggers who perform the role of interpreting events for the general public, but there are many more who write about their subject in detail, where the intended audience is that of their peers or community. If have a very specialised area of expertise, medieval dance (say), then it’s not about becoming a celebrity by blogging about this, but rather having influence and being recognised within your (probably quite small) community.

The article continues to make the same blogging = journalism confusion, when John Kay says:

“I don’t think academics want or need the pressure to say things
every day, and I don’t think people like me should pass instant comment
on everything that happens in the world,” he said.

think academics do have a responsibility to write for the public and to
avoid charlatans filling the gap, but the way one does that is to avoid
becoming a charlatan oneself,” he said. “If I’m expressing opinions on
everything every day, including things about which I may have opinions
but very little knowledge, I’m in danger of becoming like them.”

Bloggers don’t feel the need to say things every day and comment on everything. That is the point of blogging, it is as flexible as you want both in terms of frequency and content. For instance, I didn’t blog for a month and then did three in one day recently. And Tony might comment on things like MPs expenses from a data-visualisation perspective, but most of the time he is sharing experiments, ideas, half-thoughts, etc. This certainly isn’t pressure to ‘pass instant comment on everything that happens in the world.’

The second article that raised questions about academics and blogging was an excellent blog post by fellow Cardiffian Anne-Marie Cunningham. She had seen the BBC article that ‘tech addiction harms learning‘ which was based on research from Cranfield University, and had decided to dig deeper. This involved actually having to purchase the report for 24.99

She gives a good analysis of the poor research (not wanting to give them an extra 24.99 I must confess I haven’t read the research – make it open and I will), and in particular the lack of any evidence to back up the main headline. Here are some quotes from her post to give a flavour, but it’s worth reading the whole thing:

“With regards to ‘tech addiction’
this seems to have been a self-assessment based on response to the
question: How addicted are you to the internet or your mobile phone?
The proportions given in the BBC report are those who stated they were
‘quite’ or ‘very’ addicted. Of course, we don’t know what the students
meant by ‘addicted’.”

with regards to plagiarism the
authors state that “A high proportion of students (84.3%) openly
admitted that they inserted information from the Internet into their
homework or projects on a number of occasions.” The tone of this
sentence reflects some of the bias which is found throughout the work.
The authors don’t seem to be aware that if referenced it is acceptable
to insert information from the internet into work, so the students
would have no reason to be ashamed and fear ‘openly admitting’ this.”

With regards to this addiction
harming learning, there is no analysis relating the perception of being
addicted to outcomes in learning. In fact very few of the questions are
related in any way to learning.”

This raised several issues to me: Firstly, it demonstrates once again, that not only does the blogosphere compare favourably with traditional journalism, in fact it is superior in terms of the quality of debate and analysis that takes place. Traditional media don’t allow for sufficient analysis or depth of conversation – it is nearly always superficial to reach the widest audience, whereas blogs (and other new media), don’t care about audience figures particularly, and are thus liberated from this concern.

Secondly, I have a concern that the researchers deliberately produced a report aimed at titillating the media to get the type of headlines they thought the media would like. This is surely antithetical to the purpose of being an academic. If higher education is to retain any currency in the information society then it is by providing an alternative to the increasing shallowness of broadcast media and offer intelligent, unbiased analysis.

Thirdly, having the article only available for purchase increases one’s suspicion that the research has been deliberately geared towards creating headlines and therefore, sales. This once again reinforces the point about openness being a key principle for higher education. For a start it would have allowed a proper discussion around this research and maybe exposed some of its flaws. Wiley makes the point in the slideshow below that openness is the means by which higher ed retains its relevance in a digital society.

In conclusion then I’d say we need to move away from the idea that celebrity is some kind of desirable goal. As Baroness Greenfield and many others amply demonstrate, the mix of academic, celebrity and traditional media nearly always produces an unholy mess. Blogging (and other similar types of activities) are not a means to realising this, but a thankful alternative.


  1. I am working on a new module for our postgraduate certificate in Academic Practice about the development of academic careers – it seems to me that media involvement/celebrity is one potential stream to be considered – all streams have ethical issues, moral risks and other dangers – as some doors open others shut.

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