One of the biggest differences between an academic and a business career is the importance of writing and publishing. In business, a CV (Curriculum Vitae) will generally emphasize a person’s career history and work experience, including key professional achievements and education. Business resumes are typically no longer than two pages. In academia, the CVs will tend to be much longer because they include a complete list of journal articles, conference papers, books and other publications. Publications are among the most important aspects of an academic career.
Given my 37 years at IBM, about thirty of them in management positions, I have a typical business resume, long in work experiences and short on publications. But, as my post-IBM distributed career is now about half in business, with IBM, Citigroup and others, and half in visiting academic positions at MIT, Imperial College and SUNY’s Levin Institute, I have been thinking a lot about what I should do concerning publications.
In fact, I have been writing a lot for close to four years, namely this blog, which I started in May of 2005. Ever since, writing a new blog entry week in, week out, has become a major part of my life. I have not missed one week yet. Thinking about the subject I want to write about, writing and revising the entry, editing it up until I actually post it, and then seeing what people say about it, both through comments in my blog as well as mentions in their own blogs, takes a considerable chunk of time each week, let alone quite a bit of mental energy.
I wasn't sure what to expect when colleagues encouraged me to start blogging as part of IBM’s blogging initiative launched in May of 2005. Much to my surprise, I have discovered how much I enjoy writing. I have long enjoyed talking about my work and ideas, giving presentations and conducting interviews. But, until I started this blog shortly after I turned sixty, I never felt the urge to write.
Yet, I keep wondering if writing this blog qualifies as writing, especially compared to the more established forms of writing like books and formal conference and journal papers.
As I was doing my typical research on the Web to help me think this through, I came across an excellent article by Andrew Sullivan, Why I Blog, in The Atlantic. Sullivan is a respected mainstream journalist as well as writing a blog, The Daily Dish, that has a large online readership.
Andrew Sullivan and I are clearly quite different people. He approaches blogging from a writer’s point of view, whereas I do so as a technologist, manager and now part-time academic. Yet, I found his observations particularly illuminating in helping me understand what it is I like so much blogging. This is how he summarizes blogging at the very beginning of the article:
“For centuries, writers have experimented with forms that evoke the imperfection of thought, the inconstancy of human affairs, and the chastening passage of time. But as blogging evolves as a literary form, it is generating a new and quintessentially postmodern idiom that’s enabling writers to express themselves in ways that have never been seen or understood before. Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy. Yet the interaction it enables between writer and reader is unprecedented, visceral, and sometimes brutal. And make no mistake: it heralds a golden era for journalism.”
The provisionality of blogging compared to other forms of writing is a recurring theme in the article.
“We bloggers have scant opportunity to collect our thoughts, to wait until events have settled and a clear pattern emerges. We blog now - as news reaches us, as facts emerge.” And later adds, “A reporter can wait - must wait - until every source has confirmed. A novelist can spend months or years before committing words to the world. For bloggers, the deadline is always now. Blogging is therefore to writing what extreme sports are to athletics: more free-form, more accident-prone, less formal, more alive. It is, in many ways, writing out loud.”
A book or journal article are definitive. They bring some finality to a subject based on the fact that the author has spent significant time conducting research and gathering information. They are relatively formal media where you report results and conclusions.
But a blog, I’ve found out, is always a work in progress, a way to explore what is on my mind, how I feel about a subject, and whether my feelings are well formed enough to be able to write them down as a coherent entry to publish and share with the world. I therefore find blogging an excellent medium to think aloud about new subjects I am working on, or subjects that catch my attention and I want to learn much more about.
Sullivan writes about the informal and intimate nature of blogging. A blogger, he says, “must create an atmosphere in which others want to participate. That atmosphere will inevitably be formed by the blogger’s personality.”
“The blogosphere may, in fact, be the least veiled of any forum in which a writer dares to express himself. Even the most careful and self-aware blogger will reveal more about himself than he wants to in a few unguarded sentences and publish them before he has the sense to hit Delete.”
He succinctly captures what makes blogging as a form stand out: "it is rich in personality.”
Toward the end of the article, Sullivan offers his views on how blogging and traditional writing complement each other.
“. . .blogging suffers from the same flaws as postmodernism: a failure to provide stable truth or a permanent perspective. A traditional writer is valued by readers precisely because they trust him to have thought long and hard about a subject, given it time to evolve in his head, and composed a piece of writing that is worth their time to read at length and to ponder. Bloggers don’t do this and cannot do this - and that limits them far more than it does traditional long-form writing.”
And adds, “The triumphalist notion that blogging should somehow replace traditional writing is as foolish as it is pernicious. In some ways, blogging’s gifts to our discourse make the skills of a good traditional writer much more valuable, not less. The torrent of blogospheric insights, ideas, and arguments places a greater premium on the person who can finally make sense of it all, turning it into something more solid, and lasting, and rewarding.”
Somehow, the provisional, work-in-progress, informal and personal style of blogging seems right for me at this point in my life. I like the eclectic nature of the medium, the freedom to be able to write about whatever is on my mind each week. I also like the exploratory nature of the medium, where it is OK to write about subjects I know a lot about, like cloud computing and virtual worlds, and subjects I am frankly an amateur in, like evolutionary biology and the global financial crisis.
Above all, blogging has gotten me into writing, something perhaps I would never have done otherwise. And, that is a precious enough gift to have received at this late stage in my life and career, regardless of what additional writing styles might be in store for me in the future.