" 'I certainly have not found a comparable way to get my ideas out. It allows me to have a voice I would not otherwise get,' Mr [Brad] Setser says. Blogs have enabled economists to turn their microphones into megaphones." -"The invisible hand on the keyboard", The Economist, 3 August 2006
So what is this thing called blogging and why is it important? While arguments may rage over the precise definition of blogging, a blog is in essence an online diary style website. Short articles are posted in chronological order, with the most recent one at the top of the page. Simple software enables writers to fill in a form, press a button and update their website, producing quick and easy publishing on the web without the need for technical skills. The Economist has become so taken by the concept, that it has a suite of blogs of its own.
What is the case for blogging among the economics community? One of the most famous blogging economists, Brad DeLong of the University of California at Berkeley, says that blogging gives him access to an "invisible college" of people who will react to his opinions, point him to more interesting things, help him to raise the level of debate on economic issues and bring it to a mass audience. He neatly sums up blogging as "turbo charging of the public sphere of information and debate", which he hopes will make him smarter and more productive.
Blogs do this by being interactive. This takes many forms including: providing links to other websites, papers or blogs; allowing readers to comment on articles; via acknowledgements to other bloggers for leads to interesting pieces of news; or by critiquing each others writing, producing a network of links, relationships and interactions across the web.
Blogs have been in existence since the late 1990s according to blog pioneer Rebecca Blood, but it took another few years for blogs to go mainstream, with the US Presidential election of 2004 seeing them start to be used as a major source of online news. The vast majority of blogs are written by girls in their teenage years or by males in their 20's, and they write about their daily lives and interests. Blogs behave in accordance with the "long tail" theory whereby a small number of blogs enjoy a large amount of influence, which has led to their increasing prominence in search engine results and readership.
How do you take the first steps into this brave new world of blogging? Hopefully, this guide will provide some useful pointers. It will start by taking you through the mechanics of blogging, choosing appropriate software and offer some advice on how to start writing, as well as highlighting, the potential pitfalls of sharing your thoughts with the world online. Finally we will focus on specific uses of blogs in economics and some case studies of how they are used in teaching, before looking at the future of blogs and blogging as a developing technology.
Once you have decided to start writing a blog, how do you go about it? You'll need access to some blogging software, so the key questions you need to ask yourself are:
There are three main options in terms of setting up a blog:
Hosted software is where a company has set up blogging software for you on the Internet, enabling you to sign up for an account, log in to the system, and start blogging straight away. There is a large range of hosted solutions out there, which vary greatly in terms of quality, features and whether you wish to pay for them.
The key advantage of a hosted solution is that you do not need any technical skills or intervention to start blogging. This means that you can get writing immediately and it is a good way to introduce yourself to how blogs work and the mechanics of posting articles and receiving comments.
You will be restricted in terms of the look and feel of the blog - usually in the form of templates provided by the company. You may also be restricted in terms of the functionality a particular blogging software package may provide - whether you can add multiple authors, assign categories to posts or set up more than one blog.
Three of the most popular hosted blogging solutions are:
Blogger is free and owned by Google - all you need to get started is a valid email address and to register at their website.
Professor Greg Mankiw of Harvard University, uses Blogger for his website.
A hosted version of the open source WordPress blogging software (see below), that is free to use, but some extra features like using your own design template or getting a personalised web address can be paid for.
The Everyday Economist uses WordPress.com
TypePad is the hosted version of the Movable Type blogging software (see below) that is produced by the company Six Apart. It has a range of pay monthly cost options, with the cheapest offering one blog produced by a single author, ranging to a package offering multiple authors and an unlimited number of blogs.
The Cafe Hayek blog uses the Typepad blogging platform.
This option will require that you have some blogging software, access to a web server on which to host it and the technical skills to manage the web server / blogging software or the time and skills of someone who does. The intricacies of web server maintenance and the various technical skills needed to run them are outside the scope of this article, but your best option is to consult within your institution as to what support is available from your department or information service.
The advantages of this option are that you have control over the look and feel of the blog, can add extra authors or blogs easily and can add extra features yourself. However, you may be limited by the license terms of the software you have downloaded, be dependent on the technical skills of someone else or be restrained by your institution as to the types of software you can install.
Two of the most popular blogging software packages are:
WordPress is an open source blogging platform. It is freely available and has a dedicated community of developers working on new features that can be easily integrated into the software, via plugins or widgets that add extra functionality. The design of the blog can be changed at the click of the mouse, as WordPress keeps design and content elements separate, and it does this by using themes that can be downloaded from the Internet.
The Freakonomics blog of Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner uses WordPress
Movable Type is a proprietary blogging platform developed by the company Six Apart. Originally freely available, Movable Type now has a range of low cost pricing options allowing you to download the software. While a free version is available for a single user in an educational setting, if you wish to create multiple blogs, allow multiple authors or provide the tool to your students, a license fee will be payable.
Your institution may already provide a blogging platform that you can have access to. If your institution has a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) such as Blackboard, WebCT or Moodle, these VLEs can come with a blogging module already built in. This has the advantage of being integrated with an existing system which you and your students may already be familiar with, but the functionality offered within these systems is usually less than you would receive when using a piece of dedicated blogging software.
Another possibility is that your institution offers a dedicated blogging platform. This is not widespread in the UK at present, but the example of the University of Warwick has shown what can be possible. It may be worth asking your library, computing or information service whether they have a recommended blogging product they support or whether they have plans to implement one in the future.
You can compare some of the options detailed above and a few more, using the Blog Software Comparison Chart provided by the Online Journalism Review.
Whichever software option you choose, most blogs will have a similar set of features. This part of the guide will tell you about the mechanics of blogging, i.e. how to blog, and some pointers on what you might like to write, i.e. what to blog.
Like many niche activities, blogging has its own terminology, which may seem off putting to those new to it. A typical blog will have some or all of the following characteristics:
Posts are the individual articles that make up the blog. They have a title and main body of text, which you produce simply by filling in a form in your blogging software and pressing a button to submit or publish the article on your blog.
Most blogging software allows readers to comment on posts. Readers can suggest corrections, clarify information or simply add their opinion on the post. Entries are normally time stamped and include the author's name and other details. Another useful feature is that they can also be threaded allowing readers to comment on comments.
A blogroll of links is another key aspect of blogs. It usually directs a reader to interesting links that relate to the theme of the blog; and link to fellow bloggers. This provides the reader with an opportunity to discover new and interesting sites. The blogroll usually appears down the side of the blog, on every page of the site and is managed using the blogging software.
Categories enable posts to be organised by subjects (or tags) and help readers to find information about a specific topic quickly and easily. Individual posts can be assigned into several categories, often just by ticking a box when writing them.
Archives are links to chronological collections of posts, enabling a reader to go back through time and see what has been posted on this blog in the past. They can be arranged by day, week or month, depending on how frequently the site is updated.
Blogging, like other forms of online communication (e.g. email) has its own set of social conventions. It's important to be aware of the following when writing or commenting on blogs:
Potentially anything you post can read by a global audience. And a post might be archived or cached and therefore impossible to remove. Think carefully about posting contentious or provocative material, it may spark a rise in readership, but it could make you unpopular online.
Perfect prose isn't necessary but you should aim for clear, simple language. Try to avoid non-standard abbreviations and too much jargon.
Avoid quoting large extracts from a source without the consent of the copyright holder. Credit original authors appropriately, include a link, sometimes called a HatTip, to other bloggers if you are discussing their views.
Don't always take online information at face value, particularly if it deals with contentious issues. Check facts against more than one authoritative source.
Mistakes are inevitable. You might discover them yourself or readers may highlight them. Correcting them adds credibility to your blog and makes it look more professional. If possible leave the original entry intact and make corrections by adding extra material. Try to avoid rewriting or deleting posts, since others may rely on them via links.
Some people may regard simply posting a link or simple statement without any relevant information as spam. Make sure your comments are meaningful and relevant. Make sure you delete any spam comments on your own blog.
Try and ensure that your readers can contact you if necessary. If you do post comments on other blogs, it's good practice to identify yourself and provide information about how you can be contacted (usually an email address). Unattributed comments might be considered as spam (see above). If you don't want a comment to be attributed to you then you should consider whether you really want to make it.
Blogging as a form of academic publishing does come with its own risks, which you should consider fully before committing to writing online.
People have lost their job as a consequence of what they have written on their blogs, even if they have taken care not to refer directly to their employers and have blogged under pseudonyms. While in academia there is some conjecture that researchers in the United States have been refused tenure as a consequence of their blogging activity. You should bear in mind that your current or any prospective future employer may find your blog online and take it into account when assessing your employability.
If your blog is set up within a Virtual Learning Environment or an institutional blog hosting service, it will be clear that you will be writing as a member of your university or college. This means that you will be subject to the relevant code of conduct or appropriate use of computing resources policy for your institution. While few institutions have a policy specifically to cover blogging, should you feel restricted by any limits these policies place upon your writing, you may wish to blog outside the confines of the IT systems provided for you by your institution.
A blog may be a useful forum for floating new ideas, theories or areas of research. However, you will not have the same degree of control you have with a peer reviewed journal and will not be entitled to the same degree of credit a formal publication bestows upon you. Similarly, it is not clear whether ideas expressed or published on a blog, are covered by the same rules and regulations as a book, article or other output produced while you are an employee of an institution or being funded by a research council grant.
Blogs come with their own set of social rules or blog etiquette. For example, Internet sources cited or quoted in your posts should be acknowledged with a reciprocal link to the websites in question. Retrospectively editing a blog entry is a tricky area, as this may make some of the comments users have posted to your initial article look out of place. Consider using strikeout formatting (
like this) to show edits or make additions to the bottom of a post to show how your views may have evolved.
The default setting for most blogs is to allow comments from readers. While this can lead to fruitful interactions, debate and links to useful further resources, like any open form of conversation, it can lead to inappropriate or offensive comments and it can be exploited by Internet marketers as a way of spamming your blog. You may wish to investigate the security options in your blogging software to make readers register before posting a comment to your blog, or hold comments in a queue for your approval before they are published.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has produced a Legal Guide For Bloggers, which looks at some of the key legal issues that affect blogs. However, it should be remembered that this has been written from an American perspective and therefore some of the advice would not necessarily apply elsewhere. Also, this is an area of law that is developing all the time, so what may be true today could be changed by a new piece of legislation in the near future.
Henry Farrell is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science and the Elliott School of International Affairs of George Washington University, and he is also one a group of scholars who contribute to the Crooked Timber blog. He has identified five uses of blogs within the classroom:
Stephen Downes, the Canadian learning technologist has expanded on these uses in an article for the EDUCAUSE Review.
But what is the potential for blogging in Economics teaching? Steve Greenlaw of the University of Mary Washington explores the broader role of technology in teaching via his blog Pedablogy: musings on art and craft of teaching.
A series of specific examples are presented below:
Have you ever struggled to learn HTML and craft your own course website? It can be a valuable aid, enabling you to post suggested readings, set tasks / exercises / assignments or just remind students when they are expected to turn up for lectures. Using a blog can let you concentrate on adding the information, rather than having to learn additional IT skills.
This is something that Tim Kochanski at the University of Alaska Southeast successfully trialled. He created a blog as part of a four-week class on introductory economics. He was keen to investigate a low cost alternative to using his institutional course management system (Blackboard). He found that the journal format of a blog, as well as other features provided a valuable resource to help guide his students through a semester of economics. A detailed case study is available in the Reflections on Teaching section of the Economics Network website.
You may already be familiar with the Internet and often come across websites that may be relevant to your teaching. Using a blog can enable you to bring these resources together, comment on them and organise them in a manner which may be helpful to your students. You may want to try and make the theoretical aspects of what you are teaching meaningful in a broader context, by relating them to items that are in the news or of topical interest.
The Tutor2u website is a good example of this. It offers a range of subject specific blogs. Geoff Riley (Head of Economics at Eton College) maintains the 'Economics in the News' Blog and provides a regular commentary on economics issues and trends. Although the primary target audience is secondary school students some of the resources could be useful in first year undergraduate courses on introductory economics.
You may have experimented in the past with discussion boards and found that they can produce useful dialogues. Opening up this process with a group blog can enable students to post items, comment on them, get to know each other and even answer their own questions. You may get contributions from students who find face-to-face discussion difficult, but who find online communication more suited to their learning style.
Professor David Tufte manages an 'Economics Classes Blog' at Southern Utah University:
His students regularly post items of interest and ask thought provoking questions. Professor Tufte then invites his students to offer their feedback/analysis on that particular economics issue, by placing comments on the blog, where he occasionally offers comments of his own to relate the items to ideas he has mentioned in class.
The rise of blogs has been meteoric over the past few years, but blogging is continuing to develop as a technology, as a way of communicating and as a way of interacting with others online. So what does the future hold for the world of blogs?
Bloggers are finding different ways of passing on their thoughts to the rest of the world, other than just using text. Keen writers can send entries using their mobile phones, produce blogs that are made up solely of photographs or use a blog as a distribution method for audio (podcasts) or video (vlogging).
Research institutes, like the Library of Economics and Liberty are taking advantage of this opportunity to promote their work via a different medium, at their EconTalk website.
The blogosphere is still growing, which makes it more and more difficult to keep track of good writing, new authors and interesting papers. Fortunately specialist search tools have emerged which allow you to focus just on blogs, so you can see what is being talked about as it happens.
Technorati is a search engine that has tracked over 130 million blogs worldwide and allows you to set up watchlists that search for new items on specified topics.
The main Internet search engines, also have services that monitor blogs such as Google Blog Search. Perhaps the easiest way of seeing what blogging economists are saying is to visit the Economics Roundtable, a site which aggregates over 120 of the leading economics commentators into one site. Palgrave EconBlog also collates posts from a range of Economics blogs.
These searching and alerting services rely on a technology called RSS or Really Simple Syndication, enabling users to subscribe for free to a blog or other information service, so that they are automatically updated when new material is published. Try a web based service like Bloglines or Google Reader, so that you can subscribe to your favourite blogs, get tables of contents from newly published journals and news stories from The Economist all in one place. It is spam and advert free, and it saves you time by delivering the information directly to you.
While some may be critical of blogging as a passing fad, it is here to stay, even if in the future blogs will be referred to in the same way as any other type of online source. Innovators such as Stephen Kinsella are already using blogs to support their courses with a full range of Web 2.0 add-ons such as videos, embeddable slideshows of lecture presentations and the latest links from social bookmarking websites. The fact that blogs offer quick and easy web publishing, with little or no need for technical skills, means that many people will continue to choose blogging as a key way of expressing themselves online.
"I'll publish, right or wrong" (Byron)
This article has outlined the possibilities that blogs offer in terms of teaching, personal and professional development and engaging with a global audience. The chance to take advantage of an "invisible college" of fellow scholars, informed readers and actively engaged students, means that blogs can provide a whole new dimension of interaction in helping people make sense of economic issues. Using blogs as part of the classroom experience can take the technical strain out of producing a website and allow you to concentrate on writing, discussing and teaching online.
We hope that this short guide has made you aware of the mechanics of blogging and some of the potential pitfalls, given you some ideas as to how you could use them for economics teaching and opened your eyes to some of the future possibilities that blogging as a technology can offer. If you successfully build blogging into your normal work routine, you may soon find that blogging starts to take over your life and that it is increasingly difficult to live without your virtual notebook.
The freedom that blogs bring to the voiceless in politically repressive regimes is a good example of how blogs enable anyone to publish anything online. The chance to hear from alternative viewpoints, to publish ideas that may not get an airing elsewhere, to sidestep the mainstream media and to experience quality writing freely and openly, means blogs can help produce a genuine free market in ideas.