Getting the Antenna to Work

About three years ago, the Media and Cultural Studies program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison started Antenna, a massive group blog responding to current developments in media.

A motivation for creating it was that lots of people want to blog but can't maintain their own blog, and hence "the answer" seemed to be to provide a forum that involved enough people to allow them all the freedom to write when they want, but not to write when busy. Furthermore, we wanted Antenna to be open to instantaneous blogging, and thus we didn't want to plan too much, and hoped it would simply keep itself moving, with minimal prodding on our part.

Since then, we've had a lot of success. We've published over 700 posts to date, with almost 200 different writers, and over a million pageviews. Posts average about 150-200 readers each, though some peaked at several thousand. Our readers are mostly academics, but non-academics "tune in," read, and comment at times too.

The challenge has been making this work, as we've had to engineer far more than we'd hoped. Most of this work is invisible and un(der)valued, which leads easily to loss of enthusiasm and participation over time. Even the more visible labor (ie: the blog posts) is un(der)valued, meaning we've had to accept that we're usually #126 on any given writer's priority list, perpetually leaving us at risk of dropping off that list altogether.

So the question we're left with, and that I pose here, is how to make the labor "count," and how to keep and hold interest?


First, I must confess that I have already spent too much of my morning on Antenna.  

I cannot help but to sympathize with your dilemna. Working on any site takes lots of silent labor. I'm working through the same problem. There are lots of people who help with projects, but do not 'write' for the project and since we still think mostly in the context of the author of a produced work, everything else is undervalued. Because publication is so important, that means that behind-the-scenes and ongoing work is not usually put on cv's. There has to be a way to acknowledge co-creators instead of authors.

I think another thing going on here is the play between scholarly work and blog work. Antenna is 126 on someone's list of things to do. Is part of that because of the way that this work is valued?

One of the big problems is that, as I see it, much of the value of scholarship and a scholarly community--espeically one that is studying culture--is the ongoing dialogue. Yet, all of our ways of measuring "success" is about measuring output rather than that conversation. At Fiske Matters a couple of years back, we were talking about rethinking the academic anthology. I keep thinking that it would be great to see the everyday work of the scholar being an engagement in an dialogue, online and off, about pressing issues, that might bubble into anthologies/journals/etc. which collects some highlights of that dialogue. The problem with producing "the book" on something is already designated in the phrase: it makes it sound as if the conversation has now ended. And the attempt to have "a conversation" through traditional scholarship is ridiculous, when there may be a 2-year lag time between people whose work is having "a conversation" with one another (and that's being generous...) Even conferences are tough, because we too often say, "That's an interesting point. We'll follow up with a panel at next year's event."

But it's hard to prioritize those activities as a scholar if they aren't prioritized by the academy...that is to say that it remains #126 on the list if #1-#125 is what keeps you employed. :)

The sad thing is that I honestly believe that more and more people on P&T committees and divisional committees get and respect such work ... but because their constituency changes so often, one ends up needing to invoke the worst possible version of them in one's head, which is a version that cares nothing about discussion and all about product.

It's a true challenge. To your point...we sometimes have to expect the worst to make sure we don't get blindsided, it seems, which makes it hard for anything to ever change/improve. But it's hard to take the principled risk like prioritizing public scholarship over tried and true journal publishing if you fear that small stand could keep you from advancing in your career...and keep you from being able to take a stand on bigger issues that your work focuses on later on. Seems like it's an issue that has to be addressed systemically by all stakeholders simultaneously. We need a Bowles/Simpson committee on this...(and hopefully which would actually be listened to rather than complimented and then ignored...)

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