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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

All is Vanity.

I’ve enjoyed the set of recent reflections on Prawfs’ astonishing ten-year run.  Orin's great insights about blogging’s lack of internal credit & Paul’s characteristically wise post about the aging medium both hit points I would’ve written if I were faster on the draw, and smarter.  Or perhaps not. Like Paul, I’m increasingly averse to writing about the medium, or about legal education itself.  So these recap posts scratch an itch that perhaps ought to be  left alone. Indeed, it feels far too often that most law blogging by professors is a less rigorous version of the Journal of Legal Education, or worse (?) an unending and unedifying list of law professor dean searches.

Why, I wondered, has the energy left the building? 

  1. Because there are fewer fans.  This is most of it.  Prawfs started in the seven years of hiring plenty, and we’re now deep in the middle of the seven years of drought.  There are many fewer young law professors than there were in 2005, and those few that remain are well-advised to keep their heads down and do what’s necessary to survive increasingly difficult internal climbs to tenure. Prawfs' and like blogs' rise  had many parents, but a hiring glut has to take place of pride.
  2. Because of status and everything that comes with it.  When Prawfs began it looked possible that academics from elite institutions would join the fray. That’s – by and large – not what happened. True, there are some faculty blogs at Chicago and elsewhere, and some subject-matter-specific  blogs where elite academics occasionally deign to write.  But very few academics from top ten schools blog regularly. That means: (1) blogs are still largely written by those who’ve not yet “arrived”; (2) bloggers generally work at schools with worse employment numbers, which makes them embarrassed to noodle in public; (3) it’s harder to move the needle on public conversations (excepting, as always, the VC, which is sui generis); (4) institutional support for blogging is resource-constrained. (See #5.)
  3. Because the party is elsewhere.  You may have noticed that Concurring Opinions, my home, has been relatively quiet of late.  But have you read Frank Pasquale’s twitter feed (7000+ followers).  Or, better yet, followed Dan Solove’s LinkedIn privacy forum (~900,000 followers!!)?  LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, etc. are where the action is. People read law professor blogs, by-and-large, to learn who has died, who is moving to what schools, and to guesstimate if their article will be accepted.  Also, there are recipes.
  4. Because of preemption.  Everything has been written before, including this sentence. Law professors care more than most about preemption. The weight of past posts is starting to press on our heads, no?
  5. Because we didn’t innovate.  Again, generalizing, blogs have remained stagnant in form.  That wasn’t inevitable. But even blogs about cutting edge topics are conventionally organized. Economy plays a large role here – as do law schools’ IT support, which has other fish to fry. Just a for-instance: compare Stanford Law’s fantastic landing page to a blog they’ve nested inside. Get the sense that the money for the renovation started to run out at some point?  Being stuck in a reverse-chron, wordpress, format has meant that symposia can “disorienting” and unwelcoming to outsiders. At Temple, I’ve been pushing hard against the trend, and we’ve started a business law newspaper using Hive, a nice wordpress-based platform that at least looks fresh. But if law professors wanted to be unconventional, technologically-savvy, innovators, they wouldn’t have become law professors.

All of this makes me feel wistful, because I remember when Prawfs (and Co-Op) started and the medium felt both transformative and exciting.  Blogging has been amazing for me professionally.  A post – and Dan Kahan’s generosity in response to it -  got me involved with the cultural cognition project. Many other articles started as half-baked pieces of dreck at various blog homes. It’s also been great personally, as I met many of my better friends in the academy through Prawfs or CoOp or the Conglomerate, making conferences less overwhelming, and knocking down disciplinary and subject-matter barriers.

But all things change. I am optimistic about the future of law, the legal academy, and public conversations about both – I just don’t think the future will be blogged.

Dan Markel could be an exhausting friend, and I didn’t always have the energy to talk with him. In the weeks before his death, I’d put off a conversation long overdue.  On July 17, 2014, I texted him to prompt that phone call, asking “what’s new with you.”  Later that day, he texted back, writing, “Lots. Will call shortly.”  I’m sorry we didn’t get to have that call. I’m sorry that he’s not around to celebrate this anniversary. He would’ve found my pessimism about professor blogging silly, and would have, I think, expressed enthusiasm and optimism I don’t currently feel about the future of Prawfs and law blogging more generally. Even if I'm right - and the glory of blogging is behind us - it's still worth recognizing that Prawfs has chugged along for a decade, adding tremendous value in the academy, largely because of his initiative and spirit.  

Posted by Dave Hoffman on April 21, 2015 at 11:33 AM in 10th Anniversary, Blogging | Permalink

Comments

Dave: I confess that I don't read Frank Pasquale’s twitter feed or Dan Solove’s LinkedIn privacy forum--mostly because I don't often read twitter or LinkedIn generally (what is LinkeIn, anyway?)--but I wonder if it's fair to say "that's where the party is" simply because some law professors have many readers on those fora. Does either forum offer an outlet for the sort of substantive blogging that some of us practice and that is, presumably, the principal topic of this thread? If not, why would such fora be considered substitutes for, or displacements of, such substantive blogging? If you were right that "people read law professor blogs, by-and-large, to learn who has died, [and] who is moving to what schools" --and for recipes--then yes, I suppose there are other, more frequented fora serving those functions. But I assume most people actually bother with law blogs (or I do, anyway) when they have something substantive to add to a conversation or dispute about the law.

Posted by: Marty Lederman | Apr 21, 2015 12:32:31 PM

Marty
There are always exceptions - and of course I'd characterize your thoughtful blogging on topics various and sundry as both substantive & topically relevant. But, compared to what blogging looked like in 2005, sic transit gloria mundi, no?

Posted by: dave hoffman | Apr 21, 2015 12:39:41 PM

Thanks for the generous remarks, Dave.

It's not my sense, however, that blogging was so much better and more substantive in the "good ol' days." (A variation on the "music was so much better when I was a teenager" myth, which you can only sincerely believe if you haven't bothered to catch Sleater-Kinney on their current tour. Speaking of which: Note to readers in Atlanta, Raleigh, Nashville, St. Louis, Columbia, KC, NM, Tempe and LA--tickets still available for shows over the next ten nights!)

But even if blogging was better back then, it could hardly be because all the good, substantive writing is happenin' on twitter. A valuable link or a short blurb is not (and is not intended to be) a substitute for thoughtful legal analysis. When was the last time you read anything truly worthwhile (apart from my S-K recommendation above, that is) that was fewer than 144 characters?

Posted by: Marty Lederman | Apr 21, 2015 12:50:22 PM

Justin Wolfers is worth following. In the aggregate, the medium is more vibrant & more risk-taking & interesting, especially in discussing academic life. FWIW, whatever the virtues of blogging for public law topics (Balkin, Dorf, Lawfare), for private law topics (i.e., contract law, tort law) the professor blogosphere is moribund.

Posted by: dave hoffman | Apr 21, 2015 12:53:18 PM

Dave, have you read Eric Goldman's blog lately? Rumors of the death &c. &c.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Apr 21, 2015 3:55:11 PM

Dave writes: "When Prawfs began it looked possible that academics from elite institutions would join the fray. That’s – by and large – not what happened. True, there are some faculty blogs at Chicago and elsewhere, and some subject-matter-specific blogs where elite academics occasionally deign to write. But very few academics from top ten schools blog regularly."

This is interesting, but I'm not sure it's right. While top schools are underrepresented in the blogosphere relative to their representation in top law reviews, my sense is that there are similar if not more bloggers per faculty at 'elite' schools than non-elite.

To the extent blogging is valued more at lower-ranked schools, that is consistent with my influence-vs-credit point. Painting with a broad brush, there are reasons to think that the most elite schools are less interested in general influence than those lower down the pecking order. The stereotype of a typical Princeton Law faculty member, for example, would be that the faculty member mostly cares what other members of the Princeton law faculty think. What courts actually do, or what lawyers in the world think, isn't so much on the radar screen. If that's the case, the influence that blogging can bring is likely to be more valued at less elite schools.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Apr 21, 2015 7:17:22 PM

Orin, is it true that law faculty and top ranked law schools care less about general influence on contemporary politics and courts than faculty at lower ranked law schools? I had not noticed that at all but maybe I haven't been paying close enough attention. (I am setting aside the question of whether they care "what lawyers in the world think," which may be a closer question)

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Apr 22, 2015 7:45:50 AM

Robert Ambrogy, about this issue, in "lawsitesblog.com/2015/04/how-legal-blogging-has-changed-over-the-decade" wrotes that "Blogging is not dying, it is thriving. Because it is thriving, it has become an enterprise. Big firms have paid writers on staff producing blog content. Marketing and PR firms now have units that specialize in sending their customers canned content to use on their blogs. Law.com now has an entire network of blogging contributors. Above the Law has made legal blogging into a full-fledged business — and what appears to be a pretty successful one at that. Competition abounds, and it comes from all corners.

Posted by: George Alawne | Jun 25, 2015 1:39:55 AM

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