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Friday, April 17, 2015

Reflections on Prawfs at 10: taking seriousness seriously

Inspired by Paul’s typically thoughtful and comprehensive response to the question Howard posed for this week—How has law blogging changed in the past ten years?—I’ll offer some much briefer reflections on this issue. One impression I have about how blogging has changed in the legal academy at least is that is has become more serious, both in the sense that people take it seriously and that the medium itself is more serious. The first trend is probably good but I’m less sanguine about the latter, as I explain below the jump.

The word “serious” has unusually positive vibes in law, and in particular the legal academy. Good old Taking Rights Seriously has spawned a cottage industry of knockoff titles and catch phrases, but as near as I can tell, it means something positive: To take rights or anything seriously is to treat it with a kind of reverent gravity, and while that may not be a virtue in a comedy or daily life, it seems like law is nothing if it is not serious (seriously: if people don’t think following the law qua law is a big deal, then goodbye legitimacy, hello anarchy).

So when I say that blogs seem to have become more serious in the past decade, that seems like it may be an unalloyed good. And in one sense, I think it is. Back in the early days, there was a sense that whatever blogs may have been, they were not authoritative and were certainly not authority. But then, that gradually changed. I couldn’t find it but I think Dan posted the first time when a court cited a Prawfs thread for some proposition. This must have happened at some point, and regardless of whether it was commemorated (it was mentioned here, for example, but can't find the Prawfs link) it was clearly a big deal because it signaled that blogs were beginning to be—ahem—taken seriously by not just other bloggers or even academics but judges themselves (and who is more serious than them?).

This trend strikes me as totally legit, and actually a very good reflection on the intellectual egalitarianism of the legal profession. For my money, good arguments are good arguments, whether they’re in the Harvard Law Review or scrawled on a cocktail napkin (and the same goes for bad arguments). The initial dismissal of blogs as categorically not-serious strikes me as condescending status-snobbery, with a fair dollop of Luddite digital skepticism thrown in. If some people are blogging about what kind of cereal they now like for breakfast, that does not mean that a convincing legal argument made on the same blog is not a convincing legal argument. It just means it is a convincing legal argument made in an unorthodox (or formerly unorthodox) place. For what it’s worth, I just checked and my Prawfs posts have been cited a literal handful of (i.e., five) times in secondary sources, per the Westlaw JLR database. That’s not an especially impressive figure, but it is exactly five citations more than I would have ever predicted at the early advent of my participation in this blog.

Blogging has become serious in a second sense, though, about which I feel more ambivalent. In January 2006, when I first dipped my toes into the PrawfWaters, there was (and may still be) a real sense that bloggers were considered frivolous (i.e., not serious) scholars, which could be the death knell of a career. (Anyone else recall L’affaire Drezner, much blogged about on this site back then?)

And this suspicion did not seem totally crazy. It was not entirely clear back then what a blog post was or should be, so the variance was very high. It was sort of like my current city of residence, Houston, where the lack of zoning means you see improbable concatenations of architecture on the same block (there’s one strip of Kirby that goes KFC, office high-rise, funeral-home-turned-nightclub). You’d see a post with real heft on something like religious freedom cheek-by-jowl with some random-ass musings about what Dan memorably called “Sweet Sassy Tallahassee” (or, as the case may be and often was, “Funky T-Town”). I noted from this post in 2005 that Dan referred to Prawfs as a place where professors would discuss “law and life,” and that binary reflects the more open-textured content I recall from back then.  

Now, to echo Paul’s point, not so much. The content of Prawfs, and I think of most similarly situated blogs, is largely, if not entirely, serious. That is, most of what people take the time to write is legal analysis, law current events, opinions about these things, etc. There may still be some self-referential writing (like this very post), but even that is pretty serious, in content if not in tone. And a lot of major figures in legal academia devote substantial amounts of their professional energy to blogging—consider Solum’s blog, the U of Chicago faculty blog, and Balkinization, just to name three of the top of my head.

I’m less sure what to make of this trend. On one hand, a lot of stuff on the internet is irrelevant, off-topic garbage, and one could say that it makes perfect sense for legal blogs to focus on legal topics, because that is the content people visit them to read. There’s something to this point. But I also think something is lost when blogs become more narrowly focused. They are more serious, but this almost inevitably means they are also less fun. And while I’m not sure Prawfs or any other blog was ever a laff riot (the tag line since forever has referred to Leiter’s “kind of boring” dig from way way back), I sort of miss the more freewheeling, open-range blog style of a decade or so ago.

Then again, maybe difference in content from a decade ago is not so great, as Howard’s amusing post about SCOTUS Ben and Jerry’s flavors may indicate. Am I merely nostalgia-stricken? If so, I should seriously reconsider my capacity to objectively assess this blog’s degree of seriousness.

Posted by Dave_Fagundes on April 17, 2015 at 07:09 PM in 10th Anniversary, Blogging | Permalink

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