When you get a personal email from anybody called Doug Rocks-Macqueen, summut’s up?
Dec 3 Update | Read Doug’s amazing summation of Blogging Archaeology round 1, and discover the next set of questions! »
Doug is orchestrating a carnival, a virtual event, about blogging in archaeology #blogarch. Now, I’m under no illusion that this will be anything like an ethereal Notting Hill Carnival, on my door step every August. For one, the aroma of weed will not pervade our space here, allegedly. For two, you will not see me dressed in exotic regalia, even if I’m writing this post as my alter ego in a thong (please read on, I am no a Methodist). However, in the lead up to the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) 2014 conference, Doug has invited the network of archaeological bloggers to explain their motives, to be held to account for their, our, post cards in time, about time, about people who study dead things through time. Each month there will be a new theme, a new question, a whole new month of introspection and conscience-divining.
This month’s question, the one I have missed by a short standard deviation around my norm, is twofold:
Why did you start to blog? (You fool);
Why (in the name of some divinity) do you still blog (or not)?
PS. I know BP is AD 1950. Imagine, today, it was Doug’s deadline, yesterday.
Why, Spence, why? – Love, Bill.
The honest truth is that I almost didn’t. There are a few layers of personal history in a rather strange life-trajectory that give context to the genesis of microburin.com, and a visible portal to nobody, in April 2012.
The undelivered pizza
The physical capability was there. For reasons largely to do with ivory towers, a constant need to escape, and the transformation of my bedroom into a plant sanctuary after returning home from Durham Uni in 1987, I entered a 26 year career in “the other world”. Starting as a precocious box packer in a Soho basement (London) I wandered into the cosmos of seedy bars and primeval software – the first Unix software—long before graphical interfaces (and open-source “freeware” Linux, the demise of this stage of my career in 1999). Bill Gates was barely shaving. Life was an incredible command-line experience, in a nut ”shell” script. The birth of the Internet was us (actually an intranet), The Santa Cruz Operation, and we transacted the very first on-line pizza order—the first in the world! The pizza, of course, was delivered to the wrong address. Managing websites became a part of daily existence. I remain proud of my first flashing gif. So, here were the foundations of visibility, exposure, and blue screens. I could write documents in Elan Eroff (tagging language) and read HTML like some people can calibrate C14 radiocarbon determinations in their head.
The next evolutionary phase, the bombshell explosion, was probably the advent of so-called Web 2.0 technologies. My last “hi-tech” career phase at Cisco involved supporting sales people across 83 countries, 23 time zones, Argentina to Kazakhstan by way of Cape Town and Moscow. The dynamism, interactive experience and multi-media portfolio of “enabling tools”, combined with the pivotal maturity of instant “on-demand” messaging, virtual meetings, video-streaming and social presence (e.g. LinkedIn) and interactive media such as the formative Facebook, no longer offered an opt-in. Web 2.0 was coercive, or one had to resign oneself to perpetual irrelevance.
However, therein lay all the reasons to reject social media—not just blogging, but the plethora of energy-burning conduits through which one “worked, learned and played”–corporate mantra. At the point I took voluntary redundancy—took the money and ran—in 2011, Cisco had 65,000 employees (about 40,000 now). The company underpinned “The Internet” and we were all players by necessity and peer pressure in a constant series of often surreal “interactions”. Simply, one had to keep up to date with around 65,000 blogs in between the midnight conference calls and “something strange going down in Qatar”.
Image| sleeping under Ray Mears
So I departed Cisco with a veritable aversion. And I slept, very well, for a very long time.
Blank sheets and knapped blanks
My passion in archaeology, more especially the Mesolithic, has never waned. It has undulated, for sure. I committed to myself to spend time, so long as I can afford it, to finish some earlier research—including the ethical writing-up of a Mesolithic rescue excavation—now to see a poster presentation at the Wild Things 2.0 conference in Durham in January. But how does one, after 26 years, re-engage with archaeology? I was invisible, largely. I was outside academia. I faced the firewalls, paywalls, cold shoulders and the eyes, look at my eyes, look into my eyes, that said “oh no, another crank”. Academic conferences can be cruel affairs, but then I am no longer a teenager.
“Debitage flew in my face like shrapnel.”
– A corruption of Laurie Lee after far too much cider with Rosie
It’s the network, stupid
If you ask me what underpins success in a convoluted but, humbly, successful business career, my answer would be singularly simple. Networking: building a mesh of supportive, trusted and trusting contacts—ultimately a series of molecular teams—as the basis for service, collaboration, enablement and perspective. Two trajectories, after awakening from sleep, after committing to a transition of some sort back to heritage and archaeology (a move my late father would have certain opinions about: I can hear his voice when the wind blows from the north), have centred on the network.
- Develop a credible research framework and attend conferences, meet, mingle, socialise, question and learn;
- Build a complementary web-presence and voice that fills an untapped niche; grasp the nettle and morph one’s online persona away from the past and back to the past for the future (ha!)
“Does my bum look big in this bog?”
The catalyst, ironically at a social media day-school hosted by Council for British Archaeology Yorkshire (that I’m now Trustee and Editor for), was the first connection point. Pat Hadley, then a PhD researcher at York (now York Museum Trust’s Wikipedian In Residence) corralled the sparks of my enthusiasm, and hesitance, and amongst other kindnesses, lit the blue touch paper that was to become my blog. His rebellious streak captured my imagination, built my confidence in wanting to have some kind of worldly dialogue around the “unwritten”, human aspects of archeology—the unbearably exciting as well as the numbingly frustrating—of research against the impenetrable bastions of academic sobriety and the furred arteries of theoretical impediment obscured by (usually French) philosophers’ quotations in the tomes of doctoral verbiage.
So, introducing humour (I hope), an irreverent and informal style, a presentation of the journey of discovery, conspire to make the mysteries of the Mesolithic, of lithics analysis, of rigorous methods, accessible, human, palpable, navigable and fun. There are too few blogs about Mesolithic archaeology, but I took solace and inspiration in an enduring favourite: hazelnut_relations.
“Any research project whose inception is the result of being bitten by an adder and falling arse over tweets into a deep crevice in a peat bog – must surely be enshrined in a blog?”
» The White Gill Project
Why do you persist, Spence?
My blog, then, now boasting over 14,600 visits in less than two years—about the Mesolithic, remember!—is about story-telling, about a personal metamorphosis, and a journey without destination. Archaeology, after all, is concerned with constructing a series of plausible narratives, each with inherent perspectives and vested interests. What we miss, beyond the media-induced headline-grabbing sound bites of unique “one-offs”, is the nature of the learning process, of interaction with material culture in the field and in the lab, and the emotions lost to peer-reviewed articles locked away behind “open access” paywalls » see a rant about “open exclusion”. My blog has afforded an opportunity to opine about that debacle as well as the stagnant impasse of archaeological pay and conditions. I do because such issues hurt, because they haven’t shifted since I graduated, and because I can “from the outside”.
“My blog, and blogging, is also an implicit reflection of a re-assessment of Life’s values, with a big L.”
My people network, acknowledging that the blog is one component of a multi-node social media presence, can now be counted in the hundreds. I have new friends “in the industry”, some now very close collaborators, others “secret followers”. The complete “trip”, for me, must include the varying degrees of immediacy and interaction embodied in other media such as The Facebook, The Twitter and, a one-off dapple, YouTube. There’s more of course, but my world is not yet ready?
There’s also a very practical, perhaps altruistic aspect to blogging. When did a Mesolithic researcher share the practical processes, techniques and learnings through an exercise like turning a lithic assemblage from bags of flint, metrics and coordinates into a narrative? Some of my blog content offers more than a key-hole view—what I learn, I share, even though at least one idea has been “pinched”; that’s OK, for now. It’s a privilege to have questions thrown my way. It’s compelling to be relevant (or at least entertaining?) across a broad spectrum of interest, from the hard core academic to the college student who searches with their essay title, to the casual visitor with an interest in their place, community, history, prehistory and environment. Above all else, blogging is cathartic—others have spoken eloquently enough about the development of ideas and thinking, the re-enforcement of subject familiarity.
Stats, metrics and demographics
I come from an operations background. Every breathing minute was underpinned by metrics. There’s a satisfaction, a habit-forming indulgence, in monitoring the reach of one’s presence across communities, geographies, political landscapes. I chose WordPress in the end partly because of the mesmerizing demographics and insights into how one was being discovered (referral sites), exploited (the web-bots and SEM spammers), questioned (search terms), enjoyed (comments, likes, community diversity, exchanges) and context (click-throughs).
From my first nervous post, I have more questions now about the motives of visitors from 102 countries than I do of my own self-indulgent verbosity. How different will this landscape look if I return to School next year, in later “mid-life” to re-enter the labyrinths of learning? Will you still love my pollen cores then?
◊ Spence | Twitter @microburin