Better sorry than safe? – Scholarly Communication and the Web

When I woke up yesterday morning, I found in my mailbox about six e-mails that I should have received the day before. It would in fact have been pretty important for me to be able to answer and give my position on this. But I did not receive the messages, the decision was taken without me being able to intervene. The person who sent the messages did not realize that they had not been delivered and supposed I wasn’t willing to answer or did not consider it important enough. The decision had to be taken quickly. That was it.

Now, decisions can be revised and discussed afterwards. You would think that as long as no life is endangered, there is no reason why you should not be able to take something back, even online. But this is the theory, and there is a reason why you are being advised never to post on facebook a picture of yourself drunk if you want to have a career. In the practice, things are different. The rules of online communication have imposed themselves on other communication mechanisms in a way that sometimes contradicts them, as it is the case in scholarly communication.

Academics have developed along time a communication practice that has its rules – many unsaid, many not even consciously present for most of us, but unconsciously active. And theses rules are in some sense contradicted by the logic of online communication. Emailing, tweeting or blogging are forms that are based on immediacy and spontaneity, which would probably be OK if they were not also archived in such a way that anything can be held against you – whenever. It is a difficult exercise to master both requirements in a way that makes sense in the context of an academic career since it basically denies the possibility of a learning process. Your digital persona is doomed not to evolve. The collateral damages are obvious: you have to know how to blog or tweet before you have even begun to. You have to know how you will want to blog or tweet in 20 years from now, because it is then that you will be held accountable for what you write now. Of course, scholarly online communication is more personal than traditional communication, more relaxed. But this is a deceptive effect of a spontaneity that is just as constructed a communication form as any other. It comes close to bouldering on a pretty high cliff, and never really be safe.

So the best we can expect is to still be given the opportunity to be sorry. To have time to re-think things over, to re-open debates that help us construct what we expect of online scholarly communication. After all, the internet does not necessarily have to mean that human progress is over – only that e-mails are sometimes not delivered immediately.


Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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