Twitteratzi Natalie Sambhi on how blogging and social media makes for better academia.
Academic blogging is like a softer version of a 24-hour multi-disciplinary, peer-review service—but with cat memes.
Since 2010, blogging and tweeting have provided me with some of the most rewarding forms of intellectual engagement. More than mere ranting, ‘academic blogging’ can harness the research skills gained in formal institutions and practical knowledge from work and funnel them into real-time debates.
These debates are often on policy questions and interlocutors range from policymakers, military officials, journalists to other scholars. Blogs help provide a test-bed for ideas, with pointed feedback from peers around the globe delivered considerably faster than through academic journals.
To be clear, blogs do not spell the end of traditional scholarly writing, they are an important alternative that enriches longer, more formal peer-reviewed work and academics should invest in both kinds.
My experience with blogs started during the war in Afghanistan (and indeed, one was called Blogs of War). After submitting my master’s thesis on counterinsurgency in 2009, several months later I stumbled across a blog run by a PhD student. To my horror, several of the posts tore apart primary sources I had used and fundamental assumptions that I had employed.
Linking up with this scholar, I was then introduced, via blogs and Twitter, to a then small blogging community focused on strategy and conflict. I was led to solid investigative journalism or lesser-known reports on Afghanistan while correspondents and the occasional military officer in the field shared eye witness accounts and challenged official narratives of the war (acts which were not without controversy). In fact, American military and defence officials were allowed far more freedom on social media and I would have rarely had contact with them but for blogs and Twitter.
Through blog post take-downs and snarky tweets, there was constant engagement between students and military officers and even among military officers themselves. There was refinement of ideas supported by extensive use of historical case studies and empirical data. If you knew where to look, there was no shortage of intelligent critique and commentary on the war. In those days, bloggers and tweeters were more often anonymous than today and were therefore far more prepared to challenge ideas without fear of hierarchy or career repercussions.
Where there was snark, there was also support. Like-minded scholars around the world linked up to encourage one another and to review and edit each other’s work. Eventually I had the confidence to launch my own blog, Security Scholar, which now focuses on Indonesian defence and security issues. Blogs and Twitter provided a space for many of us to hold intelligent dialogue, but also make irreverent jokes and share cat pictures that helped balance out the heaviness of our subject matter.
My experience in the blogosphere has also led to other opportunities. Through my strategy blog community, I was invited to host the Center for International Maritime Security’s (CIMSEC) podcast, Sea Control: Asia Pacific, and, drawing from my cohort of up-and-coming online scholars, I have had no shortage of guests to interview.
Last but not least, I spent close to four years as editor of The Strategist after being one of its founders in 2012. Through that medium, we helped inject new ideas and new voices into debates on Australia’s strategic choices and maintain a high quality of discussion.
Blogs challenge policymakers to hear what academics have to say and academics have no excuse for not having a voice on policy questions. Hopefully society is richer for this. Now six years later, I have been the beneficiary of a collaborative and community spirit online, one that the contributors and editors of New Mandala continue to carry forward.
As far as blogs on Southeast Asia go, you will not find a more vibrant outlet dedicated to the region. Congratulations on a decade, NM!
Natalie Sambhi is a Research Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre where she publishes on Indonesian foreign and defence policy as well as Southeast Asian security. She was most recently an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) from 2012 to 2016 and Managing Editor of ASPI’s blog, The Strategist.