Thursday, January 13, 2005

 

Ask Professor Bainbridge

Are law professor blogs more important than self-important?

I’m ambivalent about blogging. On the one hand, I like writing my blog, which affords a great outlet for my 500-word superficial ideas and rants. And it keeps my pen moving, so to speak. On the other hand, blogging always threatens to become, for me, yet another arena in which to measure my importance or lack thereof. Note how I obsessively check my hit counters, for instance. And when I do, here’s what goes through my head: “Can’t you do something for the pure joy of it, without desperately needing the outside validation? Hmm, my average is up to 40 hits a day...”

This issue was recently raised, sort of, by an AALS co-attendee, Professor Bainbridge.
Professor Bainbridge writes a blog called: “Professor Bainbridge.” I have to say, that is a great name for a blog. It reminds me of Mr. Peabody, (pictured left, with his sidekick Sherman), the professorial talking cartoon dog who was a member of the Rocky and Bullwinkle entourage. As I recall, Mr. Peabody's relationship with Sherman is quite like that of many law professors with their students. The name "Professor Bainbridge" holds the promise of answering your questions, like Mr. Peabody always did (if somewhat pedantically) for Sherman. Or like “Ask Dr. Science.” Of course he really is “Professor Bainbridge,” so a measure of luck diminishes the sheer creativity of the blog’s title, but give him credit for seeing the blog-ness of the name.

In a recent post, Professor Bainbridge had this complaint about the AALS conference:
Oddly enough, there's nothing in the AALS program about blogging. I find that curious, since many top bloggers are law professors (including the big dog and most of the famed Conspirators; plus, well, modesty forbids, but you know). Indeed, the first three conversations I had with fellow law profs at the hotel all turned to blogging at some point. Yet, as far as the AALS is concerned, it's apparently irrelevant.
(Note: hypertext links are Bainbridge's.) Reading this passage, with its reference to “the big dog,” makes me want to – well, let’s just say a cross between bark and woof. Is that envy on my part, or just a modicum of decency? Both, I suspect. Let’s deconstruct for a moment.

The chummy code-names “big dog” for Instapundit, “famed Conspirator” for The Volokh Conspiracy, and “modesty forbids, you know” for Professor Bainbridge, together with the self-inclusion among “top bloggers,” are all a bit smug. Okay, very smug. Well, all right: it's so smug that it makes Mr. Peabody appear quite humble.

But it’s the substance of Bainbridge’s comment that piques my interest. What’s so important about law professor blogs that makes the absence of attention to bloggers at the AALS conference so wrong? I’m seriously interested. Make your case, Professor Bainbridge.

We can say right away that Professor Bainbridge’s case for the importance of law professor blogs must be dismissed if he has nothing more than the anecdotal evidence of the topic having arisen in “the first three conversations I had” at AALS. That evidence does not amount to much, particularly if the conversations went like this:
OTHER LAW PROF: Hey, Professor Bainbridge! Nice to see you again. How are you?

PROFESSOR BAINBRIDGE: Fine, thank you. Say, have you read my blog?

Clearly, blogging is a social phenomenon in the sense that any widespread time-suck is a social phenomenon. I think blogging may become (or perhaps already is) important as an alternative to MSM as a source of news dissemination and opinion. But the question for Professor Bainbridge is whether law blogs – also known by the more cute and cuddly moniker “blawgs” – are meaningfully and importantly different from (a) opinion blogs and (b) other outlets for legal information and opinion.

Many law professor blogs offer links to news items and opinions on news or things like wine (Bainbridge) and cheese (Conglomerate). Nothing wrong with that. I find my law professor colleagues to be, on the whole, an intelligent and witty set of people, who have interesting things to say on a wide variety of topics, including cheese. But that sort of blogging doesn't differentiate "blawgs" from other blogs.

Law blogs may be important sources of opinion, analysis and information about the law. But before we go baying at the big dogs, let’s consider the outlets that existed before blogs. Legal newsletters and updates – such as U.S. Law Week – have existed in abundance for years. With the advent of the web, case updates and short legal analyses have been available from LEXIS and Westlaw and other web sites. Since the advent of email, professors have been able to alert colleagues to legal developments and issue short commentary through list-serves.

To be sure, blogs have advantages. They allow for more immediacy and much wider participation (and less paper) than printed legal newsletters, though published legal newsletters probably have higher standards for editorial content and factual accuracy than the blogosphere. List-serves afford comparable immediacy and participation, but blogs offer the advantage of allowing a standing archive and not clogging up email inboxes. And if blogging encourages shooting from the hip rather than well-thought-through commentary (for instance, will tweaking Professor Bainbridge come back to haunt me? Dunno, haven’t given it much thought....), it is still valuable as a form of thinking out loud. It’s like talking to your colleagues, but in written form, so you can reach faraway colleagues (without phone calls!) rather than just the ones down the hall.

Well, that’s good for at least 10 minutes of panel discussion at AALS. There must be more to say about law blogs, but what? You could have a presentation about how in the world blogging professors find the time to blog, what other projects they may stint in order to make time for blogging, and whether they think they waste a lot more time surfing the web since the advent of blogs. I suppose you could talk about the Brian Leiter project. This is a sort of web-based performance art project by a cabal of law students, led by the delightfully titled “weird Michigan law student” blog Letters of Marque, to disrupt Google searches that would otherwise call up Professor Brian Leiter’s blog. This is apparently achieved by adding "Brian Leiter" to code in one’s own blog, creating a so-called “google bomb.” The “project” must be in it’s infancy, because Leiter comes right up on a Google search. Now there’s a topic worthy of some serious AALS panel time: "Law, Blogs and Dada."

So let's answer the two questions raised in this post:

(1) Do blawgs add value to the world of legal information? I think the jury is still out.

(2) Will the world -- even the AALS -- be a better place if "Professor Bainbridge" receives due regard as a top dog blog? The Professor Bainbridge blog averages an impressive 2,400 hits per day. While his readers average only 50 seconds per visit, he sure beats some of the other “top bloggers.” Multiplying 2,400 hits per day by the 50 seconds per hit, you get... let’s see. Well, that’s pretty darn close to 15 minutes of fame, I’d say. What more is needed to make a blogger's life complete?


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