History of Economics Playground

Does Economics blogging open new conversations ? (Part I)

This is the question I'm supposed to answer for an experimental INET conference aimed at inspiring new thinking through interdisciplinary conversation and collective reflection without rules.

Krugman has hinted at that question in a recent post in which he argues that refereed journals have long ceased to be the main locus for new ideas (he call them “tombstones”). He emphasizes the role of famous working paper series (IMF, fed or NBER) and workshops as the usual media to circulate new ideas and argues that blogging enhance the process of creating, testing and moving ideas across the policy making process.

Fellow bloggers helped me characterize the new style of discourse generated by blogs. Tiago, who has authored a paper on the “invasion of bloggers,” claims that blogging is closer to orality than to writing. He characterizes the exercise as “timebound, spontaneous, loosely structured, socially interactive and immediately revisable.” Yann emphasizes the ability of posts to go quickly viral, and the possibly to express sharper views that in academic tribunes. He also points to the combination with pop culture that blogging enables (something Freakonomics is very good at): not only the words, but the title, the cultural references, the iconography are keys to understand the ideas put forward.

It goes beyond blogging alone: Clement, whose interest in network analysis embeds him into the data-intensive-research and ehumanities community, told me how both the production and the diffusion of new scholarship is impacted by the digital. Blogs, but also twitter, forums, mailing lists, shared online bibliographies, open datatsets, online collaboratories, unconferences, open peer reviews, help  researchers circulate new ideas on how to gather and analyze new data sets, co-write and spread new ideas.

It's not clear however what the ultimate impact of such permanent brainstorming is. Tiago warns that the blogosphere fails to pursue themes consistently. Krugman doesn't give any instance of new themes/ concepts/ applications which were initially catalyzed/ nurtured within blogs. Clearly, there's a lot going on currently on how to rethink monetary policy (see the debates over the NGDP target this week, Mark Thoma's links here and here), but it's not clear how it might translate into enduring research agendas. Another feature of blogs is that they support the immediate application of economic and social methods and concepts to burning issues, or the confrontation of events with theories. One example given by Clement is Paola Tubaro and Antonia Cassili's social stimulation experiment on the UK riots last August. At the moment UK authorities, such as London Mayor Boris Johnson, contemplated the establishment of some kind of internet censorship to prevent social networks from fueling the social agitation, Tubaro and Cassili produced a direct contribution to the public debate: they ran an agent based computer simulation of an augmented Epstein's civil violence model, in which online social networks give a comparative advantage to looters so than they can move across the field and escape the police. This model shows that high censorship leads to protracted violence while low censorship leads to an alternation of peaks of violence and periods of quiet. They published their results on their blogs, then put a mini-paper on SSRN 3 days later. The posts went viral, the paper was widely downloaded and referenced by some online media.

Based on the multiple feedbacks they received, Tubaro and Cassili are currently turning this real-time sociology exercise into a submittable paper. For, Krugman reminds, refereed journal articles remain the main source for tenure committees' assessment. Also, the ehumanities Clement praise seem confined to specific subfields: those who produce new techniques and concepts use the tool they're building, but economists at large is still largely immune to such practices. Also, while the conversation arising from this new online spaces might be creative, it is nevertheless one highly structured, or, Tiago says, enclosed. With help of technorati surveys, he shows that more than half of most famous economics blogs are associated to traditional media plateforms: whether written by journalists (the EconomiX blog) or academics who are regular newspaper columnists (Krugman, those part of The Economist's forum), academics who contribute to online media, the blogs who rely on the success of written books (Freakonomics). He also wonders about how much the conversation is open. The difference with blogs, Krugman argues, is that “you can break in from anywhere.” No quite, Tiago suggests: bloggers do not always respond to the often quirky comments of their readers. When they comment on other econ bloggers' ideas, they write a post back. They sometimes function as closed communities, using daily crosslinking others' posts. On The Economist's forum, for instance, comments are allowed only by registered and selected readers, and have to be approved before publication.

Non economists may eventually be excluded from this online conversation. True, the technorati surveys quoted by Tiago notes, many bloggers first and foremost want to make their ideas more influential, to influence journalists, politicians, voters, laymen. With the "public expert" identity of economists which was gradually developed after the war, and as highlighted more recently by McKenzie's work on how economists architected actual financial markets and shaped the practice of the finance world, economists' ideas have become “performative,” e.g., they not only observe the world but they actively shape it. And, Yann says, a recent development of economists' culture is that they are becoming aware of this performativity. Blogging could then be interpreted as a way to structure this influence on economic institutions, policies and decisions. Yet, the public is overwhelmed by these pluralistic voices, Till analyzes: ideas are contradictory, and even when you focus on 20 blogs such as the list provided by The Economist or other media (everyone has one), or when you just scroll the links on your favorite blog, you get that depressing feeling that these people write faster than you can read and that reading about what the state of the economy is and how to improve it is a full time job. It may be that the public is turning to new ways of engaging with economics: amazon online reviews of the flourishing “economics made fun” and “economics popularized” literature, documentaries such as Inside Jobs (any idea, kids? What are the new forums to discuss economics popularized? )

Finally, what about us, history of economics bloggers? How do we relate to economics blogging at large? Do online conversations enhance our research? What specific difficulty do we face in spreading our narratives? How are we trying to discuss history outside academia (or not); Let's keep that for tomorrow.

EDIT: see also Mark Thoma's analysis of the effects of econ blogging on the public sphere here