How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

More Blogging Prizes, Please

Just announced: a prize for the best new blog. Oh my.

But wait: a $100,000 prize? With the potential for other blogs to win five later awards of comparable value?

Before you try to find your WordPress.com username, the prize is part of Tyler Cowen’s ongoing Emergent Ventures awards. So it’s for the best new “blogs or blog-like isomorphs” that push the boundaries and applicability of libertarianism. Being a libertarian, therefore, will certainly help your chances of winning.

This is so contra-2020. What problem could more blogging help fix?

Cowen’s rationale: Libertarianism, such as it is these days, has little or nothing to say about a host of important challenges — everything from racial injustice to China’s menacing of Taiwan to the U.S.’s inability to provide cheap, widespread COVID-19 testing:

In 2020, there is an undimmed need for new thinking around how the ideals of liberty and reason can best be applied. You need barely scratch the surface in our prevailing ideologies to find central questions almost completely unaddressed … We need new ideas, new syntheses, and new arguments.

OK, it’s hard not to snicker at the apt symmetry of trying to update a fusty, boutique philosophy through a now fusty, boutique communications format. Three reasons not to stop there:

  1. Frequent long-form content on big ideas has a demonstrated power to open Overton windows and fuel movements. Cowen makes a succinct, compelling case for blogging and those isomorphs (e.g., Substack newslettering) together being “one of the most effective ways of debating and advancing worldviews and debating ideas” of recent years. Think about it: It’s hard to imagine effective altruism, gay marriage, startup culture or NGDP targeting accelerating to acceptability/normalization without the years-long blogging and essays of Scott Alexander, Andrew Sullivan, Paul Graham or Scott Sumner and his fellow monetarist bloggers. Movement ideas need movement arguments, which usually means long-form movement content at some point.
  2. Social media, whatever its virtues, isn’t a substitute for frequent long-form content. Cowen, who’s a big Twitter booster, says libertarianism needs “more argumentation and exposition than you will find on Twitter alone,” he says. Again, think about it: There’s a reason we’re reading books by Ibram X. Kendi and Robin Diangelo, not just reading antiracist deks on IG. And your protest tweets aren’t safe from surveillance.
  3. Movement content works well largely for the people who have the time to make it. For instance, all of Cowen’s examples of bloggers or newsletter writers who advanced world views — including Ben Thompson of Stratechery and Bill Bishop of Sinocism — are white men. It’s harder to think of a critical mass of non-males or non-whites — Zeynep Tufekci has done it for masks, for instance, without blogging, through long-form magazine articles and tweeting.

Anyone interested in marketing research-based ideas needs to think about both sides of this equation: Long-form movement content often works like nothing else; and it isn’t working at anything close to the scale it should for minority researchers.

When we say that the tools for outreach are more available and powerful than ever, we ignore two prerequisites for using those tools: time and priority.

Women and people of color in academics — and especially women of color — bear (as the sociologist Ashley Mears put it to Cowen on his podcast) “a disproportionate amount of emotional work, disproportionate ways that women faculty and people of color do more service work.” The following passage from that interview says a lot:

MEARS: This is a perennial conversation that I have with my women colleagues about the number of students that ask for exceptions in their grades, especially of younger faculty, young women faculty, the number of students that open up with their problems. And we’re more likely, I think, to keep tissues in our offices for crying students than our male colleagues. So, there’s that.

Just kind of being a crutch to students and being seen as somebody that’s more relatable by virtue of age and by gender means that we have more of these kinds of drains on our emotional work than male colleagues. I don’t know if you would agree or if you find that. Do you also keep tissues in your office?

COWEN: I don’t. But my office is so crowded. I think actually everything is in there, and probably that includes some tissues.

Funny. (Mears laughed.) But if you have a kid or kids (and are maybe raising them on your own) and your students are leaning on your for emotional support and you’re trying to get tenure and you’re already fighting racist and/or sexist perceptions … who the hell has the time to blog?

And no: Twitter is no great equalizer for women researchers and their authority.

This is the point where we usually stop and lament structural inequality and privileged-winner-take-all ecosystems. The absurdity of offering a prize to incentivize more women or minority researchers just to blog starkly illustrates what even a marginalized male-dominated philosophy like libertarianism takes for granted.

At the same time: When I talk with women and minority researchers about getting time for public scholarship, the support from academia and funders just isn’t there and there is no sign it will be.

So yeah, more prizes. A lot more, because we know that prizes spur advancement in areas where sectors often fail to invest — as research fails to invest in public engagement, especially from women, minorities and other traditionally marginalized groups. And a lot more, because prizes are also a public admission that we need an end-around. That the status quo is failing us.

More prizes, along with the focused attention and resources and innovations (like substituting public engagement for service as a scholarly responsibility) that could support more public scholarship and engagement from researchers for whom a prize won’t be enough.