I was initially a reluctant blogger. Perhaps even skeptical. The advice and impetus to proceed came largely from our trusty MedTech folks, particularly Matt Simpson and Lynel Jackson, with encouragement from Jacqueline Findlay and other UG office staff. They felt it was the best option to address my request (they might term it whining) for a means to communicate on a regular basis with our students and teaching faculty. I had in mind something more akin to a newsletter or mass email. I had no idea what a blog even was. With thinly veiled condescension, they explained that a blog would reach more people, allow for embedding of images, links to other material and, most importantly, allow people to respond.
Now, a hundred posts later, I must admit they were right. As I reflected on the milestone, I also came to realize I still didn’t know anything about the term “blog”, how they came about, or how extensively they’re used.
It seems blogs evolved from something called the online diary, publications wherein folks would give regular accounts of their personal lives. Many developed themes of personal interest with the added element of dialogue with readers. The term “online journal” appears to have emerged in the late 1990’s with Ian Ring prominent in promoting the concept of web-based publication of journals.
Most seem to agree, however, that the term “weblog” is rightfully attributed to Jorn Barger who applied it to his Robot Wisdom site in 1997. The term was later contracted to “blog” by Peter Merholz in 1999.
Mr. Barger (shown) sounds, and looks, like an iconoclast and free-thinker with eclectic interests. In his own words, he was hoping to find “an audience who might see the connections between (his) many interests”. His postings featured “a list of links each day shaped by his own interests in the arts and technology”, thus offering “a day-to-day log of his reading and intellectual pursuits”. Those intellectual pursuits include history, Internet technology, artificial intelligence and the writings of James Joyce.
The web-based accessibility and brevity of blogs makes them a highly effective means of communication. It was estimated in 2010 that 150 million blogs were being published regularly, read by 10% of the world population. What makes blogging possible for most are platforms such as WordPress, which, for a modest fee, provide a fairly user-friendly means to publish.
All this popularity comes, of course, with a huge caveat. Blogs are entirely self-published, unreviewed and unfiltered. They are the very personal musings of the author. All very appropriate in a society where freedom of expression is a valued right, and arguably not a problem in the hands of an informed readership. However, by putting the burden for validity solely in the hands of the author, the line between fact and opinion becomes blurred. By breaking down the barriers required to express ideas to the public, they may also contribute to a sense of permissiveness and thus erode any sense of self-regulation on the part of potential authors. Authors who have never published in a regulated environment may be unaware of any responsibility to verify facts or clarify when expressing personal opinions. Readers may stop caring about the difference.
With all this in mind, it seems blogs, or whatever evolves technologically from them, are here to stay; they can and do provide a great means to communicate widely. Despite all their drawbacks, I’m a big fan of the concept for two key reasons:
First and foremost, they work. They reach the intended audience, and far beyond. In my own case, I’m continually encouraged not only by those who choose to post responses, but even more by those who send private messages (not always in agreement, to be sure) or simply chat in the hallways about some issue or other that’s come under discussion. I’m particularly pleased by the thought and varied perspectives that emerge from our students on controversial topics that, I’m certain, would otherwise have been silent. I think this dialogue helps faculty and students, understand each other more clearly and forge therefore better solutions to the various problems that emerge.
Secondly, and this is my non-factual, biased view, open dialogue is healthy and even essential to any organization, and particularly one committed to education. The freedom to express individual ideas and free thought should always be encouraged, and that will require uncensored “buyer beware” media. Whether it’s dialogue in the Greek agora, pamphlets by folks like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin or stump speeches of political revolutionaries, free and controversial perspectives must and will find their way to expression. It’s important that they do. Full exposure of all ideas and points of view is healthy, if sometimes disturbing. Blogs are simply our generation’s technological solution. We can rail about the lack of control and its potential impact but, in the end, freedom to express must trump any form of censorship and we must rely on the judgment and conscience of consumers.
And so, with this one hundredth post coming at the end of another year, let me, with uncensored sincerity; wish all our faculty and students very best wishes for the Christmas season, the New Year, and continuing open, healthy dialogue.
Anthony J. Sanfilippo, MD, FRCP(C)
Undergraduate Medical Education