My thoughts here are kind-of half-baked, springing from some conversations with very intelligent people at the infamous Kalamazoo. 2 panels in particular. Please bear with me.
The first, the panel I was on was, in truth, rather sparsely attended but still generated some interesting discussion around the topic of the "medieval," especially I think because we had the benefit of a specialist on East Asia and another on South Asia (but even these both fraught terms, of course). In the end, I was left wondering whether "medieval" -- or, more generally, any rather arbitrarily-decided result of periodization -- can ever tell us anything about the period itself. Does "medieval" in the end primarily useful as a way to get at a culture's/ society's myths of nation/ identity/ modernity? And relatedly, I'm increasingly shocked by how captive to late 19th- and early 20th-century scholarship we (as scholars) all seem to be. They have/ still do define the frames by which we look at the past and constrain the very questions we think to ask of our sources. The great Chris Wickham (and you have to put magnus next to his name) seemed to touch on this recently. But I'm left thinking that, pace Tony Grafton, we need someone to destroy our intellectual "coherence." Someone needs to grab hold of our most basic premises -- what we think we really know about the European Middle Ages -- and shake them to the core. Maybe this'll happen through New Media, online sources that can be manipulated in ways previously unthought of, or the prospect of the type of collaboration that only New Media can bring. I dunno. It does, however, seem like it's time to be daring.
This brings me to my second point, inspired by another panel, conveniently having taken place just after mine. 'Twas on blogging and the academy. The papers, let me say, were all excellent -- well thought-out and well-presented. But a question posed at the end by Manan Ahmed, in conjunction with an announcement made at the beginning of the panel that this would be the last year they would organize a session on blogging, in conjunction with the very sane observation made by one of the presenters that, well, things had changed in academic blogging over the past few years, got me thinking. Is blogging worth it? To paraphrase Dr. Ahmed, the revolution will now be covered in 140 characters. Yes, it will be tweeted.
And I think that's largely true. To a degree, we in academe are in the position we lamented of our parents -- a day late and a dollar short, still using the VCR. High School/ College students know and use email, perhaps they even blog themselves. But they don't use email in the ubiquitous way we do. They communicate in different ways, via txt, IM, tweet, or status update. This, of course, has long-term implications because these are the technologies that they'll bring with them to our courses and then outside of college. These new technologies are the ones that will govern our ability to communicate with them because it's how they communicate with one another. I wonder if blogging just isn't one of those technologies. Are we now just talking to ourselves?
I don't have a Facebook account (despite increasing pressure) but I do tweet, and am growing increasingly fond of doing so. The opportunities to communicate quickly and directly with people are huge, even if there remains the looming challenge of cutting through the inevitable "white noise" of so many short posts, so many followers. For example, see what happened when Oprah joined Twitter (also, check out the reporter's name).
And yet, and yet, and yet. Twitter is only good for 140 characters. (Eileen Joy would never survive, although she's gamely making a go of it on Twitter...) You just can't do the sort of long-ish, really good stuff that you can do in a blog post. So I think, in the end, I slightly disagree with Dr. Ahmed's point. The revolution will be tweeted but it'll be blogged too. You need both, a synthesis of "old" and new. The new paradigm shouldn't totally supplant the old but perhaps ought respect its contributions and then go back, take a different route, and build alongside it. It is, indeed, time for something bold.
UPDATE (5/15): See this interesting and related post by Jon Jarrett at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe. I'll post somet thoughts there as well.
UPDATE II (5/18): The NY Times now has an article about the mammoth growth in social network sites (not surprising) but also how time spent on those sites positively dwarfs time spent with email. See above for my thoughts on that.