Right now I'm looking out my office window, perched above the large, grassy, Frisbee-playing, picnicking, and sunbathing area that stretches through Berkeley's campus. I'm looking straight out at the Golden Gate Bridge. It's a view that I marvel at every day. I wonder why the chancellor hasn't confiscated such offices, and rented them out to hedge funds to improve the university's finances.
I walk out my door and look around: at the offices of professors who know more about topics like the history of the international monetary system or the evolution of income distribution than any other human beings alive, and at graduate students hanging out in the lounge. It's a brilliant intellectual community, this little slice of the world that is our visible college. You run into people in the hall and the lounge, and you learn interesting things. Paradise. For an academic, at least.
But I am greedy. I want more. I would like a larger college, an invisible college, of more people to talk to, pointing me to more interesting things. People whose views and opinions I can react to, and who will react to my reasoned and well-thought-out opinions, and to my unreasoned and off-the-cuff ones as well. It would be really nice to have Paul Krugman three doors down, so I could bump into him occasionally and ask, "Hey, Paul, what do you think of..." Aggressive younger people interested in public policy and public finance would be excellent. Berkeley is deficient in not having enough right-wingers; a healthy college has a well-diversified intellectual portfolio. The political scientists are too far away to run into by accident — somebody like Dan Drezner would be nice to have around (even if he does get incidence wrong sometimes).
Over the past three years, with the arrival of Web logging, I have been able to add such people to those I bump into — in a virtual sense — every week. My invisible college is paradise squared, for an academic at least.
Plus, Web logging is an excellent procrastination tool. Don't feel like grading? Don't feel like writing that ad hoc committee report or completing the revisions demanded by clueless referee X? Write on your Web log and get the warm glow of having accomplished something.
Plus, every legitimate economist who has worked in government has left swearing to do everything possible to raise the level of debate, and to communicate with a mass audience rather than merely an ivory-tower audience. That is true of those on the right as well as the left. Web logging is a promising way to do that.
Plus, there is the hope that someday, somehow, all of this will develop in a way to provide useful tools for teaching or marketing one's books, or something — that Web logging is a lottery ticket to something in the future, unknown but good.
Plus — and this is the biggest plus — it is a play in the intellectual influence game. My blog got about 20,000 page-views a day last month.
The hope of all of us who blog is that we will become smarter, do more useful work, be happier and more productive, and will also impress our deans so they will raise our salaries. The first three hopes are clearly true: Academics who blog think more profound thoughts, have a bigger influence on the world — both the academic and the broader worlds — and are happier for it. Are we more productive in an academic sense? Maybe. We will see when things settle down.
Are our deans impressed? Not so far, but they should be. A lot of a university's long-run success depends on attracting good undergraduates. Undergraduates and their parents are profoundly influenced by the public face of the university. And these days, a thoughtful, intelligent, well-informed Web logger like Juan Cole or Dan Drezner is an important part of a university's public face. Michigan gains in reputation and mindshare from having a Cole on its faculty. Yale loses from not having an equivalent.
A great university has faculty members who do a great many things — teaching undergraduates, teaching graduate students, the many things that are "research," public education, public service, and the turbocharging of the public sphere of information and debate that is a principal reason that governments finance and donors give to universities. Web logs may well be becoming an important part of that last university mission.