Blogging on the Commons

Recently our most prolific blogger, John Powell (current IASC President) announced that he was planning on writing a post about commons every month during 2018. I wondered what the reasoning behind this was, and also what other thoughts John now has concerning blogging, as I recall that he was particularly sceptical about the activity at first. I thought that I could use my ‘researcher’ skills and conduct a semi-structured interview with John, to explore these quandaries, which itself could then become a blog post. A blog post about blogging!


NL – What first got you into writing blogs?

JP – There was pressure from some people in CCRI [referring to me!] to develop a blog post, I was initially very sceptical as I had seen various blogs and most of it seemed to be self-promotion, people shooting their mouth off about things that they don’t necessarily know very much about. Initially I couldn’t see the purpose, but I was gradually convinced it was a way to reach a wider audience and put different perceptions of ideas across and it could also be a way to persuade people to look deeper into particular subjects.


Why have you decided to produce one blog post per month, this self-imposed challenge?!

It has been 50 years, since Hardin’s paper on the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ and I had a look across the Internet and was staggered to see, the extent to which people still seem to think it is relevant, it still seems to be utilised heavily in academic circles – there are even YouTube videos based on Hardin’s paper which are fundamentally erroneous. Within the IASC (International Association for the Study of Commons) [John is the current IASC president] we are keen to raise awareness of the fundamental error of this idea of commons being a tragedy. We are implementing a ‘Commons awareness week’ in October 2018, so I thought what would be useful is to produce a series of articles that look at aspects of Hardin’s paper try to refute them and demonstrate that his paper was fundamentally flawed in many ways. I didn’t think it could be done in one blog, as this concept that commons being a tragedy has been around for 50 years, it is going to take a good deal of effort to change people’s views.


John (right) with IASC council members & organisers of the 2019 conference

What, if anything, do you get personally from writing the blogs?

See my name in lights!? [laughing] It is a good way of developing an idea without the pressure of having to meet the peer review requirements of an academic journal. So you can explore particular issues that you are personally interested in, it doesn’t have to be associated with a project and you can explore and develop it, get feedback from people when you put it out there.


You mention the peer-review, how does the writing process of a blog differ to the writing process for academic output?

In some ways it is easier, as you haven’t got to read so much literature, you can pick up on a particular point and build on it. There is still a requirement to do some basic research, and have read relevant literature. You don’t have to write in such an academic way as you are trying to reach a wider audience, at the same time you don’t want to get caught out for saying something stupid or by beign wrong, so it is important to check your sources and make sure you are being objective. So there are certain similarities, particularly ensuring you are accurate and that you don’t want it to appear simply to be an opinion piece. You should be neutral and objective but back up the things that you say with relevant evidence.


How long does it take you to write a typical post? Obviously it varies with the length

The basic idea, you can scribble it out in an hour or so. But, it is the refinement and development of that – checking of sources, refining the argument to make sure you are being clear, so how long does it take? I would normally work on something over [not all the time] a couple of days for a typical post, but shorter ones may only take a couple of hours. Something more substantial, say this one about Hardin, where you are trying to refute an argument – you have GOT make sure that your argument is clear, and supported by evidence.


Is there a way you choose the topics, or do the topics choose you?

Probably the latter – they sometimes just come to me, when I am driving in the car, thinking about something. You start connecting things, thinking ‘ooh it would be interesting to link that to that – it would make an interesting blog’, but it isn’t something that you would have time to write a paper about, but you could set the ball rolling by writing out the ideas and putting it into some form of order that might be of interest to other people. Having said that – if you are at a conference and you listen to an interesting paper, then you have a ready-made format if the speaker says something that sparks your interest.


John Powell in Umeå in northern Sweden with Leticia Merino

Do you think it is a worthwhile process for academics to engage in? You seemed so sceptical at the outset of writing blog posts, and now you are very much converted.

I don’t think it is for everybody, you have got to have an interest in reaching a wider audience with your ideas. The problem is that it is time consuming – every time you do one, it takes you away from other activities you could be engaging in. It does two things though, apart from the fact that you can reach people with ideas that they may not have engaged with, it does sometimes lay the groundwork for more focussed and targeted academic papers.


Have you received any comments or feedback about the two books that you have published based upon your blog posts?

A little bit, certainly the more recent book on blogs from the IASC conferences. A couple of people at the Utrecht conference said they found it very informative about what to expect and the current organisers for the 2019 IASC conference, which will be in Peru, have found them very useful for getting a feel for how conferences operate and the issues and perceptions of someone who has attended these events. The other book had also been used by someone as course material for teaching.


You recently set yourself up on Facebook – as someone who perhaps doesn’t ‘do’ social media, or it is very new to you, I wondered what your thoughts are about it with regard to the IASC as an organisation in coming years.

Well the IASC has got to engage more with social media than it has done to date, in particular Facebook, Twitter and other applications such as WhatsApp and WeChat in China. We know in certain parts of the world, such as Latin America, Facebook and Facebook groups are utilised far more as a means of communication than anything else. Therefore in order to be relevant, in order to be able to engage with a wider group of people, the IASC really has to start to engage with social media. I’m not sure Twitter is so worthwhile, but I do realise it is a way of spreading and sharing information. I’m not sure I would ever engage with Twitter!


A lot of your posts make reference to songs or poems. Do you deliberately put them in, or do they just come to you?

It usually arrives with the idea for the post, but something might trigger it, and that might start me along a particular path but I add in others as they come to me. One of the posts though, that was written in a café in Utrecht, it happened almost as I have written it. I was looking at an intersection, and there was music on the radio in the café, and the songs that came on fitted perfectly with what I was writing.


So there you have it – an insight into John Powell’s blogging activities. John, who is currently the IASC president, will be publishing his blogs on the CCRI website where all future and previous articles can be viewed. For more information about the IASC, how to become a member and details of forthcoming events – such as the global commons awareness week, visit the IASC website.