Every academic semester, I include in my introduction to the course my three teaching principles: 1) what I know and you don’t know, I’m going to teach you; 2) what you know and I don’t know, you’re going to teach me; and 3) what neither of us knows, we’re going to learn together. Principle #2 has usually held more interest for me since I get the opportunity to learn something new and the midshipmen have the opportunity to express themselves. In the course of the past five years teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy, one issue my students tried to teach me was about social media, which was foreign to someone who had written his first graduate school papers on a typewriter and whose first computer (a MacPlus) was now an artifact on display in Michelson Hall. Two years ago, at their suggestion, I decided to learn about blogs.
I focused on military bloggers, specifically those who wrote about some aspect of the Navy. I interviewed them via email and there they remained as non-corporeal bits and bytes, not at all to the face to face interviews I had conducted over the years. The result was part of an article I later published in the February 2009 issue of Naval Institute Proceedings titled “The Navy Can Handle the Truth: Creative Conflict Without Friction.” The question I posed was “should they be taken seriously as part of the discussion and commentary.” What I learned then was that each blogger tended to specialize in issues based on experience or interest, that other blogger experts tended to self-regulate the blogosphere in terms of distinguishing between accurate and inaccurate information, and that there tended to be a civility among them and their readers despite occasional outbursts from a few anonymous posters. Since then, I have posted one or two articles including one on a military policy on Naval Institute’s blog which generated a lot of comments, which supported that last point – that getting that initial feedback and discussion can help a great deal when exploring and learning about an issue.
As a follow-up to that article, thanks to the Naval Institute, I had the opportunity to spend a day at the 5th Annual Milblog Conference. While I’m sure the milbloggers can do it far more justice, I offer the following observations from an objective outsider:
- Milbloggers are not unprofessional. Milbloggers aren’t a bunch of unemployed twenty-year olds typing away at a computer in their parents’ basement. While very few bloggers do so as a fulltime job, or even a part-time, they are motivated and organized. The conference itself was as well organized as any other conference I had attended with excellent, high-profile guest speakers, good questions, and a technical proficiency that rivaled other events. Of the some 200 hundred attendees, there appeared to be more women than men and most attendees were above 30 if not 40 years old. There was a lot of gray hair in that room (with the exception, of course, of Boston Maggie and USNI’s Mary Ripley!) Many milbloggers seems to have military experience or family in the military. There simply wasn’t civility in that room, there was genuine collegiality which is often missed elsewhere. Milblogger Michael Yon called in live from Afghanistan having recently been embedded with a unit and was now following stories as a disembedded journalist; this from a milblogger, and not a well-funded journalist with one of the major news networks.
- Milbloggers are not misinformed. Former CNN correspondent Jamie McIntyre put it best when he said that bloggers make no more or less mistakes than in traditional media. In fact, he noted, they are more credible because they are not bound by the constraints of editorial staffs who may desire particular perspectives on issues or determine which stories to cover. Colonel Gregory Breazile, USMC, suggested that the more people his command reaches through their blog, the more people will get the real story of what is happening with the military.
- Engage them because they are informed. The military community seems to have accepted, if not reluctantly, the viability of milbloggers as a legitimate news source if the program is any indication. Senior officers like General David Petraeus offered a taped introduction, Major General David Hogg had a live video question and answer period, and Admiral John Harvey was a panelist as was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Price Lloyd. Several active duty military were in the audience, likely public affairs officers. Perhaps Admiral Harvey illustrated this point when he discussed the Haiti humanitarian assistance operation as he had to turnaround personnel who had only recently returned from a deployment. He stated that his command blog would get the story out to the taxpayer, but more importantly, it helped to explain to military families why their loved ones were called upon so soon – to do important things to save thousands of lives. “They saw and they believed,” he said.
If more people attended that conference, they might see and believe as well.
Claude Berube teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy and is a frequent contributor to Proceedings and Naval History. He is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. The opinions expressed are his own and not those of the Naval Academy.