During yesterday’s very interesting iHSSR session, Doing things Differently: writing, academic journals and social media in the online world, the presenters from The Journal of Victorian Culture Online puzzled over why, when their online communications were so highly used, so few people commented on the articles. I’ve since been pondering this conundrum, and wonder if it is due to a combination of factors.

For me, the first would be simply fear. Fear of making a fool of myself. Fear of stepping outside my comfort zone. Fear of attracting ridicule. Fear of seeming to be a know-all (good old British modesty perhaps) or a nit-picker.

This web site is after all a scholarly environment, populated by academics, most of whom appear to know a significant amount about their topic. Who am I to question or elaborate on their writing? Or even add something that they might already know and just omitted to save space?

I suppose that I could comment anonymously, but even then I’m going to read the feedback that follows my display of ignorance.

Even posting a congratulatory comment would be risky, because then I might be seen as sycophantic, or if perhaps I might praise an author only to find that everyone else finds his article questionable.

Articles often cover a very narrow or specialised area, such as Queen Victoria’s left big toenail, which perhaps hardly anyone else knows anything about, or is particularly interested in. The author’s colleagues and friends will probably have already seen the article, and made their comments and suggestions. So unless there is a previously unknown expert on Victoria’s feet lurking somewhere in deepest Papua New Guinea, it is unlikely that there will be a rush of comments.

What did surprise me was the apparent reluctance of authors to use all the tools  of the web – images, videos, sound files, animations and hyperlinks. This results in online articles that essentially replicate pages from paper-based publications (yawn). Perhaps it is early days. I wonder if, when moveable type was introduced some 560-odd years ago (1000 years ago in China), readers bemoaned the fact that writers still used illuminated letters. Hey, we still often use drop caps (even on the web), which are presumably a distant descendent of illuminated capitals.

And so I remain too timid to try, at least until, in a hundred years or so, I feel that I know enough about some obscure element of nineteenth century culture to be unassailable!