Today we're hosting a guest-blog from Eisel Mazard, whose blog may be familiar to many of you (it has been in our Blog Roll for some time). I also explored Jeffrey's post on the decline of Buddhism online at my Patheos blog here back in July. As I said then, it's a complex issue. I was using Google's Ngrams, which only display data up to 2008, and Eisel looks at specific discussion groups. Could the discussion be going on somewhere that we're not looking? Blogs like this one and James Ure's Buddhism Blog continue to grow, and the Buddhist Geeks have been successful enough to hold two large conferences. My own blog over at Patheos just had its best month in terms of visitors (but most of that was due to a post about the 2012 US Elections). What do you think? Do you have a blog? How is it performing in terms of numbers, comments, and/or lively sense of community? --- Justin Whitaker
Sunday, 2 December 2012
Buddhism and the Silence of the Internet
written by Buddhist_philosopher
The culture of communication is changing: this makes it difficult to measure any kind of cultural change through the lens of any given medium. In an earlier article, I commented that one of the problems with counting the number of Buddhists in America through a telephone survey is that the culture of the telephone itself has changed in the last 20 years (who will answer an unknown number in the middle of the work-day, etc.). However, the simple fact that I'm here dealing with is the decline of the discussion of Buddhism in English. In some ways, the numbers speak for themselves, and in some ways they require quite a lot of talking to.
Jeffrey Kotyk recently drew attention to the sheer decline in the use of the word "Theravada" itself through Google's own statistics; you can compare that chart to what seems to be declining interest in Zen Buddhism, and other key terms (see his article, here). Although interesting, staring at that chart (below) raises many questions about what type of change the Google Ngram statistic really measures (in relation to changes in the publishing industry specifically, and the culture of communication generally). By contrast, the more colorful chart above is very simple: it shows the decline in the number of messages sent to an online discussion forum (namely, "Pali: The Pali Collective").
There was a generalized complaint about declining activity from the "Progressive Buddhism" blog a few months ago, too: "…so many of the 'names and faces' of 2007,8,9 and 10 are gone or have simply shifted interest…". That complaint is evidently applicable to "The Pali Collective" and many other online discussion groups I've recently glanced over; when I look back at the archives of messages from 2007, I can see the names of a few Pali scholars whom I know/knew and respect, who are evidently no longer active in the forum. However, "The Pali Collective" is still a relative success story: a large number of groups that I looked up have completely ceased to exist. Others, like the (declaredly) academic forum moderated by Richard Hayes have gone silent, but have not formally shut down. Circa 10 years ago, that forum was an extremely noisy place.
The Dhammadutas group (as shown above) declined into silence, and was then taken over by Spam. Clicking through the archives, 2009 seemed to be the last year of real (human-to-human) communication on the forum, but it had already been in decline for some time.
By far the most active discussion forum shown in any of these charts is "Dhammastudygroup", but we nevertheless must observe a decline over the last several years (the level of activity is now roughly half of what it was at its peak).
This discussion forum for Black Buddhists seems to have been a convivial gathering around 2006, but declined soon thereafter, and now has not had a single message posted in 2012.
The broadly inclusive forum named "Sangha" has now declined to a tiny fraction of its former level of activity. Although I'm showing a (roughly) 10 year period for each of these forums, I would note that "Sangha" was actually founded in 1998. As such, this is probably one of the longest-running (continuous) discussion forums for Buddhism (in English), although it is not as old as the (now-moribund) forum overseen by Richard Hayes that I mentioned before ("Buddha-L").
I have seen many, many other examples of decline (and, frankly, I do not know of any real exceptions to the rule). I've presented charts based on Yahoo groups specifically, because they display their own statistics in a manner that is easier to read than Google groups and other competitors (glance over the grid of numbers, e.g., at the bottom of the Buddhadasa group… also in stark decline).
Are we looking at a change in the culture of communication, or are we looking at an indirect indication of a real cultural change? Before I started a blog of my own (à bas le ciel) I did look through a long list of possible websites that I could have (instead) become a contributor to. There were no good options. Although I do still have three articles in peer review, in the last few years I've surveyed my publishing options on paper, again and again; the choices that exist (for an author) are similarly bleak, and many of the publications are in an ongoing state of decline.
Is the growth of my own blog now an exception to the rule? Although I'm surprised at my own growing number of readers, I also see this small-scale success in the context of the collapse of other modes of publication that should have (or could have) been available to me. 19th century journals really did contain "notices" written as casually as these blog-articles (often more casual still) and a forum of that kind (on paper) is now severely lacking for anyone in the field. As I mentioned in recent articles, we no longer have the type of "scholarly pamphlet" that the Buddhist Studies Review and the Pali Buddhist Review used to be (as recently as the 1990s). In looking over the charts above, however, we seem to be witnessing the shrinking of the internet (as a forum for Buddhism in English) especially since 2006. If you've been actively searching for blogs or new publications on Theravāda Buddhism lately (and, perhaps, this is how some of you discovered my writing in the first place) you will have noticed: I don't have much competition. As time goes on, I seem to have less and less competition, not more.
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