The Politics of Circulation, Human Agency and Building Your Own Information Environment

In the spirit of structured procrastination I thought I’d put some thoughts down which occurred when reading Dave Beer’s paper on the Politics of Circulation earlier today (weirdly enough, also in the spirit of structured procrastination, it’s like I have some impending deadline that is leading me to find ever more creative displacement activities). In this interesting discussion piece he observes a general tendency across the humanities and social sciences towards a new focus on public scholarship:

It is becoming increasingly apparent that various academic disciplines, right across the spectrum of the social sciences and humanities, are trying quite hard to develop a more public profile. These struggles take many forms, as do the drivers and pressures that instigate them. Some are based upon governmental imperatives for research ‘impact’ – which is actually shorthand for having measurable impact (Burrows, 2012). Others are a result of cultural changes and the general feeling that public engagement is worthwhile. Alongside these, there are also some broader transformations in the media landscape that mean that researchers are forced to ask: what is stopping me from having a public face?

This leads quite naturally to experimentation which the manifold possibilities afforded by social media for communication and engagement with those outside the academy. However the ensuing “integration of new media forms into research practices” has complex implications which the conceptual space opened up by the politics of circulation helps us begin to unpack. There has always been a politics of circulation for social research but digital communication entails a unprecedented increase in the visibility, complexity and rapidity which characterises this circulation:

The outcomes and findings of social research have always circulated back into the social world in variegated and often untraceable forms (Savage, 2010). But the changing media through which research is being communicated opens this research up to a new range of possibilities for circulation and re-appropriation. If it gets any attention, it will be commented upon and rated (or ‘liked’) and, crucially, it will be re-appropriated through sharing, re-tweeting, re-blogging and as sections of the content (particularly visualizations) are cut-and-pasted into other posts for use by other ‘authors’.

Many of the anxieties which surround the use of social media by academics can be usefully understood in terms of the politics of circulation. The article ends with the suggestion that “the greater our understanding of the politics of circulation then, the greater our chances of turning them to our advantage”. I couldn’t agree with this more. I’ve been trying for ages to conceptualise my intuitive sense of social media as at least incipiently political for social science given the present institutional and political environment it confronts. So perhaps what I’ve been grasping for is simply the notion that increased digital literacy amounts to an expansion of academic agency given contemporary politics of circulation? I find the range of free (or nearly free) possibilities currently available quite astonishing. It’s not simply a matter of social media platforms allowing new forms of communication but increasingly it is possible to build your own information environment to exercise what can be a quite significant influence over how your your work circulates.

The two tools I have in mind here are Buffer App and IFTTT. I’m running it out of time for writing this post so here’s the explanation of IFTTT I wrote a while back:

Do you find social media taking up too much of your time? If so then IFTTT could be incredibly useful for you. It allows different social media channels to be connected up using statements of the form IF [x] THEN [Y] – where X is an event occurring on one channel and Y is an action on another channel.When I found out about this, I was instantly fascinated but it can be quite tricky to work out how to actually use it. That said, I’ve been using it for months now and I was surprised to realise recently that I actually have 10 IFTTT statements running. These do things which previously were either impossible or only possible by hand. It’s an incredible time saving tool and I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of it.

Here are the ones I’m currently using:

  • Every new post on the LSE Politics Blog (via the RSS feed) gets saved as a new document on my Google Drive.
  • Articles I favourite on Pocket (Read It Later) get saved in Google Drive as a PDF
  • New posts on Sociological Imagination get their details entered on a spreadsheet archive in Google Drive
  • New posts on the Public University website get placed in my Twitter buffer for Sociological Imagination
  • New entries on go into my Twitter buffer for Sociological Imagination
  • New entries on go to the Sociological Imagination facebook wall.
  • New posts on Sociological Imagination go to the Sociological Imagination facebook wall
  • New posts on Sociological Imagination go to the Twitter buffer for Sociological Imagination.
  • My favourited items on Google Reader go into the Sociological Imagination twitter buffer.

With a very small amount of fiddling it makes it possible to make some quite complex things happen automatically. For instance every post I publish on this blog gets posted immediately on my own twitter account, on the sociological imagination facebook page and gets added to the Buffer for @soc_imagination to be posted at a later date – it also appears in a RSS feed which, when I sit down to ‘curate’ for the various Twitter feeds I run every few weeks, allows me to then add the post to the Buffers for these Twitter feeds with a single click. It might sound quite complex but the point I’m trying to get across is that it’s entirely automatic once you set it up. These tools make it possible to set up ‘pipes’ between ‘channels’ which ensure pathways of circulation, while also facilitating the easy collection and review of information about the further circulation which each ‘stage’ of this path gives rise to. I’ve been wondering for ages how to conceptualise what has, to me, seemed like an escalation of what online tools are offering and the politics of circulation certainly has promise in this respect. It’s also something I want to think more about in terms of agency in this novel information environment.

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