Social media for academics and the circulation of expert concepts

There’s a fascinating extract in the Real Life newsletter about the contemporary manifestation of what Giddens called the double hermeneutic: the two way relationship between expert concepts and lay concepts which means (amongst other things) that the former often drift into being the latter. ‘Algorithm’ is an excellent example of this, as David Beer pointed out a few years ago, with a once technical term coming to stand in for a whole range of social anxieties about the pervasive influence of opaque computational systems. The point in the newsletter concerns the desire of experts to fix these meanings in the face of the diffuse character they inevitably take on when they enter into non-expert discourse:

Unlike social scientists, I tend to like it when terms lose their precise meaning and begin to speak to a larger zeitgeist, a complex of related phenomena, a shared sense of something driving historical change that resists being dissected and contained into sterile lists of component parts. (I often think of those aggressively undialectical analyses as the “There are four ways that computers affect society…” school of social science papers. Really? Only four?) I like the term “vibes,” for instance, because it both describes and exemplifies this drift: how terms like “algorithm” or “Web3” or “influencer” or “vibe” itself stop referring to strictly specific things and become vibes — a way to evoke the structure of feeling around particular developments where technology and society intersect. 

Often, when it is a matter of a term of art in some particular field, there is a chorus of academic voices protesting this loss of precision; as a term escapes their bailiwick and becomes vernacular, their frustration seems to mount, and their calls for careful usage come to sound more and more condescending, like a parent telling a child, “There, there, that’s not a toy.” “That’s not what an algorithm is.” It always seems to me that they’re hoping that if they contain the discussion to proper circles, it will be as though the pathogen has been re-sequestered in the lab, and its effects on society at large can be once again treated as purely theoretical. Once a term is in the wild, it no longer merely describes something in a faux-neutral sort of way; it becomes a causal agent and begins to dictate new practices, serving as a recipe. 

It’s a matter of controlling the performativity of the concept, attempting to isolate it in an expert setting in order to constrain the capacity of the term to act in the world. Underlying this are two mechanisms increasing the speed of this circulation: the emergence of social novelty (e.g. new technologies, new crises) which lead expert concepts to enter into lay discourse, often through mediators like science communicators or journalists, as well as the increasingly porous quality of expert discourse when more experts are talking more often in public or quasi-public forums about their work. This is why the use of social media by experts isn’t just a matter of getting ideas ‘out there’ but rather a structural transformation in knowledge production which changes how ideas are constituted and circulated in the first place.

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