There’s an intriguing argument in The Mediated Construction of Social Reality, by Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp, concerning our dependence upon digital media and how we respond to its failure. From loc 5527:

We feel the costs viscerally: when ‘our’ media break down –we lose internet connection, our password stops working, we are unable to download the latest version of software required by the device or function we want to use –it is as if the social infrastructure were itself, in some respect, breaking down: recursivity has been interrupted, ontological security becomes threatened.

I take their point to be that our reliance upon digital media isn’t simply about specific purposes. For digital media to fail does not frustrate us because it impedes a particular purpose. In an important sense, our purposiveness as such, has come to rely upon digital media. For this reason, there is a latent trauma inherent in its breakdown. We experience its failure in terms of a impeded capacity to act within the world, as opposed to simply frustrating specific actions.

The argument is underdeveloped, as can be seen by the “in some respect” clause within it. It’s nonetheless an important and provocative one. It left me wondering if anyone has done qualitative research about experiences of wifi breaking down in terms of the affective fallout from such a failure? My experience of this has tended to be one of whole categories of action being foreclosed when this happens, as in a real sense I lose the ability to proceed with my work, rather  than it simply being a contingent impediment to particular tasks. I imagine there’s a great deal of variability in how people respond to such a situation but I nonetheless think Couldry and Hepp are pointing towards something very interesting.

An exercise in free-writing, undertaken at a writing workshop at the Becoming Academic conference at the University of Sussex.

I write to eliminate the clutter in my head, the accumulated debris which emerges within me as I make my way through the world, trying to understand my experiences as I go. If I am free to write, I am free to be within the world and my experience feels most full and most thick when I am externalising my internal reactions to the world. What C Wright mills called ‘the feel of an idea’ preoccupies me and my orientation to the world feels changed in those times when I seize upon that feeling, run with it it and make something new ‘out there’ from a reaction I had ‘in here’ to the world. But what can be difficult is when I can’t run with that feeling, when nascent ideas bubble up inside of me but circumstances preclude my running with them. Contingencies intervene and prevent my exploration of these things I feel moved to explore. If I don’t write, I feel in partial motion, stuck in the early stages of a range I cannot complete. If I can’t write, I feel somehow incomplete, as if my capacity to react to the world is subtly mutilated. I write to eliminate the clutter in my head and without writing I am inundated by mess.

I wonder if there is something performative about my writing, as if I bring myself into being through the process of doing it. I wonder why I feel so compelled to share my writing, as if it somehow isn’t real or can’t become real unless it is out there in the world. It’s a repeated exercise, conducted thousands of times, which has left me feeling extremely comfortable with the prospect of sharing my writing. But I’m still not entirely sure why I do it and at times it feels like a compulsion.

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself when reading through two books by Nick Couldry in which he develops a materialist phenomenological approach to understanding social reality. The first is The Mediated Construction of Social Reality (with Andreas Hepp) and the second is Media, Society, World. It’s in the latter book that he considers the representational power of media. From loc 683:

Media institutions, indeed all media producers, make representations: they re-present worlds (possible, imaginary, desirable, actual). Media make truth claims, explicit or implicit: the gaps and repetitions in media representations, if systematic enough, can distort people’s sense of what there is to see in the social and political domains.

There is a political economy underpinning this, in terms of the capacity to make such representations and the gains accruing from this capacity. The common reference points which accumulate as a consequence serve a broader economic purpose. From loc 701:

However, if basic consumer demand –for fashion, music, sport –is to be sustained at all, it requires ‘the media’ to provide common reference points towards which we turn to see what’s going on, what’s cool.

The interests and influence in play here have been crucial to the unfolding of late modernity. Media has been a site through which power has consolidated. What we are seeing with ‘post-truth’ is a deconsolidatiob of this apparatus, taking place at a number of different levels. From loc 886:

Representations matter. Representations are a material site for the exercise of, and struggle over, power. Put most simply, our sense of ‘what there is’ is always the result of social and political struggle, always a site where power has been at work. 150 But fully grasping this in relation to media is difficult: because the role of media institutions is to tell us ‘what there is’ –or at least what there is that is ‘new’ –media’s work involves covering over its daily entanglement in that site of power. Media aim to focus populations’ attention in a particular direction, on common sites of social and political knowledge. Media institutions’ embedding as the central focus of modern societies is the result of a history of institutional struggle that is becoming more, not less, intense in the digital media era. It is essential to deconstruct the apparently natural media ‘order’ of contemporary societies.

C_ZQl3RXgAEMz7k

Do you want your research to produce more impact? Many researchers are excited about the potential social media offers for generating impact but with 500 million tweets per day, 3 million blog posts per day and over a billion websites they face an obvious challenge: how do you ensure you are heard above the din? How can you use social media effectively without spending all your time online? How can you use social media as part of a multi-faceted and cost-effective impact strategy?

This workshop offers a practical introduction to these challenges, exploring how to use social media to engage with groups beyond the academy and ensure the impact of research. The session will include an overview of key considerations and group discussion of practical problems. The focus throughout will be on practical and sustainable techniques to build ongoing relations with publics outside the academy.

At the end of the day, participants will have learnt about the opportunities and challenges posed by social media for researcher impact, as well as having designed a bespoke impact strategy relevant to their own projects. Participants also have the option of purchasing five hours of coaching via Skype to support the implementation of this strategy. This includes a free copy of Social Media for Academics.

Eventbrite - Making an Impact with Social Media

by Nick Fox and Marguerite Regan

For the past 18 months, the British Sociological Association (BSA) group Sociologists outside Academia (SOA) has been focusing on the potential for careers working as applied or practical sociologists, beyond the traditional remits of academia.  Sociology is essential not only for understanding the big problems that face society, but also the daily issues that need addressing at work, at home or in the community.  We believe sociologists have the concepts, the theories and detailed knowledge of organisations and human interactions that can address such everyday situations.  

In the US and elsewhere, sociology has already established a profile for solving these kinds of problems, but much less so in the UK.  That’s not to say there aren’t UK sociologists already using their skills and knowledge in applied settings.  Some call themselves ‘consulting sociologists’, others run businesses that provide sociological expertise to industry, local government and voluntary organisations.  There are also many sociologists working in areas where they bring to bear their knowledge and expertise, even if they don’t have the job title ‘sociologist’. But there is a lack of visibility around this application of sociology outside academia.

Last year an SOA workshop kick-started work on developing a field of applied and practical sociology here in the UK.  We considered the kinds of knowledge, skills and models needed to solve the problems that organisations, businesses and the public-sector face, and started to map out how careers as an applied sociologist could pan out. Doing this kind of applied sociological work required specific skills to explore how social and cultural factors link individual experience to everyday events. Generic skills were also needed, including reasoning, communication and collaborative working.  

SOA now wants to evolve this work further, by developing a curriculum in applied sociology for final year undergraduate students.  This curriculum can not only be offered to universities as an option they might develop for their students, but will also be a way to really clarify the knowledge, concepts, and subject-specific and generic skills that an applied sociologist will need to work effectively in non-academic organisations and settings.

We invite applications from sociologists who would like to join an SOA task and finish group to work on this development of an applied sociology curriculum.  We conceptualise a six-month programme, in which the group will meet virtually.  At the end, we will seek funding for a public launch of our curriculum for applied sociology.

If you are a sociologist who works predominantly in a non-academic setting, but use your sociological skills and knowledge to inform your work, we would like to hear from you.  We would also welcome one or two current undergraduate or master’s students to join the team, to provide input in terms of what is needed educationally in an undergraduate applied sociology curriculum.

Unfortunately, we cannot pay any fees for this work, and we do not have a budget for face-to-face meeting expenses.  This will be a labour of love, for those wanting to flex their sociological imaginations, and due credit will be given to all those involved.

Please contact Nick Fox, SOA co-convenor (n.j.fox@sheffield.ac.uk) for more information about the project and details of how to apply.   Applications will close on 19 June 2017 and successful applicants will be notified shortly thereafter.  

Special Issue of Chinese Journal of Communication: The Platformization of
Chinese Society

Extended Abstract Submission Deadline: July 1, 2017
Full Paper Submission deadline: February 28, 2018

Guest Editors: Jeroen de Kloet, Thomas Poell, Zeng Guohua

Full text: http://jeroendekloet.nl/the-platformization-of-chinese-society/

We are currently witnessing a fast process of platformization of Chinese
society. Social media, as well as platforms for collaborative consumption,
are emerging as new power players that challenge older institutions and
disrupt economic sectors like news, hospitality, and transport. Yet, in the
light of omnipresent government regulation and intervention,
platformization presents us with a very different set of problems and
questions than in the West. In the same way, we need to critically
interrogate the seemingly ‘natural’ connection between online platforms and
‘global capitalism’, which has been theorized through the notion of
‘platform capitalism’ (Smicek, 2016). Again China presents an odd case, as
it is hard to read China as a capitalist society (Nonini, 2008). Against
this background, the aim of this special issue is to critically engage with
the platformization of China, using China as a method (cf. Chen, 2010) to
interrogate, complicate, and complement current research on the global rise
of the platform society (van Dijck & Poell 2015). We thus ask in this
special issue: what does the platform society mean for China, but also,
what does China mean for our thinking about the platform society?

This special issue aims to empirically scrutinize different platforms that
are currently popular in China. The Chinese process of platformization
appears to differ on at least three crucial dimensions with developments in
the US and Europe. First, there are vital differences in the political
economy of platforms: the ownership structure and business models of
Chinese platforms are different from those in the US. This also has
implications for the ownership of data, raising issues of surveillance,
control and marketing of data (Couldry & Hepp, 2017; Dyer-Witheford, 2014).
Second, vital differences need to be taken into account in terms of the
architectures and affordances of platforms: user and programming interfaces
(and its semiotics), algorithms (what is made visible and invisible), and
infrastructures (how are third parties plugged into the platform ecosystem)
(Hookway, 2014; McVeigh-Schultz & Baym, 2015; Plantin et al., 2016).
Finally, Chinese online platforms appear to be characterized by particular
types of user practices and cultures, which differ from those in other
parts of the worlds (Poell, de Kloet & Zeng 2014; Qiu, 2016). Given that
the societal impact of new technologies is for an important part shaped by
how these technologies are integrated in social practice, these differences
greatly matter.

The contributions we solicit for this special issue will each focus on one
specific type of platform, following a typology based on a preliminary
inventory (see below). We envision contributions that analyze a particular
platform and its role in societal relations through the three dimensions
sketched above. These contributions are expected to build on the fields of
media and cultural studies, software studies and/or platform studies, in
their investigation of one of the following types of platforms:

1.     Public social media (e.g. weibo and douban)
2.     Private social media (e.g. weixin).
3.     News and search platforms (e.g. baidu)
4.     E-commerce services (e.g. taobao)
5.     Media sharing platforms (e.g. youku and tudou)
6.     Transport platforms (e.g. taxi didi and mobike)
7.     Food services (e.g. meituan and eleme)
8.     Dating platforms (e.g. tamtam and blue’d)

Evidently, we will welcome strong paper proposals, focused other types of
platforms as well.

Timeline

1200-word extended abstracts should be submitted by mail to Jeroen de Kloet
(b.j.dekloet@uva.nl) and Thomas Poell (Poell@uva.nl) by July 1, 2017. The
abstract should articulate: 1) the issue or research question to be
discussed, 2) the methodological or critical framework used, and 3)
indicate the expected findings or conclusions. Decisions will be
communicated to the authors by July 15, 2017.

Full papers of the selected abstracts should be submitted by February 28,
2018. All submitted manuscripts will be subject to a rigorous blind
peer-review process. All accepted manuscripts will be published online
first. The planned printed publication date is an issue of CJC in 2019.

Submissions should conform to the editorial guidelines of the Chinese
Journal of Communication found at http://www.informaworld.com/cjoc under
“Instructions for Authors.”


Many researchers are excited about the potential social media offers for making an impact with their work. However 500 million tweets per day, 3 million blog posts per day and over a billion websites poses an obvious challenge: how can you ensure you are heard above the din? How can social media be used by busy researchers in an effective and efficient way?

This workshop offers a practical introduction to these challenges, exploring how to use social media to engage with groups beyond the academy and ensure the impact of research. The session will include an overview of key considerations and group discussion of practical problems. The focus throughout will be on practical and sustainable techniques to build ongoing relations with publics outside the academy.

At the end of the day, participants will have learnt about the opportunities and challenges posed by social media for researcher impact, as well as having designed a bespoke impact strategy relevant to their own projects. Participants also have the option of purchasing five hours of coaching via Skype to support the implementation of this strategy. This includes a free copy of Social Media for Academics.

Eventbrite - Making an Impact with Social Media

Mark Carrigan is a Digital Sociologist and Social Media Consultant. He is Digital Fellow at The Sociological Review and recently completed three years as Research Fellow in the Centre for Social Ontology at the University of Warwick. He is the author of Social Media for Academics, published by Sage in early 2016. This is the first book length guide to the use of social media within higher education and has been widely praised across a diverse range of reviews.

Reluctantly cut from my digital sociology paper

Indeed, as Srnicek (2016) argues, this dynamics is integral to the nature of the platform itself, as a business model premised upon maximising opportunities for data extraction through situating itself as an intermediary between the interactions of existing actors. Each platform has an epistemic privilege in relation to the transactions taking place though it, the potential financial value of which encourages maximal data extraction from existing users and continued efforts to expand the user base. The more a platform grows, the more useful it is to its users and the greater the range and value of the data collected. The logic of platforms generates an ambition towards monopoly, which might manifest itself in a choice to pull out of areas where this seems impossible to achieve e.g. Uber in China (Stone 2017).

The explanatory challenge posed by platforms rests on the confluence of social, economic and technology factors within a rapidly changing environment, the intensification of which is being brought about in part by the platforms themselves. Srnicek’s (2016) work offers an account of how such an analysis could proceed, identifying the generic characteristics of platforms and the different forms they take. In the case of something like the ‘sharing economy’, we can see a clear business model: find a social interaction which already is or could be monetised, develop a digital platform which can be inserted as an intermediary within that interaction and rely on network develops to scale the new model in a way that will ultimately squeeze out any instances of the interaction which are unmediated or reliant on an older form of mediation. The precise character of these dynamics, as well as the changing situation of those caught up within them, is probably best pursued as a multi-disciplinary endeavour (Scholz 2016). But sociological thought offers powerful resources for making sense of the broader context within which this is taking place: how are the platforms scaling in this way? To what extent are they reliant upon declining social integration and to what extent are they contributing to it? How are social relations being transformed by increasingly large tracts of human activity being governed by the technical architecture and social imperative of large corporations based many thousands of mile away, whose local operations are concerned at most with recruiting new workers & safeguarding the platform against regulatory pushback? These questions are offered by way of example of the intellectual resources sociology offers for making sense of these changes.

 

In his wonderful memoir, Adults In The Room, Yanis Varoufakis reflects on the frustrations of politics and how they compare to academia. From loc 5504:

Possibly because of my academic background, this was the Brussels experience I least expected and found most frustrating. In academia one gets used to having one’s thesis torn apart, sometimes with little decorum; what one never experiences is dead silence, a refusal to engage, a pretence that no thesis has been put forward at all. At a party when you find yourself stuck with a self-centred bore who says what they want to say irrespective of your contribution to the conversation, you can take your glass and disappear to some distant corner of the room. But when your country’s recovery depends on the ongoing conversation, when there is no other corner of the room to retreat to, irritation can turn into despair –or fury if you grasp what is really going on: a tactic whose purpose is to nullify anything that is inimical to the troika’s power.

I found it fascinating to read this. Since encountering this paper by Richard French a few years ago, I’ve been interested in the implicit conceptions of politics which animate the publicly-orientated activity of academics. How do they think power works? How do they think problems are solved? How do they think challenges are negotiated? It seems as if Varoufakis’s intellectual interests (particularly game theory and political economy) left him well attuned to the dynamics of power but his nostalgia for academia certainly resonates with what French argues here:

Many academics misunderstand public life and the conditions under which policy is made. This article examines misconceptions in three major academic traditions—policy as science (e.g., ‘evidence-based policy’), normative political theory, and the mini-public school of deliberative democracy—and argues that the practical implications of each of these traditions are limited by their partial, shallow and etiolated vision of politics. Three constitutive features of public life, competition, publicity and uncertainty, compromise the potential of these traditions to affect in any fundamental way the practice of politics. Dissatisfaction with real existing democracy is not the consequence of some intellectual or moral failure uniquely characteristic of the persona publica, and attempts to reform it are misdirected to the extent that they imagine a better public life modeled on academic ideals.

What does it mean for policy to be insulated from politics? That’s the question we ultimately confront when investigating the putative depoliticisation of the economy. Matters which should be publicly resolved, through organised processes of contestation, instead get decided privately. We can cite examples of such transitions, consider whether they embody a broader tendency and offer explanations which account for this direction of travel.

However I’ve often wondered about the micro-social aspects of such a transition, specifically how policy makers make sense of this depoliticisation. Is it a naked power grab? Is it a response to the vagaries of the electorate? Is it an attempt to address issues of socio-economic change which are seen as being impossible to raise with the public?  Yanis Varoufakis offers a partial answer to these questions in his gripping accounts of Eurogroup negotiations in his political memoir Adults In The Rooms. From loc 4202

As he spoke, Schäuble directed a piercing look at Sapin. ‘Elections cannot be allowed to change economic policy,’ he began. Greece had obligations that could not be reconsidered until the Greek programme had been completed, as per the agreements between my predecessors and the troika. The fact that the Greek programme could not be completed was apparently of no concern to him. What startled me more than Wolfgang Schäuble’s belief that elections are irrelevant was his total lack of compunction in admitting to this view. His reasoning was simple: if every time one of the nineteen member states changed government the Eurogroup was forced to go back to the drawing board, then its overall economic policies would be derailed. Of course he had a point: democracy had indeed died the moment the Eurogroup acquired the authority to dictate economic policy to member states without anything resembling federal democratic sovereignty.

Soon after becoming Finance Minister of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis found himself surrounded by civil servants whose loyalties he could not assume and staff parachuted in by a political party with which he had little prior affiliation. In his political memoir, Adults In The Room, he recounts his impulse to find “a minder whose loyalties would not be shared with any of my new Syriza comrades, let alone the deputy PM”. He turned to an old friend from university to serve this purpose, describing on loc 2873 the risks he sought protection from:

‘To keep me out of jail, Wassily,’ I replied. He understood. Ministers of finance are at the mercy of their minders. They sign dozens of documents, decrees, contracts and appointments daily. It is humanly impossible to examine closely everything they sign. All it takes is a hostile or absent-minded aide, and suddenly the minister faces the wrath of the public or a summons to court.

What is the danger here? The pace at which he is forced to work, the number of documents which he must formally assess, preclude a meaningful engagement with their content. This is something which could be exploited by those able to exercise an influence over what goes into his in-tray. The specific risks he faced were unique to his role as Finance Minister, as well as the times and circumstances under which he served.

However is there a broader lesson here about distraction and culpability? To what extent do our moral and legal notions of culpability rest on an assumption of the considered evaluation of our actions? If this is the case, it follows that distraction is something which political philosophers ought to take seriously. It has consequences at the moral level, in terms of how we attribute responsibility to persons. But it is also something we should consider in legal terms, if the attribution of culpability rests on assumptions about the socio-temporal conditions for evaluation which were absent in practice.

There’s a helpful summary on Wikipedia of the degrees of culpability recognised in criminal law in the United States:

  • A person causes a result purposely if the result is his/her goal in doing the action that causes it,
  • A person causes a result knowingly if he/she knows that the result is virtually certain to occur from the action he/she undertakes,
  • A person causes a result recklessly if he/she is aware of and disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk of the result occurring from the action, and
  • A person causes a result negligently if there is a substantial and unjustifiable risk he/she is unaware of but should be aware of.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culpability

If we accept the argument that distraction is socially and culturally produced, should this lead us to qualify the third and fourth dimensions of culpability? I want to sustain the argument that recklessness and negligence are in an important sense liable to be produced systematically, even if it remains extremely difficult to quantify such a claim. What does distraction mean for political theory and political philosophy?

In his Debating Humanity, Daniel Chernilo compares the approaches taken by Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt to the question of thinking. Both began with the philosophical tradition’s opposition between thinking and action: in this sense it implies withdrawal in some sense, relative to a world of activity. However Heidegger saw this thinking as an activity for the chosen few. From pg 80:

For Heidegger, on the contrary, it is defined in terms of the fundamental realisation that thinking is exclusively to do with thinking itself. Thinking is the professional craft of the philosopher; the slow, painful and authoritative listening to the great minds of the past in a process that leads to understand the one idea that a genuine thinker may be able to develop over the course of a lifetime.

This is a radically slow conception of thinking. So slow as to preclude the vast majority of humanity from truly engaging in it. The human disappears in Heidegger’s conception of thought, as the irrelevant site through which thought occurs. His approach to thinking entailed that we leave out the thinker, as thought itself proceeds on a level which is entirely independent of the one who thinks. In contrast, Arendt casts thinking in a thoroughly quotidian frame as “the internal dialogue of a thinking ego that is directed to objects in the world”, ascribing to this “general anthropological capacity of stop and think” the ability of humans “not only to regain some control over their lives but to creatively envisage something that is new” (pg. 80). It is, as Chernilo puts it, “precisely the human quality of thinking that makes thinking worthy of attention” for Ardent (pg. 81).

What caught my imagination about Chernilo’s account is his contrast between the worldliness of Arendt’s conception of thought in contrast to the worldlessness of Heidegger’s. This distinction is one we could usefully apply to contemporary debates on distraction, distinguishing between what I think are two clear tendencies:

  • Constructing ‘distraction’ in terms of a lost past, contrasting the attentional commitment presumed to have once been possible with the fragmentation assumed to define the life of the contemporary mind. What was one slow has become fast, what was once quiet has become loud and human beings (or in some cases only ‘millennials’) are seen to have undergone a process of loss.
  • Constructing ‘distraction’ as a practical impediment to the capacity to withdraw from the world so as to reflect on it. Distraction is cashed out in terms of specific impediments to thought, inviting us to consider what withdrawal actually means and the socio-temporal conditions which can facilitate it.

If we reject the former in favour of the latter, it no longer seems plausible to frame ‘distraction’ in epochal terms. Perhaps more importantly, we can begin to explore the socio-temporal and socio-technical conditions within which we ‘stop and think’, as well as how we can individually and collectively exercise an influence over them. We must insist on worldliness in how we characterise the life of the mind. Or at the very least I should finally get round to reading this book I’ve intended to for years.

Earlier this morning, I found myself impatiently waiting in my local petrol station to purchase a drink before I went swimming. The woman in front me in the queue was rather slow. Initially seeming surprised that money would be required for the transaction, she proceeded to initiate an entirely different process to locate her coins after handing over the necessary notes. Having completed the exchange, she gathered her things with a similar lack of pace, slowly preparing to leave the shop. It was at that point that she gently chided me for rushing her, suddenly leaving me aware that this was in fact what I was doing by impatiently lingering while effectively pointing towards the cashier with my drink.

With this newfound awareness, my irritation at her transmuted into an irritation with myself. Why was I being so impatient? Why was I being needlessly rude? It immediately occurred to me that this was an example of what I mean by cognitive triage. Having woken up later than planned, I started the day with a vivid sense of all the tasks I had to complete, with one leading in sequence to the next. There were a couple of things that had to be done today but this sense of urgency mostly reflected a desire to be on top of things before I headed off to the midlands for the rest of the week.

It was an anticipatory urgency: a haste animated by the fear of falling behind in the future. This can be distinguished from rushing to meet a deadline. The imminent arrival of a deadline offers a fixed temporal horizon for an activity. One rushes and then ceases to rush. In contrast, anticipatory urgency is potentially open-ended. If an upcoming event is a threat to ‘being on top of things’ then where to draw the line in terms of what is required to be prepared? My suggestion is that anticipatory urgency engenders a peculiarly hasty form of haste. It involves rushing in a rushed way. Not simply speeding up to meet a deadline but trying to speed up one’s speeding up. How much can I get done before I go away? How prepared do I need to be? It’s a reflexive orientation that can bring out the worst in people, as my rudeness in the garage illustrates.

There is a pleasure in speed, as Milan Kundera powerfully captures in his Slowness. There is the possibility of transcendence. On pg 3-4 he describes the inner experience of a man on a motorbike:

the man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instance of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time; in other words he is in a state of ecstasy. In that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.

In contrast, I’d argue, anticipatory urgency precludes this. One is not cut off from past and future but profoundly implicated in the relationship between the two. The present is subordinated the future, with the usual texture of temporality being reduced to an endless sequence of moments. Each one is simply a challenge lying in the way of reaching the next. It creates flat time. This suppression of relationality is licensed by the promise that the important events will come and our anticipatory urgency will have left us properly open to them. But the more time we spent in a state of anticipatory urgency, the less likely it is that this promise will ever be realised.

What does social media mean for academic writing? Most answers to this question focus on how such platforms might constrain or enable the expression of complex ideas. For instance, we might encounter scepticism that one could express conceptual nuance in 140 characters or an enthusiasm for blogging as offering new ways to explore theoretical questions beyond the confines of the journal article. However these discussions only rarely turn to writing in a more biographical sense, as a recurrent activity which is both personally meaningful and professionally necessary.

Social media is certainly offering us more occasions for writing. The most obvious form this takes is the personal blog, providing one with a platform for exploration whenever we are taken by the feel of an idea worth exploring. However I suspect that many academics who sustain a personal blog do so because it serves a purpose prior to writing, serving as a common-place book or ideas garden. In such cases, the time spent blogging serves as a preparation for writing, even if it is sometimes an oblique one. There is no necessary tension here between blogging and writing, even if sometimes the former can hinder the latter, for instance when the familiarity of the blog draws us away from more formal writing that might not be going well.

What about online writing that doesn’t serve this preparatory function? In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself thinking about the challenge of ephemera increasingly confronting academics. I mean ephemera in the literal sense of “things that exist or are used or enjoyed for only a short time”. Long-established examples include book reviews, newsletter articles and short pieces in magazines. With the growth of social media, we are seeing a rapid expansion in opportunities to produce such ephemera. Multi-author blogs and online magazines will often be sources of invitations to write, as well as offering opportunities for this to qualified parties who are seeking them out. Such writing rarely constitutes much of a commitment in its own terms. One of many reasons I enjoy writing of this sort is that the usual temporal horizon rarely exceeds a few hours work. For instance, it might take a while to read a book for review but not to write the review itself.

To call ephemera a ‘challenge’ may be misleading. In many ways, I remain convinced this is an opportunity, for the enjoyment of intellectual richness and diversity at the level of both individual scholars and scholarly communities. But unlike blogging in the preparatory sense discussed above, it can often take away from time and energy available for ‘real’ writing. The number of opportunities can itself prove problematic, as invitations and inclinations lead to over-commitment in the face of this abundance. For instance, in the next couple of weeks, I’m supposed to write an article for a magazine, a book review for a blog symposium, a blog post for a newspaper and a piece of sociological fiction for a zine. If I’m being realistic, it seems unlikely I’ll complete them all and thus the writing that was chosen rather than invited is likely to fall by the wayside. Though I think it’s a shame that I experience this as in some sense a distraction, despite my enthusiasm for the planned pieces. Much of this is related to journal articles, as things I should be writing but feel little inclination to, leaving it hard not to see a distance from academia as involving a gain rather than a loss of intellectual freedom.


A subsequent conversation made me think back to Richard Rorty’s remark about universities enabling one to “read books and report what one thinks about them”. Is the promise of ephemera a matter of keeping in touch with this aspiration within a university system which militates against its realisation?

  • Making Sociology Public by Lambros Fatsis
  • Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
  • Filling The Void by Marcus Gilroy-Ware
  • What is the Future? By John Urry
  • The Existentialist Moment by Patrick Baert
  • Slowness by Milan Kundera
  • The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson
  • The Making of the Indebted Man by Maurizio Lazzarato
  • Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries

Though we are all related through common ancestry
Still, some of us are fated by where or what we be.
We could not choose our birthplace, our gender, race, or creed
We’re praiséd, loved, or hated for every word or deed.

Because we all are sisters or brothers, through and through;
No one should try to twist us, or tell us what to do.
We are our planet’s children: we each deserve our say;
And everyone is equal to go in their own way.

Beware of those who chide us, and Unity despise:
They only would divide us, by spiteful deeds and lies
Our future is together, our past is reconciled;
We’ll join our hands in friendship: we cannot be reviled.

Transcribed from Cooper Boyes Simpson album, “Coda”, words possibly written by Lester Simpson?