A really fascinating discussion between Kristi Winters and The Wooly Bumblebee (HT Philip Moriarty). The latter’s experience could be seen as a model for de-radicalisation in the more toxic spaces within social media. An important reminder that platform incentives might encourage this behaviour but they don’t necessitate it. Furthermore, just because someone has come to act a given way doesn’t mean they will always act that way.

The term ‘curation’ has got a bad press in recent years. Or rather the use of the term beyond the art world has. To a certain extent I understand this but I nonetheless always feel the need to defend the term. There are a few reasons for this:

  • In a context of cultural abundance, selection from variety becomes important within a whole range of contexts. Inevitably, it is something most people within these contexts will do most of the times. But ‘curation’ is becoming a specialised activity, even if detached from a specific social role.
  • I’m prone to thinking of what I do, at least some of the time, as curation. I spend quite a lot of time each week sorting through mailing lists, newsletters, websites, blogs and social media to identify relevant content for The Sociological Review’s Twitter and Facebook feeds. This is 46 social media posts per day. I’ve also shared something on Sociological Imagination daily for almost seven years. I don’t particularly care what anyone else calls it but, as far as I’m concerned, doing it effectively is a skilled activity and ‘curation’ is the term I’ve taken to using.
  • The modern sense of the word ‘curation’ rests on a specific set of institutional arrangements which are themselves relatively recent. The word has a longer history, emerging from the Latin curator (“overseer, manager, guardian“) and what many construe as a misapplication could just as easily be taken as a further shift in its use. Language is dynamic and the anti-‘curation’ rhetoric is an attempt to police its change, albeit not a particularly significant or pernicious one.

Ultimately, I don’t care if people reject this use of the term ‘curation’. I do care if people reject what the term ‘curation’ comes to designate. I don’t dispute it is often used in a vacuous way, but it is not always used this way. It is nebulous and modish but the terms which emerge in relation to socio-cultural transformations often are.

It’s the socio-cultural changes which interest me, the abundance digitalisation is giving rise to and the epistemic fog which emerges as a result. To talk of ‘curation’ is a facet of that conversation and if people want to reject its use, I hope they’ll offer an alternative language for talking about selection from abundance as an institutionalised function within digital capitalism.

In the last couple of months, I’ve found myself reflecting on irritation. What is it? It’s one of our most recognisable reactions to the world, yet it’s hard to be precise about what it is. Is it an emotion? Is it a state of mind? Is it a reaction to the world? This is the definition which Wikipedia offers:

Annoyance is an unpleasant mental state that is characterized by such effects as irritation and distraction from one’s conscious thinking. It can lead to emotions such as frustration and anger. The property of being easily annoyed is called irritability.

There’s a whole model of the person implicit within this which I’m sceptical of. The idea that mental states manifests themselves in effects with implications for cognition, generated by propensities and generating emotions. It’s an individualised account, even if a multifaceted one, concerning something that’s deeply relational.

The most straight forward definition of irritation would be ‘something which irritates’. In one sense it’s circular, telling us nothing about what irritation is, but it captures the relationality of the reaction. We are irritated by something. We find something irritating. It involves an evaluative relation to the world, but one which, as it were, goes wrong. Far from the smoothly hermeneutic world of the post-Aristotelian philosophers, we have the Goffmanian reality of living together (in a world which frustrates our purposes).

So if irritation is being irritated by something, what is it to be irritated? To be “angered, provoked, or annoyed” or “inflamed or made raw, as a part of the body”. The second definition concerns the resolutely physical but I think it captures something important. We are irritated when we are inflamed by the world, made raw by its recalcitrance. People or circumstances irritates us when they impede our routine movement through the world. Things are not as we expect. We’re forced to calibrate ourselves in relation to the world, pushed back into ourselves confronted with a world that resists us, rather than easily making or way through it. 

We get irritated by others when they do not act as we expect them to. We get irritated by others when they do not act as we think they ought to. In this sense, I would argue that irritation tracks declining social integration: the less agreement there is about how we ought to comport ourselves, the more likely we are to experience irritation in daily life.

What interests me is how we respond to this. If we simply make internal allowances for the fact that others may have different expectations and aspirations to ourselves, it’s easy for the irritation to dissipate. A trivial example: I find it irritating when people talk loudly in the steam room at my gym. But I also recognise that some people go there to socialise, whereas for me it’s a resolutely individual activity. Reminding myself of that fact usually leads the irritation to subside.

On the other hand, if I seek external confirmation for my reaction, it’s unlikely to subside. This is where social media comes in: the imagined interlocutor (what Danny Miller calls the ‘meta best friend’) can serve as a outlet, without the possibility for censure that arises when you share with a concrete individual who’s liable to tell you to stop obsessing and let other people be. It’s even more effective when an agent of this imagined interlocutor, someone who emerges from the background to respond definitively before fading back into it and propping up an imagined consensus, confirms that they too find this behaviour irritating.

Sharing irritation through social networks can facilitate an extreme form of what critical realists call communicative reflexivity. We find confirmation of our immediate reactions in others, rather than further interrogating our reaction internally, leading to a hardening of our reaction and a disposition to act similarly in future. I don’t think digital technology straight forwardly causes a decline in social integration but I do think social networks can amplify personal reactions which entrench the decline by, as it were, depleting the reserves of tolerance we have for others who think about and approach life in a different way to us. This is connected to the paradox of incivility and it’s something I’d like to come back to in greater depth.

Notes from this Webinar. I had to leave after the second speaker so they’re not complete.

Alt metrics are a complement to existing metrics, addressing some of the key issues posed by metrics: the lag time of citations, the limitations of impact factor, the time to publication and their focus on a niche audience. The intention of alt metrics is to expand the focus, in order to assess what a broader audience think about research. This has many aspects but one increasingly important one is blogging, currently encompassing 10,000+ blogs with over 1 million mentions of research, from 2006 to now.

Research commentary plays a crucial role in the public understanding of science. It mediates access to research, sometimes providing a more accessible articulation and other times providing a critical focus. The webinar gave an overview of four different types of blog which Alt Metrics are concerned with:

  • Newspaper blogs: often hosted on a subdomain, with a large and diverse audience.
  • Public education blogs: written by specialists and scientists, with public education as a main goal. They tend to have a social media presence and a large but specific audience.
  • Blogs hosted by academic institutions: a lab or department, often used for promoting that groups work, a narrow academic focus and act as a press release outlet for the group.
  • Research blogging platforms: these are a large collective domain, aggregating lots of different blogs, with an audience that tends to be researchers, helps build a research community.

One of the guest speakers, Rolf Degen, talked about how the internet has disrupted the work of freelance science writers. What were once 95 weekly science sections had become 34 in 2005 and 19 in 2012. He embraced social media in order to help build the audience for his writing, though encountered the problem of people not following links through to his article from his tweets. He tried to compress the complexity of a science story by taking a screenshot to post on Twitter, inciting readers to click through to the piece itself. Another problem is that people on Twitter like negativity, sarcastic comments and the tearing apart of established studies.

Nonetheless, it’s important to recognise that the ‘dirty side of science’ has been ignored by the media, who get most of their information from big science institutions and their press releases. Many of his followers are well qualified, prone to instantly criticising him if he makes a mistake. His editors have never been experts in his field, with criticism from readers being confined to letter to the editor. For this reason, the quality control is much higher than it has previously been. He argues that social media has created “an acquired taste for criticism” which is greatly beneficial for science writing. It’s creating a climate in which it’s just as much fun to find error in something, as to find great new insights, contributing to a turn away from the bias for positive results.

The next speaker, Neuro Skeptic, spoke about his experiences as a science blogger. He drew a sharp distinction between science blogging and science journalism. Blogs have become an accepted part of the media in a way that they weren’t until recently, leading people to talk less about blogs as they’ve become a normal part of the landscape. He discussed a really interesting case when Science Blogs lost many of its audience in protest over Pepsi Gate, leading this audience to disperse over the media ecosystem. He draws a distinction between science bloggers (as niche content creators and often research active or with research experience) and science journalists (as generalists with a science background). Blogs offer scientists a way to communicate directly with readers (stripping out press officers) but that means they can be used to push an agenda. He warns that we shouldn’t romanticise science blogging as a pristine way of ‘getting the science out’ because it’s agenda driven. This means we can’t take social media popularity as being an intrinsically good thing, because this might mean things are being celebrated within circles we would regard as unscientific.

Some interesting points about their policy for blog tracking which I’d like to know more about:

  • Their tracking is based on what they happen to hear about.
  • All blogs are weighted equally.
  • They are indexed by author, in order that multiple mentions of the same research by the same author will only be counted once.
  • They are filtered to ensure quality, in order to avoid counting spam blogs etc.

A few weeks ago, I found myself on a late night train to Manchester from London. After a long day, I was longing to arrive home, a prospect that seemed imminent as the train approached Stockport. Then it stopped. Eventually, we were told that there was someone on the tracks ahead and that the police were on the scene. We waited. After another ten minutes, we were told that the police were still trying to apprehend the person on the tracks. I checked Twitter and saw this incident had been unfolding for a while, seemingly disrupting all the trains going into and through Stockport train station. We waited some more. The train manager announced that the police had told trains they could proceed… a few minutes later the finally moving train came to an abrupt halt, apparently because the person who, it turned out was still on the tracks, had almost been hit. The train staff seemed surprised and mildly shaken up, unable to explain why the police had given the order to move. 

I eventually made it to Manchester, albeit after the last tram to the north had departed. As a naturally curious person, I wanted to find out more about what had happened, not least of all to clarify the slightly weird Benny Hill-esque images I was left with following these repeated invocations of police “in pursuit of” this mysterious “woman on the tracks” over half an hour. Plus what the hell were the police doing telling the train to proceed when she was still on the tracks? If it was a mistake, I was curious about why exactly they thought their pursuit had ended when they hadn’t arrested her. If it wasn’t a mistake, it seemed an inexcusable and possibly illegal action, both in terms of harm to the woman and the psychological violence potentially inflicted on a train driver.

But I couldn’t find anything. I searched local newspapers but nothing. I searched social media but could only find my own tweet and the blandly descriptive disruption update on national rail enquiries. My point in recounting this story is not to stress the intrinsic interest of the situation itself. It’s not particularly interesting and you likely had to be there to have any concern. Rather, I’m interested in understanding the character of my frustration at being unable to find what I was looking for through digital means. It’s something I thought back to yesterday, when I was looking for a particular clip from the Simpsons to make a point in a conversation I was having with someone, but could not find it no matter how hard I looked.

In both cases, my behaviour revealed an implicit expectation concerning the extent of digitalisation. In the first case, that an incident which presumably delayed hundreds of people under (vaguely) mysterious circumstances would inevitably generate some digital record. In the second case, a memorable incident from a popular tv show would surely have been uploaded to a video sharing site. My frustration, though mild, stems from an encounter with the incompleteness of digitalisation. 

These thoughts are extremely provisional but I’d really welcome feedback. 

I’ve just finished reading the excellent This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things by Whitney Phillips. It offers fascinating insights into the evolution of ‘trolling’ as a practice, leading from its original form of sub-cultural self-identification to the diffusion of the label across the entire spectrum of online activities deemed to be anti-social. Her overarching thesis is that trolling is framed as an aberration relative to the mainstream culture, when in fact it represents the logic of that culture taken to its extreme. Trolling only makes sense against a background that facilitates it, such that trolls should be read as an inditement of contemporary culture rather than a threat to it. This diagnosis is most acute when it comes to broadcast media, with trolls expertly hacking the media for their own amusement in a way that takes advantage of the media’s propensity for those very things (misleading information, lack of understanding, morbid preoccupations and a deep need for attention) which trolls are seen as embodiments of.

Her operationalisation of ‘troll’ as a self-identity is an important part of the book. The problem I have with the contemporary use of troll is that it subsumes a wide range of behaviours into a singular pathologised description. To point this out is not to defend any of these behaviours, only to remind that we should not assume people do similar, or even the same, things for the same reasons. The diversity of trolling behaviours gets obliterated by the seemingly straight-forward designation of ‘troll’, something which I suspect many people now think they unproblematically recognise when they see it. But underlying ‘trolling’ we might find the urge to incite and manipulate for amusement (i.e. ‘troll’ in the self-identifying sense), online activists who see themselves as fighting a culture war through their keyboards, outpouring of hatred reflecting a generalised contempt for other human beings, the desperate externalisations of someone unable to cope or any number of other things. We need to recognise this variety at an ontological level while nonetheless remaining attentive to the epistemological and methodological problem of how, if at all, we are able to read back ‘offline’ motivations from ‘online’ behaviour.

Towards the end of the book, Phillips talks about her experience of out-trolling trolls. She recognises that this runs contrary to familiar advice “don’t feed the trolls”, something which I’ve always found to work just as well as face-to-face as on the internet:

This strategy—of actively trolling trolls—runs directly counter to the common imperative “don’t feed the trolls,” a statement predicated on the logic that trolls can only troll if their targets allow themselves to be trolled. Given that the fun of trolling inheres in the game of trolling—a game only the troll can win, and whose rules only the troll can modify—this is sound advice. If the target doesn’t react, then neither can the troll.But even this decision buys into the trolls’ game. The troll still sets the terms of their target’s engagement; the troll still controls the timeline and the outcome. (pg. 160)

I don’t quite follow the reasoning here. A refusal to engage only leaves the troll in control in a formal sense of the term. In practice, there isn’t a timeline or an outcome, with an enormous caveat I will get to later in the post. Instead, she details a strategy of out-trolling the trolls, performing an earnest response to their attempts at engagement in a way which reveals their own investment in trolling.

The dynamic shifts considerably if the target counters with a second game, one that collapses the boundary between target and troll. In this new game, the troll can lose and, by taking umbrage at the possibility, falls victim to his or her own rigid rules. After all, it’s emotion—particularly frustration or distress—that trips the troll’s wire. In most cases, the troll’s shame over having lost, or merely the possibility that he or she could lose, will often send the troll searching for more exploitable pastures. I frequently utilized this strategy in my own dealings with random anonymous trolls, particularly on my quasi-academic blog. (pg. 160)

I’d like to have seen more example of what she means here but I find it an intriguing idea. As I understand it, her notion of ‘trolling rhetoric’ entails seeking to provoke another person to express their concerns in a way deemed to be excessive, revealing what is taken to be their over-investment in their online activity. Underlying this is a belief that “nothing should be taken seriously, and therefore … public displays of sentimentality, political conviction, and/or ideological rigidity” are seen as a “call to trolling arms”, with the ensuing trolling often understood in an explicitly pedagogical way. The lulz enjoyed through this represent a “pushback against any and all forms of attachment” but, as she notes, trolls themselves are deeply attached to lulz (p. 25). There’s a power in revealing this attachment, inciting trolls to perform it through the very rhetorical strategies through which they seek to dominate others. Ignoring them leaves the troll unmoved, engaging in this way reveals the deep paradox at the heart of their behaviour.

Phillips recognises how contentious such a strategy can appear, honestly recounting her own ambivalence about the possibility. It nonetheless has a certain appeal though, specifically the idea that we might “troll better, and to smash better those who troll us”But there are two huge caveats to its employment in the academic context within which and for which I’m writing. Firstly, how would university departments and communications offices respond to examples of ‘out trolling’? The evidence we have suggests not very well. Secondly, do we have any reason to assume that those who are increasingly targeting academics online represents trolls in this self-identified sense? I think the argument offered by Phillips is deeply plausible but suspect it only holds true for those who share this sub-cultural identity. Those who, for instance, see what they do as activism are much less likely to be moved by it and engagements of this could be deeply counter-productive.

I’m very excited that the Digital Geographies working group of the Royal Geographical Society is now up and running. Find out more on their website here.

Our aims are to:
  • Provide a platform and intellectual community for geographers to engage in discussions of the digital and geography
  • Help stimulate and deepen critical engagement and conceptualisation of the digital, both within Geography and beyond
  • Offer a focal point within Geography to showcase the relevance of geographical research in contemporary discussions of the digital
  • Nurture discussion of how digital technologies are changing the methods of geographical research, scholarship, teaching, writing and impact work
  • Develop links to other disciplines, networks and practitioner communities related to “the digital”

From The Monsters of Educational Technology, by Audrey Watters, loc 1530:

We act at our peril as if “open” is politically neutral, let alone politically good or progressive. Indeed, we sometimes use the word to stand in place of a politics of participatory democracy. We presume that, because something is “open” that it necessarily contains all the conditions for equality or freedom or justice. We use “open” as though it is free of ideology, ignoring how much “openness,” particularly as it’s used by technologists, is closely intertwined with “meritocracy” – this notion, a false one, that “open” wipes away inequalities, institutions, biases, history, that “open” “levels the playing field.”

Can we reclaim the ideal of the ‘open’ from this ideological morass or must we abandon it? As Watters observes on loc 1578, the idea of openness is often attached to ambitions for problem solving. If only we had more data, tricky  social problems would melt away:

The current administration is interested in more than just data at the school, district, and state level. It’s actively promoting the collection and analysis of student at the individual level, arguing that if we just have more data –if we “open up” the classroom, the software, the databases, the educational practices –that we will unlock the secrets of how every student learns. We can then build software that caters to that, something that will make learning more efficient and more personalized. Or that’s the argument at least. We should remember that this is mostly speculative. And we should recognize here that words like “personalization” function much like “open.” That is, they sound great in press releases, but they should prompt us to ask more questions rather than assume that they’re necessarily good.

I just spotted New Philosopher for the first time, in an airport newsagents. I’ve occasionally bought or subscribed to Philosopher’s Magazine and Philosophy Now in the past. That makes three popular magazines about philosophy aimed at a general audience. Why such an abundance of philosophy magazines and yet no comparable sociology publications? Is it because the public appetite couldn’t support a sociology magazine? Or is it because sociologists haven’t tried since New Society folded? Is it time for Discover Society to launch a print edition? Or something else entirely?

Some thoughts after yesterday’s public sociology day in Manchester:

  • The meaning of ‘public sociology’ is not always self-evident and the enthusiasm of the impulse expressed through the term can cloud its meaning yet further. We need to be clear about what we are doing and why.
  • This clarity can help us negotiate the ambivalent spaces for public sociology created within institutions that speak the language of ‘impact’, ‘public engagement’, ‘knowledge exchange’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘outreach’. There are opportunities for public sociology here but also dangers.
  • The competitive individualism of the academy risks being reproduced in a discourse of ‘public sociology’ dominated by white, male professorial public sociologists. We need to celebrate the practice of public sociology, rather than the academic brands of the most prominent public sociologists. [thanks to the res-sisters and Lambros Fatsis for making this point so clearly, in slightly different ways]
  • Our prevailing systems of scholarly communication risk canalising the impulse towards ‘public sociology’ into abstract reflection upon what should ultimately be a practical activity. Sustaining employment in the academy necessitates ‘outputs’ of a certain restricted kind but we must avoid letting these define what we take public sociology to be.
  • We can take these limitations of existing systems as an inspiration to build new systems. How do we create platforms for public sociology that facilitate and encourage it as a collective endeavour, rather than the lone pursuit of isolated individuals within an accelerated academy? 

I’ve just started working my way through this series of books produced by UCL’s massive Why We Post project. The past work of the project team is fantastic and I’m hopeful this will prove to be an important series of books, breaking new anthropological ground in our understanding of how and why people use social media. Not all of the books are released yet but these are the ones currently available:

They’re also freely available in PDF! This is a wonderful innovation from UCL’s Press and one we’ll hopefully see more of in the future.

An interesting opportunity, though personally the language of ‘assistant’ and one year would put me off a little bit:

*Apologies for crossposting*

Dear Colleagues,

Since its launch in August 2014, the Twitter account for Sociology has become a popular and important means of promoting the journal to a wide academic and non-academic audience. Social media are also proving to be a practical way to link the work of the journal to topical news and debates in the media. Sociology is therefore creating the new voluntary role of Social Media Assistant and seeks applicants with an interest in contributing to the current and ongoing development of the journal’s presence on Twitter and other social media platforms.

The role will commence on Monday 3rd October and run for a one-year fixed-term period in the first instance.

For details about the role and the link to the online application form, please see the full call for applications on the BSA site. The deadline for applications is 5pm GMT Friday 22 July. 

 If you have any queries about the role, please contact Sociology Editor, Kath Woodward: Kath.Woodward@open.ac.uk