This is the fifth of Walter Benjamin’s thirteen rules for writing. I would love to know more about what this meant in practice to him. How often did he record his ideas? Where did he record them? How did their quantity and quality wax and wane in different circumstances? My conviction that blogging constitutes a technology of scholarly attentiveness rests on its capacity to habituate this practice.
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.
What does it mean to speak and listen on social media? It’s a question which might seem to invite a platitudinous response but it’s one which increasingly concerns me. In the last couple of years, I’ve found myself increasingly sceptical that a platform like Twitter facilitates meaningful debate given the constraints it imposes on expression. I largely avoid comments discussions on blogs and websites. I won’t go anywhere near YouTube comments threads, even though I sometimes find myself drawn uncontrollably to read them, like a moth to the flame. In short, I’ve largely lost what faith I had in social media as a means to facilitate debate. The constraints of these channels multiply misunderstandings while the culture they have given rise to encourages intemperate reactions.
However debate doesn’t exhaust speaking and listening. I’m aware that much as I increasingly avoid debate, I also spend less time listening on social media than I used to. In part this is down to abundance. When I dip into my Twitter feed, I can usually find 10 strands I want to follow up within a few minutes. When I do follow these up, I immediately find even more strands to follow. The escalation dynamics of social media, if your use is calibrated to maximise access to variety, constitute a recipe for productive distraction that can at times be overwhelming. My means of processing this productive distraction is largely through writing, hence social media sends me from listening to speaking.
There’s more to it than this though. The architecture of social media rewards speaking but doesn’t reward listening. To speak and win attention for those speech acts, either positively or negatively, increases the visibility of subsequent speech acts. To listen carefully can be akin to invisibility. Hence perhaps the almost apologetic tones in which people who prefer to listen describe themselves as lurking. But what happens if ever fewer people are listening? My increasing fear is that social media too often facilitates only the pseudo-catharsis described by Winlow and Hall:
The political protest ends up continuing only for a short time as an online blog or a Twitter post, offering nothing more than a cathartic opportunity to vent one’s spleen accompanied by the sad recognition that in all likelihood no one is listening, and no one really cares.
Rethinking Social Exclusion, Pg 73
What does this mean in the context of the university? In a thoughtful essay, Jana Bacevic argues that by “sticking to critique on social media, intellectuals are, essentially, doing what they have always been good at – engaging with audiences and in ways they feel comfortable with.” But to what extent are those audiences imagined? To what extent are they ‘external’ or ‘internal’? They register numerically as ‘followers’ but the metrics of engagement often tell another story. Is this even engagement? To what extent is anyone listening? Are we simply talking amongst ourselves? Or even simply talking to ourselves and occasionally overhearing each other’s chatter?
There are many responses to these concerns. One might be to call for more organisation of this space, to provide platforms for robust and productive debate. I this would be a mistake. But we do need to think seriously about what the public expression of academics and intellectuals means in an age of social media. I found this section of Lambros Fatsis’ PhD thesis rather inspiring (pg 246):
The fourth precondition here offered for the rejuvenation of public-spirited citizenship, as opposed to self-interested demagoguery, rests on a fundamental change of approach in the way we understand public expression, suggesting that a shift from the acclamation and assertiveness of speaking to the compromise and attentiveness of listening is as vital, as it is systematically sidelined. Making our thoughts known and conveying them successfully in conversation so that they come to mean something to us depends not only on what and how something is being said, but also on what and how something is being heard, listened to and understood. Public expression therefore does not rely solely on speaking our minds, but also involves the manner in which information is taken in, and it is precisely the balance between those two communicative faculties that allows for dialogic negotiation as opposed to monologic recitation.
If we move away from ‘speaking our minds’, seeing social media as a window to the world through which we can channel our many discontents into an imagined public sphere, we can begin to preserve social media as a space for speaking and listening. It encourages us to examine our assumptions about our audience, something which can be done quantitatively (through metrics provided by platforms) and qualitatively (through assumptions we make about them and its congruence with our prior knowledge).
In fact, it can move us away from thinking in terms of ‘audience’ at all, rejecting a view of social media as a platform for speech in which we ‘earn’ visibility, instead seeking technologies for interlocution. Such technologies offer powerful affordances for what Lambros describes as a shift from intellectuals-as-speakers (“an exclusive class of spokespeople who give voice to our grievances and concerns”) to intellectuals-as-listeners.
This essay on ‘the cult of cruelty’ has some interesting points to make about the role of what danah boyd calls persistence and searchability in facilitating incivility online. It makes it possible to trawl through someone’s activity, enabling a degree of engagement with choices and representations that would not otherwise be possible:
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately — the ways in which people exact their hurt. It’s common for people to subtweet about their hate-follows and hate-reads. Nothing distinguishes between the hate cultivated for people we know as opposed to strangers — we’re all fair game for someone else’s vitriol. People have no problem playing armchair therapist; they analyze our lives from a computer screen and then proceed to deliver play-by-play commentary on how we should live our lives based on how they live theirs. Many have come to believe that an online representation of one aspect of our lives is the complete story, the whole of our lives. Who we are, the content of our character, is reduced to what we choose to publish. The choices we make — from what we wear to how we parent and whom we love — should be obvious based on the collective’s personal experience and we’re admonished in text or in forums for “not getting it”. We crave authenticity yet we vilify others for their public missteps, for being human. People talk smack behind our backs to then kiss-kiss, hey, how are you? to our face. People leave hateful comments tearing apart our appearance: Why is she naked in every picture on Instagram…ugh! Who does she think she is? Why does she wear such unflattering clothes? If she didn’t want to hear about how bad she looks she shouldn’t be posting pictures of herself online. Apparently, being public is an open invitation for hate, and it’s frightening that groups exist on the Internet devoted to the care and feeding of that hate.
It also makes it possible to trawl back through the incivility that has been directed at us:
We live in a country that espouses free speech, but many are forced into silence in fear of the hate avalanche. In a private Facebook group, many women talk about not reading the comments of their published articles out of self-preservation. “Don’t read the comments” is a constant refrain. Women leave social media because they’re beaten down by people in fear of losing their privilege. A whole group of people has been reduced to a patronizing “snowflake” moniker because of their inability to toughen up, and it’s as if the Internet has become Darwinian in the sense that only those who hate, and those who can withstand and endure that hate, survive. A few years ago, I was the subject of a man’s ire, someone whom I believe I knew (or at least had come into contact with during my agency career, which makes the whole situation that much more unsettling), who wrote about how much he hated me because I stood up for women who had been ridiculed online because of their appearance. Fifteen years ago, a small circle of literary bloggers posted cruel blind items about me and I remember being at work, in front of my computer, reading these posts and my whole body going numb.t
There’s an excellent overview of ‘hate reading’ here:
Underlying all this is a weirdly common human tendency toward “hate-reading.” Call it that for short, at least, because it also includes “hate-listening” and “hate-watching.” In short, many people seem strangely drawn to material that they know, even before they’re exposed to it, will infuriate them. And hate-reading in its purest form involves not just seeking out the aggregated fodder of Media Matters or Newsbusters, but actually going straight to the source: a conservative mainlining Keith Olbermann; a liberal recklessly exposing herself to a Rush Limbaugh monologue.
A lot of us do this, but why? No one knows for sure, but there are a few potential explanations. One is that hate-reading simply makes us feel good by offering up an endless succession of “the emperor has no clothes” moments with regard to our political adversaries. In this view, we specifically seek out the anti-wisdom of whoever appears dumbest and most hateful as a means of bolstering our own sense of righteousness. “If the commentary is dumb enough, it may actually have a boomerang effect in that it reassures us that our opponents aren’t very smart or accurate,” said Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a media psychologist at the University of Texas San Antonio.
There’s a fascinating footnote in Radio Benjamin, loc 395-410, discussing Adorno’s description of Benjamin’s ideas as ‘radioactive’:
The full sentence reads, “Everything which fell under the scrutiny of his words was transformed, as though it had become radioactive,” … Although Adorno’s metaphor uses a different register of boundary crossing, the German radioaktiv, like the English radioactive, shares with Rundfunk, or radio, a connotation of atmospheric spreading, dispersal, and uncontrolled movement across and within borders and lines of containment; the airwaves, like the air or the atmosphere, represent a quasi-invisible scene or medium of transmission. While the German does not directly imply the coincidence of these two (roughly contemporary) modes of radiality, the notion of Benjamin’s gaze, and from there his work, effecting a radioactive transformation suggests the potentially dangerous, if also exciting and new, power of radio and its power to broadcast.
Radioactive ideas effect a transformation. Viral ideas simply pass through. The logic of social media platforms too easily inclines us towards a concern for virality. What we should aim for is to use their affordances to ensure radioactivity, even if this registers much less impressively on a numerical level.
I saw the science journalist Simon Makin give an excellent talk yesterday on how social and natural scientists can make their writing clearer. He offered some excellent tips to this end, including assuming your reader is exactly as intelligent as you are, but has absolutely none of your knowledge. For this reason, clarity isn’t about being simplistic: aim to clarify without simplifying.
What struck me in the discussion of drafting and redrafting was how likely this is to fall by the wayside when rushing. If you’re working to a deadline, particularly when other deadlines immediately follow them, it’s unlikely you’ll invest the time needed to do this. His description of drafting involved careful tinkering, picking and poking at a text in a way which leads to incremental improvement. As opposed to simply trying to get it out of the door so you can move onto the next demand.
This isn’t simply a matter of time. It also reflects the moral psychology of rushing. When we rush, we close down our engagement with the objects of our attention. Things that might have been deeply meaningful to us instead become obstacles to surmount. We simply can’t care about the clarity of our writing in the same way when we’re rushing.
Foremost amongst the guidance offered about Twitter is the claim that it is fundamentally a conversational platform. One shouldn’t simply ‘broadcast’. It’s for discussion and engagement. There’s an element of truth in this but it’s one which can be lost through repetition, as the status of received wisdom stops us from thinking critically about why everyone agreed with it in first place.
Rather than seeing Twitter as conversational, we should perhaps see it as connective. Connectivity in this sense in something automated, it’s a technology for sorting people in a way that encourages interaction between them. Connectivity in this sense is, as Jose van Dijck puts it, “a quantifiable value, also known as the popularity principle: the more contacts you have and make, the more valuable you become, because more people think you are popular and hence want to connect with you.”
Connectivity presupposes interaction. Unless people interact on platforms, connectivity is thwarted. In this limited sense, it is true to say that someone is not using Twitter correctly if they are not interacting. The value in the platform simply won’t be realised by them because they won’t make new contacts, they won’t increase the visibility of their action on it and they won’t accumulate ‘popularity’. But why does popularity matter? Unless there’s a clear answer to this question, one possibility for which is simply that “it doesn’t“, it’s likely the platform incentives are substituting for the reflexivity of the user.
My concern is that invocations of Twitter as conversational help naturalise this architecture. They promulgate the idea that one is ‘doing it wrong’ unless they are tweeting hyperactively, precluding the possibility of each user coming to their own assessment about the utility or otherwise of the platform for them. This is important because there are some really profound limitations to Twitter as a platform, as Richard Seymour usefully recounts:
Of course, it is established by now that the ambiguities of language are always exaggerated in the 140 character format. Polysemy catches people out all the time on Twitter, something we all have to be on guard about. But it does so all the more because quite a large number of people are only paying attention to the extent that it enables them to say something in turn, however inventively disingenuous, which will generate ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’. This is how the Twittering machine works, and people use it at their own peril. Nonetheless, unless we make some fairly authoritarian/paranoid assumptions, users also have to be responsible for their own readings.
The ritual incantation that Twitter is for conversation functions as the faith which keeps the great Twittering machine in operation. Unless we’re willing to abandon it entirely, we need to have serious discussions about what Seymour calls ‘coping strategies’ to obviate its more undesirable characteristics from creating problems. Part of this involves recognising pseudo-catharsis and trying to distinguish ranting at someone from something which can provide the basis for a productive discussion, in spite of the profound channel constraints. Otherwise, I think we’ll ultimately be pushed towards something more akin to Seymour’s approach, which is pretty much as far as I think you can go before you’re effectively giving up on the platform.
I don’t want to tell Jacobin what to do about all this but, in general, it seems to me that the only sensible policy with regard to Twitter is one of disciplined refusal to debate, argue, or even engage beyond at most light conversation or minor clarifications. It can be used for narrowcasting, advertising events, and sharing links, but if people lose their shit, they should simply be ruthlessly ignored, as difficult as that is. If mistakes are genuinely made, they should be deleted and briefly acknowledged. If longer responses are called for, they should be written later, and not published in the form of a Twitter thread, on a separate ‘timeline’. But the ‘mentions’ column should be ignored, and no one should be treated as if they’re entitled to a response. People should be told in the bio line that if they want a response on a substantive issue, they have to email — meaning, they have to put some effort and thought into what they say. This is not a long-term solution, but a coping strategy.
In the last few years, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied with the notion of ‘the literature’ and how it is invoked by scholars. I’m now rather sceptical of the way in which many people talk about ‘the literature’ and the role it plays in scholarship. It’s not that I don’t think it’s important to identify, engage with and record the existing work that has been done on a topic you’re working on. Rather I’m concerned that the invocation of its necessity serves a disciplinary function when scholarly literature proliferates at the speed which it now does, with an estimated 28,100 journals publishing 2.5 million articles a year. The problems which those who enthusiastically invoke the importance of ‘the literature’ are concerned with, such as perpetual reinvention of the wheel and a failure to recognise relevant work taking place in adjacent fields, have such obviously structural roots that to frame the solution in terms of personal practice seems to accord almost magical powers to the intellectual discipline of individual scholars.
My concern is that invoking ‘the literature’ increasingly functions as a conversation-stopper: it’s a disciplinary action which serves to curtail, though rarely halt, a line of inquiry. If we are inclined, as Richard Rorty once put, “to keep the conversation going” then we need to “protest against attempts to close off conversation by proposals for universal commensuration through the hypostatisation of some privileged set of descriptions” (377). Or in other words, we need to reject the idea that there’s only one way to talk about the topic in question. This is what the invocation of ‘the literature’ does, usually implicitly though sometimes explicitly. It implies a unified body of work which must be the reference point for scholarship on a given topic, even if the intention is to break away from it. In many cases, there’s perhaps no such unity in the first place, with its apparent coherence being underwritten by the most influential figures within the field have talked about ‘the literature’ in a way which performatively brings it into being by justifying the implication that much (potentially relevant) material exists ‘outside’. Judgements of salience aren’t written into the fabric of the knowledge system, they’re suffused with epistemic relativism: made from a particular standpoint, by a person with their own interests, reliant upon their own conceptual apparatus. Instead, behind apparent coherence, we have a complex network of citation cartels, ‘unread and unloved’ publications and influential beneficiaries of Matthew effects.
My point is not to dispute the value of reading and engaging with literature. I only want to situate invocations of ‘the literature’: made by people struggling with the problems of scholarly abundance, in relation to others similarly struggling with these problems. The idea of one definitive point of orientation becomes fetishistic when we all suffer from the vertigo of the accelerated academy. From Sustainable Knowledge by Robert Frodeman, loc 1257:
I feel like I am drowning in knowledge, and the idea of further production is daunting. Libraries and bookstores produce a sense of anxiety: the number of books and journals to read is overwhelming, with tens of thousands more issuing from the presses each day. Moreover, there is no real criterion other than whim for selecting one book or article over another. To dive into one area rather than another becomes a willful act of blindness, when other areas are just as worthwhile and when every topic connects to others in any number of ways. The continual press of new knowledge becomes an invitation to forgetfulness, to lose the forest for the trees.
Under these circumstances, our concern shouldn’t be to ensure everyone pays allegiance to ‘the literature’. We can assume this will continue to grow continuously while everyone feels compelled to write hyperactively, continually churning out publications with more hope that they are counted rather than that they are read. Instead, we should be asking how do we sustain the conversation under these circumstances? What kinds of conversations should we be having? What purposes do they serve? The well known problems of scholarly publishing mean traditional exchange in journals is becoming progressively less amenable to productive conversations, particularly across boundaries of field and discipline. How do we have conversations which serve, as Nicos Mouzelis puts it, to build bridges?
To be specific, there is little satisfaction with the present status quo where the boundaries between economics, political science, sociology and anthropology have become solid blinkers preventing interdisciplinary studies of social phenomena. But such compartmentalization will not be transcended by the facile and mindless abolition of the existing division of labour between disciplines.
[Instead we need] a painstaking process of theoretical labour that aims at building bridges between the various specializations. Such a strategy does not abolish social science boundaries: it simply aims at transforming them from impregnable bulwarks to transmission belts facilitating interdisciplinary research … what is badly needed today are more systematic efforts towards the creation of a theoretical discourse that would be able to translate the language of one discipline into that of another. Such an interdisciplinary language would not only facilitate communication among the social science disciplines, it would also make it possible to incorporate effectively into the social sciences insights achieved in philosophy, psychoanalysis or semiotics.
Sociological Theory: What went Wrong?: Diagnosis and Remedies, By Nicos Mouzelis
A large part of my enthusiasm for social media comes from the possibilities it offers for having these kinds of conversations. But trying to resolve the problems of the accelerated academy through an invocation of the need for disciplined practice is taking us in the wrong direction.
There’s a powerful counter-argument that can be found here by Patrick Dunleavy, concerning the importance of citation. I want to think carefully about this but my instinct would be to add two additional columns: “how scholarly abundance complicates this role” and “how might this lead us to change practice“.
Via Philip Moriarty:
In 1988 Pierre Bourdieu chaired a commission reviewing the curriculum at the behest of the minister of national education. The scope of the review was broad, encompassing a revision of subjects taught in order to strengthen the coherence and unity of the curriculum as a whole. In order to inform this work, the commission early on formulated principles to guide their endeavour, each of which were then expanded into more substantive observations concerning their implications.
One of these stood out to me as of great contemporary relevance for the social sciences in the digital university. Their principle considers those “ways of thinking or fundamental know-how that, assumed to be taught by everyone, end up not being taught by anyone”. In other words, what are the elements of educational practice which are integral to it and how can we assure their succesful transmission in training? These include “fundamental ways of thinking” such as “deduction, experiment, and the historical approach, as well as reflective and critical thinking which should always be combined with the foregoing” and “the specific character of the experimental way of thinking”, “a resolute valuation of qualitative reasoning”, a clear recognition of the provisional nature of explanatory models” and “ongoing training in the practical work of research”. It extends this discussion to the technologies used in practice:
Finally, care must be taken to give major place to a whole series of techniques that, despite being tacitly required by all teaching, are rarely the object of methodical transmission: use of dictionaries and abbreviations, rhetoric of communication, establishment of files, creation of an index, use of records and data banks, preparation of a manuscript, documentary research, use of computerised instruments, interpretation of tables and graphs, etc.
Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action, pg 175
This concern for the “technology of intellectual work” is one from which we could learn a lot, as well as the importance placed upon “rational working methods (such as how to choose between tasks imposed, or to distribute them in time)”. It maps nicely onto what C. Wright Mills described as intellectual craftsmanship. When we consider the technologies of scholarly production – things like notebooks, word processors, index cards, post it notes, print outs, diagrams and marginalia – our interest is in their use-in-intellectual-work. The technologies become something quite specific when bound up in intellectual activity:
But how is this file – which so far must seem to you more like a curious sort of ‘literary’ journal – used in intellectual production? The maintenance of such a file *is* intellectual production. It is a continually growing store of facts and ideas, from the most vague to the most finished.
The Sociological Imagination, pg 199-200
If we recognise this, we overcome the distinction between theory and practice. The distinction between ‘rational working methods’, ‘technology of intellectual work’ and ‘fundamental ways of thinking’ is overcome in scholarly craft. The role of the technology is crucial here: if we suppress or forget the technological, transmission of these practices is abstracted from their application, leaving their practical unfolding to be something which has to be discovered individually and privately (“ways of thinking or fundamental know-how that, assumed to be taught by everyone, end up not being taught by anyone”). But places for discussion of craft in this substantive sense have been the exception rather than the rule within the academy.
Perhaps social media is changing this. It is facilitating a recovery of technology, now finding itself as one of the first things social scientists discuss when they enter into dialogues through social networks and blogs. But it also facilitates what Pat Thompson has described as a feral doctoral pedagogy:
Doctoral researchers can now access a range of websites such as LitReviewHQ, PhD2Published and The Three Month Thesis youtube channel. They can read blogs written by researchers and academic developers e.g. Thesis Whisperer, Doctoral Writing SIG, Explorations of Style, and of course this one. They can synchronously chat on social media about research via general hashtags #phdchat #phdforum and #acwri, or discipline specific hashtags such as #twitterstorians or #socphd. They can buy webinars, coaching and courses in almost all aspects of doctoral research. Doctoral researchers are also themselves increasingly blogging about their own experiences and some are also offering advice to others. Much of this socially mediated DIY activity is international, cross-disciplinary and all day/all night.
There can be problematic aspects to this. But when it’s valuable, it’s at the level of precisely the unity of thinking, technology and activity which the commission advocated. Social media is helping us recover the technology of intellectual work and it’s an extremely positive development for the social sciences.
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.
These are some useful links I’ve stumbled across or had suggested to me. Any suggestions of other reading on this topic would be very welcome:
When we talk about the possibilities which digital media offer for rethinking scholarly communication, it’s easy to slip into the trap of thinking this ambition is a new one. We counterpoise the ‘new’ and the ‘old’, the innovative and the traditional, the digital and the analogue. In doing so, we obscure past projects which sought to rethink how scholarly ideas are disseminated. These are projects from which we could learn much. The Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, created by Pierre Bourdieu in 1975, is one such project:
We shall present here, side by side, texts differing very greatly in their style and function: ‘finished’ texts, on the one hand, as they are called by academics journals, but also short notes, accounts of oral presentations, work in progress such as interim research projects and reports, in which theoretical intentions, empirical procedures of verification, and the data on which these are based, are all that much more visible. The desire to provide access to the workshop, which has different rules from those of method, and to present archives of a work still under way, implies a rejection of the most clearly ritual formalisms: justified typography, standard rhetoric, articles and issues of similar length, and more generally, everything that leads to the standardisation and ‘normalisation’ of the products of scholarship. Recognising no other imperative than those imposed by the rigour of demonstration, and secondarily by the aim of visibility, will mean freedom from the censorships, artificial devices and perversions generated by a concern to conform to the established customs and good manners of the university field: a rhetoric of caution or false prediction, with the apparatus and panoply of celebrity discussion that is never more than self-celebration, the ostentatious displays of signs of belonging to the most selective and select groups in the intellectual universe.
Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action, pg 90
The ambitions here are familiar ones from discussions about what social media means for scholarly communication:
- Diversifying the types of scholarly output in circulation.
- Sharing work-in-progress, revealing the scaffolding that lies behind the carefully crafted reality of journal articles and monographs.
- Rejecting scholarly formalities where these operate as rituals, marking inclusion and exclusion, rather than contributing to the intellectual endeavour.
- Rethinking the norms of scholarly communication with an aim of improving visibility, overcoming self-serving control of ideas (and the evaluative practices which constitute their proxies) in order to liberate scholarly communication.
The ambition was to “make visible, sometimes by a simple graphic effect, what is generally hidden” (p. 91) and doing this was seen to involve manifesting in its own representational activity the demystification which was its ambition in relation to the social world. If I’ve understood correctly, Bourdieu’s point was that sociological reflexivity has to extent to the communication of sociological knowledge, as well as to its production, if its critical value isn’t to be lost at the point of dissemination.
The value of social media lies in the tools it offers to these ends, understood in terms of their practical utility in specific organisational contexts, particularly in the absence of significant resources. But in overcoming the trite distinction between analogue and digital, between traditional publication and contemporary innovation, we need to be alive to the myths of social media which are in circulation, particularly as they manifest themselves in the academy.
In his Uberworked and Underpaid, Trebor Scholz offers an important reflection on the cultural significance of blogging. While its uptake has been exaggerated, dependent upon questionable assumptions concerning the relationship between users and blogs, it nonetheless represents a transformation of and expansion of cultural agency which needs to be taken seriously. From loc 3825:
Web 2.0, to be fair, was incredibly successful as an ideology, a meme, and a marketing ploy with global effects. Already by 2004, the industry claimed that there were some 100 million weblogs. One didn’t have to be a skeptic of numerical reasoning to understand that the claim that everybody on this planet was blogging was based on shaky statistics. Clearly, some of these projections were blind to the digital divide, and overlooked the fact that many weblogs were set up but then never used again. But still, we need to acknowledge that more than a decade after its emergence, blogging had roped millions into a daily writing practice; it made them walk through their lives with the eyes of a participant, somebody who could potentially participate or insert her own perspective.
This is reminiscent of the appendix to The Sociological Imagination, in which C Wright Mills offers practical advice about ‘keeping one’s inner world awake’. It would be overstating matters to claim blogging is intrinsically tied to the sociological imagination, but the propensity to “insert her own perspective” in a life more likely to be lived “with the eyes of a participant” is something we should take seriously, while refraining from assuming that this flows inexorably from the adoption of blogging as a regular activity.
In the 30+ talks I have done about social media in the last year, I have discussed many things. But the one theme that has been most prominent is the extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, complexity of the subject matter. There is nothing inherently challenging about how to use social media. Any practical or technical difficulties are well within the realm of what has become habitual for most within late modernity. What creates the challenge is negotiating the novelty of its enablements and constraints within a particular context.
However it is this novelty which also makes it difficult to exercise our reflexivity in the way we would about any comparable matter. This novelty gives rise to a species of what Jacob Silverman describes as ‘internet exceptionalism’:
What we call the Internet—and what web writers so lazily draw on for their work—is less a hive mind or a throng or a gathering place and more a personalized set of online maneuvers guided by algorithmic recommendations. When we look at our browser windows, we see our own particular interests, social networks, and purchasing histories scrambled up to stare back at us. But because we haven’t found a shared discourse to talk about this complex arrangement of competing influences and relationships, we reach for a term to contain it all. Enter “the Internet.”
The Internet is a linguistic trope but also an ideology and even a business plan. If your job is to create content out of (mostly) nothing, then you can always turn to something/someone that “the Internet” is mad or excited about. And you don’t have to worry about alienating readers because “the Internet” is so general, so vast and all-encompassing, that it always has room. This form of writing is widely adaptable. Now it’s common to see stories where “Facebook” or “Twitter” stands in for the Internet, offering approval or judgment on the latest viral schlock. Choose your (anec)data carefully, and Twitter can tell any story you want.
Much as “the Internet” gives us “a rhetorical life raft to hang onto” when discussing a subject that is vastly overhyped and invested with all manner of hopes and fears, so too does “social media” become a semantic crutch when making sense of the complex changes being brought about by digital communications within a particular institutional sphere. It’s similarly “easy, a convenient reference point” through which we gloss a complex set of changes in which technological possibilities are only one causal factor. By exceptionalising social media in this way, we “fail to relate this communication system, and everything that happens through it, to the society around us”.
This tendency seems even more pronounced when we talk about something as specific as the academy. The more we talk about “social media” as something which all academics should (or shouldn’t do) the more we obscure the changes it entails for academic labour and the organisations which academics work within. My ambition as someone who has written a book called Social Media for Academics? To get academics to stop talking about social media.
In recent weeks I’ve become fascinated by what I’ve thought of as the poetics of impact and engagement. What linguistic techniques can we identify in how ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’ are written about? What work do they do in terms of foregrounding and backgrounding the issues entailed by this paradigm shift within the university? This fabulous essay by Audrey Watters has left me thinking about the morphology of impact and engagement: the “functions” we can identify within these narratives and the “pieces that moved the stories forward”.
This is the wikipedia overview of the meaning of morphology within the study of folklore:
Antti Aarne’s theories, enlarged and expanded by American folklorist Stith Thompson in 1961 and by Hans-Jörg Uther in 2004, look at motifs rather than actions – for example, “a soldier makes a deal with the devil” or “a soldier marries the youngest of three sisters.” More than 2500 folk and fairy tales have been cataloged under this taxonomy; the AaTh or Aarne–Thompson number is as well-known to folklorists as Francis James Child‘s identification of ballads are to scholars of folk songs.
Vladimir Propp was a Russian structuralist scholar. He criticized Aarne’s work for ignoring what motifs did in a tale, and analysed the basic plot, or action, components of Russian folk tales to identify their simplest irreducible narrative elements. His Morphology of the Folk Tale was published in Russian in 1928 and influenced Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, though it received little attention from Western scholars until it was translated into English in the 1950s.
In the Afanasyev‘s collection of Russian fairy tales, Propp found a limited number of plot elements or “functions” that constructed all. These elements occurred in a standard, consistent sequence. He derived thirty-one generic functions, such as “a difficult task is proposed” or “donor tests the hero” or “a magical agent is directly transferred.”
In this way, we can identify an emerging morphology to impact and engagement. The engaged academic who lives for their public, prospering as both scholar and public figure. The recalcitrant stick-in-the-mud who refuses to recognise the necessity of change. The earnest research managers who must shepherd such folk along as the environment changes around us all. These are just some initial speculative thoughts but I’d like to pursue this idea in a systematic way.
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.