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  • Mark 4:55 pm on November 12, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: academic celebrity, ,   

    Social media, attention economies and the future of the university 

    This is an extract from Social Media for Academics 2. If you like it please consider buying the book!

    Social media hasn’t created the celebrity academic but it has made it a category to which a greater number and range of people might aspire. It can be a gateway to the familiar markers of esteem associated with being a well-known scholar: paid speaking invitations, opportunities for media collaboration, requests for endorsements, extensive publication opportunities, paid reviewing work, invitations to join working groups, etc. These might be supplemented by requests which reflect popularity while nonetheless being less welcome, such as endless requests to peer review papers, assess monograph proposals or review grant applications. How these reinforce other forms of hierarchy remains to be established but we can speculate that they are unlikely to make the academy a more equal place. Even if social media expands the pool of celebrity academics, potentially making it more diverse than would otherwise be the case, it does so through the entrenchment of hierarchy: rewards flow to those who are known, valued and heard while those who are unknown, unvalued and unheard struggle to increase their standing.

    If we see social media platforms as democratic spaces then we miss how unevenly attention is distributed across them. For instance as Veletsianos (2016: loc 1162–1708) found in a study of educational tweeters, the top 1% of scholars had an average follower count of 700 times scholars in the bottom 50% and 100 times scholars in the other 99%. If this online popularity can be converted into offline rewards in the manner suggested, it doesn’t matter whether these are established academics who leverage their existing prestige to build a following or new entrants who have accumulated visibility through their social media activity alone. Both are beneficiaries of a new hierarchy which supplements the existing hierarchies of academic life. Social media can play an important role in allowing more diverse voices to rise to prominence within academic life and this should be celebrated. But we should not confuse this with platforms making the academy less hierarchical. It is certainly true that social media allows everyone to have a voice, as its cheerleaders are prone to pointing it out. However, it does so at the cost of making it much more difficult for people to be heard, something which is crucial to grasp if we want to get to grips with the long-term effects of social media on higher education.

    Publishing projects creating platforms for academics to have access to established audiences have a crucial role to play here.There are examples which cross disciplines such asThe Conversation and the group of LSE blogs. But perhaps the most interesting examples have a smaller audience and/or a narrower focus than this. Examples from my own discipline include The Sociological Review, Discover Society, Everyday Sociology and The Society Pages. I read blogs like The Disorder of Things and Critical Legal Thinking from adjacent disciplines.There will be examples from your own disciplines which I am unfamiliar with.These multi-author spaces have different intentions and different audiences, reaching out beyond a narrowly academic readership to varying degrees. But they are examples of a proliferation of outlets which enable academics to publish online and ensure a readership.

    The fact these projects have built up their own readership, accessible to academics who want to write occasionally or even on a single occasion, means they can perform the function of redistributing visibility. This might not in itself mitigate the attention economy unfolding in academic life but it can nonetheless provide a corrective to it, as long as editors of projects like this recognise the important role they play as gatekeepers to online audiences and the implications for who gets heard and who doesn’t in an academy where social media is increasingly ubiquitous. These projects also have an important role to play in addressing the parochialism which pervades social media.

    The Global Social Theory project founded by Gurminder K. Bhambra is an inspiring example of the form this can take. It seeks to correct the narrow focus on European male authors which characterises many reading lists on social theory, building a library which profiles theorists from around the world and guides people about how to engage with their work and use it on reading lists. In this sense, it uses the affordances of social media to find ways to amplify voices outside of American and European intellectual currents.The site itself was created in WordPress and it was promoted, as well as contributions solicited, through Twitter and Facebook. The Global Dialogues newsletter produced by the International Sociological Association addresses parochialism in a slightly different way, with each newsletter being translated in 16 languages so updates from around the world can be read by people from around the world.

    Both projects feature contributions from around the world with the range of their contributors and the scope of their readership enhanced by social media even if their operations are not strictly dependent upon these platforms.They highlight the potential which social media offers for overcoming parochialism, if it is approached in the form of a practical project. Their necessity helps illustrate how social media can entrench Anglophone bias if unopposed, as multilingual academics find themselves nudged into engaging online in English if they want access to international audiences. Collective projects of this sort have a crucial role to play in mitigating the inequalities of visibility which social media is generating. But they can also play a role in ensuring that we can respond collectively to the problems of online harassment and political polarisation which increasingly pervade social media.

  • Mark 7:38 pm on April 26, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: academic celebrity, , the great disruptive project,   

    The alliance between the billionaires and the thought leaders 

    Why the great disruptive project needs thought leaders, from Winner Takes All by Anand Giridharadas pg 94:

    The Hilary Cohens and Stacey Ashers and Justin Rosensteins and Greg Ferensteins and Emmett Carsons and Jane Leibrocks and Shervin Pishevars and Chris Saccas and Travis Kalanicks of the world needed thinkers to formulate the visions of change by which they would live—and to convince the wider public that they, the elite, were change agents, were the solutions to the problem, and therefore not the problem. In an age of inequality, these winners longed to feel, on one hand, that they had “some kind of ethical philosophy,” as Pishevar put it. They needed language to justify themselves to themselves and others. They needed the idea of change itself to be redefined to emphasize “rolling with the waves, instead of trying to stop the ocean.” The thought leaders gave these winners what they needed.

  • Mark 7:17 pm on April 24, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: academic celebrity, ,   

    The cultural entrepreneurs behind your favourite thought leaders  

    From Winner Takes All by Anand Giridharadas pg 88:

    Zolli was a kind of MarketWorld producer, standing at the profitable intersection of companies wanting to associate themselves with big ideas, networkers looking for their next conference, and writers and thinkers who wanted to reach a broader audience and perhaps court the influential elites of the circuit. Zolli, who called his conference “a machine to change the world,” was a consultant and strategic adviser to companies like General Electric, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Nike, and Facebook, as well as NGOs, start-ups, and civil society groups; he was on the boards of various MarketWorld organizations; and he was a fixture on the paid lecture circuit, where he spoke on topics like resilience. His book on the subject would praise such things as smart electrical grids and marine conservation as win-wins. Zolli was, in other words, an expert in and perpetuator of MarketWorld culture and its way of seeing. He understood what ideas would be useful to MarketWorlders, helping them to anticipate the future and make their killings, and he understood what ideas made winners feel socially conscious and globally aware but not guilty or blamed.

  • Mark 11:09 am on October 5, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: academic celebrity, , , Matthew effects, ,   

    The generational politics of critical theory 

    This observation from loc 785 of The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Contemporary Theory by Razmig Keucheyan caught my eye. His concern is with the intellectual implications of a generation’s dominance within critical thought:

    The new critical theories have not been developed by ‘new’ theorists, if by that is meant biologically young intellectuals. There are, of course, young authors producing innovative critical thinking today, but the critical thinkers recognized in the public sphere are in most cases over 60 years of age and often over 70. The implications of this are not insignificant. However ‘contemporary’, these authors’ analyses are mainly the fruit of political experiences belonging to a previous political cycle –that of the 1960s and 70s.

    But what about these young authors and their innovative critical thinking? How is its reception influenced by the prominence of these towering figures in their 60s and 70s? It seems obvious to me there are Matthew effects at work here, with it being easier for the already visible to accumulate visibility for their work. Furthermore, the crisis in monographs means that established intellectual brands are immensely appealing to publishers.

    It would be a crass overstatement to accuse ageing critical theorists of squeezing out the younger generation through their frantic rate of publication, something which younger scholars are unable to match for all sorts of reasons. But rejecting this argument as a form of intellectual populism shouldn’t lead us to retreat from the underlying observation. There is a dynamic here which is of great significance for the character and influence of critical thought today.

    • landzek 1:01 pm on October 5, 2018 Permalink

      It’s because we’re in a tradition to prehistory. 😛

    • landzek 2:08 pm on October 5, 2018 Permalink

      Transition to. That is.

    • landzek 2:16 pm on October 5, 2018 Permalink

      Hey but doesn’t that seem sensible? I am not sure how old you are, but there are certain types of knowledge and just an ability to view that is generally only available through experience. Book knowledge and worldly knowledge and intellectual knowledge.. wow we can teach those and people can have a certain innate capacity I think to understand things and problem solve and stuff like that, but I think like say a 30-year-old PhD just doesn’t have as much to say as someone who is say 70 years old been doing the same field forever.

      I think there’s a certain amount of humility that we don’t have in our times. I mean like your reference staying the rockstar celebrity scholars. We do not value in-depth knowledge and we don’t really value time, we don’t value an actual participation in very thick or deep time.

      I mean even think about what we’re talking about on our other conversations . The idea that everything is contained in language or discourse is a very thin and insubstantial review upon the world . And I mean in general, academic knowledge and intelligence seems to gain its depth through a quite thin façade of meaning. It’s like I argue in one of my books, taking a bite into a ripe mango is not contained in knowledge, but somehow academia feels like I can talk about the experience of eating a mango and convey the depth of experience in that paper. Just as an analogy.

      I wonder if your post hair is really are going more towards career and identity status then it is really arguing towards a valid insubstantial rigorous knowledge of things.

      Because what’s wrong with being a rockstar? It’s the people that wish they were rock stars who have to play a club every night and get paid $1000 playing to two or 300 people that tend to complain about not being a rockstar. And when you think about what the purpose behind playing music is, The people to whom it is made don’t give a shit either way.

      Maybe it’s the same way with academics and theory.

      OK I’m done I’ll leave you alone.

    • Gordon Asher 10:11 pm on October 5, 2018 Permalink

      Really fascinating book – enjoying engaging with that one too at moment 🙂

  • Mark 3:37 pm on August 5, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: academic celebrity, , celebrity intellectuals, , , , , ,   

    The incredible shrinking scope of the celebrity intellectual 

    What is it like to be an celebrity intellectual? I thought this was an admirably honest answer by Yuval Noah Harari to the question of how fame has changed his life. It seems obvious he would be far from alone in this experience, suggesting we could reflect on it as symptomatic of knowledge production by celebrity intellectuals rather than solely a biographical fact about an individual author. It is an important feature of knowledge production that acquiring a large audience often involves losing time to undertake research:

    Well I have much less time. I find myself travelling around the world and going to conferences and giving interviews, basically repeating what I think I already know, and having less and less time to research new stuff. Just a few years ago I was an anonymous professor of history specialising in medieval history and my audience was about five people around the world who read my articles. So it’s quite shocking to be now in a position that I write something and there is a potential of millions of people will read it. Overall I’m happy with what’s happened. You don’t want to just speak up, you also want to be heard. It’s a privilege that I now have such an audience.

    I found it striking when reading Harari’s work how much of it depended on existing popular(ish) summaries of research combined with an esoteric selection of direct citations to the research literatures he is a specialist in. Observing this isn’t a critique of Harari, as much as an attempt to underscore how this citational thinness is necessary if you intend to write at this level of generality. How on earth could you write avowedly comprehensive books “about the long-term past of humankind and the long-term future” without engaging with existing literature in this way?

    If your instinct is to encourage these broad conversations, as mine is, what matters is how these trade offs are negotiated and the implications this has for the work in question. It becomes more tricky when we consider how these broad treatments are better placed than specialised texts to capture the attention of a wide audience, with implications for how status is accrued by their authors. Those who do this well find themselves catapulted into a global strata of jet setting celebrity intellectuals with less time to spend on the inevitably thin research which went into addressing such vast topics in the first place. This might be mitigated by the availability of teams of research assistants to be accessed through your newfound wealth but they require intellectual leadership and doing this across such broad topics brings you right back to the original problem.

    So what do you do? There’s an argument to be made for riffing impressionistically on what you read on your flights and see as you travel the globe, interspersing new material with established favourites. One variant on this is to produce your new material “in conversation with the public” with topics “decided largely by the kinds of questions I was asked in interviews and public appearances”. This ensures a dialogue with your fans but risks a filter bubble, as your interests are shaped by their interests which were in turn shaped by your original books. There are many other potential tactics but the underlying problem is an intractable one, as the intellectual thinness of the celebrity intellectual becomes ever more so as their fame accumulates, until their main function is to provide a target for a new generation of upwardly mobile global thinkers to practice supplanting their by now empirically anaemic elders.

  • Mark 1:37 pm on April 29, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: academic celebrity, , , , ,   

    The ennui of the academic celebrity 

    In Solar, by Ian McEwan, we encounter the weary figure of Michael Beard, the nobel laureate and serial womaniser who has long lived off his early contribution to theoretical physics. By the time he approaches his 60s, he is a chaotic and directionless man, nonetheless ubiquitously affirmed within the academy and beyond:

    He held an honorary university post in Geneva and did no teaching there, lent his name, his title, Professor Beard, Nobel laureate, to letterheads, to institutes, signed up to international ‘initiatives’, sat on a Royal Commission on science funding, spoke on the radio in layman’s terms about Einstein or photons or quantum mechanisms, helped out with grant applications, was a consultant editor on three scholarly journals, wrote peer reviews and references, took an interest in the gossip, the politics of science, the positioning, the special pleading, the terrifying nationalism, the tweaking of colossal sums out of ignorant ministers and bureaucrats for one more practical accelerator or rented instrument space on a new satellite, appeared at giant conventions in the US – eleven thousand physicists in one place! – listened to post-docs explain their research, gave with minimal variation the same series of lectures on the calculations underpinning the Beard-Einstein Conflation that had brought him his prize,awarded prizes and medals himself, accepted honorary degrees, and gave after-dinner speeches and eulogies for retiring or about-to-cremated colleagues. (pg. 14)

    This is a man who enjoys celebrity, “in an inward, specialised world”, leaving him able to drift “from year to year, vaguely weary of himself, bereft of alternatives” (pg. 14). He remains blissfully ignorant of the post-docs who work with him, neither having the inclination nor the energy to learn to differentiate them. He reasons that it is “better to treat them all the same, somewhat distantly, or as if they were one person” rather than “insult one Mike by resuming a conversation that might have been with the other, or to assume that the fellow with the ponytail and glasses, Scots accent and no wrist string was unique, or was not called Mike” (pg. 20). It was only after half a dozen trips to his research centre that he realised that the same post-doc had acted as driver each time. As he awaits the end of his fifth marriage, he relies on the incoming mail to offer him escape from the peculiar turgidity that privilege has brought to his life:

    After morosely clinging to stupid hopes, he began to watch the post and emails for the invitation that would take him far away from Belsize Park and shake some independent life into his sorry frame. About half a dozen a week arrived throughout the year, but so far nothing had interested him among the inducements to give lectures on the shore of a plutocratic north-Italian lake, or in an unexciting German schloss, and he felt too weak and raw to discuss the Conflation before one more colleague-crowded conference in New Delhi or Los Angeles. He had no idea what he wanted, but he thought he would know it when he saw it. (pg. 22-23).

    He often felt he had “coasted all his life on an obscure young man’s work, a far cleverer and more devoted theoretical physicist than he could ever hope to be” (pg. 50). Ironically, it was this very talent and devotion which led him to become the middle man plagued by “a certain mental deficiency, an emptiness, a restless boredom” that could only be obscured “by the daily round or sleep” (pg. 49). His intellectual engagement now more often entailed flipping through the Scientific American, perpetually distracted by his “lifetime’s habit” of being “inconveniently watchful for his own name” (pg. 49).

  • Mark 8:29 am on December 28, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: academic celebrity, , , ,   

    Academic Celebrities and the Transformation of Publishing 

    In John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture, he makes a number of observations about the importance of brand-name writers which could easily be applied to the growth of academic celebrities within scholarly publishing. From pg 212-214

    Brand-name authors are important for two reasons: first, their sales are predictable, and second, they are repeaters. Their sales are predictable because they have readerships that are loyal to them. Readers become ‘fans’ of a particular writer, or of a series of books by a particular writer, and they want to read more. The publisher can therefore count on a market that is to some extent captive, and the sales of the author’s previous books become a good guide to the sales of the author’s next book. If the author’s career is developing satisfactorily, the publisher can count on cumulative growth: each new book will sell more than the previous one, and the overall trajectory will be a steadily climbing curve. In a world where so much frontlist publishing is a crapshoot, predictability of this kind is a gift.

    Brand-name authors are also repeaters. They write a book a year, or maybe a book every two years. This means that the publisher with a number of repeaters can plan their future programme with much more accuracy and reliability than a publisher who is relying on the normal hit-and-miss business of frontlist trade publishing. They know when each of their repeaters will deliver and they can plan their publishing strategies for each author and each book in order to maximize their sales potential –each year a new hardcover, which is subsequently relaunched as a trade or mass-market paperback, etc. The regular, predictable output of repeaters enables the publisher to build the author’s brand over time, feeding new books into the marketplace at regular intervals to maintain the interest and loyalty of existing fans and to recruit new readers. It also enables the publisher to build the backlist, since the better known the author is, the more valuable his or her backlist will tend to be, as new and existing fans turn to earlier books in order to sate their appetite for their favoured author’s work. So the publisher with brand-name authors wins on both fronts: predictable frontlist hits that can be turned into staple backlist titles.

  • Mark 1:10 pm on May 26, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: academic capital, academic celebrity, , , ,   

    A special @thesocreview feature on the rise of the Superstar Professor 

    I’m really pleased with this special feature I just finished for The Sociological Review’s website:

    I’ll be following up with a podcast with Peter Walsh next month.

  • Mark 6:20 pm on October 9, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , academic celebrity, , , , ,   

    how to shift sociological product: lessons from the career of tony giddens 

    Taking the lead from Peter Walsh’s laudible work on academic celebrity, here’s some lessons from the career of Tony Giddens which I inferred from this excellent review article Peter pointed me towards, coupled with my own reading of Giddens, who was the major protagonist for my PhD:

    • Choose your targets well. Take early aim at the established masters. Draw upon the established canon but re-articulate it in a idiosyncratic way.
    • Demonstrate a mastery of the classics that is cashed out in terms of their translation into contemporary concerns.
    • Tie your interests, however general they may be, into the most pressing topics of the day.
    • Cultivate both your critics and yours fans: engage often and generously.
    • Publish lots, ideally in a way that combines repetition with reliable progress into new intellectual domains.
    • Write texts books. Seriously.
    • Own the company that publishes your books. Or, if you can’t, at least exercise substantial influence over the channels through which you disseminate your work.
    • (Re)define the canon in a way easily taken up by others.
    • Edit the major journal(s) outside of your professional stronghold
    • Seek prestigious institutional positions and deploy them to maximal effect in disconnected arenas.

    Interestingly, Clegg writes in 1992 that “few have sought to challenge with a competitive strategy based on equivalent market penetration”. But since then many have. Stiegler, Bauman and Zizek, to name but three, have all achieved a rate of publication far beyond that which led Clegg to be so fascinated with Giddens. However, at least the latter two have self-plagiarised extensively, perhaps pointing to Giddens as having pushed the productivity bar to the maximum extent possible before one is forced to start copying & pasting from one book to the next in order to keep the profitable publications flowing.


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