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  • Mark 4:55 pm on November 12, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , attention economy,   

    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 3:19 pm on November 9, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , attention economy, , exchange,   

    The economics of attention vs the sociology of attention 

    The Attention Economy and the Net is a remarkably prescient piece, widely seen to have coined the eponymous term and containing insights which are still relevant two decades later. The framing of the economy unsurprisingly shapes the approach he adopts and it creates a focus on exchange which I find problematic in some respects. This isn’t because there aren’t questions to be asked about the exchange of attention. There are many and this paper raises them in powerful ways. But exchange isn’t always the same thing and the ‘economy’ metaphor* flattens out these differences:

    1. He observes on pg 2 that attention “is an intrinsically scarce resource”. However it doesn’t follow from that we “have a certain stock of attention at [our] disposal” which can be allocated in different ways. This imputes a voluntarism to our capacity to attend which is phenomenologically, neurophysiologically and ontologically untenable. It helps draw attention to the role of competition in shaping what we attend to but it suggests we can simply exchange our attention qua commodity in relation to changing circumstances. But I don’t think this is the case. When a fire alarm goes off I can be said to reallocate attention from the task at hand but this fails to grasp the involuntary character of the apparent exchange. From the perspective of someone interested in distraction, thinking about allocation helps make sense of sources of distraction but obscures the question of how, why and to what degree these things distract us by leaving us describing these outcomes as reallocations of a uniform and fungible commodity. It loses the quality of attention in its focus on the quantity and how it is distributed.
    2. It’s hard to make sense of the lasting effects of attention if we see it as a matter of exchange. He writes on pg 6 that attentional wealth accrues through the enduring effects of past attention, creating mental traces which can be reactived at a later late. This is an important point about how the cumulative influence which can be achieved through attention but it speaks to the involuntary character of our allocation. It suggests over the life course people carry an increasing quantity of traces of past attending which can be activated at a later date, insightfully pointing to biographical dynamics which I can’t see how it’s possible to explain unless we dispense with the metaphor of allocation. The same is true of his point about the capacity to attention to enable us to exercise power over an audience.
    3. His point about money flowing with attention but not vice versa on pg 7 is an important one which speaks to current debates about organic vs paid advertising. But this further underscores the non-vountaristic nature of what we attend to because it highlights how attention has to be won, in a manner which prods the subject into expanding their energy, it can’t simply be stimulated in a mechanical fashion. It could be argued that I’m taking the notion of allocation too literally here but the point of a metaphor is that it opens up and closes down its object. I’m suggesting we lose an important part of the picture if we see it in these terms.

    *It’s not literally an economy, as much as a way of highlighting the increasing salience of attention as an economic factor and how this reflects an economic transformation. There is a literal aspect to this framing but it smuggles in a metaphorical aspect which I think is more dubious. It makes the transformation seem more epochal, drawing sharper boundaries than would otherwise be the case, as it becomes a matter of transitioning between the ‘old economy’ and the ‘new economy’. He acknowledges the problem with what Mike Savage calls epochal theorising at the start of the article but doesn’t really avoid the pitfalls associated with it.

  • Mark 9:11 pm on November 12, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: attention economy, , , , tech firms   

    a DDoS attack on the human will   

    This is the provocative phrase which James Williams uses to describe the attention economy on pg 87 of Stand Out of Our Light:

    Uncritical deployment of the human-as-computer metaphor is today the well of a vast swamp of irrelevant prognostications about the human future. If people were computers, however, the appropriate description of the digital attention economy’s incursions upon their processing capacities would be that of the distributed denial-of-service, or DDoS, attack. In a DDoS attack, the attacker controls many computers and uses them to send many repeated requests to the target computer, effectively overwhelming its capacity to communicate with any other computer. The competition to monopolize our attention is like a DDoS attack against the human will.

    I find this a curious description because a DDoS attack is a deliberate action undertaken in a coordinated way with malign intent. None of these descriptions are true of the attention economy, with even its deliberateness being a matter of individual action rather than aggregate outcome; the problem comes because multiple actors make demands on our attention at once, rather than there being a concerted effort to overwhelm us. In fact overpowering us might even be contrary to their interests.

    I find the force this description has for Williams strange because it’s an obviously bad description in an otherwise well written book. I suspect it reflects the politics underpinning the book which I want to write about in a different post. As he says on pg 89, he sees this as a politics beyond politics, a meta game which define stage horizon of political life. It’s a framing which reduces the complexity of politics into the detrimental effects of tech firms upon our attentional capacities:

    As a result, we ought to understand them as the ground of first political struggle, the politics behind politics. It is now impossible to achieve any political reform worth having without first reforming the totalistic forces that guide our attention and our lives.

  • Mark 2:19 pm on July 31, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , attention economy, , , , ,   

    The economic limitations of the attention economy 

    From Douglas Rushkoff’s Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, loc 2256:

    Besides, consumer research is all about winning some portion of a fixed number of purchases. It doesn’t create more consumption. If anything, technological solutions tend to make markets smaller and less likely to spawn associated industries in shipping, resource management, and labor services.

    Digital advertising might ultimately capture the entirety of advertising budgets, but it does nothing to expand these budgets. There are upper limits on the revenue growth of the corporations that define the ‘attention economy’: how are they going to respond to these?

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