From Work’s Intimacy, by Melissa Gregg, loc 3594-3609:

Describing the impact of the BlackBerry in 2006 –just before the iPhone changed mobile computing for keeps –Research in Motion’s John Balsillie explained his bestselling devices as “latency eliminators.” According to this logic, Balsillie argued, “successful companies have hearts … and intrinsic force that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. BlackBerries … allow those hearts to beat faster” (in Connors 2006). At a time when the most profitable companies were preparing to hand out multi-million dollar handshakes to CEOs who left a trail of retrenched workers in their wake, one could be forgiven for being skeptical about Balsillie’s choice of imagery. 

The language of love may help to explain the market triumph of his product, but this book enables us to identify some of the real-life “latencies” that smartphones help to eliminate. These include time spent with children, grocery shopping, leaving the house, even sleep. The hearts of employees may be beating faster in the wake of mobile technologies, but it is questionable whether this is with care, affection, or friendship. In many cases, it is in anticipation of the next work-related demand and the next productivity innovation imposed by management.

This is a really nice description from Craig Lambert’s Shadow Work of a problem I describe in a forthcoming paper as the multiplication of communication channels. From loc 3038-3054:

The mushrooming number of communication channels spins off another type of shadow work. At one time, to reach a friend, you could send a letter or postcard or phone him at home. Period. Then, as work and personal lives began to overlap more, it became OK to call him at the office, if only for brief chats. Next, email arrived, opening up another means of contact. Then mobile phones, then texting. I won’t even bring up Instagram. With this plethora of channels available, consider what happens if you need to reach your mate, say, on some urgent matter. Perhaps you want to take her to a play, and on the theater’s website, you see two choice tickets available. 


But many others are angling, which means someone else could snap up those two choice tickets any time. If you want to spend that night in the orchestra section with Larissa, you had better reach her, pronto. What happens next is a fascinating new species of shadow work: the all-media parlay. You phone Larissa’s mobile, home, and work numbers, leaving voicemail messages at each. You send emails to her home and work mailboxes. You top it off with a text. You have just composed and sent six communications through different channels to get one message to one person. The good news is that two decades ago, such a multichannel assault was impossible. The bad news is that this electronic D-day landing just gifted you with several minutes of shadow work. And a few more on the other end for Larissa, as she opens, hears, deletes, and, with luck, responds positively to one of the half dozen redundant invitations awaiting her. With more luck, in time to buy those tickets.

A51kBFC6SgoL._SX399_BO1,204,203,200_n extract from Social Media for Academics

In recent years we’ve seen the notion of ‘internet addiction’ enter the popular consciousness. As a self-description it’s sometimes invoked facetiously, some­times desperately and occasionally in a way which combines the two. It would be silly for me to try and take a stance on such a complex subject here. So I’ll restrict myself to suggesting that we should be cautious about this term given a wider context in which the medicalisation of everyday life is rapidly intensifying. Having got that out of the way, let’s turn to an experience which will be familiar to most: finding yourself lost in a repetitive cycle of clicking from web page to web page, checking your e-mail every couple of minutes or pas­sively skimming through a Twitter feed while paying little attention to what you’re reading in it. These are those times when what social media companies describe as ‘thumb stopping’ (ceasing your endless scroll in order to focus on something you’ve chosen as worthy of attention) becomes unlikely and you just keep on skimming in an increasingly detached way.

The popular comedy Portlandia describes this as a ‘technology loop’ – being caught in a frenzied cycle of overstimulation, unable to drag oneself away from the internet and the torrent of interesting things to do, read and watch which it’s impos­sible for any one person to keep up with. The political theorist Jodi Dean in Blog Theory describes this as getting ‘stuck doing the same thing over and over again because this doing produces enjoyment. Post. Post. Post. Click. Click. Click’. It’s not neces­sary to accept the psychoanalytic ideas underpinning Dean’s account to recognise the experience she describes. I found myself doing it on Facebook a few minutes ago before a track change on the music I have playing in the background jolted me back into attention and reminded me that I’m supposed to be writing a chapter about sustaining your focus in an age of social media. The more general problem is a distractedness produced by digital technology in an age of informational abun­dance. The issue here is not only the multiplication of distractions, it’s also the sheer scale of what we’re missing out on and our growing awareness of all the other things we could and perhaps should be doing.

The most obvious way to prevent this is simply to recognise that you’re doing it. Putting a name to the experience makes it easy to identify what you’re doing and so help you drag yourself out of an impending technology loop. If you find yourself drifting into such a state repeatedly, even as you pull yourself out each time, perhaps it’s worth taking a break or at least shifting to a different activity? The website offers a helpful antidote to the frenzied hyperactivity which characterises the technology loop. There are also more preventative means which can be taken: using tools like Anti-Social and Freedom or switching off the WiFi if you’re having this problem at home (it’s presumably not feasible to do this at a coffee shop or in an office but I must admit I’ve never tried). More indirectly, it can help to minimise distractions by turning off pop-up notifications (pop up e-mail alerts are effectively designed to fracture your focus) and maybe isolating your social media use to another device such as writing on your laptop and only using Twitter on your smart phone. Alex Pang’s Distraction Addiction offers a really thorough discussion of the range of tools available for these purposes, as well as a philosophy of ‘contemplative computing’ in terms of which we can understand their utility.

All these suggestions are basically preventative though. This problem can be tackled in a different way by thinking about how you approach your work. Do you have a strategy for managing your time and attention? One such strategy can be seen in the Pomodoro Technique, a popular working method which is predi­cated on the understanding that ‘taking short, scheduled breaks while working eliminates the “running on fumes” feeling you get when you’ve pushed yourself too hard’. It involves working on a larger task through small chunks of intense work punctuated by repeated breaks: you work intensively for a set period of time, take a break and then do another chunk of work. Any extraneous tasks, whether connected to your present focus or something else entirely, should be recorded on a piece of paper before you immediately return to the task at hand. Its developer Francesco Cirillo suggests 25 minute-long sessions of work followed by 5 minute-long breaks.

However these are optional really, as is the tomato-shaped timer which he sells via his website (though I must admit writing this has left me tempted to finally buy one of these). There are many apps which can do the same thing and which have the advantage of recording your results in a way that can be useful for measuring your own productivity as well as filling out timesheets if necessary. The idea of this is to minimise task interruption and to ensure frequent breaks  to prevent the depletion of attentional energy. This sounds deceptively easy but it’s remarkable how easy it is to get distracted in the space of 25 minutes.

Committing to working for a specific period of time helps heighten your aware­ness of all the distraction events which intervene and can so chronically drag your attention away from the task at hand: committing to not checking your e-mails for 25 minutes helps you notice those often imperceptible whims arising – ‘I’ll just check my e-mails quickly and see if I’ve got a response from earlier’. This point holds for other forms of distraction as well but it would be a mistake to overlook e-mail given the concerns of this chapter. We don’t tend to think of e-mail as social media. It’s certainly not an example of what used to be called web 2.0 before that term largely gave way to that of social media. But in the broader sense addressed in this book of media that are social then e-mail surely falls into this category. It’s also a pervasive source of stress and concern across the academy, as Ros Gill points out in her insightful account of the ‘hidden injuries’ of the contem­porary academy:

‘Addiction’ metaphors suffuse academics’ talk of their relationship to e-mail, even as they report such high levels of anxiety that they feel they have to check e-mail first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and in which time away (on sick leave, on holiday) generates fears of what might be lurking in the inbox when they return. Again, inventive ‘strategies’ abound for keeping such anxiety at bay e.g. put­ting on your ‘out of office’ reply when you are actually in the office.

However, it is not only the always-on culture of e-mails that has led to the marked intensification of our workloads and the almost constant experience of high levels of stress. In fact it is paradoxical, given how much time we spend on it, that e-mail is mostly experienced as what stops us getting on with our ‘real’ work.

I’ve tried to clear my inbox on a daily basis simply because it largely removes the stress from the process. I recognise this won’t be possible for everyone but I’d also maintain it’s nowhere near as unfeasible for many people as might first seem to be the case. The time spent avoiding e-mail and being stressed out by e-mail is time that could be spent getting it out of the way in one go. I don’t recall it ever taking me more than an hour to entirely clear my inbox, even if this can be quite dispiriting when it immediately leads to a rapid expansion of my to-do list. It works most effectively when I do e-mail first thing in the morning. Replies are the exception rather than the rule before 8am,

whereas trying to clear my inbox in the middle of day can produce despair as replies and new e-mails hurtle into my inbox faster than I can clear the back­log. The description of the ‘stupid e-mail ritual’ offered by the protagonist of Cory Doctorow’s novel Homeland is quite apt: ‘Download download download. Spam spam spam. Delete delete delete’. I find it hard to read about things like e-mail apnoea – breath-holding or shallow breathing associated with checking e-mail – without wondering about the psychosocial costs of our communications system. The stress caused by e-mail is so widely recognised as to make discussion of it a cliché. But it’s something which crops up time and time again, at least if you make a habit of reading academics blogging about academic life.

One final useful suggestion comes from the social media scholar danah boyd (2011) who describes how she takes an occasional e-mail sabbatical in order to cope with its intrinsically Sisyphean nature. While many people can step back from social media (though not everyone! – see the Potential Pitfalls box above), it’s far more difficult to do this with e-mail. This is getting worse because, as Pat Thompson suggests, the e-mail auto-responder is becoming pretty useless in the contemporary academy. Being ‘out of office’ while retaining internet access means continuing to respond to e-mails or watching them build up in a way which quickly undermines any of the potential benefits of ‘disconnection’. There are other strategies it’s possible to adopt: I recently bought a pay-as-you-go phone for when I really want to get away from the internet, and have sometimes deleted the mail settings on my iPhone when I want to disconnect but nonethe­less retain the capacity to consult Google Maps when, as so often happens, I get lost on my way somewhere.

The Persistent Conversation minitrack at HICSS is back. We invite you
to submit your work to the upcoming 50th anniversary HICSS. The CFP is
here: [1]!persistent-conversation/c236g

A significant consequence of communication technologies is that
conversations are no longer ephemeral and volatile. Most conversations
mediated by technology leave a persistent record and become persistent
conversations. This persistence transforms the essence of conversation,
and it is the focus of extensive academic and applied research. The
persistent conversation minitrack is the home of this research at

Persistent conversations are being created using text, audio, images,
and video, and they are a part of every aspect of life: From the
Cluetrain Manifesto’s “markets are conversations”, through Robin
Dunbar’s conversations as devices for social grooming, conversations
are at the heart of every human activity. Accordingly, the minitrack is
open to research on persistent conversation from a variety of
disciplinary perspectives including Communication, Management,
Education, Computer Science, Sociology, Political Science, Psychology,
Linguistics, Law, and the like.

As noted by Tom Erickson and Susan Herring, who established the
Persistent Conversation minitrack at HICSS in 1999, the persistent
trace frees conversations from the lock-step synchrony of face-to-face
talk. It allows to dramatically scale the number of participants within
a single discussion and to distribute an interaction over geographies,
time zones, and cultures. Human and machine access to those digital
traces enables a wide set of prisms and analyses, leading to novel
insights into the numerous forms of human activity.

At the same time, the persistence of human communication imposes a new
set of challenges. For example, what mechanisms perform the role of the
ephemeral social cues of face-to-face conversation? What are the
ethical consequences of the creation of potentially permanent records
in terms of privacy, accountability, and the right to be forgotten? In
addition, claims have been made about the loss of intimacy, depth, and
quality of human communication when it is carried out digitally,
especially in the case of massive open communication.

The aim of this minitrack is to bring together researchers and
innovators to explore digitally persistent conversation and its
implications for learning, commercial transactions, entertainment,
news, politics, and other forms of human interaction; to raise new
socio-technical, ethical, pedagogical, linguistic and social questions;
and to suggest new methods, perspectives, and design approaches.
Examples of appropriate topics include, but are not limited to:

– Innovation in digital conversational practice: turn-taking,
threading, and other structural features of CMC
– The dynamics and analysis of large scale conversation systems (e.g.,
MOOCs and big data applications)
– Methods for analyzing persistent conversation
– Studies of virtual communities or other sites of digital conversation
– The role of persistent conversation in knowledge management
– The role of persistent conversation in organizational dynamics
– Domain specific applications, opportunities and challenges of
persistent conversations (e.g., in education, healthcare, social
movements, government, citizen participation)
– Conversation visualization, and visual cues
– The role of listeners, lurkers, and silent interactions
– Social presence and the persistence of an attributed user’s identity

The minitrack was launched in 1999 by Susan Herring and Tom Erickson,
and was led by them until 2010. For details of the rich history of this
minitrack and the accepted papers see Tom Erickson’s page at:
The submission deadline is June 15. For other important dates, see
If you have any questions, contact the minitrack co-chairs:
Sheizaf Rafaeli (Primary Contact)
University of Haifa
Yoram Kalman
The Open University of Israel
Carmel Kent
University of Haifa

This is a short preliminary to a longer post I’ll write in the near future. I’ve become ever more convinced over the last couple of years that project management software, such as Slack and Basecamp, will become integral features of most working environments. Perhaps eventually to the extent that e-mail is. In fact e-mail is the problem they’re both intended to solve. Complaints and anxieties concerning e-mail have almost reached the status of cliche and yet I still think we lack a developed reflexivity about the culture surrounding e-mail, the constraints and enablements the technology offers and how we ought to calibrate our reciprocal behaviour in light of them. Put simply: sustained co-ordination and collaboration through e-mail systematically generates problems which, in turn, tend to generate yet more e-mail as people try and solve them. It’s great for some things but for working on ongoing projects together, it’s vastly inferior to these new project management systems.

I was introduced to Basecamp when I worked at the Data Science Lab a couple of years ago and I found it a transformative experience: having used it to co-organise a large international conference, I simply couldn’t imagine a similar undertaking without it. I’m now using Slack for two ongoing collaborations. One is the festival a small group of us are running in summer 2017. In this case, Slack is allowing a group to coalesce after some initial face-to-face meetings. The other project is The Sociological Review, where we’re currently experimenting with using Slack after a couple of years of co-ordinating things purely through e-mail. It’s still early days for both, but I’m very optimistic about how central Slack will become to each of these undertakings.

Slack nail the virtues of their own software with their tagline be less busy. It offers a multitude of ways to communicate in real time, archive those communications and facilitate collaboration on the basis of them. All without adding to the sisyphean task that is most people’s experiences of e-mail. In a future post, I’ll try and do a detailed analysis of precisely why this is such a promising tool for academics. Meanwhile, this is a helpful video which introduces the service for those unfamiliar with it:

An email sent to the entirety of SpaceX by Elon Musk, as quoted in Ashlee Vance’s book about him, pg 238-239:

There is a creeping tendency to use made up acronyms at SpaceX. Excessive use of made up acronyms is a significant impediment to communication and keeping communication good as we grow is incredibly important. Individually, a few acronyms here and there may not seem so bad, but if a thousand people are making these up, over time the result will be a huge glossary that we have to issue to new employees. No one can actually remember all these acronyms and people don’t want to seem dumb in a meeting, so they just sit there in ignorance. This is particularly tough on new employees. That needs to stop immediately or I will take drastic action— I have given enough warnings over the years. Unless an acronym is approved by me, it should not enter the SpaceX glossary. 

If there is an existing acronym that cannot reasonably be justified, it should be eliminated, as I have requested in the past. For example, there should be no “HTS” [horizontal test stand] or “VTS” [vertical test stand] designations for test stands. Those are particularly dumb, as they contain unnecessary words. A “stand” at our test site is obviously a *test* stand. VTS- 3 is four syllables compared with “Tripod,” which is two, so the bloody acronym version actually takes longer to say than the name! The key test for an acronym is to ask whether it helps or hurts communication. An acronym that most engineers outside of SpaceX already know, such as GUI, is fine to use. It is also ok to make up a few acronyms/contractions every now and again, assuming I have approved them, eg MVac and M9 instead of Merlin 1C- Vacuum or Merlin 1C- Sea Level, but those need to be kept to a minimum.

I was fortunate to meet Tim Maughan at the Digital Sociology conference in New York last month. Along with Sava Saheli Singh, he’s been exploring how design fiction can be used to communicate sociological ideas. This is how Sava and Tim describe design fiction:

Design fiction is a term first coined by Julian Bleecker and popularized by SF author Bruce Sterling, who describes it as “the deliberate use of diegetic prototypes to suspend disbelief about change.” and that it “attacks the status quo and suggests clear ways in which life might become different.”

Design fiction isn’t science fiction, it’s not just a telling of stories in the future or trying to make predictions of the future, instead it is a way of trying to envision and interrogate possible futures based on research data, current trends, and/or technologies. Originally, primarily used by product designers as a cheap alternative to prototyping new products, it has found traction as a critical tool allowing us to see through the fog of hype and digital evangelism. 

I find this idea really exciting and I invited Tim to give a talk when he visits London. If you’d like to come then you can register here. It’s a free event that will take place at Goldsmiths on the afternoon of May 13th. I’ll be talking, as will Les Back, Keith Kahn-Harris and Sarah Burton.

Eventbrite - Design Fiction for Sociologists

In the meantime, here’s a great example of the work produced by Tim:

For a workshop on future London, five individuals — Arup, Social Life, Re.Work, Commonplace, Tim Maughan and Nesta—created 10 Future Londoners for the year 2023. This is a short fictional piece describing the working day of 19 year old Nicki, a zero hours retail contractor.

Here’s an example of what Sava and Tim have worked on together:

People talk about the future of technology in education as though it’s right around the corner, but most of us get to that corner and see it disappearing around the next. This innovation-obsessed cycle continues as we are endlessly dissatisfied with how little difference these promises make to the people implicated in these futures. These products and practices, cloaked in the latest buzzwords and jargon, often trickle down to non-western geographic regions after they’ve been tried and rejected, yet still adopted as the new and advanced “western” methodology that will solve the “problem” of education.

In an attempt to cut through the relentless TED Talk-like optimism of ed tech marketing, this year at the HASTAC conference in Peru we presented a series of fictional case studies. These four design fiction based personas aimed to illustrate the possible impact on society and education, in both positive and negative ways, of not just emerging technologies but also global social and economic trends. They give brief snapshots of the lives of individuals in imagined futures from different geographic, ethnic, economic, and cultural backgrounds, illustrating how each of them might interface and interact with the different technologies.

A note to self as much as a post for other people:

  • Through Design Fiction (e.g. Zero Hours)
  • Through Social Fiction (e.g. Low Fat Love)
  • Through Visual Journalism (e.g. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt)
  • Through Visual Biography (e.g. Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City)
  • Through Graphic Novels (I lack examples of this – I’m also aware the distinction between ‘graphic novels’ and ‘visual biography’ and ‘visual journalism’ may be so fine grained as to be pretty meaningless)
  • Through Photography ( e.g. Art Sexual)
  • Through Philosophical Biography (e.g. Wittgenstein, The Courtier’s Heretic)
  • Through Creative Non-Fiction (e.g. Zeitoun, Venkatesh’s work)
  • Through Film (e.g. Rufus Stone)
  • Through Theater (e.g. the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit) [thanks Helen!]
  • Through Video Games (e.g. Celiac Sam)
  • Through Buzzfeed Style Lists (e.g. this)
  • Through Walking Tours (e.g. the superb tour of Manhattan given by an urban sociologist at the 2015 Eastern Sociological Society conference)
  • Through Podcasted Dialogues (e.g. the Promise of Sociology in 2015)
  • Through Filmed Dialogues (e.g. British Sociology since 1945 or this dialogue between Carol Smart and Jeffrey Weeks)
  • Through Stand Alone Prezis & Slideshare (e.g. I’ve never given this as a talk in person or intended to)

I’ll expand this properly at a later date when I have more time. Any further examples much appreciated though!

The relative brevity of blogging vis-à-vis other modes of publication is often understood as reflecting the putative superficiality of the former. However there are virtues to brevity which are too little appreciated. Chris Dillow had a lovely (and brief) post on his blog about this a few months ago:

1. Longform writing is narcissistic. It presumes that one’s writing is so brilliant that it deserves to deprive readers of time they could spend doing other stuff – not least of which is reading other good things. And it is correlated with the notion that one’s ideas are so complicated and nuanced that only thousands of words can do them justice; this ignores the fact that a few qualifiers – “mostly”, “to some extent”, “in this context” etc – can signal nuance.

2. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Most stuff worth writing has been written already. Just link to it.

3. Anecdotes are not data. Stories add to the wordcount and give “colour”, but they often beg the question: are these stories representative? Simply linking to data is more accurate, and briefer.

4. Assume your readers are intelligent. (Granted, this is a weaker assumption for me than it is for those condemned to write for the Guardian or Telegraph). They don’t, or shouldn’t, need everything explaining. They should also be able to see objections to what you write, and objections to those objections. And if they can’t, ignore them.

5. There are diminishing returns to length. If readers think you’re a prat after 500 words, they’ll not change their mind after the next two thousand. In fact, there might be negative returns, simply because your gems are hidden. Laurie hides away a brilliant line – “Sometimes when you’re dying of thirst, you have to drink the Kool-Aid” – in thousands of words of ho-hummery. And none of the screeds written about Ed Miliband have affected my opinion of the man so much as a single paragraph from Steve Richards (again, hidden in unnecessary words).

I think the third point is an oddly narrow-minded quantitative prejudice. But I’d enthusiastically agree with all the other points. The first one particularly stuck with me. I’d struggled to articulate this previously but I think there’s often something aggressive about an inability or refusal to be concise in some contexts. I think there are some projects that render brevity impossible. But these are few and far between. I see an ability to be brief in some contexts as licensing length in others.

After a long period of monopolising academic discourse, European universities went into decline as classical scholasticism, which was primarily inward and backward looking, gave way to the ideas of Enlightenment. Intellectual development moved outside the walled gardens of academia, because enlightenment thinkers shifted their various discourses into the realm of correspondence, creating a Republic of Letters. Prof. Dunleavy argues that we are currently experiencing a similar shift towards a Republic of Blogs that enlarges communication, debate and evidence beyond the halls of universities. Academic research is changing, academic publishing is moving towards a new paradigm of advancing ideas outside the confines of the traditional academic publishing model. Orthodox journals will soon be understood as tombstones: end of debate certificates. In particular:

Micro-blogging is not only replacing traditional news media, but becoming a tool for finding and disseminating ideas and research (active research surveillance)

Well edited blogs are becoming core communication tools and vehicles for HE debate; while the less traditional format encourages a writing style that invites debate from academics and lay persons alike, thus cutting across ranks, locations and academic status

Working papers and online journals are now key, immediately accessible evidence and theory/methods development sources.

More details available here:…

One of the most obvious forms that digital scholarship can take is making ‘outputs’ public that would otherwise remain private. So for instance making slides available online after a talk or lecture. When I use slides, which is pretty irregular, I tend to make them available as part of the process of preparing. I’ll produce some slides, write a blog post and embed the slides in the post. The whole unit then becomes my frame of reference for the talk itself. I then tend to forget about the slides and not make any effort to promote them. It’s therefore a bit of a surprise when I look at how many times these slides have been viewed:

The first is from a talk about Open Access at the Institute of Art and Design at Birmingham City University. The second is a talk about social media I did for the Text and Academic Authors Association. The former has been viewed over 2000 times and the latter has been viewed over 1500 times. These are the most popular but there are slides on my slideshare account from a range of other talks and most seem to have been viewed 300+ times.

These are not slides designed for online dissemination. These are not slides I’ve made any effort to promote. Yet people do look at them. If you search for the most popular slides of all time on slideshare, it soon becomes obvious how powerful slideshare can be for dissemination. There are countless pages of slides that have been viewed hundreds of thousands (in some cases millions) of times.

I find the political uses of slideshare particularly interesting. These slides seem to be produced by people writing about these issues in order to embed the slides on pages, though I’ve not substantiated this impression in any sort of thorough way:

Using Prezi as an online only tool for dissemination has come naturally to me. Partly because I struggle to present with Prezi for a variety of reasons. My first Prezi, how to create a successful online presence, has now been viewed almost 4500+ times. I’ve occasionally tweeted the link but otherwise made no effort to promote it. Some of the others have been viewed thousands of times and I’m surprised to find that seemingly obscure conference presentations I’ve made no effort to promote have been viewed hundreds of times.

My point is not about the stats per se but rather that these metrics are fallible indicators of the visibility facilitated by Slideshare and Prezi. It doesn’t take much of a conceptual leap to get into the habit of archiving presentations by uploading slides after the fact. However the audience on Slideshare and Prezi is potentially much larger than that which you gave the talk or lecture to. Recognising this fact shouldn’t lead us to counterpose ‘offline’ and ‘online’ in a dualistic way but it does suggest that perhaps we should consider the latter as something other than a second-thought. What does this mean in practice? I’m not really sure and that will be a topic for another post.

One of my most enjoyable uses of Prezi was to create this:

How our society got so fucked up about sex: a brief tour through history…

It’s a plan for a short book (Zero or Pivot style) which I’ve intended to write for over a couple of years. It is a ‘plan’ in a very different sense to anything I’d written in text alone. It will require a lot of translation to turn it into a book proposal. But the substance of the planned book is much clearer in my mind than it would otherwise be. I’m also reasonably confident that others will find the book interesting. Perhaps the downside to this is that the Prezi has left me so clear about the book’s argument that the ensuing immediacy with which I confront the hard work of actually substantiating it has proved a little demotivating! Though this is far from the only reason I’ve yet to start proper work on this.

There’s a particularly incisive rehearsal in the Guardian of what has become a well established critique of TED. There’s a lot of this I agree with but I nonetheless find the general thrust of the argument really problematic:

So what is TED exactly?

Perhaps it’s the proposition that if we talk about world-changing ideas enough, then the world will change. But this is not true, and that’s the second problem.

TED of course stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and I’ll talk a bit about all three. I Think TED actually stands for: middlebrow megachurch infotainment.

The key rhetorical device for TED talks is a combination of epiphany and personal testimony (an “epiphimony” if you like ) through which the speaker shares a personal journey of insight and realisation, its triumphs and tribulations.

What is it that the TED audience hopes to get from this? A vicarious insight, a fleeting moment of wonder, an inkling that maybe it’s all going to work out after all? A spiritual buzz?

I’m sorry but this fails to meet the challenges that we are supposedly here to confront. These are complicated and difficult and are not given to tidy just-so solutions. They don’t care about anyone’s experience of optimism. Given the stakes, making our best and brightest waste their time – and the audience’s time – dancing like infomercial hosts is too high a price. It is cynical.

Also, it just doesn’t work.

Recently there was a bit of a dust up when TEDGobal sent out a note to TEDx organisers asking them not to not book speakers whose work spans the paranormal, the conspiratorial, new age “quantum neuroenergy”, etc: what is called woo. Instead of these placebos, TEDx should instead curate talks that are imaginative but grounded in reality.  In fairness, they took some heat, so their gesture should be acknowledged. A lot of people take TED very seriously, and might lend credence to specious ideas if stamped with TED credentials. “No” to placebo science and medicine.

But … the corollaries of placebo science and placebo medicine areplacebo politics and placebo innovation. On this point, TED has a long way to go.

Perhaps the pinnacle of placebo politics and innovation was featured at TEDx San Diego in 2011. You’re familiar I assume with Kony2012, the social media campaign to stop war crimes in central Africa? So what happened here? Evangelical surfer bro goes to help kids in Africa. He makes a campy video explaining genocide to the cast of Glee. The world finds his public epiphany to be shallow to the point of self-delusion. The complex geopolitics of central Africa are left undisturbed. Kony’s still there. The end.

You see, when inspiration becomes manipulation, inspiration becomes obfuscation. If you are not cynical you should be sceptical. You should be as sceptical of placebo politics as you are placebo medicine.

Why do people watch TED videos? Why have so many millions of people watched this stuff if it’s so pathetically facile? Does this critique apply to things like the RSA Animate videos as well? Is the problem simply a 10 minute video? If not then where do we draw the line between the accessibly simple and the simplistically accessible?  I disagree with the analysis of how much harm the latter does but I don’t think it does an awful lot of good either. But I don’t think all TED falls into this latter category. I also worry that the former category, things which are made simple so as to be accessible, can sometimes be sneered at by people in a way that often fails to recognise the nature of their judgement.

Here are two examples of research communication being accessibly simple. I think they’re great:

There’s no reason why research communication online has to be simple or accessible. A lot of research blogging (including my own) falls into this category, in so far as that it’s work in progress and/or aimed towards people within the author’s own discipline. But I think the simple and accessible is important. When people worry about the TEDification of Higher Education, it’s obvious to me where they’re coming from. However their responses seems so rampantly pessimistic to me.

Unless you’re a technological determinist who thinks that intellectual culture is immediately debased by social media then there’s no reason to assume this simplification of complex ideas is an inexorable process. Sure, there are channel constraints but that’s true of any mode of communication (not least of all the 20 minute conference presentation). There are affordances as well and these are what excite me. Rather than worry about the heights of intellectual culture being dragged into the ‘infotainment’ swamp, we should be getting better at ensuring that doesn’t happen. It’s not that the risk doesn’t exist, it’s simply that this is the wrong conversation to be having. Instead we should be looking to successful examples of accessibly simple research communication (for instance philosophy bites) and learning from them. There’s also a much greater role which can be served, perhaps not by communications offices unfortunately, by universities in helping facilitate these kinds of projects. Though given Nigel Warburton left the OU because of institutional constraints on his activity, perhaps the institutional environment is less amenable to this then I tend to assume in my own more rampantly optimistic moments. That’s the conversation we should be having. And we will be, hopefully, at the end of January.

There’s a great post on Savage Minds here which discusses a new anthropology podcast series. It makes some important points about the potential value of academic podcasts:

Its fascinating to listen to the interview version of an article (in fact, its much more convenient than reading the article!) but its even more fascinating to have a chance to get to know the authors behind the articles. This, to me, is the real value of the podcast: it gets you to the backstage of elite anthropology, to see what the people at the center of the discipline are like. Its an incredibly important experience denied to the vast majority of anthropologists who didn’t go to Top Schools, and the SCA’s willingness to share this with us is really fantastic.

Michael Fisch, for instance, is one of the many new hires that have recently been made at Chicago, where I earned my Ph.D. So, you know, my question was: now that he’s someone is he good enough for Chicago? The written work was less important to me than the character and the quality and vitality of the responses he made in his interview. For me, the most interesting part of the podcast came as he discussed his broader theoretical interest, and particularly the importance of moving past Latour to the thinkers that influenced him in order to dig out the genealogy (and thus possible future) of a realist, network-based ontology to ground future research. As someone who studies mining and petroleum, Fisch’s frustration that we hadn’t completed the seemingly effortless task of developing cheap sources of infinitely renewable energy was, maybe, not so insightful. But whatever — it was a great interview with a young and successful scholar. Surely other young scholars will want to see what success sounds like, eh?

The Handler interview was very different. Handler is a senior scholar (I mean that in a nice way) talking mostly about the kind of issues that comes at the height of one’s career, rather than at the beginning. It deals with administrative matters and big-picture issues in the organization of our discipline (and others). I’ve not always been interested in the topics that Handler studies (except Quebec, which I ❤ ) but I’ve always been blown away by his tremendous analytic ability. Its remarkable to me to have the opportunity to listen to someone who has spent a lifetime in the academy tell us what he has figured out about the professionalization of the discipline and how it related to the intellectual endeavors that it scaffolds. There’s a certain clarity that only experience can provide. Its valuable for anyone thinking about being involved in anthropology long-term.

This powerfully captures what I’ve always seen as the promise of academic podcasting. However I’ve recently felt  that I’m in a bit of a rut with my podcasting. Having seen the difference which quality editing makes to the finished product while working at the LSE I’m finding it difficult to be satisfied with what could be politely described as my ‘minimalistic’ approach to editing. I’m wondering if I should begin to approach the podcasts in a much more planned and episodic way, structured around particular themes and edited properly rather than simply topped and tailed in Audacity before being thrown online. It’s so much work though. But I think the promise of academic podcasts, as described so well in the extract above, can’t be realised without it. The direction in which Cheryl Brumley is taking the LSE’s podcasts is also a great guide to how this can be done:

Audio is important to the LSE Public Policy Group. Our blogs, funded by HEIF 5 – an innovation fund focusing on knowledge exchange – have continued to push the boundaries of academic dissemination. One of our highest aims is to bring academia online, and in turn, broaden access to the social sciences. Audio is integral to this process. By giving narrative to the full breadth of academic research, we hope to stretch the understanding and impact of research beyond the confines of universities. You can find all four of our podcasts series across these online platforms: LSE’s podcast channelSoundcloud, iTunes and iTunes U. 

Not only is the diversification of online output important for us, but the quality of output is integral to what we do. We want to challenge the idea that an academic podcast is merely a speaker at a microphone. We experiment with different podcasts formats and take many lessons from the tried and tested world of radio storytelling. 

I blog about issues related to sound and how it can be used to enhance social science dissemination. You can read my Simple Guide to Academic Podcast series, for practical and technical advice on how to begin your own project. If you have any audio-related questions, you can also find me at and on Twitter @cherylbrumley

My initial scepticism when confronted by Cheryl’s attention to detail (and the weird fear provoked in me by using microphones and headphones when interviewing) pretty quickly subsided once I heard how good podcasts sound when someone who knows what they’re doing works on them properly. Here are the podcasts I did with Cheryl when I was managing the LSE Politics Blog:

  1. 2 January 2013: A conversation with Tim Newburn: Combining journalism with academia: How to read a riot
  2. LSE British Politicast Episode 1: Reflecting On The Riots
  3. The ‘jobs for generals’ scandal highlighted important issues about UK defence procurement

I’m unlikely to produce anything quite this good on my own (I lack the skill, time and motivation) but I definitely want to start a podcast series which is much closer to this than the stuff I’ve done previously. I own the domain which at present simply hosts a Rebel Mouse site. I’m not sure how to integrate the podcasts into the Rebelmouse page or if starting the former would mean abandoning the latter. But an idea is definitely taking shape in my mind about how the podcasts themselves could work.

I’d particularly like to do more social theory podcasts – these are probably the ones I’ve enjoyed most from the individual interviews that I’ve done but they’ve always been limited by being with one person on one topic. Instead I could choose a particular theme (e.g. relational sociology) and interview people who take contrasting approaches to it. I suppose it would also be possible to gradually incorporate some of the existing interviews that I’ve done (there’s about 60 or so) into thematic episodes. I definitely intend to use Soundcloud in future, as the habit I fell into of just uploading the MP3s to WordPress is quite limiting. Not least of all because it’s not possible to get stats on how many people actually listen to the podcasts.

  • My getting started with social media bundle has pretty much every training resource I’ve ever produced in it.
  • Some collections of other people’s stuff about Twitter, blogging and podcasting.
  • All my Prezis from social media workshops.
  • The LSE Impact Blog’s Twitter list and Twitter guide. Go through the former list, follow anyone who seems interesting and Twitter will subsequently make a lot of sense.
  • For some more theoretical and exploratory perspectives on the role of social media within the academy, see my academia 2.0 bundle.
  • Lots of papers and articles about scholarly publishing and open access, which I’d argue is the context within which academic social media use needs to be understood.