digital scholarship,  higher ed,  twitter,  Weblogs

Bush, digital scholarship and the price of reputation

Our Vice Chancellor gave a talk on Digital Scholarship the
other day, a topic that is often on my mind (read: trying to legitimise all
this messing around I do). Scholarship, or rather ‘having your scholarship
recognised’ which is what people really mean, is all about reputation.

In the pre-digital world this reputation could roughly be pegged
to other filters. Publication in journals, books, keynote appearances, research
grants: all of these require other professionals to have filtered your
contribution, so your reputation could easily be established by the quantity,
and quality of these measures. Of course, it meant people learnt to game the
system – how to get publications out, how to network so you got invited for
keynotes, etc., but on the whole it worked reasonably well if you played along.

But the very nature of the digital world is about the
removal of the filter. Anyone can blog, produce a video, podcast, and generally
express themselves. So, reputation becomes much harder to verify. This is a
problem if we want to start rewarding digital scholarship. Put simply, 100 peer
reviewed journal articles probably means you are a decent scholar – 100 (or
10,000) blog posts doesn’t mean anything. So we need to find new ways of
establishing someone’s online reputation.

Let’s take Tony Hirst as an example. I think we’d all agree
Tony would qualify as a digital scholar. So how would we go about demonstrating
this? There would be traditional contributions too, such as developing courses,
giving talks, involvement in university projects, etc but let’s focus on the
online element. Here are some thoughts:

  • Quality of output – Tony, or colleagues, could be asked to
    nominate significant contributions (blog posts, videos, etc). Personally, I've always liked the Feedistan post.
  • Appearance on independent rankings – e.g. Technorati, Jane’s
    100+ Elearning Professionals to follow on Twitter
    , or the Wikio UK blog
    . I take Matt Lingard’s point that, especially with Twitter, these
    lists don’t really mean much, but if we were trying to establish an overall
    ranking of reputation, then collectivelythey add some weight.
  • Quantity, or variety, of output – maybe being able to show
    the range of online activity is important, e.g. blog posts, videos, mashups,
  • Impact – being able to demonstrate that what you have done
    has been used by others. For example, Tony’s work with the OpenLearn material
    inspired Jim Groom and David Wiley to incorporate openlearn units into blogs.
  • Testimonials – quotes from others about your work, eg Jim
    Groom saying
    “over in Great Britain there is the legendary Open University, rich with
    an unfair advantage of knowledge and innovation represented by cats
    like Tony Hirst"

I think any one of these is easy to cheat or game, e.g. by
getting into blog wars you can get your technorati rating up, or by publishing
very small posts you can increase your quantity, but when taken overall they provide
an indication of reputation.

Which brings me on to George W. Bush. Reputation, online or
otherwise, is something that it takes a long time to establish, but only a
second to destroy. Bush’s failure to twice get the Paulson agreement through
congress seems to me less of a failure of the Bill itself (I have no idea if it’s
the right approach, and let’s face it, no-one does), but rather a failure of
reputation. Put bluntly, the Iraq
chickens have come home to roost. Dave Winer first pointed this out, saying:

Flash back to the United Nations on 2/5/03. An impressive almost Presidential Secretary of State, Colin Powell, delivering
some chilling news, not coming right out and saying it, but definitely
leading you to believe that Saddam has nukes and chemical weapons and
stuff even more horrible and is getting ready to use all of it in some
unspecified horrible way. .. Well, I did what a lot of Americans did that day, I
sucked it up and got behind my government. And they suckered me. And
I'll never forget it. I got fooled, and used, and a lot of people died,
in the name of freedom, and it was all a lie.

So Bush is suffering from having sacrificed his reputation
in order to legitimise the war in Iraq. And if you are going to
sacrifice your reputation you had better be sure that a) it’s worth it and b)
you aren’t going to need it again.

An awful lot of what us online folks do is not very
easily quantifiable. Exactly how does
sending a joke message on Twitter contribute to our bottom line? In the long
run what we are doing is establishing our own, and by association, our
institution’s online reputation. Given Bush’s reputation collapse the next time
someone asks you how much is reputation worth you can answer ‘ooh, about $700


  • Matt Lingard

    Actually I was just miffed 😉
    I think you’re right about technorati ratings and the rest giving an good overall indication. Also, as well as others nominating “significant posts”, an e-portfolio approach might work well, where the individual collates their own significant posts, comments, referring posts, slideshares, YouTube vids… (and tweets, if you must!) as evidence.

  • Jim

    What’s interesting about this is that such a reputation system as the one we gain through blogs often frames a personal element that was heretofore a bit more removed from more traditional modes publishing such as books and journals. And this is also where it might be seen as both richer more precarious.
    To riff on your example, when Tony did his Feedistan post, I felt like I knew him far better from that one post (his interests, where he spends time online, etc.) than I had from many of his previous posts in which I was reminded how much I need to learn 😉 And then his video mashup came out and it was equivalent to a wow! The same can be said of your mashup.
    Point being, the idea of thinking in communities has become a more interactive, immediate, and personable occupation–making the very idea of reputation that much more intense than a more removed process. The precarious part has much to do with the personal element, getting “too comfortable,” and trying not to always understand your spaces online as some “personal brand” –which is a term circulating that just kills me.
    People exist as something more than their ideas, and the ability to manage their ideas with who they are and their variegated interests is far more interesting to me than a kind of professional face. Yet, this approach leaves a lot of room for all kinds of problems as you can probably imagine.
    I have no conclusive point to draw, but simply that a significant number of the people I have worked with in a distributed manner in this online space has often led to richer and deeper professional and personal relationships than many of the relationships I have at my own institution or in grad school. Why is that? Part of it has much to do with how personal this space is, and how much you learn about people through their willingness to share online. Reputation changes from that of a statesman vs. a people, to that of people amongst people thinking together -a truly diverse group in terms of academics, interests, and geographical location.
    Ok, I’ll stop now. A lot of cool things to think about here.

  • Martin

    @Matt – I think it was more than being miffed. Such lists are by their very nature ‘exclusive’ because everyone can’t be on a list, and the blogo/twitter sphere is in contrast inclusive and democratic. But maybe if you wanted to make a case then these are indicators.
    @Jim – you’re just getting your own back for all those lengthy comments I leave on your blog aren’t you?;) I think you are quite right – I was trying to get at some of this in my talk on ‘the sweet spot’ which is all the more powerful when social and professional mix. What your comment made me realise was that in traditional modes of publication we explicitly try to remove any trace of the social/personal to make it objective. Online we do the opposite and deliberately try and include some element of the personal to make it distinctive.
    I don’t know what this means – but trying to remove this personal/social element from your online reputation in order to establish an unbiased metric for reputation is clearly going to be a nonsense, and yet we need to avoid ‘my mates think I’m good’. Hmmmm.

  • Manish

    much interested in what you say. did see the webcast of VC’s speech on the topic. They key here has to be dissemination, peer review and networking, just as in other forms of reputation building activities.
    Funny enough few days ago I was thinking of arranging a conference on e-learning/blended learning and making blogs (peer reviewed) as the only method of publishing work. Then opening it to the public for their access and comments. Making the work of people live even after the event.
    Blending whats existing practice in this with the web 2.0 tools that are around much more can be done I thinks.

  • s0apy

    It’s not much to say, but if you have a way of ranking the reputation of all the inputs in a system – the “testimonial” feature becomes much harder to game. It’s recursive isn’t it? Jim Groom’s comment is worth…..anything, only if you know who he is/his reputation.
    If you include “hits” – say youtube – say Wesch, you have another metric which is *very* hard to fake (I wouldn’t know how to get 6,680,123 hits if I tried to – that’s an almost Astley-esq number) but it is a real number.

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