The control of your network
(photo by some guy called Alan Levine)
There was much anxiety this week about the possible move by Twitter to an algorithmic feed, where some magic (see previous post) determines what comes up in your timeline, instead of the chronological order of everything we’re used to. Whether it goes ahead or not, what this highlighted is the power we have given over to a commercial organisation to shape our community. There is a real dilemma here – this stuff (social media, online identity) is only worth investing time in if it has real value in your life. But then as soon as you invest that value in it, any changes have a potentially big impact on how you work, communicate, portray yourself and even sense of identity.
Increasingly one answer to this is to own everything yourself – the whole reclaim hosting movement. Or another is to deliberately opt out of any of this online invasion, as many savvy kids are doing. But even with self-hosting there are networks, tools you need to connect with others (even Jim Groom is still on Twitter after all). And the opt out option requires a dedication to resist and a surrendering of much of what is useful.
This concern over Twitter controlling our network made me appreciate that, actually, as academics, our communities have always been shaped by others. Prior to social media the way you developed a network of peers was often through conferences, and collaboration. These are highly regulated practices – to get funding to attend a conference you often have to be presenting a paper, it has to be deemed a relevant conference, and it needs to be affordable, which often means local. To collaborate people have to find you – this can be through existing networks, recommendations or through publications. Academic publishing is again, a highly regulated practice – only certain types of papers are published. Disciplines themselves act as boundaries, making it difficult to build professional relationships with people in different subject areas, because you simply wouldn’t read their academic papers, or go to their conferences. For want of a better phrase, there was a cultural hegemony which shaped the people we got to know as academics.
Social media changed this drastically. Although the democratisation card may be overplayed, there was certainly a flattening (the prominent people online were often not the people with a high citation index for example), and a broadening of the range of people in your network. You could communicate in different ways, and these were powerful methods for making all sorts of connections with others in many different countries, disciplines and roles. Now I could make connections with someone in, say, classical studies from South Africa, because I connected with the person, found they were entertaining on twitter and wrote accessible blog posts. This reforming of the academic landscape is a process we’re still going through, and is the type of thing Bonnie Stewart, Inger Mewburn and Katy Jordan are all researching.
I don’t really have a solution here, but I think we’ll see waves of openness and closed practice. The very liberating opening up of networks that arose with online, social media, web 2.0 etc is now being controlled and increasingly begins to resemble the old ways. But there’ll be a new one along soon. Every great revolution is ultimately disappointing and needs to be revisited.
Dear professor Weller.
I really appreciated this post and I´m sure that many, within the academic community, share the same perspective. Social media has indeed transformed the way we share, and hopefully will share in the future. My case, for instance is quite paradoxal. I´m a PhD student researching about collaborative, open, online learning environments, in a super formal, controlled course structure, with all the traditional barriers that validate or not my progress. Also, the pressure to engage in conferences or to publish in academic journals is enormous (well, I know that they all have to earn the living…), but, I´ll be quite honest, I just don´t have the money to do that. So, the solution I found was engaging with the academic community, as much as I can, through Blogs, Moocs (from respected universities), Twitter, FB, LinkId and networks like Academia, etc. They are my community, my peers, my tutors and they are from different disciplines, helping me with different perspectives and with that enrich my research. The problem is that this “openess” flows in the absolute opposite direction of my faculty. In my experience, as a former teacher, and now as a student is that there is a “openess discourse”, followed by a closed practice. So thank you so much to externalize your pint of view and thank you for the content of this Blog.
One last thing – I could not avoid to connect Pierre Bourdieu´s approach to what the professor mentioned about the academic cultural hegemony – “an independent social universe with its own laws of functioning, its specific relations of force, its dominants and its dominated.”  Therefore, still in accordance with Bourdieu (and again connecting with the professor´s comment on ‘waves of openess’), within the academic field we are facing a “fight” between those actors already on the field, and their conservation strategies, and the arrival of new competitors, with their subversion strategies – ultimatelly this may rearrange / redefine the principles, the positions within the field.
 Pierre Bourdieu. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. 1979. Trans. Richard Nice. London: Routledge, 1994, p. 6.
Hi Andreana, thanks for your comment. I liked your phrase about openness discourse followed by closed practice – we see this particularly with getting a job. Many universities will say it’s great for you to have an online profile, but when it comes to hiring, they resort to traditional criteria. And thanks for adding some proper substance to the post with Bourdieu.
(and it’s just “Martin” on blogs, not “Professor Weller 🙂
Good post Martin and great reply from Andreana. I may have to blog about this and my own experiences in terms of open-ness v traditional academic practice.
Hi Martin, I absolutely agree that our communities have always been shaped, and controlled by external forces, so I don’t get too stressed by social media’s continually changing algorithms. (Did you see the angst that resulted from tumblr deprecating replies? Sheesh!) I tend to try and maintain a sufficiently diverse range of channels so that if one shuts down there are still others that remain open. At the risk of getting all Deleuzian, it’s the rhizome and the grid, smooth and striated space.
One of the things I like about having multiple channels is that it enables you to distribute your identity across the network. I think we all have a tendency to invest too much of our personal and professional identities in our institutional roles, which can become increasingly problematic as jobs become less secure and casualisation increases. Social media, of whatever kind, offers a valuable space where we can create and recreate our identities outwith institutions. I think the trick is to maintain enough fluidity, so that we don’t invest all our time and energy on building a community around a single platform over which we have no more control than we do over institutional HR!
Interesting comments from lornamcampbell about the time we invest (invested in my personal experience) in our institutional roles – this was exactly my experience.
As I re-evaluate my professional choices and “persona”, it occured to me that this fluidity that is needed today wasn´t the way things worked in the recent past. When I got my first position as a teacher, for instance, exactly 20 years ago, I sign up for a 5 year contract. This assured me stability and a career plan. On the other hand my professional persona merged with the institution – but, at least for me, this was the way to do things, this was the way to work.
Now (in this Media Age) I’m ‘reshaping’ myself professionally, trying to understand what kind of persona should I be in a fluid, instant oriented, unstable and defiant reality.