The Spectacle…or Welcome to the Handbasket?

I ended up thinking about Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) whenever I opened up Twitter this past week.

I mostly blame the clown-car/lynch mob that was Trump’s Republican National Convention (America, you have my bewildered sympathies). The ghastly God-I-wish-this-were-surreal-but-nope-it’s-reality sense of overwhelm that the convention engendered in me, even from the comfort of my securely-Canadian couch, was ugly. Add in the recurring black death and hashtag resistance that populates my Twitter feed all too often, the increasing regularity of mass-scale terrorism and retaliation, even the banning of professional troll @Nero from Twitter for unleashing all sorts of racist, misogynist hell against Ghostbusters’ Leslie Jones…it all adds up, for me, to a societal social contract that my existing conceptual tools are inadequately equipped to deal with.

Because what the hell is all this hot mess if not Spectacle with a capital S? (plus some other words that start with S and end with “storm”)…

So. Debord’s been niggling at the back of my mind. He defines the spectacle as “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (p. 5).

(Caveat: I am a very casual reader of Debord. I didn’t work with Debord’s spectacle in my dissertation on academic Twitter, except insofar as so many of my conversations during that period were with participant and mentor @KateMfD, whose visual identity on the internet during that time was the cover photo FOR Society of the Spectacle (see below). I spent that intensive and relational research period interacting with Kate while primarily visualizing her as that cover image, which…Debord would probably have something to say about.  I’ll leave that one for some other keener to unpack.)

Cover of Debord's Society of the Spectacle, people with 3D glasses on

@KateMfD, as I will forever see her in my mind

Anyhoo, while I was musing about spectacle thanks to the mangled mob pageantry of the RNC and its blue-collar billionaire, a Debord reference landed smack on my screen much closer to home.

Because last week for us here was also the extraordinary #DigPed PEI, which brought people from all over PEI education and from the US, UK, and other Canadian provinces together for three days of intensive engagement with ideas and tools – Twitter among them. And in one of the (so far very positive and thought-provoking) anonymous feedback forms I solicited afterwards, a participant brought up Debord and spectacle, as related to that individual’s residual hesitancy about social media.

And so I thought, clearly this is a combo endorsement from the universe to go back & read me some Debord.

(After all, beyond politics and societal participation, how many of my household’s personal and professional relationships find communicative and affective expression in Facebook/Twitter/Instagram? What about the casual but relationship-augmenting encounters that Pokemon Go has created for my kids and, erm, me this past week?)

So I did. Spoiler? I don’t, ontologically, buy the ways Debord separates society and the subject, and the implied essentialism of a reality outside the spectacle…which is why there was no Debord in my thesis. Still, there’s something to his idea of the spectacle I think we all ought to be digging into and trying to grapple with, especially those of us who see ourselves as educators. Or, um, people who don’t want the world to burn. Or both.

It’s this. What I took out of seventy cobbled-together minutes of my life spent re-aquainting myself with Debord is:

the spectacle of contemporary society is about power. Full stop.

(Okay there’s more about identity & commodity & reification but Ima hafta dig into that another day. Or you can. Ping me if you do!)

Debord, on power:
“At the root of the spectacle lies that oldest of all social divisions of labor, the specialization of power. The specialized role played by the spectacle is that of spokesman for all other activities, a sort of diplomatic representative of hierarchical society at its own court, and the source of the only discourse which that society allows itself to hear. Thus the most modern aspect of the spectacle is also at bottom its most archaic” (Debord, p. 8).

In other words, the bread and circuses we are being fed are pretty much naked, craven power subsuming all other forms of societal organization.

So Trump’s bizarre content-free campaign video, above? Just power as spectacle, image circulation subsuming any other form of discourse.

Those English people who voted for Brexit but now don’t want to leave? Who voted as they did as a way of signalling “burn it all down”? A sheer exercise in power, both from the political engineers and from many of the individual voters.

And everything Milo Yiannopoulos ever wrote on Twitter? Same. As Laurie Penny says in what is pretty much a mic drop to this particular cultural moment“It’s all an act. A choreographed performance by a career sociopath who will claim any cause to further his legend.” 

The problem, of course, is what Penny points out: there’s no room in this kind of game for truly believing in much of anything. That’s why the disconnects are so vast and nobody seems to care. The “attention hustlers,” as she calls them, “channel their own narcissism to give voice to the wordless, formless rage of the people neoliberalism left behind.”

Spectacle. Power. The fomenting of archaic hatreds, not because one necessarily believes them…but because they’re there. Because they allow social relationships to be mediated so effectively by images and symbols.

Oh goody. So THAT’s why most of my Twitter feed is so damn bewildered and depressed these days. For those of us who still believe in just about anything beyond the spectacle of power for its own sake, the way the Overton window on this kind of politics and personal practice has shifted is kinda staggering.

Now, given that Debord was writing in 1967 and Ann Coulter’s “career” – to name but one of Penny’s “attention hustlers” – pre-dates social media by at least a decade, Twitter itself nor social media more generally obviously can’t be the source of the spectacle. I don’t actually even believe it’s a more pure or powerful instantiation of the spectacle than television, especially in cable news territory.

But I don’t have cable news on when I work. I don’t spend my professional days with TV constantly in the background.

Whereas Twitter – for me, Twitter even more than Facebook – has been, for the past six or seven years, a constant presence. It’s a stream I dip in and out of as I work, even when it is not the site of my work…and it has been a rich source of connections and conversations and resources FOR that work as well as a space through which my work and voice have been amplified.

But it is also part of the spectacle-ization of broadcast media, part of the crush of the attention economy within which we all swim these days whether we sign up for Pinterest or Twitter or Instagram or no. Because our narratives are all filtered through the spectacle and its steroids of scandal and somewhere after years of 24-hour news cycles and Twitter fights and identity commodification, we all just seem to be rolling down hill in the same unfortunate handbasket, labelled “power.”

Or that’s how it felt this week.

I’m not quite done with Debord, I don’t think. Gonna try again – next week – to figure out what it means to be an educator in the midst of this sea of media and spectacle in which we all swim, and think about the ways in which social media in particular are handmaidens of spectacle…and yet maybe also means of subverting the spectacle that mass media and politics serve up? Maybe.

We’ll see. That’s next week. For the remainder of this week, I’ll just be over in the corner here rocking gently and staring at the wall trying to figure out how to get through another 5+ months of 2016. Join me! I have jellybeans.

Excellence &…the Wild Rumpus

This week I got to descend upon Ohio – and OSU’s annual Innovate conference – to give a keynote about networks and higher education.

Here are the slides I used to try to tell the story I was trying to tell:

Funny story about that story.

Innovate’s theme for this year was “excellence,” with a focus on, as their site put it, “sharing innovations that let educators re-imagine their instruction without sacrificing pedagogical quality and rigor.”

Now, I’m not in the habit of making claims about excellence. Or innovation, or even rigor, unless I’m in the throes of a formal academic paper in which case I can dig into ontologies and epistemologies and validity structures and make a case OSU’s own Patti Lather would be proud of. A language of excellence and innovation and rigor tends to emphasize performance rather than learning, and while that’s important for funders and decision-makers it doesn’t necessarily map tidily against ideas of connection and vulnerability. My work is still deeply steeped in the logics of the social web, if aware of that perspective’s limitations…and the forces that aim to eclipse it.

But they clearly knew all that. The ad for the talk read:
Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 8.48.18 PM
I laughed out loud when I read that first sentence. And I decided to approach “excellence” with some of the same wry touch they’d brought to the keynote blurb.

I enrolled my kids’ copy of Where the Wild Things Are to help illustrate the story. I talked about networked practice and its implications for higher ed as The Wild Rumpus.

Screen Shot 2016-04-29 at 3.51.29 PM
Where the Wild Things Are won Maurice Sendak the 1964 Caldecott Medal for Most Distinguished Picture Book. *That,* quite frankly, is about as safe a marker of excellence as you’re gonna find in the fraught world of higher ed these days, and not just because it’s a kids’ book: rather, that’s how the prestige economy of recognizable, institutionalized legitimacy works.

People have heard of the book, and the Caldecott medal, so the recognizability of the title and the award would serve as proxies for quality, I figured. If you’re going to introduce all kinds of new practices to a group of academics, best to start from a safe place. A signal that resonates. Kinda like when someone says, “I went to Princeton” or “I published in Nature.” Those titles are signals. I have (shhh…don’t tell) never read Nature and I’ve never been to New Jersey, but I have been acculturated enough to academia that I understand that both the journal and the college signal a level of widely-recognized prestige that I’m supposed to be impressed by.

Because that’s how prestige operates: that “supposed to” interpellates people and recruits them based on aspirational identity…the desire to be the sort of person who *gets* that kind of thing. So in academia, outside of our own very specific disciplines, we trade entirely on these broad, external signals. That’s how academia manages to function as a broad in-group in spite of the fact that most of our knowledge bases are so extraordinarily specialized there’s no way for a chemist to actually tell if a sociologist does good work or not, or vice versa. The signals are stand-ins for the actual knowledge we possess.

Entertainingly though, in the process of establishing broadly understood signals – where people went to school, who they’ve studied with, where they sit in the academic hiring hierarchy, where they’ve published, who’s funded them – those signals themselves get reified and the prestige accorded them comes to seem entirely natural.

Yes, Nature has the highest impact factor of all journals…but how many academics can actually explain impact factor, pressed to the point? Princeton is Ivy League, which means something even to us heathens up in Canada, who totally fail to recognize many of the prestige signals of US academia.

(Imagine the dismay and betrayal I felt when, after half a lifetime of hearing the words “Ivy League” bandied about as Americanized synonyms for “Oxford” and “Cambridge,” I discovered the Ivy League IS AN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE. Huh????

I digress.)

Long story short, I figured Where the Wild Things worked as a proxy for excellence in the tiny context of my talk because while both the title and the medal are recognizable, nobody’s gunning for either. Neither the book nor the wild rumpus – even as metaphor – has been declared the next Great Tsunami or Disruption, so nobody’s career or reputation ride on making sure that everybody is clear how mightily it sucks. Plus the book is sweet and nostalgic and most people don’t really remember what it’s about, they just remember how it makes them feel. Which is also how signals operate.

And *that* is how I tripped my own self up on and almost had to ditch the whole thing half-baked in the middle of the journey to making a case for the networked Rumpus as its own form of excellence.

Because I was thinking of The Wild Rumpus as a metaphor for some of the spaces outside the boundaries of conventional prestige signals, just a fun way of talking about an alternative prestige economy, when I realized I should probably re-read the damn book. RESEARCH.

I’d forgotten, of course. Max – the little blighter at the centre of the story who runs away to the fantasy world of the wild things in his fantasies – ends up wanting to go back where people love him best of all and his food is still hot. The rumpus is joy and freedom and the wild things bow down to his taming, but in the end he sails home to his bedroom, back to normal, back to the glorious comfort of the known.

The Wild Rumpus is just a distraction, for Max. Whoopsie.

But in the middle of knowledge abundance and precarity and disinvestment in public education, a world where over 70% of North American higher education instructional staff were reported to be contingent even back in 2007, I think it’s safe to say that most of us won’t be sailing home to our solid tenured realities when we’re done with the fun of our contemporary Rumpus.

So I made this slide, and turned the story sideways…a bedtime story to wake up conference attendees first thing in the morning. Not a happy ending, but the unpacking of the Rumpus outlines ways to navigate the seas of abundance and change, at least.

Screen Shot 2016-05-15 at 10.15.31 PM
Post-script: I wish I could say my ideas will change the direction of the ship and bring us home to where supper is still hot.

I tell myself it is wiser to grow up and learn to forage with Wild Things.

I don’t know. The Rumpus has treated me extraordinarily well, but contingency is a flawed and exhausting place to live. The potential networked practice brings to higher ed – the particular versions of excellence it makes possible, the ones outlined in the slides above – are still by far best enacted by faculty and staff with the security to take risks, and iterate. But that’s often not how it works out. Higher ed is an increasingly stratified professional environment, and networked practice may increasingly be seen as a signal of LACK of prestige, as power circles coalesce around the privilege they conflate as excellence.

Maybe THEY are the Wild Things and we can tame them with Max’s magic trick of staring into their eyes and telling them, “Be Still!”

No? Dammit. Now I will not sleep tonight.


Third Places & Third Spaces – #DigPed PEI

Part the first: How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Internet (Kinda)

I come from a small place.

Seen from Google Earth, Prince Edward Island is a dot off the northern edge of the Atlantic Ocean, a pastoral sandbar best known for lobster, potato farms, and Anne of Green Gables. I left in a hurry at seventeen. I often say if you’d told me then that I’d move back willingly someday, I would have spat on you.

But I did move back. Mid-life is a funny thing: I now live a block away from my mother and call myself lucky, which is not the word seventeen-year-old me would have deployed. And from tiny Prince Edward Island, I’ve spent the past decade learning more than I ever imagined there was to learn about the operations of the global apparatus that is contemporary higher ed. More, I benefit from a richer, more robust circle of colleagues and fellow educators and learners than I’ve had at any other time in my life.

This is, in large part, because the internet became my local hangout.

(Yes, the internet is – as we are regularly informed by headlines, and not inaccurately – a fraught and messy place. Yes, the internet and its cloistered cousins, learning platforms and management systems, can be tools by which learning gets reduced and instrumentalized and commodified beyond recognition, if we’re not careful. Yes.)

But it can also be what Howard Rheingold was clever enough back in 1993 to recognize as a form of Oldenburg’s “third place;” a space for conviviality, playfulness, community, and “appreciation of human personality and individuality.” Like a coffee shop, bar, general store, library or arcade, a third place is a semi-public (often partially commercial) space that extends human community beyond the boundaries of home and work – a local hangout, as it were.

Howard’s assertions about the internet as inherently social were initially just stories I read, about places like The WELL and MUDs and MOOs, virtual frontiers that had mostly receded or disappeared by the time I even learned they existed. But I read them, and they stuck with me, and shaped my understanding of digital culture and my emerging practices as an online educator, even back in 1999. They planted a seed that suggested that the internet could be more than the glorified calculator and search engine and email machine I was gradually becoming familiar with. They opened the door to the idea that the internet might be a place to learn and engage and develop identity and friendships. That seed took years to take hold, but in the end, it is one of the concepts that has made the greatest difference in my life, professionally and personally.

Far more recently, in 2014, Catherine Cronin expanded my understanding of the third place by introducing me to Gutierrez’ somewhat more complex, political conception of “Third Space (2008).” The third space is explicitly an educational construct of sociocultural learning environments marked by what Gutierrez frames as “distinctive participation structures and power relations.” In Gutierrez’ model, the Third Space is the place where “teacher and student scripts – the formal and informal, the official and unofficial spaces of the learning environment – intersect, creating the potential for authentic interaction and a shift in the social organization of learning and what counts as knowledge.”

In other words, the Third Space is a potentially transformative space between the roles of student and teacher, a hybrid space where identities and literacies and practices can actually change on both sides. In a Third Space approach to education, what Gutierrez frames as a cosmopolitan in-between-ness marked by “shared humanity, a profound obligation to others, boundary crossing, and intercultural exchange where difference is celebrated without being romanticized” is core to learning design.

This Third Space is not the small place I grew up. But somewhere in seventeen years of the small-town classrooms I sat in from kindergarten through my undergrad, a few teachers, books, and Rolling Stone articles somehow nurtured some tiny kernel of Third Space in me. And then I spent my early adulthood looking for the third place where it could flower.

Part the second: There and Back Again

I thought for a long time it was probably in Prague.

I barely crossed Canada’s borders until my very late twenties. But for a decade after the Velvet Revolution, all over Canada’s more humbly regional towns, I pined for Prague. Not because I actually had much of a clue about Prague, but because I’d gotten the idea that it was the closest thing to Paris in the 20s that I was ever going to lay my grubby provincial paws on. And so I bought old travel guides at used bookstores and I read about absinthe and Vaclav Havel and I pored over picture after picture of ornate birthday-cake buildings. In one case the guide was so old it was for Czechoslovakia and not the Czech Republic, and so I learned mostly about the Soviet monuments of Prague.

But had I not already had some instinctive, hothouse-flower-cultivated sense that a Third Space/third place Elsewhere was out there having all the good conversations without me, that old sad, dog-eared Fodor’s guide might have served to foster my impression of Prague simply as an exotic, historic collection of pictures I could take someday.

When we humans fetishize something we have not yet experienced, we tend to reduce it to its instrumental, transactional elements. We imagine we understand, but we not only fail, we often do violence to actual lived experience in our insistence on our understanding. This is why immersion and perspective-taking and reflection are such powerful learning tools: they destabilize our known spaces, our first spaces, and force us to live through the experience of altering our perspective.

I eventually got to live that experience, though it – inevitably, I suppose – changed my fetishized vision of what Third Space would be. I made it to Prague one November at almost thirty, and took a pile of pictures, sure, but also stumbled into conversations late at night in underground bars and street festivals that opened my access to perspectives I’d never encountered before. I stayed abroad for five years. I went to Korea and braved slam poetry for the first time. I sat in hostels and coffee shops in Turkey and Malaysia and Scotland, people-watching and talking to strangers. All through the process, I taught people and lived among people and befriended people who had grown up in cultures and education systems very different from my own small place.

And after five years of itinerancy and inbetween-ness, I concluded there was no ideal Elsewhere, no single third place that encapsulated the Third Space I’d longed for. Or rather, perhaps – as an old friend used to say – that wherever you go, there you are. In the end, I came home to PEI.

The talking to strangers was harder here. But then I found my way online.

Part the Third / Space / Place: #DigPed PEI

Gutierrez’ concept of the Third Space has little to do with the internet or with digital education, though she talks about it as being mediated by a range of tools. Catherine Cronin’s work on networked publics has drawn from both third place and Third Space ideas, as has Kathrine Jensen’s.

For me, all three – combined with Howard situating digital community within Oldenburg’s third place construct – speak to the potentiality of the internet as a human in-between space that enables third place collegiality combined with the hybrid positionality and perspective-taking of Third Space. A perspective always larger than the local, while deeply embedded within whatever particular context it has sprung from; a hybrid perspective never fully subsumed into the thick of things.

This is what I aim for when I teach, and when I work with educators around digital technologies and digital practices. This is the hope I brought to Egypt with me last week for our #DigPed institute at the American University of Cairo.

It was hope more than fulfilled. I sat at tables with people who speak from a multitude of locales and perspectives and embodied histories, truly in a Third Space. Our work served to network some of them into conversations that take place in my online third place, and reciprocally, to give me a window into their contexts and classrooms, where they choose to share. I tweeted with one participant’s class in Beirut just this morning.

Still, when I first came across the idea of the internet as a third place, I hadn’t yet experienced much in the way of online community or conviviality. It was only later that blogs and social networking platforms began to extend my social world and community by thousands of kilometres. When I read Howard’s The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, I was very much the same person who read travel guides to countries she’d never been to and thought of them as collections of pictures to be taken.

My reductive, task-based understanding stemmed, at least for me, simply from not being able to imagine the full depth of what I had not yet experienced.

And I wonder if maybe a similar reductive failure of imagination informs a great deal of the dominant narrative critiquing digital engagement, particularly the cries of “screens are making us less connected!” that Sherry Turkle et al publish regularly in the New York Times. Not that fears and cautions and skepticism about the logics of media and capital that drive the internet aren’t warranted. Many, many are. But the dominant narrative tends more towards essentializing the face-to-face and reducing the digital to instrumental, task-based impersonality, rather than recognizing it as a human space with all the potential – educative and destructive, both – that that implies.

As I see it, we need third places – and Third Spaces – in order to grapple with the complexities of education and learning in an unequally globalized society driven by logics of media and capital.

So as a small start, this coming July, we’re bringing the three-day Digital Pedagogy Lab institute model home to my small place.

What I’m aiming to seed with #DigPed PEI is three-fold:

  1. To do what Howard did for me in opening up the concept of the internet and the digital as a human, social, third place environment where learning could take place.
  2. To scaffold the immersive equivalent of hanging out in Prague rather than reading reductive guidebooks, by curating participants’ experiential entry INTO actual human, social, educative third places ON the internet itself, in ways they can then apply to their contexts and their personal and professional practices. If they want. If they don’t, at least they’ll be making a choice informed by an experiential understanding of possibility, rather than by dominant narratives.
  3. To invite the denizens of my third place to experience this small place, which I think has much to offer, even beyond beaches and Anne of Green Gables. The lived experience of a town where “who’s your father?” remains the staple second question after “what’s your name?” is good preparation for the strange mix of hypervisibility and “is this thing on?” that marks networked engagement. The small scale of the educational system in this province offers an opportunity to get educators together from all three – for there are ONLY three – educational entities in the province to build ties and conversations in ways that can’t happen in the same way in larger centres. And as a hardscrabble, regional place on the margins of North American identity yet still utterly privileged as part of the global North, this site is…a little different. Too often, the third space of English-speaking networked scholarship and educational practice is profoundly US-centric. We don’t have FERPA here. Education is a provincial rather than federal matter. A conversation here is never entirely removed from the dominant North American conversation, but neither is it entirely encapsulated by it. We have the makings of a Third Space, maybe. I can hope.

And our dollar is dismally cheap right now. Just sayin’. ;)

If you’d like to hold a space for yourself in #DigPed PEI, fill out this handy pre-registration form by April 30th. We’ve been delighted by interest so far. 

And if you can’t join us in person but want to contribute to the conversation, there will be a #DigPed discussion on digital literacies – and third places and spaces – Friday April 8th at noon EDT (1pm PEI time!).

Tower of Song

For my birthday back in January, Dave bought me a Leonard Cohen biography.

I opened it and laughed and laughed.

He bought it because Cohen is still alive. David Bowie – who for more than thirty years was my imaginary boyfriend and the person I wanted to be when I grew up – is dead. And I woke up the morning of January 10th and realized:

a) me & Bowie are never gonna have that conversation about identity. dammit.
b) life is short .

But I turned 44 on a paid-for plane trip back from London, so not all was ashes. I gave talks at the LSE and the Tower of London and I made a side pilgrimage to the street where the Ziggy Stardust album cover was shot the week I was born, and I woke up in my own bed the morning after I got back and there was Leonard Cohen waiting for me in the only form he or Bowie will ever be waiting for me, and I opened up the bio and the first lines I saw were Cohen’s poem that begins:

Marita, please find me.
I am almost thirty.

And then I laughed some more and it was only faintly hysterical.

But my point was about identity.

Given the timing of the London trip, I turned talks about academic Twitter and orality and literacy into a Bowie tribute of a sort.

Bowie songs made up the titles of half my digital identity posts back when I started this blog. I firmly believe thirty years of watching him navigate time and selves prepped me well to live in a world of hypervisibility and monetized identity and blatant performativity.

Or, you know, social media.

But I’d never fully mapped it out.  So before I got into Twitter’s collapsed publics and what Meyer (2015) calls the “smoosh” of orality & literacy, I laid out – with images and lyrics and some core points, the idea that networked identity is very much a Bowie approach to identity.

Fluidity, fragmentation, the vision and chutzpah to stand just on the edge of rising trends and embody them for audiences…notable qualities of successful networked identities.

But for scholars in particular, the core of the Bowie approach is a distinction between role and identity.

It used to be that the personal/professional axis generally divided lives into separate domains, at least where the possessors of said lives took on paid roles outside the domestic realm. In most fields – and certainly in academia – such paid roles tended to be stations within articulated, often hierarchical systems. Or organizations. Or institutions. A person – often a dude – showed up for his or her job and fulfilled clearly-delineated responsibilities that were parallel to those of other people working in similar roles, until such point at which a higher up determine he or she was worthy of another role.

Whatever kind of special snowflake this person secretly imagined him or herself to be had to be enacted off the job, at home, in the personal domain.

Under sway of this broad societal norm, only those rare animals who became celebrities of some sort or another made their individual identities – their distinctions rather than their interchangeability – the core of their professional lives.

(Enter Bowie. But Bowie was not just any celebrity).

Gossip rags vouch for the fact that a great many people catapulted to fame not only discover that the collapse of personal/professional identity results in a parallel and alarming collapse of privacy, with the public working self taking over 24/7…but for many, that public working self quickly becomes a stale trap of typecasting, minimizing their creativity in exchange for a single hypervisible public image that they tended to be pilloried from departing from. Alas, poor Fat Elvis.

Bowie may not have been the only celebrity to manage to change successfully with the times AND maintain – some of the 70s aside – a modicum of personal privacy regardless of public scrutiny and visibility…but he did a smashing, savvy job of it, for the most part. As he did a smashing job of messing openly with constraints of gender and sexuality.

Selves were things Bowie picked up and put down, serially, while managing to create an overarching identity as someone so utterly distinct that people repeatedly referred to him as “otherworldly.”

Bowie’s job wasn’t really to be a rock star, like all the other rock stars in the constellation. Bowie’s job was to be Bowie.

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So what does this have to do with academic Twitter?

Our academic institutions are still built on roles. Tenured roles – or permanent academic roles, for those outside North America – are an endangered species, but the hierarchical, institutional model still conceptualizes labour along roles’ interchangeable, impersonal terms.

My research into academic Twitter the last couple of years was pretty emphatic that Twitter enables actively-participant (or resident) scholars to operate beyond what Boyer (1990) would have called the “hierarchy of functions” of scholarship. Twitter doesn’t just situate users within the realm of networked scholarship…in can enhance their sense of community and engagement in their work in general.

And it can open up paths to the development, performance, and circulation of scholarly identities…even without roles. People who may not have institutional roles or academic jobs or status in the hierarchy can become known for their work and their ideas, via Twitter and broader networks of participation.

This changes things. Junior scholars and grad students and contingent academics can create forms of visibility and legitimacy within the blurred space between media and institutional scholarship that do not match their institutional status, or lack thereof.

But it changes more than who gets to join in some aspects of the academic conversation. It changes how.

When, on your campus, you need someone who does things that seem “digital,” you can look for somebody who has that word (or some other word in permanent danger of becoming imminently outdated…I’m looking at you, elearning) in their title…or you can look for the person who for inexplicable reasons seems to do that stuff. Sometimes it’s the same person, but sometimes it’s better if it’s not.

Because humans are funny. If we approach someone on the basis of their title or role, we tend to approach them within the boundaries of the institutional hierarchy. I suspect many folks in higher ed still secretly associate all things digital with the 1996-era title “webmaster”…which meant you had a seat at neither the faculty nor the admin table.

But if somebody is approached based on an interest in that person’s differentiated, visible, searchable expertise and identity…the conversation changes. The hierarchy is a little bit undermined. The conversation tends to depart far more quickly from what’s happened before to what *might* actually be possible. New things are more likely to emerge.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s just a networked approach to identity and interaction.


There’s a catch, though.

Carving out space as a career individual within a society primarily marked by institutionalized roles is one thing. Bowie had uncanny timing and instincts in this regard.

Carving out space as a career individual within a society – and particularly within a sector – primarily marked by the collapse of institutionalized roles is another thing entirely.

We can all be as Bowie as we can muster in the connective tissue of our networks. But those do not – at least for scholars, nor for musicians either, at least in the way they used to – an industry make.

A ton of us live here, straddling this strange gap between academic roles that don’t – and may never – exist for us, and academic-ish identities that we use to contribute in the ways we can, whether to institutions or just to the broader conversation.

Paying our rent every day in the Tower of Song, as it were.

Maybe Leonard Cohen, who found himself swindled out of everything in his seventies and hustled his way back on stage, touring til nearly eighty in his sharp gangster suit, is who I oughtta plan to be when I grow up.

Somebody call me when we figure out alternatives?

What Your New Year’s Facebook Posts Really Mean

So I did that Facebook “Year in Review” thing a week or two ago even though I’m moderately sure it serves up some extra layer of data-mining capacity on a platter to Zuckerberg’s new personalized learning minions. Encapsulated in ten photos, my reductive 2015 in review looked…nice.

Really nice. A lot of travel, a lot of family time, a Ph.D earned, a conversation on Twitter with David Bowie’s son. Some excessive (expletive deleted) snow, but otherwise nice.

It left the rejected papers out. The time my son wore the same socks for four days. My posts about alcohol and fascism and friends leaving town all stayed conveniently out of the frame, presumably because Facebook knows these are not the prettiest things upon which to reflect fulsomely at the close of the year. Or perhaps Facebook only *knows* that because nobody much liked those posts.

All in all, it made me appear more or less like an amalgam of the identities I aspire to. Yeh, yeh.

You already knew that about Facebook.

But I think there’s more going on there. Today, on New Year’s Eve, my Facebook feed is a radiant orgy of Auld Lang Syne recollecting the year gone by in (mostly) tranquility and (mostly) appreciation, with a smattering of don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out, depending on what kind of a year people had & also where they self-identify and perform on the emo-to-chirpy spectrum. It is also, increasingly, a site of exhortations to do better as a society in 2016, a space for calling out the broken social contracts and structural underpinnings that differentiate individuals’ life chances so drastically even in some of the wealthiest countries in the world.

It occurred to me this morning that a thousand years hence, should archaeologists or aliens dig up the remnants of bourgeois North American “civilization,” such as it is, they will be sorely challenged to understand a damn thing about who we were and how we lived without our Facebook feeds.

If we cared about the future, people, we’d be chiseling this stuff into stone.

I got a book for Christmas – thanks Santa Dave! – called A Colorful History of Popular Delusions. Like all good gifts for fledgling academics, it has me thinking about work, even while I appear to be lolling in sloth over the holidays.

The book is a cultural history – without excessive depth, but this is not a peer review – of mass phenomena that overtake pockets of society at various intervals: fads, crazes, urban legends, mass hysterias. It details examples of each of these phenomena, from the tulip craze in Holland through the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, and some of the extenuating cultural factors that generated them.

Two things strike me:

  1. We, as humans, are profoundly adaptable – we have, historically, in matters of weeks and even days, on occasion adjusted the norms and compasses of our societies – in ways that seem almost unimaginable later on – in response to triggers that prey upon particularly cultural powerful fears, aspirations, or repressions.
  2. We, as cultures, are profoundly vulnerable to the narratives that we circulate and enact as members of our societies, particularly surrounding fears, aspirations, and repressions.

What does this have to do with Facebook?

Facebook – and more broadly, social media in general…but Facebook remains for the moment the space of the widest participation across demographics even while targeting ads designed to keep people IN their existing demographics – is the stage upon which the battle over dominant cultural narratives is played out.

Social media is where we are deciding who we are, not just as individual digital identities but AS A PEOPLE, A SOCIETY. Or perhaps, as we haven’t quite acknowledged yet, as almost separate societies within the same geopolitical entities, subject to laws and policies that have differential effects on different bodies and identities. Day-to-day, social media is the battleground for the stories we live by. It is the space where our cultural fears, aspirations, and repressions circulate.

Previously, at least as my book loosely outlines it, these narratives tended to be nursed and cultivated through a combination of institutional and moral edicts, generally protecting whatever the status quo was except in times of upheaval wherein individual voices – or, occasionally, intentional power gambits – destabilized those normative belief systems and identities and galvanized new ones around them, even if only for a brief window of time.

I’m not naive enough to think this means we’re free from our institutions, the media perhaps most outsizedly and dangerously powerful among them in terms of narrative capacity, but as any of us who have had any level of professional media exposure via social media participation can attest, even the media now draw their sense of the tenor of things from social media, even if they insist on repackaging them in binaries in the process.

This is why hashtag activism matters, and why social media visibility is risky and why posting about mass shootings draws out your weird uncle (who otherwise never acknowledges anything you say) in full Gandalf “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” mode, even if Gandalf wouldn’t approve of his from-my-cold-dead-hands politics.

Facebook and the rest of social media are our day-to-day archive of who we are trying to become.

These are our times and they are fraught and sometimes ugly and we move too fast from fad to fad and whiplash to whiplash in the outrage generator that social media creates, absolutely.

Still, I watch people get a little bit more media literate all the time, make the wizards behind the curtain a little more visible, push back against witch hunts in ways that I’m not sure were possible in closed and isolated societies like 17th century small-town Massachusetts.

Sometimes I have hope that maybe this isn’t all just a one-way sinkhole. Sometimes.

Which brings us back to the New Years posts. We live lives of inexorable and relentless change, amplified by the bucket lists and planned obsolescences and precarities and excesses the kinds of lives Facebook seems designed to reflect. A lot can happen in a year of living one’s Best Life (TM), after all, and if one fails to reflect on it all with sufficient attention, one is committing the ultimate sin of those aiming for Best Lives. My thoughts on the pressure to live our Best Lives are not pretty.

But when I see our collective New Years wishes and reflections and updates and hopes less in the vein of the “yay me” holiday update of wonderfulness and more in the spirit of a mass ongoing narrative conflict in which we try to influence our peers’ understandings of what has meaning and value, of what our repressions are and what our fears and aspirations *should* be…I’m less cynical.

Bring on the New Years posts and wishes and wrap-ups. Maybe these little outpourings help us focus on bits of hope as we cross into a new turn around the sun, bring collegiality to spaces and identities that are often fraught. Even if the aliens and archaeologists never see it all, maybe it makes a difference to the rest of what they dig up someday.

Happy New Year, friends. :)