in which i discover my field AND its identity crisis all at once

First, the good news.

Last week, I submitted my 42 page thesis proposal, take 2. Once I get the feedback from my committee incorporated and I scour the whole thing clean of APA atrocities, I’ll post it here for your collective input (or your gladiatorial thumping). I promise.

After submitting, I promptly packed my bags and ran off to the salt shores of Nova Scotia to present my research at the friendly and thought-provoking Social Media and Society ’13 conference (in the midst of which I ran further off to the backwoods to sleep in a shed by a creek with a bunch of banjo-loving photographers I first met online years ago…because hey, banjos and bonfires are a known remedy for the marathon aches and angst acquired during proposal journeys).

What I presented at #SMSociety13 was this: 15 minutes, 15 slides, on the ethnography I propose for my dissertation study.

I opened the presentation by asking how many in the room of perhaps close to 100 were live-tweeting the session under their own names: a fair majority raised their hands. I asked how many also had some kind of academic or institutional affiliation using those same names. Still a majority.

I said, “So…I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable…but I’M TALKING ABOUT YOU, here”.

Nobody ran away, gentle reader. These were my people: networked scholars, ready to hear about my work and engage with it publicly, in the moment: to build an ephemeral yet traceable public conversation around it.

I opened by confessing that the title of my presentation is – from the perspective of most networked scholars – a lie. The idea that there’s a Star Wars-style epic battle raging between the forces of networks and institutions is a false binary. Truth is, most of us who’ve made thinking out loud online a central part of our scholarship also have a foot in the world of conventional, institutional academic practices too…because those are the practices hiring committees recognize and the majority of us like to eat and stuff. So I’m poking fun at my own reinforcement of the binary in my choice of font, here.

But. The binary is also a very helpful expository device, especially if one’s audience is not entirely comprised of networked scholars. Networked practices are immersive, and difficult for those without experience of them to even imagine. So much of conventional scholarly practice is about citation of norms that even talking about networked practices as scholarship doesn’t compute for many folks: hence my extensive use, this last six months, of various versions of the comparative Institutions/Networks slide found in the middle of this presentation. The comparison is meant to make visible the familiar logics of conventional scholarship as well as those emerging in participatory networks.

There’s huge overlap: as I point out in slide 3, both academia and networks are reputational economies. But it’s the distinctions – the ethos and specific practices by which networked scholars build ties and reputations and conversations and leverage these into forms of capital that aren’t always financial – that interest me. My hope is that mapped against the familiar terrain of institutional practices, networked practices become intelligible and visible. Not necessarily legitimated – that’s a separate step. But the academy cannot begin to think about whether the practices of networked scholars are legitimate if it cannot even see them and the logics that drive them.

Networked practices excite me. Three years into this Ph.D and more than three years after I started exploring the idea of networks and branding out loud on my old blog, I think I finally understand what I’m doing. Not as a researcher, necessarily, and certainly not as an academic – I have a lot to learn – but as a thinker. At the end of all my roads of exploration – the common thread running through my work on brand and identities and cyborgs and MOOCs – the Rome I keep coming back to is networked practices, or what we do when we’re out here online in participatory spaces. Specifically, it’s networked practices as identity work: the ways in which networks shape the performative practices by which we shape how we are seen…and, I will argue, who we are.



And then there’s the bad news.

I woke up yesterday and realized I haven’t posted here since June. Which is okay – I had a thesis proposal to write and kids home with me five weeks of the summer. But I didn’t particularly feel as if I’d fallen off the face of the earth.

Which means the very networked practices I’ve just settled on and built a proposal about are shifting. I suspect the whole political economy that underlies them is shifting…or as some would frame it, depending on their perspective, “maturing.” The “media” in social media is increasingly in ascendancy over the social…though again, the idea that the two are a binary is false. Still, this field of study I’ve just settled on? Seems about to hit an identity crisis.

The “Web 2.0” era definitions of networked participation no longer effectively describe dominant practice.

I have STELLAR timing, people.

It used to be if I went so much as a couple of weeks without a blog post, I felt transgressive. Not because my voice is any special snowflake, but because speaking – contributing – has always been the price of admission into the conversation out here in the open networks in which I’ve circulated. No matter the circles – momblogosphere, narrative writing, Edtech – the practices have been broadly the same, and broadly reciprocal. Whenever I slipped away from the habit of contributing, I tended to feel as if I owed my readership an opening act of contrition…because even if that readership was numerically small, it constituted what boyd (2010) calls a “networked public:” both a space created by networked technologies and the imagined collective emerging from the intersections of people, technologies, and practice. And our practices were based in produsage (Bruns, 2007), in establishing voice and identity within the reciprocal production/consumption cycle.

I think produsage still operates, but what counts as production or contribution is shifting…minimizing. The filtering and re-sharing of others’ work – commonly called “curation” to the endless grief of librarians and art specialists everywhere – has become the base price of admission: as more people join participatory circles, voices and identities are established via signals that take less time to both craft and to assess. Blog posts are not necessary, and in fact, unless they come under the banner of a major media consortium, may not even have cache: produsage is being sped up, these days. Reputations and identities need to be established on terms that require less investment.

They’re still relational, I maintain – we still read and assess signals from each other about credibility and status and whether we like jellybeans or potato chips – but as scale increases, recognizable reputations carry more power to signal. They are the only ones most of us can differentiate from the noise. Thus, the reversion to major media channels rather than a truly peer-to-peer production model. In this sense, I wonder whether our networked practices – our habits of use and the ways in which we connect and signal – aren’t also becoming increasingly reflective of society’s inequities, bringing more attention and more capital – financial, social, even symbolic – to those who start from a position of scale.

Or that’s what I wonder and worry about. But data collection is yet ahead of me! Stay tuned…and please, throw in. What do YOU think is up with networks and participation, these days? If you’ve been around awhile, do you see a shift?


15 Comments in which i discover my field AND its identity crisis all at once

  1. Mike Caulfield

    The idea that everyone will be a producer and consumer of blog posts doesn’t work mathematically as participation scales up. Writing takes significant time away from reading; a world where everyone is writing is a world where almost no one is read.

    All communities need multiple avenues of participation. Jon Udell got obsessed with calendar syndication almost six years back when he realized that his vision of the web was very writer-centric. I’ve been obsessed with how to make connected learning lower threshold. People have gravitated to like/retweet/reblog in every community that has scaled up, and the old-timers have always complained that the community was degenerating.

    I’ve been on a four year rant about the fraudulent “consumer/producer” division. Here’s a recent piece + screencast about that.

    1. bon

      Agree, Mike. As participation scales up it has to shift…though my own experience is that online communities or networked publics *can* be worlds where everyone is writing AND reading, in reciprocal-ish networks: my early blogging days were very much like that. Admittedly, those given publics tended to scale out at about 500 or so and once a few people became *the* people all the other 500 were reading, they simply couldn’t keep up the reciprocal end.

      But the high end were always outliers: norms of successful practice seemed to develop and be visible in the middle. This was where there’d be enough loose ties to make a functioning network in which different kinds of social and symbolic capital could circulate and distinct reputations and “niches” get formed.

      None of this necessarily addresses the binary of producers v. consumers your link talks about – I don’t particularly buy that either. I think, following deCerteau, that consumption can be an agential act, a form of practice…and certainly I think curation is. But we don’t have great social media principles that operate on that acknowledgement. Yet. We need some.

  2. SAA

    Hey Bonnie, Congratulations on submitting your proposal! It’s a big job and it must feel great to have it done!

    Your slides are interesting. I particularly liked slide 12 where you talk about multiple overlapping networks (are you starting to see the foundations of PoSR formation here?)

    I’ve seen a huge shift, so I’m with you there. I’m sure your data collection will reveal all!

    1. bon

      ha. I suspect I may fail to reveal all, but hey, it can’t hurt to aim high!

      I haven’t used PoSR in my proposal (nor any other framework to theorize my way through digital dualism, yet). I’m waiting til I get the data…but the foundations might indeed by useful. Thanks for the reminder. :)

      1. SAA

        What I learned with data collection (I’m writing up now) is that it wasn’t what I expected and the data revealed something completely useful, but totally different. In other words, plan to get something other than what you plan for.

        1. bon

          Figures. In truth, while I have a lot of observations about practices, I don’t have a clear expectation about how people will articulate them or even whether the things I observe are dominant. I’m not sure how reputation circulates or what will emerge, so…I’m really eager to get into the data collection for that reason!

  3. Sarah Piazza

    Congrats, Bon! I wrote a longer comment about my thoughts on trends, but somehow it attached to an old post of yours. Hmm.

    As to blog posts not being necessary, true, and sigh, but I’m a dinosaur, still posting against the wind.

    1. bon

      I noticed this summer that I missed blogging, even though for the first time I didn’t feel obligated to try to do it. It is something I hope I will keep up, even as things continue to shift…there is something for me about the ways in which these individual comments can thread and create corners of ideas and growth and intimacy that I deeply, deeply value.

      Also, for my own self, I copied your comment over from the other post, because it speaks to some important stuff and I’m trying to keep these ideas all together:
      “produsage has changed my life but also taken up a worrisome amount of time. I left Twitter because I felt I couldn’t do all that I need to do in my world and still do that, no matter how tempting and reinforcing it was.

      I wonder how much of the shift you’re seeing in the medium has to do with the ever increasing ways to broadcast coupled with the fact of an infexible cap on our time? I know that in the early years I sacrificed sleep to participate in social media, something I will not/cannot do anymore.”

      amen, Sarah. i remember you being one of the first to note aloud how taxing that kind of participatory “keeping up” can be…maybe Mike’s top comment above is more true than i’m allowing for. maybe we can only all be reciprocal writers if we limit our focus on a reasonable cohort of other writers?

  4. Clint

    The changing nature of networked practice could have something to do with the increasing number of participants. We’ve scaled up. There are more voices at the table. I often find that things I might have blogged about (or commented about on a blog) in the past have already been blogged about by others in my network, often more eloquently and passionately. So, instead of blogging I choose to amplify what they say. Like curation, I think amplification is another key quality of networked participation that has increased in importance for networked participants that, perhaps, wasn’t as prevalent in the early Web 2.0 days.

    For myself, I can’t downplay changes in technology influencing my own networked practices. In the past, the blog was the only place to share and discuss things like newly found resources. Now that is taken care of with other tools. And the rise of tablets and mobile platforms has greatly influenced how many comments, and what level of depth I get into with others. I use my tablet for consuming, but find I leave longer, more detailed comments when I am on my laptop with a physical keyboard (like now) than when I read something on a tablet.

    1. bon

      indeed, Clint…scale combined with practices of curation and amplification. good point about amplification. i tend to think of it as a part of the social media curation process (and a big part of how identities and relational connections get made…when i amplify someone i become aware of them as an entity that i’m essentially putting my own recommendation behind, and they, reciprocally, become aware of me as someone who does that for them). but you point out how this kind of informal practice also keeps the rabble of voices on any given topic somewhat contained…interesting. will have to look into that more.

      and yes, i’m like a skimmer on my phone…i seldom type anything complex or follow trails of conversations in nearly as much depth.

  5. Coffee with Julie

    Thank you for giving me so much to think about. I’ve been ruminating on this topic a lot lately. I recently started teacher part-time in our local college and all of a sudden I am starting to feel uncomfortable with my participation in networked communities.

  6. Kate

    So nice to see your words back on the page. Yours is one of the blogs I follow through RSS into mine because when I began I wanted to create some kind of micro-reader that would bring different voices in. As I’ve been finding it harder and harder to make time to write (under similar pressures, especially parenting), I’ve still sat among the deckchairs watching the wind blow in news and ideas from other people. So while you’d been away from here, that awayness was also networked into somewhere else.

    I think all this has something to do with a dimension of networked reciprocity that’s hard to capture with analytics etc. Sometimes reciprocity is fragile for reasons that have as much to do with micropressures (home, life, tiredness) as with the grand dramas of scale and power. But even when the bonds of appreciation and curiosity are strained, they don’t vanish altogether.

    The thing with blogging that still astonishes me is the signs and small whispers that come from people who pass by while you’re so busy you can’t even remember where you left your keys, and they leave that little trace of presence. I was here, I came via there, I was looking for that, and hey, I found you. I feel I’m not ready to say that this sense of belonging to a mobile community of strangers is obsolete.

  7. Andrea

    I’ve been thinking about this post (albeit from an admittedly non-academic perspective) off and on since I read it. It’s true that blogging has changed a lot over the past few years but, from what I can tell, those changes have hit primarily personal blogs of various genres. Blogs that were already very specialist and technical (news blogs, political blogs, green blogs, science blogs) were already fairly corporate and consolidated, so the past few years may have accelerated those trends, but not really instituted any kind of sea change. Treehugger is still Treehugger, etc. They never seemed to me to operate on a produsage model–it was always obviously about broadcasting to the largest possible audience.

    And in other areas, I do still see produsage operating as a community norm, particularly in DIY. Sewing, embroidery, home renovations, cooking, homesteading, etc. Dare I say it? Those awful hipsters are keeping produsage alive and well. (Kidding–I don’t understand why people don’t like hipsters, myself.) Check out Mr. X Stitch for an example of a community embroidery blog where people contribute and participate, or Feeling Stitchy. But what they’re contributing is only tangentially a blog post. They’re making patterns, using patterns, initiating sew-alongs or trades or swaps, altering patterns, writing books, doing book reviews–the blog post is just what allows them to produce work and consume each other’s work at a distance. It’s happening on twitter, facebook and flickr, too. It might be because the communities themselves are smaller, though I don’t think they’re all that much smaller than the mommy blogging world was when that all started to fall apart. I think, with the DIY blogs, that production is so inherent in what they do, that it would be very difficult if not impossible to participate without producing something tangible and real. Or a photo of it. And in terms of investment, the time is massive. Making patterns, sewing up a project, refinishing a table–these take weeks. People do it and then take pictures of it, put the pictures on a flickr group, write up a blog post, and share it on FB and twitter. That’s time consuming.

    On the other hand, it’s not personal. Whether the girl who writes Follow The White Bunny is a raging alcoholic or not, I’ll never know. I don’t even know how many kids she has. I’m not entirely sure of what country she lives in. I know she’s an A-plus embroiderer, though, and makes really cute patterns. Produsage is still working there, I think, because people aren’t sharing themselves. They’re sharing a small aspect of their lives in terms of a particular hobby or tangible work-product.

    In personal blogs, produsage seems to be going the way of the proverbial doornail. I think scale is one side of it; some people got really famous and took a whole bunch of eyeballs, and couldn’t possibly have a reciprocal relationship with all of their readers. But I think those of us who were in the middle were never really in it for attention, or not primarily. The produsage model after all is the same kind of moral system most of us use in our daily lives, in our normal patterns of interaction–we contribute reciprocally, or try to. We were there to meet people and make friends, to engage and interact the same way we might in a coffee shop. Where coffee shops still exist–or maybe, nowadays, in the online sewing store or the knitting shop or the small hardware store–that moral system, that model, still works. But the generic coffee shop is now a stadium-sized Starbucks, with a lot of booths set up along the boundaries hawking crap, and those of us who used to sit there and have a conversation can’t hear each other anymore. Personal produsage is a reciprocal sharing of ourselves, which makes it very different, and subject to different emotions and impulses.

    So we’ve taken our existing and mostly still-functioning reciprocal networks and decamped to facebook. I’m not sure about twitter–I think it’s too much of a stadium, too. But on FB people can define the networks that they are able to contribute to reciprocally. And then they do, with links and status updates and photos and mini-posts and comments.

    Produsage isn’t new. We do it every day. We do stuff, we make stuff, we have conversations, we reciprocate; we gossip about freeloaders and try to keep distance from really negative people; we loan money and time and casseroles to friends in crisis, and we expect that when we are in crisis our friends will loan money and time and casseroles to us. We imported that social moral model to online life, and it worked really well for a while. And then it didn’t. All of us in the mushy middle, who were completely happy to have small readerships and comment back to everyone who commented to us, basically left. Maybe it is because the reputational economy online can be so easily manipulated by cues that turn out to be worthless (i.e. Hugo Schwyzer). Maybe it is because everything is so public, that those elements of normal everyday social reciprocity that need to happen between two people, can’t be kept between two people. Maybe it’s because 33% of our networks became the internet equivalents of Mary Kay salesladies. Maybe it was because we’d all hit our threshhold of internet friends who we actually had the time and resources to interact with meaningfully, and felt frazzled and guilty by pressures to apply off-line moral systems that work for at best 150 people in online spaces of thousands (as you allude to yourself).

    It’s the difference between building relationships and building a reputation. There’s overlap, but they’re not the same thing. In some contexts, produsage builds reputations, because what you are sharing is not personal and the space is fairly small. (Equivalent of making pies for a church bake sale.) In other contexts, it builds relationships. (Group therapy sessions. Girls’ nights out.) I think in those contexts where produsage tended to build relationships rather than reputations, it has run its course. People are using reputational signalling instead of sharing of selves because they want to build reputations, not relationships. A reciprocal sharing of selves requires empathy, consideration and affection in order to work and continue working. Blogging is not a good space for that anymore.

    I think maybe what I’m trying to get at here is intimacy. Sharing other sources rather than one’s self or one’s own work is less intimate. It provides shielding and distance. It’s more appropriate for contexts when one wants to keep someone a stranger or acquaintance.

    Sorry for the wordiness!


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