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?