the morning after we all became social media gurus

One morning, all my friends woke up as experts.

Or rather, thanks to years of what academia had mostly framed as the gauche and wasteful habit of talking excessively to people who lived inside our computers and iPads, many of us whose social and work lives had merged somewhere in the ether of that Third Place/Space woke up with workshops to give, because…academic service. When what was gauche and time-wasting yesterday is The New Black today, it’s handy to have a vanguard of self-taught experts to teach everybody else how to play along.

But what are all these workshops doing, in the context of the academy? Mark Carrigan posed the question of social media as fashion or fad on Twitter this morning. I retweeted his post. We ended up in a conversation that eventually included another three or four colleagues, from a few different countries. THIS is how social media actually works for me, when it works.

These excerpts carry the gist of the conversation better than I can encapsulate. They also raise questions that I think all of us passing as social media gurus – however unwillingly – in the academy need to grapple with, and soon.

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  •  Are the workshops helping…or just making people feel pressured to Do Another Thing in a profession currently swamped by exhortations to do, show, and justify?

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  • Does the pressure over-emphasize the actual power of social media and encourage people to dig in against it as some kind of new regime, without necessarily having the experiential knowledge to judge whether it could have any value for them?
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  • How SHOULD we count digital and networked scholarship within the academy? Should we count it at all?
FWIW, I think we should, but I’m very wary of how. And so I wonder what happens the morning after we all wake up as experts, so to speak.

I feel like I’ve been here before. Yesterday afternoon, somebody tweeted an old post I wrote four years ago, back when I’d had a personal blog for years and was trying to understand the shift I was seeing in the economy of social media, from relational to market.

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It was the words “a path into the machine” that gave me a sense of deja vu.
Because one morning back in about 2008 all my friends woke up as social media gurus. We’d been hobbyists and bloggers and it was kind of wonderful but faintly embarrassing to talk about in polite company and then BOOM people started appearing on Good Morning America and it gentrified and stratified fast.

Switch out “brands” for “institutions” up in the pull quote above and we are living a parallel moment in academia, just a few years late. And the the many-to-many communications that the networks were based on risk, once again, being instrumentalized into something broadcast-based and metrics-driven that misses the whole point.

There has been plenty of excellent – and necessary – advocacy for the inclusion of digital, public engagement in academic hiring and tenure and promotions and our general sense of what counts as scholarship.

But the practices that get encapsulated as digital scholarship or networked participatory scholarship straddle two worlds, and two separate logics. One is the prestige economy of academia and its hierarchy and publishing oligopoly and all the things that count as scholarship. The other is social media, which has its own prestige economy.

The overlap goes like this, IMO:
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I never liked Klout’s reductionism to metrics – scale of account, reach of posts. Yet the thing that these two spheres share – their common language, so to speak – is metrics. And while those of us engaged in the complex logic of influence and prestige in academic Twitter *get* that the ephemerality of a tweet that goes viral isn’t the same as a reputation of smaller scale over time, nor does a broadcast account operate on the same terms as a reciprocal account, metrics divorced from context – either on Klout or in citation counts and h-indexes – do NOT get that.

So if those of us giving workshops to the academy about social media don’t make it really clear that it’s more than metrics – and don’t give people the experiential opportunity to taste what a personal/professional learning network (PLN) feels like and can offer – we have only ourselves to blame when the academy eventually tries to subsume social media into its OWN prestige economy.

The morning is now, kids. It’s been now for a little while but it won’t be forever. Seize the day.

How do YOU think we can best engage scholars and institutions in networked scholarship without selling the farm?

what counts as academic influence online?

Sometimes things shift when you’re not looking.

I woke up last Monday morning to discover that practically every Chronicle link on my Twitter feed related to my research area. Not in any elbowing-in-on-territory kind of way, but rather in a “whoa…serious synergy here” fashion.

Sometimes, when I get up in front of fellow educators and academics and say I study scholarship and…Twitter, I end up feeling like I’m doing stand-up comedy. Really? Twitter? say people’s eyebrows. I am becoming a great student of arched eyebrows.

Yet on Monday, casual academic readers of The Chronicle – and their eyebrows – would’ve been hard-pressed not to come away with the impression that academic identities in social media are actually Something To Care About, as a profession.

(Naturally, this will have backlash. People’s eyebrows generally do not LIKE to be beaten about the head with the idea they should care about something just because suddenly it’s the Flavour of the Month. Nor should they. I feel you, eyebrows of the world).

Still, the sense of critical mass is energizing to me. The work of research that is not legible to others always feels, rhetorically, like lifting stones uphill: constantly establishing premises rather than moving on to the deep exploration of that one particular thing.

The more the conversation about networks and identities and academia grows and pervades people’s consciousness, the less of that Sisyphean phase of the lifting I need to do.

Because this is not a Flavour of the Month, folks. This is a cultural shift, one part of the sea change in contemporary higher ed.

Dear arched eyebrows: this doesn’t mean you have to use Twitter. Or any other social networking platforms. Nor do you need to get personal online if you don’t wanna. But your concepts of academic identity and academic reputation do need to expand. Twitter and social media are now a part of scholarship, as modes of communication and of scholarly practice. So if I tell you I’m exploring the part they now play in academic influence…try not to arch so hard you hurt yourself.

I had the privilege of giving a keynote at the University of Edinburgh’s E-Learning conference two weeks ago now, hot on the heels of the very good time my mother and I had at #nlc14 there this year. If you missed us, we were the really excited Canadians swooning at all the Scots accents. ;)

The theme of Edinburgh’s E-learning conference this year was authenticity…a word that makes me a little wary. Authenticity matters. But authenticity can also be a weapon wielded to defend the “real” (read: the non-digital, or the traditional, or the tidily, smarmily Hallmark-branded) against whatever binary or straw man it chooses.

So I talked about networked scholarship, exploring the question of what counts as authentic academic influence now.

Basically, it coulda been subtitled “How Do Scholars Use Networks And What Does That MEAN?” or…”WTF Is A Graduate Student From Another Country Doing Giving A Keynote, And How Did This Happen?”

In the talk, I outlined some of the preliminary findings from my research these past few months, including what scholars seem to use networks for and what kinds of patterns emerged from the tweets and RTs that flew through my timeline this past winter. The slideshow above gives a taste of some of the tweets I flagged during the last few months of research (note: not all are from my participants). But what I really talked about was influence.

The Math of Influence
Influence is a complex, messy, slightly socially-discomfiting catch-all equation for how people determine the reputation and credibility and essentially the status of a scholar. There are two ways influence tends to get assessed, in scholarship: there’s the teensy little group of people who actually understand what your work really means…and then there’s everybody else, from different fields, who piece together the picture from external signals: what journals you publish in, what school you went to, your citation count, your h-index, your last grant. It’s credibility math, gatekeeping math. It’s founded in names and organizations people recognize and trust, with a running caveat of Your Mileage May Vary.

And now, in the mix, there’s Twitter. And blogs.

How can something that the general population is convinced is about what people had for lunch be a factor in changing what counts as academic influence?

Here’s how.

Beyond Gatekeeping: Networked Influence Signals
Going online and talking to people you don’t know about areas of shared scholarly interest opens up your reach and reputation for what you do. It opens up your capacity to build communities of practice around shared interests. It opens up the possibility that when people in your field – the people reviewing your panel or on your next granting committee – hear your name, it will be one of those they already recognize and trust. Maybe. There’s a LOT of Your Mileage May Vary here.

Think of a Venn diagram – here’s how scholars traditionally share their work, here’s what people had for lunch – and in the middle there are scholarly ideas ON social media. What I’m trying to do in my research is to identify the implicit literacies involved in making sense of identities and reputations and credibility in this intersection. Because so long as senior scholars and administrators and tenure committees think Twitter is what people had for lunch, there’s a gap in our understanding of influence signals, especially in fields that are changing rapidly.

I’m finding patterns and commonalities in how scholars use Twitter, and the things they express there. In the slideshow above, you’ll see that the touted “it increases your dissemination!” factor is important in shaping scholars’ practices, but for many that’s reported more as a side effect than a reason in itself. Community and connection and space to address marginalities on many fronts factor more powerfully in participants’ accounts of their networked practices, particularly for those who use Twitter for more than broadcast purposes.

At the same time, networked participation and networked connections and their non-institutional logics also bring more fraught elements overtly into play in the influence equation.

Enter Capitalism
Now, let’s not pretend that academic institutions are not capitalist institutions. They are, and increasingly so: capital equations of scarcity and commodity are very much a part of the institutionalized and gatekept versions of academic influence signals that have gained traction over recent generations. But the individual scholar in these equations is, except in superstar instances, an institutional role rather than an identity unto him or herself. In networks, individual identity operates as a brand, particularly as the scale of attention on an individual grows.

This allows junior scholars and adjuncts and grad students and otherwise institutionally-marginalized identities to build voices and audiences even without institutional status or sanction. It allows people to join the conversation about what’s happening in their field or in higher ed in general; to make contributions for which channels do not exist at the local level. Networked platforms act as hosts for public resistance to the irreconcilable contradictions of contemporary academia, as well as society more broadly. But networked platforms are still corporate platforms, and should not be seen as neutral identity playgrounds. As Tressie MacMillan Cottom and Robert Reece ask in this sharp piece on hashtags and media visibility, “how radical can your resistance be when it both funds a corporation and is subject to the decisions of that same corporation?”

Power in Networks
Being visible in networks *can* create access to visibility and voice in broadcast media, which sometimes lends perceived credibility to the way a scholar’s work is taken up…or at least amplifies his or her name recognition. The power relations of scale are complex, though: the racism and sexism and heterosexism and able-ism and Anglo-centrism of our contemporary world are in many ways replicated in the ways voices get heard, online, and the backlash for women and people of colour who dare to speak can be vicious. The constant identity positioning and lack of transparency and understanding about how visibility works can also make the world of academic Twitter into mean streets, sometimes.

The biggest factor in building influence in networks – one that should assuage some of the arched eyebrows – is that it tends to take, like all scholarship, a great deal of time and work. Twitter is not a magical path to fame, or to celebrity academic status. In fact, on its own, it’s created few superstars: the traditional, institutional halls of power and high status still do far more to thrust scholars into influential circles of attention and public regard. Noam Chomsky’s speaking fees are not especially under threat from Twitter upstarts, and Twitter and blogging alone do not often result in New York Times gigs. But they are, now, indubitably a part of that picture, in ever-expanding circles.

I see the networked version of academic influence as what Audrey Watters calls “a cyborg tactic:” the illegitimate offspring of complex totalizing equations, and yet potentially subversive to them. This potential lies, as Haraway would put it, in the fact that illegitimate offspring are often “exceedingly unfaithful to their origins.” As a development in how scholars understand each others’ signals of credibility and reputation, networked influence is neither good nor bad, and certainly not neutral. But it is, and it is important to try to understand.

And to those who would raise their eyebrows at this assertion, I say: sometimes, folks, things shift when you’re not looking.

#change11: fleshing out the digital selves in practice (complete with augmented identity crisis)

What an interesting and slightly discombobulating ride this whole #change11 facilitation experience has been.

As I noted at the outset this week, this idea of digital identities and selves is for me simply a way of teasing out and naming some the threads of possibility and difference that digital sociality makes available to us. I offered up the six digital selves as ways to begin a conversation about how technological affordances and practices and norms shape us – not as separate or summative representations of who we are when we’re online.

You all have taken the conversation and run with it, and I have enjoyed trying to trace and map it as it’s unfolded.

This was my first attempt to think about networked publics within the reflective, participatory, social circuits of a networked public, and I’ve learned a lot.

Mostly, I learned a lot about myself, or my selves, rather, and how the particular affordances of this learning structure affected my own sense of identity.

The Performative Self
I got to share and perform my academic self at a scale that isn’t always available to me as a grad student on a small, primarily undergraduate campus. And in pushing my own comfort zones of digital performativity by stepping beyond writing or face-to-face presenting to video and liveslide facilitation – both of which are new to me – I got to feel, for the first time in a long time, both how heady and how intimidating performativity can be.

Butler claims we bring ourselves into being, performatively, by constant repetitive, gestural citation of practices that are intelligible according to the norms of our culture. It hadn’t occurred to me how performing a role while still getting up to speed in appearing, say, intelligible – or intelligent – in that role can be extraordinarily intimidating: at least, it hadn’t occurred to me in years, since the last time I stepped so far out of my comfort zone to do something in public. The intimidation factor of performative acts may be something to consider when encountering people who are resistant to social networks and digital endeavours: online interactions tend to be more visibly or overtly performative than other aspects of our lives, and self-consciousness may contribute to some people’s hesitancy to engage.

The Quantified, Articulated self
My quantified self notices that I got a bunch of new Twitter followers this week, and my articulated self was excited to find out who they were and start to connect in return. I’m not a particularly good quantified self, however, in the sense that my practices don’t maximize my retention of Twitter followers, because I don’t auto-follow back. If you followed me, and you’d like to be part of a mutual network, just say hi.

My quantified self was mildly disappointed to notice that my Klout score didn’t measurably improve during the flurry of conversation this week, though again, if I were a better quantified self, I’d actually be tracking how many conversations and blog posts and FB chats I engaged in. Instead I just threw myself – splat – into the deep end and tried to connect. I had fun, even if my quantified self was mildly disappointed in me.

The Participatory Self
This, for me, was the self that this week was really all about.

Networked participation is such a different pedagogical model – if it could even be called that – than any other teaching or facilitation experience I’ve had. It’s the piece that makes this connectivist MOOC model so appealing to me: it’s distributed, and while the facilitator is accorded a disproportionate place of prominence within the network, the flow of ideas is many-to-many, not many-to-one. Other people’s comments on participants’ posts were as much as part of the conversation as my own: I chased the conversation, rather than driving it. In a distributed model, it’s easy to lose track of stuff unless you have a more organized quantified self than I do, tracking everything with apps and analytics, but I still managed to stumble on a lot of ideas and conversations about digital identities this week: to such an extent that my own ideas are shifting to adapt to and accommodate what they’ve encountered.

Finding your thoughts reflected forty different ways takes you beyond reflexivity – or the self looking at itself being watched – to diffraction, the optical creation of difference in the gaze process. It’ll take awhile, I think, for my participatory self to come to terms with how this experience has altered its own sense of self: my thesis thanks all you who had a part in the process.

The Asynchronous Self
Interestingly, the week’s facilitation centered around a synchronous live event, for which I was delighted to have nearly 50 people present (pipe down, Quantified Self) and engaged on the slides and in the chat. This drove home for me a point I don’t think I made particularly well in my first post of the week: appreciation of asynchronicity as an affordance does NOT mean lack of appreciation for real-time connection and live interaction, whether mediated or no. I may not especially want to chat on the phone, person-to-person, at any given time of your choosing, but being together with others in an interactive manner in real time for an event? Co-presence helps strengthen ties in social networks both online and off.

In fact, in an attention economy like social media, the capacity to create what Dave Cormier and Dave White coined “eventedness” a couple of year back is a big part of creating coherence and belonging within networked publics. Thanks to all of you who came out and who tweeted and shared comments from and responses to the livechat, thus helping ensure I didn’t feel like I’d thrown a MOOC and nobody came.

Where I particularly appreciated the affordance of asynchronous communication this week was in the one-to-one contacts I got to make with many of you through your comments here and your posts on your own blogs. It’s true that in many cases there are real limitations placed on the depth of our contact and discussion because of the asynchronicity of blog comments, but that asynchronous factor is what allows most of to participate in something like a MOOC in the first place. We’re all professionals, with other commitments. Taking a week out of our lives to attend a face-to-face class – or teach it – is a privilege the majority of us couldn’t swing. So the asynchronous self – with all its good and bad – is necessary just in making this kind of experience possible.

The Augmented Reality Self
Augmented reality is, in its simplest form, simply a way of saying that our digital lives enhance and augment – but are not separate or divided from – our physical selves. This view of our digital practices suggests that identity is multiple across spheres, and actions in each sphere influence all the selves we perform.

This was vividly driven home to me yesterday, when my dear old friend Jeff Lebow synchronized and posted last Wednesday’s video, audio, live slides and discussion session and posted it on YouTube. It was awesome of Jeff to do it, as I’d only gotten around to getting the slides up on Slideshare, but not to syncing the audio, let alone the chat.

So yep, awesome. Except then I watched it. And I lisped. Badly. All my sibilant sounds were like loud hissing feedback, and the little clicks that sometimes punctuate my speech were more like chicken clucks, and overall I sounded like I had marbles in my mouth.

And my first thought was not, Wow, wtf happened to the audio? It was Oh. My. God. I’ve been lisping my whole life and NOBODY TOLD ME! Because I forgot about the affordances – or lack thereof – of the digital self. I forgot that the self I see reflected back at me in my augmented reality is not always actually real.

I said aloud, “The sixth sheik’s sixth sheep is sick” and listened anxiously. Not much lisp, really. I clicked over to my introductory video for this week, and thought I sounded distinctly less hissy.

I wondered, aghast, how I’d managed to develop a lisp in only three short days! At forty!

Then it occurred to me that possibly it was just the audio. But my Performative Self was concerned that nobody else was going to know that, and my branded self worried I’d never get a speaking engagement again.

The video gave me an identity crisis. Because I live enmeshed between atoms and bits, and sometimes I forget that the two don’t operate quite the same. ;)

 The Branded Self
I find it interesting to think about how different communities and networks emphasize some of the selves more than others do: in the communities that tend to converge around MOOCs, for example, there is minimal incursion – to date – of monetization and its attendant practices. Facilitating this course this week brought me not a single sponsorship proposal (happily), whereas within momblogging and narrative blogging circles, daily pitches to sample and pimp products and events and releases have long been the norm for bloggers and community members with any prominence. I’ve chosen not to monetize my blogging, outside of speaking gigs, so for me the regular pitches to Try Product X for Mother’s Day! and Tell Your Readers All About Our Marvellous New Whatchamacallit! are more irritations than opportunities, but they simply come with the territory. And they shape the territory: in momblogging circles, the Me Inc. perspective on one’s practices and identity is just how things operate, even for those of us who stay outside the territory of overt monetization. I have business cards for my blog, because that is how that sphere operates.

So this one? Was a bit refreshing, because of the ways in which this community and its discourses exist in part as a pushback to the encroaching neoliberalism in higher ed today. But don’t think it’s not coming, people.

As my final word to #change11, let me play prognosticator and prophet from a land in which branded, commodified selves have a long heritage and say this.

All of us in higher ed need to grapple openly and creatively with our relationships to the monetization that’s on the horizon. Because it’s there, and it’s looming, and now is the time to come to terms with both what it threatens and what it offers.

The play and experimentation – and volunteerism – represented by our connectivist MOOCs and their attendant practices are increasingly less visible in the cultural discourse around education and technologies. That’s no fault of anyone here, in my opinion. Nor does it mean we’re headed for a dystopia. But the game is changing, and a field that’s been remarkably free of the particular affordances -and structuring limitations – of economic capital is entering a new era.

Yesterday, The Atlantic posted the first mainstream media article on MOOCs that simply took the term at face value, as if the word popped up history-less last fall with the creation of the Stanford AI course and MITx. But their MOOC model is not this MOOC model, make no mistake. And  if the tweets that came out of the Education Innovation Summit last month were any indication, a bevy of Ed Reform-minded politicians and movers and shakers are lined up to put dollars behind start-ups in ed and higher ed. Again, not necessarily a dystopic picture, but one to be wary of. And to be strategic about.

My own experience as a blogger in a field long since monetized is this. The branding and commodification hasn’t, contrary to my initial pearl-clutching horror, ruined everything.  I know monetized bloggers who push the narrative and conversation envelope, though often from within specific niches, and who participate and perform within their networked publics in ways that add real value to their communities. And I don’t begrudge them the money they make doing so. Everybody needs to eat. Those who dismiss all monetization as “selling out” are often safely ensconced in the kind of pensioned jobs that others of us may never see.

But those niches change things, as does the sense of oneself as an identity within a market.

Facilitating #change11 this week made one thing very clear for me: networks are what matters about what we do here. This is a networked public, and the affordances of that networked public are what makes this experience so different from traditional hierarchical models of learner and knower.

And here’s the thing, looking down the road. Brand can exist in networks. Neoliberalism can exist in networks. Monetization can exist in networks, to an extent. But where these operate as trojan horses for bringing hierarchical institutional power back into the game to dominate, box out and silence the creative and connective power of networks, then be nervous. The affordances of the Internet open up all kinds of possibilities and selves and worlds. I do not want to go back into the box, people.

I opened my presentation the other day with Haraway’s cyborg, and I leave you with her. She is subversive, irreverent, blasphemous to her origins. Haraway envisioned her as the illegitimate child of the military-industrial complex, who contained within her oppositional, intimate, always relational self the capacity to escape the teleology of the 20th century story.

A year or so ago, I began playing with the idea of the branded cyborg; Haraway’s cyborg with the explicit digital identity of brand and commodity grafted on to her. A cyborg for this 21st century conversation. A cyborg for Ed Reform times.

I secretly hope, of course, that she is the Master’s Tool who can dismantle the Master’s house. I secretly hope that we, in our digital identities, are her.

“find your niche” can suck my elephant: on Bourdieu’s distinction, and social media identity

Find your niche, they tell us, all those contemporary exhortations to success. 

Do the thing you love and the money will follow! 

I’ve been reading Bourdieu, thinking about his concept of distinction. Distinction is at the heart of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural consumption, or how we divide ourselves by class in contemporary culture. In his work, class distinctions go far beyond economics to other forms of capital. Symbolic capital and cultural capital – the ineffables of class captured in phrases like “high class” and “classy” – manifest in aesthetic preferences that are actually marks of taste, or belonging. They refer less to money than to status and aesthetic status markers.

They aren’t only the purview of the ruling classes, though. Every group within society has its markers, its distinctions. We think of them as our tastes, but they are – says Bourdieu – markers of our class identities, internalized and usually invisible to us. (Or they were until the hipsters started drinking Pabst, at least.)

Distinction says “I am not that. I am this.”

In Bourdieu’s work, “all cultural symbols and practices, from artistic tastes, style in dress, and eating habits to religion, science and philosophy – even language itself – embody interests and function to enhance social distinctions” (D. Schwartz, Culture & Power, 1997, p. 6).

Bourdieu is helping me understand why I shudder when I hear “find your niche.”

I am in the middle of designing the study around which I will build my dissertation. 

Any act of writing, really, shapes what comes after. And while you’re not married to your dissertation, it IS a significant relationship. It’s years of your life. And a carving out of intellectual territory, particularly if your research is your own.

And so each of the small choices by which I’m gingerly shaping the direction of my Research Ethics Board proposal feel amplified, like echoes that bounce ahead into unseen territory. Most aren’t likely to cause rockslides, really, but the fact that I cannot tell the difference is ever intimidating.

I am relearning, again, the story of the blind men and the elephant.

The field of education is a strange animal. It straddles the disciplines of the academy, but it is not – at least so far as I understand it – a discipline unto itself. It is, rather, an elephant.

In the nearly twenty years since I started my Bachelors of Education program in 1993, I’ve run the full gamut of wise blind men – and women – clutching at tails and feet and ears. Some swear the entire animal corresponds to the piece they hold. Some work hard to see and appreciate the whole, except for that cancerous hunk over there, with its discourses irreconcilable to the piece they have spent their careers grooming.

It’s rather like distinction. The “I am not that” is as important as “I am this.” And all of it is tied to practices and discourses and identity.

And I, of course, am no different. All the more full of hubris, because I keep believing I’ve discovered the outline of the whole beast only to slip again in elephant shit.

But now, I must choose a part of the elephant to tie myself to, upon which to build the rest of my career.

The last time I planted my own stake firmly in the poor old elephant it was for only a Master’s thesis and really, it was neither a professional nor a public enterprise then. There was no social media and nobody much outside my committee ever read it except Dave, bless him. That it got published a few years later was a great joy to me, because publication wasn’t what grad school seemed to be about, then and there. I thought then that education was a societal enterprise best geared toward social justice and analyzed via poststructuralism and if I didn’t fully understand what all that was, well, the rest of the class were still stuck debating whether kids should wear hats in class or no.

But I am now in a faculty far more strongly aligned with the social sciences and that has opened up new doors for me into my research. And so I am a neophyte all over again, self-consciously grappling with a part of the elephant I’ve never held or named.

And all the while, the elephant itself keeps changing.

Higher ed in general is far more self-conscious and self-aware and strategic than it was fifteen years ago. The world of knowledge and cultural production has had its gatekeeping industries exposed and deconstructed; its institutions questioned.

That’s the narrative around which my dissertation and my research study are designed: I’m interested in our practices as social media subjects because I think social media and its ever-encroaching neoliberalism has changed the cultural and knowledge production industries most  – or at least first – and academia, according to Bourdieu, is one of these industries. The find your niche prescription for success that permeates contemporary culture echoes strongest out here in social media, where we make ourselves in words and pictures everyday, and are taken up by others as we portray ourselves. But it is part of the academic process too: hence the meta-dilemma of this act of picking which part of the elephant to stand in. Or on. The cultural pressure shaping both is largely the same.

As I saw in my tweetstream just yesterday morning, via @resnikoff: “Ubiquity/structure of social media mean you’re now an eccentric if you *don’t* treat your public presence like a corporate brand.”

In finalizing my research direction, I’m in effect branding myself, tattooing myself all over with identifications, with labels and signifiers.

I am making my niche as a scholar, just as surely as I am making my niche publicly by writing and tweeting about social media media identity.

And in making my niche, I end up not just getting stuck with one part of the elephant, but in all the conversation about the damn elephant, too: all the baggage of generations of scholarly debate.

That’s the problem with “finding your niche,” people. It mires you in everybody else’s distinction processes. Wonder why everybody’s slagging everybody else so hard these days for seemingly mundane choices? We’re not actually arguing with each other, anymore. We’re just enacting distinction. We’re shouting about our part of the elephant.

Niches, of course, are boxes. Rather like the academic disciplines, niches first coalesce areas of interest and then harden lines of communication and their underlying ideologies. If you have a niche, your interactions with the world tend to take on something of a “stay on message” party line. And especially in the social media sphere – which is generally where one is magically supposed to find one’s niche, or at least the market for it -even a purely professional niche becomes a central component of the identity around which relational interactions with others are built.

The “find your niche” mantra is a discourse that reduces a world of complexity to false simplicity. The neoliberal market assumption that there actually IS a niche for everyone makes inherent value judgements about the kinds of people and practices that matter, and it tends to elide the issue of all those who do not fit its precepts. Don’t have something of market value? Don’t want or know how to shill it? You don’t count as a “you,” then, apparently.

Or better yet, you’re arrogant for not self-promoting. Yeh. Far better to find your niche as a pompous zealot.

But then I think, hush, Bonnie. Because my reaction to that kind of extreme neoliberalism is just MY distinction processes at work.

As an educator, yes, it’s part of my role to consider the literacies and privileges and means of production that tend to be necessary for people to actually engage – successfully or no – in the cultural production processes of social media and contemporary commerce. It’s part of my role to value, recognize, and foreground things that the market is not designed to reward. And that role is part of my identity.

But the tastes in discourse and values that led me to choose that role? The ones that are largely invisible to me as anything other than the way the world *should* be?

Those are products of distinction. Just as is my preference for complexity over simplicity.

You are not that, distinction tells us. You are this. And this is good. Our tastes go unrecognized for what they are: the ways in which we construct and are constructed by the hierarchies of society in our turn. Distinction  makes aesthetic and taste and identification preferences appear simply natural.

So. Here’s my hypothesis:

In my research study on social media identities and practices, I want to explore whether and how distinction, as part of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural consumption, can be applied to cultural production, too.

One of the tenets of social media identity is that we are prosumers, involved in processes of produsage. We put our own work out there, and consume and comment on that of others. Thanks to the weakening of those traditional gatekeeping industries that protected the role and status of cultural knowledge producers in academia and journalism and the arts over recent years, we have become part of the cultural production conversation. Production, in other words, is no longer so separate from consumption.

I suspect this is how the so-called culture wars have gotten so nasty over the last few years. As cultural production’s come uncoupled from the traditional gatekeeping institutions – which themselves all had roles in the hierarchies of cultural and symbolic capital – it has become increasingly overtly aligned: the once-naturalized taste distinctions between opera and bluegrass music, for instance, have been gradually blurred and broken down. Cultural products that once carried high class status became visibly commodified, and the ease of technological reproduction and sharing has made awareness of products that were once marginalized appear more exclusive and “authentic.” This lent them a particular sheen of symbolic capital, because their ties to any sort of economic interest were less visible.

In other words, things have gotten messy. Add in a panoptical site of identity performance and prosumption like social media, and you’ve got people’s distinction reactions bouncing up against each other All The Time.

I think our webs of alignment and values have gotten all tangled up. We can see and feel the alignments at an identity level – and react accordingly, with our “I am not that!” defenses of whatever it is we feel is threatened – but because of the way distinction operates, we can’t name them or unpack them particularly well.

We find our niches – even those of us who resent the idea for its reductionism and its misrepresentation of overt economic interests as natural and good – and we cling to our pieces of the metaphorical elephant like blind men, insisting we see the whole, and we wonder what the hell happened.

Does this make sense?

In my research, I want to explore our social media practices, our identity performances, and our alignments of distinction within this newly fragmented field of cultural production, or prosumption. And I want to consider the ways in which dominant neoliberal social media discourses like “find your niche” – which encourage strategic thinking but also naturalize and assume universal market reward without need for other systems – affect our identities and our sociality. All while I unpack my own distinction processes and biases as I go.

Now, I just need to frame this in a way that makes sense to the various keepers of the elephant.



brand in open courses: the new game in higher education

This week, Sebastian Thrun, one of the adjunct professors who taught Stanford’s open online Artificial Intelligence course this past fall, announced that he will be offering a new open course starting in February. It’ll be free, and it’ll be online. It also won’t have any university affiliation.

The announcement led to a flurry of discussion about the future of higher education and of brand and its role in the brave new world of learning, 2012-style.

Audrey Watters wrote a piece for Inside Higher Education about college credentials, wondering whether students will choose to follow a star professor’s individual brand “outside the walls of the university.” In the same publication, on the same day, Steve Kolowich said Thrun’s new startup, KnowLabs, would “put the importance of the institutional brand to the test.”

Both stories suggest that KnowLabs is a test case for the power of the personal brand to lead learning initiatives.

(Truth is, that’s already been shown. In terms of scale, sure, the Stanford/KnowLabs case is a far more massive proof of concept than the Massive Open Online courses like #change11 or the many MOOCs that have preceded it. But the truth is, George Siemens and Stephen Downes and others de-coupled their MOOCs from formal accredited offerings a few years back, and have already shown that thousands of people are, in fact, quite willing to follow the brand of an individual facilitator beyond the walls of academia.)

But this is NOT a personal brand versus institutional brand game. It’s something new: it’s about brand as a way to be part of an entirely different game of learning.

Academic institutions have been the primary keepers of knowledge in Western society for centuries: as such, they’ve also played a central role in according individuals the status of “knower” within our culture.

As I commented on Watters’ article, Thrun’s personal brand is still built on and in the institutional brand system, the one by which big universities like Stanford hold claim to particular standards of knowledge and status. Thrun’s association with them credentializes him as a professor. His personal brand is built in part on his institutional affiliations. Of course people will follow him, Pied-Piper-like, outside the walls of the university: he’s been vetted and found good enough for Stanford. Why wouldn’t he be good enough to teach little old me for free?

(Well, so long as I don’t want or need formal credit for the experience of learning with him. More on that in a minute).

Thrun’s street cred is also based in his history with Google. In this, he follows the long-trodden path of business and industry “experts” who are in effect accredited as knowers by their own success: their reputation grants them recognition in the eyes of those who value their knowledge, whether or not it has been stamped by a formal institution.

It is this issue of accreditation that seems to fester and bubble at the heart of most of the conversation around open online learning initiatives, large or small. The stamp – or brand – of formalized learning still represents to many minds the be-all and end-all of education: it’s raison d’etre. But this vision of brand is an outdated game.

The institutional model of knowledge and knowers that dominated pre-digital society rested on the philosophical assumption that courses exist to credential students and move them through an organized and predetermined structure. This is the business model of the modern university, sure, and predates it to the extent that credentialism of knowledge has held industry status in our culture.

This model, however, is not about learning. It encourages us to view learning through the lens of retention and completion rates; from a perspective of credits bestowed. These lenses are hugely important for contemporary academic institutions, but what they tell us is more about the success of the institution than the success of the learner on his or her own terms. And that’s an increasingly critical distinction.

Open online courses come at the idea of learning not from a “what is taught” perspective of value, but a “what is accessed” perspective of value. They don’t necessarily claim to assure anything is learned: they don’t tend to offer credentials, beyond (in some cases) a minimal badge acknowledging that participation occurred. But their goal is NOT to be externalizable measures of what information a person has mastered. Their goal is to offer people the chance to access, in an organized fashion, information and ideas, and to participate in the learning experience around that information or those ideas. They follow the participatory model of learning, which is social and rhizomatic and based more in notions of intrinsic value than of extrinsic credentializing.

If I participate in a MOOC or in Thrun’s new course, it’s not an opportunity for me to be sanctioned by an existing institutional brand, no. But it’s an opportunity for me to develop my own interests and ideas and brand as I learn and connect and perform my knowledge in a networked environment of inquiry.

Digital networks connect people and allow for the sharing and working through of ideas. Knowledge is no longer the sole or even primary purview of institutions: it’s out there, part of what Haraway called “the integrated circuit.” And if I am out there too, I can participate in the creation and sharing of knowledge, whether or not I have any institutional affiliation. I do so by engaging, by putting ideas out there and contributing to the ideas of others: by building my reputation or brand as someone who has something of value to contribute. Brand is not necessarily the end-goal of this game: it’s simply what you build as you play.

This is the networked reputation model for participatory learning. It’s social. It’s informal. It’s learner-centered and it’s not going away.

MOOC participation, then, isn’t about following a star facilitator’s brand outside the walls of academia. It’s about developing one’s own brand and reputation as a learner and knower, irrespective of those walls.

Now, Some of us straddle the two worlds. Some aren’t interested in formal, traditional models of higher education at all. And some need formalized credentials but also want access to contemporary up-to-the-minute expertise and participation that traditional academia simply cannot and does not provide. Sometimes, many of us require levels of vetting for particular pieces of knowledge that the informal peer processes of networked branding and open learning can’t offer.

Sometimes, Sebastian Thrun attested, going social in learning makes it hard to go back to the formal model.

Both types of learning have their place. But the open online courses simply don’t exist to do the things traditional courses do. Considering them on those terms is like judging a basketball team for playing bad soccer. Different game. Shared audience in terms of the sports market pie? Sure. But there’s more than one game in town in terms of higher education now.

And while MOOCs may be an example of personal brand driving people beyond the walls of institutional academic brands, this isn’t just about the individual brands of facilitators. It’s about the participants, and what they have to gain.

(I was tickled to see Steve Kolowich call the Stanford AI course a MOOC. Dave was part of the coining of the term, and while it was obvious to most in the networks of educational technologies this fall that the much-talked-about Stanford initiative was, in fact, a MOOC, the word wasn’t a familiar one to the New York Times et al. It’s an awkward term, sure. But most neologisms are: I still haven’t heard a simple alternative arise to conceptualize these large-scale, networked offerings, and so I’m kinda rooting for it. MOOC MOOC. MOOC.)