In Abundance: Networked Participatory Practices as Scholarship

The second paper from my thesis came out last week, in IRRODL.

I tip my hat to IRRODL…there is something truly lovely about publishing a paper on networked scholarship and being able to share it immediately and without barriers. In actual networks. Here’s the link, Twitter – BOOM. Here you go, Facebook – right there for all the people I went to high school with to enjoy. Whatever. Right there. Just like…like the internet actually works in scholarship!

Oh right.

I didn’t even have to pay any highwaymen hybrid open access rates, which is a blessing, as my institution does not offer funds for that and I enjoy being able to feed my children and other frivolities. I obviously do not understand the oligopoly that is academic publishing. I do, however, understand not paying thousands for things that can – broadly speaking – be accomplished for free. I’ve been trying not to do that for a way longer time than I’ve been playing this academia game.

Sometimes when I read the stuff that comes through my Twitter feed, I actually get the impression that we – “we” being the sub-species homo academicus, seldom the sharpest knives in the drawer of life, oddly – might slowly be getting it. Academic successs is not a lottery, I read today, but a rigged game rife with implicit bias and discrimination. Why, my stars! And then I saw, in black and white, words that said citation metrics “should never be used as the sole criterion to evaluate academics” and I swear little cherubs started singing in my ears.

But while these messages may be making their way through our Twitter skullz they are still not the dominant narratives of a profession in which digitizing journals – thus getting rid of the cost of paper and distribution – has actually resulted in a HIGHER concentration of scientific literature in the hands of a few major for-profit players, even though all the reviewing is done for free by academics who often don’t even have contracts that cover service labour anymore. Uh, brilliant system, guys. I’ll take Boardwalk, please!

And it’s worst in the social sciences…which *mutter mutter shoemakers’ wives something something.*

But we cling to the academic publishing system because it’s a prestige economy. It’s our prestige economy, dammit. And apparently they will have to pry it from our cold, dead, mostly-precariously-employed hands because there seems to be far more attachment to the impact factor of prestigious journals than to the possibility of changing things.

This logic would tell me that open publishing and networked sharing are not in my interest, because they do not fall under the purview of the narrow circle of “what counts” drawn by impact-factor-focused publishing. Yet that impact factor primarily counts because it’s supposed to increase citations and that‘s supposed to count because it’s supposed to help me snag one of the last remaining tenured professorships from the Mad Max landscape of contemporary higher ed…and do please send your tenure lines my way, friends. But. BUT.

This paper is about networks as sites of scholarship. Already. Not some kind of proto-scholarship but actual sites of scholarship of discovery and scholarship of integration and application and teaching – all Boyer’s (1990) categories for the profession. Plus, many participants indicated that their networked scholarship actually fulfills Boyer’s additional vision of a scholarship “beyond the hierarchy of functions” – a more inclusive, comprehensive and dynamic approach to professional practice. Networks are admittedly still supplemental sites, for the most part, because few paying scholarly careers are to be eked out here, and the odds remain slightly better in the institutional game. But in a world where the capacity to distribute ideas no longer requires paper, or printing, or the oligopoly of an Elsevier, it might be cool to at the very least try to reward the IRRODLs of the world and their other handy, hey look you can click this and there’s a paper right there at the end of that link! ilk. It might save our institutional libraries from bankruptcy, even. Maybe.

I probably shouldn’t be saying this out loud. I should be sleeping. I got in a car at 7:10 this morning, fluffed and buffed and ready to give a talk, but my jetlagged body was still under the impression it was shortly after midnight and even though I had practiced deep yogic breathing in my hotel bed for two solid hours I was awake. All. Night. Like Thelma in Thelma and Louise, awake with the kind of raw adrenalin that comes to some when they’re on the lam or me, apparently, when I cross the Atlantic. So now it’s 2am again here. And I am punch-drunk from lack of sleep and from the deep cognitive dissonance the academic publishing monopoly triggers in me, so I will just shut up now and say hey, pssst, click this link if you’re interested in how networks do some of the work of scholarship because the paper is RIGHT THERE, you guys. Because internet.

Magick.

for shame

Dave and our friend Beth have a semi-regular gig on the local CBC morning show‘s social media panel…but this week, Dave’s away. Since it’s handy to have a literal in-house replacement to offer up, I got to play pinch hitter. And thanks to last week’s #FHRITP spectacle last week in Toronto, they were talking online shaming, which I’ve been thinking and writing about since the conclusion of my thesis.

So…I spent last evening to trying to unpack what’s actually happening with shame and scale in contemporary culture.

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Here are Beth & I at the brisk and perky hour of 7:30 in the morning, talking it all through. But being me, I made notes that could have filled a three-hour show, and it got me thinking about shame and scale and social media at a level that I couldn’t manage to pack into our ten minutes on air.

Here are the highlights of what a combination of years of background research into social media + frantic Googling + the threat of making a totally unprepared arse of myself on-air got me thinking about shame and all the sensationalism-driven conversations we’re having, societally, about social media and shame.

First, public shaming is in no way a new or online phenomenon. We may be experiencing a glorious new glut of it in our Twitter and Facebook feeds, but our fascination with it shouldn’t fool us…we’re not gawking because it’s new. We’re gawking because it’s uncomfortable.

We’re gawking because Call-Out Culture calls us out – no matter what sanitized shade of bland we may be as individuals – and reveals our participation in the engines of power that allow some people to chew others up. We’re not supposed to talk about power. It works hard to make itself invisible. But I think social media platforms hail us, in Althusserian terms, into complex and collapsed social and political ideologies of power in ways we can’t quite naturalize because the platforms are still so new and constantly changing. Online, we have to grapple with our own interpellation as subjects.

Second, there are two ways public shaming has always worked.

  • To control people, & force them to comply with the status quo. The Scarlet Letter is a great way to keep wives faithful.
  • To push back against that status quo or speak truth to power. If you can actually show that the Emperor has no clothes, you delegitimize his power and call into question the whole system he rules.

So I think online shaming and Call-Out Culture is a clash of these two archaic forms of public shaming. And which is which depends on where the speaker aligns – at that moment, in his or her complex and intersectional identity.

Here’s how you tell: does the speech act he or she engages in reinforce the status quo or challenge it?

The first is trolling. Trolling silences through shame. It reinforces status quo power positions: male over female, rich over poor, white over black, abled over disabled…any of those societal norms that govern who gets heard.

The second is hashtag activism. Hashtag activism allows people who experience marginalization to band together to speak back – to call out and critique others for the degrading or insulting or even just casually ignorant thing they’ve said in public.

Sometimes people have a hard time figuring out which side that status quo is actually on. Both trolling and calling out can be nasty, from a personal perspective, and people like to feel righteous, so you’ll see cases like the dude with the TV reporter who’s acting all offended that she’s calling him out for having leapt into her WORK to sexually degrade her for his own entertainment and…what? Fame?

Well, he got his 15 minutes. And he needs a new job.

And call out culture can be like that – when the hashtag activists succeed sometimes the consequence can seem out of proportion to the offence. But it raises real questions of what SHOULD the consequences of public speech be?

Because if people DO get away with disrupting and degrading others just to reinforce power positions – oh hey, it’s funny, can’t you take a joke? – then REAL PEOPLE end up living with that, feeling degraded…and that has consequences too.

Both individually and for that status quo of who gets to speak and be heard.

We don’t want a society entirely driven by shame. Those always turn out dangerous. But I am wary of the ways that pundits and media are lining up to denounce shame at this juncture, particularly when their words tend to sympathize with the risks that white, middle class Justine Saccos face in this “mob morality,” rather than with the risks and shame that those #FHRITP guys were trying to inflame as they aggressively asserted their own right to complete and utter shamelessness. Shame should not be a zero-sum. Shame as a tactical response to marginalization should not be needed…but if it works, let’s not focus on shutting down the very few effective means we have for speaking truth to power at scale.

#dLRN15 – Making Sense of Higher Education

I sat at a lunch table earlier this week with some friends and colleagues at my institution and accidentally started a rousing conversation…about conferences.

I asked: What do conferences need to DO to be…valuable?

We all had different answers. In fact, we were perhaps in entirely separate conversations.

One staff colleague, affiliated with an association with an established and funded annual conference, said that conferences need to help get people into the learning/working mindset once the great annual social gathering is convened.

I can see that.

Other staff colleagues, whose positions are not affiliated with associations or any established conferences, but who have access to some annual or bi-annual funding, had a different response. Theirs focused on relevance and how they could find conversations aimed at giving them new conceptual tools while still recognizing that they have systems and practical limits they need to work within.

I could see that too.

Had we just reached out over the cafeteria benches to the rest of our colleagues around us, what other responses would we have gotten?

For faculty, sharing their work and research, both in sessions and in conversations with peers from different contexts, would’ve likely factored high.

For sessional or adjunct colleagues – whose $500 annual institutional budget for conference reimbursement is unlikely to even get many TO a major conference let alone reimburse registration or scholarly association or hotel or food fees – yet who also need to share their work and see what’s shaking up their fields in order to play in the academic prestige economy game of hoping to make more than 20k a year someday, the response might’ve mostly been laughter. Or weeping.

Same for the grad students.

Administrators might have had multiple different answers. I’m cynical enough to assume some would have been about the expense of conferences. I’ve been to enough conferences to half-nod and call that justified. I’m not so cynical as to think there aren’t other, strategic and vision-related answers that might have emerged from those corners.

I can see all those positions.

And then some of us in that cafeteria don’t even register on this list. Right now, I hold two separate part-time roles for which conference travel is not an official part of the budget. At this juncture, I pretty much go as an invited speaker or not at all. This is great work if you can get it, admittedly. However, when your jobs do not include “academic service” and one of them doesn’t include vacation, you come home and make up the days and time lost, which is rather like embodying the summit and the nadir of academic status simultaneously. And it’s not a position that’s often visible from the outside.

It’s hard to hold all our myriad perspectives in view, at once. Yet all of us in that cafeteria the other day – and many more, standing in spots I haven’t managed to articulate – are higher ed professionals.

We are, all of us, the people Raul Pacheco-Vega is referring to when he says “we need to rethink academia, but collectively.”

So I asked What do conferences need to DO? because I was thinking about re-thinking academia collectively. I was thinking about taking our conversations beyond Twitter and responses to op-eds we don’t control…I was thinking about making online ed more than training wheels, to quote Jonathan Rees; I was thinking that somewhere in the overall answer is the possibility that all the above groups and more end up sitting at the same tables, talking to each other about change, fulfilling at least a bit of all the purposes, all the answers.

I was thinking, basically, you should come to #dLRN15: Making Sense of Higher Education. If you can at all.

***
#dLRN15 – which will take place at Stanford on October 16th & 17th, 2015 – aims to “explore the most pressing uncertainties and most promising applications of digital networks for learning and the academy.”

Ambitious, definitely. But worth a shot.

We have Adeline Koh and Mike Caulfield and Marcia Devlin all coming in as keynotes.

We’re trying to explore five strands of conversation through the lenses of networks and change:

  • The ethics of collaboration
  • Individualized learning
  • Systemic impacts
  • Innovation and work
  • Sociocultural Implications

We’re trying to make it about re-thinking academia collectively. We want “stakeholders” and grad students on the same panels. We want “research” outputs central but voluntary, because not all valuable contributions are formalized as research. We want Works-in-Progress. We want connections and a social gathering and recognition of limits and recognition of contributions…and we want to make good use of people’s time.

We want you.

Yes, you. You, the staff member. You, the professor. You, please, the adjunct and the grad student and the non-institutional scholar and the otherwise-contingent member of the academy – we have significantly-reduced rates for all of the above. You, the administrator. You, the person who doesn’t know what table you fit at.

We want all the things conferences are for, under one roof. We want to talk about higher ed, and futures, and how we can all learn to hear each other and make sense of it all.

I don’t know if we can do all that conferences need to do to be valuable. But we will try.

Submit your 250 word abstract by June 1st to join us. And if you’d like to help us review submissions and make this conversation as rich as it can be, click here.

I look forward to it.

Open to Influence: Academic Influence on Twitter, The Short Version

The Preamble:
I am the sort of person who was born to be elderly and didactic. Deep in my nature lurks the spirit – if not the vocabulary – of a teeny, slightly melancholic sixth cousin of Marcel Proust hankering to wax pensively about the eternal nature of change and What Once Was. Inside my head, it’s all Remembrance of Things Past, all the time. Not because I’m nostalgic – je ne regrette rien! – but because this appears, even at midlife, to be my only wayfinding strategy; reflective recall is how I make sense of the world.

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So I cannot leap back onto the blog after four months of TOTAL SILENCE without spitting up metaphors. I am surfacing from the thesis. I am almost at the finish. I am beginning to get my voice back; my feet back under me. You would be forgiven for thinking I’ve been engaged in some kind of strange swimming marathon. Or drowning. Because both are true in the ways that matter even through really I’ve barely left my couch in three months. Back about mid-November I embarked on the gradual withdrawal from everything except my thesis (and working and parenting and – sadly – shovelling SEVEN FEET of %#&*(ing snow). And it is done and submitted, which is still surreal to me. It is three papers and another forty-odd pages and has itself a fancy title and will be defended in April, warts and all. It is about scholarship in the context of knowledge abundance and how online networked practices intersect with/assemble with institutional practices in terms of influence and engagement and attention, in particular. It is basically a slice of a particular cross-section of academic Twitter circa early 2014. And it is done (I never really actually thought it would be done). Done.

The first paper of the three that comprise the body of the thesis was actually finished and submitted back in July, which feels like a misty past now, The Time Before. That paper came out today and the pre-print is here if, like me, you don’t actually have access. And below I am going to break it down into the Very Short Version in case reading 38 pages isn’t what you’re on about.

But this is The Preamble and elderly didactic cousin-of-Proust me just wants to chew upon how different it all was when all my words were being lined up tidily for academic digestion. I nearly choked getting them out. I nearly choked on having no time to think in This Voice, because I had to give up most of my tweeting and all of my blogging to get the thesis finished and yet in doing so I gave up my primary wayfinding and sensemaking processes and that felt exactly as untenable as you would imagine and it was all *almost* as ironic, to me, as the fact that my first paper for the thesis is about openness and networks in a closed journal. But you may as well laugh as cry, right? I made each of these irreconcilable choices. These are the contradictions of our time and even researching them has not helped me navigate them remotely cleanly or well. I do not know what all this means for my future in whatever academia is becoming but I do know that writing in my own voice gives me joy and not writing in my own voice breaks my spirit and I do not think I want to slide so far away from the networked side of things again for awhile yet. And still.

Je ne regrette rien.

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The Paper, SHORT VERSION:
This paper is about what counts as academic influence on a platform like Twitter.

Influence is how we determine the reputation and credibility and essentially the status of a scholar. There are two ways we assess influence: first, there’s the teeny little group of people who understand what your work really means. 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. Things people recognize and trust. It’s a complicated shorthand.

And now, in the mix – against a backdrop of knowledge abundance and digital technologies and the fact that nobody needs to go through a gatekeeping institution to contribute to knowledge anymore – Twitter. This paper explores what circulates or counts as influence and credibility in academic Twitter, and in networked participatory scholarship more broadly.

The paper concludes that scholars assess the networked profiles and behaviours of peers through a logic of influence that is – at least as yet – less codified and numeric than expected. Participants in the study did perceive relatively large-scale accounts as a general signal of influence, but recognizability and commonality are as or more important than quantifiable measures or credentials.

The paper suggests that the impression of capacity for meaningful contribution is key to cultivating influence and the regard of actively networked peers. The value and meaning of that sense of contribution is tied in part to the ways in which network signals operate individual to individual – more on that in papers #2 and #3 of the thesis, as well as its conclusion. The value is also, frankly, in the fact that we can see our signals received, in networks, in real-time. Never underestimate the power of people listening.

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Key messages from the findings of the paper:
1. Metrics matter, but not that much

2. Scale of visibility (ie having a large account and a large active reach) is a signal of influence but also a weird and complex identity space

3. The intersection of high network status with lower or unclear institutional academic status is also a weird and complex identity space

4. The perception of someone’s capacity for contribution is created and amplified by common interests, disciplines, and shared ties/peers

5. Institutional affiliations aren’t considered that important by active Twitter users (unless they’re Oxford)

6. Automated signals indicate low influence

7. Digital networks offer scholars a sense of being someone who can contribute…in ways that the academy does not offer. (The academy offers other ways. But this paper focuses on the signals and lived experiences of networks.)

If you want to read the rest, there’s lots. The official article is here, and the open pre-print is here. Your feedback and your thoughts and your ideas are very welcome. :)

The Post-script:
The fourteen participants and eight examplars who stepped forward to be a part of this research…I thank all of you hugely, for your time, and your teaching, and mostly for your trust.

something is rotten in the state of…Twitter

I read another article yesterday on The Death of Twitter: they’re multiplying, these narratives, just like the fruit flies in my kitchen.

Like fruit flies, these lamentations for Twitter do not spontaneously generate, but are born from a process of decay: they are the visible signs of something left neglected, something rotting quietly out of sight.

Since I’m currently in the extended throes of researching Twitter for my dissertation, I read these articles like I used to read Cosmo back when I was twenty: half-anxious that Enlightenment will be contained in the next paragraph, half-anxious it won’t. When I was twenty, I had Cosmo to make me feel miserable about the gap between what I valued and what I saw reflected and valued by the world. These days, I have The End of Big Twitter.

I wonder about what it means to research something changing so quickly, so drastically. Will my dissertation end up being about the Twitter that was, rather than whatever it is in the process of becoming? Can a person become an historian by accident?

Is this all there is to say, anymore?
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Because once there was more, at least for me. Way back in the arcane days of 2006 and 2007, I went to live among another culture – participatory culture, in its heyday – and felt at home for the first time. A particular confluence of privilege and obscurity and the need to speak things I had no place to speak aloud contributed…and the experience was mostly good. Not always ideal, by any means, but networks and Twitter in particular opened for me whole worlds of conversations and ties that I would never – flat-out – otherwise have had access to. And those conversations and ties have shaped my identity, my work, and my trajectory in life dramatically over the last eight years. Yet I sense the conditions that made all that possible shifting, slipping away.

I do not know what comes next, at this strange intersection. This post is My Own Private Fruitfly: its lifespan short and humid. It may be dead or obsolete in fifty days. But it is what I see, here and now, on the heels of a sweltering and disturbing August.
***

“The Death of Twitter” is Not About Twitter
I’m no great fan of their recent platform changes and even less of the likelihood that they’re about to make what I see in my feed far more algorithmically-determined, a la Facebook. But I don’t think a new platform will arise to save what’s getting lost and lamented about Twitter. The issue all the articles point to is about Twitter As We Knew It (TM) as a representation of an era, a kind of practice. At the core, it is about the ebbing away of networked communications and participatory culture – or at least, first-generation participatory culture as I knew it, as Jenkins is perhaps best-known for describing it.

It is also about the concurrent rise of what I *hope* is peak Attention Economy.

(Of course, the founding premise of the Attention Economy is there’s no such thing as too much Attention Economy, so yeh, I’m probably wrong on the peak front .)

Consolidation of the Status Quo
Some of this is overt hostile takeover – a trifecta of monetization and algorithmic thinking and status quo interests like big brands and big institutions and big privilege pecking away at participatory practices since at least 2008.

Oh, you formed a little unicorn world where you can communicate at scale outside the broadcast media model? Let us sponsor that for you, sisters and brothers. Let us draw you from your domains of your own to mass platforms where networking will, for awhile, come fully into flower while all the while Venture Capital logics tweak and incentivize and boil you slowly in the bosom of your networked connections until you wake up and realize that the way you talk to half the people you talk to doesn’t encourage talking so much as broadcasting anymore. Yeh. Oh hey, *that* went well.

And in academia, with Twitter finally on the radar of major institutions, and universities issuing social media policies and playing damage control over faculty tweets with the Salaita firing and even more recent, deeply disturbing rumours of institutional interventions in employee’s lives, this takeover threatens to choke a messy but powerful set of scholarly practices and approaches it never really got around to understanding. The threat of being summarily acted upon by the academy as a consequence of tweets – always present, frankly, particularly for untenured and more vulnerable members of the academic community – now hangs visibly over all heads…even while the medium is still scorned as scholarship by many.

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You’re Doing It Wrong 
But there’s more. The sense of participatory collective – always fraught – has waned as more and more subcultures are crammed and collapsed into a common, traceable, searchable medium. We hang over each other’s heads, more and more heavily, self-appointed swords of Damocles waiting with baited breath to strike. Participation is built on a set of practices that network consumption AND production of media together…so that audiences and producers shift roles and come to share contexts, to an extent. Sure, the whole thing can be gamed by the public and participatory sharing of sensationalism and scandal and sympathy and all the other things that drive eyeballs.

But where there are shared contexts, the big nodes and the smaller nodes are – ideally – still people to each other, with longterm, sustained exposure and impressions formed. In this sense, drawing on Walter Ong’s work on the distinctions between oral and literate cultures, Liliana Bounegru has claimed that Twitter is a hybrid: orality is performative and participatory and often repetitive, premised on memory and agonistic struggle and the acceptance of many things happening at once, which sounds like Twitter As We Knew It (TM), while textuality enables subjective and objective stances, transcending of time and space, and collaborative, archivable, analytical knowledge, among other things.

Thomas Pettitt even calls the era of pre-digital print literacy “The Gutenberg Parenthesis;” an anomaly of history that will be superceded by secondary orality via digital media. 

Um…we may want to rethink signing up for that rodeo. Because lately secondary orality via digital media seems like a pretty nasty, reactive state of being, a collective hiss of “you’re doing it wrong.” Tweets are taken up as magnum opi to be leapt upon and eviscerated, not only by ideological opponents or threatened employers but by in-network peers…because the Attention Economy rewards those behaviours. Oh hai, print literacies and related vested interests back in ascendency, creating a competitive, zero-sum arena for interaction. Such fun!

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Which is not to say there’s no place for “you’re doing it wrong.” Twitter, dead or no, is still a powerful and as yet unsurpassed platform for raising issues and calling out uncomfortable truths, as shown in its amplification of the #Ferguson protests to media visibility (in a way Facebook absolutely failed to do thanks to the aforementioned algorithmic filters). Twitter is, as my research continues to show, a path to voice. At the same time, Twitter is also a free soapbox for all kinds of shitty and hateful statements that minimize or reinforce marginalization, as any woman or person of colour who’s dared to speak openly about the raw deal of power relations in society will likely attest. And calls for civility will do nothing except reinforce a respectability politics of victim-blaming within networks. This intractable contradiction is where we are, as a global neoliberal society: Twitter just makes it particularly painfully visible, at times.

Impossible Identities
Because there is no way to win. The rot we’re seeing in Twitter is the rot of participatory media devolved into competitive spheres where the collective “we” treats conversational contributions as fixed print-like identity claims. As Emily Gordon notes, musing about contemporary Twitter as a misery vaccuum, the platform brings into collision people who would probably never otherwise end up in the same public space. Ever. And that can be amazing, when there are processes by which people are scaffolded into shared contexts. Or just absolutely exhausting. We don’t know how to deal with collapsed publics, full stop. We don’t know how to talk across our differences. So participatory media becomes a cacophonic sermon of shame and judgement and calling each other out, to the point where no identity is pure enough to escape the smug and pointless carnage of petty collective reproach.

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Somewhere, Donna Haraway and her partial, ironic, hybrid cyborg weep, I think.

This doesn’t mean I’m leaving Twitter. I’m not leaving Twitter. If this post is a fruit fly signalling rot, it is likewise the testament of a life dependent on the decaying platform for its sustenance. The fruit is still sweet, around the rotten bits. And there is no other fruit in the basket that will do so well.
***
Perhaps it is not rot. Some would call it inevitable, part of the cycle of change and enclosure that seems to mark the emergence of all new forms of working and thinking together. I’m not so sure: that still smells to me like high modernity. Either way, I will miss Twitter As We Knew It (TM)…but I wonder: what am I not seeing yet? What paths of subversion, connection, hybridity are still open?

I’m over by the fruit bowl, listening.