I don’t normally pick on people whose work I really admire, but I recently saw a tweet from Mark Sample that struck a nerve: “Look, if you don’t instagram your first pumpkin spice latte of the season, humanity’s historical record will be dangerously impoverished.” While it got quite a number of retweets and equally snarky responses, he is far from the first to make such a flippant critique of the vapid nature of social media. It also seriously upset me for reasons that I’ve been trying to work out, which is why I found myself doing one of those shifts that researchers of knowledge production tend to do far too often with critics: don’t get mad, get reflexive. What is it that makes such a sentiment resonate with us, particularly when it is issued over Twitter, a platform that is the target of this kind of critique? The reasons have to do with a fundamental disagreement over what it means to interact in a mediated space: do we understand our posts, status updates, and shared photos as representations of how we exist in the world which collectively constitute a certain persistent performance of the self, or do we understand them a form of communication in which we subjectively and interactionally relate our experience of the world to others?
In the Wikipedia research community — that is, the group of academics and Wikipedians who are interested in studying Wikipedia — there has been a pretty substantial and longstanding problem with how research is published. Academics, from graduate students to tenured faculty, are deeply invested and entrenched in an system that rewards the publication of research. Publish or perish, as we’ve all heard. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of publications which are recognized as ‘academic’ require us to assign copyright to the publication, so that the publisher can then charge for access to the article. This is in direct contradiction with the goals of Wikipedia, as well as many other open source and open content creation communities — communities which are the subject of a substantial amount of academic research.
I recently saw Helvetica, a documentary directed by Gary Hustwit about the typeface of the same name — it is available streaming and on DVD from Netflix, for those of you who have a subscription. As someone who studies ubiquitous socio-technological infrastructures (and Helvetica is certainly one), I know how hard it is to seriously pay attention to something that which we see every day. It may seem counter-intuitive, but as Susan Leigh Star reminds us, the more widespread an infrastructure is, the more we use it and depend on it, the more invisible it becomes — that is, until it breaks or generates controversy, in which case it is far too easy. But to actually say something about what well-oiled, hidden-in-plain-sight infrastructures are, how they came to have such a place in our society, and why they won out over their competitors is a notoriously difficult task. But I came to realize that the film is less of a history of fonts, and more of an anthropology of design.
So given what’s going on* in Egypt and the Middle East, we in the West are fascinated by not so much revolutions and popular uprisings against dictatorial regimes, but an efficacious use of social media. Even Clinton is talking about the Internet as “the world’s town square”, and it seems that the old conversation about the Internet and the public sphere is going to flare up for the third time (1993-5 and 2001-3 are the other two times). Since Habermas is generally credited for bringing this notion of the public sphere to the forefront of popular, political, and academic discourse, it is natural to cite him. Then critique him to death, talking about how we need to get beyond an old white guy’s theories. And it feels good, I know.
The problem is that most people only read his first book, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, which was written in 1962, and then proceed to critique “the Habermasian public sphere.” I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read which demand that we ‘move beyond’ Habermas or go ‘post-Habermasian’ and only cite Structural Transformation. It’s a great literary foil if you’re advancing your own concept of the public sphere, and the whole ‘new events require a re-evaluation of old theories’ is a mainstay of academia. As a crazy post-Latourian socio-technical ethnographer who grants agency to everything (literally, every single thing) except for social structures, it is weird that I’m defending him. But I’m also a huge proponent of keeping your intellectual allies close and your intellectual opponents closer.
* I love how all our social/cultural/economic/political theories of the state, legitimacy, revolution, and democracy are undergoing their most radical problematization since the fall of the Soviet Union, such that we don’t know how to name the events in the past month, thus we settle on something like “what’s going on.”
Have you done historical bibliometric analysis of a scientific field or topic area and found that there is a massive increase in research articles after 1990? Are you using ISI’s Web of Science and searching by topic or keyword? If so, don’t make the same mistake I did: these results aren’t because of some sea change or paradigm shift, but rather result from a poorly-documented shift in how ISI began indexing articles after 1990.
I’ve been doing a lot of work on virtual ethnography lately, and I was reading a recently-published book titled “Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method” edited by Annette Markham and Nancy Baym. What was most interesting was the following footnote on the first page of the introduction, in which the authors argue that “Internet” should not be capitalized:
As some of you might know, I work part-time at the Federation of American Scientists. Most of what I do has involved the creation of a wiki for virtual worlds, and I am proud to say that it is ready for the world. It is not simply a wiki, but a structured semantic wiki. This means that when you edit a page on a virtual world, you get a customizable form instead of a massive textbox. Check it out!
As someone who studies Internet culture, one of my biggest problems is “link rot,” or broken links. I’m a big fan of the Internet Archive, but they are usually six to eight months behind on even the most popular sites. I also applaud sites like Wikipedia for providing stable version histories so that I can point to a specific revision of a page. However, for all other websites, the only option is self-archiving, which is technically difficult and fraught with problems. What I have found incredibly useful is WebCite, a free webpage archiving service that fills in this gap.
I came across this 1996 review published in Entertainment Weekly of The Palace, Worldsaway, and Worlds Chat. These were the first graphical chat programs, a genre which became virtual worlds a half-decade later. The entire article is fascinating from a historical perspective, but the last paragraph in particular shows us how some things really do stay the same:
You may also notice that nobody’s talking, at least out loud. Like all chat software, WC lets you send private messages, but it also enables you to talk in private groups, so there’s no real impetus for public discourse. Besides, most here have one thing on their minds, and it ain’t badminton. The typical experience is stumbling into a room, seeing two avatars nose to nose over in the corner, and realizing — just as at any cocktail party — that three’s a crowd. Bizarre? Sure. Sick? Maybe. A sign of modern alienation? Unquestionably. Yet in a way it’s a relief to know that even in this newest of mediums, there’s a place for the oldest of urges.