I initially missed today’s Washington Post hit piece, I mean, article on academics studying social networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace (I only caught it because danah boyd twittered it). The article, by Monica Hesse, embodies some of the laziest and formulaic depictions of professors and scholarship I’ve seen in some time, essentially painting academics as nothing more than opportunists who use arcane jargon to say little of consequence about ephemeral topics. Either that or we’re secretly harboring deep resentment against any academic who scores an interview or two with any major news outlet (or who finds herself cited in more than a half dozen articles over the course of a single year). Essentially “early adopters” of a specific subject matter–in this case, social networking websites–are painted as “sooners” or “land grabbers,” desperately staking out territory before others get there. But despite its dismissive tone, the Post article is worth checking out, if only because I think it highlights an important tension regarding the production of knowledge in digital media studies.
Of course, many academics are ambitious and often competitive, but the dismissive tone of the article towards boyd in particular and social networking scholarship in general is striking. While I am aware of the political residue of describing scholarship in terms of “exploration,” that term seems far more fitting than “land grabbing” when it comes to the kind of work being done by academics. The idea of “super-scholars” who consume all of the latest stuff, leaving only “table scraps” for the less aggressive or less hungry also raises a number of red flags for those of us who view academic scholarship as a conversation. These metaphors certainly matter, not only in terms of how scholarship is perceived but also in how it is funded.
These metaphors also suggest that these new academics are staking out territory that may be completely ephemeral, that instead of grabbing a nice plot along the Red River, we’re grabbing a puff of smoke that may not be here tomorrow. Hesse does little to acknowledge how academics are addressing how social, political, and familial ties are being transformed by social networking sites, or how the questions that are asked are part of a larger project of media history. To name one example, the phrase “YouTube election” (here are three significant examples) now generates nearly a million hits on Google, and it seems well worth asking how, or if, the YouTube debates have changed the 2008 election in any significant way. And certainly the mediation of “friendship” and other social ties on Facebook is worth asking about, even if Facebook itself fades into obscurity when The Next Big Thing comes along (especially now that Facebook has apparently Sold Out). Hesse also seeks to caricature academics by cherry-picking phrases or sentences to suggest that academics are poor writers who intentionally obscure meaning, something that may very well be easy to do by lifting single sentences out of much longer articles (I’m not sure it’s worth addressing the specific examples here).
To be fair, the article does tap into what I think is an important tension right now in the production of scholarship (even if that tension is relegated into the piece’s final paragraphs). As Nicole Ellison points out, the changes in the practices surrounding social networking sites present unique challenges for those of us who teach and study these topics, with Ellison observing that she “certainly couldn’t dust off the same syllabus every semester.” My guess is that scholars who engage in this kind of innovative teaching would be rewarded. But the complaints that some of danah boyd’s most influential articles are not peer-reviewed should not be read as a critique of her work (one anonymous professor suggests that her work has not been vetted) but as a critique of how scholarship functions in the digital age. Boyd’s comments about class differences between MySpace and Facebook users quite clearly struck a chord, provoking a debate that might not have taken place with nearly as much energy had the article gone through the lengthy peer-review process.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick has been raising important questions about the process of peer review for some time, pointing out the need to move from thinking about publication in terms of an “electronic press” to a model based on a “scholarly network,” in which “peer review” could take place, in part, in the comments and discussions that take place about the article (one example of this scholarly network is the website MediaCommons, where I am an editorial board member). And I think it’s clear that the study of social networking could be better served by aspects of both the traditional peer-review model and of the scholarly network. Thus, instead of dismissing boyd’s (well-informed, in my opinion) blog essay on class and social networking websites, use the response of academics in the field as a measure of its importance.
I’ve probably been a little harder on the Post article than I needed to be, but that’s probably because of the dismissive tone that seemed to permeate throughout. Beneath the surface, however, there were some important questions about the challenges to the practices of scholarship, especially when the subject of research seems to be changing faster than the mechanisms of peer review.
Update: This blog post was picked up by Slate, where there are links to a number of other interesting articles and blog posts on Facebook.