Last week’s DDH session discussed the impact of social networks on academia, particularly the ways in which researchers and academics use social media and how these support DH projects. The paper selected to kick off the conversation was Dr Beer’s Social network(ing) sites…revisiting the story so far: A response to Danah Boyd & Nicole Ellison, which can be accessed here.
The paper provocatively responds to the definition analyses proposed by Boyd and Ellison’s in their popular article (Google Scholar has recorded almost 2000 citations), whereby social networking should not be used as a synonym of social network as it implies a connection between strangers rather than friends. Dr Beer challenges Boyd’s and Ellison’s definitions, arguing that they should not be looking into definitions of social network sites (SNS) but, rather, into umbrella topics such as Web 2.0 or the offline/online concept.
The issue of social network(ing) inserts itself into the (fairly) new area of digital culture and cultural identities which are often imposed by SNS. How do we distinguish our personal self from our digital alter ego? After all, the term ‘virtual’, as one of the research students pointed out, was heavily used before the rise of SNS. But since the popularisation of social media, its use has considerably decreased as virtual and real seem to be more and more interconnected. And speaking about connection, SNS, particularly Twitter, allow us to meet people we’d never have met otherwise or engage with audiences we had no idea would be interested in our research.
But to go back to our article, Dr Beer describes SNS as democratic due to their free and accessible essence, but also as commercial spaces and entities. With increasing funding cuts in the Arts & Humanities sector and freely-available work published under Creative Commons Licenses, should/can digital humanists use social media as a commercial tool? Beer stresses the importance of using SNS as a way of learning from other users – should we learn from them and start making some money?? Or does it defeat our object??
Social networking tends to rely on friendship connections, thus defining the relationships of the people we connect with. But does it also define us as active social media participators? Most digital humanists have active web presence, but are they expected to set up blogs and twitter accounts? Social media activity is generally a good reflection of a person’s personality. YouTube has more users than creators. With Twitter, you have participators, but you also have listeners – you might well be an excellent academic or an influential digital humanist, but your status doesn’t necessarily denote you as an extrovert. And, to continue with the Twitter example, just as we are not all equally present tweet-wise, not all topics are equally disseminated. The field of Digital Humanities is much more discussed than, say, Medieval History. But, Professor Prescott asks, how do we know if it’s us who are not plugged into all the Twitter Medieval History channels or if it’s the community’s size that determines web presence? On the other hand, there are times when we are more productive (i.e. participation in a conference) and others when we prefer to simply retweet.
The discussion then turned to the limitations of social media and the user’s control over information. While promoting access and openness, SNS also enable us to limit information in the form of filters which are becoming increasingly important as a means of customising news pages and even our email inbox. In truth, today’s information load has reached such a level that filtering has become more of a necessity. The irony is that up until 20-30 years ago people missed out on a lot of what was going on. Then information technology came along and we wanted more. Now, we deliberately leave a lot out in order to preserve mental sanity.
SNS are also adopted as a way of delivering and obtaining news first. Journalists now all have Twitter accounts so that they can keep on top of the latest developments. Last summer’s riots here in London and last year’s North African uprise are a perfect example of just how powerful social media can be. Another good example is the 2008 killing of a boy by Greek police. The event appeared on SNS 30 minutes after its happening but took news channels 3-4 hours to catch-up. By the same token, there have also been instances of tweets reporting false information and accidents which cost emergency services valuable time and resources.
So when do we trust social media and how do we identify the authenticity and reliability of the information they deliver? But, wait a minute, why do we trust newspapers?!? Oh, true, it’s because newspapers are institutions: they are accountable and, thus, easily at risk. So, if Twitter were an institution, would we trust it more?
Enough with the questions and back to facts. How useful is it for digital humanists, whether researchers or scholars, to have a social media presence online? What are the benefits? Well, here are a few:
- We can learn from each other
- Good way to be easily searched for
- Share ideas, collect feedback and advice
- Interdisciplinary collaborations and discussions
- Market ourselves
An excellent read on the topic is Michael Ullyot’s blog post On Blogging in the Digital Humanities. Highly recommended!
You might also want to listen to the Digital Researcher 2012 Podcast which discusses the impact of new technologies on research.