Frenzied, but not Hostile

Just yesterday I managed to get around to posting for the first time in weeks. I chose to post a simple news item about the latest movement in the MacArthur Foundation’s series of digital learning grants and projects: a partnership with MIT Press to produce a new journal and several volumes of articles collected by grantees.

This morning, the Washington Post profiled a group of academics–many of whom are colleagues and mentors of mine–who are networked in their research on social networks. Er, something like that. The article mostly speaks to danah boyd’s celebrity status among internet researchers, but it also features quotations from many of the authors whose work appeared in the latest issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

What I like about the piece is that it rather coyly focuses on the fact that many of us know one another through various outlets, and that we all tend to cite each other’s work:

The culture of academia is like a land rush: professors poised around the edges of each new intellectual territory, waving flags emblazoned with theoretical frameworks, making frenzied dashes to stake claim on new topics, ready to shoot trespassers.

The sooners who get there first become “calcified,” says Nicole Ellison, a Michigan State professor who, with boyd, recently edited the special issue of JCMC. “There’s a definite early-mover advantage,” says Ellison. “Because then your piece becomes the requisite for when people need to cite something.”

It’s what William Clark, author of “Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University,” calls “the establishment of insiders.” When small groups of people begin to cross-reference each other, he says, “they make the small group collectively more important.”

And so the bibliography of Hugo Liu’s “Social Network Profiles as Taste Performances” (published in the JCMC special issue) cites the work of Judith Donath, who also has an article in the issue. Donath cites Nicole Ellison, whose article precedes her own. Ellison, in turn, cites Hugo Liu.

Every author of every paper cites danah boyd.

Part of me wants to shout: “Well of course! We study technology!” It’s true that we’re all networked with one another. It’s true that we tend to actually know each other’s work because the field is just so small. It’s true that we’re all trying to push forward and introduce the academic community to something that’s new and pretty fascinating. And it’s true that we’re all “making frenzied dashes to stake claim on new topics,” but it’s just absolutely *not* true that we want to “shoot trespassers.” Absolutely not. (And oh, by the way, there’s a reason we cite danah’s work. It’s good, and she knows what she’s talking about, certainly better than any of us.)

One of the most exciting thing that I’ve encountered in this world is that everyone is so surprisingly NICE. In fact, I am not sure I can accurately convey how lucky I feel to be able to learn from them and their work. Happily, they are all extraordinarily accomodating. There might be those who disagree, but it’s been my experience thus far that there are few rules in this new social-tech academic space that is “researchers studying new media/technology/communication.” They are:

If someone requests to add you on a social network, say yes.

If someone invites you to give a talk, say yes.

If someone invites you to review their work, say yes.

If someone wants early access to something you’re working on, say yes.

If someone wants to meet someone you know, say yes.

If someone is doing good work that reflects the collective philosophy, cite it. Promote it. Help it grow.

There are also a few sub-rules like “have a web presence of some kind,” “pop in and out of our networks from time to time to let us know what you’re working on,” and “be sure to come to some of the many gatherings we have throughout the year.”

But whether you’re in the games space, the social networking space, the virtual worlds space, or the startup space, you’re friends. No one is out to shoot anyone, except perhaps in-game. If that were true, I suspect I wouldn’t have a career.

It’s not as simple as it seems, though. You do have to put yourself out there, perhaps tap into a few networks and show up at a few events to make sure everyone knows who you are and what you do and who you know. To that degree, there is a somewhat highschoolish mentality to it all. But that’s true in any academic discipline and it’s certainly not unique to the social-tech academics.

I feel a bit like the actresses who play Blair and Serena on “Gossip Girl,” when I say “we’re friends! Honest! There’s no fighting on the set, we swear.” Ha.

It’s always curious to me how we talk about what happens online and off. It is not altogether strange to me that many of the researchers working in this field read and cite each other’s work regularly. Truth is, we all pretty much take advantage of a number of tools that enable us to keep track of each other. Through Twitter, Facebook, IM, Google Alerts, etc., I can easily know what people are reading, writing, and saying. I have RSS feeds of their blogs, status updates, and posts. They send along interesting articles, we collectively comment on them, and we point to their URLs using our GTalk status messages. It’s no wonder, then, that a collective intelligence would rise to the surface and make its way into our published work.

For a very, very tiny number of researchers working in technology and culture, the way we get information and access to research is, at least informally, shaping how we think and write. This Post piece is a small step toward making that more public, which I think is great. But don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s any hatin’ going on here. It’s been my experience that the opposite is true, and I am humbly grateful for it.

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