Late last year I was asked to do an interview about my experiences of using social media for academic purposes by librarians at the University of Sydney. Here’s the YouTube clip.
Late last year I was asked to do an interview about my experiences of using social media for academic purposes by librarians at the University of Sydney. Here’s the YouTube clip.
Sociology in the Anglophone world has been in the doldrums for some time. Since the heady days of poststructuralism and postmodernism, until very recently few advances had been made in theory or method. British sociology, however, is seeing a renewed impetus and vigour, with several sociologists beginning to talk about a move from ‘zombie sociology’ to ‘live sociology’ (Back, 2012) or ‘inventive methods’ (Lury and Wakeford, 2012), in which creative approaches and different ways of communicating are suggested to move the discipline out of its doldrums.
Punk Sociology, by British sociologist Dave Beer, is a welcome contribution to this new and exciting approach. As its title suggests, Beer attempts in this short book (part of the Palgrave Pivot series, itself an innovative approach to academic publishing) to show how sociology might be shaken up and re-energised. Punk sociology looks outward, is subversive and willing to try new approaches and also ready to engage with alternative forms of knowledge outside sociology. It means investigating forms of research and representations of social life that are beyond the textual, such as audio-visual material, and, as Beer puts it, ‘to coach ourselves to see sociology in sources where we may not be expecting to see it’ (p. 38). It also includes working with, rather than on, participants in sociological research, and experimenting with different approaches to writing about one’s work: blogging, podcasts, YouTube videos and tweets, for example. Beer encourages sociologists to take courage in conveying ideas that may still be raw and engaging with others’ responses to them, a practice that social media avenues encourage.
I am no fan of punk rock, but I very much like the concept of punk sociology. The term itself denotes a fresher approach to the sociological canon and accepted assumptions of what sociology is and should be. I would have loved to have read a book like this as an undergraduate in first-year sociology in the early 1980s, when unfortunately I found myself bored rigid by the dry and dull way in which the discipline was taught. I suspect that undergraduates and even postgraduates in sociology today would also welcome Beer’s thoughts on enlivening sociology.
Exponents of critical sociology have always been a little bit punk in their reflexivity and their efforts to challenge the status quo and identify hidden power relations. Beer talks about the vibrancy and energy of the punk ethos That, for me, is what sociology can contribute at its best, and what has impelled me in my own sociological writing and research (including this blog). I am always interested in new ideas and approaches in my discipline and making new connections (including with other disciplines) and investigating where I can take them.
Sociology is inherently fascinating to many: it is about our own lives and times. Sociologists are able to offer many important insights into social life and selfhood, and it is it downright negligent for us not to be able to convey these insights to others. To render sociology dull is a great disservice to what it can promise.
Beer has chosen to represent the punk ethos in positive terms in this book, largely ignoring its sometimes nihilistic, violent and often overly confronting tendencies. I don’t think he wants to argue that sociology should go down this road. Punk at its most extreme was gritty and hardcore, and my reading of Beer’s argument is that he is espousing a somewhat gentler and optimistic version.
I would have liked to have seen some more concrete examples of punk sociology practice in the book. Beer makes suggestions for how to go about being a punk sociologist, but they tend to be general. Some specific cases of how sociologists might employ new ways of practising the craft in the ways suggested by Beer and how they have gone about it would have been helpful and interesting.
I agree with Beer that there is no point in wallowing in dismay about what some see as an apparent crisis in sociology. The discipline needs to be reactive, energetic and nimble — and yes, even confronting like the original punk musicians were — in response to the social changes that are continually occurring and new forms of social research that are emerging (particularly those related to digital media and digital data).
Beer suggests a punk music playlist to listen to as part of his call to arms for punk sociology. Join him in cranking the music up loud and getting to work on a sociology that is new, imaginative, in the moment and ever-so slightly anarchic!
Back, L. (2012) Live sociology: social research and its futures. The Sociological Review, 60: 18-39.
Lury, C. and Wakeford, N. (2012) Inventive Methods: the Happening of the Social. New York: Routledge.
I have written previously on this blog on the pros and cons of using social media for academic work, including a discussion of why I blog and what I have learnt from using these media. As part of a chapter on the digitised sociologist that I am working on for my Digital Sociology book, I have been reviewing other people’s research on academic blogging.
Numerous accounts of using social and other digital media for professional academic purposes can be found on websites such as the LSE Impact of the Social Sciences and The Guardian’s Higher Education Network. Some more traditional academic articles have also been published in journals on these topics. These accounts have identified some interesting trends and implications.
Academic blogging has been described as ‘conversational scholarship’, a means by which academics can attempt to loosen their formal style of writing as part of communicating to a wider audience (Gregg 2006). It is argued that the practice forces academics to think about their research and writing in new ways, bearing in mind the multiplicity of potential audiences and the ways readers can respond to the material presented (Kitchin 2014, Kitchin et al. 2013). Some bloggers use their writing as a way of developing ideas and seeking engagement with others before they formalise their ideas into a more traditional academic piece (Adema 2013, Carrigan 2013, Daniels 2013, Estes 2012, Gregg 2006, Maitzen 2012). This use of social media for developing scholarly writing and ideas has been described as being an ‘open source academic’ (Carrigan 2013).
Several scholars discussing academic blogging have noted that they often serve the purpose of sharing information and providing advice as part of a gift economy of producing material to share freely with others. From this perspective scholarship and knowledge are not viewed as a marketable commodity but rather as a social good (Adema 2013, Gregg 2006, Hall 2013a, 2013b, Mewburn and Thomson 2013). Here the general sharing ethos and participatory democracy that are viewed as characteristic of social media engagement more generally are interpreted in a more specialist academic context.
Academic blogs and other forms of writing on digital platforms are also beginning to challenge scholarly publishing modes and invent new forms of publication. Blog posts are now often cited in more traditional academic forums, some scholarly journals are incorporating blogs, multimedia or open access repositories as part of their online presence and academic presses are experimenting with new digital modes of publication, including shorter online book formats with faster than usual turn-around times between acceptance of the manuscript and publication. Scholarly publishing is developing as hybrid and multiple, drawing both on legacy forms of publishing and on novel modes introduced by digital formats and platforms.
Public digital scholarship practices such as blogging are also sometimes represented as overtly political and resistant acts. It is argued that these types of practices allow for scholars to experiment with digital publishing and engagement at the same time as resisting the dictates of the scholarly publishing industry and producing new forms of knowledge dissemination (Adema 2013, Gregg 2006, 2009). The content itself of blog posts, Twitter comments and other social media communications may be directly political, with these tools providing a forum for academics to challenge government policies and programs (Kitchin 2014, Kitchin et al. 2013, Wade and Sharp 2013). They can also provide an opportunity for academics to share their frustrations about higher education procedures and policies and their own experiences as academic workers (Adema 2013, Gregg 2006, 2009, Mewburn and Thomson 2013).
On the negative side, blogging opens up academics to great public scrutiny, not only from their peers but from any other audiences. As I noted in a previous post on the risks of using social media for higher education work, some academic bloggers have found themselves the target of trolling, sexual harassment and even threats of violence in response to their public writing. This is particularly the case for members of marginalised or disadvantaged groups, such as women and racial or ethnic minorities. Those academics who express their opinions on controversial issues or who challenge powerful institutions or commercial interests are also often the target of comments questioning their professional integrity, as well hate messages and even death threats (Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications Draft Report 2013, Chapman 2012, Cottom McMillan 2012, Kitchin 2014, Kitchin et al. 2013, Wade and Sharp 2013).
Academics themselves using digital media as part of their professional identities need to think carefully about how best to manage their private and public personae when doing so: how formal their self-presentation is, to what extent they make personal comments about themselves or others, the nature of images of themselves that they upload, to what extent they allow or respond to comments from others (Barbour and Marshall 2012). The freedom of expression that forums such as blogs and social media sites offer academics can also be the cause of their downfall. Several cases exist involving the censure or disciplining of academics for statements that they made on social media sites of which their university disapproved (Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications Draft Report 2013).
Posting one’s work on online media may be considered a risky practice because of the loss of control that eventuates. Academics need to be aware of the multitude of ways in which the content created by one author or group of authors may be re-used and transmitted via different modes of publishing (reblogged or excerpted on other people’s blogs, tweeted in tiny ‘grabs’, commented upon and so on). In receiving wider dissemination in the public forums afforded by the new digital technologies, scholarly writing may develop ‘a social life of its own’ (Beer 2013, Beer and Burrows 2013) as it circulates in these forums and control over it is lost by the author.
The possibilities of plagiarism have also been raised by some academics as a risk of engaging in digital public scholarship. Some academics who blog have noticed that their content has been used by others, sometimes verbatim, without any form of attribution to its original source. This experience has led them to reconsider the benefits of blogging (see, for example, an account by Williams 2013).
Some writers have commented on the vulnerability that social media engagement such as blogging may engender in scholars who are used to formal academic writing styles and traditional procedures of publishing, in which one’s writing is vetted by one’s peers before it reaches an audience and people outside academic do not have the opportunity to comments on one’s research (Estes 2012, Gregg 2006, Kirkup 2010, Kitchin et al. 2013, Maitzen 2012). Quite simply, engaging as a digitised public scholar may be too confronting for some academics.
In the early years of academic blogging, there was often suspicion of the practice on the part of other academics, and people who maintained blogs were in some cases discriminated against when seeking tenure or promotion or otherwise viewed with disdain for being self-aggrandising or wasting time (Gregg 2006, Kirkup 2010, Maitzen 2012). Although negative views of academic blogging have certainly not disappeared, they appear to be slowly changing as universities seek to prove that they are engaging with the public and conforming to open access mandates and policies. Indeed some academics are now concerned that in the quest to achieve community engagement and impact, universities will begin to pressure academics to use social media tools, albeit under restrictive guidelines developed by the university and in the interests of anodyne public relations rather than challenging ideas or engaging in political activism (Mewburn and Thomson 2013). In a workplace in which many academics are already feeling overworked and under continuing stress to produce research publications as well as attract students (Burrows 2012, Gill 2010), such demands may be viewed as unreasonable.
The research and commentary reviewed here outlines a diversity of perspectives on academic blogging, many of which are relevant to academics’ use of other social media as part of their professional work. The benefits of blogging are clear, but so are the potential pitfalls in what has been a largely under-researched practice. More research and scholarship is required as part of mapping how academic blogging is undertaken, how it might be changing in response to other developments in higher education and the broader politics of the practice.
Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications Draft Report (2013): American Association of University Professors.
Adema, J. (2013) Practise what you preach: Engaging in humanities research through critical praxis. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 16 (5), 491-505.
Barbour, K. and Marshall, D. (2012) The academic online: constructing persona through the World Wide Web. First Monday, (9). Accessed 27 September 2013. Available from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3969/3292
Beer, D. (2013) Public geography and the politics of circulation. Dialogues in Human Geography, 3 (1), 92-95.
Beer, D. and Burrows, R. (2013) Popular culture, digital archives and the new social life of data. Theory, Culture & Society, 30 (4), 47-71.
Burrows, R. (2012) Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. The Sociological Review, 60 (2), 355-372.
Carrigan, M. (2013) Continous publishing and being an open-source academic. Accessed 22 December 2013. Available from http://digitalsociology.org.uk/?paged=2
Chapman, S. (2012) Hate mail and cyber trolls: the view from inside public health. The Conversation, Accessed 3 August 2013. Available from https://theconversation.com/hate-mail-and-cyber-trolls-the-view-from-inside-public-health-9329
Cottom McMillan, T. (2012) Risk and ethics in public scholarship. University of Venus, Accessed 4 August 2013. Available from http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/university-venus/risk-and-ethics-public-scholarship
Daniels, J. (2013) From tweet to blog post to peer-reviewed article: how to be a scholar now. Accessed 11 December 2013. Available from http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2013/09/25/how-to-be-a-scholar-daniels
Estes, H. (2012) Blogging and academic identity. Literature Compass, 9 (12), 974-982.
Gill, R. (2010) Breaking the silence: the hidden injuries of neoliberal academia. In R. Flood and R. Gill (eds) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge, 228-244.
Gregg, M. (2006) Feeling ordinary: blogging as conversational scholarship. Continuum, 20 (2), 147-160.
Gregg, M. (2009) Banal bohemia: blogging from the ivory tower hot-desk. Convergence, 15 (4), 470-483.
Hall, G. (2013a) About Media Gifts Accessed 7 August 2013. Available from http://garyhall.squarespace.com/about
Hall, G. (2013b) The unbound book: academic publishing in the age of the infinite archive. Journal of Visual Culture, 12 (3), 490-507.
Kirkup, G. (2010) Academic blogging: academic practice and academic identity. London Review of Education, 8 (1), 75-84.
Kitchin, R. (2014) Engaging publics: writing as praxis. Cultural Geographies, 21 (1), 153-157.
Kitchin, R., Linehan, D., O’Callaghan, C. and Lawton, P. (2013) Public geographies through social media. Dialogues in Human Geography, 3 (1), 56-72.
Maitzen, R. (2012) Scholarship 2.0: blogging and/as academic practice. Journal of Victorian Culture, 1-7.
Mewburn, I. and Thomson, P. (2013) Why do academics blog? An analysis of audiences, purposes and challenges. Studies in Higher Education, 38 (8), 1105.
Wade, L. and Sharp, G. (2013) Sociological Images: Blogging as public sociology. Social Science Computer Review, 31 (2), 221-228.
Williams, L. (2013) Academic blogging: a risk worth taking? The Guardian, Accessed 13 December 2013. Available from http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/dec/04/academic-blogging-newspaper-research-plagiarism
This week I presented the first paper at the first ever session bearing the title ‘digital sociology’ that has been held at The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) annual conference. The TASA annual conference is the pre-eminent meeting for sociologists around Australia, and there were over 400 of us in attendance at the conference. There were two sessions on digital sociology and each was packed out, a welcome indication that a lively interest in the topic is beginning to grow in Australia. They were convened by Theresa Sauter from QUT.
I used my presentation as an opportunity to introduce the concept of digital sociology, to explain why the title is now being used and why it is important that sociologists engage in theorising, researching and using digital technologies. The accompanying full paper that was published in the conference proceedings reviewed some of the work of British sociologists who have written about the digital world and the impact on sociology of new forms of digitised knowledge (see below for links to the PowerPoint slides and full paper).
I have written numerous posts about digital sociology exploring these issues (collected here) and I am a regular user of social and other digital technologies as part of investigating the possibilities, potential and drawbacks of engaging with these technologies as a sociologist (posts on this are here). I am currently working on a book entitled Digital Sociology for Routledge that is bringing all these topics (and many more) together. Suffice to say that digital sociology has become my major research interest, extending previous work I carried out in the mid-1990s and into the early 2000s on personal computers.
Other presentations at the two digital sociology TASA sessions included an examination of Google Glass using Tarde’s concept of the monad (Tim Graham and Theresa Sauter), David Collis’ analysis of the ‘savant garde’ and algorithmic logic, a project looking at Twitter as used in the Australian news debate television program Q&A in the context of theories about the public sphere (Erin Carlisle), Theresa Sauter again with her discussion of the use of the term digital sociology and a case study of Pinterest, Tristan Kennedy’s talk on ethical issues in online participant observation research, a paper on the use of apps to engage in ethical consumption (Kim Humphery and Tim Jordan) and Ashlin Lee’s analysis of convergent mobile technology. These were all interesting presentations that sparked much discussion among those attending the sessions.
As I noted in my presentation, many sociologists, including those in Australia, have been researching computer technologies and online interactions ever since personal computers began to be available to the general public in the mid-1980s. These topics are not new, but what is new is that the technologies have changed and become ever-more pervasive in everyday life as we have moved from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and now to Web 3.0 (the Internet of Things). The term digital sociology incorporates these developments by encompassing all things digital, and is also a nod to other disciplinary terms now in use such as digital anthropology, digital humanities and digital cultures.
I hope to see digital sociology grow in interest from this first entrance into the TASA space and that, like the BSA Digital Sociology study group that was established earlier this year, a TASA thematic group will develop. Australian researchers are invited to contact me if they would like to join an Australian Digital Sociology research network.
Last week I put together two abstracts for the British Sociological Association’s conference next year. One abstract is for a panel on digital public sociology and the other is for a workshop on the quantified self. In the digital public sociology abstract I refer to the need to take a critical sociological perspective on engaging in public sociology using digital tools. In the abstract on the quantified self, I focus on the conditions that have come together to make the quantified self assemblage possible.
As I was thinking about what I wanted to discuss in these papers, it struck me that there are strong connections between the two. Engaging as a public sociologist using digital media invariably involves some form of quantifying the self. Roger Burrows has employed the term ‘metric assemblage’ to describe the ways in which academics have become monitored and measured in the contemporary audit culture of the modern academy. As part of configuring our metric assemblages, we are quantifying our professional selves.
Academics have been counting elements of their work for a long time as part of their professional practice and presentation of the self, even before the advent of digital technologies. The ‘publish or perish’ maxim refers to the imperative for a successful academic to constantly produce materials such as books, book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles in order to maintain their reputation and place in the academic hierarchy. Academic curricula vitae invariably involve lists of these outputs under the appropriate headings, as do university webpages for academics. They are required for applications for promotions, new positions and research funding.
These quantified measures of output are our ‘small data’: the detailed data that we collect on ourselves. Universities too engage in regular monitoring and measuring practices of the work of their academics and their own prestige in academic rankings and assessment of the quality and quantity of the research output of their departments. They therefore participate in the aggregation of data, producing ‘big data’ sets. The advent of digital media, including the use of these media as part of engaging in public sociology, has resulted in more detailed and varied forms of data being created and collected. Sociologists using digital media have ever greater opportunities to quantify their output and impact in the form of likes, retweets, views of their blogs, followers and so on. We now have Google Scholar, Scopus or Web of Science to monitor and display how often our publications have been cited, where and by whom, and to automatically calculate our h-indices. Academic journals, now all online, show how often researchers’ articles have been read and downloaded, and provide lists of the most cited and most downloaded articles they have published.
In adopting a critical reflexive approach to all this monitoring and measurement, we need to ask questions. Should the practices of quantifying the academic self be considered repressive of academic freedom and autonomy? Do they place undue stress on academics to perform, and perhaps to produce work that is sub-standard but greater in number? However it is also important to consider the undeniable positive dimensions of participating in digital public engagement and thereby reaching a wider audience. Academics do not write for themselves alone: being able to present their work to more readers has its own rewards. Quantified selfers can find great satisfaction in using data to take control over elements of their lives and also as a performative aspect. So too, for academics, collecting and presenting data on their professional selves can engender feelings of achievement, satisfaction and pride at their accomplishments. Such data are important to the academic professional sense of self.
As I argued in my abstract for the digital public sociology panel, as sociologists we need to stand back and take a reflexive perspective on these developments in academic life: not simply to condemn them but also to acknowledge their contribution to the ‘making up’ of academic selves. We should be alert to both the pleasures and the privations of academic self-quantification.
I have written several times on this blog about the benefits and possibilities of engaging as an academic in using social media and other digital media. I have recounted my experiences of using social media for professional purposes, outlined the reasons for why I blog, discussed why I think academics should write for Wikipedia and advocated for open access publication.
I have also discussed some negative implications for academics using social media, including the possibility that academics will become increasingly subjected to metric assessments based on their success in using social media (via altmetrics) and the reluctance of some to take up new activities in an already very demanding working life. Academics may also find confronting the lack of control they are able to exert over their digital writing once it has been released onto the internet.
In this post I want to elaborate some more on what might be called the risks of online academia, something I have been thinking about in working on my forthcoming book Digital Sociology.
Academics who engage in such activities of public engagement, as part of receiving wider public attention may be subjected to public criticism, unfounded or legitimate, of their ideas. Early career researchers are more vulnerable to trenchant criticism of their views at a time when they are still establishing their careers and seeking employment. More than established academics, who have less to lose, such junior academics are caught in a double-bind. Using social media such as blogs can be an important way to establish a foothold in a field, get one’s name and research known, establish valuable networks with colleagues and demonstrate to potential employers that one is engaging with the public in approved ways. On the other hand, however, some early career academics, particularly if they also come from marginalised social groups or are working in less prestigious universities, may find their opinions open to attack in ways that more senior and socially privileged academics may not.
The phenomenon of ‘trolling’, or the posting of deliberately malicious comments about individuals online, has been experienced by some academics. Those who express their opinions on controversial issues or who challenge powerful institutions or commercial interests are often the target of comments questioning their professional integrity (as well abuse related to more personal attributes). This has happened frequently to a colleague of mine, Simon Chapman, a public health advocate who has received a high level of public attention for his work in confronting such corporations as Big Tobacco and the gun lobby (see Chapman’s account of his experiences here).
There may said to be a ‘politics of digital engagement’, in which academics, particularly those who are members of marginalised social groups (women, minority ethnic or racial groups, gays or lesbians, with disabilities) or who are junior academics seeking tenure or those in short-term employment contracts, may need to be very cautious about the types of opinions they express in open digital forums (see Fullick on these points). Academics from marginalised minority groups can use social media networks as systems of support, but at the same time these very tools, in their public nature, can be sites of attack.
Sexual harassment has been experienced by some female academics who have engaged in debates in public forums or who have used social media to communicate their research findings. Some women have detailed their experiences of their appearance and their sexual attractiveness being remarked upon by anonymous commentators in often hurtful or threatening ways (see Beard and Mitchell on this). I have observed that female academics who engage in fat activism using online forums or traditional media outlets are frequently targeted by vituperative comments about their appearance, lack of self-discipline and the like. (Ironically, these comments often serve only to demonstrate further the contentions of these academics concerning fat stigma and discrimination.)
Abusive and overly racist, misogynistic or homophobic comments, which are often on public display and can be accessed via search engines, may be very confronting and disturbing for their targets, particularly if sexual violence or other violent acts against the targets are suggested. This is a wider problem of the affordances of online technologies: anyone who engages online is open to abusive comments that cannot easily be removed from internet archives.
It is vitally important that universities develop systems for protecting and supporting academics, particularly in the context in which they are increasingly expected and encouraged to engage in public engagement as part of their work. As Cottom Mcmillan notes, ‘While universities are quick to promote public scholarship they are loath to extend their responsibility to refereeing the behavior of academics in the public sphere’. There is a need for guidelines to be drawn up for engaging online in public spaces as an academic, including not only the type of content one disseminates or creates, but also how one interacts with other academics in response to their content. Academics should be supported by their institutions to build online networks and communities but also need to be protected against the risks of engaging as a digital public scholar.
Academics have traditionally been somewhat suspicious of the hugely popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia as a credible source of scholarly information. They are concerned about the validity and reliability of the information presented, and the fact that entries are open to editing by any comer. Few academics thus far have contributed to Wikipedia as content generators or editors, although they admit to using it regularly, and they know that their students constantly refer to it.
Given that Wikipedia is now the most visited online reference work, surely it is time that more academics played a role in shaping its content? It should be noted that Wikipedia has changed in its approach to content generation over the years. A sophisticated quality control process is now in place by which entries are created, accepted and edited. Wikipedia entries must now be correctly referenced with credible and reputable sources. Although the entries do not have contributors’ names directly appended, it is easy to see who has contributed by clicking on the ‘edit’ button, as well as to view details of the edits they have made.
An increasing number of libraries, art galleries, archives and museums are using the ‘Wikipedian in Residence’ idea to promote their holdings. Under this scheme, a person experienced in editing and creating Wikipedia entries spends a period of time (several weeks or more) at the institution to train staff members in the art. Institutions that have taken advantage of this scheme include the august British Museum, the Palace of Versailles, the Museu Picasso, the Smithsonian Institution, and here in Australia, the State Library of New South Wales.
This seems to me to be a good idea for universities to adopt. If students and academics are regularly using Wikipedia, then they should also learn about how to contribute to the body of knowledge in this platform. For academics, this means that rather than simply sitting back and letting others create content on a topic in which they may be particularly expert, they can take an active approach and shape the content themselves. The entry can be revised and added to at any time, making it responsive to changes in the field about which one is writing.
Those academics who have worked on entries are often positive about the experience. One, Martin Poulter, argues that writing for Wikipedia has taught him how to write about academic subjects in an accessible manner. He gives examples of using Wikipedia writing for students as a means of allowing them to engage in online publication, and notes that Wikipedia entries often shape public debate because they are so widely consulted. He sees Wikipedia as an ‘online community for researchers, educators and students to take part in’.
I have created my own Wikipedia entry on the topic of digital sociology. This entry is now the first hyperlink to appear when the term ‘digital sociology’ is input in a search engine. It was not a particularly onerous task, once I had become familiar with the protocol.
Wikipedia provides clear outlines for how to create and edit entries. Nonetheless, providing training programs for academics by those experienced in creating Wikipedia content would make the process far easier. Some academics have held Wikipedia ‘hack days’ or ‘editathons’, gathering together to work on entries as a group. In the UK the organisation Wikimedia UK offers assistance for such training and events.
Engaging in Wikipedia content creation or editing can be a form of political resistance to marginalisation. Women contributors are far in the minority in Wikipedia, as are entries about high achieving women, and it has been contended that existing entries about women are deleted or severely edited disproportionately compared to those about men. There is clearly a ‘politics of Wikipedia’ involving the same types of marginalisation of and discrimination against less powerful social groups that occurs in other areas of social life, despite the platform’s rhetoric about open collaboration and democratic participation. Some feminist academics have taken up the gauntlet to redress this imbalance, organising mass editing days as part of the ‘Storming Wikipedia’ project, in which female students and academics work together to create entries about influential women.
Participation in the dynamic forum that is Wikipedia, therefore, can take many forms. As an academic (or student) one can engage in active content creation as part of shaping the public discourses on one’s chosen topic. Social researchers can also use the platform as a source of research data, investigating the ways in which knowledge is created and contested as part of the process of Wikipedia content creation and editing, the types of content that shape Wikipedia entries or how people respond to Wikipedia as a source of information. Surprising little critical social research thus far has been conducted on Wikipedia — there seems great scope for further investigation. More radically, contributing to Wikipedia can constitute a resistant political act.
Google Glass, the mobile computer device worn on the head in the form of spectacles and currently being tested by ‘explorers’ hand-picked by Google, has aroused a multitude of comments and responses. Glass works with voice commands and head movements, and the display is projected onto the glass lens of the spectacles so that it can be read by looking straight ahead. A tiny digital camera is mounted on the side of the device, facing outwards from the wearer’s face. It can therefore be used hands-free and unobtrusively for video, audio or still image capture as the user moves around carrying out everyday activities. These images can be instantaneously streamed to one’s social media platforms to share with others. Users can walk around and interact with other people as they simultaneously give Glass commands and read the screen on their lens. Glass therefore has the potential to meld more seamlessly into everyday life than the other mobile digital devices that are currently available.
Before it has even reached the mass market (it is currently predicted that the device will be available to consumers in early 2014), many discussions have emerged on the web concerning such aspects as how Glass wearers are perceived by others, how those who have been entrusted with the new technology are experiencing its use, and the privacy and ethical issues of Glass. As a sociologist interested in digital media technologies, I have been fascinated by these discussions for what they reveal about responses to and experiences of new technologies. I am also interested in thinking about how Glass may be used for sociological research, as part of new ways of using digital technologies in the quest to develop ‘live sociology’ (creative and innovative approaches to sociological research). Here are some of the sociocultural aspects of Glass that have so far emerged in accounts of this device in its very early stages.
There has been much discussion of how Glass wearers appear to others, with some comments about how these devices mark out their users as ‘nerdy geeks’ or alternatively as ‘cool’, attracting attention from others because the device is so new and interesting. This raises issues of the ways in which new technologies – both their form and their function – are incorporated into everyday routines (‘domesticated’) by their users. As material objects interacting with human actors, any new digital devices must be worked upon by their adopters, and in turn work upon those who use them, altering their bodies and selves.
The capacity for technologies to change the ways in which we interact with others and feel about our selves and our bodies have been remarked upon by several commentators. In his piece entitled ‘O.K. Glass: confessions of a Google Glass explorer’, for example, writer Gary Shteyngart notes that when wearing Glass he is approached by many people wanting to learn about the experience of the device. His bodily demeanour changes when he wears the Glass: he jerks his head, slides his finger along the device, raises his right eyebrow, squints his right eye and mouths words to active the device. To onlookers his bodily movements appear rather strange. Friends tell him that he looks as if he has a nervous tick, a lazy eye, a faraway, distracted gaze as he scans the readouts on his lens; his wife thinks he acts like a robot when using Glass. But Shteyngart feels a sense of power from wearing Glass. Writing in the third person of his experiences he observes: ‘It’s as if the man with the glasses has some form of mastery of the world around him, and maybe even within himself’.
The potential for Glass to change the way in which memory operates has been suggested. It has been argued, for example, that Glass takes images so readily that ‘It doesn’t feel like taking a picture. It feels like making a mental note to remember what you’re looking at.’ It can therefore act as a ‘life-logging’ device, taking constant images to preserve memories and even automatically making gifs of images taken close together. Wearing Glass and taking frequent images, therefore, ‘is less cell phone and more neural augmentation’ (observations by Glass Explorer Mykola Bilokonsky). Another commentator is less sanguine, warning that this is akin to outsourcing our memories to a device, thus ‘hindering our ability to experience the moments those memories attach to’ (John Warner).
Some writers, inevitably, have commented on the surveillance features afforded by Glass. The device’s unobtrusive nature and its form as mimicking spectacles, it is argued, will mean that those people who are observed by Glass users may be unaware that they are being filmed or photographed. Although when the device is filming the LED display glows as a signal, this may not always be easily noticed by those who are being filmed or audio-recorded, particularly if they are some distance away or have their backs turned to the device.
It has been speculated that as Glass becomes more commonly used, the ultimate surveillance society will result. Users will become both observed and observers: they will monitor others at the same time as they themselves are being surveilled (Joe Brodie). Many commentators have noted that constant surveillance of people by others around them will result in multitudes of data about individuals being stored in the cloud that may potentially be accessed by government or other agencies (Jason Perlow), a particular concern in the light of the recent American government’s PRISM surveillance scandal. It has been also asserted that Glass may be used to further stigmatise and marginalise minority groups by contributing to the surveillance technologies that are already disproportionately directed towards them and to the humiliation and stalking of women via such digital recording strategies as ‘creepshots’ and ‘revenge porn’ (Whitney Erin Boesel).
What of the potential for Glass to be used as part of ‘live sociology’? Many possibilities spring to mind. Quite apart from the important issue of investigating features of the lived experience of using Glass (how does it feel to use it, how do people respond to users, how does use affect social relations and moving around in space, what are the implications for education, healthcare, journalism and other occupations?), the device can be used as a tool itself for social research. With its powerful observing eye, Glass could be employed productively for ethnographic research as the ultimate tool for recording people’s social behaviours in real time. Participant observation research can be undertaken easily by using the recording features as the researcher moves around in specific social spaces and interacts with others.
Alternatively, research participants can be asked to wear Glass as they go about their everyday lives and the consequent data uploaded to the researcher’s device. The device allows their users to record what they themselves are looking at directly, so these data can provide a unique opportunity to ‘look through the eyes’ of other people. Once these visual data are recorded and uploaded, the researcher could then sit down with the research participant and look at the material together, asking questions about the participant’s thoughts and experiences as they engaged in the activities and moved through the spaces depicted in the recordings. All this, of course, will need to be thought through in relation to the kind of ethical and privacy issues identified above.
See my Bundlr ‘Google Glass: social and ethical implications’ for a collection of the articles referred to above and more.
Why should sociologists be interested in the new digital media technologies? This is a question I have been thinking and writing about recently in developing my next book project on digital sociology (to be published by Routledge next year). Here are some of the reasons that have emerged in the literature:
As this list implies, digital sociology goes well beyond simply a focus on ‘the digital’. It raises major questions about what should be the focus and methods of contemporary sociological research and theorising. As such, sociologists writing about digital media are important contributors to debates about the future of sociology and how the discipline can remain vibrant, creative and responsive to new developments and social change.
Today the British Sociological Association’s Digital Sociology study group is holding its first event in London. Sadly I won’t be able to attend, living as I do on the other side of the world. However I will be following proceedings with interest, via Twitter and any blog posts that may result from the event.
The meeting will discuss the topic of ‘What is digital sociology?’ I have recently contributed to this debate in various forums: on this blog, in a collection of writings based on the blog that I put together and self-archived, in a preprint of a book chapter (available here) and in a Wikipedia entry that I wrote on digital sociology. I am developing these nascent ideas further in an introductory book on digital sociology that will be published by Routledge.
One aspect of digital sociology about which I am currently writing is the challenges for sociologists of the new digital technologies. In the chapter referred to above I have started to discuss these issues, and will do so in expanded form in the new book.
Several interesting articles have been published in recent years by sociologists about the implications for sociology itself of the affordances of digital media. Digital media technologies and data are social artefacts and thus are obvious sources of research for sociologists. Not only that, they allow sociologists to engage in public sociology – communicating their ideas to public audiences outside the academy — more easily than ever before, through the use of open-access forums and social media.
But digital media also contribute to what I am calling for the moment ‘private sociology’, or the professional personae and lived working lives of the academics themselves who use them. As sociologists such as Roger Burrows, Mike Savage and Dave Beer have pointed out, such platforms as digital citation indices has resulted in sociologists’ (and other academics’) professional worth and accomplishments becoming ever more metricised and scrutinised. Those academics who fail to engage in public sociology via digital media may find themselves disadvantaged in their private sociology lives. Yet many academics feel confronted by what they perceive as the technical challenges of learning to use digital media for academic purposes or the time commitments involved to blog or tweet or follow others’ blogs or tweets (an issue that constantly is raised whenever I present workshops on social media for academics).
Those sociologists who do take up the gauntlet and actively use social and other digital media may find themselves confronted with ‘the politics of circulation’ (Beer’s phrase), or the re-use and transformation of their intellectual property via social media in ways to which they are not accustomed. Here again there may be implications for their ‘private sociology’ lives: how sociologists perceive their work and what they think about its use by others in non-academic forums.
Sociologists’ and other academics’ working lives are also being challenged by the introduction of massive online open access courses (MOOCs) and by the open access movement, provoking universities and scholars to rethink teaching, learning and publication traditions.
More broadly there is a much bigger question of how sociology as a discipline might be transformed by digital technologies and data. Burrows and Savage have contended that in the face of the digital data industry that has developed to harvest and analyse these data, sociologists may find themselves sidelined as pre-eminent empirical social researchers. Another issue is to what extent sociologists are able to make use of digital data and analyse the ever-changing platforms and devices of Web 2.0 and the emergent Web 3.0? Susan Halford and Mike Savage have pointed out sociologists may need to become more technically proficient or alternatively collaborate with computer scientists to fully understand new digital media.
There is much here to discuss, and I look forward to the proceedings of the BSA Digital Sociology group meeting.