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This was originally posted at Cyborgology – click here to view the original post and to read/write comments.

Or: Intellectual Accessibility by Availability and Design

As a sociology graduate student, I sometimes feel like Simmel’s “stranger,” close enough to academia to observe, but distant enough to retain an outside perspective. Like many graduate students staring down a possible academic career-path, I’m a bit terrified at the elephant in the room: is what academics do really important? are they relevant? does it matter?

Who reads a sociology journal? As my former theory teacher Chet Meeks once posed to my first social theory course,  how many people look to sociology journals to learn anything about anything? While the occasional sociologist is quoted in the New York Times or appears on CNN, the influence these experts have is vanishingly small. I do not know as much about other disciplines, but the point for most of the social sciences and humanities is that, in my opinion, expert knowledge is largely going to waste.

And to echo folks like Steven Sideman or danah boyd, we have an obligation to change this; academics have a responsibility to make their work relevant for the society they exist within.

The good news is that the tools to counter this deficiency in academic relevance are here for the taking. Now we need the culture of academia to catch up. Simply, to become more relevant academics need to make their ideas more accessible.

There are two different, yet equally important, ways in which academics need to make their ideas accessible:

(1) accessible by availability: ideas should not be locked behind paywalls

(2) accessible by design: ideas should be expressed in ways that are interesting, readable and engaging

To become publicly relevant, academics must make their ideas available to and articulated for the public. Read More »


This essay, like the one I posted last month on faux-vintage photography, is me hashing out ideas as part of my larger dissertation project on self-documentation and social media. Part I is found here.A barrage of media stories are professing the “Death of Anonymity,” the “End of Forgetting” and an “Era of Omniscience.” They are screaming a sensationalism that is part of the larger project to drum up fear about how “public” we are when using social media. While there are indeed risks involved with using social media, these articles engage in a risky hyperbole that I will try to counter-balance here.

Part I of this essay rethought claims of hyper-publicity by theoretically reorienting the concept of publicity itself. Using theorists like Bataille and Baudrillard, I argue that being public is not the end of privacy but instead has everything to do with it. Social media is more like a fan dance: a game of reveal and conceal. Today, I will further take to task our collective tendency to overstate publicity in the age of social media. Sensationalizing the risks of “living in public” perpetuates the stigma around an imperfect social media presence, intensifying the very risk we hope to avoid. But first, let’s look at examples of this sensationalism.

I. Media Sensationalism
Pointing out the dangers of living public online is an important task, but sensationalizing this risk is all too common. Indeed, the media has a long history of sensationalizing all sorts of risks, creating fear to drum up ratings, sales, clicks and page-views. From sexting to cyberbullying to the loss of “deep” learning, political activism, and “real” social connections, I’ve written many times about how the media has found social media to be a particularly fertile space to exploit fear for profit. Read More »

Facebook continuously rolls back user privacy, the policy itself is increasingly convoluted, and technical hiccups have revealed users’ information – so, shouldn’t we be experiencing Facebook fatigue by now? (as PJ Rey predicted)

Sure, techno-pundits are crying foul, but Facebook users are not leaving the service in large numbers, and other technologies of narcissism -such as Formspring– continue to march along. Why?

While we know well how to become scared about decreasing privacy -and rightly so- we have only begun to articulate what increasing publicity means. I have described the will to document ourselves across the web as a new sort of “mass exhibitionism.” And while we all care deeply about privacy, this cultural impulse to live in public often wins out (often to the detriment of those most vulnerable).

Take, for example, the most recent social networking phenom, Formspring, where users answer questions about themselves that are often asked anonymously. The site has taken a dark turn. Rampant with verbal attacks, the site has already been connected to a suicide. Danah boyd often uses her expertise to dispel social media fear-mongering, so it says something when she describes the site this way:

“While teens have always asked each other crass and mean-spirited questions, this has become so pervasive on Formspring so as to define what participation there means.”

She goes on to ask,

“[w]hat is it about today’s cultural dynamics that encourages teens to not only act tough when they’re attacked but to actively share the attacks of others as a marker of toughness pride?”

I believe the answer to this question is that mass exhibitionism is simply a more powerful cultural force than even preserving oneself from cyber-attacks. Why?

The logic is just the same as what advertisers have long since come to terms with: bad publicity is better than no publicity at all.

To document oneself online is to exist. We create ourselves as product becuase what is worse than being made fun of is to not exist to begin with. Bad mass exhibitionism has come to seem better than no exhibitionism at all.

by nathan jurgenson

The New York Times gathered experts to discuss the disappearance of the physical book, especially important in light of the announcement of the iPad media consumption device. The predictable narrative throughout the article is that the digital is trivial and the physical has more “depth.” I’m interested here in troubling this narrative. It goes well beyond this article. Bring up Twitter in certain circles and people will laugh, calling it trivial. Talk to someone over thirty about Facebook and you very well might get the same reaction. I discussed this trend previously on how unfair it is to quickly label discussions of politics on social networking sites as “slacktivism” (slacker+activism) simply because they are done online. Why do we belittle the digital as trivial when, as danah boyd points out, our everyday material world interactions are equally as trivial as what is posted online?

In the article, Matthew Kirschenbaum claims that the “stillness” of physical print is more conducive to “deep concentration.” Liz Gray agrees, arguing that people reading screens have lowered attention spans and less skill at engaging complex issues. Nicholas Carr states that physical books develop deep comprehension and learning because screens sacrifice single-mindedness and lead to shallow learning. William Powers also describes physicality as “deep” and claims it is “best” because it leads to more thinking. With the exception of Kirschenbaum’s point that the loss of depth might be of diminishing concern, this line of thought is deployed throughout the article without “deep” counterpoint or reflection.

Let’s trouble this. Perhaps digital learning lacks depth for these critics. This might be true for them becuase they developed their outlook in a world of physical books. However, new realities, such as the digitization of text, breed new ways of learning about and viewing the world. Those developing in today’s augmented world (that is, the massive blurring of the physical and digital that is occurring) will not lose the ability to focus or concentrate. The increased amount and access to information and communities of knowledge will be utilized in ways that the physical-only folks cannot (yet) comprehend. Historically, the development of the book, the telephone, and every other communications technology has faced similar claims about the loss of “depth.” With hindsight, we look back at these claims with amusement because we develop new ways of learning to best cope with and utilize new realities. The criticisms come from those who have not developed these new standpoints.

When faced with our new augmented reality, the reaction of the physical-only folks in the article is to claim that their outlook or standpoint is universally better. Thus (following Nietzsche, Foucault, Harding, etc.), these “trivial” and “deep” narratives are claims to power focused on the superiority of one way of learning the world at the expense of another. Let’s acknowledge and analyze these different outlooks instead of trying to universalize our own by claiming our perspective as fundamentally “deeper”, “better” and more true. Last, let’s ask who benefits from constructing digital learning as inherently deficient? ~nathan

Do School Libraries Need Books?