The Infinite Tweeters Theory

The problem I have always had with understanding Twitter, certainly in a non-professional context, is summed up quite neatly by their tagline: “Find out what’s happening, right now, with the people and organizations you care about.” I have a friend in advertising (I feel this statement needs qualification for some reason… I’m sure she didn’t inhale?) who once extolled the utility of Twitter to me, since it allowed her to quickly and simply survey ‘trending’ topics and find out ‘what’s happening’ in various spheres. I can understand the use of Twitter for this friend, or for a journalist, or indeed anyone who wants to look at the cumulative total of twittering going on (I realise this is not necessarily accepted jargon ‘btw’, I use it advisedly for rhetorical effect) and draw what information they require from it (although this can take enough effort that we now need specialised Twitter search engines and other appendages). What has bothered me is why I should want to talk about ‘what’s happening’ in such a public forum in the first place. Are we transferring even more of our everyday interaction and conversation to online media just to make trend-analysts’ jobs easier? If indeed such positions exist…

Now, I concede that the advantages of such mass, networked communication for small businesses, organisations and, ultimately, academics are more obvious, where (self-)promotion and reaching a large audience is either intrinsically useful or counts towards such broad concepts as ‘impact’ and ‘outreach.’ Academics certainly can benefit too from the networked aspect of the platform, finding out ‘what’s happening’ and receiving input from other Twitter-users (companies can do this too, but it’s not always successful). In this sense, we’re merely replicating the kinds of off-line conversations that would be going on in professional circles anyway, but in a far wider and more open manner.

So far so good, but here’s where we come to the issues raised in Thing Three: as soon as you expand this network for sharing useful or interesting professional information, you have to address the problem of guaranteeing quality. Just because this article will have accumulated a large number of ‘shares’ in the last few days, does not make it the BBC’s most incisive journalism; similarly Samantha Brick seems to have been built especially in a Frankensteinesque lab at the Daily Mail as a website-hit-providing chimera of ridiculous opinions (note how I do not link to her site for this very reason). This is the same basic problem in academia and bibliometrics. Just because something is read or shared widely, does not guarantee quality of scholarship (or indeed that its being read ‘properly’). Not only that but, in opening up the network from which one gathers one’s news and information, it also becomes harder to be confident of the reliability of the individuals within that network. If you gave an infinite number of monkeys Twitter accounts, eventually they would produce the works of Shakespeare, or at least tweet something interesting, but I for one don’t have billions of years to wait for it. ‘Crowd-sourcing’ peer review may sound like an answer to what is increasingly a clunky and slow-moving process, but it also makes it harder to guarantee that ‘peer’ is the operative word and that sufficient rigour is being used.

Now this may all sound very elitist and conservative, but I don’t want to deter people; I simply aim to strike the right note of caution. While updating traditional means of circulating information and keeping up with one’s field is beneficial, one must remember that ‘conversations in corridors’ will still take place. Despite the rise of altmetrics and the increasingly advanced analysis of online data on articles and citations, no algorithms can replace or even imitate individual judgement, either one’s own or that of a trusted friend or colleague. Google, who have made a business out of such data manipulation and are constantly pushing the frontiers (maybe this is old news, but I recently discovered their attempt to make the entire corpus of published English analysable), are still unable to distinguish that, though I once cited ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ as a favourite book on Facebook, I am not interested in targeted adverts about hiking and hill-walking. This is a simplistic example I admit, since it is probably not worth Google’s while to distinguish here, but the point still stands that at some stage human discretion is required: be it in identifying the usefulness and quality of academic articles, or in sifting through the Twitter-verse, however well it is sorted and presented for you.

Now, I am aware I have written this before becoming a fully-fledged Tweeter myself, and hopefully I will have time to explore it a bit more and post any further thoughts, but I think that my somewhat broad-brush approach to the issues discussed above is mostly a reminder, before I do start creating more of an online identity, that this should always really be considered an adjunct to real life. It is all too easy to create a false (or at least inaccurate) impression online, especially for yourself, as many people find happening to their social network through Facebook. I’ve been tempted to do away with Facebook myself before now, having found it all too easy to absorb oneself in it over-enthusiastically at first; there are many advantages to such networking, and it is not necessary to forsake it entirely, but one must also be mindful of the drawbacks.

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Intermission

I have been somewhat neglectful of my blog in the last week. The oncoming rush of term-time and the prospect of teaching classes for first-year undergraduates for the first time has certainly not helped. Nor has the fact that last week’s Thing struggled to inspire me; as I’ve already mentioned, I’m about as ‘early-career’ as ‘early-career researchers’ go, so the concept of bibliometrics, and establishing some control over your publication history online was interesting to explore and to note for the future but held little practical interest for me, not having any publication history to manage. Then again, this has not been dissimilar to my position in previous weeks, so perhaps this was just my first case of blogger’s block (it seems like there should be some handy web lingo for this by now – if there isn’t, I propose “writer’s blog”). The correct response, I think, should have been to write something like I’m writing now, but a week ago: as soon as you stop checking and updating your blog regularly, it does tend to fall by the wayside, especially at these nascent stages. Even a post as brief and basic as this one will be helps keep continuity and stops you coming back to read your last post, dated two months ago, and thinking “was was I on about?”

Hence, perhaps, the appeal of microblogging: it’s a lot easier to find regular topics of interest if you don’t feel obliged to provide a few hundred words on them, or even comment at all. Handily, this forms part of Thing Four, and on reading into this week’s topic, I found myself drawn back to last week’s. It seemed prudent therefore to catch up on lost time with a combined blog post on Things Three and Four (vaguely). So here goes.

Identity Crisis

As with many other fellow DH23Things participants, embarking on our first posts over the last week, I have discovered that one of the most interesting things about writing blog entries is reading them back to oneself. Many have confessed to editing or revising posts after initial publication (whether that publication was intentional or otherwise) or in light of comments received, either slightly shamefacedly or wholeheartedly advocating the process. While I’ve changed nothing about my initial post apart from a typo on line 17, I do realise I perhaps fell slightly into the trap which rattusscholasticus mentions in the comments on the above link, of wanting to be ‘A Grand Authority Dispensing Wisdom.’ Not only does this demonstrate how useful simply seeing one’s own thoughts ‘in print’ can be, but also neatly segues into Thing Two, namely one’s online identity.

The first question this raises is the purpose of having an online presence at all. In the form of a blog, I’ve just discussed its salutary use as a sounding board for ideas – whether these are fledgling research topics or musings on broader issues, one benefits from trying to formulate one’s thoughts coherently and potentially receiving feedback on them, as well as finding one’s ‘voice’. But aside from the personal uses, there are also potential professional advantages to an active online identity (as well as drawbacks). In a profession where one’s quality and originality of thought, as well as to a greater or lesser extent one’s communication skills, are key, a thoughtful and well written blog can impress, and a complete online persona around this can make one’s more serious research and professional activities easily accessible to those who want to find out about them. An online presence independent of one’s current institution is also useful to establish an intellectual career continuity when moving between positions. Independent blogs and opinions expressed there can also lead to problems though. Even without such incidents, there can be a perceived conflict of interests, with a blog either detracting from ‘real’ research or leaking potentially publishable ideas. An online identity requires careful management as well, especially if it exists over several platforms, whether unifying disparate identities or keeping personal and professional separate. The first thing potential employers do nowadays, we are told, is google candidates; the advice is usually set Facebook privacy settings to maximum and phasers to stun but, of course, one can also accentuate the positives as well as trying to suppress the photos from that Vegas hotel room.

Now, in my current situation – putting the ‘early’ into ‘early career researcher’ – I have a good opportunity to start from scratch, building a coherent profile as I go along. I am also in the fairly unique situation of being highly Google-able, having a unique name (it’s a first-generation double-barrel, if that’s the correct term). Google me, and you get me (so long as its spelt correctly): none of it is professionally relevant (mostly college society websites and a handful of theatre reviews) but nor is any of it at all unprofessional or embarrassing. It is surprising how quickly one moves from the public to the semi-personal though; despite having gradually tightened up my facebook privacy lately, a couple of pages in to the Google search and you start finding websites that have archived (out of date) Facebook information, such as friends, groups and ‘likes.’ While none of this is particularly compromising, one quickly sees the motivation for sites such as about.me or flavours.me to establish an authoritative version of the online ‘you’ (which is indeed what most of these personal data sites are advertising).

So where does that leave me? Well, while online privacy issues, the mixing of personal and professional lives, are worth considering, the best way of dealing with them is actively engaging with one’s online personae rather than shutting them down completely. While I object to the slightly insidious aspect of Facebook, it is a useful social tool, so I will continue to use it for personal ends (and if, in the mean time, someone can tell me how to get it to stop trying to tag my whereabouts at every turn, I’d appreciate it). My public, and perhaps in time professional, identity is something I am interested in developing, but will think carefully about how to do so. Keeping a blog broadly ‘professional’ does not mean it can’t be informal or even fun. For now, I have kept this blog essentially anonymous; I am using it as part of a learning experience about digital tools and don’t want to be associated with it irrevocably for time being. If I am going to use it for professional/research purposes, I would at least consider a more Classics-related title* and would certainly have to link my name to it before too long. The role an interesting or recognisable pseudonym plays in crafting an ‘identity’ through one’s blog is important, I think, and is not all about secrecy and anonymity. After all it has long been known who the cryptic crossword compiler, Araucaria, is, but this name brings to mind a certain character when printed in the back pages of the Guardian and serves as a separation of professional and personal lives, in the same way that an informal and characteristic online identity helps maintain a professional persona above and beyond personal uses.

* bonus points for anyone who understands the current one…

Meta-Blogging

So, it has finally become time to add my voice to the already overcrowded and cacophonous cyberverse, blogosphere or whatever buzzword is currently trending its way around companies such as the fictional Perfect Curve from the BBC’s satire Twenty-Twelve.

I have considered starting a blog at several points over the last few years: a number of friends have done so, either for career purposes or to keep in touch with friends and family while working/studying abroad (and also occasionally to discuss said work/research), but despite contributing to a company blog during my time working abroad, I was reluctant to start one myself. On one hand, one is inclined to worry about whether one will have the time to update it regularly and if one will find enough to talk about. On the other, it just seems presumptuous that anyone cares; the advent of the information superhighway and the proliferation of social media have brought many advantages, I’m sure, but the intimate details of Stephen Fry’s tea-drinking habits or the opportunity to publish mindless and hurtful abuse are not to be numbered among them. Ultimately, why are my thoughts on any given subject worth publishing to the world? Why should anyone care?

Now, however, as a fledgling PhD student in Classics, I have found reason to start blogging, for now as part of the DH23Things course run through CRASSH. It is designed to encourage a ‘reflexive’ approach to investigating humanities research in digital media, i.e. blogging about blogging, or meta-blogging as I like to think of it. The introductory session and first task was all about blogging as a means of alternative publication and the pros and cons thereof. As someone who, after admitting to studying for a PhD in Classics, is usually asked ‘What are you going to do with that then?’ or simply, ‘Why?’, I consider publicising arts and humanities research in the public eye an important part of conducting the research itself. Most people seem have a clearer idea about what scientific research consists of: in Classics, a common question is, ‘Hasn’t everything already been discovered?’ The only way to overcome such misunderstandings is through openness, which Martin Weller named as one of the three values of digital scholarship. The dissemination of such research to the general public in an easily accessible format is also the best way to reassert the relevance of the Humanities at a time when the funding and relevance of University education and research are under close scrutiny. This does not necessarily have to involve ‘dumbing down’, or a decline in standards: if embraced properly, a digital network of scholarship can be a potent means of peer review. This in part answers the question of why anyone should care, insofar as it serves to validate and promote those bloggers and blogs that are worth reading, reliable and relevant, over those that are not. After all, if Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision of the internet was as a means of academic information sharing, surely it’s about time academia truly embraced it.