On Removing Sphericules

Similar to Ethan’s reaction at the Interactive Media Conference this week in Miami, it was a little surreal for me to be in the midst of two thousand academics all entirely focused/obsessed on exactly what I’ve been involved with for the past three years: online communication and participatory media. I had to suppress a lot of frustration at the culture and language of academia and how it muddles what are often straightforward principals and frameworks into impossible-to-comprehend grandiose theories full of allusions to obscure names and meaningless jargon from the exclusionary cliques of post-modernism.

I implore all graduate students to resist the onslaught of jargonese in the thousands of academic journals you’re forced to read, the conferences you must attend, and the advisors you must kiss up to.

Let me open up the conference catalog and turn to a completely random page … Here we go, from the panel entitled “Politics of Communication, Cultural Difference, and Diasporas”:

Diasporic communication has the potential to challenge mainstream media representations of diasporas, ethnic and religious communities as counter-hegemonic space, as well as a platform for identity politics, thereby creating alternative public sphericules, and in the process strength democracy.”

I assume that the author intended a comma after process and meant ‘strengthen,’ not ‘strength.’ But ‘sphericules?’ Now that sounds like something you should see your doctor about. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I heard presenters refer to the “paradigmatic shift in ontological frameworks for analyzing the de(con)textualization of …”

Why can’t these people speak in English? Are they so worried about misconstruing the theorists they cite that they must hide behind their polysyllabic shields so as 1.) not to appear stupid and 2.) not to be understood?

Influence on Internet on Singaporean Elections

Most of the time I felt like I was at a conference held in a language I didn’t speak. But amid the high-brow drone of nervous presenters, there were some interesting data and arguments I hadn’t come across before. Randy Kluver, who was formerly the Executive Director of the Singapore Internet Research Center and is now based at Texas A&M, had an interesting presentation on the role of the internet in the last Singaporean elections. After OhmyNews had some measure of influence on the 2002 South Korean presidential elections followed by Howard Dean’s impressive web-backed start to the 2004 Democratic primaries, internet users were optimistic that they had inherited a sizable chunk of electoral influence from the mainstream media. But there are plenty of other cases – like Singapore, Kluver notes – where very active blogospheres have very little influence on major elections. Just one glance at the number of comments on El Sendero del Peje during last year’s Mexican presidential election, and you would have thought that Lopez Obrador was going to win by 80%. Likewise, last year’s 3D campaign organized by our friend Luis Carlos in Venezuela sure made it seem like Chavez had little chance of re-election. In 2005, Iran’s booming blogosphere almost unanimously supported Dr. Mostafa Moeen who didn’t even make it past the first round. And DailyKos was more influential in 2004 than nowadays even though the Democrats lost then and will likely win now.

In other words, bloggers seem to make a poor polling sample of what will happen come voting day. But, political persuasion aside, there is another reason the internet has less influence on elections in Singapore than other well-wired countries: it is illegal to blog about politics during the campaign season. Kluver pointed out that bloggers simply get around the crazy policy by starting anonymous blogs or, even better, by using ‘satire.’ He concludes that Singaporean voters suffer from tight government scrutiny of online content, a de-politicized citizenry, and disorganization of opposition parties.

Dumbing it Down for Academics

A few of the presenters – like Howard Rheingold, Henry Jenkins, Jay Rosen, and Danah Boyd – I had seen speak at other events, mostly to an audience of fellow bloggers. What astonished me at the ICA conference is that – speaking to hundreds of fellow academics – they actually dumbed down their presentations. It’s as if someone pulled them aside before they took to the podium and said, now remember, you’re speaking to a bunch of newbies so don’t forget to introduce a lot of the basics. Jay Rosen, who writes lucidly and beautifully about the changing media landscape on his blog PressThink, spent about half an hour on the most basic “Intro to Blogging 101” presentations.

Where is the Bloggers Versus Academics Debate?

The blogger versus journalist debate is at least five years old now and will probably never go away. But where is the blogger versus academic debate? No offense to the Ph.D. readers of this weblog, but I had to endure some pretty questionable research and discourse over the past few days. One Ph.D. dissertation – I kid you not – tested the hypothesis that households with broadband were more likely to access health information on the internet than those with dial-up. The presenter placed a flow-chat on an over-head projector to emphasize his point. Another paper presented by Kris Kodrich and Claudia Mellado Ruiz essentially looked at whether journalists in Chile were content or not at their jobs. Chile! One of the few countries around the world where there is a real intersection between existing power structures (especially the government) and the decentralized web … and this is what communications scholars decide to research?

What I’m saying, I guess, is that three days spent with my RSS reader will surely present me with more relevant and insightful research into all sorts of topics than three days spent at any academic conference. Academics do research, they publish their findings, and they review the works of others. It just so happens that many bloggers do the same thing. The difference is that academics get paid and are part of an already established economic and hierarchical model.

Which is why more and more old school ‘bloggers’ are becoming academics: they get paid to do what they’ve been doing all along. Jeff Jarvis is now at the City University of New York. Cory Doctorow is at USC. And Rebecca MacKinnon is at the University of Hong Kong. Unfortunately, I don’t suspect that this is a trend we’ll see much more of. Academia is as interested in establishing authority as the quality of research/discourse and there’s nothing less authoritative these days than starting a weblog.

Bloggers and Academics: Mutual Benefit

I was invited to the ICA conference for a panel called “Grassroots Discussion Panel: Particpatory Models and Alternative Content Production” organized by Seeta Peña Gangadharan and chaired by Benjamin de Cleen. (My slides are on SlideShare). During the Q&A of the panel, one of the academics in the audience asked how academia could be of use/relevance to projects like ours. What a great question! We spend so much time talking past each other that we rarely think to ask each other for help. Of course we want more information about the trends of Global Voices’ content and what our readers do with the information they encounter on the site. Meanwhile, we’re able to give researchers a much more up-to-the-minute portrayal of how regional and national blogospheres are developing. Several graduate students seemed interested in using GV as a case study for cross-cultural, cross-linguistic communication research so hopefully some useful findings will come out of their studies.

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