Anders Sundnes Løvlie’s blog about locative media, computer games and electronic text

Facebookademics and the media

with 2 comments

The last couple of days two newspaper articles about academic research on Facebook have been the subject of much discussion on the email list for the AoIR (Association of Internet Researchers). It started with this story in the Washington Post, which portrays recent work about social networking sites as an academic landrush in which scholars are rushing to claim the new territory as their own.

The following outcry among the internet researchers is interesting, because it illustrates the conflicted relationship between academia and the press. That is something I’ve personally experienced from both sides: As a journalist trying desperately to get scholars speak in a manner which could be communicated to a general, non-academic public, and as an academic opening the newspaper and finding myself quoted saying exactly the opposite of what I thought I had said. Needless to say, both experiences are extremely frustrating.

According to the 50+ emails distributed on the list the days after the story appeared, the Association has been filled wih mixed feelings: Part bewildered flattery at the media attention, and part indignation that the journalist reported inaccurately, and even dared to make jokes. “Snide, cute, ignorant and surprising” all at once, according to the most popular email subject header. (I had to look up ‘snide’. According to dictionary.com it means “derogatory in a nasty, insinuating manner”.)

And then this other article showed up, in the New York Times. Apparently, the general feeling is that this one is much more responsible and accurate and doesn’t offend anyone. However the joy didn’t last long, as the UPI picked up the WP story and edited it for world-wide distribution to a local news media near you – in a version which apparently was even more snide and ignorant, but not so cute and surprising.

For my own part, having recently made the transition from journalism to academia, I thought the Post article was quite good, compared to most newspaper stories. I can’t quite rid myself of the feeling that the controversy speaks more about the social dynamics of the academic world, than that of social networking sites or journalism. But then again, perhaps I am just suffering from conflicting loyalties. Frankly I think academics should be happy whenever the general public takes an interest in our work, rather than complain about reporters’ lack of scientific accuracy. Scholarly precision and comprehensive elaboration is good for a lot of things, but not necessarily for reaching out to a wider public at their breakfast tables.

Or as one of the email posters said, quoting Oscar Wilde: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

To prove my point, the controversy made me go back and read danah boyd’s excellent blog essay on class issues in Facebook and MySpace, which I never took the time to read before since it is a little on the side of my own field. I am glad I did, as the essay was really interesting – but withouth the Post article and the following controversy, I might not have gotten around to read it for quite a while yet.

Looking at the popularity of certain local SNS’s here in Norway, in particular among the youngest teens (i.e. HamarUngdom, Blink, Biip, deiligst.no, Nettby), I find myself asking: Do language and culture barriers contribute to a similar effect to that which danah boyd describes, in non-English language areas? Facebook for the older, higher educated crowd, and national SNS’s for the younger/lower-class teens?

On the face of it, the connecion sounds quite probable. But since I am not a journalist anymore, I will dutifully await empirical evidence before I conclude. :p


Written by Anders Sundnes Løvlie

Tuesday, December 18, 2007 at 17:33

2 Responses

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  1. I don’t think the problem was that the story didn’t reach much depth–that isn’t really expected. It’s that it made broad characterizations about the personalities of academics that were both uncalled for and inaccurate. Had a reporter suggested that Napolean complexes were common to police officers, or that everyone knows that lawyers enjoy inflicting pain on people, you would have seen a similar response.

    If it’s an essay, fine. If it’s trying to be news, stick to things you have evidence for and don’t encourage the ignorance of your readership by libeling an entire vocation. Stereotyping is fine as a technology, but sucks as reportage.

    Alex H.

    Wednesday, December 19, 2007 at 17:25

  2. I’m having trouble seeing the libel in the article?

    I guess you don’t mean it in legal terms. But on behalf of my profession, I’m not particularly insulted by the insinuation that we are a bunch of explorers rushing to study this new field – I thought that was our job? And wouldn’t it be naïve to expect that no envy and pro/personal intrigues would come up along the way? More than anything in academia, where people’s job is to critique one another?

    Anders Sundnes Løvlie

    Wednesday, December 19, 2007 at 18:02

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