Der Misserfolg der Medientheorie, die geglaubt hat, mit der Exegese von ein paar Aufsätzen Walter Benjamins und der Wiederholung einiger ungedeckter Thesen Michel Foucaults schon etwas Tragfähiges zu den gegenwärtigen medialen Transformationen zu sagen, hat etwa auf der Seite der Geisteswissenschaften dazu beigetragen, dass ihr zu ihren eigenen realen Arbeitsumwelten nicht viel einfällt. Die Verlage haben zu lange darauf gesetzt, die bestehenden Publikationswege als die allein sinnvollen zu verteidigen. Die Wissenschaftsorganisationen neigen dazu, die Unterschiede der Fächerkulturen einzuebnen. Wir alle werden dabei von Google und Co. überholt. Andere Prozesse wie die weltweite Konkurrenz der Wissenschaftsstandorte oder die Metrisierung der Wissenschaften beschleunigen diesen Prozess. Wir stehen hier am Anfang einer Entwicklung, die keiner von uns überblicken kann.

(Edit 9/7/2009: lexicographer, digital humanist and webdev wizard Toma Tasovac has taken the time to translate this post into Serbian. Thank you, Toma!)

In the course of the last half year or so, I’ve had the chance to get a much broader impression of the research being done by colleagues from other disciplines in Internet Studies/Internet Research. I consider myself an online researcher head to toe, but my background in linguistics means that I approach my object of study from a slightly different direction than a sociologist, a social psychologist or a mass communications scholar would. These differences are minor and much of the time they fade into the background, but there are situations when they do become visible. I want to outline how I think these nuances of difference can benefit and enrich the study of online communication, because they allow us – scholars with various backgrounds, or, more precisely, different disciplinary origins – to learn from one another. Specifically, I want to make the argument that analyzing how people communicate online can provide us with insights not only about the social and cultural dynamics of the Internet, but also with valuable data on how online communication is conceptualized, in other words, of how we think the Internet and what we are doing when we use it to express ourselves. An aspect I want to address in passing with this argument is an artificial dichotomy that I feel has proven itself to be counterproductive: the split between the cognitive and the social and cultural dimensions of communication.

A sociologist is likely to be particularly interested in the Internet’s potential for social interaction and in where, how and why this potential is realized. Of course this is also likely to be relevant (for example) to the (socio)linguist, but inevitably her focus is on language first and on community second, the latter seen as a key factor shaping the former. The implicit argument that many linguists follow is that language is shaped by cognition as well as social convention, and while it would be futile to untangle the two from one another, it is possible to point out their individual influences.

Internet communication happens through a variety of channels. It can be spoken or take place via video, but a significant percentage is typed via keyboards and touchscreens. A linguistically-oriented approach to computer-mediated communication is akin to an archeology of Internet Studies in that it starts with the smallest units of typed communication and works its way up incrementally: from words to sentences to documents, to pieces of discourse to genres of communication and beyond that to their form and function. Obviously doing this is not an activity restricted to linguistics – researchers from countless disciplines do it and bring their own methods and approaches to the table. In some instances the narrow focus of linguistics on language in CMC research can be a limitation when it fails to contextualize observations about a genre with the social context that shapes said genre and the role it plays for its community of users. But it is worth pointing out which aspects of language use online are shaped by universal communicative principles, and not the conventions of individual communities or users, not because this lessens the importance of said conventions in any way, but because it allows us to understand online communication in its entirety better.

The question at the heart of the cognitive dimension of Internet Studies is: When we communicate on the Internet, what exactly is it we think we are doing and where and with whom do we think we are doing it?

The question may seem strange at first – one could argue that we are having conversations or chatting on Twitter, that we are writing a diary or publishing an opinion piece or rant in our blog. But the words we use to describe these activities reveal our association of new concepts with familiar ones. The blueprint of a conversation is a face-to-face exchange via sound waves between people who are in proximity to one another, so that these sound waves can travel from one participant to the other and trigger inferential processes in their heads. Publishing traditionally describes the production and dissemination of printed documents, such as books, magazines etc. In other words, almost all of the terms we use to describe what we do online are metaphorical extensions of pre-existing concepts (surf, chat, browse, search). Interestingly, those forms of online communication that go beyond pre-digital metaphors have given rise to their own vocabulary (e.g. blog, tweet) and as natively digital communication evolves (e.g. Google Wave) we take up more and more practices that cannot be described in terms of what is already familiar from pre-digital contexts.

In other words, a wide variety of seemingly mundane practices of online communication are shaped by complex and increasingly unstable metaphors. Many of these metaphors are dependent on cultural convention, but some are also cognitively salient and universal. For example, people talk about websites as if they were places (using words like “here”, “there”, “on that site”) not because they are taught to do so, but because space and spatial orientation apparently lends itself well to thinking the Internet (as well as many other abstract concepts).

The Internet gives us access to language data on an unprecedented scale, but it would be a shame if all with did with it was to study words and sentences in articifical isolation. We would be ignoring the process in its entirity and missing the larger picture, a picture that only multidisciplinary teams with a variety of methods can accurately draw. At the same time, there are dimensions of Internet Studies where the focus on social aspects alone misses important things. Why do so many people blog and tweet in relative insolation, reporting thoughts and states that others do not respond to and are perhaps not meant to respond to? Can the creation of (social) media be accounted for by notions such as social capital alone, or is there an inherent psychological salience of digital media as a mirror, a permanent diachronic record of the self? What about the non-social dimension of social media?

Let me know what you think.

On November 2nd, I’ll be giving a talk at the University of Osnabrück’s Zentrum für Promovierende on how to communicate, network and present one’s research using social media tools (in German). It’s a very important topic to me, considering how much my research has benefitted from “making connections where none previously existed”, to quote someone smarter than myself. My in-advance thanks to Kristine Greßhöner for arranging the talk.

Promotion 2.0: effektive wissenschaftliche Kommunikation und (Selbst-)Präsentation im Zeitalter von Google

Das Internet ist nicht nur fester Bestandteil unseres Alltags, es verändert auch zunehmend die Wissenschaft. Während die Pflege intra- und interdisziplinärer Kontakte, Teamarbeit und Informationsaustausch seit jeher zur akademischen Praxis gehören, erlaubt das Internet als Präsentations- und Kommunikationswerkzeug den Aufbau von Netzwerken über traditionelle Foren wie Fachpublikationen und Konferenzen hinaus, auch interdisziplinär und mit Nichtwissenschaftlern.

Für den akademischen Nachwuchs ist die Vernetzung mit Kollegen auf nationaler und internationaler Ebene und die Präsentation der eigenen Forschung vor verschiedenen Publika extrem wichtig. Mit Hilfe von Werkzeugen wie Blogs, Sozialen Netzwerken und einer persönlichen Homepage, auf der man z.B. Vorträge und Publikationen anbietet, lässt sich auch bereits als Doktorand die eigene Sichtbarkeit maßgeblich erhöhen.

Mein Vortrag wird sich anhand von Beispielen (aber ohne technisches Hintergrundwissen vorauszusetzen) mit folgenden Fragen beschäftigen:

1. Wieso brauche ich eine persönliche Homepage, welche Informationen stelle ich dort zur Verfügung und wie erreiche ich, dass sie gefunden wird?

2. Wie und wo kann (und darf) ich meine Präsentationen und Publikationen online archivieren und wieso ist dies sinnvoll?

3. Wie lässt sich ein Blog effektiv für die wissenschaftliche Kommunikation einsetzen?

4. Welche anderen Web 2.0-Dienste lassen sich in den wissenschaftlichen Arbeitsalltag (z.b. für Veröffentlichungen, Recherche und Kollaboration) einbinden?

Der Vortrag richtet sich an Promovierende aller Fachrichtungen.

Tagged with:  

danah boyd on Twitter

On August 16, 2009, in Thoughts, by cornelius

Just read a spot-on blog post by danah boyd on how Twitter communication is frequently misinterpreted by laymen:

Far too many tech junkies and marketers are obsessed with Twitter becoming the next news outlet source. As a result, the press are doing what they did with blogging: hyping Twitter us as this amazing source of current events and dismissing it as pointless babble. Haven’t we been there, done that? Scott Rosenberg even wrote the book on it!

Yes, absolutely. We’ve been there and this is really just a rehash of the “relevance debate” we already had with blogging and that will probably stay with us for a long time. Communicating publicly used to be a privileged only enjoyed by a select few and bound to very clear codes and conventions. Now that the barriers have been removed, we are faced with the shocking revelation that other people do not, in fact, communicate primarily with us in mind. Duh.

I do however, disagree with danah regarding one minor point. People who seriously assign the category “pointless babble” to certain Twitter messages (based on what criterion, exactly?) are not researchers, they are “researchers” and they don’t produce studies, they produce “studies”. That’s why, in spite of all well-deserved skepticism, I think academia – ivory tower, arcane rituals and all – is a good thing. Because, for the most part, we try to figure out what’s really going on using actual data vs. simply telling people what they want to hear and then publishing the results in a glossy “report”.

Tagged with:  

At last, and with quite a bit of lag, here are the slides for last month’s talk at the 1st European Summer School “Culture & Technology” in Leipzig. It was a fabulous event and I cannot praise Elizabeth Burr and her staff enough for making it happen and hosting us so graciously. Digital humanists are a wonderfully diverse and friendly lot and I can’t wait to get to know more of them at Digital Humanities 2010 and next year’s ESU-CT.

Tagged with: