Tara Brabazon: Networking opportunities

Now is a fertile time to be conducting research among the proliferating forms of social media, writes Tara Brabazon

January 26, 2011

Doctoral students are so terrified of failure that they embrace mediocrity, predictability and banality. They jump through supervisory hoops and hope that a slither of originality will get them through. By contrast, MA dissertations encourage passion, intensity and interest.

Two dissertations I supervised in the first semester of this academic year confirm this thesis. One candidate, Matt Ingram, is an academic colleague working in pharmacy. He studied a media MA as part of a professional development programme to build an interest in photography into expertise in visual communication.

His dissertation was framed by the current economic conditions of British higher education. He explored how the digital single-lens reflex camera may transform academics into “prosumers” – consumers that produce content. He developed short films that introduced lab techniques and career opportunities to his students. His exegesis evaluated the relationship between lecturers’ academic and promotional functions at a time when a marketing department is a luxury few universities can afford.

The second candidate, Nick Dunn, is a musician and writer. His dissertation offered a new economic model for the music industry. He asked what happens when music becomes a service rather than a product. Using Sky1’s Must Be The Music talent show as an archetype and matching it with crowd-funding strategies, Nick showed how social media could create pathways to profile and profit.

These two postgraduates created a semester filled with productive discussions about options and alternatives when using social media. Now is a fertile time to be conducting such research.

The controversies, challenges and weirdness of some social media are embodied by Klout. This is not a spelling mistake. More likely, Google Translator is being used to move an English word into the more pliable language of “marketing opportunity”.

Klout promotes itself as “the Standard for Influence”. Just as the research excellence framework overpacked the term “impact”, so does Klout fill out the word “influence”. These concepts are so vague that they can be shaped to suit any agenda.

Klout gained press notoriety during the first week of 2011 by claiming that Justin Bieber is “more influential” than Barack Obama. The reason for such a bizarre and disturbing result needs to be understood. Klout measures “influence” in the social web, but even that is an overstatement. The site extracts particular parts of social networking and renders them hyper-significant.

Klout does not assess influence: it evaluates the capacity to use Twitter in particular, and Facebook and LinkedIn to a lesser extent, to “drive actions through social media”.

Again, this phrase is spin rather than substance. “Drive actions” does not signify writing to an MP, going on a demonstration or maintaining a silent vigil to support or decry WikiLeaks. Instead, the actions being “driven” (and therefore measured) include clicking a link and retweeting. That is why celebrities dominate Klout. It does not measure influence, but fandom.

Bieber is able to draw fans to his music via tweets. Obama has not demonstrated the same capacity to move citizens to his policies. In other words, Klout “measures” influence, but without context or any mediation of social value.

It is also Twitter-heavy. It counts a click, a like or a reply. We should be thankful that Twitter was not available when excluded communities such as women or citizens of colour were fighting for the full rights of citizenship. Why fight for the vote or freedom of movement when a retweet will suffice?

It is intriguing that at a time when social media are diversifying, Klout picks a few specific examples and exaggerates their importance. As my dissertation students have shown, social media are fragmented media. They create clusters, collectives and subcultures. They lurch, jolt and ooze in unusual directions. But oddly, at the very moment when on and offline environments are integrating, Klout disconnects analogue roles from digital presence.

The best metaphor for social media is the childhood game of quoits. We toss a quoit towards a stationary target and hope to encircle it. Social media are the same: from blogs to podcasts, YouTube to Facebook, Twitter to Academia.edu, the aim is to create money, market share, profile, fame, community or connections. But more (social media) rarely means more (meaning). The conflation of celebrity culture and Klout’s measurement of “influence” confirms the consequences of an oversharing culture.

Some celebrities use social media well. Stephen Colbert is a great example. He tweets once or twice a day. Even Twitter awarded him the best (most retweeted) 140 characters of 2010. Others, such as Kevin Smith, use it badly. I am not sure what is more frequent: his breathing or his tweets. There is a point where the most exciting person becomes a bore.

Journalists love Twitter because it means they never have to leave the office to gather news. Post-tabloidisation, reading a tweet substitutes for research. After a few drinks, a musician, footballer or Katie Price – not quite sure what noun or verb describes her profession – can vent 140 characters. Supposedly this is “creating” news. Twitter is a boon for lazy journalists and oversharing celebrities. It is the marriage of our time. Whether it lasts longer that Ms Price’s marriages is yet to be seen.

The question is what academics gain from this measurement. In January, Klout anointed Stanford University as its most “influential” university. The relationship between this ranking and quality research and teaching is unclear.

But some accountability for academic marketing is necessary. I read the university web profile of a pretender who is the chair of a committee he invented. He refers to himself as a world leader in his field. When reading his biography and ignoring the adjectives, it becomes clear that he does not hold a doctorate, although he runs doctoral committees. His formal education ended in the early 1970s. When reviewing his supposedly “substantial” publications, there are a few encyclopaedia entries from the early 1990s, a textbook released in 1991 and only four refereed articles published in a decade. The past five years are void of academic publication. He is “influential” in his own mind.

A Klout score is the least of his worries. Yet there is some value in recognising, not the influence of social media, but their function as a trigger for memory, community and communication. There is – appropriately – an app for that, a subtle and evocative one titled Momento. It aggregates and preserves feeds from a range of social media, including tweets, Facebook updates, YouTube channels and podcasts. It also has the capacity to be a diary, with Momento users writing “their moments”.

Although I do not keep a diary, it is affecting to see the progression of relationships through social media by collecting, integrating and preserving posts, tweets and feeds of (personal) significance. This is not Klout, but it captures the spark of online community.

There are many reasons to use the web. For me, there are three benefits: to enable new teaching and learning models; to find information; and to maintain social relationships. Klout – even clout – is not useful in meeting these goals. The innovative Momento may be.

Momento and Klout are two attempts to map and track online identity, behaviour, influence and impact. My students Matt and Nick studied other modes and strategies. Our online future is perched somewhere between hyper-individualised aggregations and globalised retweeting. One trajectory of this future is shared localism – using the web to amplify social relationships within a designated space, place and community.

FourSquare and Groupon are the bread-crumbed trail to this future. They transform social networking into geosocial networking. This is not Klout: it is a reshaping of walking, reading, writing and thinking.

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