Posted tagged ‘Tara Brabazon’

Measuring influence in today’s world

January 30, 2011

Maybe you have heard of Justin Bieber, maybe you haven’t. So here’s a very short biography. He is nearly 17 years old. He is a singer. He has released one well-received album. He has a Twitter account with nearly 7 million followers. And according to some noise published earlier this month, he is more influential than Barack Obama. Actually, let’s tell the whole truth, according to the same survey Obama also lags behind Lady Gaga, who has just short of 8 million Twitter followers. You may be starting to get the idea: President Obama has a Twitter following of ‘only’ about 6 and a half million.

So what’s this all about? Are we just measuring Twitter followers and concluding that this must be the sole basis of power and influence? Well, not quite, but very nearly. This league table of influence was brought to us courtesy of the website klout, which describes itself as the ‘standard for influence’. In fact klout is one of those internet success stories, and it has suddenly caught on. According to its own website, this is what it does:

‘The Klout Score is the measurement of your overall online influence. The scores range from 1 to 100 with higher scores representing a wider and stronger sphere of influence. Klout uses over 35 variables on Facebook and Twitter to measure True Reach, Amplification Probability, and Network Score.’

So let me reveal my own influence: according to klout, my score is 53. Let’s see how that compares with others. Well, the would-be next Taoiseach Enda Kenny beats me by one point and comes in at 54. But I am happy to report that he is the only Irish politician who is more influential than I am, and that no Irish university president or Scottish principal comes even close to competing with me. But I am not the most influential university president globally. Professor Steven Schwartz of Macquarie University is an exact tie with Enda Kenny, at 54 points.

What are we to make of all this? Should we just laugh at such nonsense and conclude it’s trivial? Or is there an argument somewhere to be made about the changing nature of influence in the new world of instant communication?

I wouldn’t spend two minutes worrying about whether Barack Obama really is less influential than Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, but I would point out that he is in this league table at all, which almost no other politician is. In fact, as we well know, this is entirely connected with his presidential campaign, which took off in part because he was smart enough to understand the political potential of the internet and social networking. We don’t yet see the Chinese president in any of this, but sooner or later, with the Chinese people’s voracious appetite for the internet, that too will come in some shape or form.

As for an academic dimension, some worry that the major source of modern day influence, Twitter, may actually be trivialising scholarship, forcing all academic knowledge into 140 characters and celebrating celebrity rather than vision or insight; this is the theme of an article by Professor Tara Brabazon (klout score: 50) in Times Higher Education. There is a hint in this kind of critique that if you can prompt someone to re-tweet your most recent 140-character thought then neither you nor the thought nor the re-tweeter can amount to much. I can understand why one might say that, but I believe it to be wrong. The message of scholarship doesn’t change, but the means for disseminating it do; if that were not so, we’d be publishing our work on hand-printed vellum.

I suspect that Stephen Hawking is not concerned that his klout score is only 50. But he is there on Twitter, and so are many others who want to share their knowledge, often by referring readers to more detailed presentations of it elsewhere. It would be foolish to believe that using the new media to broaden the scholarly community and shape its influence is wrong.


Congestion on the information highway?

December 20, 2009

Exactly 30 years ago today, a great disaster nearly overwhelmed me. I was at the time a postgraduate student in Cambridge University, working on my PhD. I had agreed to deliver a paper at a conference scheduled to take place there in mid-January; when I accepted this invitation, I had calculated that I would have some time over the Christmas break (while allowing for a few days off for the actual Christmas celebrations) to do my background work, read relevant articles and books, and do a first draft. So on December 20th I was ready to make a start. Or actually no, I wasn’t: because the library which had all of the materials I wanted closed that day, not to re-open until January 4th – which was far too late for the purposes of working on my paper. I remember having a sudden panic attack, as I could not see how I was going to be able to do the work in these circumstances. And so for the next two weeks or so I was a bundle of nerves, wondering whether I would be able to prepare a good paper for this prestigious event, my first ever conference presentation.

In the end I was fine, and while I had to forego sleep for a few nights before the conference, the re-opened library provided me with my materials I needed and my paper, even if I say so myself, was not at all bad. But what I have just described would be hard to understand for anyone in the same position today. Yes, a closed library is an inconvenience, but not a crisis. Instead, they would now be able to settle down at their computer and access pretty much everything they would need online, day or night, Christmas Day or any other day of the year.

Or is it that simple? Might it be said that there is now simply too much online information available to today’s researchers? And more significantly, is it becoming impossible to distinguish easily between genuine scholarship and online rubbish? And even if you can securely identify the gems, are there not just too many of them ‘out there’ to enable a worthwhile assessment of which ones are most relevant or best suited to the immediate project?

In the most recent issue of Times Higher Education, Professor Tara Brabazon of Brighton University argues that the information mountain available on the internet does not need to be a serious problem. Referring to one of her students, who had confided that she experienced ‘intellectual paralysis when confronted by the information choices’, Professor Brabazon concluded:

‘If she closed Facebook after a designated 30 minutes a day, constructed daily learning goals and followed the recommendations of teachers and librarians while monitoring citations of important authors via Google Scholar, her information environment would become less threatening and chaotic. There would be no metaphoric Mars Bar calling her name. Instead, she would develop experience in planning and organising her intellectual environment through expertise, refereeing and differentiating between leisure and learning, time passing and time management.’

Is that really the right advice? I cannot help feeling that the learning experience needs to be more emancipated than that. What Professor Brabazon appears to me to be suggesting is that you can overcome the fear of information overload by being methodical and taking instructions from your teachers. But the whole point of independent learning is to be able to find your own way to reliable data and analysis that is available to you and to use that in an innovative way. Having a routine framework and instructions handed down by your elders and betters does not seem to me to be the way to do this.

But then again, the academy has been through the concept of information explosion before. Back in the Middle Ages Professor Brabazon’s student would not have been struggling with information overload, she would have been struggling to come up with anything reliable or even just anything at all. The nearest monastery library would probably have provided the best and maybe only source. Then came the printing press, and suddenly there were books and pamphlets on absolutely anything, and almost immediately voices emerged saying it was all just unreliable stuff, and if a monk didn’t have to write it by hand on pigskin and add some beautiful illustrations it really couldn’t be worth anything. But the scholarly community quickly discovered how to handle the new information volume and in fact use it to enormous effect; and we are beginning to do the same with the internet.

I remember that when I was at school, another pupil once expressed a concern to a teacher that there were too many items for reading included in a homework assignment and that he didn’t know where to start. ‘Sharpen your pencils and sit up straight, read my instructions and then have a go’ was the rather opaque and (I think) utterly useless reply.  So let us not suggest to students that the universality of information requires a methodical application of your instructor’s rules. Yes, they must acquire and be familiar with information sifting tools, including Google; but they must also be willing to pursue less obvious paths and to try that which no-one is recommending just then. Learning must be something of an adventure, as well as the application of a method.

In fact, the only thing to fear is that, on December 20th, your library may close and a new virus will shut down the internet, just 14 days before you have to deliver your paper. Everything else is a piece of cake.

Protecting the craft?

December 29, 2008

On the website of the UK higher education magazine, Times High Education, Professor Tara Brabazon of the University Brighton has some very critical things to say about the journalist (and pop-sociologist, as Wikipedia labels him) Malcolm Gladwell. For the purposes of what I am about to argue you don’t need to know more about this, but the links are there should you wish to follow her concerns. But in a nutshell, Professor Brabazon is saying that Gladwell is over-simplifying the sociological issues he is purporting to address, that the reader of his books will learn little of scientific use, and that the recognition that Gladwell has received is misplaced.

It doesn’t for the moment matter whether Professor Brabazon is right or wrong. But there are two things she says that caught my attention, and not necessarily favourably. First, she uses the occasion to take a swipe at Freddie Mercury (late lead singer of the rock band Queen), apparently arguing that his cover of the Platters song The Great Pretender was of lesser artistic quality than the original, and suggesting that Gladwell is ‘the academic equivalent of Mercury’ – i.e. not the real thing. She was always going to lose me on this one, as for my money Mercury was an amazing artist, and if Gladwell is his academic equivalent, then frankly he rocks. But I haven’t read Gladwell, so I must put aside my irritation on this one – beyond wondering whether the misplaced analogy might suggest a weak spot in her argument in its real core. At the very least the argument she has employed is trivial, which may not do a lot to enhance her case against trivialising scholarship.

The more significant passage however was this. Talking about Gladwell’s published output, she says:

My worry is not these books in themselves. Every generation produces a pseudo-sage or author as fortune teller. My concern is for readers. The arguments are so simple, the evidence so superficial and the point so pointless that I worry about how readers move from books such as these and on to some of the remarkable sociology books being produced at the moment. Currently, I am rereading everything Sarah Pink has written, and it is an invigorating process.

Sarah Pink is Professor of Social Sciences at Loughborough University, and I believe she is a highly respected academic in her field. I have not met her, but as it happens have read one or two things she has written. And without this being intended in any way as a criticism, it would have to be said that the people who may buy Malcolm Gladwell’s books are unlikely to trouble themselves with Sarah Pink’s, or if they did they would be unlikely to read very far.

So if I can make any sense of this, what Tara Brabazon seems to be saying is that sociology is for the academy. If you want to follow some of its debates and arguments, go to the academic oeuvre. If you cannot do that, then please don’t read about it at all, and mind your own business. And if you are an academic, then for the love of everything sacred don’t try to address the masses in terms that are accessible (and by definition over-simplified). And if you’re not an academic, then stop pretending that you know what all this is about.

I’m probably being desperately unfair to Professor Brabazon here, and if so I will readily apologise. But there is a serious question in all this. To what extent do we in the academy belong to a masonic craft that pursues a language and ritual that must be protected from the great unwashed? The academic community, at its best, is a developer and disseminator of ideas and inventions, and for these to achieve their full benefit they must have an impact outside the academy. We are not in a private conversation. It is of course in the nature of intellectual thinking that it cannot always be accessible; but there is also a need to connect these intellectual insights with a wider public, and there is not just a market but a need for some popularising work. And some of the greatest academics in history have done it.

It is of course possible that Tara Brabazon’s real complaint is not that Gladwell is accessible, but that what he writes is wrong. And of  course I would readily agree that popular writing isn’t good when it misleads or distorts. But I think that the academic world is sometimes tempted to believe, or persuade itself, that a good theory cannot ever be explained to a popular audience without falling into those traps.

I have seen some of the leading academics of my time presenting their work to people without any expert knowledge in terms that were understandable to them, and more to the point I have also seen non-academics – including journalists – successfully master the academic state of the art and translate it for a wider audience. And all of that is good. So what disturbs me about Tara Brabazon’s piece is that a reader might take from it the idea that the academy should keep its analysis to itself, and others should keep out. That may not be the message she was intending to send, but that is how it could be read. And that would be bad for the academy, and bad for society.