We Have Never Been Social

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Bryan Alexander on his Future Trends Forum. We were primarily focused on Generous Thinking, but by way of having me introduce myself, Bryan asked what I’m working on this year. I mentioned that I’m in the early research phases of what might turn out to be a new project — which is to say, I have a pretty inchoate idea and I’m doing a lot of reading this summer trying to figure out whether there’s a there there. Late in our conversation, however, the discussion turned back to that project idea, and given that I’ve now shared it on video (soon to be available on YouTube), I thought it might behoove me to commit a bit of that idea here.1

The project has as its working title We Have Never Been Social: Rethinking the Internet. It revisits the history of the Internet’s development and, in particular, the rise of the social media structures that have come to dominate so much of our experience of networked communication, arguing that a significant part of what has led us to the mess we find ourselves in today — with corporate entities tracking our every move while ignoring (or abetting) the growth of violent radical movements just under the surface, undermining not just how we interact with one another in casual ways but the very organization of our formal, public, political lives — is a desperately flawed model of sociality, one that is in fact not just un-social but anti-social. These structures allow us to talk to one another and to form connections with those who share our interests and concerns, for sure, but they are predicated on a hyperindividualism that is not just contrary to but actually corrosive of the kinds of deliberation necessary to a productive public life. (You might begin to see some of the ways in which this project grows out of ideas I developed in the course of Generous Thinking; the Internet, like the university as it exists today, is not conducive to generosity, and imagining how a more generous Internet might be developed requires thinking through its present and potential structures of reward and relation.)

I imagine that the first part of this project will focus on how it got to be this way, what got missed or ignored in some of the early warnings about what was happening online and how those warnings were swamped by the hype depicting the Internet as a space of radical democratization. But then I want to turn my attention to where we might go, whether there are possibilities for building an Internet that would be more genuinely social. Some argue that a more decentralized web — a web in which we manage the platforms through which we interact with others, or what Wired recently referred to as the soothing promise of the artisanal Internet — would allow us to control the ways that our data is used, as well as to control the terms of our engagements with the broader network. There is no small irony in the suggestion that what has been termed the IndieWeb could actually turn out to promote a deeper sociality, of course, and the vision of a distributed, self-hosted, self-controlled Internet would be a real challenge to achieve. But as I see it, the desire to pull our efforts at creative production and connection out of platforms like Facebook and Twitter and, commit to more distributed platforms like Mastodon or return to blogging and its micro-blogging relatives focus not on the goal, but instead on a means to an end. Because the problem is not that our platforms haven’t been sufficiently individualized; despite — or more truthfully because of — being under ravenous corporate control, they cater to our worst individualist instincts. Contravening that force is going to require something more than personal control, promoting something other than atomization.

That is to say: if the problem has not been the centralized, corporatized control of the individual voice, the individual’s data, but rather a deeper failure of sociality that precedes that control, then merely reclaiming ownership of our voices and our data isn’t enough. If the goal is creating more authentic, more productive forms of online sociality, we need to rethink our platforms, the ways they function, and our relationships to them from the ground up. It’s not just a matter of functionality, or privacy controls, or even of business models. It’s a matter of governance.

So this is where some older paths-not-taken, such as Ted Nelson’s original many-to-many, multidirectional model for hypertext, and some more recent potential paths, such as Herbert van de Sompel’s decentralized, distributed vision for scholarly communication, might come in. But this is also where I want to turn my attention to the arguments I raised in my plenary talk at the Spring 2019 CNI meeting about the relationship between sustainability and solidarity. Because this, as Tressie McMillan Cottom reminds us, “is not a problem for technological innovation or a market product. This requires politics” (Lower Ed 182).

That’s where I am in the project: re-reading a lot of early writers on the rise of the Internet and social media, including the techno-utopians, those who got dismissed as Luddites, and the wealth of critical thinkers that fall somewhere in-between. And I’m reading a lot of recent work that looks at the mess we’re in and how it got to be this way. And I’m reading some key texts in social theory that will help me envision potential paths forward. But what else? What are the crucial texts and ideas I should be engaging with? Where are the new movements in rethinking the Internet that I shouldn’t miss?

Summer 2019

I’m titling this post “Summer 2019” in part as a way of reminding myself, as firmly as possible, that the summer has begun, in order to get myself focused on a new set of priorities as quickly as possible.

The transition from spring into summer has always been a bit of a challenge for me. On the one hand, there has often been this sense of my calendar opening out into vast stretches of unscheduled time — freeing, but with the seeming result that I go to bed one night in late May and wake up the next morning in late August, with the stretch inbetween passing in a dream-like blur.

On the other hand — and particularly in periods like now when some significant percentage of my time is dedicated to administrative responsibilities — there is also this sense of the spring and fall terms creeping like kudzu into the summer: just one more set of meetings, one more report, some final paperwork, and then perhaps we can start taking up planning for next year.

Last year I handled the spring-to-summer transition brilliantly, if a bit by accident: we left town as soon as finals week was over and spent two weeks in a lakeshore cabin. That two weeks was designed to allow me to jumpstart the revisions of Generous Thinking that I needed to get through in short order, but it had the knock-on effect of clearing my head and jumpstarting the summer, a clean transition into a different mode of being.

This year, we’ve scheduled the summer’s travel differently, with the result that the transition into summer isn’t as clean. Last week — the first week after finals — was filled top-to-bottom with meetings. This week’s schedule is less full but still contains a few stragglers. So I’m having to bring a somewhat more purposeful attention to the transition into summer work. Hence this post.

My goals this summer include both some exciting Humanities Commons-related developments (about which more soon!) and some preliminary work toward what may or may not turn out to be a new book project.

That last is potentially the most important, but also the easiest to defer, interrupt, or otherwise sidetrack: mostly what I need to do is to Sit Still and Read Things. Lots of things. And it’s hard to convince my spring brain — jumping from one thing to the next, with a long list of tasks in hand — to slow down and take the time to focus.

In any case, a post to remind me to do so. And the promise of more posts to share how it’s all going: I’ll post on significant ideas as they develop, but I’m also going to try to post a more general weekly roundup as well, just to keep myself on track. (We’ll see how that goes.)

Happy summer, in the meantime!

25 April 2019, 19:28

Here’s how I know it’s almost summer: My dreams for the last nine months have been nothing but stress dreams. I’m at a conference and can’t find my way back to the third floor because the elevators on this side of the hotel only go to floors 53 and above, or sideways, or whatever. I’m in a train and my stop is coming up but I can’t find one of my suitcases and the contents of the other one are strewn all over the train car for some reason. I’m supposed to be moving out of my apartment in the morning and I haven’t started packing yet and my stuff seems to have multiplied and is tucked into all kinds of closets and shelves I didn’t even know were there.

Again, how I know it’s almost summer? Last night I dreamed that I was moving out of my apartment in the morning, but most of everything was already gone, and I was looking around thinking “all I need to do is pick up a few boxes; there’s not much to do here!”

Maybe this summer I’ll actually have dreams that aren’t about my administrative unconscious.

Scholars, It’s Time to Take Control of Your Online Communities

Crossposted from the Humanities Commons Team blog.

A couple of years ago, I got a bit fed up with the ways that certain for-profit networks were purporting to provide scholars with opportunities to share their work openly with one another, and I decided that it was time to mouth off about it a bit: about the fact that their “.edu” address was deceiving many into believing that they were an academy-driven initiative, about the ways their uncertain business model endangered the future of the work being shared there, about the damage that network was doing to genuine open access.

Not long after, Sarah E. Bond issued a direct call to action: “It is time to delete your Academia.edu account.”

And many scholars did, taking their work to networks like Humanities Commons. And they told their friends and colleagues to do so as well. Since that time, Humanities Commons has come to serve more than 16,500 scholars and practitioners across the humanities and around the world. Those members are building their professional profiles, depositing and sharing work via the repository, and creating a wide range of websites to support their portfolios, their classes, and their other projects.

But where we’ve been less successful has been in attracting groups of scholars to engage in active discussion and collaboration. The Commons has a robust groups structure, permitting communities of a range of types and sizes — from private committees to public subfields, and everything inbetween — to host threaded discussions, to share files, and more besides. But that feature of the network remains somewhat underutilized, despite the extent to which many scholars today want to be able to communicate and collaborate with one another online.

The heart of the issue, I’m pretty sure, is that those scholars already have communities that seem to be functioning pretty well for them, a ton of them on Facebook. And the problem is, as I noted in my original Academia-not-edu post, is the gravity that such existing groups exert, especially when, as with Facebook, everybody is already there. (Or so it often seems, at least. People who are not on Facebook might be quick to tell you how annoying it is when we assume that everyone can be reached that way.)

If it’s hard to convince individual scholars to change their ways of working and take up more equitable, open, and transparent systems, it’s all but impossible to convince groups of scholars to do so.

And yet: it’s time.

Part of the argument I made for abandoning Academia.edu in favor of non-profit, scholar-governed alternatives, alternatives that were not out to surveil or data-mine their users, was based on my assessment that “everything that’s wrong with Facebook is wrong with Academia.edu, at least just up under the surface, and so perhaps we should think twice before committing our professional lives to it.” The inverse is even more true: everything that’s wrong with Academia.edu is wrong with Facebook, and then some.

I’ll leave it to Siva Vaidhyanathan to delve into the details, but it should be apparent from recent headlines that Facebook is at the root of a tremendous amount of personal unhappiness, violent conflict, and political turmoil today. The company has routinely sold its users’ data to advertisers, to companies, and to highly damaging political agents like Cambridge Analytica. Facebook engages in deep surveillance of users and their activity both on the network and elsewhere on the internet, an activity that is not just being exploited by corporations but also by governments. Given that Facebook’s entire business model depends on selling us — our presence, our information, our clicks — to other entities, every interaction we engage in there supports that model, whether we like it or not.

Most of us know this already, and yet we use the network anyway, even if begrudgingly. Our distant family members and friends are there, and we don’t know how we’ll keep up with them otherwise. And our scholarly communities, too: there are active discussion groups on Facebook that we’d miss if we left. So we watch our privacy settings and try to be careful with what we share — and yet no amount of such prophylaxis can really protect us from malfeasance. Assuming that our ostensibly private groups are actually private is setting ourselves up for abuse.

On top of which, working in proprietary spaces like Facebook does ongoing damage to the scholarly record; we cannot control, preserve, or migrate the archives of our discussions as desired.

It’s extremely difficult to move an entire group of people, I know, but I hope that some of you might be willing to try. There are other non-profit scholarly networks grounded in academic values available out there, of course, but if you’re in or adjacent to the humanities, I hope you’ll consider moving your discussions to Humanities Commons. And if you’re not in the humanities, maybe come join us anyhow? We want to open the network up to all fields in the near future, and your involvement would help us chart a path toward doing so.

26 February 2019, 13:29

I’m grateful to have gotten to have such a good conversation with Scott Carlson of the Chronicle of Higher Education.