This week, we had no readings for class. We signed up for Twitter (if we weren’t already signed up) and created a “personal learning network” (PLN) of other Twitter users related to our professional interests. We also needed to tweet or re-tweet 5 times during the week – you can find the tweets from our class by searching for the hashtag #si643.
As I thought about Twitter this week, while using it in a more professional sense than I had been in the past (though I was already following a good number of folks from my PLN before this), I kept coming back to an article about Twitter and Noam Chomsky I had read earlier this year (http://www.salon.com/2011/10/23/why_chomsky_is_wrong_about_twitter/). The interviews that this article cites took place shortly after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, many of which showed the central importance for technologies like Twitter for the communications of the oppressed. In one of the interviews cited, Chomsky comments on Twitter:
Well, let’s take, say, Twitter…It requires a very brief, concise form of thought and so on that tends toward superficiality and draws people away from real serious communication […] It is not a medium of a serious interchange. (Chomsky, N. as quoted by Jurgenson, N., 2011)
It is strange to me that such a scholar of language and communication would take such a stance on a mode of communication, for a number of reasons. First, it’s clear to anyone who studies language and literature that “concise” forms do not necessarily equate to shallow or non-serious communication. We only need to look to the haiku or the sonnet to see what kinds of truly serious communication can take place when concise forms rule the writer. It’s also strange because it seems to paint Chomsky as out of touch, which I have not seen from him before (as the article’s author points out, statements like this have an air of “rap isn’t music and graffiti isn’t art” to them). Finally, it is strange because, on Chomsky’s own admission, he doesn’t use Twitter.
Further on in the discussion of Twitter and Chomsky, Jurgenson points out that mobile communications technologies, such as Twitter, are becoming more and more a part of communications in the marginalized areas of the world. As he says, studies “[indicate] these so-called shallow ways of communicating are precisely the ways those in the Third World are connecting to and interacting on the Internet”(2011). More and more, these technologies are becoming tools for those who don’t have a voice to make themselves heard.
So what does any of this have to do with Twitter and PLNs? While I admit I’ve gotten a bit far afield, I do have a point. Before I make that point, I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not equating the oppression in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Third World to the “oppression” (notice the quotes) of academia by the publishing industry. These are two different worlds, clearly. However, there are many times when academic innovation is stifled by publishers, even if they make no active effort to do so. The entire model of exclusivity in major academic journals leads to a stifling – as Dan Cohen points out in his blog (http://www.dancohen.org/2012/03/30/catching-the-good/) (which I got from his Twitter feed, incidentally), the way the academic publishing machine is set up today is full of negative reinforcement, which forces scholars to try and conform to the academic community they want to be a part of, which makes many of them scared to innovate or reach beyond disciplinary boundaries. Technologies like Twitter (and blogging, and self-publishing, etc.) provide an opportunity for academics to break free this machine. After all – I will probably have no idea how many people read anything I publish (though I can see how many people cite it, that’s a different topic) – but, I can see right away, using tools such as Google Analytics, how many people read my blog post, and where they are from, and, if they comment, I can get instant feedback on my thoughts!
While these open/social-web technologies can never provide a full replacement for our current model of scholarly communication, I think they can provide a wonderful way for scholars and information specialists to communicate about how we can work to replace or improve the current machine.