academia: June 2004 Archives


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I'm going to slide off on a tangent here. For me, the questions raised about blogs & communities and/or email v. RSS have gotten me to thinking about push & pull. And that, in turn, has connected for me with the discussion about citation that Alex, Seb, and David Brake have been holding.

When I think about push & pull, one of the first places that my brain travels to is this little section from Steven Johnson's first book, Interface Culture. Among a number of (I think) unappreciated ideas in that book, there's a spot where Steven tries to redescribe links as stylistic devices, using the example of Suck:

Suck's great rhetorical sleight of hand was this: whereas every other Web site conceived hypertext as a way of augmenting the reader experience, Suck saw it as an opportunity to withhold information, to keep the reader at bay (132).

Johnson labels the normal way of web linking (the click for additional info) as centrifugal, pushing readers to other sites, or other pages within the site. The links on Suck, on the other hand, encouraged readers to go to other pages but to return--other pages were used as a means of adding various dimensions to the page you happened to be reading. Compare this idea (of directional, or centripetal/centrifugal linking) with a lot of the other early hypertext theories and you'll find that for most writers, links are immaterial conduits. (There are some smart exceptions to this, of course.)

Okay. What does this have to do with importing academic citation index models into the blogosphere? Academic citation does a little bit of both push and pull. On the one hand, I select certain scholars and integrate their work into my own as a means of building my credibility, locating my work within a particular tradition, name-dropping, whatever. I pull their work into my own. But I also push my readers to these scholars--if I find them valuable enough to cite, then a reader who finds my work compelling may trace out my bibliographic network and read these other writers. Duh. Obvious enough.

Print bibliographies, however, blur these two different directions and various functions. In fact, they blur a lot of stuff. I've always thought it would be interesting to try and weight bibliographic entries according to how central they are to a given book, maybe just by messing with the alpha channel so that parenthetical mentions or footnotes are light grey while crucial texts get bold faced. But that's neither here nor there. For all of the imperfection of your run-of-the-mill bibliography, these different motives for citation all legitimately feed into the purpose of a citation index (unless they encounter widescale gaming, I suppose).

One of the wrenches that gets thrown into the mix with weblogs, though, is the fact that there is no generic "link." The links that I'm building into this entry are different from the links to the right in my blogroll, and those are different from the links when I visit Bloglines. Right now, I'm pushpulling with citation links, but I think of the blogroll as centrifugal and of Bloglines as centripetal. And that's to say nothing of comments or trackbacks. An "accurate" citation index would be able to weigh each of these appropriately, I suppose, but for me, one of the real advantages of that variety (contrasted with the flatness of the bibliography), is precisely that it doesn't lend itself to one-size-fits-all accounting. One example. More and more, I'm using BL as a filter for my roll, as a way of trying out sites and writers. If I stick with them, I move them to my roll, bc I understand that it's only there that they "show up." But I manage the roll by hand, so those changes tend to be rarer and slower.

And for me, those various weights attached to my links are important. They're not all equal for me. Mycology is more dynamic for the fact that I can decide how much pushing, pulling, and pushpulling to do. There is value in flattening out those categories, and treating them all simply as links--the interesting work that Alex is doing re Scholarati is evidence of that. And when Seb borrows Guédon's core-fringe metaphor to advocate for the margins, I can't argue. But I think David hits on it when he says, "Unfortunately, counting such links does not (usually) tell you anything about why the link was made (was it criticism? how significant is the linkee to the linker or vice versa?)"

The why of linking matters a heck of a lot less in academic citation, Erdos numbers nonwithstanding. But out here, as a variety of link types develop, the idea of an index is of limited usefulness, I suspect, and at worst, it would lead to even more gaming, and impose upon a dynamic, general economy of links the kind of scarcity that Guédon describes in relation to the ISI citation index.


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The Media Ecology Association conference began today over in Rochester, which is notable for me bc I'll be driving over there tomorrow to catch a few panels, do a little networking, etc. The object of my affection?

Session 5-A Weblogs and Cross-Disciplinary Communication
Moderator: Elizabeth Lane Lawley — Rochester Institute of Technology
Panelists: Alexander Halavais — SUNY Buffalo
Sébastien Paquet — National Research Council of Canada
Clay Shirky — New York University
Jill Walker — University of Bergen

Should be a grrrreat panel, and it's bracketed on either side by plenaries, so I'll try to get up there early and stay into the evening. And I'll see if I can't have the panels blogged by tomorrow night as well...

Back 2 Front

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Clay Shirky's got a post over at Many2Many about Planetwork, a conference that's engaging in an interesting experiment. They've set some themes, programmed some sessions, and set aside some slots. They're allowing conference attendees to propose and vote for sessions they want to see, with the idea being that the sessions that receive the highest ratings will be added to the program when the conference happens later this week.

It's an interesting experiment in emergent scheduling, although I'm not sure I'm 100% on board with Shirky's characterization of it or enthusiasm for it. He places this in the context of the debate that took place a couple of months ago about the creation of backchannels during conference presentations. The comment of his that stuck with me back then:

From my experience of professional conferences, almost all such meetings have the same characteristic — the hallway conversations are better than the contents of the talks.

Well, yes, but....

Shirky's more recent post builds on this by considering "the conference form" in terms of "social loss," an argument ultimately in favor of moving the backchannel to the front. Now, I know that academic conferences (and the economy thereof) are much different from the kinds of professional conferences that he's speaking of, and perhaps some of my difference of opinion is rooted in that. But part of it is also rooted in the certainty that it's impossible to formalize the kinds of energy and value that Shirky sees in the "groupness" of such gatherings, and not just bc there's no way that the academic economy would bear it. In other words, there is some value to be had in the "excuse" of the formal conference--hallway conversations (and backchannels) derive a fair amount of their juice from the fact that they're not formal, front, and center.

Part of why I've been thinking about this is that Derek just blogged about Robert Brooke's 87 article about "underlife." While I don't remember the article as well as I thought I did, I do remember thinking that there's always a certain amount of underlife that's simply in excess. No matter how engaging a speaker/teacher, there are some who are slower, some who are faster, some who have to pose for their classmates/colleagues, etc. I'm not sure I'm ready to skip ahead to the point where I'd label that excess in terms of social loss, though, or see it as purely competitive with mainchannel activity. The idea that hallway conversations are better than plenaries is something I hear at almost every conference I've ever been to, and the few times I've seen attempts to abandon plenaries in favor of those conversation, they've failed miserably.

I've got other qualms as well, ones more clearly rooted in the difference between professional conferences and academic ones, but I'll leave off. First time I tried to talk about them, I spiralled out into the ether.

One more quick note, and that's every form of social loss Shirky mentions (with one exception) could easily be describing most classrooms. That's another thing that made me think about this...



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This page is a archive of entries in the academia category from June 2004.

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