old media: April 2005 Archives

A. Sloane

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That's A as in Another. Or Arthur, or Alvin, or Andy. Doesn't matter. If tonight's episode was any indication, the producers of Alias have finally returned to form, and added an honest-to-goodness, LOD-style, criminal mastermind into the works. And true to their roots, it's a heretofore unknown member of the family.

Rock. And. Roll.

In other news, I was interviewed today by Jeff Young (I think--I forgot to jot his name down) for the Chronicle. We had a nice conversation which began from the changing circumstances of university presidents, many of whom try to respond to all mail and email they receive. As you might imagine, with IM plagiarists, Ward Churchill, etc., they're getting a lot more correspondence these days, and it's exacerbated by the fact that most of them are accessible now via a simple web search and an email message. Events that at one time would have been covered by the campus newspaper and precious little else can now cascade into national news in a matter of hours. As slow as we've been to take up blogging in the academy, there are plenty of people out there blogging campus speakers, leveraging extra or intra-campus networks, etc., all of which makes it a lot more difficult to keep track of (or keep a lid on) what's happening on a given campus.

This kind of transparency cuts both ways. On the one hand, we might argue that it forces universities, from the president or chancellor on down, to be more responsible to the people (be they parents or legislatures) who are helping to fund them. On the other, though, as these presidents with an "open inbox" policy are quickly learning, it can be crippling. We're reading some introductory essays about SNA (social network analysis) in my course this week, and something that Valdis Krebs has to say is directly relevant:

The secret to network benefits is in the pattern of direct and indirect connections surrounding a node. It is the pattern of relationships, that a node is embedded in, that either constrains or enhances the ability to get things done in the organization. The goal is to obtain wide network reach without having too many direct ties. It is the indirect ties that provide network benefits. Research has shown that both individuals and groups who are central in organizational networks, yet are not overwhelmed by direct ties, are very effective in getting things done.

The benefit of being at the top of a hierarchy is that the entire organization exists in part to solve problems and handle things before they ever cross your desk. The drawback of making that hierarchy transparent is that everyone outside that hierarchy starts at the top when it comes time to (a) blame and/or (b) flame. It's far easier to simply start at the top than to try and figure out how far down you have to go to find the person or persons responsible for whatever it is one disapproves of. And every one of those emails, from the hundreds of people who criticize you for uninviting a controversial speaker to the hundreds from the other side who criticize you for not doing sooner, is a direct tie. And even if you have 2 boilerplate statements, one for each side, and you just skim to figure out which one to use, responding to each of those direct ties can be utterly paralyzing.

Combine this with the shortcuts and connections that are multiplying--thanks in part to blogs but also in part to telecomm more broadly--and the next move, one you can already see in some places, will be to talk about management rather than growth. Smarter cats than I are already talking about the Dunbar Number as a ceiling to the size of effective social groups. Seems a small leap to me to suggest that there are analogous Dunbar numbers for direct ties, where ties include people, emails, projects, etc., and that this idea will be used to justify a return to some degree of opacity in the upper echelons.

If I'm lucky, then some of what I said today on the phone approached this level of coherence. And if any of it was quotable, then you'll be seeing my name next week (ideally, attached to something that doesn't sound too utterly dopey) in a Chronicle near you.

That is all.



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This page is a archive of entries in the old media category from April 2005.

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