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About Facebook! Forward March!
The culture of academia is like a land rush: professors poised around the edges of each new intellectual territory, waving flags emblazoned with theoretical frameworks, making frenzied dashes to stake claim on new topics, ready to shoot trespassers.
The sooners who get there first become "calcified," says Nicole Ellison, a Michigan State professor who, with boyd, recently edited the special issue of JCMC. "There's a definite early-mover advantage," says Ellison. "Because then your piece becomes the requisite for when people need to cite something."
It's what William Clark, author of "Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University," calls "the establishment of insiders." When small groups of people begin to cross-reference each other, he says, "they make the small group collectively more important."
And so the bibliography of Hugo Liu's "Social Network Profiles as Taste Performances" (published in the JCMC special issue) cites the work of Judith Donath, who also has an article in the issue. Donath cites Nicole Ellison, whose article precedes her own. Ellison, in turn, cites Hugo Liu.
Every author of every paper cites danah boyd.
It's the myopia of academia in any discipline, but especially so in a nascent one where a body of work (a canon!) is still TBD, where plum jobs and tenure tracks can be determined by early elbow rubbing. Nancy Baym, a University of Kansas professor who founded the Association of Internet Researchers, estimates that currently fewer than 50 people have researched social networking sites -- but she sees the numbers rise every month. Not just from departments of communication, but from psych, and soc, and computer science, and the straggling English professor or two.
And what of that emerging canon? What are these young -- because most of them are young -- ingenue types writing so feverishly about?
An excerpt from Liu's paper:
"One of the newest stages for online textual performance of self is the Social Network Profile. The virtual materials of this performance are cultural signs . . . composed together into a 'taste statement' that is 'performed' through the profile."
In other words: People on MySpace. List their favorite movies. To show their friends what they enjoy.
In "Signals in Social Supernets," Donath writes that social network sites "locate people in the context of their acquaintances . . . and allow for the public display of interpersonal commentary."
Which means: When you write "Duuuude, last night was crazy," on someone's Facebook wall, everyone can see.
The lingo makes you want to give everyone with a PhD an atomic wedgie, but the ideas are compelling enough: Liu, for example, explores how Facebook embodies the virtual pursuit of cool, with users claiming to like the things they think they should like, agonizing over whether "Borat" or "Wedding Crashers" is a more appropriate favorite film.
Eszter Hargittai, a professor at Northwestern, studies the way the digital divide pervades Facebook -- originally meant for college kids -- and MySpace, which was open-access from its beginning.
Hargittai thinks that the research will be valuable, if it holds: "You can't compare things over time unless you ask the same questions, but you can't keep asking the same questions in a field where everything's changing." In two years -- a reasonable period of time for a peer-reviewed journal to be produced -- "we may not even call these things social networks."
Ellison adds, "I certainly couldn't dust off the same syllabus every semester."
In the end, that's the biggest difficulty of all with this new discipline. Not whether there are enough table scraps to go around after super-scholars like danah boyd have their fill, but whether it even makes sense to study something so ephemeral, something hot today, gone tomorrow.
"Frankly," sighs Liu, pondering the future of his studies, "the stage we're in is really a rough draft."