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About Facebook! Forward March!

Scholars Are Falling Into Line to Maneuver Through New Territory: Online Socializing as Academic Discipline

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 16, 2007; Page M05

First to Facebook were the teens. Then came the money, the market researchers and the media. And now come . . . the academics.

In the last six months, Rochester Institute of Technology scored $150,000 from the National Science Foundation to develop courses in computer-based social networking, Cornell got $2 million for research, and the University of Michigan added a "social computing" concentration to its School of Information. You can now major in MySpace, sort of.


PhD candidate danah boyd has emerged as a leader in the study of social networks such as Facebook, MySpace and Friendster.
PhD candidate danah boyd has emerged as a leader in the study of social networks such as Facebook, MySpace and Friendster. (By Adam Tinworth)
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The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication dedicates its current issue to social networking sites, and contains articles with titles such as "Cying for Me, Cying for Us: Relational Dialectics in a Korean Social Network Site" (referring to Cyworld, the Facebook of Korea).

The race is on -- to an extremely obscure wing of the ivory tower. Who will own the study of the social networking sites? Is it computer science or behavioral science? Is it neuropsychology or artificial intelligence? PhDs around the country are trying to figure out, in their esoteric and socially awkward way, how to get in while the getting's good.

Let the theorizing begin.

Spend enough time talking Facebook with eager professors, and eventually you will reach the end of their expertise. And then they will say, in voices tinged with resignation, "Have you considered talking to danah boyd?"

Ah, danah boyd, such an early adopter of the no-shift-key lifestyle that she uncapped herself. She is a celebrademic, the high priestess of social networking. Still a grad student, she receives 40 to 50 interview requests per week, she says. A bureau handles her speaking engagements. She once employed an admin to sort her e-mail. She's done consulting for Yahoo and Google.

Her ascent began in 2002 when at 24 she started blogging about the newly launched Friendster. She had an undergrad degree from Brown and a master's from MIT's Media Lab when Berkeley came calling; boyd enrolled in the communications PhD program. Her late adviser, she says, "told me, 'I don't understand what you're doing, but I think it's really important.' "

Whenever anyone needed an expert on social networking, he was sent to danah boyd because danah boyd was pretty much it.

Which led, not surprisingly, to the most academic of emotions: seething resentment.

"Danah has really benefited in terms of being one of the first people on this," says a professor who asked to speak anonymously, citing professorial cliques and cattiness. "But not all of her work is through peer-reviewed outlets," the standard by which academics vet research. Now, the professor says, it's more like: boyd posts blog entry; blog entry becomes "scholarship."

"I get some really nasty e-mails from tenured professors who think the way I'm doing my research is irresponsible," boyd says. She says she received death threats after she blogged about class differences between MySpace and Facebook users. One person analyzed published photographs of boyd to inform her that she "looked like a cutter." (Her look is riot grrrl/boho, with arm warmers and funky glasses.) She doesn't name names.


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