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January 7, 2011

Tuesday 1st February

David Campbell

‘The new ecology of information: how social media challenges the university’

Note: in ETG10 (Ellen Terry Building)


This presentation surveys recent changes in media, brought on by developments in the World Wide Web, to consider their impact on established sources of information. Of particular concern is how the rise of social media – and the way in which all media have become social media – has dramatically altered the “new media skills” producers of information need to practice. The argument will set these concerns in the context of the challenge for the modern university, looking at the impact on both teaching and research. Given the prominence now being accorded “impact” in the audit of UK academic research, the presentation will consider what these “new media skills” might mean for the creation and circulation of critical work emanating from the university.



5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2011 8:03 pm

    Hi David,

    Thanks again for the talk yesterday – enjoyed it a lot. Very helpful.

    I just wanted to follow up on our discussion around openness, WikiLeaks etc. and try to clarify some of the things I was trying to say.

    Before I go any further, however, I should emphasize that I’m a long-term supporter of open access. Nevertheless, there are a couple of issues I would like to raise with regard to making research, information and data openly available online.

    The first point I would make is that, far from revealing any hitherto unknown, hidden, inaccessible or secret knowledge, most of the current discourse around openness and transparency is not very open or transparent at all. This is because, as Clare Birchall (who will be speaking to us on 1st March) shows, there’s an aporia at the heart of any claim to transparency: ‘For transparency to be known as transparency, there must be some agency (such as the media, say) that legitimises it as transparent, and because there is a legitimising agent which does not itself have to be transparent, there is a limit to transparency.’ In fact, the more transparency is claimed, the more the violence of the mediating agency of this transparency is concealed, forgotten or obscured. Birchall provides the example of ‘The Daily Telegraph and its exposure of MPs’ expenses during the summer of 2009. While appearing to act on the side of transparency, as a commercial enterprise the paper itself has in the past been subject to secret takeover bids and its former owner, Lord Conrad Black, convicted of fraud and obstructing justice.’

    Much the same can be said for the idea that making research and data accessible online to the public helps make society more open, free and democratic. Take Hilary Clinton’s idea that people in the US have free access to the internet and those in China and Iran don’t ( Yes, in the West we have a certain freedom to publish, link and search online. But unless you’re a large political or economic actor, or one of the lucky few, the statistics show that what you publish online is unlikely to get very much attention. As I was saying yesterday, one company, Google, has 65 % of the world’s search market, and almost 90 per cent in the UK – a degree of domination that has led the EU to investigate Google for abusing its power to favour its own products while suppressing those of rivals. Meanwhile, Matthew Hindman notes in The Myth of Digital Democracy that just ‘three companies – Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft – handle 95 percent of all search queries’; while ‘for searches containing the name of a specific political organisation, Yahoo! and Google agree on the top result 90 percent of the time’.

    It’s important to be aware of things like this when talking about the future of the university in an age of social media, I think, because, as Siva Vaidhyanathan makes clear:

    ‘Commercial Internet search services dominate students’ information-seeking strategies, note two user studies conducted in the United Kingdom. The studies found that 45 percent of students choose Google as their prime search technology. Only ten percent made the university library catalogue their first choice. Students cited “ease of use” to justify their choice of a Web search engine over more stable, refined search technologies. They also expressed satisfaction with the results of the searches done with these search engines.
    These results are not surprising. But one conclusion should trouble anyone concerned about the influence of Google on the information skills of university students: “Students’ use of [search engines] now influences their perception and expectations of other electronic resources.” Higher-quality search resources and collections are unlikely to attract students—and will frustrate students who stumble upon them—unless they replicate the reductive simplicity and cleanliness of Google’s interface.

    But it’s also important to be aware of the above described myth concerning digital democracy because conventional internet search engines such as Google reach only an extremely small percentage of the total number of available web pages. Michael K. Bergman was at one point placing the figure at 0.03% or ‘one in 3,000’, with ‘public information on the deep Web’ being ‘400 to 550 times larger than the commonly defined World Wide Web’. What this means is that, while ‘a full ninety-five per cent of the deep Web is publicly accessible information’, according to Bergman – ‘not subject to fees or subscriptions’ – by far the vast majority of it is left untouched (;view=text;rgn=main;idno=3336451.0007.104).

    So we can put ever more information and data online, we can make it freely available to under open access and open data conditions, we can even index and link it using the appropriate metadata to enable it to be searched with relative ease – but none of this means it’s actually going to be found. To think otherwise is to overlook the fact that all information and data is ordered, structured, selected and framed; and the way in which this state of affairs produces (rather than merely passively reflects) what’s understood as information and data—and just as importantly, what’s not.

    My second point concerns the shift you talked about from a one-to-many broadcast model of media communication to the many-to-many model associated with social media. Before we can associate such a shift with greater freedom and democracy, I wonder if we don’t need to locate it – and an operation such as WikiLeaks – in a context where, as ‘Bifo’ et al put it in Etheral Shadows (and I’m an advocate of open access, remember), the ‘main concern’ may no longer be ‘one of open access’:

    ‘The problem today is no longer one of freedom of expression, but perhaps its exact opposite: the right to silence. We no longer suffer from what was once upon a time called censorship; to the contrary, we suffer from the uninterrupted flow of stimuli that we are less and less able to decipher critically…
    The former systems were founded on consent: citizens had to understand the reasons of their leader; a single source of information was authorized; dissenting voices were censored. The contemporary info-dictatorship owes its power to sensory overload: the acceleration and proliferation of the semiotic flows reach a terminal velocity where only white noise is left; all content is lost in myriad indistinguishable, indecipherable or irrelevant messages.’

    So, for them at least, it’s not so much that there’s a lack of information. It’s that there’s too much information – too much white noise. Or as Deleuze and Guattari insist in What is Philosophy?: ‘We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it’. What we actually lack is creation. ‘We lack resistance to the present’.

  2. February 7, 2011 4:24 pm

    Thanks for the wide-ranging comments Gary. They highlight a number of issues that can’t be readily resolved, but I will offer some thoughts in response to clarify the purpose and scope of my talk in relation to your themes.

    Overall I would say I had rather modest ambitions in the talk, and for someone like you who is well versed in the debates around open access and the academy it no doubt covered familiar ground. The purpose, for those not so familiar, was to connect themes involving the circulation of information from the crises of contemporary journalism to the current upheavals in higher education, especially in the UK.

    Let me offer some thoughts on what I take to be your main points:

    You begin with the notion that ‘the current discourse around openness and transparency is not very open or transparent at all’ because what counts as transparent is embedded in a set of discourses or institutions. I would agree with that, but don’t think I was operating with a grand assumption about the purity of transparency as a governing concept. I general I think that it would be naïve to argue that there are spaces, places or ideas in which relations of power don’t compromise some ideal, and “transparency” would be no different in that regard. That said, is transparency, even as a flawed ideal, not better than its reverse? The expenses scandal is an interesting case – it emerged from the investigative journalism of an independent freedom of information campaigner, Heather Brooke, and was then effectively purchased by the Telegraph and embraced by other papers like The Guardian. It was therefore clearly an event deeply implicated in a set of economic and political relations, but does that compromise all the social value from the issues exposed? I don’t think so.

    Running through your comments is the idea that there is – presumably in my talk, or related arguments – an assumed link between “the idea that making research and data accessible online to the public helps make society more open, free and democratic.” I don’t recall making that claim or operating with that assumption, having also referenced the Hindman book you cite to qualify that possible interpretation. Overall I am very skeptical of arguments that automatically link open markets or open information with democracy and freedom.

    In this sense I had much more limited aims – I was talking about the simple principle of research being more accessible as a result of leveraging social media and its communicative and collaborative potential, where ‘more accessible’ is in relation to traditional forms of academic publishing via journals and monographs. I think there is a general public good to be had through such relative openness, but what form that good takes politically is not something determined by the fact of relative openness.

    The points you make about search and the deep web are important and deserve more thought. It is well worth being reminded that neither the Internet nor the web is a totally and permanently open system given the commercial interests that structure our access in various ways. That said, I am surprised by your statement that ‘the statistics show that what you publish online is unlikely to get very much attention.’ I’d be interested in knowing more about that data. I guess there will be issues around how and where you publish, and what is meant by attention. But just form my personal experience I know that I get far more attention for what I write by publishing on my own web site and blog, which are then linked to various social media channels and conversations. I even show up in Google quite regularly and reasonably prominently on some issues! That doesn’t diminish the issues around search, but I have little doubt that by being on the web and searchable I am far more likely to be found than had I remained in the orbit of traditional academic publishing.

    Your final point is interesting, but not having read Ethereal Shadows my response will be limited. Again, though, I don’t believe I was claiming that any transition from broadcast to engagement because of social media is automatically linked to “greater freedom and democracy.” It might be a part of making that possible, but it neither ensures that outcome nor inoculates us against the negative deployment of social media. Are contemporary options best posed as freedom of expression versus the right to silence? Isn’t it problematic to say that we no longer suffer from censorship? Even if we think that there is too much information (something I doubt), isn’t the better response to develop our critical skills rather than hope the flow can be shut out. And what if information and creativity are linked rather than opposed?

  3. February 13, 2011 3:46 pm


    Thanks for the generous and thoughtful reply. It’s very helpful in that it puts a lot of what you were saying in your talk into context for me.

    I wonder, have you seen Michael Wesch’s very positive and in its own way quite inspiring recent video on ‘Rethinking Education’?

    I mention it here because I know quite a few of us in the Open Media Group are engaging with some of the issues you were talking about in relation to the university – albeit in our own media and cultural studies/critical theory kind of way.

    Regarding my point about much of the web still operating as a broadcast model, and the difficulty of getting much attention online, comparatively speaking. I hear what you are saying. Still, this recent piece on the difficulties some media producers are experiencing with YouTube is interesting in this respect:

    Aymar Jean Christian, ‘The Problem of YouTube’, Flow: A Critical Forum on Television and Media Culture, Volume 13, Issue 8

    Thanks again for both your talk and subsequent comments. Appreciate it.

  4. February 14, 2011 9:58 am

    Gary; yes, I know Michael Wesch’s various essays and videos and think they raise fundamental questions in interesting ways. They are worth contrasting to the impoverished debate in UK higher education these days, where the response to rising fees is only ever thought of in terms of increasing “contact hours” for students. That discourse demonstrates a criminally negligent lack of imagination about the nature of education and pedagogy that Wesch effectively explores. Thanks for the reference, I’ll look forward to reading that.


  1. Open Media Research Seminar Series « OPEN REFLECTIONS

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