It is disappointing to find someone of the caliber of Loïc Wacquant getting so sloppy and lazily going with the common trope that social media platforms are debased forms of communication and interaction in the June 2012 issue of Philosophie Magazine (thanks to my Twitter colleague Enklask for a copy of the interview). The interview is in French, so, I’ll give a rough translation as it is very brief and revolves around three questions. My comments will be in blue:
1. In what ways is the short format detrimental to thought, comprehension, and argumentation?
Wacquant argues that the short format is an invitation to intellectual laziness as it promotes soundbites with no depth and whose content is simplistic and superficial. To communicate in 140 characters about everything and anything, all the time, as is now fashionable, is not the same as articulating one’s thought. To tweet is to wrap oneself into an immediate present, without reflexion, perspective or nuance, and without ever examining the complexity of an object.
Ok, frankly, this sounds a lot like your elderly next door neighbor telling kids to get off his lawn and this falls into the familiar trope of creating hierarchies of thought and interaction according to standards that are never disclosed and examined themselves (which, in the case of a Bourdieusian scholar, is quite ironic). These hierarchies, of course, privilege, and declare true and authentic, privileged modes of communication (acquired through the proper habitus and the proper education) based on dominant cultural capital.
To assume and use such hierarchies is an act of power in claiming one’s practice as the one deep, true, and authentic form of communication and interaction and thought and to dismiss others as superficial, unsophisticated, simplistic and whichever other expressions of social contempt are relevant in the context.
I am quite sure that we could easily find examples, years back, of people deploring the superficial nature of telephonic communication over the written letter and its depth and perspective, as opposed to the immediacy of the phone conversation. So now, Twitter is the new culprit, the new superficial communication mode that debases and damages true communication and interaction. This goes along with the now-common trope of treating virtual communication through a variety of platforms as debased version of the one true and authentic form of interaction: the face-to-face encounter.
This hierarchization completely fails to examine different media in themselves. Who decided Twitter should be about in-depth philosophical examination? Why should it be? One thing that does get done on Twitter is to exchange links to a variety of other materials that do get in-depth and that might go unnoticed by a lot of people if short links did not circulate on social media platforms (like this interview, which I would not have heard of if it weren’t for Twitter… this blog post will be posted on Twitter as well, therefore giving this topic a second layer of circulation and potential discussion and maybe more).
These social media platforms are quite diverse (blogs, Facebook, Tumblr, Posterous, aggregators such as Reddit, etc.) and are used differently by a variety of users for their own purposes. One does not need to be a full-fledged cyber-utopian to recognize the multiplicity of uses for all these media.
2. Why is it that thinking requires space and time for its full deployment?
Thinking is not an individual, instantaneous and solitary, activity. It is collective. As Gaston Bachelard argues in The Formation of The Scientific Mind, thinking is the product of a community of minds in communication with each other. It is the product of a “cogitamus” (“we think”) that needs space to expand and time to mature.
Thinking then deepens by piercing the crust of appearances and questioning the doxic reasoning. Or to break with common sense specific to a specific scholastic universe (philosophical, sociological, theological, or literary, etc.) requires tenacity and effort. Wittgenstein noted in Remarques mélées that with thought, “there is a time to plow and a time to reap”. Both activities require time.
I hope I am not the only one to see a glaring irony here because I think that is one thing that tools like Twitter (and yes, it’s a tool, it does not produce content, it spreads it throughout networks) do well is to connect individual and create communities of minds organized in flexible and informal networks (rather than rigid scholastic and academic communities bound by strict rules of tenure and “publish and perish” in specific closed publications, with blind and anonymous reviews that may very well stifle rather than promote communities of minds).
More than that, social media platforms have a very low price of entry so participation is not drastically confined to academic elites. I would tend to think it’s a good thing. I am not sure how many members of the academic elite fully engage with Twitter (Saskia Sassen is intermittently on). In my limited knowledge, I can only name Barry Wellman (which is not a big surprise considering his field of expertise). Maybe there are others. But the point is academia, as a community of scholars, has a strict hierarchy (and it is in display in all its aristocratic glory at every major academic conference) that might get shaken up by social networking. And maybe that is part of where the issue is: the leveling effect of social networking platform where one’s academic titles might not receive the respect and deference holders might think they are entitled to. Hence, the trashing of the medium as superficial, simplistic, etc.
This argument have been thrown at Twitter and blogs by journalists for years. That was a weak argument then, and it is still weak now. Nathan Jurgenson has called this argument digital dualism: the claimed (but never examined) superiority of jounalism / academic discourse / (name your preferred mode of communication, especially if it is f2f, long form, etc.) over electronic forms of communication.
3. Is the dominance of the short format inevitable? Are we leaving the era of the grand systems, in philosophy, in sociology, and the corresponding monumental work that accompanied it?
When did the tweet proclaiming this so-called “dominance” as ephemeral as it is fictive appear? In the long term, the short format fills the empty spaces of the day and the interstices of intellectual communication. It is a means of entertainment, not thought. Who remembers a tweet three hours after it’s been sent? What is left of a chat the day after its posting? What is the worth of all the editorials of the 10 currently most fashionable philosophers compared the 800 pages of Bourdieu’s lectures at the College de France, which are the products of a multiform thinking on symbolic power over the past thirty years. The more “philosophical tweeting” spreads, the more necessary great works are as antidote to against fleeting illusions of the “thought-a-minute”.
Ok, nice example of a category mistake or comparing apples to oranges. Twitter does not produce content, it spreads it, as I mentioned above. I would argue that the rise of the network society has not abolished the need and relevance of major works, as the work of Castells and many, many others continues to show. It takes serious blinders to ignore all the work done in that field.
The thing is it is not an either/or dualism. We need the great works of academics, produced the old-fashioned academic way, and we need to flexibility, speed and platform diversity of social networking tools to spread that work as far and wide as we can. I think academic who maintain a blase attitude towards them are fighting a losing and needless battle. What are the chances of anybody reading Bourdieu’s 800 pages of lecture beyond a small population of academic? There has to be a better way to diffuse Bourdieu’s work, no? Or are we to sneer at whoever has not read the whole body of work? And by the way, someone using Pierre Bourdieu’s handle on Twitter is doing the work of aggregating resources in all sorts of formats, creating an invaluable collection.
And no one gives fashionable media figures and pseudo-intellectuals a harder time than the Twitter crowd, thereby challenging the dominant doxa. Frankly, what Wacquant spews out in this interview is the most tired clichés about social media platforms, commonly spread in the mainstream media, by elite media figures (remember that piece on how Facebook makes us lonely in the Atlantic?). Wacquant is not challenging some dominant media form here, he is defending the status quo and the dominant doxa.