Academics in the public sphere: A gentle wake-up call

This post will look at two key and current issues to do with online social networks, assess what impacts such developments have on the academic community, and question why such developments are increasingly met with resounding silence from academics.

Let’s start off with the issues. First, the recently emerging trends of changing demographics of social networks; and second, the UK government’s proposal to monitor social networks for possible terrorist or ‘anti-social’ activities.

Recent research into Facebook’s membership reveals that the number of Americans over the ages of 35, 45, and 55 is rapidly growing. Over the last 2 months alone, the number of people over 35 joining Facebook has nearly doubled. It would not be extrapolating too far to suggest that as a result, more academic practitioners (in the age-group 35 to 55, and over) are also increasingly participating in social networks.

Though this data-set looks only at American users, the changing demographics on any established social network presents a challenge for developers and marketers to think about how to best serve/target such groups of new users, wherever in the world they might be.

In the same vein, such shifting demographics presents renewed possibilities too – for academic institutions and employers providing lifelong or work-based learning opportunities – to tap into this trend and perhaps enhance what they offer and how they offer it.

Yet a naysayer would suggest that learners do really want to keep their work and social lives separate and that they do not want to be always available to their lecturers or bombarded with academic information on their social networks. Employers, on the other hand, are so aghast at the so called ‘wastage’ of £130 million per day that they are rushing to ban staff from logging on to social networks.

Considering that social networks are here to stay and that learner-preference for technology is rapidly changing, does a middle ground exist – which could benefit both sides? As well as it might, most academics do not seem prepared to venture an informed opinion on such matters without resorting to the clichés of ‘it needs further investigation’ or ‘we need more funding to look into it’.

Have we stopped seeing what is staring us in the face? Or are we too caught up in the ivory towers of our disciplinary specifics to take cognizance of changing technological times and react to it? The silence of informed voices from members of the academic community on issues of current import is indeed deafening. Have academics and public intellectuals ceded the forum for ideas and debate to the state and to those willing to campaign for/against the state?  

Most of us watched, heard, read and surfed in silence while the media was abuzz with alarm earlier this week, over the UK Government’s plans to monitor all conversations on social networking sites – including Facebook, MySpace, Bebo and Twitter as well as internet calls on Skype – in an attempt to crackdown on terror.

The government argues that in view of a clear and present terrorist threat, there is a need to monitor all manner of communication technologies, which terrorists – like the rest of us – have easy and unbridled access too.

But when the justification for this is provided by organizations like the Federation of American Scientists on the lines of – “Twitter has also become a social activism tool for socialists, human rights groups, communists, vegetarians, anarchists, religious communities, atheists, political enthusiasts, hacktivists and others to communicate with each other and to send messages to broader audiences” – it begins to infringe on freedoms as we know it.

Campaigners like Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights group Liberty, claim that the widespread use of social networking websites “highlights the enormity of government ambitions for the surveillance of the entire population … Technological development is used as an excuse for centralized snooping of a kind that ought never to be acceptable in the oldest unbroken democracy on earth.”

The academic community is still considered a part of the public sphere where opinions, however contrarian and in opposition to the mainstream, can be freely aired in the spirit of debate, and dissention is not frowned upon. Yet within it there is hesitancy and inertia in embracing the tools of online communication that facilitate such debate and dissention in ways that have not been tried before.

There very few academics ready to raise voices against such proposals anymore – not only via formal and distilled communication channels like the mass media, but not even on the more informal and opinionated routes like the ‘blogsphere’. 

If academia is to remain the custodian and nurturer of ideas, we need to make our voices heard, not just on the matters that impact us directly but also on issues that affect the wider community. And we need to do this by stepping beyond our usual routes of dissemination, by embracing the technologies that give us newer audiences and platforms, which are perhaps more questioning and resistant, but also in need of informed opinion that enriches the debate.

This is not a call to arms.

It is a lament for what we are missing out on and a wake up call that we might just want to heed before the opportunity passes us by.

Over to you!


– Jaideep Mukherjee, 27 March 2009

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