Tuesday, March 26, 2013

(the social layers)

Recently I argued that college students are learning and writing in a mind-boggling range of genres, including electronic genres, and that these include "an increasing number of social layers on top of their work, leisure, and family genres." True. But let's drill deeper into this notion of social layers.

What social layers? Consider this experience, which I reported to someone earlier today in an email:

When I was working on my PhD (1994-1999), we knew almost nothing about grad students in other programs. We would see them once a year, at CCCC, and we would eye them like the Jets eyed the Sharks. They were competitors. Now, grad students in different programs are all Facebook and Twitter friends. 
The difference is that social networking made it a lot easier for people to network with each other—networking became cheaper, easier, and more quotidian. Collaborative writing software such as Google Docs has similarly lowered the barrier to scholarly collaboration across time and distance. And mobile phones have meant a terminal in your pocket—collaboration can happen anywhere. So we see a shift from closed, institutional structures to open, networked ones. This change is happening in academia, of course (we’re prime candidates for using these technologies), but also in most other aspects of our society.
Social networking provides a social layer that connects today's grad students, both within their own institution and across institutions. Other publicly available online services such as Google Docs, Basecamp, and Facebook allow teams to collaborate, coordinate, and communicate easily—once again, both within an organization and across organizational barriers. In fact, we're seeing an increasing number of studies examining how these additional layers affect work. These change how we work, but also how we intuit each other's moods and availability, how we see each other's contextual activity, and how we manage collaborative complexity. They even change how we structure our organizations, making it feasible to make them smaller, nimbler, flatter, and more distributed. They provide an always-on switchboard for working groups.

That doesn't mean that this social layer is unproblematic. It can be very problematic. But it's pervasive, and it's going to continue to have a big impact on how we do business.


Unknown said...

This may be me remembering through the lens of whatever the opposite of rose-colored glasses are, but I seem to remember CCCC in the late 90s being a lot more pack-social -- because we only saw folks from other schools once a year, we hung out a lot more with our own crews, and eyed folks from other places warily.

Now, it feels much more like a giant tweet-up, in that folks who are used to interacting with each other online meet in person for the first (or 2nd or 3rd) time.

Of course, I have nothing but anecdote to support this, and even that's flawed, because I'm certainly not in the same place now than I was back then. But I share your sense that these various platforms have already transformed the social ecologies of academia, and probably will even further...


Clay Spinuzzi said...

Oh, I think so too. Social media allow us to cluster in different ways.

Relevant: I recently finished reading, and have not been able to blog about, Weiner's recent book The Rule of the Clan. Weiner takes a fairly Lamarckian approach to societal evolution, arguing that societies develop from simple clan structures to more complex, modern ones, and he warns that when the State is weak, societies can devolve back into clans.

At one point, he argues that (small-L) liberals "can encourage the transformation of the constitutional structure of clan societies by helping the people of those societies gain access to the global information system, thus fostering a transformation from kinship to social networks." This is a problematic argument when we're talking about transforming societies (it starts sounding a lot like colonialism). But writ small, I think it gets at what happened at CCCC in 1990s vs 2010s: people started forming affinity groups across institutions rather than within them. So, for instance, a grad student who researches genre might begin interacting more frequently with her affinity group (genre scholars) than with the Milton scholar down the hall.

Unknown said...

Interesting. Maybe I'll pick that up. I'd be interested in reading it across something like Abbott's Chaos of Disciplines, which definitely treats the intellectual layer(s) as primary (or more primary, anyway) than the social.

On a related but separate note, I wonder if part of the unease I feel about CCCC nowadays is that it's still built to bridge the gaps among institutions and for newcomers in ways that are now done quicker and better by social media. Not that there isn't still value in the conference, but maybe that it's now a different value than what we've assumed for a long time? This feels both obvious and difficult to pin down or verify to me... :)


Clay Spinuzzi said...

Never thought about it, but that makes total sense. I gotta find another conference.