Social software will not be important for academics. This suggests that Friendster-utility (the degree to which Friendster reveals previously unknown, useful connections between people) could serve as a measure of a community or field’s vitality and openness.
I was struck by an argument Joi Ito made a couple days ago:
I was recently at an advisory board meeting for a trade school. We had just done a survey of employers asking for what they their primary criteria for choosing new employees was and it was overwhelmingly about execution and character and very little about skills. Skills, they said, could be taught later. I believe that “character” in the context of a job is your self-esteem and your passion for what you are doing.
What I would like to assert is that social software can help people with their self-esteem and can also help you find others who can find your assets and interests more valuable and place people in jobs where one can have “character”….
What I can see emerging is a way to amplify the strength of weak ties. (I knew this before, but it’s becoming more crisp to me now.) IRC allows me to see the style and personality of many of the people online. Blogs help me see what their interests are and focus is. LinkedIn provides a professional context for referrals. I think that supporting the process of developing your assets and character and finding a job that best suits you will be one of the single most important benefits of social software.
It’s an intriguing idea. I wonder how true it’ll be? Or more precisely, how true it’ll be in different professional contexts? For example, will it matter in the academic job market?
At a micro-level, it might: graduate students who blog might find that they have higher professional profiles than those who don’t, and perhaps have become more fluid, faster writers. But at a macro level, I suspect it won’t.
Here’s why. The premise behind social software is that you don’t know all the people who you should, who would be interested in you and your work, who could be useful to you, or who you could be useful to. The world is a big, complex place, and social software helps you establish a more visible, easier-to-find identity in it.
But most of academic life proceeds on the assumption that you already DO know everyone you need to know. The indices of social and professional status are very well-understood: they’re pedigree, publications, public performance, and buzz. As a graduate student, your identity gets defined by where you’re doing your Ph.D., who you’re working with, what you’re working on, and a general sense of how good your work is. Academics reduce each other to one-liners the way Hollywood reduces movies to one-liners: being, say, a “Princeton cultural historian of 17th century French stonemasons” is very different than being a “Berkeley social historian of 17th century German bricklayers,” and each of those phrases carries as much depth to insiders as “it’s ‘Top Gun’ meets ‘Birth of a Nation'” would to Tinseltown producers. Put the entire history of science community on Friendster and you wouldn’t have any surprises: you already know who you’re connected to, and how, and how valuable those connections are. Academics don’t need social software any more than Jane Austen’s country gentlemen: they live in a small world that’s already very efficiently sorted and classified its members.
Perhaps there’s some kind of social law here: The vitality and future promise of a community can be measured by the (square of the?) degree to which Friendster would be useful to it.
I’ve long been interested in the differences between academic and non-academic worlds. Now that I think about it, the varying degree to which they’re Friendster-friendly strikes me as a very significant difference.