Introduction: Face/book/net/work: Social Networking and the Humanities

Article excerpt

As I write this, my faculty's email server has just recovered from a day-long outage that sent my immediate network of colleagues into more than a bit of a tizzy. In the midst of a hectic teaching term, with grant applications and reference letters due, not to mention the usual busyness of academic life, most of us found it pretty hard to cope with even a brief interruption in our lines of communication. For many, the immediate recourse--not surprisingly--was to Facebook, where we could not only commiserate (and commiserate we did!) but could also share important bits of information that would allow us to get on with our day. That almost automatic recourse to Facebook suggests just how ubiquitous social networking technology has become in the academic world, but it also invites speculation about the kind of work that gets done in such spaces, or at least the kind of work that might get done in such spaces, to our collective advantage.

Humanities researchers and educators have long recognized the value of social networking: conferences, disciplinary associations, and face-to-face collaborative enterprise of all sorts have given shape to a field of knowledge production and dissemination that relies heavily on forms of exchange that exceed the limited boundaries of the journal article or monograph. Sociability, furthermore, is recognized as an important counterpoint to the often solitary life of scholarly endeavour. In recent years, digital technologies have made way for a new range of practices (such as blogs, wikis, crowd-sourced review, open access journals, self-archiving, podcasting, remote conferencing, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Academia. edu, LinkedIn, and more localized online research consortiums) that might be seen to have dramatically altered the dynamics of intellectual activity in the humanities. For better or for worse, the social parameters of scholarship have shifted.

Or have they? The following commentators are by no means in agreement on that point. Esc invited five accomplished scholars, from different stages of career and from various disciplinary vantage points, to consider not only the personal and professional benefits and costs of such technological innovations, but also the fundamental principles that inform how humanities scholars interact with each other and to what end. (1) How, we asked, do digital technologies reconfigure the social dimension of academic relationships, and how do traditional practices find their analogues in an online environment? What have we gained, and what might we happily anticipate? What have we lost, and what are we in danger of losing? While there was some agreement that humanities scholarship has always been about social networking, at least one of our contributors maintains a hard line that the social parameters of scholarship have changed not at all under the sway of new technologies, although academics might well benefit from such change. Another contends that, indeed, scholarship has yet to be socialized in a way that new media technologies might dramatically make possible, while a third notes the ways in which incremental, halting shifts are very much underway. …