I have always had the most positive experiences connected to “the Academia”. I was raised to respect science and the high arts, and enjoyed studying the theories and symbolic structures behind our expressions of selves. And so last week I attended the Sixth International Conference Weblogs and Social Media in Dublin to go beyond what I do with tech for social change every day, and to see how humanities are catching up with science. And I found myself disappointed.
It is a good and important question. I (would) like to understand the reasons behind doing things. And I didn’t have a clue why the presenting academics chose their particular research topics. Because technology is hot and sexy? Because we need to be innovative? Because we don’t know how to understand technologies so it is better to start with whatever?
To give you a little bit of context, let’s say I am analyzing English language Tweets about food from the Netherlands. I’d like to think that I know why I have chosen this particular study group, and what value can conclusions drawn from my study have. I have some kind of a “vision” there, I know what I am doing, and I can convince others that it is worth it. And if I am studying ways in which we could extract people’s grief expressions on their dead friends’ profiles on Myspace, I did start with asking myself: what am I doing it for? Now I know and am able to share the answer.
The World Does Not Fit Into a Tweet
I am very interested in what we can learn from social media. That is true: we have never had that much access to what people are saying and how they interact. It has never been so tangible either. Again, many conference presenters saw the potential of the so-called Big Data,. Very little did they do though, to understand what it really says and what it can be useful for. Most social media data that researchers analyse is in English language only, which significantly limits potential research conclusions and eliminates many cultural layers of a research. So does the analysed medium itself -- there ARE people who do not use particular social media channels or (even!) Internet at all. Social media can help us understand the world. They can change it too. But the world is always there, as a point of reference, and as something that should remain our focus.
New technologies are changing the world, and influencing the way people think, talk, listen and “are”. These tools partly define our perception: the way we absorb, share, the way we learn. They change the way we study.
There is much to be said about the need for the traditional educational models to be reviewed. Some institutions chose to face the challenge and, like MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), decide to open their Academia doors for collaborative work, experiments and discoveries. School really has to try even harder to be cool (and innovative) these days. Otherwise, it will lose its entire relevance, and the capacity to help us understand the world better.