[Air-L] My letter to Monica Hesse at the Post (was: snide, , cute...)

Alex Halavais alex at halavais.net
Mon Dec 17 07:25:02 PST 2007

I guess I agree with Bill: it's bad, but it could have been worse.
It's hard not for the cheap retrenchment of stereotypical views of
academia not to chafe, but I'm sure people in other fields feel the
same way when they are covered. That said, three things are
particularly troubling:

First, there is an implicit criticism of our use of convoluted
language. I think it is not uncommon for academic language to be
unnecessarily complex, and so this is--broadly speaking--a fair
criticism. Some scholarly work could probably be improved with a dose
of journalistic writing. (This is not a veiled criticism of any single
writer, and certainly not any of those quoted in this article.) I
think we owe it to a wider public to write in a style that is as
accessible as possible.

But--and here's the rub--it should be as accessible as possible while
still remaining precise. The problem with dumbing down the language,
as journalists often do, is that it dumbs down the meaning as well. In
that regard, journalists could take a page out of our book; when it
comes to writing about complex issues, sometimes less isn't more. The
real problem that the article turns on is one that often comes up in
studying social phenomena: it seems strange to be so *serious* and use
such *big words* about something as "trivial" as Facebook. If it were
quantum physics, then sure, convoluted language would be expected, but
social stuff is easy! I think we probably play into this when we talk
to reporters because we try to simplify some of the issues to make
their work easier. Maybe we should be making a concerted effort to be
clear: the issues are complicated, and sometimes that is reflected in
the way we write. It's unfortunate that Hesse took the easy path in
this article, and played into the most obvious angle ("aren't
academics odd?") rather than the more interesting "what appears to be
just technological fashion might actually be a serious shift in how
society works."

Second, and as Barry already mentioned, she wrongly implies that
co-citation among a group of scholars in a topic area is unusual or
somehow incestuous, which belies a lack of understanding of how
scholarly communication works, and passes this lack of understanding
on to her readers.

Finally, I am very bothered by the use of an anonymous "professor" to
criticize the way danah works, both because it isn't clear whether the
person said this, and it isn't clear who that person is. All of us
should be open to criticism, and it's worth talking about how we
communicate research to our peers. If a professor actually said this
("don't print my name because the cliquishness of academia makes it
hard to criticize my peers publicly") , I don't think that he or she
represents the ideals of our community very well. I don't know where
the reporter hangs out, but "seething resentment" has never been an
emotion I have associated with the scholarly world. I get it; it's
journalism informed by MTV's "The Real World"--play up the conflict,
and if it isn't there, manufacture it. But this kind of writing is
more appropriate to the National Enquirer than it is to the Post.



On Dec 17, 2007 3:30 AM, Bill Herman <bherman at asc.upenn.edu> wrote:
> Two points stick out for me. First, while I agree this piece was
> definitely not up to snuff (the comment that all of us save danah have
> so little expertise that a reporter could exhaust it for a newspaper
> story is just laughable), I'm scared to say that it may be better than
> most of what the print world writes about the internet. For starters,
> she actually looked up and cited something from the internet, including
> the author's name--unjustified mockery notwithstanding.

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// Alexander C. Halavais
// Social Architect
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