John McCreery transferred a discussion, Social Networks Decay Quickly -- OAC?, from the OAC Facebook page to the Blogs section below. It seems appropriate, especially given the current stagnation of the main Forum, to transfer it here. Visit the blog post and Facebook for the discussion so far, from which I have extracted my own response as a link. Then let us know what you think.
John's introduction goes as follows:
On OAC Facebook, Keith Hart points us to Diego Basch's blog "Social Networks Implode Quickly" and asks if its conclusions apply to OAC. Here I will briefly summarize the argument and offer a few thoughts along the way.
There is always a lull in OAC activity in August/early September. This year I have been less omnipresent, you more so, John. It isn't really a question of deciding whether or not to contribute personally. Any organization needs creative input from people committed to the infrastructure and its purposes. This takes serious reflection on social media and constructive engagement with one of them over an extended period of time. Above all it takes enthusiasm and concentrated hard work.
The OAC is designed to allow small initiatives to flourish with minimal intervention. These tend not to last, but they do animate the network occasionally and provide variety. Moreover, they are never removed, so anyone can revive a thread when they feel like it. Lots more can passively explore the archive which is rich in images as well as discourse. Fran and I know that a lot more could be done to make navigation of the site easier, but it is unrewarding work and we lack helpers.
There are some recurrent highlights, of which the online seminar series is outstanding. Huon, Justin and I have lined up some fascinating papers and the first, by Ted Fischer on the good life, kicks off later this month. There are other experiments which wax and wane, just as the few active participants do.
I still think of this time in the OAC's history as a fallow period. There is enormous potential to do things here and remarkably little restriction on members' initiatives. Most of our membership appears to be dormant, but we can reach a large portion of them directly if we want to. There is no point in doing so unless a group of dedicated activists is ready to rethink priorities and sustain any momentum. All it takes is for a handful of friends to work together on a reasonably consistent basis. That is how the OAC was launched and there is plenty of room for interested newcomers.
In her reply to the OAC Facebook thread, Kate mentioned the history of Livejournal, a social site that lost members but reinvented itself. That sort of thing doesn't happen without a committed team of instigators. There is nothing to stop the OAC evolving through several lives.
Our strength at present may be perceived as a weakness. We lack a coherent message and committed central directorate. In their absence, small pockets of individuality and conversational exchange come and go. Well, they may not remain active, but they do stick around. We are genuinely open and we do provide a unique medium to express interest in anthropology, but we are not yet cooperative. These are early days. The OAC is not going away. Nor am I, but I may take more of a back seat.
William Gibson has this to say in a recent Wired interview:
A friend recently tweeted something to the effect that he was once again trying to get into Facebook but he said, “It’s like Twitter but with mandatory homework.” That might be another good way to describe it. With Twitter you’re just there; everybody else is just there. And its appeal to me is the lack of structure and the lack of — there’s this kind of democratization that I think is absent with more structured forms of social media. But that’s actually way more abstract and theoretical than I usually get with these things. (Emphasis added).
It isn't easy to strike a balance between just being there and having to do homework. But maybe being democratically accessible and underused is not terrible. Circumstances change and sometimes people give a bit more of themselves to a common enterprise they believe in.
Keith, thanks for this. Before anything else, I have to say that you made a good point about September stagnation, which for easily understood reasons seems to affect all sorts of academic lists.
I would also like to offer an off-the-cuff suggestion to the administrators. Consider more effective use of "oldies but goodies," by which I mean posts that evoked strong responses or started interesting discussions a year or more ago. I have noticed that the American politics blog DailyKos now does this, and the reminders of what we were talking about a year ago, in contrast to the current hot topics in the 24-hour news cycle, is fascinating. Practically speaking, what I am talking about is a filtered archive of interesting material from which oldies but goodies are picked up and displayed in a special spot on the top page. The DailyKos approach, keyed to dates, is one possible approach. Another might be to go random, so that every time someone visits the site this material changes.
The important thing to remember is that what may seem been-there-done-that to old hands may still be fresh and exciting to newcomers, and perennial issues are, as Edward Said once observed, what keep academic endeavors alive.
Some good points in this article, at least for thinking about a historiography of social networking sites. But then there are significant differences between social networks and academic networks, much of which have to do with return on time investment, volunteer labor and long-term objectives, not to mention power relations and status hierarchies that carry over from the academic world. Much of activity on the social web need not concern itself with aims, intentions or long-term goals. It's easy. It can keep ticking over until boredom or newness - whichever comes first - force change. Academic networks don't work exactly the same way. The OAC mixes both together, which may contribute to an identity crisis of sorts.
I don't agree with all the points made in the article about Facebook vs. Twitter. I actually think that Twitter is, on the whole, more active and powerful than Facebook. Facebook's modus operandi is outdated, the layout and structure muddled, its features are restrictive and its policies are confusing. Sure, for most users, a lot of this is irrelevant. Even Apple can convince people its products are inherently usable, which is patently untrue. Yet both of these companies are successful by closing off their markets and thereby normalizing clumsy technology and unintuitive interfaces. Twitter not so much. But I digress ...
There are probably more dead blogs on the internet than active ones. There are at least 83 million fake, unused or inactive Facebook accounts. I have emails that lapsed into oblivion over the years, websites that expired, and domains I never renewed. Is there any technology online that is not subject to simply running its course? This post, Why Are There So Many Dead Blogs, does a pretty good job of noting all the simple human factors involved. It's not only the technology that determines what network lives or dies.
Playing around on Twitter and/or keeping in touch with family on Facebook are not analogous to activity at the OAC. The first is fleeting and impermanent. The second is personal and intimate. The latter takes more time commitment, at least some critical thought, and the expectation of some kind of pointed exchange or response over time. We've tried to add site features that lower the barrier to participation (share buttons, twitter tab, RSS), but the returns on this are also quite low. The content that is uploaded without the requirement of reciprocity or response (e.g. "sharing a video", "liking" something, "listing an event"), is really incidental to any wider successes here, or so it would seem.
The more significant products of the OAC's concerted efforts - namely the Press - require investments of time and energy. They attract participants because they fit longstanding academic value models. Academics change slowly even if we'd like to think that new modes of communication make a qualitative difference to how we live and work. Hence why email has not imploded as the means for transmitting academic information. Mailing lists are still popular because they are semi-closed/private and simple. They do one useful thing well enough to stick around. In early OAC days, Twitter was a big deal for us: a real paradigm shift that led to the OAC's development in the first place. Today, no one seems that bothered to engage on Twitter. Perhaps that is a failure on our part as far as implementation, but it is more likely that Twitter no longer fills a communicative need for the OAC since circumstances have changed. The OAC Facebook page is now a bit more active, but still pretty separate from the main network.
We have had continual debates about what the site hopes to achieve or "do" - a mission statement - that would attract participants and be meaningful. Yet no one seems willing to take on a more permanent role in shaping the site. If the OAC is imploding, what's the precise cause and remedy other than lack of dedicated interest?
I have concentrated a lot on technical development at the OAC and I still believe that a deluge of content is preventing more adequate use and navigation of the site. I do agree with John that we need to streamline access to the most interesting content and like the idea of running a "best of" series that resurrects old posts to keep them alive. Instead of pushing for some "new" spark, we are likely not making best use of what we already have. I wish Ning made it easier to index and display old posts. I have sketches/ideas for site changes, but I am scrambling to keep on top of things at the moment. We don't have as strong a development team as we once did among the admins, and it really can't be done without wider interest.
Francine, thanks for this, very rich and thought-provoking, indeed. I will note for the record that the recent seminar with Ted Fischer seems to me to have been a resounding success. Even if few participated, they (or at least I) learned a lot by participating. Huon has, of course, done yeoman service in putting together the seminars. We owe you both a great deal.
Thanks for that John; though I need to emphasise that I don't do any more work toward the seminars than Keith or Justin; in fact sometimes I do less. So, they are also owed as many, if not more, plaudits.
Perhaps one way forward would be to provide an easy way for people signed up to OAC to find a) people they actually already know, who are also members, and b) people who are working in very similar areas, who they really need to get to know! But how feasible this is I don't know... I agree this should be a wonderful resource that we are all using loads, and that it doesn't seem to be operating to its full potential...and it is something to do with the nature of networks and presumably how busy we all are... Maybe don't be too despondent about it... I find it is hard enough to meet even those people who work in the same building these days! Perhaps it still has a role to play however... Perhaps build in some anthropological games (!), chances to buy/borrow each other's unwanted books (??), you could even operate a points system whereby people can earn points for proof-reading/commenting on each other's work, and spend them on getting their own work looked at... I'm just thinking different ways of interacting with the site I suppose, to make up for the lack of opportunities to go Scottish country dancing together!
Thanks for these thoughts, Julia. Anyone can search for anyone else at the OAC, but perhaps it would take more effort than a busy academic has time for. Those of us who try to develop the site are aware that improvements can and should be made, but we are reluctant to commit our energies when the members do so little for themselves. It's a catch-22 situation. I am not despondent, but increased use of the OAC depends on people volunteering to do something and then we can help. For example, Betsy Taylor came up with the idea of organizing an online conference on recovering the commons next March. We are glad to support such initiatives. Recently Erin Taylor aired her PopAnth website project here and drew some ideas and participation from that. It is possible that, if things tick over slowly for a while, a new impetus might come when say three people are willing to commit to developing the site in certain specific directions. But at present they don't exist. I have been in this business of social media for two decades and it is my experience that having a majority of members from academia is a real burden, since academics think they are too busy for this kind of thing. If you were willing to launch any of the suggestions you made with or without friends, you would find a hearty welcome here. But it is always a question of who is going to do the work and what guarantee there might be that a passive membership would reward the initiative by taking part.