education media economy

How the social media revolution challenges the university

Recent changes in media brought on by developments in the web, its impact on established news outlets, and the rise of social media have dramatically altered the ecology of information. Its time to starting thinking what this means for universities.

Last year I wrote a series of posts on “revolutions in the media economy” (see parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) detailing the changing context for us all, including universities (the focus of part 4). I had begun to think through these issues last summer and my first take on them was aired at a June 2009 workshop on “Affirmative Critique” at Durham University that explored the work of Jane Bennett and William Connolly.

For the university, the new ecology of information means possible changes in the ethos of academic life, including the transformation of both teaching and academic publishing. For example, Jeff Jarvis, whose thinking has influenced mine over the last year, recently told a TED conference in New York that the lecture model is “bullshit.” Moreover, given the prominence now being accorded to “impact” in the future audit of UK academic research, we need to consider how we might rethink the creation and circulation of critical work produced in our universities.

My colleague Stuart Elden, editor of the important geography journal Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, suggested I write a commentary for the journal based on my contribution to the workshop. This has now been published and you can access it here. The publishers have made it open access beyond their normal subscription pay wall (though in the first version of this post that link was not functioning properly).

In the commentary, I ask:

  • What happens to the university when we move from mass production to the link economy?
  • What does it mean to go from broadcasting to engagement?
  • Why does academic publishing subscribe to pay walls?
  • How can we really have an impact?

Embracing the dynamics of the social media revolution in the production and distribution of information generated through our work in universities would be a major political step towards opening up the academy and enhancing its impact. I don’t have the answers, but I hope I have posed some of the questions that will get us to think about this unavoidable challenge.