I’ve recently been reading Michael Lewis’ terrific new book, “Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World.” It’s a well-written and highly readable trip around the economies that serve as the poster children of the current economic meltdown — Greece, Ireland, Iceland, and the US, among others. While many of the chapters were published in Vanity Fair previously, I don’t subscribe to Vanity Fair, and the material has been updated, so they’re all new to me.
One of the main lessons from the book is that short-term thinking without paying attention to fundamentals led to really terrible personal, institutional, and national decision-making — and, most depressingly, all at the same time. It seems that only the personal decision-making has somewhat righted itself even in the years following one of the most jarring economic potholes in generations — financial institutions and governments still seem to want to drive the car as if the engine wasn’t burning oil.
The past 10 years might be dubbed the “ignorance is bliss” decade — from terrorist attacks to wars to economic meltdowns, it seems there’s a resolve to keep the superficial aspects of our society as close to status quo as possible. In this regard, the mass media continues to report on financial markets as if worldwide economic turmoil hadn’t occurred, providing breathless minute-by-minute updates on stock prices, staging adrenaline-junky shouting matches about trends, and habitually posting daily summaries of market performance.
Meanwhile, we’re all in this for the long run, and ultimately whether stocks are up or down matters a lot less than whether jobs, wages, or infrastructures are improving. The daily narratives correlating stock market performance to some shamanistic or semiotic reckoning are worse than useless. Felix Salmon has a great blog entry on this tendency toward frenzied market reports, concluding:
Market reports should not be an everyday staple of news coverage. Sometimes, occasionally, there are stories in the markets. And then those stories can be reported. But when there aren’t any stories, there’s no point in trying to invent them. And so the daily report — let alone the intra-day report — is at heart a stupid piece of journalism. Some are better than others, to be sure. But none of them are any good.
Short-term thinking has become a way of life, something we need to fend off, as it often leads to dramatic over-steering or under-steering errors.
As publishers, we sometimes get caught in “fad surfing,” experimenting with social tools for a year or two when the fad is new or hot, then dropping it when the payback, rewards, audience, or participation underwhelms. In some ways, we’re victim to this same short-term mentality, despite the fact that many of us work for organizations with long-term staying power and multi-generational roles and goals. The long-term is not just a pastiche of many short terms — that leads to fads and bubbles. The long-term is about fundamental drivers, motivators, and trends.
This all came to mind as I was contemplating a poster presentation that has the potential to improve our understanding of the user of Twitter in scholarship. A team of researchers at the University of North Carolina have studied five US and UK universities to assess trends in the adoption and use of Twitter by faculty and others in academia. The results from the poster session presentation are available, as is coverage in ReadWriteWeb. There is also a nifty infographic you might want to look at.
While preliminary, the results suggest that a long-term trend toward adopting Twitter and using it to communicate a mix of professional and personal information is emerging in academia.
The methodology the researchers used is purposely conservative — that is, if the researchers couldn’t match a Twitter account to a scholar, there was no match assumed. This left out more than 3,000 candidates with common names and more than 9,000 who had scant identifying information on Twitter.
One interesting early finding is that faculty appear to tweet scholarly material at a significantly higher rate than do non-faculty. For faculty, 30% of their tweets were scholarly, while 15% of tweets from non-faculty were.
The reason I chose to conflate the economic, the reportorial, and the poster session observations may be a little cloudy by this point, but allow me to clarify — change happens slowly, especially in cultures that are strongly linked by many incentives at many levels, but change does occur. Focusing on short-term trends and immediate information often leads to missing the real picture.
For instance, Twitter has been dismissed by the academics I’ve encountered for years now, because they personally don’t use it. It’s as if Twitter would have to be adopted en masse within a month for them to believe it might matter. Yet, here we are, looking at preliminary data suggesting that a long-term trend is occurring — the utility of sharing short links is catching on, albeit slowly, and there is some value in sharing scholarly links.
Now, I could be accused of jumping on preliminary data just like those financial reporters I’d dun. Fair enough. But I’m jumping on it to help you track a long-term trend, not to cause a short-term reaction. The difference between the two is immense. It’s akin to noting in 1999 that e-ink is a big deal — while arguing that it won’t be a big deal in 1999 or 2000, but it will be, and sometime in your lifetime. Now, e-ink has proven that it can upend an industry in the right hands — it’s revolutionizing the book industry thanks to the Nook and Kindle and other devices leveraging the same basic technology.
Yes, Twitter is about short messages that tend to vanish within minutes or hours. But it represents a long-term trend in communications, even in academia.
I’m suggesting you keep your eye on this area over the long haul because there might be something here worth watching. The financial bloodhounds are baying at any scent they catch, so much so that you’ve probably tuned them out by now.
I’m talking about cultivation, not hunting.
A recent post by David Worlock, reporting in from the Frankfurt Book Fair, also underscores the importance of cultivation. Worlock rightly notes that “big data” is a big trend in science publishing, but meanwhile, publishers are arguing about how to maintain their version of the status quo, whether it’s open access, traditional subscription, or some hybrid:
I took away a picture of a sector holding its breath and hoping that things would revert to normal, and traditional business models would prevail. But we all knew in our hearts that when “normal” came back it would be different. Postponing the trek down the road to Dogpatch Labs only loses first mover advantage, the experience born of re-iteration, and ensures that it will be more difficult to change successfully in the long term.
Like Worlock, I’m recommending that you note the fundamentals at work — that is, in academia, there is value and reputation to be had by sharing information with peers; self-promotion is an implicit driver; and having a following beyond the institution you’re in makes sense. So, fundamentally, using a service like Twitter fits logically with academic behavior, and publishing your data using a service that curates it well both make sense. It’s just going to take a while for these things to catch on and bring the change they presage.
Technology adoption in the academic space may occur more slowly than it does in the public sphere, especially when the technology requires a bit of what feels like hackery to become adept at it. But it does occur. And by watching the long-term trends, recognizing the compatibility of the motivators and reward, and watching the fundamentals, we can think about their implications now and for a while to come — and gradually position ourselves correctly.