By Will Cross
As a scholarly communications librarian I am naturally excited when scholars embrace a promising new method of communication. As such, I was delighted to see this new study published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Although academia is just scratching the surface of social media use, this study of almost 1,000 professors indicates that roughly 80% are already using social media and about one-third use social media to communicate directly with peers and students.
Of course this blog provides one vital (in every sense) example of such communication, but more interactive tools such as Facebook are also being used by libraries and scholars to promote academic discourse. Even Twitter has recently been used to address scholarly issues, as with the recent coordinated protests against ACTA. Scholars have also begun to study Twitter as a source of data for scholarly analysis similar to telephone surveys. These nascent uses certainly do not present an imminent threat to replace traditional scholarly discussion and publication, but they do suggest the potential for new forms of communication among scholars that can act as a valuable adjunct.
As we enter this brave new world, however, we must be cautious; moving scholarly discourse into digital and commercialized spaces has costs that come along with the benefits. The most visible example of this fact is the recent conflict over Facebook’s privacy settings. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Timeline describes, what began as a private tool for communication among friends and colleagues has essentially been transformed into a clearinghouse of personal data that is being mined and sold en masse to advertisers. This has occurred based in large part on changes in the “default” settings, well-illustrated by this graph, and compounded by the fact that personal information continues to be made available and mined after it is removed from a user’s page and even when a user quits Facebook altogether.
Facebook is the most publicized offender, but more traditional “new media” present similar problems. As ebook readers pop up on iPads and Android phones it has been revealed that ebook reading habits, personal annotations and highlights are being recorded and aggregated. Even scholarly darling Second Life has been the subject of a recent class action lawsuit over ownership of content created within the “virtual world.” This is similar to Facebook’s ill-fated 2009 claim to “perpetual worldwide ownership” of all content that was eventually rescinded when users revolted.
As scholarly communication, and perhaps eventually scholarly publishing, moves into these new arenas we must decide how to respond to these challenges to personal privacy and authorial ownership. Some have argued for an open alternative to these commercial entities that must, at the end of the day, focus on their bottom line rather than social or scholarly good. At the same time, businesses are looking to technology to control access and retain all information in social media.
Along with these technological solutions many groups are focusing on providing users with information. The American Library Association has put out an excellent video called “Choose Privacy” that aims to educate users about these issues so that they may make informed decisions. Business Week’s list of Ten Reasons to Delete Your Facebook Account goes a step further to argue for a specific action.
However we address these issues we must be cognizant of how social media change the norms of expression. The Scholarly Kitchen has an excellent discussion of social media and privacy that highlights the way social media such as Facebook are transforming social norms about privacy. Since these norms themselves influence privacy law and the Fourth Amendment’s complex and often-misunderstood “reasonable expectation” test, today’s social practices may drive tomorrow’s legal changes.
At the same time, the Scholarly Kitchen article cites a study describing the necessary tradeoff between sharing information and sacrificing some privacy. The challenge for scholars and librarians, I would argue, is to find a balance that permits the appropriate sharing of information but retains the privacy and ownership values necessary for intellectual exploration, reflection and creation. As is so often the case with new modes of expression, we must be careful to import the social, cultural and legal norms of scholarship that we need while leaving room for new opportunities to flourish.