John C. Dvorak, a columnist for PC Magazine, recently wrote an article exhorting academics to study such vibrant, popular social phenomenon like MySpace.com. Here’s the link to his article on PCMag.com; you should read it first. He starts off the article with the following blast:
Universities have got to focus their attention on computers and the Internet. There are far too many understudied phenomena bubbling on the Net, and it’s time for academia to wake up. Valuable time is being wasted.
I don’t know how Dvorak missed it; there are tons of social science studies of the internet — even a cursory search on Google Scholar turns up numerous citations of books and peer-reviewed journal articles on various sociological aspects of the internet and technology. People have done work on cybercommunities like MySpace (although I think facebook.com is just as interesting); I have a colleague in anthropology who is doing work on SecondLife. I myself have written two articles on the internet (mostly on the internet and computer technology in China) myself, the first article being published in 1998 on the use of the internet by diaspora activists (when the field was referred to as “CMC” — computer-mediated communications; I’m glad that the acronym has slowly faded away). I started studying Legend in 1994, not because it was a computer company, but it was a success story of a state-owned enterprise (from the old socialist system) that transformed itself into a viable company. I wish I had money back as a graduate student, so that I could have bought stock in 94 when it was listed in the HangSeng — I knew that they would take off, as I watched them build their new Shanghai headquarters. Legend has since re-branded itself as Lenovo, bought IBM’s PC business, and so on.
I think the main lesson from Dvorak’s not seeing all the social science research on the internet points to the bigger problem of the gap between academia and everyone else — we write articles in journals that nobody reads, mostly because we write in ridiculous academic-speak that is incomprehensible to even a well-educated reader; obfuscation as rhetoric. So why read social theorists from academia, when journalists (who sometimes do read the stuff) can translate it to something readable? Why read what academics write about such issues as globalization, virtual communities, etc., when Thomas Friedman is a more-fun read?
This blog will be heating up now; I will be posting daily as I lead a group of students to rural Jiangxi, China for an alternative spring break. If you want to see more about this group, go here.